Saturday, December 31, 2011

A year-end list (sort of)

I try to avoid reading (or doing) any of the countless best-of lists that fill newspapers at this time of year, but here's a little something I did for the Telegraph - nothing like a comprehensive or authoritative list, just five books and five films I enjoyed across genres this year.

(Ignore the article headline and sub-heads.)

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The casino, the brothels, the beggars, the rebels: notes on I am Cuba

A recent conversation with a non-Indian acquaintance who was seeking recommendations for “definitive” Indian movies – “the ones that best capture the ethos of the country” – had me thinking: is it possible for a filmmaker to convey everything important about a place in a two-hour feature? Well, the short and honest answer is no, of course, but if you attempt it you might look at a country that is on the cusp of a historically vital moment – and then you might turn for inspiration to the 1964 film I am Cuba.

Made by the Russian director Mikhail Kalatozov as a celebration of the Castro-led revolution (and of socialism in general), this is a tremendous visual essay on a place and a zeitgeist, and a classic example of no-holds-barred, avant-garde filmmaking. Formally speaking, it’s one of the most inventive movies I’ve seen, right from the lengthy opening shot, a stunning aerial view of the coastline and a forest of palm trees. (Martin Scorsese even proposed that movie history might have been different if I am Cuba – which was out of circulation for decades and only recently restored – had been widely seen by filmmakers and film students 45 years ago.)

Less interesting is the film’s ideology, including its relatively uncomplicated view of revolution and change, oppressors and victims. The narrative is made up of four vignettes: a sweet girl named Maria works as a prostitute-escort for crass Americans at a nightclub (where she uses the more modern name Betty); an old farmer, Pedro, destroys his carefully cultivated sugarcane crop when he learns that his land is to be sold to capitalists; youngsters in Havana lead demonstrations against the Batista regime; and another farmer, initially a peace-monger, joins the rebels in the mountains when his home is destroyed. (This last episode reminded me strongly of Ingmar Bergman’s film Shame, one of the most effective depictions I’ve seen of sudden violence changing people who want nothing more than to lead anonymous lives. Like the apolitical musicians in that film, the farmer Mariano wants to live in peace, he doesn’t want to go to war – but the war comes to him anyway.)

I didn’t think any of these stories set out to be particularly nuanced. For instance, the Maria/Betty episode is an allegory of Cuba as the Virgin (Maria) despoiled by capitalist tourists, and the Americans are portrayed as caricatures with hyper-exaggerated accents (but then again, who can tell, given the types of rich Havana lifestyles being depicted here). It’s simultaneously repelling and amusing when a big dumb Yank drawls “All men are created equal” and starts drawing lots to divide the girls up among his friends. (Nothing is indecent in Cuba if you have the dough, he says, though Maria briefly tries to defy these words by refusing to sell her crucifix to a souvenir-collector.)

A face of the country that is hidden from these revellers comes into view when the setting shifts from the posh nightclub to Maria’s rundown shack in a slum area. Her client – looking most incongruous in his white suit – tries to escape this hellhole of poverty in the morning, but finds himself mobbed by bands of little children begging for money. As he stumbles about in confusion, the segment-closing voiceover begins. “I am Cuba,” it goes, “Why are you running away?”
You came to have fun. Isn’t this a happy picture? For you, I am the casino, the bar, hotels and brothels. But the hands of these children and old people are also me.
The sentiments expressed here and elsewhere might appeal to someone with a polarised view of the world where Che Guevera stands proudly in one corner while America and Capitalism glower in the other. But a more discerning viewer might also wonder if this elegantly filmed sequence with its mobile, handheld camera doesn’t amount to poverty porn – the sort that made so many people uneasy when they encountered it in Slumdog Millionnaire.

Throughout I am Cuba, pedantic ideas mix with gorgeous imagery, but thankfully there is much more of the latter. The stock words overused by reviewers to describe a beautifully shot movie – “poetic”, “hallucinatory”, “hypnotic” – are entirely appropriate for this one. Nearly every scene is heavily stylised. The camera never stops moving, there are visual flourishes and a playfulness – a willingness to push technique as far as possible – that I always associate with the best work of Orson Welles (Citizen Kane of course, but also Touch of Evil, The Magnificent Ambersons, F for Fake and Othello).

Like those films, this is a highly self-conscious work. Kalatozov and his cameraman Sergei Urusevsky use canted angles, very long takes, wide-angle shots that appear to stretch the landscape, and unusual lighting effects that draw attention to themselves (in the first scene I could barely recognise the palm trees for what they were because they were made to look unnaturally pale). There are so many lovely sights and sounds. The melodic chant of a young fruit-seller, and the close-up of his betrayed face when he realises his girlfriend has traded on her virtue. A hypnotic (yes, that word again!) vision of a revolutionary in a maelstrom of smoke and hosed water, his face appearing to dissolve as he falls towards the wet ground (with the camera looking up at him). The apocalyptic scene of the old farmer setting fire to his crop, with the moon appearing to recede as he looks up at it. Shadows of falling pamphlets, like little angels of grace gliding above the characters. If a movie has to err on the side of “too much style”, this is the way to do it.

In the film's best scenes, though, the technical showing off is integral to the narrative. A breathtaking sequence of a martyr’s funeral procession – with the camera climbing upwards and sideways, past buildings, and then floating in the air above the parade – has a heady, liberating quality completely suited to what is being depicted; it has the effect of bringing us closer to the heart of the revolution and to the people in their balconies, cheering the rebels on. Another enduring image towards the end is that of the weary but exhilarated faces of arrested rebels. When asked for the whereabouts of their leader, they chant “I am Fidel” in turn (it’s like a version of “I am Spartacus”), and the way the scene is orchestrated, “Fidel” comes to stand for something much more than a single individual – it’s the ideal that makes everything worthwhile for these people.

At moments like these the film transcends its narrow doctrine and becomes a much more universal document of the human spirit. Whether it tells us everything we need to know about Cuba is of course another question entirely.

P.S. One of the most narcissistic things a reviewer can do is to quote himself, but well: in this post about Michael Powell’s 49th Parallel, I mentioned that propaganda often doesn’t gel with dynamic, imaginative filmmaking; that movies made with the chief aim of educating or rousing an audience will usually emphasise content over form. When I wrote that, I definitely wasn’t thinking about I am Cuba. If you see it, do yourself the favour of not seeing it on a small computer screen. And try to find a version where Russian dubbing doesn’t overlap with the original Spanish voice-track. (The one I saw has both playing at the same time, which is distracting, even though the film doesn’t have much fast-paced conversation.)

P.P.S. Here’s an old post about a great documentary – Nanook of the North – that provided an idealised (and partly manufactured) view of a particular people. And a post about another visually striking propaganda film – Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will – is here.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Talking crime with Zac

Here's my latest Sunday Guardian column - partly an account of a "crime fiction" session with Zac O'Yeah at the Goa fest. It's fairly snippety, as behooves this time of year when newspapers don't get read much and feature writers/columnists content themselves with year-end lists. Will try to do something more elaborate on crime writing at some point.

P.S. My review of Zac's book Once Upon a Time in Scandinavistan is here.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

"What a Character" on NDTV

I’ve done the scripts for a few episodes of a new NDTV 24X7 show titled What a Character, about famous protagonists from Hindi movies. Two episodes (I think) have already been telecast but you can catch the others on Sunday nights at 10.30 and Saturday mornings at 9.30.

The writing is fairly basic, of course, intended as small bytes for TV voiceovers – nothing like the reviews I do here. But it’s been an interesting experience, and challenging in its own way. (Write a sentence like “Amitabh Bachchan first played an angry young man named Vijay more than 15 years before Agneepath” and you’re asked not to be so academic. Being an academic has been one of my life's many thwarted ambitions, so this made me feel all warm and Christmassy.)

So keep an eye out for the show. The line-up of characters includes Munnabhai, Gabbar Singh, Umrao Jaan and the deceased Commissioner DeMello from THAT film.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Goa fest videos

Some snippets from my chat with Teju Cole in Goa are on Youtube now – here and here. I hope they put the whole thing up at some point. The discussion went well, but it was a pity that we were abruptly cut off when we could have carried on for another 15-20 minutes – especially given that the day’s last session, scheduled after ours, was cancelled anyway.

Also, here are a few minutes from my session with the redoubtable Zac O’Yeah. It was originally meant to be Zac in conversation with Kjell Eriksson about Swedish crime fiction, but Eriksson couldn’t make it because of visa issues, so Zac asked me to put on my best Swedish accent and fill in. He anchored the session and was both erudite and funny.


And one of the best things about the festival was Amitav Ghosh’s lovely speech at the opening ceremony. It's in this video (starting around the 2:25 mark).

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

On Dave Prager's Delirious Delhi

[Did this for my Sunday Guardian column]

If one of the uses of literature is to make the familiar seem unfamiliar, parts of Dave Prager’s book Delirious Delhi gave me a new way of looking at the city I’ve spent all my life in. For instance, I thought I knew south Delhi like the back of my hand, but “division by boulevards” is not a phrase I would have ever thought to use for it. On reflection, though, it makes sense given Prager’s experiences as a foreigner living in Hauz Khas and travelling to his Gurgaon office – by taxi – every day. For someone like him – daunted by the traffic and bemused by the lack of “bridges” from one boulevard to the next – it’s understandable that each south Delhi locality would feel cut off from its neighbours.

And so, Green Park was just a five-minute walk from where he and his wife Jenny were staying, but “because we rarely dared to dash across that dangerous street, and because the same journey by autorickshaw would have included a frustrating gauntlet of red lights and U-turns, we hardly ever went [there].” The structure of each south Delhi neighborhood, observes Prager, is such that it focuses life “squarely towards the centre. Residents are both figuratively and physically forced to turn their backs towards everything outside. It’s introversion by municipal design...we can’t help but see south Delhi as isolated islands separated by seas of traffic”.

I can empathise, though my own experience of the city has been considerably different – at least back in the days when I was driving around a lot more and had friends and family staying in the different “boulevards” of south Delhi, with the result that no neighborhood was completely unfamiliar. (In more recent years the Metro has changed the way many Delhiites use their city, but the south Delhi phase wasn’t operational when Prager was living here.) Subjectivity does have its limits though: I was puzzled by Prager’s observation that most restaurants in south Delhi are empty by 10 pm.

****

Delirious Delhi is a mixed bag overall. Prager has a broad sense of humour that usually works, his enthusiasm is infectious and I enjoyed his obsessive interest in such things as the intonations of the word “bhaiya” by women trying to hector sabzi-wallahs. But he is a little too keen to differentiate his Delhi narrative from the ones found in “most books about India written by Westerners”. Apparently most Westerners hate India at first but then learn to love it: “At first they’re horrified by the poverty but then they ‘find spirituality’ in every speck of dirt.” Unless Prager has been reading only the sketchiest travelogue-epiphanies, this sounds a bit like a straw-man proposal.

In any case there is nothing especially distinctive about his experience: “We were to vacillate back and forth between the two extremes – love India, hate India, love India, hate India – until we found equilibrium. We learned to love the things that should be loved, and hate the things that should be hated.” But isn’t this how most sane people experience not just life in a particular place but life in general? And a subsequent observation – “Delhi is whatever you make of it...In Delhi, all things are true at once” – is really just a tiny variant on something that writers (Indian and non-Indian) have been saying about this country for decades.

I mean this less as a criticism of the book (which is very readable if occasionally long-winded) and more as a criticism of a tendency in non-fiction writing to make pronouncements and create easily digested narratives rather than simply follow the principles of good termite art (or at least the “show, don’t tell” dictum). The nearly 400 pages of Delirious Delhi are more than enough to show that Delhi is a place where anything (and its opposite) is possible, and in fact this book is a little like the city itself: sprawling, unruly, continuing to expand alarmingly just when you think you might have reached the border (or in this case, the end of a chapter). But it may have worked better as a free-flowing collection of anecdotes, related in a deadpan style and less weighed down by commentary.

[Some Delhi-related posts here]

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Literature in Goa

The programme schedule for the Goa Arts and Literary Festival (Dec 17-21) isn't on the website yet, but I have it on reasonable authority that at 6 pm on December 17 I'll be in conversation with Teju Cole about his hugely acclaimed novel Open City (my review here) and his writing career in general. At some point on the 18th or 19th, I might be speaking for a bit about film criticism. And there might also be a reading from Jaane bhi do Yaaro: Seriously Funny Since 1983 and The Popcorn Essayists. If you're in the vicinity, do drop by and say hello.

(General info about the Goa festival - participants, venue, registration etc - is here)

Update: part of the schedule is online now - here's the link (PDF).

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

On movie technique, criticism and Kael

One wants very much to talk about what makes Tolstoy uniquely Tolstoy and Renoir uniquely Renoir -- and that's their technique, their vision -- not just their stories or their themes. You can't "distinguish form and content for the purposes of analysis," because (as we all know) the form is the content, and what the artist has done is how the artist did it. You can't perceive the whole without taking notice of the specifics, any more than you can absorb a novel without reading the words or see a movie without looking at the images.
Almost dislocated my neck while reading this piece by Jim Emerson, because I was nodding so vigorously. If you're at all interested in films and how to think or write about them, do take the time to read it. Also read the footnotes. And the links to earlier posts he has provided at the end.

[Slightly related: here's a piece I did about Pauline Kael a few weeks ago]

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Literary carnival notes 2: book-to-film adaptations

[Did a shorter version of this for my Sunday Guardian column]

At the Times of India Literary Carnival, I participated in a panel about books being adapted into films. Adeptly moderated though the discussion was – by author, screenwriter and all-round funny man Anuvab Pal – there’s no way an hour-long session can cover all bases on this wide-ranging topic. Still, it was a good excuse to put together some of my scattered thoughts about adaptation. Here goes:

One of my peeves as a film buff is that too many reviews these days discuss movies almost exclusively in terms of their plots. Overemphasis on story has the effect of neglecting how the story is told with the techniques that cinema has at its disposal (and which differentiate it from literature). It also fosters a culture where some reviewers (both in mainstream and online media) don’t even feel the need to be acquainted with the most rudimentary camera movements: the difference between a pan and a tracking shot, for example, or between a match cut and a jump cut.

If you even mention these things while discussing a film, you might be accused of getting “too technical”, but this is basic moviemaking grammar. It would be unthinkable for a professional book reviewer to not know the difference between active voice and passive voice, or between a first-person and third-person narrative. (Actually a good book reviewer would be expected to know much more, but I’m deliberately setting the bar very low here!) It’s a pity then that movie critics are held to much lower standards simply because cinema is such a popular and egalitarian form.


Anyway, this may be something to keep in mind while assessing the quality of an adaptation and the ways in which a film deviates from the book it was based on. One of the things that came up during our discussion was that the high quality of a literary work does not necessarily translate into high quality in the movie made from it. (If that were the case, a stationary-camera recording of a good stage production of Hamlet would automatically be a great film.) As our co-panellist Sooni Taraporevala, the screenwriter of such films as Salaam Bombay and The Namesake, put it: “A film mustn’t simply be an illustration of the book.”


I also liked the term Sooni used – “spiritual DNA” – to refer to the essence of a literary work, which is what an adapting screenwriter should mainly be concerned with. Thus, a good adaptation might capture the essential theme or mood of a book even if superficial details of period, setting and character names are altered. Shakespeare is a good example: there have been Japanese, Russian and Indian film versions of his work, made in languages that are arguably twice removed from the 16th century English he worked in. There have also been modernised versions, such as the 1995 Richard III which shifted the action to the pre-World War II years and included a scene where Richard speaks part of his “winter of our discontent” soliloquy while standing at a men’s urinal.

If you’re a purist, such changes might seem sensationalistic, but I think the film catches the essence of Shakespeare’s memorable protagonist: the self-loathing mixed with self-pitying, the insatiable appetite for scheming and deceiving, the need to avenge himself on everyone around him. (Another example in a similar vein: in Roman Polanski’s excellent Macbeth, Lady Macbeth does her sleepwalking scene in the nude. It has been cynically noted that the film was co-produced by Playboy, but I don’t think there’s anything gratuitous about the scene itself; it works quite well as a depiction of the sudden vulnerability of a character who has been so thoroughly in control for most of the play.)

But often, spiritual DNA isn’t easy to define, especially when adaptation involves a big change in period or setting. John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola adapted Joseph Conrad’s 1903 novel Heart of Darkness into Apocalypse Now, significantly updating the story – Conrad’s themes of imperialistic hegemony, exploitation and the savagery in human nature were set in a story about a man from a “civilised” country (England at the height of its powers) journeying into a “place of darkness” (the African Congo), and the film placed these ideas in the context of what America was doing to Vietnam in the 1970s. Yet the differences between the two works are just as important: Conrad’s book is full of darkness and despair, but it has a moral compass – a sense that one can visit the darkest areas of the soul and return with one’s sanity intact – whereas Apocalypse Now is a more nihilistic work – it’s very much a product of a century that had seen two world wars, nuclear destruction and the greatest horror of all, the Holocaust.

****


Earlier at the festival, I spoke with the Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid, whose novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist is being made into a film by Mira Nair. “I didn’t realise writers and filmmakers were such different sorts of people,” he said jovially, relating his admiration for how attuned Nair was to the activities of every last person on her set. Working in seclusion is central to what writers do, whereas film directors – even the relatively introverted ones – have to be adept at managing groups of people. This personality conflict between writers and directors (and occasionally between writer-directors and money-minded producers) has shaped the course of movie history, providing some hugelyentertaining anecdotes along the way. (Walking through a long hotel corridor that morning before leaving for the fest venue, I had a vision of the apocalyptic, burning-hotel climax of the Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink, a film about a hapless screenwriter coming to Hollywood and ending up, quite literally, in Hell.)

But there are also times when a serendipitous collaboration occurs between two people who might seem very different “types”. Consider Ruskin Bond and Vishal Bhardwaj. Bond’s writing style is genteel in the old-fashioned English way, the prose Spartan and direct; Bhardwaj’s films tend to be baroque, set in the Indian hinterland and peopled by rough-speaking types. The two men barely speak a common language, but I watched them in conversation at an event earlier this year and realised that in some things – notably in their shared penchant for black humour – they were on exactly the same wavelength. This helps explain their friendship and frequent collaboration, most notably on Bond’s children’s story The Blue Umbrella, which Bhardwaj made into a film that was much lusher in tone than Bond’s story (right down to the claustrophobia-inducing close-ups of Pankaj Kapoor as the greedy shopkeeper). It’s an example of a really good adaptation that doesn’t try to be slavishly faithful to its source material.

On the question of slavish faithfulness: when a literary work is being turned into a commercial or semi-commercial film, it’s almost inevitable that there will be changes that the original writer doesn’t care for; there will be a certain amount of pandering to the star system, and so on. During the audience Q&A, someone mentioned the “Dola re Dola” song in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s version of Devdas, which brought together Paro and Chandramukhi, two characters who have nothing to do with each other in the original story. Even defenders of Bhansali’s opulent filmmaking style would probably concede that a large part of the motivation for the scene was having Madhuri Dixit and Aishwarya Rai together on screen for a spectacular, paisa-vasool dance performance.


I wrote in this post about R K Narayan’s sardonic essay about the making of Guide. The process of “glamorising” his small-town story and its characters would have begun at the point where Dev Anand and Waheeda Rehman – big stars with established screen personas – were cast in the roles of Raju the guide and Rosie the dancer. And of course, many changes were made to the story itself. But however much one admires and sympathises with Narayan the writer, the film must ultimately be judged on its own terms (and many movie buffs would agree that the Hindi version of Guide is an outstanding achievement in commercial filmmaking). There are many instances of movies that are excellent in themselves while being less than satisfying as adaptations.

*****


During our session Sooni spoke interestingly about how, when turning a novel into a screenplay, she had to find an exterior expression for the interiority of a character’s thoughts. This must have been especially relevant to her adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, because the book had surprisingly little dialogue; mostly it took the form of an omniscient narrator telling us about the lives and thoughts of Gogol and the other characters. Sooni had to create voices for these people, who had to be depicted on screen by flesh-and-blood actors who would actually talk to each other.

Writing aside, there are thousands of instances of a seemingly minor decision by a filmmaker adding layers to the story he is adapting – from Satyajit Ray’s use of Ravi Shankar’s shehnai music at key emotional points in Aparajito (based on Bibhutibhushan Banerjee’s book which, needless to say, did not use music of any sort as an accompaniment to a dramatic scene!) to Stanley Kubrick filming a frenetic orgy in fast motion (and with a fixed camera impassively recording the action) in A Clockwork Orange (based on Anthony Burgess’s novel, which was widely believed to be unfilmable). I'll be putting up a few more notes on this subject in the coming weeks, with more examples. Meanwhile, here are some earlier, related posts: Susannah’s Seven Husbands from short story to script; R K Narayan and Guide; The Namesake; Polanski’s Macbeth; my Yahoo column on story and storytelling.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Notes from the ToI fest

While I was at the Times of India Literary Carnival, I got an SMS from a friend wondering if there was anything genuinely wrong with the fest, given the criticism she'd been reading on social media, or if it was mainly kneejerk ToI-bashing. I hadn't been online much in the previous two days and didn’t know exactly what she was referring to, but this was my reply: “Nothing particularly wrong at all. Very professionally organised, sessions proceeding quite smoothly. There are of course irrelevant/banal things being said every now and again, but that happens at any such lit-fest.”

I’ve done my share of (considered, not kneejerk) ToI-bashing in the past and intend to continue whenever I think it’s required, but lots of credit must be given here. If anything, I thought the festival organisers may have sold themselves short by labelling it a “carnival” and stressing that it wasn’t meant to be just a serious literary event but a celebration of various things Mumbai loved. (Strangely, this candour failed to deter the breed of idiots who stand up and ask at the end of a session “Why have you invited celebrities here instead of writers?”, never mind that the “celebrity” on the panel is also the author of a dozen books.) The best sessions here – and there were many good ones – were every bit as serious-intentioned as the ones I’ve attended at any other lit-fest. (And the other lit-fests that take themselves more seriously can be just as carnivalesque in parts.)

– One of the highlights for me was the session that had Jug Suraiya interviewed by his wife Bunny ("Jug's Bunny", it was cheekily titled). A nice idea to start with, it was executed with restraint – no unnecessary in-jokes or distracting banter, just two people having an engaging, affectionate conversation about various things: the nature and ethics of humour (Jug: “The shafts of humour should always be pointed upwards. My legitimate targets are the people who are more powerful and privileged than I am. And if you don’t genuinely find yourself an absurd creature and worthy of ridiculing, you have no business being a humorist”); giving offence; censorship and liberalism; changing mindsets in Indian journalism (“When I first started working at the ToI 25 years ago, Girilal Jain was awestruck when he saw my byline in the New York Review of Books. That wouldn’t happen today”); new technology (“machines stop working when I come near them”) and the legacy of the Junior Statesman, which provided a means for young people around the country to communicate with each other and to be magazine "prosumers" decades before the Internet.

There were one or two nice personal asides too: at one point Jug mentioned that he had made a career out of pissing people off, including Jayalalitha, Amitabh Bachchan and others. “And me of course,” Bunny said, to which Jug replied, “But see, that proves my point about humour being directed upwards – you’re a much more formidable personality than I am!”

Jug is tremendously likable anyway, but one thing I find especially charming is his schoolboy-like habit of standing up, hands behind his back, to answer each audience question. Even when he’s being gently sardonic. (Asked if he was in a position to criticise writers like Chetan Bhagat and Shobha De for “taking liberties with the language” when he occasionally did so in his columns too, he replied: “There’s a difference between taking liberties with the language knowingly and unknowingly.”)


– It’s useful to remember that there are inherent weaknesses in the format of a time-bound public discussion with four or five people on stage (including perhaps a mix of reticent speakers and overconfident loudmouths – all of whom must share time and condense complex thoughts into quick sound-bytes): the participants might go off on a tangent, the panel topic might not be strictly adhered to, and even when it is, such a discussion is rarely going to have the depth of a long one-on-one interview or a talk given by an individual. But the quality of any given session ultimately depends on the panellists and especially the moderator. A nod to Jonathan Shainin who did a fine, professional job of moderating a session about journalists working on narrative non-fiction books – and an equally good job of keeping the audience honest during the Q&A. Anyone who might have wished to ramble on about his own life for 20 minutes instead of asking a straight question (this often happens at lit-fests) would have quickly been dissuaded by Jonathan’s warning – issued in an authoritative, evil-white-man voice – that he would NOT permit commentary, only questions.

– Journalism was a running theme in some of the sessions I attended. In the one moderated by Jonathan, Samanth Subramanian and Rahul Pandita (discussing their books Following Fish and Hello Bastar respectively) said interesting things about the ways in which literature and journalism intersect. Speaking about her book Death in Mumbai: A True Story (about the Neeraj Grover killing) Mumbai Mirror editor Meenal Baghel reflected on Janet Malcolm’s remark about the “moral indefensibility” of journalism. “There is something deeply troubling about what we do,” she said, recalling a time when she found herself practically chasing a distressed old man – the father of the murder accused Emile Jerome – down a spiral staircase in a courthouse, then stopping to ask herself “What am I doing?” And this quote from Vinod Mehta about journalists being in bed with politicians and businessmen: “You have to be in bed with one businessman – the one who’s running your paper.”

(More notes soon)

Monday, December 05, 2011

Time out of joint: Stephen King revisits a "foreign country"

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

Entirely without planning, Stephen King became a major theme in my reading last week. It began with his fine short story “The Dune”, included in the Granta Horror special (here's a post about that book). Then, despite my reluctance these days to commit to a really bulky book, I became hooked to King’s new 740-page novel 11.22.63, which is a time-travel story sprinkled with social observation about the late 1950s and early 60s – a key time (it can be said with the benefit of hindsight) in America’s social, cultural and political development. The date in the book’s title – November 22, 1963 – is of course a historical touchstone, and it must have special significance for an American of King’s age; he was 16 when John F Kennedy was killed in Dallas.

A romantic view of things has it that if the hugely popular president had lived and won a second term, the long-term effects for his country would mostly have been positive – for instance, the Vietnam War, which set a pattern for American hegemony around the world and created deep psychological scars for the Baby Boomers of King’s generation, might have been avoided. It’s easy then to see an element of wish-fulfilment in King’s story about a man who has the tools to change history: a good, inventive novelist is well-placed to engage in vicarious wish-fulfilment of this sort. But I think 11.22.63 came equally from his desire to simply revisit the world of his childhood and to imagine what that distant world might look like to someone who never experienced it firsthand. (Even though I’m only in my thirties, I can relate to that manner of nostalgia. I sometimes think what fun it would be to take some of the smugger 18-year-olds of today and deposit them into the pre-Internet, pre-satellite TV, pre-cellphone India of 1985, without any warning about what to expect!)

King’s protagonist is Jake Epping, a 35-year-old English teacher who gains access to a portal that opens into September 1958. The rules of the game are quickly established: a traveller can go back in time, stay for as long as he wants to, and return to the present via the portal; only two minutes will have elapsed in 2011 (regardless of how long he was away), but he will have aged by whatever period he spent in the past. And crucially, each time he uses the portal will mark a “reset” – as in Groundhog Day, all of his encounters and actions in the previous visit will be erased.

The discoverer of the portal, a diner-owner named Al, is old and dying; he has lived nearly five years in the past, attempted and failed to prevent the Kennedy assassination, and he doesn’t have the option of going through the process again. So he turns to Jake for assistance. And it’s here that King introduces a sub-plot that makes his book more complex than you might think if you read just the back-cover blurb. Jake’s initial motivation for time-travelling involves something much more low-key (in the larger scheme of things) than the Kennedy killing: he has recently read an essay written by an old janitor, Harry Dunning, whose mother and siblings were murdered by his violent father on Halloween 1958, and this seems like a god-sent opportunity to alter the destinies of that poor family.

In other words, the “watershed moment” that stirs Jake most isn’t the one in American history textbooks – it’s the one in the personal history of this anonymous old man. This tension between Big Events and seemingly unexceptional lives will become one of the most interesting things about the novel.

The subplot about Frank Dunning, the ticking time-bomb, serves a purpose both within Jake’s story and for King as a novelist gradually building suspense, shifting from one meter to the next. It’s a dress rehearsal of sorts for Jake, with Dunning cast as the relatively small-time adversary he must face before the much more tricky business of dealing with Lee Harvey Oswald and his possible associates. And for King, it helps set in place one of the central ideas in this novel: that the past is “obdurate” and resistant to change. The bigger the stakes, the more difficult Jake’s mission will become. (On the day he has to stop Dunning, he wakes up with a crippling stomach infection that almost renders him immobile; so how much worse will things get when he has to alter the destiny of the US president?)

****
The first 250 or so pages of this book – which includes two excursions into the past and two attempts by Jake to stop Dunning from killing his family – are pure thriller, laced with period detail, and it’s this section that is most likely to appeal to the casual reader. (With a few minor changes, I think this first third could have made a fine novel in its own right.) To fully enjoy the rest of the book – where Jake starts tracking the movements of that young, Russia-returned malcontent Oswald and his perplexed wife Marina – it helps to have a basic interest in the Kennedy assassination. But it isn’t imperative. In a way, JFK and Lee Harvey Oswald are Macguffins: King is really building our interest in his fictional creations, starting with Jake, Al and the mentally feeble janitor whose world fell apart when he was just 10 years old – but eventually also Sadie, the woman Jake falls in love with. Beyond a point, I stopped thinking about real history and instead became involved in this imagined world.

On the question of whether 11.22.63 needed to be as lengthy as it is, I’m undecided. King is a master of the brisk narrative, but at times I found myself losing patience and skimming over paragraphs; there are a few dispensable subplots and details, and careful editing could have cut this down by 100 to 150 pages without losing the qualities that make it such a good novel. At the same time, this is a very large canvas and a case can be made that it deserves epic treatment.


As a work of speculative fiction, this novel plays with such ideas as the Butterfly Effect and the ever-tantalising “What if?” question. (Jake and Al assume that the prevention of Kennedy’s assassination would have positive long-term effects, but what if saving the president changes the future in countless other ways that couldn’t yet be imagined?) It raises the possibility that history is full of mysterious recurrences and echoes (the past harmonizes with itself, Jake muses to himself, as he notes little connections between the people he meets and the inadvertent repetitions in his own actions). It’s also a persuasive love story, with a lonely man finding a home – and an intense, meaningful relationship – in this new world and wondering if he even wants to return to the place he came from (or even if his life in 2011 was an elaborate hallucination).

And of course it’s about the idea of the past as a foreign country, where (to quote L P Hartley) people do things differently. One of Jake’s first tangible sensations of 1958 is the wholesome taste of beer: “I sipped through the foam on top and was amazed. It was... full. Tasty all the way through. I don’t know how to express it any better than that. This fifty-years-gone world smelled worse than I ever would have expected, but it tasted a whole hell of a lot better.” Other details build up, with references to advertisements, TV shows, popular culture and the social mores and prejudices of the time; Jake has to process 1950s slang and accents whenever he speaks to anyone, and must be cautious himself about using phrases that have not yet come into existence. But there is also a caution against idealising an old way of life. In one significant passage Jake is shaken out of his living nostalgia for the “fresher” world of 1958 when he sees a makeshift outdoor toilet for “Coloured” people, located near a clump of poison ivy. He also has firsthand experience of the ugly nature of small-town gossip in a society that is still very conservative in many ways.

King must have had a great time working on this book, supplementing his boyhood memories with hard research. His affection for the period and his reluctance to over-romanticise it come through in equal measure, and at its best 11.22.63 is a terrific mix of the usual time-travel paradoxes and light social commentary on a bygone time. You need a bit of patience to read the whole thing though.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Cinema and the underdog

[Did this piece on Jagannathan Krishnan's documentary Videokaaran for The Caravan]

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The young man looks at the camera, points at two trees growing by a wall across the railway tracks. That’s where our video theatre used to be, he says in Mumbaiya street argot. And this is where the entrance was... (the camera pans to record the empty space, as if daring the viewer to imagine the demolished theatre back into existence). “Yeh hum log ka set-up tha. Idhar se entrance dikhaane ka. Magar raid ho raha hai toh back-side se jaane ka. Saamne se bhaagega toh idhar patri hai, bhai – mar jaayega.” (“If people ran out from the front entrance during a police raid, they could get killed because of the rail tracks” say the subtitles, catching the gist of his monologue but little of its colour.)


The cops could come from that gali there, Sagai Raj elaborates. Or they might come from the other side. And all because he was showing films without a government permit. But what’s wrong with charging five rupees for a full-length Tamil movie? How would someone who earns 50 rupees a day take his family to a regular theatre at Rs 80 per ticket?

Though the streets depicted in Jagannathan Krishnan’s Videokaaran are those of a modern metropolis, the typical view is that from inside a moving autorickshaw as slums race past outside and the soundtrack plays a fragment of one of the shrill, tuneless songs (with lyrics like “Na koi chhota, na koi bada hai”) that were a paisa a dozen in the 1980s; the auto might as well be a time machine. This energetic documentary details a world that urban multiplex-goers – even the ones who are serious movie buffs – know very little about. It’s a story about the many ways in which underprivileged people watch and relate to movies, and how their lives and personalities are moulded by their cinematic adventures. It encourages us to think about what a video theatre might mean to people who don’t even have electricity in their village – wouldn’t it be like a magic show, comparable to the bioscopes of a hundred years ago?


But there’s nothing abstract or impersonal about this film – it places the viewer right amidst its characters, with the handheld camera darting from once face to the next, mimicking the eyes of an outsider who has been taken into confidence. Scenes shot in ghostly night-light add to the feeling of intimacy, creating the sense that Krishnan and his team spent a great deal of time with their subjects – and indeed, this 73-minute film was culled from dozens of hours of footage of conversations.

Its beating heart is one of the most compelling “heroes” you could hope to see in a well-scripted fictional feature, much less a documentary. Sagai is part philosophising raconteur, part giggling sociopath, a street savant with a hint of vulnerability. His laugh, an endearing mix of nervousness, brashness and a genuine desire to please, resembles a horse’s neigh, and he is capable of holding forth on just about any subject. When we first see him in a grainy night shot, he is sombrely explaining, “Cinema aur mere mein connection bolega na, Rajinikanth se hai.” (“My connection with cinema is through Rajinikanth.”) But soon the anecdotes grow. He relates stories about smuggling a stack of pirated DVDs by passing the package off as a “Mother Mary statue” and placing it in the luggage of his brother, a well-dressed man whom the police wouldn’t suspect. (“Woh mujhse bilkul opposite hai. Jaise main bilkul normal hoon na, woh bilkul formal hai.”) He shares gyaan about the intricacies of film editing and says “Mere ko cannibals bahut pasand hai” as a horror film plays on the screen. Porn isn’t bad for society, he explains, because watching a blue film can help a man read women accurately. “Woh calculation kar lega ke main kaunsi ladki ko pataaoonga. Uss ko rape karne ki zaroorat nahin hai – ladki khud uss ke paas aayegi.”

It’s possible to wonder if Sagai is too colourful a protagonist – his presence turns Videokaaran into a study of a single person. But it's also apt that this man of the streets has that indefinable thing called “star quality”, for part of the point is that Sagai is largely a construct of the movies he loves. In much of what he says, one sees the self-mythologising process at work. My birth father was a don, a criminal, he reveals at one point. Gory films seem childish to him because he’s seen far worse in real life. (When they showed Passion of the Christ, everyone else ran out but he sat and watched it coolly.) He analyses the behaviour of policemen, and studies people so closely that “even when I look at a shadow I know who it is. When we were screening films we had to monitor the audience and be alert all the time”. He and his friends have been so influenced by movie stars that they are already natural performers – the swagger and the smart lines come easily to them.

In the film’s first prolonged sequence, they discuss the relative merits of Rajinikanth and Amitabh Bachchan and rib each other good-naturedly, their street slang sprinkled with improbable English words – “hardcore” used as an exclamation point, for instance. (“Rajinikanth ka Basha. Kya movie hai na – hardcore!!”) A film speeds up whenever Rajinikanth makes an entrance, Sagai says. “With Amitabh that doesn’t happen – you wait for him to open his mouth and do dialogue-baazi.” On one level, this is classic fanboy talk, with the relative “speeds” of two superstars being used to make some kind of judgement on their mass appeal and effectiveness. But it also shows a film buff’s eye for observation – an understanding of different star personas and the types of viewers they cater to.




For these young men, Rajinikanth is comparable to a God (“Rajinikanth ka picture hum pause kar ke usska aarti uttaarte hain”) – but he is an accessible God; a Krishna-like avatar, perhaps, who might show up in the guise of a rickshaw-driver, dancing with his mates and winking at the camera. As you’d expect, a fan’s relationship with such a deity is ambivalent. One minute Sagai will irreverently explain why South Indian heroes need big crowds for their song sequences: “Background ke liye accha rahta hai. Agar hero akayla naachega toh chootiya lagta hai, cameraman ko baar baar cut karna padhta hai.” (“The hero will look like a cunt if he dances alone – he won’t be able to pull it off.”) But the next moment, he’ll be deferential: “Apun kuch nahin hai ke hum unn logon ke baare mein baat kar sakte hain” (“We are nothing compared to them, we shouldn’t even talk about them.”)

So enthusiastic are these youngsters, so involved does one become in their movie-love, that it comes as a deflating blow when Sagai shakes his head and says, “Jab se video theatre bandh ho gaya, hum picture nahin dekhte.” Today he runs a photo studio, and many of the pictures he takes are of lower-middle class people trying hard to pose like their favourite movie stars – for a modelling portfolio perhaps, or to show off to friends, or just for personal pleasure. “Aadmi apne image ko bilkul khubsoorat dekhna chahta hai,” Sagai the sagacious tells us – another reminder of how millions of “ordinary” people try to cover themselves in cine glitz.

****

Halfway through Videokaaran, Sagai describes how he and his tech-savvy friends would splice scenes into a movie to make it more appealing to their audience. “We could edit even original DVDs, insert porn even into a Schwarzenegger film. And it would be such a hit that if the original director saw our version, he would wonder why he didn’t think of doing that himself.”


Here and elsewhere, one feels that in a parallel world Sagai might have tried his hand at movie-making – but as it happened, he ended up making a video recording of his theatre being torn down. Videokaaran draws to an end with this footage interspersed with a montage of Rajini and Amitabh singing inspirational songs, and Sagai reflects once again on his “spiritual connection” with his hero. “Bachpan mein jab family troubles tha, toh Rajini ka movie dekh ke khush ho jaata tha. Usska message hai ke jeet milega hi agar struggle karega toh.” (“Rajini’s message is that if you struggle, you will always triumph.”)

Is this false hope? What does it really mean when a millionaire superstar pretending to be a coolie or an autorickshaw-driver sings out from the screen, “Renounce the world and the world is yours”? The temptation is to dismiss such “messages” as opium for the masses. But watch Videokaaran closely, see the pride and defiance in Sagai’s eyes as he describes the filmi circumstances in which he set up his photo studio – opposite the studio of the man who had turned him away without even looking closely at his work. “Eventually he saw how good I was and then he wanted to hire me, but I told him no, I’ll open a studio right in front of you.” It’s a nice little triumph-of-the-underdog story. For all the deprivation it shows, Videokaaran leaves you with the thought that Sagai is a survivor – someone who will take his opportunities instead of brooding about his misfortunes – and that he has his celluloid dreams to thank for it.