Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Fathers and storytellers (notes on Bombay Talkies)

Last month I wrote about a film – Lessons in Forgettingthat centres on a protective father and his free-spirited daughter, the latter’s personality colliding with stereotypical ideas about the “good Indian girl”. Coincidentally, a few days ago, while watching the anthology film Bombay Talkies, it struck me that all four short movies in it touch on the relationship between fathers and their children, as well as on changing perceptions of masculinity and “male roles”. And a buried theme is a man’s ability – or inability – to tell stories and to deal with different types of narratives.

In fact, the very first scene in Bombay Talkies – in the short film directed by Karan Johar – has a young man angrily confronting his intolerant father who can’t accept, or perhaps even comprehend, that his son is gay. (The film’s title “Ajeeb Dastaan Hai Yeh” comes from one of the great Hindi-film songs, a rendition of which is beautifully used here, but it can also at a stretch be translated as “This is a queer tale”.) Later, in Zoya Akhtar’s short film, another middle-class father – more sensitive on the face of it, but also a man who has clear ideas about what a son should grow up to be – slaps his little boy when he sees him dressed in a girl’s clothes.

There is some ambiguity in this child’s obsession with “Sheila”, the Katrina Kaif character in the Tees Maar Khan item number: does it entail a straight crush on Kaif, expressed through joyful imitation (I’m thinking now of my own childhood dalliances with Parveen Babi or Sridevi songs), or does it reflect gender identification, a biological imperative to “be” a girl? Whatever the case, Akhtar’s film ends with an idyllic scene where the boy gets to perform “Sheila ki Jawani” in front of a small, initially bemused but eventually appreciative audience. Beyond this, his future is uncertain; it’s hard to see him pursuing his dancing ambitions in the long run without a serious conflict with his dad.

Watching that scene, I couldn’t help think that exactly a hundred years ago Dadasaheb Phalke was making films where male actors performed in drag (because respectable women weren’t supposed to act in these shady motion-picture things) - and this led to reflections on gender roles and the creative impulse. In a world that encourages easy classifications, artists, performers or creative people are supposed to be particularly sensitive, and “sensitivity” in turn – broadly defined – is a trait associated more with women than with men. But think of gender characteristics and behaviour as existing along a continuing line (rather than clearly demarcated), and there may be something to the idea that when a man performs on stage, or briefly turns storyteller for his child or for a group of people in his train compartment (which are things that happen in Bombay Talkies), he is tapping into his existing “feminine” side. Or that he is temporarily made more introspective, placed at a remove from the aggression that society
often demands of men. (Those men in Phalke’s films – some of them might have felt embarrassed in women’s clothes, but the more dedicated actors among them may have felt briefly liberated from gender expectations. In addition to having a grand time preening about the set, or just reveling in the experience of being “someone else”.)

Bombay Talkies has a number of characters who are performers or mimics or tellers of tales, or people who (channeling Eliot) prepare a face each morning before going out to deal with the world. In Johar’s film, Gayatri (Rani Mukherjee) and her husband are living a lie of sorts; one can easily see the little boy in Akhtar’s film growing up to do the same thing; in Dibakar Banerjee’s film, Purandar (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) dreams of getting rich through emu-farming (though the bird is clearly taking more than it gives) while his mundane real-world existence requires that he heads out to find a building-watchman job where (as he himself puts it) you aren’t required to do much more than stand at attention for hours on end. 

Purandar has other dimensions: he is a loving father who unselfconsciously does household work alongside his wife and is apparently comfortable in female presence, hanging about with the women of his chawl as they exchange a salty joke or two. Perhaps these traits are inseparable from his qualities as an actor who brings all his integrity to a bit-part role, and as a storyteller who puts on a silent performance for his little girl at the end. (Banerjee – who is of course a storyteller himself – has said that his own experience with fatherhood informed his treatment of this narrative.)

Finally, in Anurag Kashyap’s film about a son who travels to Bombay to try and meet his father’s favourite film star, I think one can suggest that movie-love has turned both the protagonist Vijay and his father into raconteurs – people who have a feel for the spoken word, for parody, dramatic flow and the right pauses. They are amateur performers, and I’d think this would make them more attentive people and strengthen the bond between them. If violence and intolerance are failures of the imagination, perhaps the problem with the fathers in Johar’s and Akhtar’s films is that never having developed a taste for fantasy and role-playing, they lack the empathy that comes with it.


Sidenote: In reviews and in casual discussions with friends, I have heard Kashyap’s film being described as disappointingly simple – and indeed, on the face of it, there is something pedestrian about the story of a young man trying to get a darshan of Amitabh Bachchan (who eventually “blesses” us viewers with a cameo appearance and underlines His divinity by doing unto a murabba what Lord Rama did unto the berry offered him by Shabari). It might seem even more trite if you recall all the behind-the-scenes talk about Kashyap’s real-life reconciliation with Bachchan, and how gratified he seemed by it. But given this director’s sly sense of humour and the awareness in his earlier work of the subtle ways in which worship and irreverence mingle (see his superb short film Pramod Bhai 23, for example), I think the story invites more than a face-value reading.

Vineet Kumar is very good as Vijay, but also consider the casting in light of the small part Kumar played in Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur. There he was Sardar Singh’s eldest son Danish, the heir apparent, with the dialogue at one point likening him to the Vijay played by Bachchan in Trishul – the clear hero of that film, whose smouldering presence made younger brother Shashi Kapoor seem effete in comparison. (Indeed there is an oft-circulated joke that Shashi Kapoor was one of Bachchan’s most convincing heroines. In Trishul, when the two men have a fight scene where they get to land an equal number of punches on each other – the obligatory ego-salve for male stars of the time – you don’t for a minute buy into it.)

But Gangs of Wasseypur’s depiction of life as the banana peel on which the fondest cinematic fantasies may slip included a sequence of events where the limp-wristed younger brother Faisal becomes - to his own surprise - the film's protagonist. “Jab aankh khuli to dekha ki hum Shashi Kapoor hai. Bachchan toh koi aur hai,” Faisal says in an earlier moment of drug-addled self-pity, but this “second lead” ends up as the kingpin after his elder brother is casually bumped off. Watch GoW, then see Vijay’s father in Bombay Talkies mimic Dilip Kumar while telling his story about his own encounter with that thespian decades earlier, and consider the eventual fate of the murabba that Bachchan so self-importantly bites into; I think Kashyap’s film is more than a straight-faced, rose-tinted view of supplicants trying to collect stardust in a glass jar.


  1. I really found Kashyap's film very average. In fact, I think, the part of that jar getting broken and later his father telling him a murabba is never kept in a pickle's jar seemed more like an attempt to save the film in the last minute. There are few things here (very subjective though)

    a) When the story starts, we realise that the son was sent to Bombay by a cinema crazy father. That is believable. By the end, it seems the father knew that the chances of his son meeting Bacchan were slim. He thinks at best Bachchan may meet him but wouldnt eat murabba. Why then he sent him to Bombay? I wasnt clear of this part. To teach him life's important lesson? Not sure.

    b) Kashyap's use of that song for a significant part of the film wasnt a very good decision. It wasnt a well composed song. He seems to be really obsessed with mixing music with narrative, which worked well in Dev D but which was off putting to me even in GOW

    c) In a country like India where people are actually quite crazy for movies, was it a good decision to show the man actually meeting Bachchan? I think a responsible filmmaker shouldnt do it. Besides, it seemed to me a sad attempt by Kashyap to build a relationship with Bachchan (Given that he himself publicly talks about their spat and how he sent him a SMS after getting drunk, I couldnt help but think on these lines). It would have been more convincing if he had not been able to meet Bachchan

    d) The way he used Bachchan too was ineffective. I was reminded of Slumdog Millionaire, where there is such an effective build-up and then Bachchan enters signs his autograph with left hand...

    Kashyap's work and persona both remind of what they call a terrible infant in french. Much like Fassbinder, there is such a casual approach to script of most his films and even the way he manages his private relationships in public forums like twitter, media etc...Cant separate man from his work. Sigh!!!

  2. Indeed there is an oft-circulated joke that Shashi Kapoor was one of Bachchan’s most convincing heroines

    By the way Trishul has to be my favourite AB film. "Smouldering" is just about the right word.

  3. Pessimist Fool: thanks for the comment - fair points, but my reading of the film was that it wasn't as maudlin as many others seem to think. If you look at the possibility that Kashyap is using Bachchan in a somewhat parodic way, the cameo isn't really inappropriate.

    Not sure about the Slumdog Millionaire comparison - the real Bachchan didn't participate in that scene, which automatically means the effect was very different.

  4. i thought the boy in zoya's film was merely expressing himself and by prescribing 'macho' behaviour the father was stereotyping his son as 'male'. The scenes with the father in Karan's film are horrible. the pick of that segment was rani mukherji sitting before the mirror and scrubbing her make-up off. Dibakar's was the most layered narrative and i liked how he let Purandar overcome his lack of talent (And his father's voice ringing in his head) to become a hero for a few moments. The exact opposite of what Anurag's film did. i didn't see any motivation in robbing this man of his dignity -- unless the father only sent him to mumbai so he may learn life lessons through humiliation. it was also the worst kind of endorsement of celebrity culture which reduces the fan to a groveling insect whom the deity miraculously gives darshan to after he has slept on the footpath and begged for succour. of course it could perhaps have meant to project anurag's own cynicism. sadly he's too entrenched in the system to buy that now.

  5. I thought Kashyap's bit was a gentle satire but still too slow for a 25 min film.

  6. it was also the worst kind of endorsement of celebrity culture which reduces the fan to a groveling insect whom the deity miraculously gives darshan to...

    Deepa: disagree. I think Kashyap is a little more aware of the ambiguities inherent in the Ram-Shabari story. And I thought there were various conflicting emotions and attitudes (nostalgia, irreverence, adoration, self-parody) mixed up in this story. Not a straight endorsement by any means.

    As for the celebrity culture and the millions of fans as willing grovellers - that is a fact of life (however much you and I might disapprove of it), and I have no problem with a film portraying it dispassionately.

  7. I didn't catch any nuances in Kashyap's story. But yes, there is a strong personal bias against celebrity worship.

  8. I was very impressed with the performances. Nawazuddin Siddiqui especially played such a nuanced role that when I tried to describe him to my father at the breakfast table this morning I realised I was constantly adding bits to whatever I had said before; every time I thought I'd finished I found yet another thing I remembered about his performance.

    I also really liked the two kids in Akhtar's story. Mostly I liked how neither the mother nor the sister had a problem with the little boy dressing up and dancing.

  9. " I think one can suggest that movie-love has turned both the protagonist Vijay and his father into raconteurs – people who have a feel for the spoken word, for parody, dramatic flow and the right pauses. They are amateur performers, and I’d think this would make them more attentive people and strengthen the bond between them"
    That is a bloody good point - in fact stretching this a bit more, I would say that the motivation of the characters is governed by the fact that both seem to enjoy the sound of their voices, and they seem to be acting in a movie playing in their own mind. This - the clash of bollywood with so called real life - was also a major theme in Gangs of Wasseypur 1-2. I also liked the way his quixotic adventure was ruined - someone dropped the jar for no rhyme or reason. In films everything has a reason, reality is non sequitur.

  10. Rahul: thanks. In light of what you say, I see a definite similarity between the two men in Kashyap's film and Purandar and his spectral guru in Banerjee's film. It makes for an intriguing design, including the visual similarity of the two older men hunched up while giving gyaan to their wards (though of course I know that Kashyap and Banerjee didn't plan it that way).

  11. Not sure about the Slumdog Millionaire comparison - the real Bachchan didn't participate in that scene, which automatically means the effect was very different.

    Now that's one film that I absolutely hated! One of those rare movies where one viscerally despises each and every scene (nay cut). In my book one of the worst movies ever made.

    Talking of the depiction of celebrity culture and grovelling fans in these Hindi films, I find it very odd and condescending. Because this whole hero-worship culture just doesn't exist in North or West India to the same extent that it does in the South or even the East. Okay, granted that AB is a big star. But he isn't worshipped the way a Rajni or a Kamal is worshipped. North ain't as bad as the South in this respect!

    Which is why I find these depictions of "grovelling" out of place and a bit of a make-believe.

  12. Radhika Oltikar8:29 PM, May 11, 2013

    Interesting take, Jai. One small point: did Purandar really put on a "silent performance" for his daughter? I got the impression that he was recounting the incident in a manner that vastly exaggerated his own role in it, essentially making himself out to be the hero that the cast and crew of the film pandered to. The performance was only "silent" for us, the audience, and we were left to interpret the narrative on the basis of Purandar's telling flourishes. Just my impression, of course.

  13. Radhika: yes, that was hurriedly written - I meant "silent performance" as a description of the scene as it played out, not to indicate that Purandar wasn't actually speaking.

  14. Saw the movie yesterday, and read the review afterwards. My view is that instead of FATHER'S IMAGE, the common theme running in these four works was: Bollywood breathing in your veins, influencing & reflecting our daily lives. From melodious Madan Mohan to tap-toeing Sheela OR from Randhir Kapoor to Amitabh Bachchan, an average Indian life throbs with Bollywood.
    Didnt quite like KJ's episode. He mish-mashed a bit. Gender identity, with subtle hints of S&M (through Shades of Grey to 'maaro mujhe, mujhe achcha lagta hai') and later a workable relationship felled by a friend, who had actually started the seduction -- nothing convinced conclusively. Probably, a reflection of KJ's own personal contradictions and a life of lies plus fantassyworld.
    Loved Nawazuddin and Sadashiv Amrapurkar. And quite enjoyed Anurag Kashyap; it reminded me of the collective mourning when Big B was done in by a punch from Puneet Issar. Instead of learning, like a Guddi, that heroes are fallible in real life, the nation enjoyed his recovery with truckloads of ghee laddoos, lighting of lakhs of hand made diyas and more such idiosyncracies! The English-speaking hobo and handful of Vijays cleverly mixed comedy with tragedy... it is a reminder of our idol worshipping existence. And later when Vijay is recounting his meeting with Big B to a rapt audience (it also unconvincingly riles another sleepy one to such extent that he drops the jar) says what you beautifully described 'amateur performers'. All good cine viewers are amateur or closet performers.