Tuesday, September 10, 2019

On the dark thriller Rakkhosh, Orson Welles’s Heart of Darkness, and the point-of-view narrative

[Did this piece for The Telegraph]

Eighty years ago this month, a young man named Orson Welles, having just signed a contract with RKO Studios, was putting together a treatment for a film adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness. It didn’t work out: there were artistic conflicts and budgetary problems (exacerbated by this pesky war that had just begun in Europe, cutting off a large audience for a “serious” film) – and Welles would move on to develop another script, which became Citizen Kane.

What the impact of the never-made Heart of Darkness might have been, we can’t say, but it probably would have shaken many ideas about cinematic form (much like Citizen Kane did). Because Welles’s major conceit was that the whole film would be told from the point of view of the book’s narrator Marlow – so that the camera’s “eye” (representing Marlow’s gaze) became a direct substitute for the first-person “I” of the novel.

Would that have made for a gimmicky, self-conscious film? Possibly. But knowing this particular enfant terrible, he may well have fashioned something brilliant out of it.

I was thinking about that phantom film as I watched the creepy psychological thriller Rakkhosh – the opening lines of which, coincidentally, point to another heart of darkness. “Sab kehte hain andheraa kaafi daraavna hota hai,” the narrator says, “Par mujhe toh andhere mein hee achha lagta hai.” (“Everyone says darkness is scary. But I only feel comfortable in the dark.”)

Co-directed by Abhijit Kokate and Srivinay Salian, and available on Netflix, Rakkhosh is not an easy watch, and definitely won’t be to all tastes. There are various reasons for this: the claustrophobic setting and subject matter (it unfolds mainly in a dingy mental asylum where a series of murders may or may not be taking place); a certain theatricality in its staging and performances (which may be part of the film’s design); but mostly because, throughout its running time, the camera represents the perspective of a specific character, a paranoid, childlike inmate named Birsa.

Naturally, then, we never see Birsa’s face, only hear his voice as he interacts with his elderly friend Kumar John (played by the always-excellent Sanjay Mishra), a visiting journalist, the asylum’s chief doctor and sinister nurse, and also recalls his past with his family.

This makes Rakkhosh one of the most unusual Hindi films in recent memory, and among the most disorienting. A handheld camera can unsettle viewers even when it is employed to tell a warm, accessible story (I remember how many initial viewers of Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding were put off by the occasional “jerkiness” of the footage), but when this technique is married to a dark narrative and we can’t see the film’s protagonist, it can be very challenging indeed.

At the same time, it’s weirdly effective when a suspense-horror film’s POV is that of an unreliable person whose sanity is in question. When Birsa looks at a doll and imagines that it is his
“Ma”, we feel we can’t trust the evidence of our eyes. And when the other characters address the camera, stare into it warily, sceptically or fearfully, we feel just as nervous as the protagonist.

Films like Rakkhosh raise interesting questions about what the cinematic equivalent of a novel’s first-person narrative might be. “By subjectivizing the camera to represent Marlow’s point of view, Orson hoped to compel the audience to identify entirely with Marlow,” writes Barbara Leaming in a biography of Orson Welles.

But there is a counterpoint to this idea: as director Francois Truffaut pointed out, if a movie audience is required to identify with a particular character, it is important for them – in a visual medium – to be able to see that character. Thus, a better way to achieve such identification is the more conventional approach of depicting the character on screen, while keeping our perspective limited to what he or she sees. An example I can think of is Hitchcock’s Vertigo, where, for the first two-thirds of the film, we don’t leave the side of the protagonist Scottie (played by James Stewart) – the great revelation in the story occurs at precisely the moment when Scottie leaves a room and the camera, for once, doesn’t follow him out.

In her book Double Exposure: Fiction into Film, Joy Gould Boyum points out that the POV device can also become absurd or tedious in a straightforward narrative film. Discussing the 1947 film Lady in the Lake, which used this technique to represent the perspective of the leading man (a detective), Boyum says the device worked up to a point, “but when the heroine started moving toward the camera, beginning to embrace and kiss it, the results were ludicrous.”

It is still rare to find a whole film that is shot as POV (one that comes to mind is the 2002 Russian Ark; another is the “found footage” film The Blair Witch Project), but there are countless instances of specific scenes shot in this way. And some of the most effective of these depict a crime or an act of violence. The long opening shot of John Carpenter’s Halloween, for instance, from the perspective of a little boy who kills his elder sister while wearing a
Halloween mask; or the opening-credits sequence of Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, in which a photographer-killer stalks his victims and films them as they die; or the virtual-reality scenes in Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days, in which an electronic device allows the user to experience someone else’s memories and physical sensations.

Without giving away spoilers, the climactic sequence of Rakkhosh adopts the point of view of an entity – possibly a supernatural one, or a psychotic – taking revenge on a number of people, and these are some of the film’s most powerful scenes: it is as if we viewers have been given a Godlike carte blanche to hurl characters around, treat them like elements in an advanced video game. I wonder what it says about our own dark hearts that a POV kiss comes across as corny or fake, but morbid scenes shown from a first-person perspective can be so thrilling. 

[My earlier Telegraph columns are here]

Monday, September 02, 2019

Two types of crime writing: The Tokyo Zodiac Murders and Stanley Ellin’s short stories

[my latest “Bookshelves” column for First Post]

Crime fiction invites many kinds of snobberies, starting with the disdain that some highbrow writers or readers feel for genre writing, which they view as shallow or derivative. Murder mysteries are especially vulnerable to the charge that they trivialize death (which is generally regarded one of the major serious themes in art), using it as a pretext for “cheap thrills”.

However, even within the field, there are hierarchies of snootiness and writers often take potshots at each other. At a lit-fest session once, I heard the Swedish crime writer Henning Mankell make a patronizing remark about how Agatha Christie’s books were mainly about the thrilling denouement at the end, that her characterizations were thin – while he himself preferred to focus on personality and behaviour.

A related allegation is that many writers of fast-paced suspense treat their characters not as human beings with feelings and emotions, but as pawns in a schematic game. Personally, this is not something that concerns me a great deal: pure thrill-creation can be an art in itself. And besides, these assessments are subjective: some critics believe Alfred Hitchcock was a cold, misanthropic filmmaker and point to his famous statement “Actors should be treated like cattle” as a sign that he wasn’t interested in people; others contend that regardless of Hitchcock’s stated position, films like Psycho and Notorious and others have a deep ache at their centre, and are as humanist in their own way as films with more overtly serious subject matter.

Having accounted for subjectivity, though, it is true that some types of crime fiction come across as being more empathetic or sensitive than others. This is a function of the writer’s personality and concerns as well as the nature of the story he has opted to tell. I’m thinking now of two writers at opposite ends of the spectrum, both of which I admire in different ways: Stanley Ellin, once a celebrated master of the short story but sadly neglected today; and Soji Shimada, whose novel Tokyo Zodiac Murders has a cult following.

What’s interesting is that Ellin’s best stories and Shimada’s novel both hinge on frisson-creating revelations or twists: they are undoubtedly similar in that sense. But the way they go about this is very dissimilar.

(Discussing the mechanics of a twist-in-the-tale story is tricky, but I’ll keep this as spoiler-free as possible.) In the expertly plotted, if indifferently written, Tokyo Zodiac Murders, a key plot point is the gruesome cutting up of human bodies. The book opens with an old artist telling us about his fantasy: the creation of a magical woman named Azoth, who will come to life when the body parts of six different women are pieced together. Shortly after this, the artist himself is killed – in a manner that evokes the classic “locked-room” mystery – but more strangely, this is followed by exactly the sorts of killings he had written about: six dismembered bodies, each missing a part, have been buried in different locations. The plan to create Azoth is clearly underway. But who is carrying it out, and how could the artist have engineered it from beyond the grave?

The actual solution to the murder, which I won’t discuss here, involves anatomical detailing that might turn the stomach of a few readers. At one point the detective even draws an analogy between the murder victims and ripped-up currency notes. This is clear-cut objectification – anyone concerned with the ethical implications of mystery writing will complain that the victims have no humanity, that we are only meant to see them as pieces in a morbid jigsaw puzzle. And yet, if you like a good thriller, you probably won’t stop turning the pages.

Some of Stanley Ellin’s stories – such as “The Specialty of the House” and “The Twelfth Statue” – also involve murder victims being disposed of in grisly ways – yet they are more concerned, in explicit ways, with moral or philosophical questions. How do we live? What do we eat? What do we believe in? One of my favourite Ellin tales, “The Question My Son Asked”, is in the voice of an executioner who pulls the switch for an electric chair, and is proud of what he does “for society” – yet he faces a moment of reckoning when his son, who doesn’t want to join the same profession, asks him a very pointed question. In its own way, this story is as grim as Tokyo Zodiac Murders – with a description of a prisoner being dragged to the chair and electrocuted – and has a superb twist at the end; yet it also raises questions about social conditioning, the ideals we hold dear, and how those ideals may collide with the darkest aspects of human nature.

Another of Ellin’s most satisfying stories is “The Twelfth Statue”, which is built around the shoot of a 1960s B-movie in Rome, and may be of special interest to fans of Jean-Luc Godard’s 1963 film Contempt. In this “vanishing person” mystery, a dictatorial producer, Alexander File, disappears one evening on a heavily guarded outdoor set and is never heard from again. There are suspects, and the police is even confident that one of them killed File and disposed of the body – but they draw a blank when they try to snare him.

Ellin throws in a double-bluff and a couple of mini-twists near the end, all of which make the story very satisfying for a mystery buff. But there is more going on here. An important subtext is the relationship between Art and Commerce, or between the serious-minded creative person and the money-obsessed financier who demands compromises. The film’s director, Cyrus, has fallen on hard times but retains vestiges of his artistic integrity, and still hopes to make a film where he can put a personal vision on the screen. It is the contrast between this man and the power-mad File that makes the story’s climax so haunting.

To reiterate, I can’t quite tell whether I preferred the experience of reading Tokyo Zodiac Murders or Ellin’s stories. The latter is a better, classier writer, but the adrenaline rush provided by Shimada’s resolution is hard to beat. They serve very different functions for a reader: it’s like gulping down an ice-cream sundae on a very hot day at a fast-food joint, versus sipping a good wine alongside a gourmet meal. Happily, a crime buff doesn’t have to pick one or the other. 

[Earlier Bookshelves columns are here]

Friday, August 30, 2019

Other cinemas, other cineastes: on Namrata Joshi's Reel India

[Did a version of this review for Mint Lounge]

“Mera cinema meri muhim hai (My cinema is my campaign),” a writer-filmmaker, trying to raise ecological awareness through his largely self-funded work, is quoted as saying in Namrata Joshi’s Reel India. Elsewhere, a collector of vintage radios – and a fan of old film songs – remarks “Haddiyan boodhi ho rahi hain (The bones are aging)” – he is talking about both himself and his prized collection, which might decay and be forever lost if someone doesn’t recognise its value and take care of it.

This is a very wide-ranging book – sometimes too wide-ranging and diffused for its own good – and as such, different things in it will appeal to different sorts of readers. For me, its true heart lies in its chronicling of magnificent obsessions like the ones quoted above: the obsessions of people who live outside the cinematic mainstream (or what city-dwellers think is the mainstream) but engage with films in myriad ways, not seeking monetary benefit but doing things because they are compelled to; because cinema is so central to who they are.

Other such subjects include “Hamraz” of Kanpur, who spent decades putting together an exhaustive five-volume compilation of data on Hindi-film songs – resisting the apathy of publishers, even using up the leave travel allowance he got from the bank he worked in. Or the Lucknow-based Joe Vishal Singh, whose devotion to Shah Rukh Khan far transcends the usual clichés about people worshipping movie stars. (Singh, who has rechristened himself Vishahrukh and turned his house into a giant shrine to the star, is a living representation of unconditional faith – no matter if his idol doesn’t acknowledge his presence.)

There is Nasir Sheikh – “the Dadasaheb Phalke of Malegaon” – who began his town’s now-famous tradition of spoof films, from Malegaon ke Sholay to Malegaon ka Superman. There is a physician whose haveli has become a favourite location for recent shoots, and who has himself “become a cameo specialist”, making appearances in films like Tanu Weds Manu and Bullet Raja – a man and his house, both poignantly enshrined through their appearance in a movie. There are also collectors of memorabilia – lobby cards, portraits, 78 rpm records waiting to be digitized – and people who dally with fame by sending in scores of requests to radio stations.

Though Reel India has an overriding theme – encapsulated in its subhead “Cinema Off the Beaten Track” – it is best appreciated as a collection of discrete essays or vignettes, which combine reportage with commentary, and vary in quality. Some chapters – e.g. “Small towns on big screens” – offer reflections on a few films that fit a broad category, but the better essays centre on individuals and places, allowing Joshi’s journalistic strengths to come to the fore. We learn of spaces with offbeat connections to cinema, such as the shop where the adolescent Naushad once tuned harmoniums. We see how low-profile cinema can aid the survival of endangered languages, identities and sub-cultures, or raise awareness about predatory corporates. 

There is much here for the trivia-buff (what is the “Life of Pi of Garhwali cinema”? Who is the biggest star of Jharkhand cinema, or Jhollywood?) and there are evocative images: a Bhopal teeming with John Abraham lookalikes; a Bollywood go-to man in a small town trying to snatch lizards off the walls of his own home for a scene; screenings organised in the mukhiya’s house in a Bihari village, with bedsheets stitched together to create a makeshift screen – and the small audience expressing approval and disapproval, interest or boredom, in much the same way that savvier viewers do all over the world. (Elsewhere, there is an account of students who have never before been exposed to international cinema talking enthusiastically about shot-taking and symbolism after watching Bicycle Thieves or The Seventh Seal for the first time.)

Almost by default, Reel India is also a kind of India travelogue, which looks at the subtle differences between people and places in different parts of the country: how, for example, the less demonstrative populace of a particular region tends to be more disciplined and non-intrusive during film shoots. But equally, how these varied places, each with its distinct socio-political concerns, can engage with each other through popular culture: how a web-series like Mirzapur, so apparently north Indian in its ethos, may share the DNA of violent Madurai films; how urban and rural worlds can merge, and radical ideas co-exist with conservative ones.


Joshi's chatty, conversational style – one of the appealing qualities of her feature writing –lends itself well to this subject matter, but there are times when the line between casualness and carelessness gets blurred. There are typos and grammatical errors (Lucknow becomes Luck in one place – and no, that wasn’t intended), unrelated streams of thought flow into each other without para-breaks; at times there are superfluous details (in a brief reference to Nagraj Manjule’s Sairat, we are parenthetically told not just that the film was remade in Hindi as Dhadak but also that the latter starred Ishaan Khattar and Janhvi Kapoor… and that Kapoor is the daughter of the late Sridevi) while at other times, information is provided in a slapdash manner. Occasionally I got the impression that the book was rushed into production before the author was fully ready, or that some material drawn from old feature stories hadn’t been fully integrated into the larger narrative.

However, these are problems of form, most of which will hopefully be remedied in a later edition. (It’s no secret that very little copy-editing of any note takes place in Indian publishing these days, and this seems especially true of cinema titles – perhaps because publishers assume the target readership won’t be concerned with anything as trivial as an elegant sentence.) For the reader who can ignore this and concentrate on a book’s content and informational value, there is – as indicated above – much to appreciate here.

Most of all, Reel India invoked a feeling of sheepishness in me, being a reminder that despite being a movie nerd, there are many aspects of the film-going experience I am cut off from. Though I lament that movie-watching has become sterile in an age of smartphones and streaming, I also plead guilty to having always lived in south Delhi and having rarely gone to movie halls in the pre-multiplex decade – much less having ever thrown coins at the screen. Reading this book is to realise that my love for dialoguebaazi and dhishoom-dhishoom, for ornate song sequences set to Laxmikant-Pyarelal scores, for the sort of “masala” that we are taught to be ashamed of these days, amounts to a form of urbanite posturing when compared to the true worshippers (or sachhe aashiq) whose stories Reel India is so full of.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

How to stop worrying and love our homicidal gurus

[In my latest Telegraph piece, thoughts on charismatic preachers who talk about love but promise the apocalypse – in the new seasons of Mindhunter and Sacred Games, as well as the new Tarantino film]

Exactly midway through the just-released Season 2 of the David Fincher-produced show Mindhunter – a dramatization of the FBI’s profiling of incarcerated serial killers in the 1970s and 1980s – the legendary Charlie Manson shows up. He begins his meeting with the two agents who have come to interview him by impishly sticking out his tongue at one of them, Holden Ford (who is something of a Manson fanboy). And he ends the encounter by signing a copy of a book Holden has brought with him: “Each night as you sleep, I destroy the world,” Manson writes, with all the confidence of a man who knows he is a celebrity, even though he will never leave jail.

Manson – who mentored wayward youngsters into committing multiple murders in the late 1960s – is played by the same actor (Damon Herriman) who briefly plays the part in the new Quentin Tarantino film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. And yet, when I watched this Mindhunter episode, I wasn’t thinking of Tarantino’s film. I thought instead of another mad prophet in another recent show: Khanna Guruji, played by Pankaj Tripathi in season 2 of Sacred Games.

This omniscient-seeming godman runs an “ashram” in Croatia, becomes spiritual guide to the tormented Ganesh Gaitonde (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) – and eventually, speaking in the same benign tone as always, reveals his plans for the end of the current world and the emergence of a “pristine” new one. From the corrupt Kali Yuga that we are now living in, Guruji says, we need to return to the Satya Yuga of yore. In his view of things, Time will coil back on itself – like a Möbius strip, perhaps – but it might need a little push. So let’s detonate a nuclear bomb in Mumbai, and wait patiently in underground bunkers while the world ends. We’ll come out later.

The parallels between Guruji and Manson are striking, even if the scales at which they operate are very different. In Mindhunter, just before meeting Manson, the agents discuss another pseudo-godman who gave himself the name “Krishna Venta” and led a religious commune in California in the 1940s and 50s. “Krishna said he knew a secret place in the desert where he and his flock could wait it out. Then, when the war was over, they’d emerge and create a new civilization.” Manson had spent some time with this commune and probably got a few ideas from there – it is widely accepted now that he claimed the “helter-skelter” unleashed by his followers would help start a massive race war in America (though the Manson we meet in that Mindhunter scene has a grand time hedging and prevaricating about his activities).

So here are preachers who talk a great deal about love but promise an apocalypse – all the while ensuring that their own interests are safeguarded. They are charismatic, they have large followings, they succeed in brainwashing many apparently sensible people.

“What we need to find out,” says an FBI agent, “is how a diminutive, uneducated ex-con convinced a group of middle-class teenagers to brutally murder seven strangers.” There was clearly something in Manson’s personality that cast a spell on those youngsters, and it continues to be felt decades later: in online discussions of serial killers and serial-killer movies, he is often treated as a folk-hero. (Watching Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, during the intermission I heard a viewer telling his friends in a fawning tone, “That guy who came to the house was Charlie Manson, dude! Didn’t you get it?”) In Sacred Games too, Gaitonde is initially intrigued by Guruji when the latter makes an accurate prediction during a phone conversation – but later, he becomes a true bhakt because the guru’s spiritual mumbo-jumbo touches a chord in him, given the troubles and self-doubts he is going through.

Personality cults aside, perhaps there is something inherently seductive about the idea that the present time is just maya or illusion, that something much better, much “purer”, lies around the corner – and that in order to get to this utopia, a nasty storm will have to be weathered and there will be many fatalities (or sacrifices). It’s the sort of thought that combines idealistic yearning with a darker, destructive impulse in human nature.

A version of this idea also exists in the narratives created by many bordering-on-dictatorial governments around the world: whether in First World countries trying to keep out immigrants or the ongoing attempt in India to promote an extremist version of Hindutva and to shut down those who might be in opposition to this. We see it in the astonishing statements made by people in high places, including prime ministers and chief ministers who speak of how ancient India (an uncontaminated Hindu rashtra in their view) had made more scientific progress than the world has today. We had everything: planes, plastic surgery. Best of all, we had no Mughal invaders. We can return to that time! Even minorities – Muslims, Dalits, women – can come along for the ride… just as long as they know their place in the hierarchy and toe the line.

Sacred Games makes a few sly references to the ongoing political climate. “Internet ka istmaal karna seekho (Learn to use the internet),” Tripathi’s Guruji tells his followers in a scene that is set around the turn of the millennium – he believes that the then-nascent worldwide web will play a big part in his mission. It’s easy to see how this scene could be a comment on how shrewdly the BJP and its large IT cell have bent social media to their own purposes over the last few years.

Though it’s obvious that the real-life psychopaths portrayed in Mindhunter and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood did a lot of damage and caused untold grief, most of them at least got their comeuppance and were removed from spaces where they could continue to be a threat – only allowed to feel important in short bursts when FBI agents came to meet them or novelists wrote books based on them. On the other hand, when you look at people in positions of power around the world – including politicians and corporate honchos with their own agendas, promoting bigotry, fantasising about purity, pretending the climate crisis doesn’t exist – those serial killers start to look like very small fry. An old, always-pertinent question raises its head again: are the true lunatics in the asylum, or running it? And are we lemmings on a precipice, set to follow a new breed of gurus into the abyss?

Monday, August 26, 2019

Rant #163 about criticism/reviewing (and thoughts on a Tanuja Chandra profile)

[I wrote this rant originally on Facebook. Though provoked by a few passages in the new book I have mentioned here, this is a continuation of many things I have written about criticism over the years -- and I have no intention of stopping. Much more to say on this very subject too -- not least because two film critics I know wrote long, annoyed Twitter threads in response to this piece, and I'd like to address their points at length when I have the time. For now, here's the original post

One of my cherished peeves is that so many film critics (and this includes young people whose writing I generally admire, and some of whom are even friends) have almost no taste for or understanding of what might broadly be labelled the “pre-modern” forms of expression. In the cinematic context, this would include elements from the older type of mainstream Hindi film which we are all conditioned to be so disdainful of now. The sweeping, allegorical courtroom scene, the dramatic declamation, the use of a strong music score to underline emotions (this is of course the very essence of the word “melodrama”, which is almost invariably used as a putdown these days, outside of academic writing).

So much film writing I come across is founded on the bizarre idea that the understated, “realist” mode is innately superior to the grand, showy one. (I put “realist” in quote-marks because to begin with this position entails a very narrow view of what “realism” is.) Even some writers who have a genuine love for “masala” cinema shift into a different gear when they are writing columns or essays, and fall into judgemental language (“MEANINGFUL” film vs “MERE entertainment” is a favourite) instead of allowing for the possibility that different modes of expression serve different functions and can be equally worthy in their own ways. Thus, slapstick comedy is always placed below dark satire (regardless of how good the slapstick is), the horror film that has something of obvious social value to say (e.g. the celebrated work of Jordan Peele) is elevated above the horror film that “only tries to scare the viewer”. Etc etc. Personal taste is one thing, but the professional critic owes it to himself to at least attempt to be open-minded towards different forms, to not be dismissive of whole categories, and to consider the possibility that any creative work that is well-done (irrespective of genre or mode) is automatically truthful and “meaningful” and adds some value to its field.

There is also the simplistic idea that the history of art follows a linear trajectory of “maturity” or “evolution”, so that we “outgrow” certain things (again, judgemental language) – and that we should always be a little sheepish about the films we loved as children or teens, which years later seem much diminished to our (presumably wiser) minds. Such “evolution” is usually seen as occurring in the direction of greater psychological realism and social awareness. Thus, the more detailed Hindi films of today are inherently better than the larger-than-life films of earlier times. Contemporary meta-Westerns, filled with sly commentary (whether by the Coen Brothers or Quentin Tarantino), are more “progressive” than all those racist old cowboy-and-Indian films. (Except that anyone who has really watched and engaged with the better work of John Ford or Howard Hawks or others in this genre knows that there is far more complexity in those old films than the sweeping allegations of regressiveness would suggest.) In my view, all this shows an inadequate understanding of the many levels at which it’s possible to experience art over time. Not to mention that many people don’t become unequivocally “mature” with age, they become more rigid and less likely to open their minds to ideas they had rejected long ago.

Anyway: I have written about these things in other contexts, but was thinking about them again while reading a passage in a new book about women filmmakers. The chapter on Tanuja Chandra has a story about Chandra’s New York-based producer (for the film Hope and a Little Sugar) asking her to tone down a scene where a mother breaks down when her son is killed in a terror attack. “You have no idea how an Indian mother responds when her son dies,” Chandra tried to explain, but was told “For her to scream and shout...it's too much.”

And the next sentence approvingly reads:

In the film, what one sees is a beautifully stoic and resilient mother, a deviation from the howling, often melodramatic mothers of Bollywood.”

Judgemental language again, and the sweeping eulogising of “understatement”. (Earlier on the same page, there is also this: “With the days of over-the-top histrionics and mindless action behind them, films have moved closer to realism.”)

I wish the author had been a little more accommodating of the point that Tanuja Chandra herself was trying to make to her producers – namely, that “howling, melodramatic mothers” do exist in the real world, especially in a situation so horrible that most of us would have trouble even imagining what our own response to it might be (let alone being smugly confident about all the other possible responses from people whose personalities and life experiences are very different from our own).

I could say much more on this, but for now I'll just quote something that Tanuja Chandra's brother Vikram said to me in an interview when his novel Sacred Games was published:

I feel very strongly about this notion of what is ‘too filmi’ as opposed to what is realistic. In India, especially in the upper and middle class, we've had an education that's trained us to see reality in a specific way […] So when we see the other kind of representation – of mainline cinema – we deny its reality. But the idea that the novelistic/psychological-realism form can transparently give us what is ‘real’ is very naïve […] Often, what we think of as melodramatic films reach deeper truths while seeming artificial on the surface. And what is overly emotional/melodramatic anyway? I look around me at Indian families and by God, we're so melodramatic in real life!
[Full conversation with Chandra here. Another related post -- a response to a Mihir Sharma column -- is here. And here are my two pieces around Padmaavat: 1, 2]

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Quick shout-out for a tennis novel

Anyone who has covered the books beat for years knows that most Indian novels — whether classified as literary or genre — are expected to have a “peg” or “hook”, something that helps label them and market them to a swathe of readers; if you’re writing a novel with a sports setting, for instance, the sport should preferably be cricket. (Further, the jacket description should emphasize that the book isn’t “just” about cricket - that it has broader concerns.) Sriram Subramanian’s Centre Court came as a breath of fresh air because here is a well-paced Indian novel that maintains an unwavering focus on a non-cricket sport, with a plot as no-frills as this: a tennis player named Shankar Mahadevan, ranked 41, finds himself winning one match after another in the Wimbledon main draw, contending with the many faces of those twin imposters Success and Failure along the way.

And because there are in-depth descriptions — mostly in Shankar’s own voice — of each match as it unfolds, the press conferences that follow, the physical and psychological challenges, the sideshows that an underdog must deal with over the course of a fortnight-long tournament, this really is a SPORTS NOVEL in the truest sense. Full of little observations and minutiae about the workings of tennis from the junior levels through Challenges and Futures, all the way to the top echelons of the pro circuit. Which also means that though it’s a page-turner, and though it touches on Shankar’s personal relationships (including that with his father Ananth, who narrates parts of the story), I’m not sure how much appeal the book will have for a reader who has zero interest in sport. I enjoyed it very much though.

P.S. I have written earlier about my serendipitous meeting with the author at the Guwahati lit-fest — many years after we had cordial arguments on a tennis messageboard. Here’s the post.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Men in barbershops: a Malayalam film meets a classic Western

[my “movie moments” column for The Hindu links two outstanding films made 73 years apart – Kumbalangi Nights, one of the best Indian films of the year, and John Ford's My Darling Clementine]

Shammi is an immaculately turned out man, the sort of man for whom the term “well-groomed” might have been coined: smooth face, not a hair out of place. He keeps patting his moustache as if to ensure its geometrical perfection. We are unsurprised to learn that he works in a hair salon.

Going by outward appearances, one might slot him as a new-age, metrosexual man, comfortable around women – he lives with his wife, her younger sister and their mother. But alarm bells ring too. The first time we see him, he is looking at himself approvingly in a bathroom mirror, mumbling “Raymond, the Complete Man” and using a razor blade to remove a bindi from the glass. Dismantling the matriarchy? Later, he remarks that working in the kitchen doesn’t befit a man with a “proper job”.

Now consider Saji, who is roughhewn and unkempt, often drunk, and the oldest member of a family that has no women in it: only four brothers, living in an untidy house. The first time we see Saji and his brother Bobby fight, they end up a mass of limbs on the floor – two beasts wrestling, grabbing each other’s crotches to gain an advantage.

The contrast between Shammi and Saji (played by two outstanding actors, Fahadh Faasil and Soubin Shahir respectively) lies at the heart of the lovely new film Kumbalangi Nights. The first meeting between the two is in the salon, where Saji has nervously come with a marriage proposal for Bobby. But Shammi has no intention of letting his sister-in-law marry into a “low-grade” household: in a blackly funny scene, he runs his blade contemplatively over poor Bobby’s neck while giving him a shave.

This setting reminded me that in some old American Westerns, the barbershop (or the fancier “tonsorial parlour”) was a transformative space: a man might become more refined once his hair is trimmed; the lawless Wild West may thus be tamed. A major disruption in John Ford’s 1946 classic My Darling Clementine occurs when Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) visits a salon but can’t get a peaceful shave because of a loud brawl outside; he heads out, foam still on face, to restore order. Later in the film, he admires himself in the mirror – much as Shammi constantly does in Kumbalangi Nights – and preens a little as the barber sprays scent on him.

Such a binary would suggest that Shammi represents civilization while Saji and his siblings are the savages living in the wild outdoors. But the very structure of Kumbalangi Nights leading one to rethink one’s ideas about what is civilized behaviour and what is savage. And in fact, that old Ford Western doesn’t have easy binaries either: Wyatt Earp may be more law-abiding than his friend, the alcoholic Doc Holliday – but Doc is a gentleman inside, introspective, cultured (he even knows Shakespeare), while Wyatt sometimes seems to be trying too hard to be a “modern” man.

Saji doesn’t have regular work – he sponges off a friend – while Shammi is a responsible family man. But these are incomplete pictures: they don’t show how pliable Saji is, and how rigid and controlling Shammi is. (One can also compare him with Bhavani Shankar in Gol Maal, obsessed with purity, proud of his moustache.) “The Ramayana was written by a forest-dweller, right?” Shammi says condescendingly in the barbershop scene, “People can change.” But ironically, Shammi himself is incapable of changing, while Saji becomes more mature with time.

Both men have psychological issues, but when Saji comes close to the abyss, he realises he must help himself: he goes to a doctor to cry out his emotions. Meanwhile Shammi insists on being “a hero”. When he is told off, he goes and stands in a corner by himself, his face against the wall, then returns for another confrontation – like a robot that might occasionally short-circuit, but is programmed to set itself right without any external help.

Faasil’s pitch-perfect performance as the fastidious Shammi gets the most out of scenes like the one where he insists everyone dines
together, his eyes moving around the table. Or the remarkable scene – which goes from being commonplace to creepily funny, through the subtle inflexions in Shammi’s speech – where he overhears his wife and her sister talking about something. “What’s up?” he asks, and then cajolingly speaks variations on “Go on, tell me.” Peering out from behind a door, oily smile on his face, he looks a bit like a Cheshire Cat ready to unsheathe its claws. As he will do in the film’s climax – by which point the carpet has been nicely pulled out from under our feet, and our ideas about heroes and rogues, refined and unrefined behaviour, have been thoroughly muddled.

[Earlier “moments” columns here]

Friday, August 23, 2019

Blue is like Blue, and familiar is strange: on Vinod Kumar Shukla’s translated short stories

[Did this review of a collection of VK Shukla’s short stories, for Open magazine]

In “College”, the longest piece in the new collection Blue is Like Blue, we are told that a particular neem tree, when seen in the dark, doesn’t look like a neem tree but “like some other tree dressed up like a neem”. A magistrate’s house similarly looks like it has been “dressed up to look like a magistrate’s bungalow”. An economics teacher walks half-bent, leaning forward: “If he had picked up something from the ground, no one would have noticed.”

So detailed is VK Shukla’s writing, so full of unexpected little observations and asides, that it brings the texture of a hyper-real dream to seemingly everyday incidents and musings. To properly convey something of the effect of his stories, one has to mention vignettes and descriptions from them. For instance, in “Piece of Gold”, when half of a broken ring falls on a bed, the narrator stops his friend from getting up, because “if he got up the piece might get lost”; it is then found embedded in a crease in the bedsheet. Such things, said in passing, might seem tedious or superfluous in a different sort of tale – but in Shukla they create a sense of a lived-in world: we feel we know his characters, mostly young men living in rented quarters, worrying about finances.

Often, there is the matter-of-fact anthropomorphising of things – living spaces, trees, colours, a marketplace – and we are made privy to people’s relationships with their environment. In “Room on the Tree”, when a young man locks his second-floor room to go to work, he feels “as if he had bound the room hand and foot, not that there was any chance of the room climbing down after him”. Another young man who likes visiting the local bazaar idly muses that “if you didn’t have money you could be in the bazaar and the bazaar couldn’t care less whether you died of hunger or for lack of medicines”. “Seen from the cinema’s point of view, I was just another cinemagoer,” says the narrator of “Old Veranda”. The utensils in a household, bought second-hand, are named after old films like “Duniya na Mane” and “Jhumroo”. In two stories, a constructed setting shares space with the natural world: a secluded room is so close to a peepal tree that it is referred to as a tree room; a classroom is so close to a pond that you can lean out of the window and touch the water.

It’s tempting to call these slice-of-life stories, but that doesn’t capture how they manage to be familiar and off-centre at once. Also, despite the languid, undramatic tone of the writing, many of the stories are clearly “about” something – it’s another matter that they then find detours and cracks to slip into, so that the “what will happen” becomes less important than the gathering of detail. As in “Man in the blue shirt”, which starts on a very specific note – with the narrator intrigued by two sightings of a man wearing a blue shirt and carrying a pot of curd – but then becomes more abstract, as the story’s focus shifts to other people on the road. Or “Spare time of the crowd”, which begins with a man drawing the attention of a group of people by standing on an overturned drum but then segues into a series of conversations about shoes and feet.

At times, you might find yourself searching for the hidden core of a story (which may or may not exist). So the title of “The Burden” could refer to a leaf that becomes lodged in a young man’s pocket while he is cycling (“the leaf fragments could hardly be called heavy nor did he have to stop to remove them, but stop he did”) – or to the burden of a full month’s salary, 150 rupees, which he has kept in his room, causing him to worry about the possibility of theft, and the sense of lightness once he has used the money to pay off his debts and expenses. In another story, after a brass tumbler owned by a Brahmin family falls into a privy and they continue using it after washing it, the jamadarin goes about telling people that these brahmins “drank water from a tumbler that had been caked with shit”. This is presented as a casual aside, but it is also suggestive of the poverty of this family.

You can start reading this book from anywhere, but it may also be useful to look at the dates of original publication (given at the end of each piece), to trace possible changes in Shukla’s writing arc. For instance, “Fish”, written when he was only around twenty, feels a relatively narrative-driven, with a clear beginning, middle and end: the story has two little boys hoping to play with some fish that are to be killed for dinner, and there is a subplot about their unhappy elder sister (who shudders as she weeps in bed, much like “the twitching of the fish”). But even in the early work, there is an unusual perspective on something that might otherwise be mundane – in the way, for example, that the smell of fish seems to fill the house on a day that a crisis has visited the family.

Some stories feel more allegorical than others. “The Man’s Woman” features a conversation where two men seem to be discussing whether to pour acid on a woman’s arm to remove an unwanted tattoo, but the indolent nature of the exchange almost belies what they are talking about. And then there is the very intriguing "The Gathering", about poets and the literary symbols they use, which are then given physical shape, and scrutinised by a pedantic critic. “There’s no mention in your poem of a dead snake with ants sticking to its mouth,” this critic says, “But the dead snake you’ve brought has ants sticking to its mouth. You must change either the poem or the symbol.”

Is this a dig at artistic pretensions, or at how creative people are expected to provide clear explanations for everything they do? In the case of Shukla – who, the translators tell us, was a provincial, “ground-hugging” writer who lived his whole life in Raipur and Rajnandgaon, seldom travelled, was puzzled by an elaborate autograph signing at a literature festival, and had no idea who JM Coetzee was – it could be a combination of both. And for the reader who has never before encountered him, these stories can cause one to rethink what narratives should look and feel like.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

What's it going to be then, eh? On Sacred Games season 2

[Did this short piece – NOT anything like a detailed review – about Sacred Games season 2 for Reader’s Digest. If someone had told me back in the 80s that I would one day write about a profanity-filled gangster show for the cosiest and most non-threatening of family magazines...]

If you only speed-watched Sacred Games season 1 and barely remember the story, don’t leap straight into season 2 because of peer pressure or some weird adrenaline rush: you might feel just as adrift as gangster Ganesh Gaitonde (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) is in the opening scene. Because this season is very much a straight continuation of an intense, detailed, multi-character story that spans two timelines. In the present day – that is, 2017 – cop Sartaj Singh (Saif Ali Khan) races against time to prevent nuclear holocaust in Mumbai; meanwhile we get flashbacks to the strange life of Gaitonde as he finds himself being used as a pawn by almost everyone he meets – and is eventually drawn towards a guruji (Pankaj Tripathi) who wants to usher in a new “Satya Yuga”.

Much like The Comedian from Alan Moore’s Watchmen (a book whose opening panels are also weirdly echoed in the opening scene of Season 1), Gaitonde would like to think of himself as the ultimate nihilistic badass – even a dark God – but slowly realises that other people have much more nefarious designs than he does; that he is a softie inside, and a cog in an unimaginably large machine. Much of Sacred Games’s emotional impetus comes from his personal journey as he deals with guilt, paranoia and hubris, and tries to find succour in his relationships with guruji, Jojo (Surveen Chawla) and the city of Mumbai, among others.

But there is also the less dramatic, less author-backed – yet in its own way, compelling – journey of Sartaj, dealing with his own demons and drawn to similar addictions as Gaitonde once was. The first cover of Vikram Chandra’s huge novel had depicted the faces of these two men blurring into each other; though the show has often deviated from the book’s content, it continues to build parallels between the arcs of Ganesh and Sartaj.

For the first four or five episodes, I liked season 2 better than its predecessor: it is more relaxed, allows itself narrative detours, and the Gaitonde sections – including his profane commentary on the 9/11 attacks and his self-mythologizing attempts to get a film made on his life – are often very funny. But my attention waned in the final stretch. This could be a case of diminishing-returns fatigue setting in during a binge-watch – or it may be that the narrative inevitably becomes confusing as the two timelines converge. (When we cross-cut between events of 2017 and 2015 – as opposed to 2017 and the 1980s – it is trickier to keep track of chronology as well as what happened to this or that side-character.) The decision to include one of the book’s “insets” – involving a young girl being separated from her family during the 1947 riots – as late as the final episode, also felt a bit random and tonally off.

Even so, each episode has at least a couple of riveting scenes (don’t miss the opening of episode 7, the final meeting between Ganesh and his guruji) and the quality of the writing and the performances is rarely in doubt. The show’s ending may seem “open”, with an
eye on a possible renewal for Season 3 – but I think it works as a finale on its own terms if you think of it as commentary on the precarious state that India and the world finds itself in today, through ecological destruction as well as majoritarian insistence on “purity”. Armageddon is looming, Sacred Games reminds us in its closing seconds; is there any chance we can pull ourselves back just in time? The final two shots go well with a line from a famous dystopian novel, “What’s it going to be then, eh?”

[Earlier Sacred Games posts: a conversation with Vikram Chandra; religion in Season 1; a speculative piece when the show  was first announced]

Thursday, August 15, 2019

In which "Baby" manages a rundown sex clinic

[Did this short piece for India Today about the new film Khandaani Shafakhana and a new crop of comedy-dramas that try to normalise conversations around sex]


Shilpi Dasgupta’s Khandaani Shafakhana opens with the very word “sex” – pronounced “sheksh” – drawing shudders of revulsion from small-town medical representatives who want nothing to do with a clinic that brings such “chee-chee” things into the open. From such beginnings, the film moves towards a climactic courtroom discussion where a number of people (including the protesters from that first scene) are so engrossed in arguments and counter-arguments that they barely realise how often they are using this “dirty” word.

Normalising conversations, allowing for the airing of healthier attitudes… such is the intent of this narrative, its arc paralleling the personal growth of its central character (played by Sonakshi Sinha) who goes from being just “Baby” to a Hakim, after she inherits the sex clinic her deceased uncle had run for years. Watching the film, one might conjecture that the medicines Hakim maama (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) dispensed were placebos (or, in cinematic terms, MacGuffins) – the real worth of his treatment lay in how he got people to open up about sex.

Which makes Khandaani Shafakhana the latest in a series of comedy-dramas to deal with sexual issues in a relatively grounded, non-sensationalist manner, following Vicky Donor (sperm donation), Shubh Mangal Saavdhaan (erectile dysfunction) and Badhaai Ho (middle-aged pregnancy and the social embarrassment around it).

The challenge for such a film is to be frank, droll and educative – and to avoid being patronising – even as some of its characters are awkward and closed-minded. Most of these aren’t comedies in an overt sense – the humour lies in the interstices between dramatic situations, and flows from people’s reactions to unexpected events. Sharp, perceptive writing must go with inspired casting (Juhi Chaturvedi’s script for Vicky Donor, married to Annu Kapoor’s performance as the “sperrmmm”-obsessed doctor, comes to mind), and this is naturally a very delicate balance (Kapoor isn’t half as interesting in the new film, where he plays a lawyer). Scenes like the one in Shubh Mangal Saavdhaan where a droopy, tea-soaked biscuit provides visual shorthand for an erectile problem might easily have played like nudge-wink comedy aimed at frontbenchers if the actors involved were not the likable Ayushmann Khurana and Bhumi Pednekar (whose work together so far puts one in mind of such Middle Cinema couples as Farooque Shaikh and Deepti Naval). In Badhaai Ho too, Khurana’s non-threatening personality plays a big part in the effect of such scenes as the one where he finds it hard to have sex (again!) because images of his parents “doing it” crowd his mind.
Khandaani Shafakhana itself is much more interesting in concept than in execution. Its heart is in the right place and it depicts a world not often seen in mainstream Bollywood (small-town Punjab, with a cast of characters that includes a bling-sporting rap-star who is just a wide-eyed boy inside), but it also drags in places, moving between pedantic speech-making and patches of lowbrow but harmless comedy (a customer referring to his sperm sample as “my wiggle-wiggle”; an X-ray of a damaged penis, which Baby’s clueless brother looks at and says, “Such a thin leg?”) – the problem isn’t the low comedy in itself, but that it is rarely done with real conviction; the film keeps holding itself back.
There are stray moments, though, such as a roadside salesman’s patter, which catch something real about the complexities in our society. The interiors of the dilapidated clinic, with its rusted keys and jars, stress the point that sex doesn’t have to be depicted through glamour and sheen – a weary old man in a dusty room can talk interestingly about it. There is a striking shot of Baby perusing her maama’s register of ailments and cures, her head nodding back and forth, almost like someone deep in prayer over a holy book – for her, this IS a religious text, one that can improve society and cleanse people’s minds.
Like its predecessors, though, this film is restrained about the actual mechanics of sex. Perhaps the next step will be a comedy-drama that contains explicit scenes while still being non-gratuitous. Or a true sex farce along the lines of Woody Allen's Everything You Wanted to Know about Sex but were Afraid to Ask – but filtered through a very Indian text such as Mahinder Vatsa’s recent sex-advice book It’s Normal, where things like “No, your clitoris is not an air-pump” may be said in a candid, matter-of-fact way. 

[a post about Vicky Donor is here]

Monday, August 12, 2019

Medical drama, investigative thriller: on the excellent new film Virus

[In my Telegraph Online column, a piece about Aashiq Abu's Virus, one of the best-crafted Indian films of the year – and part of an ongoing journey in discovering the best of contemporary Malayalam and Tamil cinema]


Indian cinema hasn’t had a robust tradition of the procedural film, which closely follows a group of professionals as they deal with a specific challenge in their field: various threads slowly converging, order emerging from chaos. Such films can be built around a single, concentrated incident that takes just a few hours to unfold – templates include the many ensemble-cast disaster movies that Hollywood made in the 1970s, such as Airport or The Towering Inferno or Meteor, where aviation experts, firefighters, architects or NASA engineers stare down a crisis.

Or it could be that the prime cause is urgent, but its handling has to be measured, involving not instant heroics but persistent work over weeks or months; newsroom films like Spotlight or All the President’s Men usually fit the bill, as does something like the upcoming Mangal Mission, about ISRO’s Mars Mission.

Some settings and genres are innately conducive to action, suspense, or exciting twists: in recent years we have had espionage or crime films such as Neeraj Pandey’s Baby (about a task force dealing with terrorist threats) and the police procedural web series Delhi Crime (about cops investigating the Nirbhaya gang-rape/murder and coping with public outcry). But what when an environment that is relatively mundane in its day-to-day functioning suddenly faces an unanticipated problem? A medical setting, say, where doctors, hospital workers, health ministers find themselves running around like headless chickens. Where the “bad guy” is an obscure infection and a hard-to-trace set of circumstances that aid its spread.

It takes a special film to depict this situation “realistically” while also playing like a riveting, connect-the-dots thriller, and Aashiq Abu’s Virus is one of the best films I have seen this year. In dramatizing the Nipah virus outbreak in Kerala, it tells a multi-pronged story involving many sets of characters and captures the detached efficiency required by medical professionals – while also giving us insights into their emotional lives and never losing sight of the human stakes involved. It is about not just an outbreak in one part of the country, but also the many ways in which a society might get contaminated, about how an epidemic might play out in a disorganised, overpopulated milieu.

The opening scenes of Virus are reminders that hospitals can, at one and the same time, be dramatic and humdrum spaces. A busy early sequence is set in the Emergency ward at a Kozhikode hospital, with our entry point being a young doctor named Abid (Sreenath Basi) who is diligently doing his work, moving from one patient to the next, dividing his attention between relatively routine cases and fatal-accident victims. We know Abid is distracted by a personal matter (his girlfriend has just sent him a message saying she is getting married; he has asked another junior doctor to cover for him for an hour) and we see the concern on his face – but as he enters his work-space the professional conditioning takes over and he is swept into the pace of things.

This lays the ground for the film’s shifting between the ground-level picture and the bird’s-eye one, and also – by depicting daily chaos – prepares us for how much more is to come: how hard it will be to identify the nature and extent of an illness no one knows much about. One of the film’s most chilling scenes is a simple montage of doctors and nurses looking up Nipah on their phones.

As Virus expands its canvas, the precise, tight screenplay (by Muhsin Parari), the pulsating music score (by Sushin Shyam) and Rajeev Ravi’s probing camerawork combine to fine effect. There is also a line of excellent performances – notably by Parvathy Thiruvothu (a big name in Malayalam cinema but most familiar to Hindi-film viewers for her lead role in Qarib Qarib Single) as Dr Anu, an initially unobtrusive and reticent worker ant who becomes a key part of the story, her research uncovering possibilities that might not otherwise have seen the light of day.

The first time we see Anu, she too is preoccupied; asked to show someone to a building, she begs off and says she is in a hurry. But her role grows, and it is largely through her efforts that we see just how tricky the investigation into the virus’s trajectory must have been. Hospital ward tickets must be collected, and CCTV footage scrutinised, to check the time at which patients and their relatives were in a particular space, in proximity of the virus’s “index patient”, and thus at risk of contamination themselves. The travel paths of two unrelated patients are mapped to see if they might have encountered each other at some earlier point (as opposed to a scarier possibility: that there were discrete outbreaks – or even that this is a new sort of terror attack).

Informed conjectures must be made: about how a patient’s aunt may have been infected when she leant over his stretcher and blew on his face after reciting holy verses; or what might have happened when a policeman conducted an informal “breathalyser” test by asking a drunk driver to exhale in his direction. Subtle links are made between morality and infection too: could one Nipah victim have been infected as a result of the illegal game-hunting he indulged in?

Virus can certainly be seen as a testament to the medical profession, but it isn’t a blanket glorification (as Delhi Crime was accused of being for the police). A personal aside here: having spent plenty of time in hospitals as a caregiver in the past decade, dealing with many varieties of stressful situations, I have had much experience of medical apathy, incompetence or insensitivity. Given these experiences, my antennae would vibrate hard at any film that made an overt effort to whitewash or extol the profession. But I thought there was an even-handedness in Virus, a pragmatic understanding of the difficulties of healthcare systems in a country like ours, and the toll it can take on personal lives.

One of the film’s important characters is Nurse Akhila, based on the real-life Lini Puthussery, who died in the call of duty and has been hailed as a martyr. It would be natural for a film about the Nipah virus to deify her as a tireless angel of mercy, but even here we get a brief flashback scene where Akhila – looking worn out and distracted by her work – takes a quick break to speak with her husband, while a patient’s relative shouts at her to get off the phone and attend to something urgent.

But if Virus is about human beings and their interrelationships, it is also generous and expansive enough to touch on the connectedness of life beyond humans. It ends with a beautiful, almost mystical scene – a sort of coda, cut off from the main narrative – involving a baby bat that has fallen off its tree. Even though the closing shot is of one of the creatures that transmitted the Nipah virus, this creature is presented here as a helpless little thing – as capable of inviting human compassion (and holding a mirror to the best qualities of our species) as it is of inadvertently causing us harm. It’s a fitting end to a graceful film about our many flaws and vulnerabilities as well as our capacity for healing and caring.

(Virus is on Amazon Prime)

Thursday, August 01, 2019

In praise of Shivaji Sawant’s Mrityunjay (and more about a Karna obsession)

(my latest "Bookshelves" column for First Post)

A lunchtime conversation with an elderly uncle when I am 10 or 11 years old. We are on the Mahabharata, and this long-retired army-man – all thick white eyebrows and clipped voice and military bearing – asks about my favourite character. His own preference is for the celibate Bheeshma, grand-sire and mentor to generations of kings despite having himself renounced the throne. Today, knowing how revered that self-denying yet controlling patriarch is among a certain demographic of conservative Indians (and how many political leaders we have had who broadly fit this character type), this memory amuses me.

Back then, though, I cowered. When I named Karna, this uncle frowned, wagged his head gently, said he didn’t like Karna because he “was too angry all the time”.

In that situation, and at that age, I couldn’t do more than mumble something incoherent in reply, but I remember the thoughts racing through my head: “So what? Why can’t you be full of anger and noble or good-hearted at the same time?”

This was one of a few instances in my childhood when I had cause to feel sheepish or defensive about my favourite literary figure. I had long felt drawn to Karna at a visceral, hard-to-explain level, and spent a lot of time thinking about his inner life and his responses to the many dramatic situations that came his way. Faced with regular bouts of unrest and depression myself, I could relate with the passages in Mahabharata retellings such as the one by Kamala Subramaniam which described the young Karna as being beset by an unnamable, all-pervading melancholia.

Years later, I would have discussions with a like-minded friend about how Karna’s harsher actions and seemingly insensitive declarations were manifestations of an embittered state of mind rather than springing from genuine malice – how, perhaps because he felt he wasn't getting the respect or consideration he deserved, he wilfully set off on a self-destructive path, as if to say “They demean or undervalue me – so, fine, let me at least live down to their expectations, or sink even further.” (As Shakespeare’s Richard III sardonically says, “Since I cannot prove a lover / To entertain these fair well-spoken days, I am determined to prove a villain / And hate the idle pleasures of these days.”)

Naturally, such a relationship with a fictional character can get fraught. It was hard to escape the notorious dice-game passage at the centre of the epic, where Karna insults Draupadi and – depending on which version you read – orders the disrobing of her and the Pandavas. Even if you treat this incident as a response to Draupadi’s own verbal barbs in earlier situations, as well as the Pandavas’s relentless mockery of Karna for being “low-born”, it is clear that the moral stakes in the gambling episode are loaded against Karna, who joins in the persecution of a helpless person.

I was unnerved enough by all this to “censor” parts of the episode when I read a Mahabharata translation out to my mother as a child; I left out Karna’s contribution altogether. I also recall shaking my head at a TV interview that showed an aged and harried-looking BR Chopra confronted by Karna devotees who criticized the scene in the 1980s TV show where Karna calls Draupadi a “vaishyaa”. (Chopra’s response, in halting English: “Arre, but he DID say the girl was a prostitute – it is there in the book.” I vividly remember and am still amused by that paternalistic “the girl”, but that’s for another conversation.)

However, it was only much later, on reading the utterly brilliant treatment of the game-of-dice sequence in Shivaji Sawant’s Mrityunjay, that I felt an author had really got into the mindscape of this hugely complex character. This occurs over the course of an intense interior monologue that lasts around 20 pages, starting from the moment when Karna enters the sabha to learnt that Draupadi has been put on stake. What follows is a fever-dream of sorts, where the many sides of his personality emerge, argue with, talk past each other.

Mrityunjay is one of the great Mahabharata perspective tellings in any language. (The original is in Marathi; I read the English translation by P Lal and Nandini Nopany.) Though Karna is the book’s clear protagonist – hero, villain and many things in between – this isn’t exclusively his first-person narrative: of the nine “books” that make up this opus, five are narrated by other characters, including Kunti, Duryodhana and Krishna. It adds up to a superb kaleidoscopic view of a long and conflicted life.

The dice-game passage is very much in Karna’s own voice, though, and hinges on an inner conflict: on one side, a high-minded devotee of the Sun – protector of the weak and oppressed, finding strength in the distant light in the sky – and on the other, an uncouth charioteer, eyes downcast, cherishing his inner darkness, yearning for revenge. They wrestle each other for control. And there are other Karnas between these two extremes. “I collected the loose strings of my mind firmly together: Karna the charioteer’s son, Karna the Kaurava warrior, humiliated Karna, shuddering-with-revenge Karna. I tied them tightly together and flung them in a corner of my body.”

The ebbs and flows of this long passage – the shifts in the interior monologues, the movements from merciless self-awareness to self-delusion and back – are breathtaking. He feels horror when Draupadi is dragged into the assembly; then hopes – in the manner of a quixotic romantic hero – that she will turn to HIM for help, vowing to himself that if this happens he will destroy the world for her sake; but then feels wounded when she seems to ignore his presence while appealing to others in the assembly. Dark questions arise: even in this moment of crisis, does she deem him an inferior? And if so, shouldn’t she be reminded that now, reduced to the status of a servant, she is even lower than him in the social hierarchy?

Throughout, there are animal and bird metaphors, as if Karna is transforming into a primeval state of being where he is connected with all other life forms, combining in himself all their emotions and natural impulses. “Countless serpents of questions raised their hoods in the cave of my mind […] A horrible thought-scorpion stung my body […] Like elephants caught in a forest fire, trumpeting and cannoning into each other, herds of thoughts clashed in my mind […] Like a poisonous snake hissing, the charioteer inside me rose in fury.” And later, when he speaks the words he will never be able to recant: “Like the shrieking of a flock of parrots fluttering out of their tree-holes, these words emerged from my mouth – scattering in a flurry of green feathers. I spoke to my heart’s content, like one intoxicated.” Eventually, after coming to his senses, he imagines his own wife Vrishali in Draupadi’s place, realizes the full magnitude of what has occurred, and realizes also that it is too late to go back to a place of peace and reconciliation – this sets the ground for the scene, years later, when Krishna reveals his princely identity to him and offers him the world, and Karna rejects it.

Many of the ideological conversations around literature (and cinema) try to draw a reductive conclusion about this or that character – and often, a simplistic judgement about the artist too. What is this writer’s position or “lens”? Is so-and-so director glorifying the behaviour of this character, or merely depicting it? These are treated as urgent and vital questions, but they rarely have clear-cut “Yes” or “No” answers; sometimes they aren’t answerable at all, but we like to think they are, so that we can affirm our own value systems. At a time when much attention is focused on male aggression and its representation in culture, such conversations are more necessary than ever – and also often more simplistic than ever.

But great books often allow us to recognize ourselves in even the worst behaviour of a protagonist, to see how a person’s “good” side can be inseparable from the “bad” one, and Mrityunjay is one of the most fully realised interior studies I have read. Looked at from a safe distance, the dice-game passage might be viewed as a case of a male author “justifying” the behaviour of a male character, but in the way it unfolds, how it lays bare the many nooks and corners of a tormented mind, it is much more than that. It is about human complexity in all its glory and hideousness, and about the personality disorders that may exist in all of us. 

(Other Bookshelves columns are here. And here's an earlier piece about Mahabharata retellings, which touches on my Karna-love)

Monday, July 29, 2019

Gaslight hai kya? On a zany new film about mental disorders (in women and men)

[Did this piece for my Telegraph Online column]

My first thought after watching the wacky and hard-to-classify new film Judgementall Hai Kya, about the psychosis-afflicted Bobby (Kangana Ranaut) and her obsession with Keshav (Rajkummar Rao), whom she suspects of murder: is this a turbocharged, hyper-feminist 2019 version of Gaslight? Where, even if the woman really IS stark raving mad (as opposed to being manipulated into thinking she is), they have to find a way to make the man even worse?

(And yes, before you ask: I’m making a small effort here to compensate for the idiotic political correctness that led to this film’s title being changed from the original Mental Hai Kya.)

Or is this a Crouching Sita, Hidden Ravana story where we end up rooting for Sita even though we know she is unstable – and where we don’t know for sure until the film’s last ten minutes whether “Ravana” even exists outside her head? That isn’t a random reference, by the way. The film has an important Ramayana connection – Bobby finds herself working in a stage production of the epic – and some striking imagery such as ten reflections of a character seen in a hall of mirrors.

But to rewind a bit: gaslighting – which broadly means exercising power over someone by making them doubt their own sanity – derives from the Patrick Hamilton play Gas Light and its film adaptations (most famously the 1944 one for which Ingrid Bergman won an Oscar), and has often been used in recent times to describe male hegemony over women. The term is now part of an increased sensitisation about how women were historically branded as unstable or irrational or (to use a word that tellingly derives from the Greek for uterus) hysterical, in order to keep them “in their place”.

However, there is one obvious difference between Judgementall Hai Kya and Gaslight, or between Judgementall Hai Kya and the many other stories where vulnerable women are preyed on: Bobby really does have a serious mental ailment, and the film – through its form and through Kangana Ranaut’s performance – leaves this in no doubt. We see the childhood trauma that triggered her condition (or worsened something that was already latent), then we see what she is like as an adult: out of step with reality, functioning normally only for phases, heavily reliant on medication that she doesn’t want to take, seeing roaches that no one else can see – warning signs that her condition is deteriorating. We also see her fixating on Keshav, her new neighbour, which might well give her a motive to kill his wife.

From here on, nearly every incident can be interpreted in different ways, and the film’s impact as a thriller hinges on our knowledge that Bobby is an unreliable protagonist. How far gone is she? How far will she go to get what she wants? Are there moments of clarity, and if so, can her judgement or perception be trusted in certain situations?

Judgementall Hai Kya is a wild, kinetic work that does a fine job of finding visual and aural expression for Bobby’s cluttered inner world: the breaking down of the wall between her own life and the movies she lends her voice to (as a dubbing artiste); the shifts between reality and fantasy. Kanika Dhillon’s writing and Pankaj Kumar’s camerawork complement each other well in delineating this fractured state of mind, as do some of the musical choices (you’ll never hear Mr Natwarlal’s “Tauba Tauba” the same way again). There are surreal touches that feel organic to her condition: for instance, a Hanuman who shows up to counsel her late in the film wields a mace made up of cans and other junk that would be available in London, where all this happens (and where a futuristic version of the Ramayana is being staged).

But what’s most interesting (and here’s where spoilers begin) is this. Even though we are in the company of an unhinged protagonist who cannot be taken at face value; AND Bobby is played by an actor who specialises in off-kilter or eccentric characters and whose real-life behaviour in recent times has been (to put it politely) strange – despite this, in the final stretch, we get confirmation that there is someone else who is even more “mental”. And this someone is a man who, unlike Bobby, isn’t tormented by any self-doubt or uncertainty, and is comfortable in his own skin (or many skins) in a way that she isn’t allowed to be. Someone whose childhood the film also shows us glimpses of – as we saw Bobby’s childhood earlier – but who was never an innocent in the way that she was. Someone born to the manor of psychopathy, not shaped by circumstances.

And so, in comparison, Bobby looks like a harmless flake with a few endearing behavioural quirks at the film’s end. We as viewers are required to reassess the prejudices we formed about her over the course of the story. I think a second viewing of Judgementall Hai Kya might make it easier to see the many little ways in which Bobby (despite her obstinacy about not taking her medicines) is making some sort of effort to get well, to not tip too far over the edge: looking for the pesticides that will weed out the insects in her mind; finding focus in moments of real crisis.

Can the ending be seen as a sly comment on the difference between “male” and “female” manifestations of madness – and how, when these two things come in conflict, it is the former that gets a free pass in a patriarchal society, even when it is more dangerous? Not on the surface, but I think it is a subtext.

To even mention such things is to make this film sound solemn or pedantic, whereas one of the pleasures of watching it is that it doesn’t seem at all bothered with deep themes. Even if there are buried ideas here about how female “hysteria” may be less destructive than male aggression – and how women’s intuition, like the voices Bobby says come from her stomach, is sometimes dismissed as madness – the film doesn’t brandish them: it is happy being a fast-paced thriller-cum-black-comedy. And, rarely for a Hindi film, it sustains its non-didactic tone even over the course of a dramatic, revelatory climax where lives are at stake.

The one idea I wish had been explored a little more is that of shared psychosis, or folie à deux – especially given the nature of the central murder, where one character begins the job (albeit without
conscious intent to kill) and another character finishes it. This could have led to a more amoral film, a Raman Raghavan 3, a Natural Born Killers 2. A story that explores how men and women, by being gloriously insane together, can reshape the world in unexpected ways.

What we get instead is an ending that restores some order, draws a reasonably clear line between Good and Bad, and celebrates the power of women – and this is fine too, especially since it is done without speech-making. Ultimately, despite the moments of genuine nastiness it delivers in its final act, Judgementall Hai Kya is a surprisingly warm film about the many ways of being (as doctors in movies of an earlier, less politically correct time would say) “paagal”.