Wednesday, October 30, 2019

A few good books about gunpowder, masala, and other forms of "impurity"

[my latest Bookshelves column for First Post]
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A few weeks ago I was at the Gothenburg Book Fair, participating – with the writers Anjum Hasan and Girish Shahane, and the editor Ann Ighe – in a short conversation around the theme “Europe and India: how do these parts of the world look at each other today?” I was jetlagged and less than coherent (and not fully sure what I wanted to say anyway), but one obvious point to stress – for the mainly non-Indian audience – was that thinking of India as a culturally homogenous country would be a big mistake: that it is in many ways as diverse as Europe.

My own encounters with this cultural diversity have taken many forms over the decades – it has been intimidating, enriching and humbling in turn. Trying to understand what “Indianness” might be necessarily means learning new things all the time; you’re a student for life, constantly re-evaluating your assumptions. And for someone who has grown up in mainly Anglophone environments and led a circumscribed life in some ways, the learning process has many twists and turns. For instance: as a child you might love Hindi cinema (while reading almost exclusively in English, about enchanted woods and quaint European towns that bear little relation to the world you live in); later, you might be so sated by the excesses of Hindi movies that you shift to more restrained cinematic idioms; but later still, you return and relish the language of melodrama from a more open-minded and well-rounded perspective; meanwhile, as a reader, you start to discover literature from other parts of India.


In recent months, when I began watching some of the outstanding work in current Malayalam cinema, I re-experienced something of what it was like as a teenager getting into “independent” cinema for the first time. But if films from across India are more easily available now (and have good subtitles), it has also been an exciting few years for anyone working on the books beat. We have higher-quality translations than we had, say, 20 years ago – for those of us who read mostly in English, there is greater access to what we call “regional” literature. A large proportion of my fiction reading in the past few years has been translated works by contemporary writers, ranging from the books of Perumal Murugan (One Part Woman, Pyre) and Benyamin (Goat Days), to KR Meera (Hangwoman) and, most recently, Manoranjan Byapari’s enthralling There’s Gunpowder in the Air (translated from Bengali to English by Arunava Sinha). And almost invariably, such reading has caused me to rethink my ideas about literary form and structure while also learning new things about other places.

Which is a longwinded way of saying that cultural variedness is one of the most daunting as well as one of the most appealing things about this country. And this variedness has been under threat for a while now, thanks to a determined ongoing drive towards the notion of a pure Hindu past – glorious and uncontaminated, before all the “invaders” came in – as well as the idea that a single language can be imposed across the country.

I was thinking about these things again while preparing for another upcoming talk – a discussion around the theme of “purity in text” at the Chandigarh Literature Festival next week. To take just a short sample of recent books that deal with the purity-impurity theme in one way or the other (and starting with my fellow panellists in Chandigarh):

Jonathan Gil Harris’s Masala Shakespeare is a celebration of the tonal disunities – and the revitalising aspects of “masala” – in the plays of Shakespeare as well as in the best of popular Hindi cinema; by extension, it looks at the colourful multiplicity (or “more-than-oneness”, as Harris puts it) of India as a country. Meanwhile, Annie Zaidi’s allegorical Prelude to a Riot, told in multiple voices, deals with many ways of living in India. In one passage, a group calling itself the Self Respect Forum writes a letter to a newspaper editor objecting to the publication of certain “vulgar” poems about Goddesses and mothers; in her polite but firm reply, the editor alludes to the importance of "a river-like flow of culture and ideas" and the ability to recognise the fluidity of human beings.


Such fluidity has often been expressed in the many different interpretations of our mythology, including the great epics. Though the proponents of militant Hindutva would prefer to shut their eyes to this, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata shape-shift constantly as you move from one part of the country to another; heroes become villains and vice versa, a familiar episode becomes unfamiliar and unsettling when viewed through the eyes of a specific character. Among the recent books that stress this variability are Aditya Iyengar’s Bhumika, about Sita experiencing what her life would have been if she hadn't met and married Rama. In this alternate telling, she does meet him eventually, but it's on a battlefield, on opposite sides of an ideological divide; conventional ideas of Rama and Sita (or “Rama-ness” and “Sita-ness”, if you like) are challenged, and there is a neat twist on the Agni-pariksha (which, after all, is also about a very rigid view of purity).

Other books I have in mind include the anthology Which of Us are Aryans? (with essays by Romila Thapar and Kai Friese, among others) and Tony Joseph’s Early Indians, both of which in different ways question the very idea of national pride based on “purity” by looking at the much deeper history of our species – through the archaeological and genetic evidence that can be discomfiting for those who need to believe that Vedic culture grew “organically” out of Indian soil. As these books remind us, larger time-scales, including geological ones, can make utter nonsense of our parochial pride in belonging to this or that “group”.

But there is always a more poetic view of variedness too, rooted in the here and now – such as the one provided in a book I mentioned above, There’s Gunpowder in the Air. Though set in the most confined of places, a prison in 1970s Bengal, this enthralling narrative is also, in its own distinct way, about diversity: about how life’s rich pageant – and the many ways of thinking about oneself and others – may be discovered even within narrow walls, and how a jail can become a microcosm for the world. These are all books that make you thrill to the possibilities of being impure or unfixed.

[Earlier First Post columns are here]

Monday, October 28, 2019

A son's response to Joker

I have watched Todd Phillips's Joker twice, and liked it on various levels, but my first response to it was a visceral one that I was unprepared for (partly because I hadn’t seen trailers of the film going in): the protagonist’s behaviour and appearance made me think of my father in the old days. Both when he was heavily into substance abuse and when he was going through phases of lucidity, in and out of rehab, making small efforts to be “normal”. It also reminded me of the smoke-filled room I spent much of my childhood in, with songs like Pink Floyd's “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” seemingly playing on loop, and of the blood-smears on the hallway floor after one of the times he cut a vein.

Emaciated? Check. Delusional and paranoid? Check. Incredibly isolated? Check. Alternating between being warm/sensitive/childlike and flying into violent fury; feeling persecuted, rallying constantly against an insensitive and uncaring world; lashing out and trying to wound everyone around him; scribbling sentences wildly in journals, using writing as a way of maintaining some sort of grasp on sanity. Check, check, check. There were times when it felt almost like Joaquin Phoenix was doing a straight imitation. (Or, who knows: maybe, like Arthur Fleck, I was looking too hard for a father in someone who wasn’t.)

Anyway, in one of those little coincidences that make you wonder if there really is a joker up there somewhere mocking us all, I just learnt that Phoenix and my father have the same birthday, i.e. October 28. My father would have turned 70 today. These photos are from what seems like a “happy” time, but looking at them it’s easy for me to recall the sadder, scarier (and much skinnier) versions of the man.



P.S. on a related note: much has been made of Joker’s debt to the Scorsese-De Niro films Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. But I think it’s also worth looking at the character as a spiritual child of the self-destructive loner Jimmy, played by De Niro in another Scorsese film that is less overtly about madness and isolation: the 1977 New York New York. Watch the full-length version of that film if you can.

P.P.S. On a (hopefully) lighter note, here's a photo of three jokers. This was just before watching the film in a restaurant-cum-hall in the small Swedish town Strömstad earlier this month when I was there for a writing residency. (Have been putting up things about that trip on Facebook, not so much here.)


Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Upstarts, a film about start-up companies (and friendship)

[My latest Telegraph Online column – this one about a low-key new film I was pleasantly surprised by]
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Every once in a while, you come across a film that is so direct – and has so much heart – that you stop thinking about labels or classifications, or about your own preconceptions, and simply go along for the ride. The new Netflix-distributed Upstarts – about three friends who launch a start-up company together – worked for me in that way, even though I was a bit sceptical going in. After all, the very title can be seen as facile wordplay, and the premise lends itself to a string of clichés too: take nerdy BFFs, give them slightly different personalities and conflicts, throw in a dash of ambition and a pinch of insecurity, mix and grind well until you have a narrative arc that ticks familiar boxes – despair, success, misunderstanding, self-doubt, redemption.

It’s easy to be cynical about this sort of thing, especially if “inspirational” stories scare you. And yet, I found myself engrossed in Udai Singh Pawar’s film to a degree I hadn’t anticipated.


The concept is simple: engineering graduates and roommates Kapil (Priyanshu Painyuli), Yash (Chandrachoor Rai) and Vinay (Shadab Kamal), constantly looking for start-up ideas, hit on what could be The One when they create an App to facilitate the speedy delivery of medicines to remote villages that don’t normally get such supplies on time. (Back in 1960, Dr Nirmal, played by Balraj Sahni in Anuradha, said he wanted to become a doctor ever since his mother died of a routine illness just because there was no medical aid around. As Kapil realises through bitter experience, in today’s India – for all the trappings of modernity –thousands of villages are still cut off from life-saving supplies. But that’s where smart-phone technology and cheap mobile data can come in, right?)

The division of labour is straightforward to begin with, but things get complicated when the project really takes off, after Kapil persuades a corporate heir to invest in it. Yash and Vinay start to feel overwhelmed. From a point where friendship and camaraderie was this trio’s core strength, they grow apart and private imperatives take over – for instance, Yash, who is paranoid about the possibility of inheriting Parkinson’s disease from his dad, starts drinking heavily, almost as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Here is a well-worn theme: the gap between personal integrity and overvaulting ambition; between an individual dream and what happens to that dream when big money comes in and the stakes rise. Such subjects can make for very preachy storytelling, but this doesn’t happen in Upstarts: not even in the scenes involving Jaya (Sheetal Thakur), Kapil’s close friend who has an idea for a suicide
helpline and persists with it in the face of apathy. While Kapil seeks a combination of seva and meva – he is good-intentioned, but also wants to see results and profit soon – Jaya is the worker ant who gets things done at the pace of her own idealism, even if she has to face disappointments along the way. Symbolically speaking, it might be said that she is his conscience, but one doesn’t think about that sort of symbolism while watching their scenes together – their relationship feels organic, it is first and foremost a believable friendship.

And this is equally true of the chemistry between the three leads, whether the characters are goofing around or getting seriously angry with each other (as in a scene where the initially placid Kapil hollers “take him to rehab!” because he thinks Yash is drunk). After watching the film, I got in touch with writer-director Pawar on email, to ask about the processes involved for creating these lived-in, naturalistic performances. His response was a reminder of how much thought and work can go into the creation of things that look fluid or effortless (or even “casual”) in their final form.

“We started with simply reading and spending time together,” Pawar said, “to chat about the characters without doing any ‘full-on-acting'. A few times we did it at someone's house, not the office, to break the ice, to get a casual vibe going. I wanted them to find Vinay, Kapil and Yash inside them, rather than my giving them too many specifics.” Another approach was to do random things like go sailing in Mumbai harbour – with a few bottles of alcohol, and the script. “We ended up quite drunk and I got them to improvise scenes by throwing cues at them every minute – it was fun, but some interesting subtextual things came out during this jamming, which surprised us.”

One of the truisms about the more grounded, detail-specific cinema of today (as opposed to grander, more mythical films) is that writers and directors are telling stories about the worlds that they have first-hand knowledge of. Pawar, an IIT Kanpur graduate, has batchmates in the start-up world, and was interested in “the emotional stories” behind such companies. “We researched the current context deeply, to try to understand the ‘game’. The people. The ideas. And how it all ties up with technology, with BIG money, and with interpersonal politics.”

But the key word, I think, is integrity. Upstarts is Pawar’s directorial debut, doesn’t have well-known actors (Painyuli played the title role – which was actually a supporting part – in Vikramaditya Motwane’s Bhavesh Joshi Superhero) and might seem unfashionable to technique junkies who want a movie to be formally inventive and exciting. (In terms of visual experimentation, about as far as it goes is a scene which employs a three-way split-screen when the friends speak with each other on the phone.) But you sense, almost throughout, that it was made with seriousness of purpose; that there was a real effort to depict a world from the inside out. And that can count for a lot.

[Earlier Telegraph pieces are here]

Saturday, October 19, 2019

The dramatic, the everyday… and the Unbelievable

[my latest column for The Hindu is about a fine new show in which two women balance a high-stress job with “normal” life, and another young woman simply tries to cope]
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In episode five of the new mini-series Unbelievable, about the real-life hunt for and apprehension of a serial rapist in Colorado eight years ago, Detective Karen Duvall (played by Merritt Wever) is following up on a lead in Kansas. Crossing state lines in her car, she fiddles with the radio; a girlish smile spreads across her face as she recognises a familiar tune, and then she begins singing along to the folksy song “All Around the Kitchen”.


It’s a delightful little moment because of its sheer unexpectedness and because of Wever’s endearing performance. Here is a laidback interlude during a high-stakes, high-stress investigation: a detective, very much in the call of duty and on her way to getting important work done, allows herself to drift for a short while. She warbles lines like “Throw your hands up in the air / Cock-a-Doodle Doodle Doo”, and yet, the preoccupied look in her eyes doesn’t ever go away – you can tell that she is still “on”, and thinking about the case.

So far, we have seen the soft-spoken Duvall being efficient and compassionate at the same time – and a little diffident too when she gets to partner an older, more experienced detective whom she has long admired, Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette). But this is something new.

The car scene will also acquire significance when viewed in light of a later conversation between Duvall and Rasmussen. Explaining why she finds it hard to relax when on a case, why she needs to stay switched on, Duvall recalls a time years earlier when, after handling a domestic-violence incident, she made a mental note to go back at night to check on the battered woman; instead, she allowed herself to be coerced into a night out drinking with her colleagues, and discovered the next day that the husband had got out on bail and returned to “finish the job”, leaving his wife in a coma.

That exchange is one among many that enable us to understand the lives of these detectives, trying to maintain their own sanity, ground themselves in their personal lives, while not losing sight of their responsibilities in a very demanding profession.

This engrossing series about strong women is driven by three protagonists: in one timeline, set in 2011, Duvall and Rasmussen join forces after realising the similarities in sexual assaults committed within their jurisdictions (their interactions reminded me in some ways of the relationship between two policewomen in the Hindi film Soni). In another timeline, set mostly in 2008, a young woman named Marie Adler (a harrowing performance by Kaitlyn Dever) struggles to collect the pieces of her life after she is not just raped but also disbelieved by the police and shunned by friends. Later, we will learn that everything would have gone very differently if this first crime had been properly investigated: the police dismissed Marie’s story because of her behaviour and her personal history, and didn’t do enough with the available evidence – in the process emboldening the rapist to continue targeting other women.


Marie’s story comes to seem suspicious to the people around her because she seems too casual in the days after the attack; she doesn’t act like a rape victim is expected to. In an early scene, her concerned former foster mom Colleen keeps trying to reach out to her, and says all the right things – but Marie seems more concerned with finishing her household chores. With hindsight, we can view her behaviour as a sort of survival mechanism – turning to everyday things to shut out what happened to her.

Because Unbelievable is also a story about getting on with the more mundane aspects of life, and the push-pull relationship between the quotidian and the dramatic: how immersing oneself in the everyday can be a form of self-therapy (if you’re the victim of a crime) but can also be a way of neglecting the urgent things you need to do (if you’re an investigator racing against time to catch a criminal). Ultimately, everyone here must find their own balance, and it is an ongoing process: Marie needs to stay distracted, but she also needs closure; Karen feels like she can’t afford to be distracted, but even she must take a break now and again, just to stay sane.

[Earlier Hindu columns here]

Thursday, October 10, 2019

How to obsess over a tennis player (even when he doesn't like your dog)

[Did this personal essay for Indian Quarterly. It is about my Rafa Nadal fandom, but it is also about my life with dogs -- Foxie especially -- and how the two things intersected]

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It was sometime in 2010 that I learnt for the first time that Rafa Nadal didn’t like dogs.

“I don’t trust their intentions,” my favourite sportsman was quoted as saying in a piece on a tennis website; I don’t remember if the original interview was in English, but if so I can imagine Rafa saying the words with a concentrated frown, in a faltering, sing-song tone.


For a while I felt unsettled, almost betrayed. Over the previous two years, much of my life had centred around my canine child Foxie. Though I had been an “animal lover” in a vague, generalised sense since childhood, Foxie’s arrival came at a time when I had recently begun working from home, therefore was around her far more than most pet-owners (or pet-parents) are. In the process I had learnt new and frightening things about my capacity for maternal love and protectiveness. (And yes, it was maternal, not paternal.)

Importantly, through the experience of daily walks with Fox in a colony where the majority of residents didn’t like dogs, or were actively hostile, I had developed a pronounced wariness about non-dog people. Passive-aggressive confrontations became routine, and I stopped caring about dull platitudes such as “respect your elders” – if an old curmudgeon from the local RWA came and said something I thought problematic, I would give back more than I got.

And now, here was the realisation that if Rafa Nadal had been living in my neighbourhood, he would be one of those sub-humans shaking a fist at Fox from a distance, or just scowling in the familiar way.

At around the same time, perhaps while reading the same piece, I learnt that Rafa’s rival Novak Djokovic – already a very dangerous opponent, soon to become our greatest nemesis – had a dog, loved it like a child, and even took it on tour with him.

Given how central this subject was to my life, it would have made sense if my feelings towards Rafa had cooled off a bit and I had discovered a newfound regard, perhaps even personal fandom, for Djokovic.

But that would be assuming our reptile brain works in predictable, structured ways, and that sports fandom has a rational foundation. Naturally, nothing of the sort happened. The next season, as Djokovic made his first serious run towards all-time greatness, raising his game to a fearsome new level and beating Rafa in six finals, including Wimbledon and the US Open, I suffered through each of those matches. During the worst of those shellackings, I would have considered tossing Djokovic’s pet-child into heavy traffic just so he would tear after it, emitting Balkan shrieks, and perhaps intercept a speeding truck.


One obvious analogy would be with an old and deep friendship I had formed long before I developed strong feelings about dogs (or politics, or culture, or whatever). In such cases, even if you discover that you and your long-time friend have serious differences on issues that have become very close to your heart (the Modi regime, the worth of popular cinema or literature), it doesn’t matter much because the friendship predated your engagement with those things. Forming new friendships is of course much trickier. I sometimes wonder how it would have gone if my relationship with Fox had begun before my first viewing of Rafa Nadal’s tennis (and if I had learnt about his dog-dislike much earlier).

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How did I become a Nadal fan in the first place, and how did this grow into a consuming obsession that had me following tennis round the year, tournament by tournament, and having intense and prolonged conversations on tennis messageboards – in some weeks, spending more time on this than I did on any other activity, neglecting my own deadlines in the process? Or rushing off, mid-vacation in Scotland in 2007, to find an internet café where I could check the result of a Barcelona Open match?

Among the easily listed factors: I loved that powerful forehand and the unusual angles it created. I had never watched tennis closely enough to register the nuances of a left-hander’s play before, and I took special joy in watching Rafa’s down-the-line forehand curving into the court, or the way he pounded away at Federer’s backhand. To a fan who, at that point, had a simplistic understanding of the sport, those rallies made it seem like Rafa was the “stronger” (in every sense of the word) player – and briefly I bought into the idea that Federer was an overrated fraud who had collected a haul of trophies against unworthy opposition but was now finally having to deal with a superior opponent. I would soon realise that this was just as silly as the opposite view – held by many Federer fans – that Rafa was a bouncing board who could do nothing but retrieve the ball endlessly until his (more gifted, more deserving) opponent made a mistake.

Rafa’s emergence also coincided with a phase when I found sporting dominance tedious. This hadn’t always been the case – I had adored the Australian Test teams of the 1990s and early 2000s, for instance – but it was the case now, as Federer went for his fourth straight Slam at the 2006 French Open. After the Swiss won the opening set of the final 6-1, I was both surprised and relieved that Rafa (who had weathered a five-hour epic against Paul-Henri Mathieu earlier in the week) came back to win the match. And yet, even after he won, it was possible to see him as an underdog: the on-court translator misinterpreted part of his speech, drawing boos; the crowd had clearly wanted to see the much-adored Federer complete the “Roger Slam”; and at this stage in their rivalry, Federer himself was sometimes dismissive of Rafa’s “one-dimensional” game (this would change in the next couple of years, but I know many Rafa fans who have cherished that wound and continue to retaliate by labelling Federer ungracious).

That was the first of dozens of times that I watched a Rafa final from beginning to end. I enjoyed the kinetic energy, the fist-pumping. But also, I sensed that these exuberant celebrations didn’t come from a smug feeling of superiority or privilege, or wanting to intimidate the opponent; they came from something like the opposite – finding it hard to believe that one had pulled off this or that shot, won this or that match.

On my blog and on tennis websites, I used to have arguments, especially in the early years, with people who, having only watched Rafa from a distance, had decided that he was an uncouth, muscular brute – “not a very nice person”, as one delicate soul said. But how strange to think that this muscular brute is also the one major player in memory who has never been seen smashing a racquet. (In fact, that’s one thing I don’t relate to about Rafa. Being controlled and self-possessed, not showing extreme emotions in moments of crisis – yes, that’s okay. But never losing your temper enough to break something violently? No, I don’t get that.)

I have also had arguments, with those who don’t like Rafa’s game or personality, about his alleged “sandbagging” – defined as wilfully lowering expectations for himself even when he is about to play a much lower-ranked opponent in the first round of a tournament. (“Gonna be a tough match, no? Have to play my best.”) I never saw this as dishonesty or false humility: I thought I understood it. In my school days, I was often depressed and hangdog-like after an exam, convinced I had done poorly – and my friends would get very annoyed when I subsequently got high marks. But this was how I really felt at the time. It may have been chronic pessimism, or a subconscious fear of letting oneself down (it’s also possible my friends were so overconfident that there was always likely to be this sort of mismatch between our expectations and our results).

This attitude is worlds removed from the confidence always exuded by Federer (which some Rafa fans perceived as arrogance) – and later by Djokovic, who recently said in a press interview that he has his eye on Federer’s world record number of weeks at Number 1. It’s hard to imagine Rafa ever giving voice to such an ambition. He may in his own way be just as concerned with legacy, but given his personality, his uncle Toni’s conditioning and his injury history, there is also a tendency to be cautiously grateful for every new achievement or milestone. I believe him when he says things like “I have already achieved far more than I expected to.” But again, the reptile brain is a complex thing, and even such a statement, made truthfully, can be compatible with feelings of crushing disappointment when one fails to win an important match or loses seven matches in a row against a major rival.

In his premature autobiography, published in 2010, Rafa mentioned that he sometimes marvelled that he had ever beaten players like Federer or Djokovic in big matches. When Djokovic began mastering him in the following season, it felt almost like a prophecy fulfilled; and when Rafa made comebacks in 2012 and 2013 to win crucial matches against the Serb, I felt a sense of astonishment again. Being constantly surprised has been a big part of Rafa fandom for me, because I see him as an over-achiever on non-clay surfaces. Without buying into simplistic narratives about Federer being the “pure talent” and Rafa being the “great fighter” (that’s a grossly incomplete assessment of both men’s strengths), it’s true that much of Rafa’s finest work has been in come-from-behind positions: whether at the micro-level of turning a match around or the macro-level of trailing Federer for three years at the number 2 spot before finally taking the top spot with the 2008 Wimbledon win (a match where he had the difficult task of serving second in the deciding set).

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There are other small details – things one identifies with, which have accumulated over the years. I liked the fact that Rafa (and Uncle Toni) seem to be matter-of-factly atheist (or agnostic), compared to all those players who look skyward and kiss the crosses around their necks every time something good happens for them – as if God had nothing better to do than to monitor their win-loss records.

Speaking of Gods though, how does a sportsman become a sort of personal deity (even for an atheist) – so that his achievements and failures, temporarily at least, can overshadow the important things that are going on in one's own life? I have no answer to that question, but I have first-hand experience of it. There’s another connection between my Nadal fandom and my Foxie-centred life, a bittersweet reminder of how sporting passion can concentrate and revitalise the senses.


Early in Paul Auster’s The Book of Illusions, the narrator-protagonist David Zimmer – having lost his family in a plane crash, and spent weeks in a haze of numbing grief  – recalls the first time in ages that he responded to external stimuli: a chance viewing of an old silent comedy on TV. “It made me laugh. That might not sound important, but it was the first time I had laughed at anything since June, and when I felt that unexpected spasm rise up through my chest and begin to rattle around in my lungs, I understood that I hadn’t hit bottom yet […] I hadn’t walled myself off from the world so thoroughly that nothing could get in anymore.”

My version of this story doesn’t involve laughter, or positive emotional stimulation, but operates along the same principles. On June 16, 2012, I lost Foxie: aged just four, she went suddenly on the vet’s table after nearly two years of struggling with a chronic digestive condition, but also at a time when it seemed her condition was stabilising – which means the end was unexpected, and devastating. It would change everything in important ways for a long time: I could no longer meet or speak with friends who didn’t understand what a big deal this was for me; on one occasion, when someone made a flippant remark, I came dangerously close to asking how they might feel if something very specific and very nasty happened to their (human) child. In the immediate aftermath of her going, I dreaded going to bed at night since I would lie awake, plagued by images of her final moments, aching to be able to cuddle her again. I barely realised when sleep came, if it did.

And then one night, around 12 days later, for the very first time, I went to bed with only around 60 percent of my mind occupied by Foxie-thoughts. The remaining 40 percent was in faraway England, where I had just watched Rafa lose his 2nd round Wimbledon match to the 100th-ranked Lukas Rosol.

The next few months would be a poor time for a Nadal fan, as he struggled with his latest round of injuries, missed two Slams, and returned to competitive play only in February 2013. But this also gave me a chance to distract myself by having particularly impassioned tennis-board conversations (mainly with Nadal-haters who were convinced that he was no longer relevant). Later, as he worked his way back up – eventually winning the French Open and the US Open, memorably beating Djokovic in both, sweeping the American hard-court tournaments in August-September and finishing the year as number one – watching his matches was a big part of my healing process. In April 2013, just as Rafa had announced his true return by winning Indian Wells and starting to dominate the clay season, I found myself revitalised enough to think seriously about a book project (having assured myself over the previous few years that I would never work on a book again) and write a pitch to a publisher.

Years later, another Rafa resurgence – an even more unanticipated one, which took place in his thirties in 2017 – would help me as I dealt with another tough personal situation, my mother’s terminal cancer. Chemotherapy sessions in September that year coincided with his US Open run. It kept my senses from being numbed, reminded me that there were still things going on in the outside world that I could engage with and care about.

Being a Rafa fan became, for me, as silent comedy was for Zimmer, a way back into life.

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[Here's another personal essay I did for Indian Quarterly, about my mother's cancer diagnosis and what followed]

Monday, September 30, 2019

On Devapriya Roy's Friends from College, the chao game, and a bridge to the past

[my latest First Post bookshelves column, about experiencing second-hand nostalgia through a very enjoyable new novel]
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Every once in a while, you come across a novel that is pitched as being a very specific sort of nostalgia trip – one that doesn’t seem to apply to your life – and yet you find, on reading it, a portal to your own skein of memories. Second-hand nostalgia, if you will. For me this happened recently with Devapriya Roy’s delightful Friends from College.

On the face of it, this is very much a “Calcutta book” – the deceptively no-frills story is about an impromptu series of reunions involving friends, sometime-friends and exes who were in Presidency College together in the late 1990s. There are many affectionate insider references to the city and its culture. And such are the cadences of the writing, there were times when I could easily hear the characters speaking in what to my north Indian ears is a “Bengali voice”. In an early passage, the book’s protagonist Charulata Ghosh (who was known in college as Helen of Troy, acronym HoT) runs into a former junior, now a paunchy family man, who recognises her and unselfconsciously says (in the presence of his wife and child): “Ei, wait, wait. Aren’t you Helen of Troy? I am Bappa.” In my head I knew exactly what he sounded like.


Yet there is also a universality of mood and remembrance at work here. Among the many small details I enjoyed: the occurrence of the “chao game”, apparently very popular with a couple of generations of Calcutta students, and built around wordplay that can be goofy and clever at the same time. This might involve thinking up questions around city names, for instance. “In which Indian city are many things forbidden?” one character asks; the answer is Bangalore (or Ban Galore). The poser “If I ate my favourite type of meat in this city, I’d get renewed life force” points to Ranchi (aka Raan Chi).

This is fun for a reader for obvious reasons, but I thought the chao motif was important to this story on another level too. Here are a group of people who have just turned forty or are on the cusp of it, determinedly “adult” on the outside, shaped and burdened by multiple life experiences, changed in important ways from the nerdy and earnest students they were 20 years ago – and yet, things like the chao questions, which involve being silly and inventive at once, serve as a bridge between their Then and Now; a reminder that being all grown up and mature is often a performance; that most of us have our child-self just below the surface, and it doesn’t take much to trigger it.

The game can also be thought of as a time machine, or as Proust’s madeleine, depending on your perspective. At one point Charulata – or Lata – recalls the exact moment when her college boyfriend Ronny (now an upcoming film director) made up a specific question: it was on their second formal date, at Flurys, “over one mutton patty, halved”, and the poser itself was fairly basic (Which Indian city should you visit if things are not going your way? Answer: Luck Now) – but one sees how the memory of that specific chao exchange becomes a channel to other aspects of the past: old relationships, what a comforting restaurant used to be like back in the day, how one had to make do with limited pocket money. Friends from College is about returning to a place where one can be made to feel like a child all over again (even in the company of a much younger cousin); about encountering an old boyfriend, hearing about the signposts of his life, and reflecting on one’s own trajectory during those precise times. It is also about the generation gap: the divide between being a young urbanite in the 1990s (a time of dial-up internet connections and a few years before mobile phones became ubiquitous) and being a professional who lives and works in a world where even children take cutting-edge technology for granted.

****

But back to finding something of myself in a Calcutta novel. I have never lived in that city, and have made only brief visits in the past 20 years (for that most homogenous of experiences, the literature festival), but coincidentally my two most eventful trips there as a post-grad student were in October 1998 and January 1999, which happens to be when the protagonists of this book were studying together. The first trip was to experience a Calcutta Durga Puja for the first time, in the company of a Bengali friend who was studying in Delhi with me; the second involved thirty students from our batch going across to participate in IIM Calcutta’s annual festival.

In both cases there are memories of conversations that made passages of Friends from College instantly relatable. When Ronny is accosted by an elderly pedant who tests his knowledge of Kurosawa, Renoir and Marker, I could easily picture myself joining in this movie-nerd exchange, getting into sniffy arguments about the relative merits of this or that film – something I used to do with my first few know-it-all Bengali friends who, I always felt, needed to be pulled down a peg or three.

Those two trips seem very far away now, and in the last few months I have had reason to feel more sentimental and regretful about things that happened then and subsequently, with the same set of classmates. A few months ago, when one of my post-grad friends died, aged just 43, I wished I had been more in touch with him during the previous year. But it’s also true that all of us have our own chao-like bridges to the past, things that serve as memory-triggers: a silly nickname for a teacher or principal (“Ducky”), a word that was used bafflingly often by a teacher in class (“holistic”) a ribald phrase used by a friend who had discovered the pleasures of a softcore porn channel on satellite TV. (That phrase has become the almost inevitable title of a WhatsApp group for some of our classmates.)

Even as it deals with themes like the relationship between our past and present selves, and the things that give our lives some continuity (or semblance of continuity), Friends from College never loses its fluid, breezy tone – the sort of thing that can sometimes prevent a book from being taken seriously as a “literary” work, no matter how sharply written it might be. It’s likely that this owes to the nature of the writing process: it was originally serialised in The Telegraph over 42 weeks, and subsequently published as a book. Roy tells me that having had the first few chapters ready beforehand, she then wrote each instalment week by week to the newspaper deadline – no planning in detail, no outlining chapters, letting new characters emerge during the process – and that while this was nerve-wracking, “it was also electric in its own way, like skating on thin ice”.

It’s probable that this freed her up in some ways, preventing her from over-thinking structure and themes, focusing on the here and now, allowing a thread to take her where it might. And in a way, I think that’s a big part of what makes this book such a relatable nostalgia exercise. The writing is reminiscent in some ways to a particularly observant series of journal entries, the sort that the more “writerly” of us might have maintained in our college days, creating narratives about ourselves and our friends. I’m thinking now, in a slightly terrified way, of retrieving my 1998 and 1999 diaries and looking through them.


[Earlier Bookshelves columns are here]

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Double lives in The Family Man: a spy thriller, a goofy comedy and a family drama

[Did this piece for The Telegraph Online]
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Srikant Tiwari, the protagonist of the fine new web series The Family Man, leads a double life – one that was neatly outlined in the pre-release music video “Dega Jaan”, which depicted him as simultaneously a “middle-class guy” and a “world-class spy”. As the show itself unfolds, we see Srikant bantering with his precocious kids and trying to maintain peace with his wife Suchi, who has a busy work schedule of her own and is exasperated that he doesn’t share the household responsibilities. What they know about his job is that it is dull, low-paying, and that he spends all his time handling “files and paperwork” – he hasn’t let on that potentially dangerous fieldwork is a big part of his work as security analyst for the intelligence agency TASC.

That the initial, establishing episodes rest largely on Manoj Bajpayee’s shoulders shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Bajpayee has had an extraordinary run in the past few years: in terms of range alone, it was scarcely believable that the weary, defeated Professor Siras in Aligarh and the ruggedly boisterous Sardar Khan in Gangs of Wasseypur were the same person; but the actor has also had tour de force parts in such under-seen films as Gali Guleiyan, Bhonsle, Sonchiriya, and Love Sonia. As Srikant in The Family Man, he moves easily between the wry and profane humour of the regular-fellow scenes and the genuinely felt despondency when something goes wrong in his very-high-stakes job. And he is well supported by a cast that includes Neeraj Madhav (as a droopy-eyed former ISIS recruit yearning to see his mother one last time), Priyamani (as Suchi, who is just as much of a wise-cracker, with her own sense of adventure), and Sharib Hashmi as Srikant’s colleague Talpade.

Some of the early scenes are built around what looks like facile humour: for instance, one sequence cuts between Srikant having to field a conversation with his daughter’s school principal while also monitoring an urgent situation that requires his presence. However, such scenes are necessary to establish something important about this man: he is required to be a storyteller, a fabulist, and this quality spans both the lives he leads. And the flippant moments eventually help deepen the story’s emotional stakes. If Srikant has a double life, this is mirrored in the very nature of this series too: The Family Man is full of dualities at the level of both content and form, gradually revealing layers beneath a surface that at first looks predictable, even banal.


For instance, it is a story about the difference between the small, intimate environment – which all of us would like to stay safely ensconced in – and a larger, more challenging one. About the home and the world, family and nation, about being a self-absorbed individual versus thinking about one’s relationship with the society one is part of. It is about how weary, inconspicuous men engaging in casual chat at a vada-pav stall might be agents trained to deal with tense situations, switching on and off as required; about the big gap between our glamorous image of the espionage world and its mundane realities. And so, it makes sense for a story like this to constantly switch tones: from the seriousness one expects when national security is at stake, to the goofy humour that one associates with writer-directors Raj Nidimoru and Krishna D.K. whose earlier work includes the films Shor in the City, Go Goa Gone and the recent Stree.

The duality is also reflected in the show’s technique. For much of its duration, the shot-taking and pacing is straightforward, even routine, but it dramatically raises its game and allows itself to get showy when it comes to some of the important action scenes. Without giving much away, episode four and episode six each has a marvellously done long-take sequence: the latter (which, as far as I can tell, lasts 10 minutes) involves an attack on a hospital and takes us breathlessly from the inside of the car carrying the assailants through the corridors of the building, following first one group of people, then another. It’s wonderfully orchestrated.

There is also the constant misdirection, which fuels this twisting narrative. If Srikant is misleading his family about his work, the show also repeatedly leads the viewer down first one garden path
and then another before revealing the true nature of the terrorist threat and its chief participants. One early scene involves a conversation between two people where we know that one of them is spinning a yarn – and we chuckle along – but the underlying tension comes from the possibility that the other person, the apparent foil, might also have something to hide.

Despite dealing with big issues such as the current narratives around what it means to be a patriot or an “anti-national”, a beef-eater or a cow-protector – or how Indians seem to love the idea of Kashmir while being blithely unconcerned about the people living there – this show weaves these themes into its narrative with very little fuss. It is only with hindsight that you reflect on the way in which a subject that was touched on in an early scene – perhaps in a casual way – finds a deeper echo later in the narrative: how, for example, a humorous little scene depicting the cultural conflict between Srikant’s north Indian mother and Tamil father-in-law (each making a case for their language being superior) ties in with the larger conversation about the diversity of this country and how that diversity is under threat today.


The obvious reference in the title is to Srikant, but there are other family men here, or men with families that they care for and which became prime motivators for their actions: the main antagonist, for instance, about whom I won’t reveal anything here. Or someone like the tough commando Pasha (played by Kishore Kumar G) who tells the story of how he was shaped by his family in another way: when told by his father not to join a profession that might mean hunting down fellow Muslims, he coolly told his dad to go and f@#! himself.

The Family Man is a show that quickly grows on you, even if you find it a bit diffused and tonally confusing to begin with. But a warning to the sane viewer: please make sure you have the original soundtrack enabled, not the all-English one that Prime Video has also for some reason made available. It makes an enormous difference: in the original, the characters convincingly switch between Hindi and English (and occasionally Tamil and Malayalam) and it works perfectly with a portrayal of a complex, rude, multi-lingual world; in the all-English audio, you’ll find the dialogues grating and stilted, and even Bajpayee’s performance will feel as confined and joyless as the caged bird that Kashmir is likened to in one scene. 


[Earlier pieces on the Manoj Bajpayee films mentioned here: Aligarh; Gali Guleiyan; Love Sonia; Gangs of Wasseypur]

Friday, September 20, 2019

Here, there and nowhere: on a world without the Beatles

[my latest “movie moments” column for The Hindu]
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The premise of Danny Boyle’s Yesterday is emotionally resonant and slightly silly at the same time: struggling musician Jack Malik (played by Himesh Patel) suddenly finds himself in a rebooted world where the Beatles had never existed. Since only he remembers their songs, he starts putting the lyrics and arrangements together and passing them off as his own.


This idea is stretched about as far as it can be stretched, in an earnest film that treads a line between heartfelt and maudlin. In one scene, musician Ed Sheeran – playing himself – challenges Jack to a competition where they each have to write a song in a few minutes and perform it for a small audience; when Jack sings “The Long and Winding Road” (which, naturally, no one present has ever heard before), a sheepish Sheeran admits to having been bested.

But there is also a sequence where it feels like the story may be about to take a turn into sinister territory. When Jack, during a concert in Russia, decides to introduce the audience to a “new” song and launches into the Beatles’s “Back in the USSR”, we see a startled-looking bearded man in the audience. A little later this man is Googling on his computer and perusing the list of songs Jack has been performing.

It’s easy to conjecture that this Russian is another of those people who “remembers” the Beatles before they were magically wiped off history. Later, when he shows up backstage with a woman, the two of them goofily holding a toy yellow submarine, the film appears to be creating suspense: will they blackmail Jack, or do something worse? Might they even be minions of John-Paul-George-Ringo, sent from a parallel dimension to take revenge?

Nothing of the sort. Instead, what follows is an unabashedly sentimental moment. The man and the woman are Beatles fans who have been traumatized for months by the disappearance of all the music they adored. Now, thanks to Jack, they are getting to hear it again, and – far from wanting him hauled up for plagiarism – they are eternally grateful. “WE can’t sing or perform,” they tell him, “and we never thought we would hear these songs again.”

For most of us, an important part of feeling strongly about creative works – books, films, albums, even music videos and TV shows – is being able to share them with others. Even though much of my film viewing these days is solitary, I dream of starting a home-screening club in the not-too-distant future, to curate old films for those who can appreciate them. But imagine being in a world where something beautiful that you have experienced – and been influenced by – no longer exists. You can’t watch it again, or listen to it, or discuss it with anyone; you can’t have defensive arguments or shake your head in shared awe. A big hole has appeared in your personal history and perhaps even your sense of self.

Watching this film, other thoughts involving other creative forms come to mind. Isn’t it much easier for a (moderately gifted) musician to recreate a great song than for a (moderately gifted) painter to recreate a great lost artwork? Jack has trouble remembering the lyrics of “Eleanor Rigby”, which, after all, is just one song. So how would a fanboy attempt to bring back, say, a whole novel that has suddenly vanished from the world’s memory?

Yesterday is a film that can put off viewers who prefer understated cinema – it is emotionally manipulative at times, pat, a little syrupy. But leveling such charges may be to miss the point. Like another film – the 2015 Danny Collins – which was about a musician who idolized John Lennon, some of Yesterday’s most effective moments involve its use of beloved old songs that can trigger associations for a viewer. These songs DO make us feel sentimental and mushy: they heighten our fantasy lives, allow us to feel like the protagonists of an operatic tragedy or romance. Why bother with such trivial things as grit or understatement while listening to them?

The word “melodrama”, usually employed as a putdown these days, derives from “music + drama”, and can there be a better description for a narrative where stirring songs like “In My Life” or “Imagine” or “Carry that Weight” or “Working-Class Hero” help a protagonist connect with his buried emotional life? I had mixed feelings about Yesterday overall, but returning home after watching it I found myself bingeing on old Beatles tunes, recalling the little ways in which they had intersected with my life: coming to them through my mother’s love of the band’s early work, buying audio-cassettes with her as a child, discovering for myself the later, more experimental albums and songs that she didn’t care for too much. And it was therapeutic. I felt fine.

[Earlier Hindu columns are here]

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]
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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]
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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]
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“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.

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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]
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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?