Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Cary and Kate and a dog and a leopard

One of my all-time favourite scenes: Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn and Asta the dog singing to Baby the leopard (who joins in, while perched on a rooftop) in Howard Hawks’s Bringing up Baby. A deranged four-member choir. 

Watched the film again after ages. A couple of early scenes didn’t hold together for me as well as I had remembered from two decades ago (we tend to become a little more resistant to, or sheepish about, slapstick comedy as we grow older. I won’t say “mature” or “evolve”, because I think that’s a simplistic way of looking at the consumer-art relationship, and it accounts for much of the silly snobbery in cultural criticism), but the film as a whole is still magnificent, and must have been so daring on so many levels in 1938. Hepburn and Grant did four movies together (only one with Hawks, which has to be one of the big tragedies in film history) and I wish they had done many more. This sort of lunatic physical comedy was well outside Hepburn’s comfort zone, but her chemistry with Grant makes so many things possible — I think she was a lot better with him than she was with Spencer Tracy (and she was pretty damn good with Tracy too). 

I also saw some bits with a commentary track by director Peter Bogdanovich, who was a huge fan of the film (and paid tribute to it in his own What’s Up, Doc?) - I loved the commentary, not because Bogdanovich says many insightful things, but because he is so artless and childlike. This is complete fanboy stuff: he spends much of his time just cracking up at the film, repeating lines and chuckling in delight like he’s a six-year-old all over again, watching it for the first time. It’s great. 

And that last scene with the collapsing dinosaur skeleton, and the whole jailhouse sequence, and Barry Fitzgerald as the gardener, and May Robson as the aunt, and exchanges like “He had a nervous breakdown.” “Had, or has?” … I could go on and on. 

P.S. Anyone interested, please read David Thomson on Bringing up Baby. Sample: “Hollywood is seldom more usefully serious than in its best comedies […] Within the magnificent frolic, the inspired dementia, Bringing up Baby is about life, energy, and the equation of the two. And when David (Grant) admits to Susan (Hepburn) that the collapse of his skeleton, his engagement, and his rather grim, glued-together life has been ‘fun’, something profoundly American and movie-is is being offered. It’s up to us whether we take it or leave it.” (More from Thomson in this piece)

Monday, June 03, 2019

'Don't be greedy' (and other strange lessons from reading Richie Rich comics in a plush penthouse)

[The latest of my Bookshelves columns for First Post – this one a nostalgia trip to 1987 Bombay in the company of a poor little rich boy]

The books we read often become inseparable – in our memory – from the circumstances and settings in which we encountered them. This is sometimes less true for a large series – or a number of works by the same author in the same genre – where the mind blurs many separate reading experiences together. But not always. For instance, I read many Agatha Christies as a child, but no memory is as vivid or scary as experiencing Murder in Retrospect (a.k.a. Five Little Pigs) in a dimly lit room during a Ludhiana trip when everyone else in the house was asleep.

Along similar lines, it feels like my entire brush with Richie Rich comics took place over an intense reading glut spread over a few days, and (though I didn’t realise it then) in a very apt environment: a luxurious duplex apartment on the top floor of a Bombay skyscraper.

There are many gaps in this recollection, but here’s what I know: sometime in mid-1987, my mother, her mother and I were in Bombay. (This may well be the last time that my mother visited the city she had been brought up in, and loved dearly, but that’s another story.) My nani being in the process of selling her Andheri flat, we stayed in the residence of a kindly acquaintance whom I was meeting for the first time (and whom, as far as I recall, I never met again) – a corporate heiress of some sort. I’ll unimaginatively call her Aunty A.

It was a lazy summer and much of my time was spent bouncing a tennis ball on the walls of our room, occasionally watching films like Qurbani and Insaaf Kaun Karega on VCR in the evenings, or following the progress of the little tortoise kept as a pet in a makeshift terrace pond. Then I discovered a guest-room the shelves of which were lined with around a dozen thick red bound books. Each of these contained at least fifteen 30-page Richie Rich comics – which, at a conservative estimate, means 5000-odd pages.

So I read and read and read, enthralled by Richie’s adventures with his resourceful butler, the dog with the dollar signs on its back, the robots and super-computers and brilliant scientists and absentminded professors and snooty cousins that populated the Rich Estate. There were enormous orange sweets in a jar in the guest-room, each of which lasted close to an hour if you kept them in your mouth and let them melt slowly; to date, if I think of a Richie Rich comic I feel the tangy sensation of those sweets. It felt like an endless dream, though it probably only lasted a week or so.

It was the plushest residence I had stayed in (was it Nariman Point? Pali Hill?) and there was something almost like self-parody in this endless procession of Richie Riches and nothing else to read (at least for a child). In my mind’s eye, Aunty A – plump, fair and smooth-skinned, seemingly always dressed in flowing kaftans, even when presiding over business meetings in her apartment – looks a great deal like Richie Rich’s mother, though I’m fairly sure I made no such connection at the time.

If you’re the sort who gets easily indignant – and worries about children being exposed to the wrong influences – the Richie Rich world has many things that can be objected to (notwithstanding its central conceit that the protagonist is a “poor little rich boy”, embarrassed by all the attention, happiest when having a good time with his “simple” friends). I wonder sometimes about the appeal – escapist or forbidden – that these comics must have had in a country with a soft-socialist history. They weren’t so much an unabashed celebration of capitalism as a goggle-eyed ode to a sort of demented-capitalism-on-drugs where one had so much wealth – in so many forms – that one couldn’t realistically do anything but arrange it in many pretty ways.

And perhaps the best example of this was in a comic I recently rediscovered, in which Richie and his parents go on a picnic to the “richest place in the world” – which, needless to say, is on their own estate, a short ride away by a special “heli-camper-yacht”. On reaching, the senior Mr Rich shows his gaping family exactly what makes this place special: mountains made of solid gold and silver, a volcanic oil well that also throws up gold nuggets, giant oysters that cough up giant pearls on the shore. They are about to settle down to eat (and I am half-expecting the sandwiches to have rubies stuffed in them) when a gang of robbers shows up and starts looting things.

But naturally, the thugs are done in by their own “greed”, being so struck by one wondrous sight after another that they can’t settle down with a bag of treasures for much time; there is always something more alluring in the distance. This leads to infighting, and eventually an avalanche of diamonds hastens their capture.

There’s probably a lesson here somewhere, a version of the Golden Goose story – or closer home, last year’s film Tumbbad, which uses the Gandhi quote “The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not for everyone’s greed.” But it’s hard to see how that would apply to this story. Fact: in the delirious fever world of these comics, Richie’s family alone has enough to satisfy the whole world’s greed. Even if the robbers had made off with everything they could carry, in a hundred large trucks, it still wouldn’t make a sizable dent in the family fortunes.

So here’s the real takeaway: wealth isn’t good for its tangible benefits, it is best appreciated for its aesthetic value. It can even make the natural world look and sound better. It’s worth noting that at the end of the story, when the Riches do sit down to dig into their burgers and other picnic goodies, there is no idealising of the pastoral setting – no suggestion that the sound of a gentle brook (made up of water rather than wads of currency) might be a welcome relief. There is greenery, yes, and there are chirping birds – but even the nests are lined with emeralds. 


[Earlier Bookshelves columns here]

Saturday, June 01, 2019

How the dead stay alive in Super Deluxe and Jaane bhi do Yaaro

[From my column about movie moments for The Hindu]

The ambitious, energetic Tamil film Super Deluxe, directed by Thiagarajan Kumararaja, begins with the voices of two people over the opening credits: a married woman, Vaembu, and her ex-boyfriend are setting up a tryst on the phone. It’s a lively exchange, but one of these two will spend the bulk of the film very dead. The boyfriend, deeply stressed because of a financial tangle, dies during sex – precipitating a macabre but slapstick-y situation where Vaembu must try to hide his body before her husband Mugil gets home.

Later, when everything is out of the closet (or the refrigerator), the two of them try to figure out what to do with the corpse. And some of the film’s goofiest scenes centre on this dead body that becomes a bouncing board for the playing out of living people’s emotions.

As I wrote the above sentence, I deliberated for a second whether it should be “dead body who…” or “dead body that…” Vaembu and Mugil don’t face any such dilemmas. In one droll scene, where they have the body propped up in the back seat of their car, she uses the descriptors “it” and “this thing” – prompting Mugil to say: “Remember what you were doing with ‘this thing’ just a few hours ago?”

As it happens, Super Deluxe – which casts its philosophical net very wide, commenting on the nature of consciousness and self-perception across multiple narrative strands – contains other scenes where “it” is used for people (or creatures) who exist outside conventional human categories. The word is contemptuously directed at a transwoman named Shilpa (a wonderful performance by Vijay Sethupathi) who has just returned home after years, to the shock of her family; it is even, in one of the most delirious scenes, used for an actual extraterrestrial. This film has fun with the different implications of “alien”.

But stone-cold dead bodies are a whole other dimension of “it-ness”, especially when they have a full-fledged role to play in a narrative. In that car scene, when Mugil and Vaembu speak with each other in the front seat and the camera cuts between them, the framing never stops showing us the corpse in the back: a silent third participant in dark glasses, looking like a stoner. When Mugil is alone with the body, he directs a cuckold’s anguished monologue at “it”, asks “What have you got that I don’t have?” and is even on the verge of opening the dead man’s trousers to size-check.

The car scene reminded me of other dead bodies – or ghosts – in backseats, in films as diverse as Georges Franju’s great Eyes Without a Face (which opens with a murder victim being transported in a car, again sitting up as if alive), Konkona Sensharma’s A Death in the Gunj and the 1968 comedy Sadhu aur Shaitan. However, the scene also suggests that the dead can be used as blank slates, on which we can impose our own feelings or perspectives – not unlike the famous 1920s Kuleshov experiment where an expressionless actor’s face was intercut with different objects, resulting in viewers interpreting the expression to fit their own emotional responses. 

Of course, the most famous extended role for a dead body in an Indian film is in Jaane bhi do Yaaro, where Commissioner DeMello, having shuffled off his mortal coil halfway through the story, is then subjected to many indignities for the remainder. Satish Shah, who played the part, told me that in some scenes he arranged his expressions such that viewers could imagine what the corpse was “thinking” (looking fearful while standing high up near a theatre’s rafters, for example).

The dead DeMello also helps us understand or judge the behaviour of the other characters. Jaane bhi do Yaaro is known for its many eye-popping DeMello scenes: a coffin being mistaken for a sports car, the body traveling on roller skates and being dressed up as Draupadi onstage. But some things that didn’t make it to the final film are even more suggestive of the corpse as distorting mirror. In one scene that was never shot, the body ends up in a nursing home where the doctor gives it a complete check-up and avuncularly proclaims “Ghabraane ki koi baat nahin. You’ll be fine in two days.” In another, it is posed as a beggar with hands outstretched, and the film’s bad guys – all cut-throat mercenaries – stop to generously put coins in the bowl.

These scenes and others – even while operating within a framework of goofy humour – contribute to the film’s denouncement of social hypocrisies and professional ineptitude, and it takes a mute “it” to make them more effective. Much like the dead swain in Super Deluxe, playing buffer – or therapist? – to a married couple who have many issues to sort out.

[My earlier Hindu columns are here]

Friday, May 31, 2019

Flashback: why you should watch Basu Chatterjee’s Sara Akash

[From my Film Companion series about movies of the 1950s and 60s]

Title: Sara Akash
Director: Basu Chatterjee
Year: 1969
Cast: Rakesh Pandey, Madhu Chakravarty, Tarla Mehta, Dina Pathak, AK Hangal, Nandita Thakur, Mani Kaul

Why you should watch it:

Because it helped bring in a New Wave. And shows a glimpse of what the “Middle Cinema” could have looked like

Released as it was in December 1969, Basu Chatterjee’s Sara Akash is eligible for inclusion in this Flashback series by just a whisker. But there are other reasons why it is an outlier here: the other films discussed in this column are mostly old-world Hindi cinema, but Sara Akash is often hailed, along with Mrinal Sen’s Bhuvan Shome and Mani Kaul’s Uski Roti, as a progenitor of a bold New Wave.

Just as interestingly, given the subsequent work of its prolific director, this film offers an early but distorted-glass view of what we now call the Middle Cinema – a waystation between glitzy commercial films and self-consciously inward-looking “art” cinema. Chatterjee would soon become among the three best-known practitioners of this middle path, along with Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Gulzar. But Sara Akash is startlingly unconventional in its telling of a simple domestic story (about a couple who, because of the man’s obstinateness, don’t interact with each other for a long time after getting married). Along with Basu Bhattacharya’s Anubhav (1971), this film offers a view of what the cosy Middle Cinema might have looked like if its directors had channeled the spirit of experimental international filmmakers like Godard.

It also helps that the two leads – Rakesh Pandey and Madhu Chakravarty – never became stars (or even “non-mainstream stars” like Amol Palekar, Farooque Shaikh or Vidya Sinha). These factors, along with the monochrome palette and lack of catchy songs, means that Sara Akash feels grittier than later Chatterjee works such as Chhoti si Baat or Baaton Baaton Mein. Result: it’s a genuinely hard-to-classify film (is it Middle, is it Parallel, is it Avant-Garde?) – this can leave some movie-lovers and film historians confused, but I personally consider it a good thing.

For bringing formal inventiveness to a story that could have been made into a sweet little tele-drama

The playfulness is on show from the opening-credits sequence, with its long tracking shots that offer street-level views of Agra – and little inserts of the Taj Mahal, looking like a queen or goddess atop her throne, surveying her kingdom from a regal distance. (It’s an effect both similar to and very different from the shots of the Eiffel Tower peeking out from over buildings in the opening-credits scene of Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows.) Cinematographer KK Mahajan’s restless camera moves first right, then left, then right again, following the rhythms of the town. A non-diegetic music score is mixed with real street sounds; the nervous energy of the sequence is just as compelling as a more famous opening scene from 1969 (also shot by Mahajan), the train tracks of Bhuvan Shome.

Immediately after this we arrive at the film’s crux: a wedding procession in one of those narrow lanes. Samar (Pandey) is getting married to Prabha (Chakravarty), and he is clearly unhappy about it, unprepared for such a responsibility. Flashbacks, flash-forwards, waking dreams…these are all used to capture his state of mind. In one scene, he recalls being with his (all-male) friends, talking about breaking free of societal expectations: “Inhi baadhaon ko kuchalkar humein aage badhna hai.” The friends start to cheer and clap, and there is an immediate cut to a surreal shot of Samar and bride sitting together in their wedding garb but in a classroom surrounded by the same friends, now jeering: “Samar, abhi se hee paaltu bann gaye?” It is a classic image of a young man who sees himself as tethered, and is ashamed of it.

In another scene, as Samar sits brooding on his bridal bed (with Prabha standing in a corner of the room), the camera starts swiveling wildly, there are close-ups of his face with the play of light and shadows over it, there are even upside-down shots… these are moments that wouldn’t be out of place in a modern “found footage” film like The Blair Witch Project (but don’t tell Basu Chatterjee I said so).

How much fun it is to see this kind of story (with a supporting cast that includes later Middle Cinema familiars like AK Hangal and Dina Pathak) being told in this off-kilter way. There are freeze frames, stream-of-consciousness voiceovers, contrapuntal use of music, an unexpected scene when Samar strikes Prabha and the camera adopts the Russian tilt as it looks up at him. There are even some shots that feel like they are being experimental just for the sake of it. And that’s okay.

Because it’s an adaptation of an important Hindi novel – and for a look at the inner life of a young man who has no idea what he wants

Sara Akash is based on part of Rajendra Yadav’s debut novel, originally published as Preet Bolte Hain, and is a reminder of a time when there were intimate connections between literature and cinema without the need for carefully monitored contracts or battalions of lawyers supervising copyrights. (Most of the film was
even shot in Yadav’s Agra house!) There is a body of mid-20th century Hindi literature that centres on a young man’s coming of age, including the process of getting his head out of his books and learning about real-world responsibility, and this story belongs to that tradition. While Samar’s conflicts dominate much of the film, we are also allowed glimpses of the personalities of his sister-in-law (a fine performance by Tarla Mehta) and his sister Munni, who shape him in different ways.

We see that Samar is caught on the tightrope between the idealized life of the mind, the mundane life of a householder, and his own yearnings. He dreams of being a Bhagat Singh, a Vivekanand, a Netaji (and we might contemplate that these are all men without a significant female presence in their lives). “Shaadi ke baad saare adaarsh thanday ho gaye,” he broods. He dreams of being an adarshwaadi and a revolutionary, but he is also denying himself his other feelings – the desire to have someone to share his life with, the excitement of a physical relationship. A subtext is that he might also be insecure – suffering from a sort of intellectual “performance anxiety” – because Prabha is well educated.

Rakesh Pandey’s bland features are put to good use in scenes like the ones where he is unnerved by the wedding rituals, or where his family’s giggling women lead him to the bridal room while making ribald remarks. The acting is raw, but this is apt given that the character is half-formed, at unease with himself. There is a marked contrast between his dream-self (he imagines himself entering the house with a smile of “Prabha!” as she walks towards him smiling, dressed in different clothes) and his mundane self who sullenly says “What should I do if she has come?” when his sister tells him Bhabhi is here. The gap between the interior life and the surface, between idealisation and pragmatism, will also be a theme of Chatterjee’s Rajnigandha a few years later.

For an echo of Apur Sansar

There’s a little moment where Samar finds Prabha’s hairpin – she is visiting her parents’ house at the time – and, irritated, tosses it away. But later he uses it as a bookmark, and it feels like a suggestion of things to come: he has found place for something of her in his life. The scene felt like a nod to another scene, also involving a hairpin – and in a more romantic context – in Satyajit Ray’s Apur Sansar. That film was also about a young man, a student with his head in the clouds, moving from a textbook-centric life to one involving family responsibilities. There are obvious differences between the two stories (in Apur Sansar, love and affection develops between the couple much faster than it does here), but the little nods to Ray are hard to miss – there is even a sequence involving Prabha on a swing that recalls Charulata.

For Mani Kaul the actor

In the same year that Kaul’s Uski Roti was released, he played a small, almost dialogue-less role here, as Samar’s elder brother, befuddled by all the goings-on in the family. In one scene, while shaving, he mutters something like “What are you all going on about? You keep squabbling.” It’s an amusing moment for anyone familiar with Kaul’s own much more abstract cinema: here is a genuinely avant-garde director who seems annoyed by having to put up with any sort of narrative at all!


[Earlier Flashback columns are here]

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Flashback: Reasons to watch the anti-war film Aman (apart from the Bertrand Russell cameo)

[from my Film Companion Flashback series]

Title: Aman
Director: Mohan Kumar
Year: 1967
Cast: Rajendra Kumar, Saira Banu, Balraj Sahni, Chetan Anand (not to mention Lord Russell, Naseeruddin Shah and Jagjit Singh!)

Debating whether to write about Aman for this series, I reminded myself that this isn’t meant as a canonical “best of the 50s and 60s” list – it includes films that, while problematic or flawed on some levels (especially when looked at through contemporary lenses), contain moments of beauty, are ambitious and far-reaching, or just very unusual. All of which applies to this story about the noble Dr Gautam (Rajendra Kumar) who, after a London education, decides to work in Japan to help find a cure for atomic-bomb survivors – and to spread the message of world peace, much as another Gautam (the Buddha) had done centuries earlier. In so doing, he falls in love with a Japanese girl named Meloda (Saira Banu, thankfully not too heavily made up to appear exotic or foreign) but also imperils himself by going on a mission to rescue fishermen who have been exposed to nuclear radiation.

Why you should watch it:

Because it’s one of the oddest films of its time, combining surface gloss with a serious, compassionate look at the horrors of nuclear war

Aman straddles many modes and sensibilities. It’s a good-looking film, elegantly shot (by Raj Kapoor’s favourite cinematographer Radhu Karmakar), and often as glamorous and touristy as the more “entertainment-driven” films of the time such as An Evening in Paris. Yet it is also dignified and mournful in its treatment of a major human tragedy.

It’s easy to identify the ways in which this film can be negatively critiqued. It is very much a star vehicle: in the end, following an age-old tradition, it finds a way to deify its male lead, even turn him into a Christ-like martyr. It teeters close to unintended comedy at times; there is some pathos-disguised-as-slapstick in scenes featuring Om Prakash as a savant in the hospital for Hiroshima survivors. There is also a 25-minute midsection when the film gets sidetracked from its main theme and focuses on the Gautam-Meloda romance, greedily cramming a few songs into a small span of time.

But despite all this, Aman’s take on nuclear warfare and its repercussions is a sincere, credible one – especially coming in a decade where India had fought costly wars and was on the path towards becoming a nuclear power itself. Internationally, with the Cold War underway, many films were being made on this subject. In the high-mindedness of its tone, Aman is much closer to the doomsday drama Fail-Safe than to the doomsday black comedy Dr Strangelove. The Hiroshima memorial scenes are moving, and the film is pacifist in a way that it’s hard to imagine a mainstream Hindi film being in today’s jingoistic climate.

For its thoughts on shared humanity

In a lovely early scene – well-performed by Balraj Sahni and Rajendra Kumar – Gautam has a philosophical conversation with his father, who understandably isn’t thrilled that his only child, having just returned to India, now wants to go and serve another country. (When the son tries to touch his feet upon their reunion, the father embraces him instead, points at his heart and says “Judaai ka dard wahaan nahin, yahaan hota hai.”)

For Gautam, though, the personal has become political: as a child he couldn’t save his mother, who was killed in a wartime aerial attack, but as a doctor he intends to save people he doesn’t even know, and the whole world – not just India – will be his hospital. The world has become so small now that it is like a single city, he tells his father, and anyway, national borders are human constructs. “Kal jo kuch bhi Japan mein hua, woh aaj yahaan bhi toh ho sakta hai.”

Later in the film, something very unusual happens: a Hindi movie song (“Mera Watan Jaapaan”) “patriotically” celebrates another country’s beauty and glory, and links the very personal word “watan” with a foreign nation.

It bears mentioning – for viewers who have no patience with compromises in linguistic or cultural representations – that this is a film where the Japanese characters speak in Hindi or English. You need that suspension of disbelief to be able to enjoy the good things in Aman. But also, in an odd way, I feel this aspect of the film is justified by the subject matter and the unity theme. If a story is idealistically presenting the whole world as one family that needs to look out for each other, then surely it is poetically justified to have Indians and Japanese speaking to each other in a common tongue, with no barriers to understanding.

The film goes for restraint and understatement in conversations between the main characters – mimicking the formality of Japanese etiquette – but when it comes to the scenes with the atomic-age victims, there is no reason to hide emotions. The subtext is: in a world where such bombs can be dropped on cities populated with people, what is so farcical about a hospital scene where characters behave in “over the top” ways?

For condensing many eye-popping sights and sounds in its first 18 minutes alone… including an audience with “mahapurush” Bertrand Russell

Consider the first few scenes, which give us, in order:

-- A prologue set in 1942 Rangoon, which lays the ground for everything that follows. “Why are humans bent on destroying each other?” is the simple question with which the film begins.

-- The amazing opening titles, which (after a dedication to “Nehru, Apostle of Peace”) offer such gems as “Hiroshima Museum Poetry by Prem Dhawan”, “Cabaret Artistes of Duo Arnedis Fame: Oslo, Norway”, and an unusual (for a Hindi film) list of 16 supporting actors with such names as “Dr CC Chang”, “I Chang” and “Hen Fa” all crowded together on one screen.

-- Elaborate shots of Big Ben, and Rajendra Kumar walking through London’s streets. As if to emphasise its own international-ness, the film then has a strange, hypnotizing, and completely random scene set in a nightclub where a woman in a bright blue bikini and a man in a bright blue bikini bottom – presumably the Norwegian artistes mentioned in the credits – perform acrobatics.

-- And then there is this unforgettable credit: “Lord Bertrand Russell, Courtsey (sic) Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation”.

Aman is best known among trivia-buffs and quizzers today for the 94-year-old Russell’s two-minute appearance as himself, giving his “blessings” to Dr Gautam as the latter explains his goal of world peace. The scene has a documentary-like feel to it, complete with a voiceover (there’s an outside chance that the aged Russell – who wears bright red shoes – thought he was being interviewed by a real doctor rather than an actor playing one in a fiction film!), and it sets the tone for this film’s combination of good intentions and somewhat whimsical execution.

For a (possible) glimpse of the teenage Naseeruddin Shah

If Aman was the feature-film debut for the nonagenarian Lord Russell, it was also the less-than-portentous debut for seventeen-year-old Naseeruddin Shah, who was one of the extras walking alongside a large funeral procession at the end. This sequence suffers from the typical unruly nature of Indian crowd scenes, with people waving merrily at the camera when they are supposed to be sad. Naseer, the serious actor even back then, would definitely have played mourner to the hilt. If only one could spot him!

In his memoir And Then One Day, Shah confirms that he CAN be seen in a couple of shots, even sharing the frame with Rajendra Kumar at one point. I think I saw him in a blurry background during one of Dr Gautam’s close-ups, but you’ll need to use the “Pause” button to figure it out.

Trivia: Aman is quite a film for cameos and bit parts! In addition to Bertrand Russell and Naseeruddin Shah, the young, turbaned Jagjit Singh – who would go on to become one of our most celebrated ghazal singers – appears in a tiny part as Gautam’s friend.

[My other Film Companion Flashback pieces are here]

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

On “magical women” who create, destroy and rebuild worlds (and weave new stories)

[Did this piece – about a fine new anthology of short fiction – for Scroll]

What are you looking at?” she asked her reflection. “What do you see? Do you see Medusa or Circe? Do you think I am worse than them, or better? Don’t you see I am stronger than Ahalya and Sita, Urvashi and Shoorpanakha? Do you prefer Kannagi or Draupadi to me?
(A “demoness” whose rage takes the form of flowers that don’t fade, in Sukanya Venkatraghavan’s “The Rakshasi’s Rose-Garden”)

What am I? Only cloud and water, my love. I am Elokeshi on the Bengali stage. I was Mah Laqa in Hyderabad, and a long time ago I was called Amrapali. In the coming years I will have more names and faces.”
(A courtesan plying her art, and pledging immortality, in Shreya Ila Anasuya’s “Gul”)


There’s always a risk in commissioning original stories for an anthology built around a specific theme or a word. Such books can (speaking from experience) become hard-to-control things: even when the stories are of high quality, some of them may acquire defiant lives of their own, or interpret the theme so loosely that the book feels like a ragbag of unconnected trinkets.

Given this, it’s notable that Magical Women – edited by Sukanya Venkatraghavan and including stories by fourteen women writers with varied styles and concerns – feels like so much of a piece; it’s almost as if all the writers got together beforehand and discussed precisely what each of them would do. But it rarely happens that way, and such books shouldn’t be so schematized either – it’s more likely that the editorial brief was very clearly spelled out. Either way, the result is a collection that has real personality and a sense of individual voices, but also has echoes and links between the stories, all built around the theme of feminine strength, so often suppressed, patronized or marginalized (in both life and literature).

The “magical women” here include goddesses, rakshasis, creatures from other worlds, witches, statues, tawaifs, mythical heroines, contemporary Tinder users. They build, destroy or rebuild universes: sometimes with intent; sometimes incidentally, in the process of asserting themselves; sometimes even reluctantly. And the tones vary from the poetic intensity of Tashan Mehta’s “Rulebook for Creating a Universe” (about a young girl with a mind of her own, on an island made up of people tasked with spinning the Universe into existence) to the jet-black humour of Shweta Taneja’s “Grandma Garam’s Kitty Party” (where the “kitty party” of the title involves – among other things – an old “chudail” kneading cat flesh in a bucket with her toes) to the stream-of-consciousness sections in Asma Kazi’s “Bahameen” (a time-travel story, a parable about not being able to fit in, and a cry of outrage against a world where babies might die in hospital through oxygen deprivation).

Nearly all these stories have elements of fantasy, supernatural horror or science-fiction, which are slyly exaggerated takes on real-world dilemmas and compulsions. For instance, in SV Sujatha’s powerful “Gandaberunda” – which reminded me a little of Brian De Palma’s film Sisters – the protagonist Amaya has a secret self, a dark twin, that emerges and takes control when predatory men must be dealt with. (Personally I was rooting for her to get her claws out when her date began over-using her name – “You do drink like a fish, Amaya” – in that over-formal, patronising-sounding tone some people employ.) But do these sisters live in harmony, or is there a cannibalistic side to their relationship – that’s a question you might find yourself asking. And, by extension: what happens when women negotiating possibly dangerous worlds – like online dating – glide between dual personalities, one that wants to explore and experiment, the other that feels the need to be tethered and cautious?

Then there is Shreya Ila Anasuya’s “Gul”, a haunting account of the courtesan world, told in the voice of a woman who works at an 1850s Lucknow establishment and falls deeply in love with another dancer named Gulbadan… who mysteriously vanishes one day after an encounter with a British soldier. Again, while this story is “non-realistic” at the narrative level, its effect lies partly in the contrast between the far-reaching influence of tawaif culture and the constraints that individual courtesans (so many of them anonymous for ever) would have faced in their own time. Here is a way of life that still casts its spell, across time and space, on the modern world: through passed-down stories, through love, though frightening new contraptions like the gramophone – and perhaps even through a woman who travels and transforms through the epochs.

Other stories are about goddesses pushed into unleashing their powers. Sejal Mehta’s “Earth and Evolution Walk into a Bar…” (the title is surprisingly accurate!) takes the form of a conversation between the human personas adopted by Earth (Mahi) and Evolution (Sanga), but read the ebbs and flows of their exchange and you’ll find a comment on men and women, their different approaches to talking, arguing, world-shaping. In this story, Mahi might hold the power to wipe out all human history with a single action, but in Krishna Udayasankar’s “Apocalyptica” the goddesses who decide it’s time to wind things up must go about it in a more complicated way, more attentive to the current state of the world – “as far as electronics and technology went, our divinity had ceased to affect these things a long time ago.” It takes time and effort to demolish things their male counterparts have built.

This angry-deities motif also finds lighter form in Trisha Das’s “Tridevi Turbulence”, in which the goddesses Parvati, Ganga, Lakshmi and Saraswati play snippy games of one-upwomanship. In this quirky look at how the ancient world might coexist with the modern one (a running theme in Das’s writings), an irritated Parvati waves her fingers when yet another of those human-driven airplanes approaches the mountain she is sitting on, and a blizzard envelops the peak, causing the plane to beat a hasty retreat; in response, Ganga diverts an avalanche that might have killed a group of climbers further down.


Even as they maintain their distinct personalities, the stories often converse with each other in intriguing ways. There are too many such links to mention here, but to take a more obvious one: Shveta Thakrar’s “The Carnival at the Edge of the Worlds” and Nikita Deshpande’s “The Girl Who Haunted Death” both draw on well-known myths – about the lovers Nala and Damayanti, and about Savitri defying the God of Death when he comes to claim her husband – that appeared in the Mahabharata’s “Vana Parva” (as stories that the exiled Pandavas hear from visiting Rishis). The Savitri of Deshpande’s story doesn’t just walk seven steps with Death (to establish their friendship), instead they spend hundreds of years together as he/she adopts new forms – this narrative is about the mysterious rules of love, attraction and sacrifice as much as it is a reworking of a triumphal old tale. And in “The Carnival at the Edge of the Worlds”, the protagonist Prajakta is a puppet that plays the role of Damayanti in a cosmic carnival that borders all worlds. After a series of surreal adventures – frightening, because “she’d never pulled her own string before”, but also liberating – she discovers her true nature, and learns that no story is ever “just a story”.

As this suggests, a running theme is the resisting of straitjackets and the finding of new possibilities. In Kiran Manral’s “Stone Cold”, a statue comes alive and shows a flesh-and-blood woman named Diksha – a resident of a sterile, strictly monitored dystopian world – one important dimension of being human. (Both Diksha and the statue in different ways escape their shackles or pedestals, even if only once in a long while.) Samhita Arni’s “The Demon Hunter’s Dilemma” – about a woman hunting a creature called a pisacha on her guru’s instructions – is an allegory, very relevant to our time or to any time, about the end of innocence and gullibility, about facing the possibility that the things you were brought up to believe were wrong and that your parents or masters may have their own failings. And even on the primordial island in “Rulebook for Creating a Universe” – supposedly a place that exists before anything has come into being – there are “rules”, which decree that a girl must never be allowed to stitch a sun, a girl must not go into the lotus fields…you get the drift.

At the same time, there are reminders that rebellion takes different forms depending on context. “Tara and I are definitely not thrilled about soya pulao,” says the narrator of “Bahameen”, yearning for a beautiful bone broth and angry at vegetarianism being thrust on her by a goon squad. “I've become vegan,” announces the narrator of “Grandma Garam’s Kitty Party”, which offers a neat, witty inversion of the “transgressing girl” trope: in this case, a “chudail” decides that she is done with drinking kitty blood and wants to “go straight, wear formal clothes, go to an office, buy an apartment, marry someone nice”. But of course, in both stories the characters face disapproval.


Among the pieces I found particularly engaging were “The Girl Who Haunted Death”, “Gandaberunda”, “Gul” and “Grandma Garam’s Kitty Party”, but picking favourites is a child’s game, given that there isn’t really a weak link here. A few small missteps or instances of awkwardness, maybe: though “Tridevi Turbulence” is one of the most fun stories, it ends with a pedantic footnote about the polluting and drying up of the river Ganga – a subtext that the engaged reader should be able to decipher without being spoonfed thus. Ruchika Roy’s “The Gatekeeper’s Intern” has an enthralling premise (the survivor of an accident that killed her parents is contacted, months later, by a “gatekeeper” who invites her back to the world she had briefly entered while in coma), but the story becomes a little over-expository, too much “this happened, then this happened” instead of letting the conversations lead it forward organically – perhaps the idea lends itself to a longer, less rushed treatment.

But on the whole, this is a stimulating, multilayered book, driven by imagination, style – and, understandably, anger. “Rage was her magic … Rage was her rose-garden” we are told of the protagonist in Venkatraghavan’s story, and this is true of many other pieces. In both “Apocalyptica” and “Earth and Evolution Walk Into a Bar…” the persecution or rape of helpless children becomes fuel for the protagonists’ wrath, and for the sense that everything must be rebooted wholesale, nothing more moderate will do. “The world has already been destroyed a thousand times over in just the last second,” Parvati tells her husband Shiva during a fierce monologue in “Apocalyptica”, “It crumbles to meaningless dust whenever a God turns away.”

So there is anger at the plunder of the natural world, there are allegories about how “male” ways of doing things have taken so much out of the earth without giving enough back, there are glimpses of new spaces marked by rose gardens, lotus patches, puppet shows, angry tattoos. But there is also humour and detachment, the capacity to hold back and reflect on the nature of storytelling – on the role it can play in weaving new worlds or turning universes inside out.

[My earlier Scroll reviews and author interviews are here]

Sunday, May 05, 2019

50 years of “alternative cinema” – the Lounge list

For the latest issue of Mint Lounge, Uday Bhatia and I did a special cover story marking the 50th anniversary of the important cinematic year 1969 – we put together a (non-canonical and hopefully intriguing) list of Hindi films from outside the mainstream, for each year between 1969-2018. These are not long or analytical pieces, they are just samplers –but hopefully they will provide some food for thought, or introduce you to a few films you didn’t know about.

The story looks best in print -- so do try to get hold of the issue -- but here is the link to the full piece. And included below, for easy access, are the 23 entries that I wrote (including two that had to be taken out from the published story because we got the years slightly wrong).

Anubhav (Basu Bhattacharya, 1971)
We spend a third of our time asleep, someone muses in Anubhav, which means 20 years in a 60-year life. The theme of time and its flow – and how it petrifies or builds relationships – runs through this fascinating, sometimes annoying film, a formally experimental work unlike few others of its era. Meeta (Tanuja) and Amar (Sanjeev Kumar) are a married couple who feel like they barely know each other. To convey the stasis of their lives, Bhattacharya employs naturalistic sound, unexpected freeze frames, and – with more mixed results – a self-consciously Brechtian approach to acting; Tanuja rises above the pitfalls of that device with a wonderful monologue that may remind you of a scene from Ingmar Bergman.

Garm Hava (MS Sathyu, 1973)
Not long ago, Garm Hava was a holy grail – a decent print almost impossible to get, even in underground DVD stores. That changed with a recent restoration, and it’s possible now to appreciate what a monument this is, a story about Partition trauma told in an intimate key. A world of sadness and unrest is revealed in Balraj Sahni’s little gestures: a shift of the eyes, a cane tapped on the floor. When a dying old woman is carried back to her ancestral house, the framing and sound suggests her memories of her first trip here as a young bride. Many Partition films contain or allude to gruesome violence, but Garm Hava’s violence is subtler – it is about the uncoiling of the threads holding a world together.

    Charandas Chor (Shyam Benegal, 1975)
Benegal’s Ankur is commonly regarded a cornerstone of the mid-1970s New Wave, but it’s perplexing how neglected his second feature is. This version of Habib Tanvir’s celebrated play about a thief who cheekily speaks truth to power was made in collaboration with Tanvir before the play acquired its final form. It is one of our sharpest satires on class and religion, and a fruitful meeting between cinema and folk theatre (with contributions by musicians and actors from Chhatisgarhi Nacha troupes). But it is also an imaginative, playful film, beautifully shot in black and white by Govind Nihalani (who has much fun with zoom lenses), and the debut of the young Smita Patil, as a besotted princess.

Bonga (Kundan Shah, 1976)
Studying at FTII, the serious-looking Kundan Shah suddenly discovered a talent for slapstick comedy and made the diploma film no one expected from him – a wacky, free-association tribute to Chaplin, Godard and the American gangster film. The dialogue-less, 23-minute Bonga may or may not be a story about five people and a bank robbery, but plot descriptions are irrelevant; what matters is the rhythm and exuberance, the sense of a filmmaker finding his voice. Here is the palimpsest for Jaane bhi do Yaaro, the cult comedy Shah would make with his FTII colleagues six years later; it’s possible that one reason why Satish Shah got to “relax” in the role of a corpse in that film was because of his wonderfully energetic physical performance in Bonga!

Alaap (Hrishikesh Mukherjee, 1977)
An Amitabh Bachchan-Rekha-starrer directed by Hrishikesh Mukherjee may seem an odd pick for this list, but Alaap, made near the peak of Bachchan’s superstardom, was among his least-seen films. This loving tribute to the world of classical music and its practitioners (with a wonderful soundtrack by Jaidev) also offers a “parallel” take on tropes from Bachchan’s mainstream roles: for instance, compare the protagonist’s clashes with his authoritarian father to scenes in Shakti, Sharaabi or Trishul which operate in a much higher dramatic register. Made in the multiplex era, this low-key film would probably have found its small, dedicated audience; in 1977, competing in large halls, it stood little chance.

Arvind Desai ki Ajeeb Dastaan (Saeed Mirza, 1978)
Mirza’s debut begins and ends with unforgettable images of poor, voiceless carpet-makers, but its protagonist is a very privileged young man. The handsome, somewhat callow-looking Dilip Dhawan is perfectly cast as Arvind, a businessman’s son who is aware of the unfairness of the world (which he benefits from), but incapable of action. Here is one of the most passive “heroes” our cinema has ever had; as Dylan sang, “You know something is happening, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr Jones?” With its stately visuals and unusual sound design – overlapping dialogue, murmurs that we strain to hear, an explosive percussive score for the final view of the carpet-weavers – this film draws us into Arvind’s tortured inner world.

Sparsh (Sai Paranjpye, 1980)
Paranjpye’s most popular films – warm, whimsical – are Chashme Buddoor and Katha, but before them came this somber story about a blind school principal finding companionship with a widowed singer. Since they are both, in different ways, wounded people, there is friction. This sensitively performed film was particularly notable for Paranjpye’s workshop-style methods – it was shot at a real blind school, with unsighted children – and her emphasis on finding authenticity, especially in Naseeruddin Shah’s performance as Anirudh. What is underlined are other aspects of this character’s personality, notably his mix of masochism and fortitude; here is an “angry young man” as convincing as Naseer’s Albert Pinto the same year.

Sadgati (Satyajit Ray, 1981)
Om Puri, Mohan Agashe and Smita Patil in a grim 1980s film about caste oppression? You’d think this was Nihalani or Benegal terrain, but the made-for-TV Sadgati is Satyajit Ray’s other Hindi venture, a few years after Shatranj ke Khiladi. Based on a Premchand story and centering on a Brahmin priest’s mistreatment of a low-caste shoemaker, this film is full of simmering anger and builds towards an apt, poetic resolution. It is the closest Ray came to working in the Hindi “parallel” movement, and it should be seen alongside the 1982 documentary Satyajit Ray, Filmmaker – directed by Benegal, shot by Nihalani, and featuring a scene where the Bengali master supervises a bashful-looking Puri and Patil as they dub for Sadgati!

Namkeen (Gulzar, 1982)
Perhaps even more than the other “Middle Cinema” directors, Gulzar adeptly toed the line between mainstream and arthouse, and never more so than in this beautifully observed film which brought together a fine cast of star-actors – Waheeda Rehman, Sharmila Tagore, Shabana Azmi, Sanjeev Kumar – in a story about a household of women trying to maintain dignity against immense odds. Though too downbeat in the end for many tastes, Namkeen works as a fine double bill with a Gulzar comedy released the same year, Angoor; it also calls out across cinematic time and space to Basu Bhattacharya’s Teesri Kasam, in which Rehman similarly played a nautanki performer.

Arohan (Shyam Benegal, 1983)
It isn’t often acknowledged how self-reflexive Benegal’s cinema is – how aware of the innate artifice in even the sincerest, most well-intentioned storytelling. His 1999 Samar offers the most lacerating evidence of this quality, but much earlier came Arohan, which opens with a remarkable sequence. Om Puri, introducing himself as Om Puri, tells us about the story we are going to watch – about the exploitation of land tillers in the rural Bengal of the 1960s, overrun by Naxalbari. He introduces the other cast and crew members – standing around on location, grinning, chatting, smoking – and then they slip into their roles. It’s as if the film is showing us its hand: look, we’ll do our best, but there are things we can’t possibly know.

Party (Govind Nihalani, 1984)
A room full of Arvind Desais, but more pretentious, pseudo-intellectual versions? In this brilliantly structured and performed film, a group of people – mostly connected with the cultural world – attend a high-society party, and the conversation converges on a poet who has removed himself from this milieu to fight for exploited tribals. Adapted from Mahesh Elkunchwar’s play, Party is a self-denouncement made by and for people who know that they too are armchair activists; that they still have tongues in their mouths, and hands to write with, only because they stay in sheltered spaces and don’t protest too loudly. Regardless of your ideology, or which “party” you support, this is a universal human story about the chasm between impulse and action.

Khamosh (Vidhu Vinod Chopra, 1985)
Coming in the middle of a decade where ensemble casts of “parallel stars” had Serious conversations about Meaningful things (see the last two entries), Khamosh is one of the most fun films made by the non-mainstream regulars. Chopra had a grand time overseeing this murder mystery set during a location shoot, where Shabana Azmi and Amol Palekar play the actors “Shabana Azmi” and “Amol Palekar”, and Naseeruddin Shah shows up as a suave investigator. This is classic meta-film terrain, but it has genuinely scary moments – including the climactic revelation – if you watch it alone in a dark room.

Mirch Masala (Ketan Mehta, 1987)
On one level, Mirch Masala – about village women in 1940s India taking on a lascivious subedaar – is an obvious allegory, full of symbolism: not least in its final moments where a makeshift “fort” is besieged and underdogs rise against their oppressors with the only weapon they have, something they use every day. But there is also a sense here for the keenly observed small moment: the subedaar listening to a gramophone while getting a shave, the conversations and changing equations between the women, as they move towards solidarity. An intriguing companion piece from the same year is N Chandra’s Pratighaat, another feminist work but located in a contemporary, urban setting.

Kaun? (Ram Gopal Varma, 1999)
The two-or-three-person film, shot in a limited setting, can be very hard to pull off, more so when the genre is a whodunit (or a “who is lying, and how much”?). Ram Gopal Varma had already infused adrenaline into 1990s Hindi cinema with films like Rangeela and Satya when he made this modest-seeming thriller, shot in 15 days. Even while introducing dabs of Hindi-film melodrama into noir staples – the imperiled women, the sinister stranger who comes knocking on the door – Kaun? keeps its suspense taut, aided by a super Manoj Bajpayee performance that has the viewer off balance. You almost expect him to channel Bhiku Mhatre and holler “Iss film ka psycho Kaun?”

Black Friday (Anurag Kashyap, 2004)
While dealing with the bitter disappointment of his debut feature Paanch being held up by the censors, Kashyap made what many still consider his most “disciplined” film. That word is not necessarily praise when discussing a restless auteur, but Black Friday – while more focused, less meandering than many other Kashyap works, and respectful of its subject matter, the 1993 Bombay terrorist attacks – has many directorial flourishes. Among them, a marvelously shot chase through Dharavi, and an extended episode involving the reluctant cross-country travels of a man on the run. Though the point isn’t underlined, this poignant pan-India tour shows him – and us – the cultural variety and dynamism of a country under threat (then and now) from single-agenda forces.

The Blue Umbrella (Vishal Bhardwaj, 2005)
Ruskin Bond and Vishal Bhardwaj are the most unlikely of collaborators. The former’s writings are genteel, old-world, deceptively simple; the latter’s best films are baroque, set in the contemporary Indian hinterland, full of rough-speaking characters. But they share a penchant for dark humour, and in taking Bond’s children’s story “The Blue Umbrella”, Bhardwaj gave it the texture of a jet-black fairytale and shifted the narrative focus, providing Pankaj Kapoor with one of his best roles as a greedy Himachali shopkeeper. The tone and visual palette subtly changes from a bright, sunshiney one to a nightmarish one full of shadowy figures; the Brothers Grimm come to Hindi cinema.

Being Cyrus (Homi Adjania, 2006) 
 Saif Ali Khan has been applauded for performances that required the suave, urbane actor to step out of his comfort zone – as Langda Tyagi (Omkara) or Sartaj Singh (Sacred Games). But two films showed how his natural persona could be put to delicious use in a twisted suspense-comedy. One was Sriram Raghavan’s Ek Hasina Thi; the other is the under-seen Being Cyrus, in which Khan plays a drifter who stumbles (accidentally?) into the lives of an eccentric Parsi family. Even though it arrived right at the start of a more experimental era in Hindi cinema, this film was too offbeat (or posh) for many tastes. It needs revisiting.

Manorama Six Feet Under (Navdeep Singh, 2007)
Singh’s debut has a great establishing sequence, beginning with a brief shot of a water tank, then acquainting us with a parched small-town landscape and the daily routine of Satyaveer (Abhay Deol), an ennui-afflicted engineer and pulp writer. Asked to play detective, he finds himself in a labyrinth of deception. This part-homage to Polanski’s Chinatown (with nods to films by Antonioni and Lynch) is a reminder that film noir doesn’t have to be about dark shadows or smoky black-and-white cinematography; it is about the nighttime of the soul, even when it unfolds below a blazing Rajasthani sun.

Videokaaran (Jagannathan Krishnan, 2010)
The protagonist of this documentary is a young man who used to run a video theatre near a Mumbai slum. Philosopher, street savant, teller of rude tales, the giggling Sagai Raj is a real person in a non-fiction film, but he is also one of the most riveting “characters” you’ll see – whether he is discussing the merits of Bachchan and Rajinikath, relating his misadventures smuggling DVDs, or holding forth on how porn helps men figure out women. Sagai has star quality, he is a construct of the movies he loves – and by the film’s end he forces us to reflect on the essential, nourishing link between deprivation and fantasy.

Miss Lovely (Ashim Ahluwalia, 2012)
To say that Miss Lovely is about two brothers making low-budget sex-and-horror movies in the 1980s – and falling out over a girl – barely scratches the surface. Here is an abstract, slow-moving, anti-narrative work that builds a sense of time and place – some scenes are intensely nostalgia-inducing for anyone who experienced the period firsthand – while also raising questions about masculinities. What happens when an introspective, “unmanly” man (the younger brother Sonu, played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui), given to philosophising and dreaming, has to negotiate a coarse, cut-throat world like this one?

Ship of Theseus (Anand Gandhi, 2013)
The title of this elegant film comes from a well-known philosophical query, which suggests a measure of intellectual self-consciousness built into the project. A triptych of stories about individuals struggling with bodily changes and emotional epiphanies (a vision-impaired photographer has her sight restored; a monk faces a moral dilemma when he is diagnosed with cirrhosis), Ship of Theseus lends itself to being discussed in terms of its big themes. But it is also a splendidly constructed, visually fluid work, with some of the best ensemble acting we have seen.

Gurgaon (Shanker Raman, 2017)
This is one of a few recent indie films (another obvious title being Kanu Behl’s 2014 Titli) that present the Family as a nasty, self-cannibalising beast. Equally notable is how it achieves its effects, through a series of crepuscular vignettes rather than expository dialogue – so that what at first seems to be a plot-driven film (about a brother-sister conflict in a nouveau-riche family of builders) soon becomes languid and dream-like, as if parts had been shot underwater. People do terrible things here, yet Gurgaon has little interest in passing judgements; it observes, like we might watch fish in an aquarium.

Soni (Ivan Ayr, 2018)
The neologism “Madam Sir” – a form of address for a senior policewoman in India – has something pointed about it, often implying the respect is being offered not to the woman in the high position but to the position itself, traditionally occupied by men. Soni, a quiet, meditative story about the daily frustrations of two woman cops – and what it means for such a person to lose her temper – is very aware of this. It is a riposte to the macho swagger of films like Dabangg and Simmba; a line like “Dil kar raha tha goli se maar doon sab ko” – spoken by a 13-year-old girl – contains more anger and pain than the fight scenes in those blockbusters.

Saturday, May 04, 2019

Fathers, sons, and boarding schools: on The Godfather II and The Crown

[Wrote this piece for my Hindu column “One Moment Please”]

In this space last year, I wrote about the effect of watching a film (Ravi Jadhav’s Nude) set in Bombay’s JJ School of Art, where my mother had learnt drawing in the 1960s. This current column is, without having been planned that way, a parental companion piece. As I write it, I’m about to go to Doon School, Dehradun to hold a workshop about film appreciation. I have never been there before, but my father – who died exactly two years ago this week – studied there.

My relationship with him was very troubled, to put it mildly; things had gone wrong for him in his teenage years, as he fell into what would become a lifetime of substance abuse and consequent mental illness and delusion, eventually alienating everyone around him. After his death, it was both soothing and depressing to hear complimentary things about what a fine student and “all-rounder” he had been in his school days, how intelligent and sensitive.

Without getting into too many details, I have always felt a strong personality connect with my father, and grateful – lucky – that I have (so far) led a more stable life. I am easily drawn to creative works about a child trying to resist the influence of a problematic parent: from Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader to stories set in our own galaxy. And I’m thinking of two narratives – one a celebrated 1970s film, the other an episode from an acclaimed web series – that crosscut between the lives of a father and son, creating both parallels and contrasts. One of them even centres on a boarding school.


A film clip I am showing at the Doon workshop is the long scene that occurs midway through The Godfather Part II, where the young Vito Corleone (played by Robert De Niro) becomes a killer for the first time. In its use of space, colour, movement and contrasts, the sequence is a striking one: the formidable Don Fanucci saunters through the crowded streets of Little Italy (a religious procession is on), Vito tracks him from the rooftops, lithely moving from one building to the next. He intercepts and shoots Fanucci in a darkened stairway; deed done, he returns home, where his wife is sitting with their children. Vito takes his infant son Michael’s little hand into his own, caresses it, and says in Italian, “Your father loves you very much.”

This last bit might be deemed a case of a great film becoming a little too obvious in its symbolism. Here is a father, his hands freshly tainted by murder, almost literally “passing on” the sin to his baby boy (who, the informed viewer knows, will grow up to be his eventual, unlikely successor). But then The Godfather Part II is also an example of what Manny Farber described as Elephant Art: this is a behemoth, loudly trumpeting its themes as it cuts between young Vito, making his way up the ladder of organized crime, and Michael, consumed by his father’s legacy decades later.

Elephants can be graceful and languid too, though, and this film moves seamlessly between minor and major keys. On one hand, there is the restraint we expect of Francis Ford Coppola and his cast of Method actors, the attention to detail, the little gestures; on the other hand, there are sweeping, operatic moments, grand statements about family, about man passing misery on to man, about religion and original sin. And there are cinematic echoes. When Vito retrieves the gun that he has hidden inside a chimney on that rooftop, it recalls the scene in the first Godfather film where Michael, ready for HIS first killing, dislodges a concealed gun from behind the flush-tank in a washroom. I always find it fascinating to discuss the Fanucci-murder scene with students: even when they don’t know the Godfather films, they respond to little things such as the black humour, the ironic use of the Jesus statue during the procession, the lighting during the murder.

I was reminded of The Godfather Part II last year when I caught one of the best episodes of the Netflix series The Crown. “Paterfamilias” is a similarly operatic yet tightly constructed mini-film which dramatizes the boarding-school childhoods, 25 years apart, of Prince Philip and his son Charles. Philip attends Gordonstoun, Scotland in the 1930s, finds a family there, survives a difficult personal crisis, and is toughened; the more sheltered and reserved Charles finds it much harder to adapt to the boarding-school ethos when he is forced to go there.

I’m far from enamored by the British royals, but that was irrelevant when I watched this episode. It’s beautifully structured, performed and scored (by Rupert Gregson Williams), and combines grandeur with intimacy in a way that recalls the Coppola film. It also achieves that rare feat, creating empathy for two very different personality types who are in conflict. A scene near the end where Philip explodes in anger at his “weak” son may seem like a textbook case of an alpha-male bullying an introvert, but given the path the episode has taken in getting here, it is possible to feel deeply for both characters. And to recall again the Larkin line about man inevitably passing misery on to man. (As one character says, “You too will fail, as all parents do, and be hated in turn.”)

I’m tempted to show this whole, 50-minute episode at my workshop too, but I’m not sure that would be a nice thing to do to boarding-school students. Some of whom may have their own daddy issues.

[Related posts: an art school and my mother; earlier Hindu columns]

Monday, April 29, 2019

An erotic Mahabharata, death in an elevator, and other books for children

[the latest instalment in my Bookshelves column for First Post]

A memory from around the time I am twelve. Obsessed with the Mahabharata, I have submerged myself in a range of literature related to the epic – including books that go well beyond the straitlaced translations by C Rajagopalachari and others. One of these is from the Oriental Exotica subgenre, a novel titled Samraj by the German writer Elaine Aron. This perspective telling sticks closely to the epic’s central narrative, but also incorporates elements from Egyptian history(!), and contains a few sexually explicit scenes built around Draupadi and her Pandava husbands. As Yudhisthira and Draupadi attempt to settle and expand their agricultural land, there are many lewd analogies involving “eager curved ploughs” (of the princes at a swayamvara, for instance) and moist furrows.

A visitor to the house, flipping through the pages, is aghast. “Look what he’s reading!” she tells my mother, opening and displaying a few choice passages. “Disgraceful. I am confiscating this book for a few years.” (Personally, I suspect she wants to add to her own soft-porn collection.)

Nothing doing, says mum. It stays here.

Other comparable incidents, involving other books, took place in those years, with my mother’s response pretty much always the same – whether the objection was to sexual content or something else “disrespectful” (many of the mythological books I was reading didn’t conform to sanitized mainstream tellings, and got devout people very nervous). As a result, I rarely had to think about the question: what is inappropriate for children to read, what sort of writing should they be shielded from?

Much as I would today like to reply “Nothing. They should read whatever they bloody well want”, it would be silly to pretend there can be a one-size-fits-all answer. It depends on many things, including the nature of the child’s relationship with his parents. My mother not batting an eyelid about Samraj was a combination of having faith in my maturity at a certain age (a quality her upbringing had in the first place helped shape) and the knowledge that, if I showed signs of being “badly influenced”, she could candidly speak with me about things that many other parents would find hard to discuss with their children.

There are other factors. As a child, I had experienced real-world unpleasantness and domestic violence firsthand, and possibly this raised my threshold for unpleasant content in art (or made me aware, at a very young age, that the world can be a ghastly place). But it’s equally possible that another child, with very similar experiences, may have responded by seeking more comforting, sunshiney places as a reader.

All of us also have very different capacities for (say) black humour; some of us are more squeamish than others. Genres like horror and gore (in literature or cinema) evoke a range of responses. “Did you read the one about the lift?” my mother asked me with a delighted snigger when we happened to discover Roald Dahl stories together. She was alluding to “The Way Up to Heaven”, in which a long-suffering wife, about to leave for a long holiday, realizes that her husband has been trapped in their malfunctioning house elevator… and simply leaves him there and carries on with her plans (no one else is around to hear or help).

Related to the question of what is too dark for young readers is the subject of fictional children who are not “adaarsh” baalaks and baalikas: from the merely naughty (Amelia Jane in Enid Blyton) to the satanically possessed (Regan in The Exorcist) to the ones who seem relatively normal on the outside, but are capable of delightful malevolence. The frisson-creating climactic sentence of Agatha Christie’s Crooked House (*Spoiler Alert*) is from a diary entry that reads “Today I killed grandfather.” Gerald Kersh’s witty short story “The Crewel Needle” – you’ll find it in the superb Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries – centres on an eight-year-old girl who did something Truly Bad, with the narrator drolly observing, in the story’s present, “I shouldn’t be surprised if she had grown up to be a handful.”

These characters are not great role models if you view literature purely in terms of its overt “usefulness”, or for the life-lessons it should impart the young. But good, engaged reading is a much more complex thing than that. Why shouldn’t a child be able to simply READ about children who are actually DOING wicked things? Must we have such a reductive view of the link between impulse and action; the difference between having the synapses of our reptile brains stimulated by something we read or watch, and putting that thing in practice?

Anyway, my heart was gladdened when I recently learnt of a back-story around a favourite book. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, artist Eddie Campbell was working with Alan Moore on the colossal graphic novel From Hell, about the Jack the Ripper killings and what they revealed about the Victorian age as well as the twentieth century to come. Though the book is far from gratuitous, its realistic and detailed treatment of its subject matter can make some of it heavy reading even for hardened adults. Yet, on his blog years later, Campbell revealed that his little daughter Hayley had sat up with him during many of those drawing sessions, creating her own grisly artwork.

In the manner of the proud parent, he shared some of this in The From Hell Companion, beginning with his drawing wherein the seven-year-old is shown mumbling the adorable line “I finished Jackarippy. I go to bed now.” This is followed by the moppet’s depictions of not-very-nice ways to die – “when your cut up while your sleeping”, “being basht to death” – and even a kidney rotting on a handkerchief (which is from a detail in From Hell).

No one would mistake these for Shirley Temple’s polly-wolly doodles, and I was unsurprised to learn that Hayley – now in her thirties – is “working on a book about death”. So far, however, as far as we know, she has not cut up anyone and mailed their internal organs to the police. Even if her childhood adventures caused a few nightmares at the time, I have a feeling they were balanced by the experience of having a close parent who was willing to trust and confide, and share his work and time.


[Earlier Bookshelves pieces are here]