Thursday, November 25, 2021

Bees saal pehle: a journalistic anniversary

(Guilty yet again of putting something on Facebook and neglecting to share it here. A short nostalgia post about November 23, 2001) 

From the archives: 20 years ago on November 23 I technically became a “journalist” by joining India Today’s 24-hour website TheNewspaperToday – after a very intimidating interview with the then-ferocious-but-now-puppy-dog-like Sudeep Chakravarti (and an HR fellow who shall remain unnamed here but whose glinting spectacles put me in mind of The Efficient Baxter in PG Wodehouse’s Blandings Castle books). This wasn’t my first job (I had worked for over two years for Encyclopaedia Britannica and got many bylines on their website, apart from writing occasional pieces for the first iteration of Tehelka, CafeDilli, The Statesman and a few other publications), but it was my first experience of being in a newsroom-like environment – though I spent most of my initial weeks at The NewspaperToday on the 2 AM to 10 AM graveyard shift, almost alone in the big Videocon Towers office.
 
Many stories to be told about my stint there (which included being part of the original team for the afternoon tabloid Today, launched from the same office after the website wrapped up), but for now: the two images below are reminders of the boilerplate film “reviews” I was doing for The Statesman around the same period. (Including one dated Nov 23, 2001.) There were even three pieces on a single weekend, after watching previews of all those films – Cats and Dogs, Kiss of the Dragon and Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – at the stinky little auditorium at Mahadev Road. (I was disdainful about these sorts of 400-word reviews even back then, but I remember being pleased with a line I used in the Captain Corelli piece: “These men come across more as troupe than troop.”) 
 
 
 
Though Sudeep and my other bosses didn’t get to know this, I continued moonlighting for The Statesman for a few months despite being chained to the India Today Group – the byline I used was the not-spectacularly-imaginative “JA Singh”, and I assume the reason I was never caught was because no one other than the Statesman’s desk guys (and maybe not even them) read those pieces…

Saturday, November 20, 2021

The dying king's descendants: on the new Anees Salim novel

One of our best contemporary novelists has a new book out. The Odd Book of Baby Names isn’t among my two or three favourite Anees Salim novels, but it’s still pretty good. Wrote this piece for Open magazine.
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In a palace, an old king – once very powerful, now diminished – lies comatose, life slipping away from him as the days roll by. We don’t at first know anything about the place, the period, or even whether this is a “realistic” tale – more details will come later – but the storytelling has a fable-like quality: it is divided between many narrators, all of whom are the king’s progeny.

The official sons speak to us first: the rival princes Moazzam – fat, alcoholic, childlike – and Azam, outwardly more poised but with a small addiction, or obsession, of his own. This is followed by a din of voices of illegitimate children, each name accompanied by its meaning. There is the stammering Hyder (“the one who is as brave as a lion”) who is employed as a nurse in the dying ruler’s room: “The spacious bed looked like an oc... oc... ocean, and he, withered and tiny, a blue bedspread pulled up to his chin, like a man about to be drowned.” There is Zuhab, who was conceived in a village when the king’s train happened to break down there many years earlier. A poetic young man named Shahbaz, who lives in an alley, and the marble-playing ghost of his childhood friend (and half-brother) Sultan, who had died of the black fever at thirteen. Muneer the tailor, hoping to stitch a new fez and take it to the palace so he can have a glimpse of his father. The enigmatic Owais, trying to get through to Cotah Mahal on the phone, but repeatedly rebuffed.

And there is Humera, the only woman in the group, who tells us that her mother wasn’t just a concubine or mistress but the king’s “lover”. Among the illegitimate children, she alone received birthday greetings and gifts from her father.

Thus unfolds Anees Salim’s sixth novel The Odd Book of Baby Names. It begins with an account of a false alarm (the king is mistakenly thought to be dead), after which we are taken back and forth in time as personal histories are revealed. We also learn about a slim book in which the ruler had recorded the names of all his children – dozens, perhaps over a hundred, of them. (“What necessitated such a cryptic register was the history of poor memory that ran in the family like an incurable disorder,” Azam tells us, a line that recalls themes from Salim’s earlier novels, especially The Blind Lady’s Descendants.)

As names from this private journal are listed, the reader might inevitably become curious about what the lives of those many other children are like. And how big would a novel have to be to accommodate all of their stories?

It would probably have to be an epic, a baggy monster aiming to be the latest Great Indian Novel – but that isn’t the kind of writing one associates with Salim, who is a master of the small, intimate story that grows in the telling. Over the past decade he has established himself as one of our finest novelists, winning well-deserved accolades for a style that combines chatty, colloquial prose with sharp and poignant observations about families, communities and the inner and outer conflicts faced by individuals within those groups.

As a long-time fan, I felt the special pleasure of sinking into a new Salim novel as soon as I opened this one: the effortless mixing of moods, from throwaway humour to heart-breaking insight, the unexpectedly rude or bawdy asides. Here is a description of a pitcher that has been covered by a jacket in a tailor’s shop – an attempt to make it look less ugly but instead giving it the appearance of “a destitute man with amputated limbs, piddling drip by drip onto a bedpan”. And here is a depressed young woman pretending in turn to be herself and a “doctor who mended minds”, switching from one chair to another on opposite sides of a table, even ruffling her own hair as one part of her gets up to leave. A funny passage where Shahbaz, taking a woman and her ill son to the hospital on his bicycle, sings a love song that frightens the child. An irreverent but accurate-sounding description of a dead man on a couch, as a child might see him: “Bada Topiwalla lay almost smiling at the ceiling like saying hello ceiling how are you”.

As often happens in Salim’s work, the universal and the very particular move alongside each other: on the one hand, the clamour of competing voices represent a gamut of human experiences and concerns; on the other hand, the characters are all Muslim, and there are culture-specific references, such as a passage where two boys anger a Quran teacher with a prank involving millipedes. As incidental details creep in, one gathers that the present day of the story may be sometime in the late 1960s or early 70s: there is a reference to a recent conversation set a few years after Nehru’s death; another reference to the king making it to the cover of Time magazine in the 1930s as the wealthiest man in the world and a great leader. It is tempting to play connect-the-dots with this information, to wonder if the king is an alternate-world stand-in for a real figure (if so, Jinnah would be one obvious choice) – but such inferences aren’t necessary for a deeper appreciation of this story: this is not as pointedly allegorical a novel as, say, Salman Rushdie’s Shame or Midnight’s Children, it is more relaxed and free-wheeling.

There are, of course, larger themes at play in the story of a ruler and his “children”, from various classes and walks of life, forming an orchestra of aspirations and delusions. (“Each family had an exotic name,” goes a passage that is ostensibly about a large tree full of birds’ nests, “Each name had a meaning, a purpose. When all the birds sang together, the air was heavy with the sound of 100 maracas, probably 1,000.”) In a strangely moving scene, one of the sons recalls his old father thinking he was once a circus-owner rather than a king, complete with startlingly detailed descriptions of the beehive of activity in the circus tent. Isn’t this how any dying leader might feel about his constituency? This is, after all, a story about life’s rich pageant – about our many performances and acrobatics, the many ways in which pleasures and disappointments criss-cross. I think of life as a game of hide and seek, one narrator says late in the book, as he watches children playing that game – a boy tiptoeing up behind a girl who thinks she hasn’t yet been discovered, each of their faces marked with a different sort of joy or anticipation.

Structurally this may be the most atypical of Salim’s novels. It is the only one other than The Vicks Mango Tree (the first to be published, in 2012) that moves between multiple protagonists. In the other books, we were tied to the consciousness of a single person: the delightfully outspoken Hasina in Tales from a Vending Machine, working at an airport, dreaming of escaping on one of those “little planes” she sees from the windows;
Imran in Vanity Bagh, an imam’s son living in a mohalla nicknamed Little Pakistan; the melancholy Amar in The Blind Lady’s Descendants, feeling like he was born into a doomed family, drawing morbid inspiration from the story of an uncle who committed suicide decades earlier; most recently the unnamed adolescent narrator of The Small-Town Sea who moves with his parents to the small coastal town where his father had grown up (and where he now wants to die).

The effect of reading The Odd Book of Baby Names is trickier. One is more aware of the author’s efforts to distinguish one narrator from another (through Hyder’s stammer, for example, which gives his narration a distinct texture). Some voices are more engaging than others: I particularly liked the ones of Muneer the tailor, and of Humera and Shahbaz as their paths slowly converge; Zuhab’s story was less interesting to begin with, but becomes more central as the book progresses – and as its narrative moves towards small misdeeds followed by bigger crimes: from deception to possible incest to robbery to murder (which also happens to be fratricide).

Much as I enjoyed reading this novel, I was also left with a niggling feeling of dissatisfaction at the very end – as if it had wrapped up too abruptly, something important had been left unsaid, or I hadn’t got to spend enough time with any one narrator. The Odd Book of Baby Names is a book of vignettes – a flash from one life here, another flash there – and very engaging as the minutiae is on its own terms, on the whole I prefer Salim’s single-protagonist novels. Perhaps because one of his major strengths is building a person’s life over a span of time, with new revelations or insights coming at intervals (while we are also allowed to conjecture the more unreliable aspects of the narrative). One of this book’s most funny-sad descriptions is that of the unconscious king’s farts playing “a sad tune” (perhaps like a jester with a bugle in that circus?) and providing the only sign that he is alive. It made me wonder what this novel might have been like if his had been the sole anchoring voice, with the others floating around it as an accompanying chorus.

[Two earlier pieces on Anees Salim's work: The Small-Town Storyteller and A Tree Named Franklin]

A quick (and belated) note on Mumbai Diaries 26/11

I don’t usually post the (very) tiny “reviews” I do for Reader’s Digest – thought about writing expanded versions for the blog, but no energy now for that sort of thing. Still, it makes sense once in a while to share something about a film or series to provide information about its existence (for those who might not have heard of it in this OTT-clutter age). Among the ones I liked in recent months was Mumbai Diaries 26/11, a medical drama set on the first night of the November 2008 terrorist attacks on Mumbai. The main location is a south Bombay government hospital where doctors and nurses (and three interns, on a first day that is much more memorable than they would have liked) must cope with the influx of wounded patients, and with a possible threat to their own lives.

There are a few slack threads here and there – not every character or back-story is compelling – but on the whole this was a well-paced show. Among its visual signatures are many long takes and a constantly moving camera in relatively congested settings – this sort of thing can be dizzying and not to all tastes, but it catches the chaos of the night and the constant confusion and fear of the characters. Hospital staff like Chitra (Konkona Sen Sharma) deal with their own personal demons, a doctor’s wife (Tina Desai) tries to keep guests in the Palace Hotel safe from the terrorists, an ambitious journalist (Shreya Dhanwanthary) causes trouble for everyone.

Ironically the story became less gripping for me at the point where the hospital itself comes in the line of fire, with a couple of terrorists infiltrating it to get to one of their group who has been admitted as a patient. When this happens (around episode 5 or 6) Mumbai Diaries 26/11 begins to play like a more conventional, gunfire-in-the-corridors action show – as opposed to what it was earlier, a story about the frenetic goings-on in a place that was at the centre of the storm but insulated from the actual violence.


Also: I actually began my tiny RD piece by mentioning how impressive Mohit Raina is as the bandana-wearing trauma surgery chief Dr Kaushik, and how long my mind took to process that this was the same actor who played Lord Shiva as a beefcake in the TV show Devon ke Dev…Mahadev. (I have never watched that show, only seen snippets here and there, but I remember Raina’s Shiva from a couple of scenes in the Star Plus Mahabharata of 2013-2014, such as the one where he interrupts the Bheeshma-Parashurama fight and sonorously Godsplains to the traumatised Amba. Wouldn’t have imagined him in the Mumbai Diaries role.)

Thursday, November 18, 2021

Last Night in Soho: a film about monsters in the Swinging Sixties

(As an old-movie nerd who often wistfully dreams about bygone worlds, I found the premise of the new film Last Night in Soho appealing. Wrote this for First Post)
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“The past is a foreign country,” goes the famous opening of LP Hartley’s novel The Go-Between, “They do things differently there.” These lines could serve as a very generalised epigraph for Edgar Wright’s new film Last Night in Soho, though the following might be more suitable: The past is a monster that doubles up as your security blanket, providing warmth and reassurance before smothering you in its labyrinthine folds.

Last Night in Soho starts off very promisingly, maintains that promise till past the midway mark – and then goes somewhat bonkers in its second half. But disappointed as I was by how the film ended up, I never stopped feeling a connect with the state of mind of its protagonist: a young woman named Eloise (or Ellie) who lives in the present day but idealises and yearns for a bygone period that she never experienced firsthand: in this case, the London of the Swinging Sixties.

Shortly after moving from rural Cornwall to London for a fashion-design course, Ellie – who, we gather, has the “gift” of seeing things, including the spirit of her long-dead mother – begins to have dream-visions of the mid-1960s where she becomes a sort of doppelganger to a young woman named Sandie, an aspiring singer. As Ellie moves between her own contemporary life (slowly gaining confidence despite the bullying of city-bred classmates) and participating invisibly in the past world (populated by theatres showing films like Thunderball and Darling, and nightclubs where Cilla Black and Petula Clark perform), she is privy to the gradual shattering of Sandie’s dreams. The visions become darker, she gets increasingly concerned about her new “friend”, uncertain about who or what to believe.

All this places the film in the fantasy-cum-psychological-horror genre, and it is hit and miss in this regard, with a couple of tonal shifts that won’t be to all tastes – though some of the dreamscapes created by Wright and cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon are vivid and unsettling, as subtly creepy encounters yield to full-blown horror. (Some night-time scenes play like tributes to Dario Argento. A parade of the ghosts of predatory men, their features indistinct, faces appearing to melt, is evocative of the famous “Return of the Dead” sequence from Abel Gance’s silent film J’Accuse, though it could just as easily have come from a modern slasher film.)

However, I was more interested in the film’s treatment of nostalgia and the use of time travel (real or imagined) as a therapeutic tool. Perhaps because I could relate to Ellie, a misfit who says things like “If I could live anywhere in any time, it would be 1960s London” and gets puzzled looks from classmates when she completes a reference to “Kylie” with “Minogue”. (Even the 1980s/90s star feels like a relic now compared to the much more contemporary Kylie Jenner!) She uses old music as a cocoon that enables her to shut out her immediate surroundings – to the degree that she almost misses her first class because, lulled by the music, she over-sleeps.

Watching these scenes, I was reminded of a conversation with a much older colleague when I was in my first job. I was in my early twenties, she was in her fifties, and we were at a copy-desk together, tracking changes on a cinema-related article. Gathering that I was somewhat into “old cinema”, she started talking about mid-1960s films, and about actresses like Jane Fonda, Julie Christie and Audrey Hepburn. After going on for a while, she laughed self-consciously. "Why am I saying all this to you?" she said. "It's so far before your time."

Actually,” I replied, “the reason I’m being quiet is that Jane Fonda is way after my time – though I know everything there is to know about her dad’s career. Also, my preferred Hepburn is Katharine, who predates the other one by around 20 years.” Then as always, I was in my 1930s and 1940s Hollywood phase. When I was much younger and even more precociously intolerable, I had annoyed a visiting aunt by interrupting her proclamations about old films (high on her own version of nostalgia, she claimed among other things that Audrey had won an Oscar for My Fair Lady, and didn’t take kindly to being corrected – “no aunty, she wasn’t even nominated” – by a 14-year-old).

This is a long-winded way of saying that I know what it’s like to be a freak who constantly fantasises about being transported to another time and place – say, a place where your favourite films were being created. I can imagine gliding, mouth agape, from one studio lot to another in the 1940s or 1950s, watching iconic scenes being performed for the first time, or the playing out of personality conflicts that derailed or strengthened film history. Or watching the first Live performance of a soon-to-be-legendary song from a major album. Or just feeling a strong desire to visit the period when your own parents were growing up, to get a sense of the texture of that world and how it shaped their personalities and lives.

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Though Last Night in Soho is broadly speaking psychological horror, it has kindred spirits in other genres – in Woody Allen’s delightful Midnight in Paris, for instance, where an American writer visiting Paris finds himself back in the 1920s, rubbing shoulders with Salvador Dali and Gertrude Stein and F Scott Fitzgerald . (That film was different in tone from Last Night in Soho, but it also slyly warned of the pitfalls of idealising the past, or of thinking of a specific period as a “golden age”.) I also thought of Stephen King’s novel 11.22.63, which was on the one hand an intense nostalgia exercise with its plot where a teacher goes back in time to the Eisenhower era, the period of King’s own adolescence – but also a sharp caution about the not so savoury aspects of the past (with one vivid scene involving a clump of poison ivy near a ramshackle toilet for “Coloured” people in the segregation era).

Last Night in Soho also has a self-referential side, in its casting of the veteran actors Diana Rigg (who died last year, after the film was completed; it is dedicated to her) and Terence Stamp. Both were an important part of the British pop-cultural landscape of the swinging 60s: Rigg became a star in that decade with her iconic role as Emma Peel in the TV series The Avengers, and by playing arguably the first “Bond girl” of real substance, in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service; Stamp, though best known to my generation for playing Superman’s arch-enemy General Zod, was genuinely sinister in the 60s in such films as The Collector and Spirits of the Dead. In a sense, these actors – or their youthful versions – are as much ghosts of that decade as the spirits in this narrative are. Wright’s film knows this, and uses their wrinkled faces and still-striking personalities to good effect. (Minor spoiler alert) The film also derives some tension from a similarity in features between the octogenarians and the much younger actors Anya Taylor-Joy and Matt Smith.

In any case, one immediate effect of this film for me was that it made me want to re-watch a few 1960s films starring Rigg and Stamp (and Rita Tushingham, who is also here, in a more peripheral role as Ellie’s grandmother). The past, as LP Hartley didn’t say, can turn out to be a dangerous country – too much nostalgia can cloud one’s vision, there is peril in living somewhere other than the present – but for many of us it is an irresistible lure. “Do you have any plans tonight?” a nice young man in the present day asks Ellie shortly after she has returned from her first time-traveling excursion. She is tempted to go out with him, but then faces from the previous night’s adventure encroach into her mind, beckoning her back to them for some old-world fun and games, and she realises that she does have somewhere better to be. Or so she thinks. 

[My earlier First Post pieces are here. Related post: on Danny Boyle's Yesterday, about a world in which the Beatles never existed]

Saturday, November 13, 2021

It’s all about bludgeoning your family: on the new show Tabbar

Really liked the new series Tabbar, on Sony Liv – and not just because I remember the frequent and boisterous use of that word by Punjabi grandparents and aunts as I was growing up. Wrote this for my Sunday Economic Times column
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The eighth and final episode of the gripping new series Tabbar – about a Jalandhar-based family in escalating trouble – opens with a flashback. Much of the show has centred on the retired Sikh cop Omkar Singh and his wife Sargun (played by Pawan Malhotra and Supriya Pathak), but now for the first time we see the younger versions of these characters, bantering and flirting during an early meeting.

“I don’t trust policemen,” young Sargun says teasingly, “They get so busy protecting other people, they forget about their own families.” In response he makes a grand yet intimate gesture, taking out a page from a notepad, writing “I, Omkar Singh, will always protect my family”, and handing it to her.

Shy smiles are exchanged; a relationship is on the brink of being solidified, a new world is about to begin. But sweet as the scene is in itself, there is something unsettling about it. And that isn’t because a viewer like me remembers the young Supriya Pathak and Pawan Malhotra (two of our most likable character actors of the 1980s) and can’t quite relate to these faces in the flashback. It’s because Tabbar has by now given us a dark demonstration of what it might mean to “look after your family” – through a series of events that the Singh clan has become unluckily caught up in, but to which small missteps or transgressions have also contributed. By the end of the show (no spoilers), the idea of familial unity has been so diluted that you aren’t sure whom to root for. In fact, the flashback itself ends with a cut to the present-day versions of Omkar and Sargun returning from a horrific night-time car drive, after a tragedy that made nonsense of another promise that he had (very sincerely) made to her.

From unobtrusive beginnings – a mix-up involving two similar bags, one of which turns out to contain a drug stash – Tabbar builds and builds, one incident begetting another, one small lie necessitating a bigger one, with moments of tension located in such details as a red smudge on a shirt (explained away as beetroot juice) or someone surreptitiously examining a house’s walls while a prayer ceremony is underway. Though it briefly threatens to become a psychotic-road-killer show (via the introduction of two peripheral Bonnie-and-Clyde-like characters), it remains consistently engaging – unlike most other Indian series I have watched (even the generally excellent Scam 1992), it didn’t sag in the midsection.

Part of the reason for this is that the episodes are mainly 30 to 40 minutes each, not hitting the one-hour mark that many other shows do. But also, Tabbar maintains its focus on a relatively small group of characters: the four-member Singh family living in their “Happy House” in a middle-class neighbourhood (Omkar and Sargun have two sons, Happy and Tegi); a nosy neighbour; a cousin named Lucky who is a diligent young cop; and the potential antagonist, the politician Ajeet Singh. Many other shows, as they expand their canvases, add too many characters and subplots to the mix. This one finds the right pacing, and the right level of identification, to tell its story.

In recent times there have been a few Indian films and shows about families – dysfunctional or otherwise – falling into a vortex: some that come to mind are Titli (2014), Gurgaon (2017) and the series Mirzapur (the first episode of which has a pulsating home-invasion action sequence that Tabbar offers a lower-key variant on). But the protagonists of many of those stories are already into some form of crime and there are enough reminders that being a good, united family doesn’t have to imply a good value system. (Leatherface’s family in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was sanskaari too – staying together, eating together, roles neatly defined and allocated – even as they chopped up teenage passers-by.)

In Tabbar, though, the family that ends up claiming first outsiders and then its own is not just innately “nice” but also clearly outside the ambit of such corrupting things as crime or politics. (An early scene has Omkar riding along on his scooter, the epitome of the powerless common man, looking dazed and lost as he is ordered to take a detour because of a political rally.) The man who stumbles into their lives and gets killed isn’t an innocent kid in a teen slasher film but the drug-dealing brother of a local politician. In such a scenario, you’d think the Singh family would be our object of sympathy and concern. And so it is for the most part, but something shifts along the way as they perform cover-ups and as we learn more. And this is the show’s real complexity: we never stop thinking of Omkar as a decent, humble, well-intentioned man; yet, by the final moments, one is forced to question everything.

While a film like Titli was about a history of violence in a family ridden with masculine energies, the three-quarters-male family in Tabbar is more grounded and likable (even if the two sons are hiding secrets). But here too, a testosterone-driven idea of what it means to “protect” emerges. Inevitably, then, the Sargun character – who seems marginalised at one point – becomes the tragic figure, taking refuge in home and hearth but incurably haunted; even as she loses her bearings, she seems to be the only one who fully realises how far stepp’d they are in blood. A cynic (or a realist?) might say that she has seen families, and people within families, for what they are – and that madness is the only sane response to such understanding.

Sunday, October 31, 2021

For the Pleasure Without Guilt series: watching movie fragments

I don’t care for the term “guilty pleasure” when applied to reading or film-watching –there are many different ways of being positively stimulated by a film or book (we have complex reptile brains etc etc), and there should be no reason to feel guilty or sheepish about any of those engagements. So I was glad to hear about First Post’s new series titled Pleasure without Guilt, which offers a fresh take on the idea of the “guilty pleasure”. Could have written many pieces for it, but here’s the one I decided on: my increasingly tendency to re-watch fragments of films, and a special love for sequences driven by lush, opulent music scores.
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As a teenage movie buff in the early-to-mid 1990s, a few years before the internet came into our lives, one of my prize possessions was a CD-ROM titled Cinemania, a collection of reviews, images and biographical entries – along with never-before-seen things called “hyperlinks” that took you to another page on the CD-ROM when you clicked on a highlighted word. (Oh, wondrous technology!) Most fascinating, though, was the section with short clips – two or three minutes at most – from around 20 major films. Up to that point, it had been literally unthinkable that I could watch a video on my fat desktop computer.

I hadn’t yet watched a few of these films, but I still enjoyed the clips, bereft of context: such as the tense scene from Taxi Driver where director Martin Scorsese plays a paranoid, menacingly soft-spoken man, one of Travis Bickle’s passengers. Or a fragment of the “Atlanta burning” setpiece from Gone With the Wind (which I found thrilling because I had recently read a Vivien Leigh biography which mentioned that producer David O Selznick first saw her and knew she was his Scarlett O’Hara when she visited the set during the filming of the Atlanta sequence).

At the time I felt sheepish about watching clips independently of films, and this feeling would continue during my first few years as a professional critic: after all, as a serious cineaste you’re expected to look at a movie in its entirety, to focus on whether it is a holistic or organic creation; you mustn’t obsess over specific bits of it. The earliest, most vapid reviews that most of us were taught to write were the ones that took a God’s Eye view of a film, dedicating a sentence each to the acting, direction, cinematography, story, editing and so on, practically adding up marks like we were assessors at a Board examination.

This is something in my movie-watching life that has changed over time: I am now unembarrassed about my propensity to watch and re-watch specific scenes. Being able to take pleasure in the small moment is, I find, as important and valid as anything else. I agree with the writer Paolo Cherchi Usai who lamented the fact that many cinema aficionados “hated fragments” – and that if the same attitude were applied to the other arts, “the Colosseum would be ignored by all; there would be no interest in the poetry of ancient Greece; no orchestra would perform Schubert’s Tenth Symphony”.


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But there is another aspect to my obsessive scene-watching: many of the sequences I love are driven by lush, insistent background music, the sort that many people disapprovingly call “manipulative” – aimed at directing the viewer’s emotions, making us feel for a particular character or situation, or just getting our adrenaline flowing.

A few examples off the top of my head:

– The wordless, cat-and-mouse museum sequence in Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill: a middle-aged woman, visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is first discomfited when she thinks an attractive man may be pursuing her – and then equally unnerved and indignant when she thinks he might be trying to get away from her. Full of De Palma’s visual flourishes – smooth, elaborate camera movements, many long unbroken shots – the scene builds in intensity with the aid of a deliriously over the top score by Pino Donaggio. Its own merits aside, one reason why I love this sequence is that it is a part-tribute to one of my favourite sequences from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho: Marion Crane’s long car journey after stealing a large sum of money, a drive that will lead her to a place of reckoning, the Bates Motel looming out of the darkness. (And that scene was also beautifully fuelled by Bernard Herrmann’s violin-driven score.)

– The climactic shootout between Harmonica (Charles Bronson) and Frank (Henry Fonda) in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, again set to a stunning Ennio Morricone score that brings together at least three separate aural motifs that were used earlier in the film. This scene might on the face of it seem a classic depiction of screen machismo – two men playing a very male game of one-upmanship and revenge, the camera fetishizing them with magisterial long-shots and adoring close-ups and a dramatic flashback scene – but there is also something strangely poetic and courtly about it: in the prim way that Fonda removes his jacket and begins a tentative walk while assessing the position of the sun, and in Bronson’s fixed gaze on his adversary; it is like two dancers preparing for the most exhilarating performance of their lives.

– The operatic final moments of The Godfather Part III, with Michael Corleone’s silent scream after his daughter is killed, followed by a montage of dances with three different women at different stages in his life – all set to the intermezzo from Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana.

– Though old Hindi cinema didn’t invest much care in sequences with great background music (as opposed to great songs), there are exceptions – RD Burman’s brilliant, multi-pronged score for Sholay, for instance, heard to best effect if you watch the film’s skilful opening-credits sequence which takes us across the whole topography of the village Ramgarh and its surroundings long before the narrative has brought us there. I have shown that scene in classes and shared in the pleasure of students pointing out little details that I hadn’t noticed before.
(A sidenote: I re-watch many wonderful song sequences from old Hindi films too – but one difference is that it’s possible to view most of those sequences as cut off from the rest of the film, occupying its own special dream-scape.)

*****

Here’s a funny thing about the scenes mentioned above: most people would agree that the music in itself is brilliant; and that skilful visual filmmaking is involved. But somehow, when both things are brought together, it is seen as loud or underlined or too obvious, hence to be frowned on. But this is the very essence of melodrama, an artistic mode that has become unfashionable today with the constant – and often thoughtless – lionising of only understated or gritty films.

A species of “liberal” commenter (caution: there will be multiple quote-marks in this sentence) also tends to go batshit about the possibility that a film might be “endorsing” the actions of a “problematic” character by using rousing background music. To this I say: so what, if we agree that the writer or director has made an honest effort to get into the mind-space of this character – to understand his or her inner world and private motivations and multiple selves, regardless of the wider ethical issues involved?

To be able to sympathize with Michael Corleone at the end of The Godfather Part III, or to feel stirred by those glimpses of his journey across three films from reticent outsider to brutal don, doesn’t mean approving of everything the character does. To feel absorbed in the beautifully scored scene in the TV series The Crown where the Queen Mother launches into a bitter monologue about how the modern royals are simply “marionettes”, puppets without any real power, or to be moved by the flashback scenes depicting Prince Philip’s childhood in boarding school, doesn’t mean that we have compromised ourselves by “supporting” an evil colonialist monarchy – it can simply mean that we have briefly related to individuals in a very specific situation; seen vestiges of humanity even in people who might in a larger sense seem over-privileged or unlikable.

And I feel that sweeping, hyper-dramatic sequences like the ones mentioned above are particularly well-placed to create that immediate thrill of recognition, of tapping into the primitive emotions that all of us share. Afterwards, of course, we can go right back to being detached and judgemental critics: looking at the film as a whole, coolly discussing its larger politics, not worrying much about the powerful little moments that had so moved us. 

[My earlier First Post pieces -- on books and films -- are here]

Saturday, October 23, 2021

Gods, demons and fireflies: on the new film Bhavai (originally Raavan Leela)

(My First Post review of a promising but bland work about a village drama troupe staging the Ram Leela)
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Given the controversy around Hardik Gajjar’s new film Bhavai – the original title Raavan Leela was changed after protests from our usual hordes of professional offence-takers and boycott-demanders – I went into the film wondering if it would be an irreverent, slanted take on the mainstream Ramayana; or at least something that might discomfit purists who have clear-cut ideas about good and evil, heroes and villains, in our epics. A sympathetic depiction of Raavan, perhaps – as a wise and devout king undone by hubris – or of Surpanakha as a wronged woman.

Such depictions are hardly new or radical things anyway. Children of my generation were encountering slightly watered-down versions of them even in Amar Chitra Katha comics (which are today seen by many as too conservative), and much high-profile literature and theatre across the country – along with famous studies like AK Ramanujan’s “Three Hundred Ramayanas” – has stressed the breath-taking malleability of the epics and their characters. (In a neat coincidence, I returned from the Bhavai screening to find the new book Living Ramayanas: Exploring the Plurality of the Epic in Wayanad and the World on my desk.)

Speaking just from that point of view, Bhavai is a determinedly inoffensive work, almost to the point of being a soporific – and as harmless as a Kumbhkarna who has just swallowed that soporific. It does, in its climactic section, suggest that “Ram Rajya” can become a pretext for lynching those who don’t follow societally approved paths – something that can be seen as a comment on current real-world politics – but that comes at the end of a film that mostly plays like a slow and safe TV drama.

The simple-minded plot has a drama company (or nautanki) arriving in the Gujarati village Khakhar to stage a Ram Leela, much to the delight of local boy Raja Ram Joshi (Pratik Gandhi) who harbours dreams of becoming an actor. (“Maine gehoon peesne ke liye janam nahin liya” – I’m not content with grinding wheat – he tells his disapproving father, a Panditji.) A series of random events result in this Ram playing the role of Raavan in the production, which is managed by the domineering Bhawar (Abhimanyu Singh) – and soon falling in love with Rani (Aindrita Ray), who plays Sita. But their romance is a no-no for reasons that may not be crystal clear to the viewer (it has to do with Bhawar wanting to maintain a tight control on his troupe, and with the inappropriateness of “Raavan” and “Sita” becoming involved in real life). Meanwhile, in the background, local politics is whirring away as it does: a “Vishwa Jagriti Sena” is organising rath yatras and such to spread the glory of Lord Ram (or more accurately, to use religious faith as a blindfold and secure power for itself).

The aesthetic and pace of Bhavai is often similar to those of contemporary Hindi mythological serials (Gajjar has also directed shows like Devon ke Dev… Mahadev and Siya ke Ram), starting with the opening credits in the Devanagari script, accompanied by perfectly sanskaari drawings and animation that tell the Ramayana story (and end it on a happy note with the triumphant return to Ayodhya – no tattling dhobi, no banishment for Sita). There are static reaction shots when the village audience watches the Ram Leela performance. There is romance in slow motion, complete with misty close-ups and beatific smiles and some lip-biting, and arguably more firefly metaphors and imagery than are healthy for a single film. (During an overlong conversation, both Ram and Rani compare themselves to the “jugnu” trapped with its own light in darkness, needing to fly away.) And there are attempts to manufacture dramatic tension from banal situations. (“Aaj se milna bandh,” the lovers are even told at one point.)

The leads are pleasant enough (though Pratik Gandhi, after his outstanding performance as Harshad Mehta in Scam 1992, deserved a better showcase) and the supporting cast – including Rajesh Sharma as Bajrangi, who plays Hanuman – acquit themselves well enough when they have something to do. The more engaging bits involve the film’s depiction of the drama troupe’s everyday routine, with gentle slapstick running through the performers’ interrelationships – and occasionally a sense of the pressures and disappointments of this life. Lachhu, played by Ankur Bhatia, is a good-natured prankster but also restless because he yearns to be “promoted” from Lakshman to Rama; the actor who does play Rama – Ankur Vikal – feels bad about being paraded about and “worshipped” but given nothing to eat or drink. (“Bhagwan bann ke galti kar di,” he mutters. In the current climate, the real Ram may well agree.)

There are also little pointers to how art and life are reflecting mirrors placed opposite each other, catching and bouncing light, offering new ways of seeing. Scenes from the Ram Leela contrast with or complement what is happening offstage: as they play Sita and Ravana, Rani and Ram can barely control their laughter when their dialogue touches on something that really happened a while earlier. When Hanuman and Vibheeshan separately warn Ravana to return Sita to her rightful place, it is played as commentary on the real-life situation. Some of this reminded me of another “Raavan Leela” film from a few years ago – Rohan Sippy’s Nautanki Saala!, in which the Ayushmann Khurana character plays Raavan in a theatre production titled Raavan Leela.

Unfortunately, much as all this is conceptually intriguing, Bhavai spells it out so explicitly (Rani and Ram even comment offstage on the double-meanings in their dialogues, just in case we missed it) that it feels like one is not being allowed to participate in the story, merely spoon-fed every detail. Too many lines in the script (“Darjee kabhi Ram nahin bann sakta hai”, “A tailor cannot become Ram”, or “Iss yug mein sabhi Raavan hain”, “Everyone is Raavan in this age”) turn out to mean much less than they might have. In the final analysis, all that handwringing and wailing about the title “Raavan Leela” may have been more interesting than the film itself.

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

In which Steve Martin, Selena Gomez and Martin Short set out to solve "Only Murders in the Building"

(The last episode of season 1 of the very enjoyable series Only Murders in the Building dropped yesterday on Hotstar. I did this piece for First Post)
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Charles: “I’ll call Mabel.” (Pauses) “Or should I text?”
Oliver: (thinks about it for a second) “Calls bother them for some reason.”

This little exchange, one of many charming vignettes from the new mystery-comedy series Only Murders in the Building, takes place between Charles Haden-Savage (played by Steve Martin), a retired TV actor, and Oliver Putnam (Martin Short), a Broadway director full of wacky ideas that somehow never took off. The young woman they are trying to contact is their partner-in-investigation, Mabel (Selena Gomez) – and the “calls bother them” line is what makes the scene so droll. Because “them” refers to people of Mabel’s generation, who seem much more comfortable communicating through text messages as opposed to unsolicited calls. The two elderly men, who never had this option for the bulk of their lives, must make peace with this youthful idiosyncrasy.

Their uncertainty about texting etiquette in general is captured in Charles’s next line:
“What sounds more casual – Dear Mabel or Greetings, Mabel?”

(He eventually opts for “Aloha Mabel.” And redundantly signs his name at the end.)

There is much to relish in Only Murders in the Building, in which the three leads are terrific as true-crime-podcast addicts who team up when a murder is committed in their big New York apartment building. But one of the things I enjoyed most was the show’s treatment of the vast generation divide between the two men and Mabel, who is more than four decades their junior.

That business of formally signing off text messages, for instance, or using all-caps for them. In one very funny sight gag, we see Charles reading a text that goes “THE KILLER CAME FOR MY FAMILY. Love, Oliver.” In another scene, Oliver is introduced – by youngsters – to a “vegan sea salt oil” flavour of ice-cream. “When did ice cream become a hand lotion?” he asks. In yet another scene, Charles and Oliver are outraged when Mabel seems not to know who the musician Sting is. (The twist is that she does know, but is having some fun at their expense. Though she then goes on to show her millennial creds by declaring that “Every Breath You Take” isn’t a love song but a stalker song.)

Perhaps one reason why I enjoyed this give and take is that I could, to a degree, relate with both age groups. Here lies the rub for someone like me, in his mid-forties: in terms of actual age, I am closer to Selena Gomez than to Steve Martin and Martin Short (Gomez is 29; the old fellers are in their seventies; all three characters are around the same age as the actors playing them), but that doesn’t necessarily mean much when it comes to recent technology. I didn’t grow up with smart-phones, or cellphones, or the internet for that matter (a part of me still feels like capitalizing the “I” in “internet” as we used to do in journalistic pieces in the first few years of negotiating this strange new animal), and consequently there were places where I could relate more to the awkwardness of the two men.

The setting too manages to be both modern and old-world – it’s a posh New York apartment building called the Arconia, but is also evocative of a certain sort of cosy detective story of yore: a confined setting, a relatively small cast of characters, one of whom is likely to be a murderer. While the mystery is engrossing enough in itself (and builds to a satisfying revelation, followed by another revelation, and finally a little twist at the very end), what matters more is the journey. We see three people becoming energized in different ways as they work together on solving a murder, start their own podcast, and gradually become more involved with the world around them. Charles and Oliver are well over the hill, but still enthusiastic and hopeful; Mabel is more hard-boiled and cynical in some ways; it’s a good match.

There are gradual revelations about the protagonists as the mystery deepens. The first big one is the episode 1 cliffhanger where we learn that the murdered man, Tim Kono, was one of Mabel’s closest childhood friends, one of her “Hardy Boys” – and that she has neglected to share this little detail with her new buddies. But other subtler bits of information also emerge about the characters: about Charles’s emotional reticence, for instance, and why he seems haunted by two people in Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig costumes. (Again, from the generational point of view, there is something touching about this little detail: how many youngsters of a certain age would relate to, or even know about, those two vintage comic characters?)

Other characters come and go, either coming under suspicion or playing detective or hindering the efforts of our central trio. An obsessive cat-lover keeps his deceased pet in his freezer. Sting shows up in a very funny subplot playing a surly version of himself as one of the building residents who briefly becomes a suspect (he becomes the subject of a "sting" operation, so to speak; later he thinks up a new song that includes the refrain “Tim Kono / Oh no”). Charles finds romance with a bassoonist (played by Amy Ryan) who wisecracks “You’ll see me around bas-sooner or later.” Nathan Lane guest-stars as Teddy, who reluctantly puts up the money for the podcast.

And then there are the meta-references or the stylistic innovations. One episode includes an appearance by some of the podcast’s die-hard fans, who camp outside the building and briefly even get to participate in the investigation. Another poignant episode is told almost entirely from the perspective of Teddy’s deaf son Theo – which means no audible dialogue, just a few background sounds and lip-reading subtitles. Compelling and unusual as this narrative device is, it also got me thinking: here is a show that centres around true-crime podcasts, with the show’s episodes corresponding with the podcast episodes that Oliver, Charles and Mabel are recording. But here is a character who can’t be part of such a world – because he can’t hear or speak – and yet he is central to the plot. It feels like an act of warmth and empathy to do this episode in this way – while also making a point about the inevitable non-inclusivity of some mediums.

Ultimately this gently funny series is about three people embracing their own messes, and finding themselves – or a version of themselves – even as they try to answer the question “Who is Tim Kono?” In one of the final scenes, in what feels like a rite of passage, Charles types out a text message, signs it “All best, Charles Haden-Savage” – but then goes back and deletes that last bit. He is learning. “As I said to Paula Abdul during our production of Hedda Gabler, we gotta think outside the box here,” Oliver says early on – one of the show’s funniest throwaway lines – but by the end, all three amateur detectives have stepped outside their private boxes. And it is great fun watching them get to that point.

Sunday, October 17, 2021

A mongoose detective solves nature’s riddles: on Rohan Chakravarty's Naturalist Ruddy

(One of my favourite recent discoveries on Instagram has been Rohan Chakravarty’s Green Humour page, which collects his detailed cartoons about the natural world. I reviewed his new book for Scroll)
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Despite being a hard-boiled urbanite who walks the mean streets of Delhi, I know a few mongooses – or feel like I do. The “nevlaa”, as we call him, makes an occasional appearance in and around my colony park: sauntering across a lane with a quick look around for cats or dogs or cars, standing on its hind legs for a better view – like the meerkats in Life of Pi – and even sticking its head out through a hole in the ground and staring at me and my dogs inquisitively before vanishing in a split second if the attention is returned.

These brief but memorable visitations made it easier for me to relate to the protagonist of Rohan Chakravarty’s new graphic book Naturalist Ruddy, about the adventures of a sleuthing mongoose. Even if Ruddy is a ruddy mongoose from the Kanha National Park, not the common grey variety I know, the basic principle holds. Here is a creature that seems curious, thoughtful and well-travelled enough – and is just the right size – to make it plausible that he might roam the forests and reserves of India (even going as far as the Nicobar Islands), solving countless little mysteries of the natural world.

The book’s format is a straightforward one: thirty-nine cases that usually don’t take up more than two or three pages each. The resourceful Ruddy comes across a puzzle or mystery (mainly involving insects and birds, but occasionally larger creatures such as a black panther or a jackal) and, through observation and conjecture and sometimes with help from CCTV cameras or forensics, works it out. Why, for instance, would a group of Carpenter ants kiss a mealy bug and then walk past it instead of preying on it? What does the Mud Dauber wasp do with the bird droppings it carries away? What is with this twitchy “zombified” beetle, which moves like the undead, as if being remote-controlled by someone else? Why does a dead frog have what looks like a bullet wound (with no exit wound) below its chin? And what of the many “mimics” in nature – a spider that has evolved to look like a weaver ant, a caterpillar with a snake-like front appearance.

Through it all, Ruddy might be said to be mimicking a classic noir detective himself. When he takes a photo, he goes to a dark room to develop it even though he is using a digital camera, just to give the story some atmosphere. He wears a hat called “Hatson”. And though he is too health-conscious to smoke a real cigar, he pretends to smoke with a neem stick. Every once in a while the book makes a few nods to classic movie thrillers; there are also two postcards that neatly riff off famous posters of Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Polanski’s Chinatown.

****

Anyone who follows Chakravarty’s Instagram page Green Humour will know that it is a treasure trove of detailed and informative cartoons about the natural world, accompanied by witty commentary that often links the idiosyncrasies of non-human creatures with those of ours. The adventures of Naturalist Ruddy are as funny and easy on the eye, and there is an interactive element too: a number of single-pagers titled “Team Up with Ruddy”, where we are asked to figure out the answer to a puzzle.

And there are all those attentive, warm-hearted drawings: my personal favourites include the one of Ruddy diligently taking notes as a wailing termite shows him the remains of a destroyed mound; or watching in astonishment (with a Feluda book in his hand!) as a butterfly casually flies out of an ant’s nest; or chomping on a crispy crab during a vacation while a mysterious jet of water knocks his hat off.

All this may suggest that Naturalist Ruddy is suited to young readers. In my view it is, but it’s probably best to be cautioned that there is plenty of violence (and some sex) in these pages. A mouse savagely impaled on an acacia thorn, a family of massacred jungle quails, a paralysed spider being eaten alive from the inside out, moths mummified in silky threads, amputated legs scattered around – these could be scenes from the gorgeously shot serial-killer “designs” in the TV show Hannibal. Elsewhere, Ruddy takes photos of an adulterous bird as it cheats on its spouse, and a bee copulates enthusiastically with an orchid.

But the gruesome content is a matter-of-fact reminder that nature can be unfathomably cruel, that enormous suffering occurs across the many hierarchies of the predator-prey relationship. And so, it makes sense that Ruddy isn’t the sort of detective who will dispense “justice” or play saviour if it means disrupting nature’s balance. A spider has used deception to ensnare an ant? Well, so be it. After solving the mystery of who murdered that impaled mouse, Ruddy doesn’t produce handcuffs; he sets off cheerfully with contemplations of having a snake barbecue of his own. (Imagine Miss Marple, having solved a poisoning case, getting the idea to kill a few people with that same coniine extract.)

The closest this detective comes to playing “tough” with suspects is in an amusing passage where he makes a dental impression from a cut in a bamboo stem, and then holds down different rodents to see whose teeth is the right fit. But even here the goal isn’t punishment, it is simply the satisfying of curiosity. While there may not be justice here (the way we humans define it), there is a boundless sense of wonder – a view of the awe-inspiring versatility of nature as well as the many horrific things in it.

If I had to gripe about anything, it would be that storytelling fluidity sometimes takes a back-seat to the need to provide information – and that a few of Ruddy’s smart-aleck observations at the end of a case wear thin. (The punch-lines in Chakravarty’s other cartoons tend to be sharper.) But so fascinating is the information in itself, and so pleasing the drawings, that this is never a big problem.

Naturalist Ruddy ends with a goofy scene where Ruddy must turn his magnifying lens on himself. Funny as the moment is, I also felt it was thematically apt, since it amounts to telling the reader: we mustn’t only think of ourselves as detached observers – we are all participants in this mad carnival (or complicit, to use the language of the detective story). “These creatures and scenes of intrigue are all around us,” Chakravarty writes in a short Introduction where he mentions the gradual development of his interest in microhabitats, “but first, we must don the detective hat and set about on our own little adventures, turning leaves and pebbles over, picking up twigs and digging up some mud.” He is right, of course. Idealistic though this sounds, the world might be a marginally better place if more people encouraged their children to look closely at the life forms around them (including the obscure or distant ones), and to see that there is so much more to engage with than the things we humans have prioritised for ourselves. This book – along with Chakravarty’s other work – is a super way of making that acquaintance.

The principles of Dadaism: on movie-stars and their grandchildren

(Did this for the Sunday Economic Times)

You know how it sometimes happens, while consuming news or watching films or reading, that you encounter a specific theme – and the next thing you know, you’re seeing a version of it wherever you look? I experienced this recently with the topic of movie stars and their grandchildren (who are also movie stars, or celebrities by association).

First, Google news decided to show me a clickbait headline about Amitabh Bachchan’s granddaughter Navya and Javed Jaffrey’s son Meezaan. Normally I would have scrolled on, but as soon as I saw this I entered daydream mode (if I were in an old TV comedy, you’d see me staring vacantly into space followed by an animated visual of concentric circles) and found myself in the Soorma Bhopali scene from Sholay. Why, you ask? Because the scene has Jagdeep (grandfather of Meezaan) in the same frame as Bachchan. (Dharmendra, whose grandson also recently entered films, is there too. Looked at today, you could say the scene – in which Veeru and Jai bully poor Soorma – involves two varieties of dada-giri.)

Anyway, a chain of associations had begun. While putting together notes for a class on Hindi-film song sequences, I revisited a scene from Jagga Jasoos where the stuttering protagonist, played by Ranbir Kapoor, confesses that he needs to sing the things he wants to say, so that it “comes out smooth”. (“Mere words bhi so-so ke nikalte hain / Isliye gaa ke bolta hon takay, you know, smooth ho jaaye,” he sings.) It’s a sweet moment in an often-enchanting film, but the circles began dancing again and I was in the 1959 Anari, where Ranbir’s grandfather Raj Kapoor is finding it hard to express his feelings to Nutan in dry prose; she asks him to sing instead, providing the cue for the song “Dil ki Nazar Se”.


It felt like these two scenes, in unrelated films, were calling out to each other across the decades. Which is not to insist that the makers of Jagga Jasoos were trying to involve Ranbir in a homage to his granddad – but it’s a reminder that such connections come easily when you’re a nerd who watches a broad spectrum of movies, and when the history of mainstream cinema is packed with generations of performers from a number of clans.

I’m not concerned here with hand-wringing conversations about the ethics of nepotism, but with what effect this legacy has on us as viewers, and on the actors who perform it. Though cinema is a relatively young form, it is self-obsessed enough that films about filmmaking were already being made decades ago. Last month saw the 50th anniversary of one of the best-known, Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Guddi, with a protagonist who travels to Bombay, meets many real-life stars, and watches the shoots of actual films being made at the time. But 1971 was also the year of another self-referential film that was about movie stars without explicitly being about movie stars: an indulgent but poignant Kapoor family project with Prithviraj, Raj and Randhir as three generations of a family.

The characters in Kal Aaj aur Kal were fictional, and the plot very formulaic, but it drew on the actors’ screen personas – and on viewers’ perceptions of what they might be like in real life. So here is Prithviraj as the stern but sentimental grand-patriarch harrumphing away at his grandson (this could be an older Emperor Akbar roaring at a nightclub-going Salim), and there is Randhir as the brash and impatient “modern” boy (much as the actor himself was a youth idol for viewers who jived to songs like “Saamne yeh kaun aaya”). And here, caught in the middle, is the martyred Raj Kapoor, standing at the centre of the mansion’s enormous staircase, arms spread out like a sad joker. The film even ends with the arrival of a fourth generation (birthed by Babita), and a mystical suggestion that the grandfather has been reincarnated and the circle of life – via a new “kal, aaj aur kal” – will continue. (Real life obliged, though not so neatly: Prithviraj Kapoor died a few months after the film came out, and Karisma was born two years later.)

There is obvious sentimentalism built into a film where an ageing performer shares screen space with his real-life grandchild, but another sort of hagiographic peril lies in a scenario where a contemporary star might play his own (long-deceased) grandfather. Fine actor as Ranbir Kapoor is, I’m not sure I’d look forward to a film that cast him as Raj Kapoor. (Sanju, in which he only played Sanjay Dutt, was already reverential enough towards its subject.) But it seems likely that we will be treated to such sights at some point, given that cinema – both internationally and now increasingly in India – has been mining its own history with relish.

Here, as in other areas, one can expect competition between the northern and southern film industries. The 2018 Telugu film Mahanati, a fine biography of the actress Savitri, had a fun little scene where Naga Chaitanya played his own grandpa, the legendary Akkineni Nageswara Rao, and spoke the dialogue “Think this road belongs to your grandfather?” when accosted by a honking car – a nudge-wink moment in an otherwise matter-of-fact portrayal. Just as tellingly, Mahanati depicts Prithviraj Kapoor in a very short scene, but the actor they picked looks nothing at all like the Prithviraj of the period, or like any other Kapoor for that matter. Clearly they didn’t want the casting to be influenced by big bad Bollywood.

Saturday, October 16, 2021

On the new film Sardar Udham (and a note on Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s uncompleted Udham Singh film)

(Did this review of Sardar Udham for Money Control. At the end of the post: some information about an earlier film that featured Gulzar saab looking very sleek in black, making fiery speeches in Hyde Park)
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How does one depict something as horrifying and as chaotic as the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre – one of the major imperialist crimes of the last century – in a narrative film? It has been done before, of course, and the cinematic possibilities are obvious – but how to do it authentically, unflinchingly, yet without making it seem gratuitous, and preserving some respect for the victims (even if most of them – screaming, jostling past each other, falling to randomly directed bullets, jumping into a well – weren’t given that dignity in real life)?

Watching the long climactic sequence of Shoojit Sircar’s Sardar Udham – the story of the revolutionary who assassinated a former Punjab lieutenant governor in London in 1940, as revenge for the Jallianwala Bagh carnage – is to realise that as much can be done with the aftermath of the massacre as with the actual killing. Around three-fourths of the way through this long and often inert film comes this deathly still vision of hell, among the bleakest that mainstream Hindi cinema has given us. The tragedy has unfolded: with the British general shouting orders, people screaming, bullets ripping bodies apart, leaving severed limbs in their wake. And then, when it is over, the young Sher Singh (Vicky Kaushal) finds himself on the site, trying to process the enormity of what has happened while also trying to save as many of the still-living as he can.

From the images of the wounded dragging themselves back home if they could, to the ones of Sher Singh retrieving bodies, this scene becomes more compelling through the prolonged repetitiveness of some images: the young man wading through gore, looking for signs of life, lifting people onto his small cart, wheeling them to the small makeshift medical centre; and then again, and again, and again.

The sequence as a whole serves two functions: one, to reclaim Jallianwala Bagh from dry textbook accounts and our dulled sepia-tinted impressions, and convey something of what it must have felt like to be there. (In its conception, the scene reminded me of the famous opening sequence of Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, which presents a ground-level view of the 1944 Normandy landing.) And two, to provide a full sense of how Sher Singh’s life changed shape and direction: the transformation of a 20-year-old in the middle of his most carefree years into a man with a single, life-consuming purpose.

However, as powerful as these Amritsar scenes are, the question is: do they come too late in a generally flabby, uneven film? The main reason why I had stuck with Sardar Udham till this point was because I was reviewing it; it is easy to imagine regular viewers getting distracted and bored and switching off midway through.

****

Sardar Udham opens with Sher Singh – later known as Ude and Udham as he uses various aliases and passports – being released from prison in India in 1931 (he was incarcerated because of his revolutionary activities, including illegal arms possession). We see the single-mindedness of someone who has no further need of ordinary life. (“Sab ne phanda hee choomne hain na?” – “You all yearn for the noose” his cousin says when he briefly returns home.) This is followed by glimpses of his journey to England via the USSR, along with vignettes from his past, including his participation in the HSRA (Hindustan Socialist Republican Association). At this point the film is as much a travelogue as anything else, with circumstances and personality leading a man into a much wider world than the one he was born into.

In London, Udham establishes contacts with other Indian freedom fighters and socialists, searches the phone book for his target – Michael O’Dwyer, who had facilitated the Jallianwala Bagh firing – and seethes inwardly as British radio refers to “the Amritsar affair of 1919”. The story abruptly leaps ahead a few years to show the assassination (all this within the first half-hour) and then the film returns to its restless, searching, non-linear structure. While he is interrogated and tortured in prison, we see more flashbacks: comradeship with Bhagat Singh (Amol Parashar) in Lahore; a hesitant romance with a mute girl (the second time, after October, that Banita Sandhu has played a silent cipher in a Shoojit Sircar film, though thankfully Sardar Udham steers away from making her character the main reason for Udham’s thirst for revenge). There are also scenes depicting his years in London leading up to the killing of O’Dwyer, including a connection – tenuously depicted – with a British woman named Eileen, and with the Irish Republican Army. (“You lamb, me lamb. Butcher same.”)

For much of its running time, it feels like the cold damp atmosphere of London has pervaded the film itself. The heat and dust and boisterousness of Udham’s Punjab are nowhere to be found in these scenes (except maybe in a little moment where an excited Udham exclaims “Tussi jaande ho?!” at a British woman when she mentions Bhagat Singh’s name) – and this is understandable, since part of the point being made here is that this young man has had to travel far from his roots; to get revenge on behalf of the land he loves, he has had to make the sacrifice of moving away from that land to a cold, culturally remote place and trying to fit in there. This is an especially poignant aspect of the Udham Singh story – one that separates him from the freedom fighters who stayed in India and died on their own soil – and the film does a decent job of suggesting it.

The point is also made early on that Udham isn’t concerned so much with big-picture equality or justice as with the specific matter of his country’s enslavement: if as an Indian he isn’t free, then how can he march with free people seeking other forms of equality and campaigning for other social causes, he says. But if he is focused and pragmatic, Sardar Udham soon becomes very diffused in its bird’s-eye view of history – at times it feels like it is seduced by its own scale. Despite its visual elegance and the believability of the art design and period detailing (or even because of these things), it starts to play like a protracted history lesson weighed down by the need to engage with everything going on at the time: WWII, the realpolitik between Britain, Russia and Germany, the IRA conflict. There are conversations between Winston Churchill and King George VI, between O’Dwyer and General Reginald Dyer, that are well-staged but scarcely serve the narrative’s purpose.

At one point it even feels like the man at the centre of the story is in danger of being forgotten. There isn’t much access to Udham’s inner state of mind, notwithstanding a couple of scenes (one in a courtroom, one with a tramp in Hyde Park) where he delivers pedantic and flat-sounding speeches about freedom. Here and elsewhere, Vicky Kaushal gets to seethe and rant but with no real character arc to assist him, just a few disconnected moments that are meant to add up to a sympathetic life. By the time we arrive at the (invented) subplot about Udham working for O’Dwyer as an all-round handyman, with a conversation between the two that makes sense only as a fever-dream, cinematic energy has gone out the window.

It returns, as indicated above, with the 1919 Amritsar sequence where the film’s deliberately slow pacing is finally put to powerful use and Kaushal gets to bring his acting chomps to a scene that deserves it. There is, of course, much dramatic licence here – the staging makes it seem like Udham was almost the only person helping the wounded for hours after the Jallianwala Bagh massacre – but a certain amount of drama is a welcome relief after all the stiff-upper lip coolness that came before. And the image of a young Sikh boy moving numbly through a sea of dead and wounded, trying mechanically to help, barely realising how much he has already been changed by this experience, is a very striking one. But again, does this climax vindicate the static earlier sections of the film?

Paradoxically, Sardar Udham manages to be both a quiet, minimalist film (if you watch its individual scenes in isolation) AND a bloated one (in terms of its overall narrative arc). As a fan of Sircar’s earlier work, especially his films with Juhi Chaturvedi – the lean, to-the-point storytelling of Piku or Vicky Donor or October – this was disappointing; this could easily have been a shorter film while retaining everything necessary to tell its story and without sacrificing its measured pace. Or, given its level of ambition, maybe it should have gone for a different format and been a series instead.
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A footnote about Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Udham Singh film

On the left is a news item from 1970 about the Hrishikesh Mukherjee-directed film Man from India, which was partly shot (in London) and then shelved. The film was about Udham Singh, played by Parikshit Sahni – who went by the screen name Ajay Sahni at the time. (Sanjeev Kumar, who else, had suggested this name to him.)

Man from India was never finished for reasons that remain unclear (I have been told it had to do with either Hrishi-da’s poor health or the large finances involved or both), but years later one of the producers, Balraj Tah (who is mentioned in this article), decided to complete it himself – with the aid of some of Hrishi-da’s regular collaborators like Gulzar and Jaywant Pathare, and with “star value” added in the shape of Vinod Khanna who got top billing despite having a smallish part. The result was a remarkably schizophrenic film, completed in 1977 but released (I think) in 1987. Though it is a serious-intentioned work (“heart in the right place”, as we patronisingly say), it opens with a rambunctious, happy-happy music score accompanying the opening credits (as a friend pointed out, it makes Jallianwala Bagh seem like a Gunmaster G9 romp – something that, as it happens, is now being done with the actual site in Amritsar). The finished film even includes a bit of the footage that Hrishi-da had shot years earlier, which should add to a viewer’s confusion: in the framing scene where Udham Singh is being tried for murder in 1940 (with VK Krishna Menon defending him by speaking Hindi to surprised-looking British jurists), Parikshit Sahni looks very young; but he looks older and bulkier in the flashback scenes where Udham Singh is supposed to be much younger!

The film is definitely a curio though, and not a completely unrewarding one, especially if you know about its convoluted history (and if you wish, like I do, that Hrishikesh Mukherjee had made another film with the historical sweep and the stately novelistic pacing of Satyakam before moving on to the cosier, smaller-scale, house-bound works of the 1970s and 80s that most people now associate him with.)

And for those of you who have never seen Gulzar saab in anything other than white attire, have a look at these screen-shots. (He has a solid part, including a scene set at Hyde Park where he rallies against the crimes of the Empire.)