Friday, September 22, 2023

History, then and now: on Anjum Hasan’s new novel about a teacher in the dock

(Wrote this review for the latest Reader’s Digest)

Among other things, Anjum Hasan’s elegant and searching new novel History's Angel is a Delhi book. Its protagonist Alif, a history teacher in his forties, lives in the city with his wife Tahi and adolescent son Salim; so do his parents and a few friends and relatives. Delhi in its many iterations – from medieval Shahjahanabad to modern Vasant Kunj – informs Alif’s wanderings, his thoughts, and consequently the narrative. We follow him as he travels from old Delhi (where he lives) to a swanky Nehru Place mall for a meeting with an old acquaintance, and to the Humayun’s Tomb, where he takes his students on a field trip; from visiting an aunt in busy and cluttered Mehrauli to meeting a landlord about renting a flat in gated-community Noida.

One soon realises what an appropriate setting Delhi is for this story. As an old and multi-layered city of ruins, with the ghosts of many pasts and many kingdoms jostling together in it, the capital is a reminder of how pluralistic this country has been. But as Hasan tells us, more than once, this is also a city made “so insistently, so noisily, of now” – full of lessons if you care to look, but ignored by people who are caught up with the chaotic present. (“More real than the histories of a thousand kings is that girl’s precise voice discussing her cooking […] certain her flimsy moment in time is the only one there is.”)

And so it is with history in general too. Alif frets that most people have only a superficial interest in his subject – only to the extent that it can give them convenient narratives and serve their purposes. He worries that the detritus of history is everywhere, with the modern age having created a rift from the past. And he wants to make history surprising, unexpected, non-linear – to show a dynamic India, not a monolith with one destiny (which, though the book doesn’t belabour this point, is what the fantasies of a Hindu Rashtra are geared towards). But Alif can scarcely afford to look away from his own “now”, for as the story opens he is about to get into trouble because of a student who has provoked and insulted him.

If you read the jacket synopsis of History’s Angel, you might think this is a straightforward dramatic narrative with an A-to-Z arc and a clear political position: about a Muslim teacher who, after a nasty exchange, twists a boy’s ear, rendering himself vulnerable since the new school principal has a barely buried prejudice against his community. And yes, this is the anchoring incident of a story that is also set against the background of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) controversy of 2019-20. But History’s Angel is a subtler, more searching book than can be described in such terms – it is less interested in being “relevant” in a ham-fisted way to the current Indian political situation (where a community is continuously being vilified), more interested in the inner life and circumstances of a specific man. The reader may be primed for an unpleasant confrontation when Alif decides to visit the schoolboy’s father (who has presumably been filling the child’s head with bigoted ideas about Muslims) – instead we end up in an unexpected space where it is possible to see the boy as a victim of circumstance in another sense.

There are other thing happening around Alif, other vignettes that add up to reveal a good deal: a clearly Hindu puja taking place in school not long after the principal cautioned Alif not to bring religion into education; a passage where Alif and Tahi go flat-hunting and mildly uncomfortable banter grows into something passive-aggressive and then outright menacing. And paralleling complicated national histories, there are complicated personal histories too – as in Alif’s friendship with a man named Ganesh, and an incident in their distant past involving a woman named Prerna, who now reappears in Alif’s life. Or the gradual radicalisation of a man named Ahmad, who has worked for Alif’s parents for decades.

History’s Angel is a very interior work, since we are tied to Alif’s consciousness and privy to his thoughts as well as his elaborate, conflicted conversations with others (such as his one friend in the school staffroom, Miss Moloy). This means it isn’t always an easy read – it can feel weighed down in places, which is perhaps understandable since it is about someone who feels oppressed and lost, sometimes even by his own thoughts; Alif spends a lot of time arguing with himself.

And yet, despite this, the book not only casts a quiet spell through its chronicling of Alif’s days and encounters, it also demonstrates how othering can happen in a gradual, insidious rather than dramatic way. And it leaves us with the question of whether any of us – this history’s angel included – can fully understand the workings of history, and how it pertains to us and our lives.

Saturday, August 05, 2023

Garam to naram: how Dharmendra went from energetic he-man to vulnerable grandpa (and how do fans cope?)

(in my latest Economic Times column, thoughts on watching a favourite actor, now in his late eighties, in Rocky aur Rani ki Prem Kahaani)

Though I don’t spend much time gaping at celebrity social-media pages, one of my favourite discoveries during the early months of Covid-19 was Dharmendra’s Instagram account. In his mid-eighties, he was having a splendid lockdown, mostly stationed on his farm, tending to plants and animals, putting up videos of himself driving tractors, introducing us to new-born calves, talking about “ant castles” and such. And responding to fans – as he still does – with a “Love you, dear”, best read in a Veeru-atop-the-water-tank voice (the tremulous one of an octogenarian, though). In his prime he was one of the most desirable men in our cinema, but the personality revealed in these short videos was that of a son of the soil (in the most authentic sense of that cliched term) returning to his roots after decades in the glamour world. And still very much an entertainer.

Dharmendra in boisterous mood (and with the right director, as in Sholay and Chupke Chupke – or in the right scene, e.g. the climactic fight-cum-song in the otherwise unremarkable Teesri Aankh) is one of my favourite things in Hindi film (though I can certainly appreciate his more subdued roles in films like Satyakam, discussed in hushed terms whenever his deeper legacy is discussed). It was with some ambivalence, therefore, that I watched him play the almost-catatonic grandfather Kanwal in Rocky aur Rani ki Prem Kahani.

On the whole I enjoyed Karan Johar’s film a lot, even the over-cooked final bits with redemptive arcs for too many characters. There was plenty to relish, including the nudge-wink at the nepotism debate – this being a story about two young people who come into each other’s orbits, meeting and falling in love, only because their grandparents had done the same thing decades earlier; and who now play out an updated version of what the oldies did in their time, often to the same classic Hindi-movie songs. (It becomes even more meta when you consider that in real life just a few weeks ago Dharmendra’s grandson married Bimal Roy’s great-granddaughter.)

Dharam’s Kanwal briefly comes alive in an early scene (almost guaranteed to draw applause and whistles… along with snatches of uncomfortable laughter, perhaps, from younger viewers), but for most of the film the actor has little to do. Watching him was a reminder of the last time I met an affable grand-uncle, at a (big fat Punjabi) wedding reception. I had taken many long walks with this man in my adolescence, listening to him talk about everything from history to science – and now, in his dementia-afflicted nineties, he sat there smiling vacantly, dimly registering things one moment and fading away the next.

The actors one grew up with are family too, in a different sense, and watching them age makes us recalibrate our ideas about them and our own personal histories. On one hand, I wished Dharmendra had a juicier role in the new film. But on the other, the worried fan in me didn’t want to see him pushed into doing things that he is not up to at this age, possibly drawing mirth or condescension from the audience (the red-eyed Dharam of the kuttay-kaminey phase has already been a soft target for “sophisticated” viewers for too long). Or endangering his health with an over-strenuous part. Which is a way of saying, look how strange the fan-star relationship is, and how it shifts with time and circumstance: here I am being protective of someone who was once a larger than life, wish-fulfilling, macho man of my childhood. (Veeru was always Sholay's alpha hero for me, even though the other fellow shared my name and was played by the biggest superstar I knew.)

One can appreciate that casting Dharmendra in Rocky aur Rani ki Prem Kahaani was an affectionate gesture (while also being a coup, a legendary figure used as a totem or for sentimental value). Besides, given the bullying authoritativeness of the Jaya Bachchan character (Kanwal’s wife), I knew I would rather see a quiet, barely functional grandfather sitting in a wheelchair than another iteration of the booming Johar patriarch. But it is still troubling to see a much-loved actor, who you know is in his late eighties and in fragile health, play a role that’s close to his reality. It was especially so to watch Kanwal’s final appearance, which felt almost as much like a valediction for a performer as a diegetic goodbye to a character.

I hope I’m wrong, and that Dharmendra has another couple of meaty parts left in him: maybe someone should take a cue from those Instagram videos, where he gets to be himself, chatty and focused, in his comfort zone, and a magnetic screen presence at the same time.

P.S. Watching this film, and Ranveer’s uncontrollable-force-of-nature performance, I kept wondering if the 1975 version of Dharmendra would have kept pace with him energy-wise. (I like to think so, though that’s a purely hypothetical, unworkable-time-continuum argument, like imagining Borg vs Nadal on clay or Laver vs Djokovic on grass). I also wondered what Ranveer and Alia would be like when they are in their eighties or nineties, if they make it there – and always assuming the planet is still somewhat functional when that distant time arrives.

(One of a few earlier posts about Dharmendra is here. And here is one about Satyakam, one of his favourite films. And another post about watching actors being, and "playing", old)

Monday, July 24, 2023

The Dogs of Saket files: goodbye little Kaali (and thoughts on old dogs)

A loss from a few days ago: this sweet, gentle creature who was known mainly by the much-too-generic name “Kaali”. After many days of blood tests, ultrasounds, drips, and much monitoring of/despairing over food and liquid intake, she succumbed to a kidney + liver issue that had become irreversible.

Like many other street dogs in our immediate neighbourhood, she was being looked after by a wonderful feeder-carer named Chhavi; but in recent months I had become involved, in a very small way, with Kaali’s care, and I got to know her briefly during her tough final months.

It began in early February when I learnt that Kaali (whom I had only known by sight till then, as one of the more delicate-looking members of the pack that hung around outside the CISF area in D-block Saket) had been hit by a speeding car. A hind leg was fractured in a very dicey spot – the initial prognosis at Friendicoes was that amputation was the only way out. This changed after a couple of further opinions, and eventually Kaali’s leg was plastered and a long, slow healing process began – there was no question of her being out on the streets during this period, and none of the local dog-carers could keep her at home, so we got her admitted at the recently established Soul Vet clinic in CR Park, where my paravet friend Ravi works. During the month and a half that she was there, I went across a few times, mainly to supervise the changing of bandages and check on the state of the wound. (The dressing that was done just before Holi was a particularly colourful one, two shades of orange used to stylish effect.)

After she returned to her home turf I would see her occasionally, limping around, sometimes putting her weight on all four legs – and staying as close as possible to Chhavi’s building, where she must have felt secure. (A few times she strayed into our lane, probably scavenging for food, and was chased away by other territorial canines, including my own ancient 15-year-old.) Then, early this month, it became clear that her health was deteriorating – a tick-fever diagnosis was followed by the realisation that there was a problem with her inner organs. 

(We could never say for certain, but it's likely that the liver failure was precipitated by the heavy load of medicines – including antibiotics – that she had to be given for a long time after her accident. That was unavoidable, of course, given how bad the fracture was. Of course, the fellow driving that car so rashly in a residential area got away and was never identified or called to account for the huge amounts of pain and suffering – plus inconvenience to human caregivers – that he had caused. This is how it goes. Meanwhile, if a *dog* shows the slightest sign of aggression – regardless of the provocation – most RWAs jump down the throats of any animal-feeder or carer they can find.)

With street dogs, there is a lot of trial and error involved in these complicated medical cases – going to multiple vets, looking at various options for serviceable shelters – but Chhavi and her son Armaan unfailingly took time out from their office schedules to take Kaali wherever needed. I helped out a couple of times, and though that was a very small contribution, it gave me the opportunity to renew acquaintance with her. It never became a close relationship as such: she barely seemed to register me during the car drives, possibly because she was in a lot of discomfort, or dazed; when she snuggled close to me it felt more like a mechanical response, to deal with the disorienting movement of the vehicle, than anything else. I did get to carry her around a few times though – having lost a lot of weight in her final weeks, she felt like nothing compared to the 36/40-kg dogs I have lifted out of cars or onto vets’ tables. And I watched in despair as she first lapped up a huge amount of water, then vomited it all out within minutes, while we were waiting for her ultrasound (just at a point when we thought she had started to retain liquids again).

As I mentioned in my essay about “part-time dogs” in Hemali Sodhi's The Book of Dogs, an occupational hazard of keeping an eye out for street animals in your neighbourhood (including the ones you aren’t officially taking care of but need to be around for in case an emergency arises) is that many relationships aren’t clearly defined: one spends pockets of time with this or that dog, becomes a little attached, even, but without ever being able to think of the creature as one’s own. When Chhavi called me a few days ago to say that Kaali had died overnight at the latest of the many shelters that she was staying in, it didn’t feel like a potent personal loss, but it felt like… something. I thought about one of the first times I had really noticed her, months before her accident, when I found her moving around in our building stairway late one night, rummaging around in the garbage bags our upstairs neighbours had left outside their flat – and how I wished it were possible to take her in, except that our house dog was barking her head off already. (There is a similar issue at my other flat, where Lara, normally the meekest and most nervous of dogs, turns into a ferocious snarling hound if a colony dog is let into the house in her sight; the last two Diwalis I have struggled to keep different sets of dogs closeted somehow in different rooms at night while the firecracker terrorism has been on.)

One of the things I have become most aware of in the past 2-3 years is how vulnerable old dogs are (especially old street dogs), and how much more imperative it is to look out for them once they reach a certain age where the eyes and the joints aren’t working well, and movement is impaired. This, unfortunately, is precisely the stage when many of them are most neglected: at an advanced age they aren’t as attractive or personable to human eyes as younger dogs are (I’m talking about the humans who don’t already have a long-time bond with them); many of them no longer even make eye contact, something that is usually the first step in the forming of an intense human-canine relationship; and their last few months are often difficult ones. (Kaali wasn’t all that old – probably 10 or 11 – but she was old enough that she may not have been able to cope with the heavy doses of medication after that completely avoidable accident.). Increasingly these days, when I speak to people who are showing interest in street-animal welfare for the first time, wanting to understand more about the challenges and responsibilities, I ask them to look out as much as they can for older animals and to do whatever possible to make them comfortable. It’s never going to be easy, of course – there are way too many challenges facing animal-carers even when the animals are fit or active – but it’s something that should be prioritised. And yes, for those who need it, an incidental benefit is that taking care of old animals (or even just opening your eyes and noticing them, becoming sensitised to them) is good preparation for similar contingencies – caregiving for older people, looking after yourself as you age – in the human world. 

(Related posts: Sona, in remembrance; rescuing Coffee; lockdown chronicles - Lara's mother)

Friday, July 21, 2023

Prometheus, Icarus, Vishnu: thoughts on Oppenheimer

(Wrote this review for Money Control)

Early in Christopher Nolan’s busy, non-linear telling of the life and work of the physicist who played a central role in developing America’s atom bomb, there is a dramatised depiction of a true story about the young Robert J Oppenheimer (played here by Cillian Murphy): at Cambridge in the 1920s, a frustrated Robert had laced his tutor’s apple with poison, before coming to his senses and hurrying to prevent damage.

The Kai Bird-Martin Sherwin biography American Prometheus, which is the main source material for Oppenheimer, describes this incident as an astounding act of stupidity, one that could have halted the young man’s career before it took off, and indicative of his emotional distress – “his feelings of inadequacy and intense jealousy” – at the time. In the film the moment is depicted more casually, even with a little humour (and is also conflated with Oppenheimer’s first meeting with the celebrated Nobel Prize-winning physicist Niels Bohr) – but it still carries a strong charge. As presented on screen, gleaming in the foreground, the apple is a menacing thing – a reminder of another lethal fruit, in the Garden of Eden. But as Oppenheimer continued, moving into ever darker moral terrain, that early scene felt to me like a reminder of how the shiny green apple of science and rationality can be laced with doom: of science itself as a poisoned fruit of knowledge, and how the people who practice it, in a rapidly changing world, have many personal and political compulsions.

It was no accident that the young boy who would become known as the father of the atomic era was reared in a culture that valued independent inquiry, empirical exploration, and the free-thinking mind,” reads a passage in American Prometheus, “And yet it was the irony of Robert J Oppenheimer’s odyssey that a life devoted to social justice and science would become a metaphor for mass death beneath a mushroom cloud.”

In other words, here is a rational man whose life’s work feeds into the most primal and atavistic of human impulses: the impulse to wreak mass destruction that will eventually consume everyone, including the aggressor; the impulse to look for new enemies or “others” after the first lot have been silenced. This see-sawing between rationality and irrationality – in ways that leave it unclear which force is dominant – has been dealt with before in one of Nolan’s better films, The Prestige. But the canvas here is much larger, involving the nature of realpolitik (and scientific progress) at a time when the US, having used the Bomb to end the Second World War, now casts its gaze on the new bogeyman, Communism – with Oppenheimer caught in the crosswinds.

With its many narrative threads and tangle of characters and allegiances, this is a demanding, sometimes confusing film if you don’t already know something about Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project (I was a little lost despite having sped-read portions of the book in preparation). Nolan moves between the regular narrative scenes (shot in colour) about Oppenheimer’s life and the later interrogations (in black-and-white) conducted by those who are concerned about his supposed Communist sympathies, or that a spy may have carried nuclear secrets to the Soviets. The paranoid ravings of AEC commissioner Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr), who became hostile to Oppenheimer, provide a framing story, an outside look at the film’s protagonist. But we do get up-close views of Oppenheimer and his inner life too, and much of this hinges on the casting of Murphy, and his marvellous performance.

Though Robert’s childhood isn’t depicted, watching Murphy it is easy to see what he might have been like as a boy, and the portrait gels with the one in American Prometheus: an eccentric, lonely, laconic child, prone to being bullied, whose “seemingly brittle and delicate shell disguised a stoic personality built of stubborn pride and determination”. We do see a young Robert who learns Dutch in six weeks to deliver a talk at a seminar, (“because quantum physics isn’t demanding enough?” someone quips). We meet the man who is a Jew with strong personal reasons to be appalled by what is happening in Nazi Germany (the bomb is initially developed to deal with Hitler), as well as the man whose political consciousness is awakened through close friendships with Communists (and who reads lines from the Bhagwad Gita to his Communist lover while they are in bed together). The husband, the passionate adulterer, the cold, distant-seeming scientist who is capable of feeling the horror of what the bomb does in Hiroshima. Hamlet was Oppenheimer’s favourite Shakespeare character, the book tells us, and one can picture the delicate, dreamy-eyed Murphy in a version of that role, struggling with indecision and melancholy about the world he has helped reshape.

Despite the introspective man at its centre, this is very often a muscular film, with some of its most lucid and direct moments involving the straight-talking army-man Leslie Groves played by Matt Damon (You might feel, as I did, that the Groves scenes come as a welcome break from the evasiveness and double-talk elsewhere.) The women in Oppenheimer’s life – his wife Kitty, and Jean Tatlock, with whom he apparently had his most intense relationship – don’t get much screen time, though they are played by fine actors like Emily Blunt and Florence Pugh. (Blunt does get a brief scene where – as a wife confronting a husband grieving the death of his lover – she gently ticks Robert off with a statement that will carry a much wider resonance in his life.) In India the explicit sex scenes between Robert and Jean have also been censored, so we are probably missing something of the junoon in this tragic romance, the sense of true passion in Oppenheimer’s life in a realm other than physics.

The film moves from shots of men in uniforms sitting in closed, sterile rooms talking endlessly and academically (what cities can the bomb be used on? How far along might the Soviets be in the arms race?) to the kinetic preparations in the great outdoors of the Jornada del Muerto desert (an updated version of the American Wild West) – leading up to its big visual setpiece, the tense nuclear test on an early July morning. The sequence delivers everything you’d expect from a big-budget film by one of the world’s most ambitious directors, but Nolan also seems determined that this shouldn’t be the “money shot” for the viewer, the massive climax that everything is geared towards. And this is a notable choice, because the visceral excitement of watching a skilled filmmaker using his resources to create a stunning action scene can run contrary to the inward-looking tone of a film like this.

If anything, after the Los Alamos test sequence, a sense of inertia enters the film – a reckoning, a pulling back. The news of the Hiroshima bombing is conveyed without much fuss; whatever celebrations there are culminate in a muted scene where Oppenheimer seems to confront the implications of what he has been part of. In its final stretch the film returns, almost as if deliberately choosing monotony over pace, to scenes of men debating in rooms. And to the great conceit that many people who helped build the nuclear bomb must really have believed in – that the ultimate destructive force would help create an idyllic peace. Of course, we can look around us and know better now. (The question “Who are we at war with?” is pointedly asked in the film at one stage – this when the US and Russia are still reluctant allies – but a question running below the surface of the story is: “Is it even possible to not be at war with anyone?”)

For Nolan acolytes it sometimes feels like this director can do little or nothing wrong. For many of the rest of us, there is a messiness, bordering on incoherence, in some of his work (and not just in the narratives that are innately convoluted like Inception or Tenet). At the same time, even for Nolan-sceptics, the grandness of vision, the boldness, the willingness to go all out, can be breath-taking. I wasn’t gripped by Oppenheimer from beginning to end, and felt it was overlong, but it achieves depth and poignancy when it cuts through the clutter and focuses on the enigmatic figure at its heart – a Gita-quoting Prometheus bringing a new fire to the world, an Icarus flying too close to a nuclear sun… and at heart perhaps even a pacifist, but who can know for sure?

(Earlier Money Control pieces here)

Monday, July 17, 2023

In Your Blood I Run: a murder mystery (and a tale about emancipation) set in the 1930s

(Did this review for Reader's Digest) 


The murder mystery can be a tough genre to work in, but it’s even more of a challenge if you locate the narrative in a distant period, adding historical research to the mix. In her fine debut novel, Sonia Bhatnagar juggles these two tasks. Set in 1930s Shimla (and briefly in Bombay), In Your Blood I Run is about a young man named Ratan who is forced to go into hiding after his employer and lover – a married Englishwoman – is murdered. Also caught in the thick of the subsequent investigation is Ratan’s estranged childhood friend Lavanya, and much of the narrative moves back and forth between these two protagonists until their paths gradually converge.

Though Lavanya is not a suspect in the case herself, she is useful as bait to lure Ratan out. Besides, a collection of her transgressive short stories had been found near the body, and the publicity directs a lot of attention to her book. Many people – including the men leading the investigation – are not pleased about these “dirty” tales in which women express desire, reach for autonomy, slip across the boundaries that society has set for them.

In a sense, then, In Your Blood I Run is also about literature’s power to provoke and to emancipate. One startling passage is from Lavanya’s story “Sitara”, in which a young widow, being forced to commit Sati, defies her entire village in her final moments by pleasuring herself even as the flames begin to consume her. (She is thinking of her English lover while doing this.) Here is an image of a woman ensuring that those who have murdered her in the name of tradition will never be able to feel comfortable or self-congratulatory, that they will be haunted by her memory. It also serves as a reminder that different types of freedoms and constraints can intersect, or run counter to, each other – for instance, an Indian woman, bound to a traditional social order, achieves some self-actualisation and freedom through a relationship with an “Angrez”, even though her country is fighting valiantly for independence from the Empire.

The basic premise of this thriller – two people, one on the run, the other being bullied and under threat but trying to help her friend – lends itself to a few cliches, and there is a bit of repetitiveness in how it plays out: for instance, on two separate occasions a suspenseful scene involves Ratan trying to escape pursuers by getting to his car on time; and on both occasions he momentarily can’t find his keys (the first time they are fallen on the floor of the car, the second time they are in his pocket). Such passages are a little flat and stretched out, but Bhatnagar is on firmer ground when it comes to the characters’ relationships – in the way, for instance, that Lavanya’s interactions with a Shimla policeman named Amrit Singh start off as antagonistic but soften into something resembling understanding.

And, throughout, there is the question of the effect that Lavanya’s stories have on various people, and on what has transpired: might they have influenced the actions of the victim or the murderer, or both? For conservative readers, the Sitara story is made obscene by what the protagonist does, and by her extramarital affair – not by the ghastly practice of forced Sati. For other readers, Sitara becomes a lodestar, possibly showing them the way out of their own traps. Little wonder that the book also invokes the spirits of real-life figures like Jaddanbai and Amrita Sher-gil, known for their determination to compete on equal terms with the men in their fields.

Saturday, July 01, 2023

Emotional time-travel (and play-acting) in ’96 and Blue Jay

(Wrote this for my Economic Times column. Please note the AI-generated columnist image for this edition, giving me a pink jacket of the “John Jaani Janardhan” school.)

Favourite old films – the ones that evoke nostalgia or remind us of where we were at a particular time – are often a portal to another dimension; a place where we were different people, with many possibilities ahead of us. So there is a special frisson to be felt when a good film gives us characters who are doing the very same thing – being overwhelmed by a rush of memory or regret. Or even using the engine of the narrative as a means of returning to a supposedly pristine time.

I am thinking about two films – about comparable situations – that involve a form of emotional time-travel. In the indie movie Blue Jay, the protagonists Jim and Amanda run into each other two decades after their high-school romance – and then spend the day together talking, reminiscing, divulging (and concealing) things about their current lives. Meanwhile the lovely Tamil film ’96 is about a school-reunion encounter – and the hours afterward – between Ram and Jaanu (played by Vijay Sethupathi and Trisha Krishnan), who were very close as classmates 22 years earlier (even “boyfriend-girlfriend” in the loosely defined small-town Indian way) and may have ended up together but for a few simple twists of fate.

Both films have striking moments where play-acting temporarily creates a new reality. In a moving scene in Blue Jay, Jim and Amanda find and listen to an old recording they had made when they were together as teens, madly in love and acting out vignettes about an imagined future (where they are married for decades and finally have time to themselves after the children have left the nest). On the tape – itself a sort of time machine – the precocious youngsters perform their fantasy; in the present day the jaded adults listen to the performance, exchanging glances, amused and sorrowful in turn.

In ’96, Ram and Jaanu end up spending a few hours together before her flight back to Singapore (where a husband and child await her). There has already been some clearing of misunderstandings, a realisation of how fate had tricked them: what if Ram didn’t suddenly have to leave school because of a family situation? What if a message had been properly communicated to Jaanu when she was in a hostel three years later? And now, there is a little moment at a café, late at night, when they chance to run into his students who immediately assume that the woman he is with is his wife. How did your love story begin, ma’am, they gush, in the manner of kids who believe love stories can never end – and Jaanu plays along, responds seriously, telling them what happened all those years ago but amending it to supply a happy ending.

Ram and Jaanu’s movement into the past had really begun a little earlier, with her taking him to a salon and getting his bushy beard shaved off – a playful way of passing the time, but also a way of reanimating the boy she once knew. (Years fall off Sethupathi’s face when that beard goes; when I first saw the film’s trailer, I thought he played Ram in two different periods.) Later they chat in his balcony, a space where they might have spent much time together as a couple in that alternate universe; in a poignant visual gag, they briefly “sleep together” (in a non-sexual sense); at the end, they even enter the airport like a couple going on a holiday. But that’s the last gasp, before reality intrudes.

These scenes in both films also reminded me of the great final stretch of the 1937 classic Make Way for Tomorrow, perhaps the first major film on the “parents neglected by children” theme: in the sequence, two old people, knowing they must soon part, go out on the town by themselves, visiting the places they saw when they first got married – reclaiming their lives and autonomy by returning to an idyllic past when the children weren’t yet born.

But in both ’96 and Blue Jay, there is also this subtext: the “what if” is built around a longing for an idealised past, combined with degrees of discontentment about the present. (Both Jim and Amanda are depressive; though Jaanu says good things about her arranged-marriage husband, but one senses she would turn the clock back if she could.) Yet it is by no means a given that they would have found pure, lasting happiness if that alternate world had come to pass. Time travel may allow us to imagine endlessly, but in life – as in bittersweet cinema – happy endings are hard to come by.

Sunday, June 04, 2023

On ways of worshipping, and being offended: deities and devotees at a film festival

(From my Economic Times column, a shout-out for three films I recently watched)

How many ways are there of representing Gods on screen – both the supernatural ones that have existed for centuries (if only in myths and in the human mind) and contemporary figures who have become Godlike? And how many ways are there of being irked by such depictions? I was thinking about this during a few screenings – and a couple of post-show incidents – at the recent Habitat Film Festival in Delhi.

One instance was after the screening of Don Palathara’s Family, a quietly observant, slow-burn film about a Keralite Christian community being infected (in ways that are not always spelt out) by the presence of a seemingly helpful young man named Sony. Much of this narrative is organised around images of priests, nuns, or rituals which maintain a grip over “regular” people; an undercurrent is that religion can bind groups in conspiracies of silence, keeping unsavoury things hidden.

Were you concerned about offending religious sensibilities when you made this film, a viewer asked Palathara afterwards. “No, I wasn’t concerned about that at all,” he replied evenly, “When I was growing up, no one worried that they might be offending my feelings by imposing religion on me.”

This response begat applause, and the audience seemed to be on the side of the film’s view of organised religion. But a slightly more abrasive mood followed the screening of Siddharth Chauhan’s debut feature Amar Colony, a drolly funny film about another community – the residents of a Shimla building, including a pregnant woman who sometimes has romantic fantasies involving a young garbage collector. After the show, two or three agitated people – from different sections of the audience – demanded to know why the director had shown “disrespect” to Hindu gods and devotees (mainly Krishna and Meera) by associating their names with characters who indulged in sexual peccadilloes. They also objected to what they saw as insensitive religious iconography.

What had briefly threatened to turn into an outroar soon died down, but there was something notable about the insistent, bullying tone. All of us can get offended by different things (as Palathara implied, it is possible to be very offended by the hegemony of religion and the way children are subjected to it from an early age), but these viewers weren’t just voicing hurt, they were behaving like they were entitled to get a clear explanation (one that would fully satisfy them) from the filmmaker. They were also ignoring the more positive religious imagery elsewhere in the film, such as an old woman, a Hanuman devotee, imagining a mace as her weapon of choice when she has to deal with trouble.

The most enjoyable film I saw at the festival, though, dealt with another type of relationship between Gods and devotees. Geetika Narang Abbasi’s lovely, empathetic documentary Urf is about movie-star “duplicates”, focusing on three men – Firoz Khan, Kishor Bhanushali and Prashant Walde – who made a name and a living by impersonating Amitabh Bachchan, Dev Anand and Shah Rukh Khan respectively, in low-budget films and in live shows. After years of doing this, though, they also yearned to find an independent identity for themselves, or at least to not forever walk in the shadows of giants.

As a youngster, when I watched films or TV skits featuring celebrity imitators (including Firoz and Kishore, whom I remember well despite not knowing their real names), I felt uneasy. As a Bachchan bhakt, or as someone who had admired the black-and-white-era Dev Anand from a distance, I may even have been offended: mimicry of these screen Gods – often done to get facile laughs – seemed in poor taste. Abbasi’s film made me rethink my feelings by depicting the real-life struggles of these doubles, and by letting their own distinct personalities slowly emerge from beneath the masks (though the film does also derive some charming humour from their impersonations). We see the hint of something bittersweet creeping into the otherwise relaxed and sweet interactions between Prashant and his family – first when his wife jokes that she forgot to clarify to God that she wanted to marry the original Shah Rukh; and later when, despite having expressed pride in his work, Prashant also makes it clear that he wouldn’t want his son to be a lookalike. We see Kishore, still looking like Dev Anand but finding a new niche as a singer who goes on foreign trips and performs songs from old movies.

After the screening, when Firoz Khan appeared from the audience, announcing his presence by delivering a line in the Bachchan baritone, everyone applauded But by the time he was on stage, answering questions about his life and career independently of being a double – including his recent work in serials like Jijaji Chhat Par Koi Hai – it was possible to see him as a star in his own right. Urf had reclaimed the dignity of people like him, liberating them from their Gods.

Monday, May 29, 2023

Revisiting a neglected thriller: a Nazi in London lives, works, loves and worries about being caught

Emeric Pressburger is one of the greatest screenwriters ever, and I am a huge fan of his work with Michael Powell, but I hadn’t heard about Pressburger’s 1966 novel The Glass Pearls – a thriller about a former Nazi doctor in terror of being caught – until last year. Wrote this review for Scroll

It is well known that conversations about films or books with “problematic” characters often get confrontational, depending on ideological stances, identity politics, or personal triggers. For one among many possible examples, if you’re a male reader or viewer expressing any degree of empathy with a character who exhibits “toxic masculinity” (and who is therefore judged exclusively along those lines), then you might expect to be informed that the only reason you felt that way is because of your gender privilege; or because (Sweeping Assumption Alert) you have never yourself been on the receiving end of such toxicity. White Saviour allegations are routinely directed at films or books about caste oppression that were created by upper-caste people. Entire theses have been built around the idea that it isn’t okay for an author to write an underprivileged protagonist whose experiences he doesn’t have firsthand knowledge of – and that, by extension, a reader who lacks such experience is also an inadequate reader.

These are strange positions, given that one of the often-stated functions of art is to put yourself (and “yourself” here can mean both artist and audience) outside your comfort zone, and to at least temporarily occupy the mind-space of someone whom you would ordinarily not identify with, someone whom you might even find repulsive.

I was thinking about all this while reading a reissue of Emeric Pressburger’s 1966 novel The Glass Pearls, a book I hadn’t heard of until last year (despite the fact that Pressburger is half of my favourite filmmaking collaboration The Archers, a.k.a Michael Powell-Emeric Pressburger, who made a stunning series of British films in the 1940s). Because here is a deeply involving portrait of a murderous former Nazi (assuming one can ever be just a “former Nazi”) in hiding in England – a book whose effectiveness as a thriller depends on the author making us identify with and even care about this protagonist. And yet… The Glass Pearls was written by a Jewish man who spent his life tormented by the memory of his mother dying in Auschwitz, and haunted by the thought of Nazis coming for him. (In the words of Pressburger’s grandson, the film director Kevin MacDonald: “When, delirious after a bad fall towards the end of his life, he was taken to hospital, he fought against the ambulance crew, thinking they were taking him to the gas chamber.”)

Briefly, this is the story of an unobtrusive middle-aged German named Karl Braun who is working as a piano tuner in London in the mid-60s, but who also – we learn early in the narrative – conducted grisly operations on concentration-camp victims twenty years earlier. Karl – formerly Dr Otto Reitmuller – is constantly in fear of being caught, constantly looking at the papers and despairing at news of Nazi trials and the extending of the deadline for prosecution of war criminals (at one point he thought he would be safe once he made it to May 1965, which was the initial deadline; now he realises he will probably never be out of harm’s way).

We follow him as he lives his new life: bantering with his flatmates and with his colleagues at work, displaying courtliness and humour, beginning a reticent semi-romance with a much younger woman named Helen. Yet he has to be alert all the time, antennae raised, prepared to be suspicious of everyone around him, holding arguments and counter-arguments in his head about the potentially suspicious behaviour of this or that person, analysing the workings of his own mind – all the while having recurring nightmares about a trial where he is eventually set free (except that he then finds himself in the dock again the next night, night after night). And he must contend with the possibility of having to escape to South America to join the rest of the fugitive Brotherhood:

“He shuddered at the thought of spending the rest of his life among disgruntled sexagenarians who had one single purpose in life: to become octogenarians. Still there might be others like himself, interested in the sort of life he was, who loved books and music […] on Sundays they could make music, take long walks, the air would be clean and sharp – suddenly he knew that all he was yearning for was peace. Rest, after twenty years of running.”
It’s very likely that anyone who becomes involved with this narrative will, at some point, at least, feel for Braun. The success of The Glass Pearls as a paranoia-story – an excellent one in my view – hinges largely on this. How does Pressburger pull off this empathy? There are a few possible answers. One of them is simply that when a good novelist leads us deep into a character’s inner space (and does this with conviction and honesty), our moral senses take a back-seat to the process of becoming interested in a particular individual, in the many conflicting facets and impulses that can make up a life.

Since this narrative is subjective third-person, we are tied to Braun’s thoughts and feelings (except for a closing chapter that serves as a coda, allowing us to draw back and take a look at the whole canvas). Keeping us thus latched to his consciousness, letting us feel his fear, Pressburger leads us through a series of pulse-racing incidents. Hearing from a colleague about the complaints of a xenophobic visitor who doesn’t like the idea of foreigners being given jobs when so many Englishmen are unemployed, Braun worries that this mysterious man may be a spy trying to ferret out Germans. Arriving at the Albert Hall for a tuning job, he thinks he hears footsteps followed by a whispered “Herr Doctor!” from the shadows; shaken, he is nonetheless willing to dismiss this as a phantom of his fevered mind… until he learns from the doorman outside that someone had indeed come asking about him.

If there are famous cinematic examples of a viewer being manipulated into the “wrong” moral position (hoping, for instance, that the car with a murdered woman’s body in Psycho sinks all the way into the swamp), The Glass Pearls builds such moments through Braun’s valiant effort to escape his pursuers while trying to stay composed. In one passage, when he finally reaches the Zurich bank from where he has to withdraw his secret hoard of money, he can’t locate the building, and briefly panics at the thought that the bank may have gone bust. I’m sure I wasn’t the only reader who experienced a momentary sinking of the heart at this.


At one point Pressburger matter-of-factly drops in an important piece of information about Braun’s past – the fact that his beloved wife and his infant daughter were killed in an air-raid in 1943, that he loved them and mourns them still. This is not done as a sentimentalising device to “explain”, much less “justify” his actions – it is simply there, a testament that it’s possible to have done hideous things and to still have loved deeply, or to be vulnerable in other ways. In his own way (very limited, of course, compared to the suffering he caused), Braun has also gone through a sort of penance: living his new identity over the previous two decades meant cutting off from things that were enormously important to him once, such as practising medicine, or playing the violin, which he was addicted to. (The poignancy of this comes through in a scene where he unexpectedly has to move a violin out of the way while at work, and we realise what it means to him to even touch the instrument after so many decades.)

The very process of humanising Braun raises the stakes in some ways, makes what he has done in the past much more disturbing, and sets us up for the carpet to be pulled out from under our feet. How different the effect would have been if he had been presented, unambiguously, as a monster whose ethical compass or sense of “values” was completely different from ours – or missing altogether, like a psychopath without an empathy gene. Instead what we get is a man who is capable of love, grief, self-pity, indignation, or the excited, school-boy-like feeling that can arise even in much older people when the possibility of a romance arises.

One can also point out, pedantically perhaps, that the book never exculpates Braun. Towards the end, as he thinks the net is closing around him, he does something that allows us to see how self-centred and merciless he can be when the stakes reach their highest point. But, wait… might this not be true for most of us as well, Nazi or non-Nazi?

In the films that he wrote for Michael Powell in the 1940s, Pressburger repeatedly gave us morally ambiguous situations as well as characters who lived across a conservative-progressive spectrum: in A Canterbury Tale, a man who uses a very questionable, even criminal, method to preserve “tradition” in his village is a sympathetic figure by the end (even as the film as a whole is on the side of the forward-looking young people in it); in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp the protagonist goes, over four decades, from being a likable and charming young soldier to a harrumphing old walrus mocked by youngsters of a new era; a celestial trial in A Matter of Life and Death celebrates the English way of life but also finds time for a pointed statement about the evils of colonialism (even making the chastening remark “Think of India” – this in a British film made in 1946!). Crossing the line between reality and fantasy, and exploring the strange and unknowable workings of the mind, these films remain unclassifiable. In its own special way, with its loathsome but recognisably human protagonist, The Glass Pearls belongs with them.

Sunday, May 28, 2023

On NT Rama Rao's centenary, remembering the early NTR

It is NT Rama Rao’s birth centenary tomorrow. I wrote this little tribute for Money Control (through the lens of a north Indian viewer who came quite late to some of his superstar-making 1950s films)…

One of the pleasures of watching the 2018 biopic Mahanati – about the celebrated actress Savitri – is the film’s affectionate, detailed recreation of famous scenes from 1950s Telugu and Tamil films. Playing the title role, Keerthy Suresh channels the Savitri spirit in musical sequences of the era, including an uproarious one from Maya Bazaar; Dulquer Salman plays Gemini Ganesan; and Naga Chaitanya has a small part as his real-life grandfather Akkineni Nageswara Rao (ANR). Here are legends of a rich period in South Indian cinema being paid tribute to by contemporary actors.

With one exception. In an early scene – where young Savitri visits the set of Shavukaru (1950) – we see a muscular actor doing an action shot. At first he is shown only from the back, but as he turns around the camera zooms in, the colour film fades into black-and-white – and the face that appears in close-up (aided by computer-generated imagery) is unmistakably that of a people’s superstar in one of his first lead roles.

Nandamuri Taraka Rama Rao.

In this moment, it is almost as if Mahanati is saying: when it comes to NTR, we have to show the original – nothing else will do. It feels like a form of darshan – the real NTR “blessing” this film with his presence – that is part of the cult surrounding movie stars in India (especially with south Indian superstars who often played mythological Gods onscreen while being adored like deities in their everyday lives). Watching the scene, even as a north Indian who did not grow up watching this superstar, I could feel the magic; I could imagine how his first appearance in a film, back in the 50s and 60s, would have affected viewers.

As a boy, my only encounter with NTR was through a glimpse – on Doordarshan’s Regional Cinema slot – of Daana Veera Soora Karna (1977), which he directed and in which he famously played Karna as well as Krishna and Duryodhana. Enthralled though I was by anything Mahabharata-related, this felt like overkill and I wasn’t much taken by the portly middle-aged man preening on his chariot and declaiming sentences in a language I couldn’t understand.

But it was a completely different matter when, decades later, I watched his first Mahabharata screen performance – as Krishna in the masterful Maya Bazaar (1957). There is a startling early scene where Krishna – seated with his family to watch a stage show about his own boyhood adventures! – is distracted by Draupadi’s cry of distress from faraway Hastinapura (where the dice game has led to her attempted disrobing). Within seconds, NTR shifts from one rasa to the next: relaxed enjoyment – beatific smile on his face as he watches his own mythologising – yields to a perturbed state as he processes the new signals coming to him; anger and pity commingle; he channels his inner divinity, performs the long-distance miracle; then shakes out of his trance as his concerned family members ask what is going on.

For a Mahabharata acolyte, the scene was fascinating because in all other movie or TV versions the “vastra-haran” scene takes place in the Hastinapura hall: we are with Draupadi and the Pandavas and Kauravas, and Krishna appears as a sort of hologram on the wall. But in Maya Bazaar the perspective is changed completely. We see Krishna’s everyday life being interrupted by the demands of godly intervention.

Vamsee Juluri’s book Bollywood Nation: India Through its Cinema notes how the Telugu mythological films of the 1950s and 1960s moved between the mundane and the divine: when required there were the “big moments” where the Gods revealed themselves in all their glory; but for the most part the stories were intimate, like drawing-room plays, focusing on a minor side-story from the epics. NTR’s charismatic but approachable Krishna fit this scheme very well.

Maya Bazaar can be seen as a culmination of his early work in the 1950s – a decade that showed the gradual evolution of a star-actor with many possibilities open to him. Two wonderful examples are in the fantasy Pathala Bhairavi (1951) and in the comedy-drama Missamma (1955). In the former – almost as if in preparation for playing a relatable God – NTR is Ramu the gardener’s son who transitions into a dashing action man (and looks very good shirtless) when the situation demands it; Ramu is fated for larger-than-life encounters when he falls in love with a princess and gets involved with an evil sorcerer. In the film’s second half, NTR is somewhat overshadowed by the great SV Ranga Rao’s juicier part as the antagonist, but his easy-going charm anchors the film, and much of Patala Bhairavi’s lasting power depends on our identification with this hero.

As an actor, NTR didn’t have the reputation of being a heavy-lifter in the way that Sivaji Ganesan (for instance) did, but he had a real knack for light comedy in different settings. He could pull it off while playing Krishna bantering with Balarama or Ghatotkacha, or while playing a dashing, Errol Flynn-like lead in Pathala Bhairavi, but he also did it in the modern story
told in Missamma – about two young people of different religions who masquerade as husband and wife to get a job. As the earnest, sometimes goofy MT Rao, he revels in the many comical double-takes necessitated by the film’s plot, but is equally persuasive as the romantic lead slowly falling in love with Mary (Savitri) while also indulging the attention of Sita (Jamuna). Or the unemployed young man who ruefully tells a conman that as a BA graduate he doesn’t have the option of using underhanded ploys to get money.

Later in life, like almost every big male star with a long career in Indian cinema, NTR fell back on familiar mannerisms and tics, offering variations on earlier performances (with a few inventive choices along the way). In his three roles in the aforementioned Daana Veera Soora Karna, one sees the intuitive ability to tap into this or that mood depending on the part – along with the hubris of a superstar who believes he has earned the right to do anything. However, to watch his first outings as a screen star on the cusp of becoming a screen deity is to see a performer who moved easily between the big gesture and the intimate one – someone who could be mischievous God, vulnerable human, intrepid adventurer, or all of these at the same time.

Saturday, April 29, 2023

About the Khabar Lahariya journalists, and the documentary Writing with Fire

(Wrote this for my Economic Times column) 


“Tell the Truth.”
“Is it Interesting?”

These are words on newspaper-office boards in two 1950s Hollywood films, Ace in the Hole and The Tarnished Angels respectively. In both films, especially the former (which is still among the most caustic narratives about unethical journalism), the words carry an ironic charge – a warning that the reporters will play fast and loose with the truth, or make things extra “interesting”.

Mirroring life, cinema has never lacked for stories about compromised or corrupt media; if you watch a current Indian film or web series with a scene involving journalists, you’ll almost certainly see parasitic reporters or shrieking TV anchors. Only rarely does one find movies that show journalists doing their jobs in a principled, straightforward manner. It comes as a relief, then, and a reminder that such possibilities exist, to watch the Oscar-nominated 2021 documentary Writing with Fire. Directed by Sushmit Ghosh and Rintu Thomas, this film chronicles the ground-breaking work of the Khabar Lahariya newspaper started by Dalit women in Uttar Pradesh in 2002.

For these journalists from unprivileged spaces, uncovering the truth – and speaking it to power – is paramount, and the film follows chief reporter Meera and members of her team, including the likable, outspoken Suneeta and the initially diffident Shyamkali. It chronicles their reporting on everyday issues facing the poor, including relatively common crimes and miscarriages of justice – an old woman weeps that for decades the girls in her family haven’t had a toilet; a raped woman’s complaint is ignored by the police; a TB-ridden village has no doctors or medicines – before moving on to larger political developments in the state, around the time that the right-wing Adityanath government comes to power.

Even the most rigorous documentaries have their own lenses – they aren’t “objective” depictions of reality (as if such a thing were possible). Writing with Fire makes its political stance clear, stressing Khabar Lahariya’s attempts to look the BJP’s paternalistic nationalism in the eye. One striking scene has Meera interviewing a Hindu Yuva Vahini leader who, when asked about his vision for governance, pauses and says solemnly, “Dekhiye, gau-raksha, gau-seva toh meri pehli prathmikta hai” (“Cow protection and cow service are my first priorities”) before segueing to an explanation of why he always carries a sword around (his “Muslim bhai” are praying for his death). It is both a comical moment and a scary one. Another scene set in Srinagar, where some of the journalists go for a fun trip – posing for photos in the snow, feeling independent and in control – becomes the setting for a discussion about the UP elections, and the fear that women’s rights will be curtailed in the name of “keeping them safe”.

At a more intimate level, though, what’s compelling about this film is its depiction of the individual journeys and struggles of these women. In one scene, involving reportage on illegal mining that resulted in workers being trapped and killed, Suneeta recalls the competitive spirit of her childhood when she tried to fill a tractor with pebbles (to help with the mining) as fast as possible, so as to not fall behind the other girls. We see that this same competitive spirit has now been transmitted to her journalistic work, as she goes forth to report in the same area.

Most of these reporters have not led lives that have equipped them to do what they are doing here; they have to learn on the job, often in dire circumstances. How to negotiate the complicated world of smart-phones, as the shift to digital news begins? (At a meeting, a young woman says she doesn’t even touch the mobile phone in her house, and is afraid of damaging it.) How to keep a phone charged when there is hardly any electricity at home? On a personal note, I remember what it was like, even as an urbanite who was very conversant with the internet, to begin self-publishing on a blog for the first time 20 years ago – choosing templates, figuring out HTML tags. How much more daunting it must be for someone who hasn’t learnt how to decipher written letters, to press a series of keys on a device to generate meaning.

But it had to be done, and the Khabar Lahariya story is, apart from anything else, about self-empowerment in the social-media age. One is always aware of the constraints and pressures in these lives – whether it is through a scene where Meera’s husband talks pleasantly but patronisingly about the newspaper (“we didn’t expect it to do well but it has, which is good – now let’s see how long it will run!”) while she peels vegetables, or a glimpse of the ambitious Suneeta yielding to societal pressure to get married. But in the end, it is our knowledge of these constraints that makes the hard-earned triumphs sweeter and more satisfying… and a universe removed from the media world that so many of us take for granted, the eight little windows full of yelling faces that might amuse gurgling two-year-olds at dinner-time, but achieve almost nothing of news value.

Tuesday, April 18, 2023

Ponniyin Selvan: 1, a refresher (and looking ahead to Part 2)

(Wrote this about Mani Ratnam’s Ponniyin Selvan: 1 for Money Control; not really an analytical piece or a critique, just a sort of primer keeping in mind that a few viewers were confused by the multiple goings-on in the first film)

The uninitiated viewer may have gone into Mani Ratnam’s Ponniyin Selvan: 1 with the vague idea that this was going to be a lavish action-adventure film about the Chola empire. That is true, in a broad sense, but if you’re armed with only this knowledge you may easily be left confused by the tangle of characters, places, dramatic episodes, and intrigues in the story. Especially since Mani Ratnam doesn’t try to spoon-feed those who know nothing about Chola history – or, equally important, about the source text, which is one of the most beloved books in modern Tamil literature.

Ponniyin Selvan: 1 is adapted from Kalki Krishnamurthy’s sprawling historical fiction which was serialised and published in final form in 1955. This was nothing like a history textbook – it used a key period in Chola history as a starting point for an imaginative, multi-strand narrative where real figures (or dramatized versions of real figures) rubbed shoulders with fully invented characters, and the personal was inseparable from the political.

So, here’s a Ponniyin Selvan primer – a look back at the first film, in anticipation of the second one coming out this month:

The setting, the period and the political situation

It is the second half of the 10th century (probably around 970 CE), and as the film’s poetic opening narration informs us, a comet has appeared over the Chola sky, signalling peril. The future of the dynasty is uncertain: the current king is the ailing Parantaka Chola II, also known as Sundara Chola (and played here by Prakash Raj), father to two sons and a daughter, all gifted and intelligent. But given the complicated recent history of the Cholas, it is by no means clear that the line of succession will continue with Parantaka II’s family. A rival branch of the clan is plotting to get the king’s cousin Madhuranthaka on the throne. Adding to the sense of urgency within the main family is that the king’s offspring are all in different locations as the story begins.

The principal characters

Of Sundara Chola’s children – the three scions of the Chola Empire as it stands – the eldest is Aditha Karikalan (played by Vikram). He is a resourceful warrior and a crown prince in waiting, but also – in Kalki’s version of the story – a tormented lover obsessed with a woman named Nandini, whom he had once hoped to marry. “Everything I do is a struggle to forget,” Aditha laments to a confidant; he bellows like a wounded animal when he remembers the day “I died my second death”, having approached a hut in the forest to capture an enemy king – only to discover the wounded man being tended to by his love. Aditha’s slaying of this Pandya king, Veerpandian, in front of the stricken Nandini, becomes a catalyst for future events.

Which also means that of the fictional characters Kalki used to propel his story forward, Nandini (played by Aishwarya Rai in the films) is the most important and central. Depending on your perspective, she can be a tragic, wronged figure or a femme fatale – but either way she is Aditha’s great nemesis.

Keeping an eye on their love-hate story from the sidelines is Aditha’s sister Kundavai Devi (played by Trisha Krishnan), a wise and perceptive princess who is very aware of the political machinations going on in the kingdom, and of the dangers to her family. Kundavai is suspicious of Nandini, now married to a minister who is part of the conspiracy against Sundara Chola; their meeting, described in a song’s lyrics as a clash between “lightning and roaring thunder”, is one of the big dramatic moments in Mani Ratnam’s film.

The Ponniyin Selvan of the title

Aditha and Kundavai’s younger brother is Arunmozhi Varman (played by Jayam Ravi). Those who have brushed up on their history may know that this is the future Rajaraja I, who would become among the most celebrated of Indian rulers. But for the purposes of this story, another of
Arunmozhi’s names is more relevant: he is also the titular Ponniyin Selvan (“child of the river Kaveri”), because of a legend that says he was saved by the river goddess from drowning as a child. As the film opens we learn that he is leading an expedition in Lanka; this is where he stays for the entirety of the first film, and we are properly acquainted with him only around halfway through the narrative – in terms of screen time and focus, he isn’t quite the protagonist of the story.

So, who is?

The adventurer who links all these people

The first time we see Vallavaraiyan Vandiyadevan (played by Karthi) in the film, he gets a heroic entrance with an action-scene cliché – appearing on horseback to intercept and kill someone who is about to attack prince Aditha – followed by a triumphant close-up. But the character is much more than an action man: his versatility will be revealed in the scenes that follow. When Aditha sends him on a series of missions (including keeping his eyes and ears peeled for conspiracies, and passing on this information to Princess Kundavai), Vallavaraiyan becomes the story’s great adventurer who facilitates the forward movement of the plot. The three Chola siblings must be brought together at some point to face the threats to their family, and Vallavaraiyan is the binding thread. We accompany him on his travels from one palace to another, see the other characters through his eyes, watch as he uncovers intrigues. Wide-eyed clown, chorus, wandering knight, and efficient strategist all at once, he manages an impish smile even while on a serious errand for the royals – play-acting, flirting, boasting (“I never turn my back in battle, or to a woman. I am fearless”), or just taking a breather with his horse to appreciate a beautiful landscape. Little wonder that many readers over the decades have seen him as the book’s real hero.

It is perhaps also because Vallavaraiyan is such a likable character (in both book and film) that we come to think of the main branch of ruling Cholas – Parantaka II and his three children – as the figures to root for. Otherwise, the motivations of those who are targeting the Cholas are justified too: there is realpolitik, there is perceived historical injustice as well as personal vendetta. The Kali-worshipping Pandyas want revenge for the beheading of their king; Nandini wants revenge for her personal trauma and lost dignity; the conspirators who are trying to get Madhuranthaka (the future Uttama Chola) on the throne believe it is rightly his since his father was once king.

What to look out for in PS 2

What Mani Ratnam has done with Kalki’s sprawling material is to convey the sense of a lavish epic with all the setpieces you’d expect – including a climactic battle at sea during a storm – but to also operate at ground level. There are scenes that are inevitably in the grand meter – the sort of tone that many viewers who fancy themselves “sophisticated” tend to be dismissive of – but if you accept the innate grandeur of the premise on its own terms, there is plenty of humanising of the characters even when they express larger-than-life emotions: for instance, the scene where Aditha first reminisces about Nandini and then throws himself like a madman into a celebratory song and dance (but still can’t keep a fatal vision out of his head). Expect a continuation of the same in the second film, and also expect AR Rahman to find just the right musical equivalent for the changing tones and shifts in canvas.

Ponniyin Selvan: 1 ended with a cliff-hanger around the watery fate of Arunmozhi. Of course, even if we didn’t know about Rajaraja I’s reign, it’s easy to work out that Ponniyin Selvan isn’t really dead. We can anticipate a more fleshed-out role for this character, who was cut off from his siblings and parents for the entirety of the first film. Once he is back home, he will be more directly caught up in the many narrative strands that will lead to the death of his elder brother (and heighten the antagonisms). Of course, Arunmozhi’s potential romance with the boat-woman Poonguzhali (another fictional character, played by Aishwarya Lekshmi) may be on hold for a while; meanwhile Kundavai’s friend, the princess Vaanathi (Sobhita Dhulipala) also hopes to marry him. And what of the mysterious old woman who repeatedly shows up to save him when he is in trouble – who is she, and why does she resemble Nandini?

A first dramatic confrontation between Aditha Karikalan and Nandini is something else to be looked forward to (since the news of Arunmozhi’s death is likely to send Aditha rushing to Thanjuvar, where he had earlier sworn not to go). There will also be the playing out of the romance between Princess Kundavai and Vallavaraiyan. The real-life Vallavaraiyan Vandiyadevan, incidentally, was a commander who married Kundavai – though it’s a safe bet that he wasn’t as central to the story of the Chola dynasty as the character invented by Kalki is!