Sunday, May 24, 2020

An online class about Aakrosh and Bhavni Bhavai

There’s a thing called "Zoom", on which you can see many small talking human faces if you’re thus inclined, including your own. Thanks to Basav Biradar, who invited me to participate in one of his Indian New Wave cinema classes, I used this for the first time a couple of days ago. It was a fun session that covered a range of subjects and reminded me how much I miss teaching film criticism/analysis (or really, just discussing films with a group of engaged students).

Basav and I figured it might be interesting to discuss two 1980 films — both debut features by important directors — that dealt with caste oppression in very different ways: Ketan Mehta’s Bhavni Bhavai and Govind Nihalani’s Aakrosh. This gave me a chance to rewatch the two films
close to each other, making it easier to appreciate the similarities as well as the differences (and the similarities within the differences). Was struck again by Nihalani’s use of Om Puri (something I wrote about earlier in the context of Ardh Satya, Aghaat and Party), and how he employs Puri’s remarkable face as a canvas in Aakrosh. (In that sense, this director-actor relationship was almost as intense as the ones between Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich, or Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski, or Orson Welles and Orson Welles.)

Some of the talking points during the Zoom class included:

- the use of the folk-theatre idiom in Bhavni Bhavai

- how “serious” actors respond to absurdist or slapstick comedy (obligatory Jaane bhi do Yaaro reference here)

- the breaking of the Fourth Wall — and the denunciation of the movie viewer as smug and apathetic — in films like Bhavni Bhavai, and the endings of Nagraj Manjule’s Fandry and Saeed Mirza’s Arvind Desai

- Nihalani’s use of extreme close-ups to create a sense of claustrophobia or entrapment

- the meaning and function of the famous dual ending of Bhavni Bhavai, with gentle idealism making way for savage, no-punches-pulled activism (as the angry Mohan Gokhale character tells the singing sutradhaar, “too gentle is your river / too slow is its flow / we won’t live forever/ it’s now or never”)

- how a person from an underprivileged group might turn on — or become contemptuous of — his own origins after reaching a position of relative privilege (e.g. the Amrish Puri character in Aakrosh)

- what makes the structure of Aakrosh like an investigative thriller in places? My answer: the Naseer character Bhaskar is for long stretches the only “active” figure in the film, the only one constantly pushing ahead, trying to learn and uncover new things, immersing himself in his case much as he plunges joyfully into the sea in the film’s opening sequence. (Not very unlike the Ayushmaan Khurana character in Article 15. And of course, if Aakrosh were made today, Bhaskar too would be dismissed as a “Brahmannical saviour” in many quarters)

- The use of Hindi in Benegal's and Nihalani's films, the shift away from Urdu dialogues that were associated with a grander, less "realistic" film aesthetic, and how the studied naturalism of the New Wave films was linked to their use of language

- the politics of representation in both films, and how even the “parallel filmmakers” could become formulaic or create their own star system.

And probably a few other things I have forgotten.
Anyway, the discussion went well, I think, and I’m toying with the idea of starting informal online classes myself. Anyone who is interested or has suggestions about what to discuss, get in touch. Otherwise I’ll go rogue and do something like best Norwegian horror films made before World War 1 or something such…

[Related posts: Nihalani's Aghaat and Ardh Satya; Party; Bhavni Bhavai]

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Animal-feeding at the Indian Garden Park, contd

[Earlier post about the Indian Garden Park here]
The feedback I often get on my animal-feeding/animal-rescue posts is that it’s heartening and inspiring to read about people like Ravi and Manoj and Pratima Devi and the many others who are doing so much good work. This is true, of course, but it’s important also to remember that all this is a drop in an ocean. For every heartwarming story about an animal being saved, there are dozens of other depressing cases where no meaningful help could be provided: with RWAs and other residents impeding rescue efforts, or the practical difficulties of getting hold of a frightened/timid animal that needed medical aid, or weak pups dying of Parvo. 

(Too many grisly stories to list, but it was particularly sad to hear yesterday about a resident Mother Dairy cat — who had delivered kittens just 3-4 weeks ago — being run over late at night by one of the many irresponsible drivers who are letting out all their pent-up lockdown energy by zipping wildly down the roads. The kittens had only recently opened their eyes and were very dependent on the mother; a local cat-lover has temporarily taken them in to feed them, but I don’t think she will be able to keep them for long.)

Which is all a roundabout way of saying that at times like this, one has to still keep sharing the good stuff when possible. Here are some images from the latest feeding expedition to the Indian Garden Park. My Dogs in Saket project collaborator Moutushi Sarkar and I went along with some food, but organiser-in-chief Rohit Chakrabarti had gathered a number of others together this time. Youngsters from an NGO, as well as volunteers who work for the German Embassy. A couple of them had come from as far as West Delhi, and it was great to see the reserves of compassion and empathy they have at their age. When I was in my twenties, despite my mother being such an animal-lover, street animals were on the periphery of my consciousness — I would never have taken this much time out for them.

There is a video below of a few dogs swimming, hippo-like, in their private jungle pool. And another one of a dog eating directly from a young feeder’s hand, while another dog observes and learns (these forest animals take some time to get used to the feeders). And the photo, a nice composition by Rohit, has the alleged co-authors of the Dogs of Saket book that is in cold storage for now (unless one ends up self-publishing.)



P.S. As always, anyone who is interested in coming along to the Indian Garden Park, most welcome. Rohit tells me there tends to be a feeder shortage on Wednesdays.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

A beginner's guide to the best of contemporary Malayalam cinema

[A couple of weeks before the first lockdown was announced, I was to begin a video series for the recently launched Cinemaazi project. That is obviously up in the air now, but I’m doing some writing for the website. Here’s the first piece, a shout-out for some excellent films from what is arguably the country's most vibrant cinematic culture today. Most of these films are streaming on Prime Video or Netflix]

“You don’t know my story, manager,” a young African footballer named Samuel haltingly tells his club manager Majeed, “Our life… not like your life. You don’t understand.” Samuel goes on to describe the crippling poverty back home, and his efforts to build a better life for his family by coming to India where athletic foreign players are in high demand. But now he is stuck in a small Kerala town, unable to return because his passport is lost and there are ongoing investigations against refugees.

The 2018 Malayalam comedy-drama Sudani from Nigeria centres on the cultural disconnect, slowly yielding to friendship, between manager and player – and in fact this disconnect is written into the film’s very title: Samuel is Nigerian, but some locals reflexively think of Africans as “Sudani”, not realising that Sudan and Nigeria are different countries. Eventually he stops trying to explain the difference.

If that generalisation makes you chuckle, remember that there are many educated north Indians who think of south India, and south Indian films, in similarly amorphous or broad-stroke terms. Even someone who is sensitive enough, or politically correct enough, to avoid terms like “Madrasi” (which so many of us Hindi-film viewers used in the 1980s) might remain uncertain about which state speaks Telugu and which speaks Malayalam; and even someone who identifies as a movie buff might think of Tamil and Malayalam cinema as interchangeable. (A friend, a critic from Tamil Nadu, once told me about how a Mumbai-based employer assumed that he would understand Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam without the aid of subtitles.)

None of this is said smugly – I speak as one who has been implicated himself. Though I began exploring many sorts of international cinemas in my early teens, “south Indian films” remained a big gap on my viewing resume. Consequently, my recent encounters with contemporary Malayalam cinema have been both daunting and exciting, and a reminder of those teen years spent with subtitled films: navigating one’s way through cultures one knew little about, learning about the oeuvres of this or that director, cinematographer or music director, gradually identifying and warming to actors as one saw them across a number of roles.

Going on such a voyage of discovery in one’s forties is more unsettling, very different from scampering to film festivals and Embassy libraries as an adolescent; even the most enthusiastic and open-minded film buffs tend to stay in comfort zones beyond a certain age. But some of the processes, the connecting of dots, stay the same. For instance, my reason for choosing to watch Sudani from Nigeria wasn’t just that it was available on Netflix (many fine Malayalam films are now): it was that I had lately become familiar with the work of the wonderful actor Soubin Shahir, who plays Majeed here. Watching him in the film’s trailer, and then in the first scene, was reassuring and provided an entry point.

Through watching many fine films from the state recently, I have been learning about both the cinematic idioms and aspects of local culture and daily life depicted in them: from the forms that religious practice takes in Keralite Christian and Muslim households to how men drape the mundu – folded up or worn full – depending on occasion and whom they are speaking to. But of course, this is very much a work in progress, with many discoveries yet to be made. With that caveat, here are some films to get you started:

Kumbalangi Nights
Even those who don’t follow “regional cinema” may well have heard of Madhu C Narayanan’s much-acclaimed Kumbalangi Nights. This is a good starting point for the untrained viewer, because it is a warm, accessible, narrative-driven film with lilting music, a terrific mix of comedy and drama, and super performances by some key actors. The story centres on the rough-hewn Saji (Soubin Shahir again) and his three brothers, living and squabbling together in a Kochi village. Theirs is a caveman existence in some ways, which has a lot to do with the fact that there is no moderating female presence in their lives – but as this slowly changes, their emotional lives undergo a shift too. What really sets the cat among the pigeons, though, is the nearby presence of a more seemingly balanced sort of family headed by the fastidious Shammi (Fahadh Faasil), who thinks of himself as a “complete man”.

The contrast between Saji and Shammi – two very different sorts of patriarchs in very different situations – lies at the heart of this story about masculinity, family ties, the class divide, and what it means to be civilised or savage. Kumbalangi Nights is one of those deceptive films that achieve narrative complexity without seeming to make much of an effort. When you think about it afterwards, you might think mainly of the funny scenes, many of which centre on Faasil’s performance as the control freak who starts short-circuiting like a defective robot when his authority is challenged; but when you’re watching it, it is impossible not to feel the emotional resonance of scenes like the one where Saji realises he needs to go to a psychiatrist and cry his heart out. Or the delicacy of the romance between the mute Bonny and a visiting American. Or an unforgettable little image of a Bluetooth speaker playing gentle music in a messy house late at night, glimpsed from the lake far outside.

Ee. Ma. Yau and Jallikattu
Lijo Jose Pellissery is one of the bona-fide auteurs of contemporary Indian cinema, a director who leaves a distinct visual and aural stamp on most of his work, and the last few years have seen a spate of acclaimed work from him, notably Angamaly Diaries, Ee. Ma. Yau. and Jallikattu. Here’s something I find fascinating about Pellissery: on the one hand, he clearly puts a lot of thought and craft into his shot compositions and gives the impression of maintaining rigid control over his mise-en-scene – in this, he belongs to the tradition of directors like a Victor Erice or a Stanley Kubrick. And yet, there also seems plenty of space for the loose, serendipitous moment; for the way in which the interplay between two or more actors might change the dynamics of a scene.

The first Pellissery film I watched was Jallikattu, an extraordinarily ambitious account of a village hunt for a runaway buffalo, co-written by the acclaimed novelist S Hareesh. Here is a film full of hypnotic images and sound design, starting with a striking montage of people in various stages of sleep or wakefulness, and insects going about the day’s work at dawn – and ending with a sequence that makes explicit the link between this story and primitive humans hunting for food. But my favourite Pellissery film so far is Ee.Ma. Yau, a lovely portrayal of death as both comedy and tragedy.

Pellissery is known for the fluidity of his long takes – the camera weaving in and out of spaces, encompassing the actions of a number of different characters – but what’s equally seamless here is how the narrative moves between hysteria, farce and deep sadness. I haven’t seen many other films that manage to be so funny, dignified and mournful at the same time, often achieving all these things within the same scene (depending on which part of the crowded frame you are looking at). There is genuine loss and grief, but there are also marvellous depictions of the more performative versions of grief – most notably in the lamenting of the dead man’s wife Mariam, whose her histrionics become like a tragi-comic chorus running through the film.


 Aashiq Abu is another of the most respected Malayali directors and producers, and his 2019 film Virus – a taut dramatization of the challenges facing medical professionals during the Nipah outbreak – is one reason why. Virus is, obviously, a very topical film in the current moment – perhaps even more so given the widespread admiration for Kerala’s efficiency in handling the Covid pandemic. But thematic relevance apart, this is first and foremost a superbly structured film, bringing the quality of a well-paced investigative thriller to a real-life tragedy. It moves from the small picture to the big one, incorporating the personal stories of many individuals infected (or affected) by the virus, as well as what the nature of the spread tells us about the society in which it occurs. It is chillingly familiar in its depiction of the panic caused – even within the medical fraternity – by a disease about which not much is known; and yet it offers hope too.

Most movingly for me at a personal level, Virus is also about the connectedness of life beyond the human world – a theme that runs through many major films and novels from Kerala, where the many components of the natural world are a constant, humming presence in the background, sometimes making it to the foreground as well. This film may have my favourite ending of any Indian film I have seen in the last few years – a mystical scene involving a baby fruit-bat that has fallen off its tree. Without underlining anything, the scene offers a small reminder of how both human strengths and vulnerabilities are inextricably linked with the planet’s other living creatures, our place in a larger ecosystem, and the many ways in which we can harm and help each other. It also reminded me of a beautiful, graceful moment in Ee.Ma.Yau., an image of the souls of two men, a dog and a duck all preparing for a final journey.

Among the films that are relatively conventional in their telling but derive their effect from a powerful performance, a good example is Uyare, about an aviation student named Pallavi (played by Parvathy Thiruvothu) whose life and career threaten to fall apart after an acid-attack by her boyfriend. The metaphor of a woman “taking off”, refusing to be tethered by a patriarchal world, is perhaps a little too obvious: that’s inevitable in a story about a pilot struggling to be accepted in her profession while also caught in a nasty relationship that culminates in an insecure man disfiguring her face. But along with its big-message moments, Uyare also has some sharp little observations about the world that its protagonist has to negotiate. Such as the scene where one of Pallavi’s male colleagues is bemused by the signs outside a toilet, and she explains that the single “Blah” is supposed to represent men while a nonstop “Blah blah blah blah blah” indicates the ladies’ room. (“Because men talk only when necessary – at least, that’s what men say.”) Which genius thought this up, the colleague asks, and she replies, “I don’t know, but it must have been a man.”

Scenes like this are lightly played, but they add up like jigsaw pieces that go into the making of a more sinister picture, one where women are first gently patronised and then oppressed or bullied with force. And Parvathy’s intelligent, sensitive performance – unafraid to move between strength and vulnerability – is a big part of the film’s effect (her performance as an unobtrusive but efficient contamination-tracker was also central to Virus).

Vikruthi and Maheshinte Prathikaaram
There is also a subgenre of slice-of-life stories built around a seemingly everyday incident that spirals into something big, and eventually reveals things about the characters and the society they belong to. Two good instances are the 2019 Vikruthi (Mischief) and the 2016 Maheshinte Prathikaaram (Mahesh’s Revenge). The former is based on a real-life story about a speech-impaired man, Eldho (wonderfully played by National Award-winner Suraj Venjaramoodu), who becomes the butt of scorn after he falls asleep on a train in exhaustion and a fellow passenger takes a photo of him. While Eldho is obviously the object of the film’s sympathy, what Vikruthi does expertly is to intercut his story with that of the man who is the agent of his humiliation, and who also gets to experience what it is like to be persecuted – this narrative structure eschews a straightforward victim-oppressor tale in favour of a nuanced examination of how two paths can collide with unfortunate results, and how an instant-gratification, technology-driven society is quick to judge people on very little evidence.

Maheshinte Prathikaaram is another many-complexioned film that seems unobtrusive to begin with, but slowly grows into the story of a man who must move towards a moment of private reckoning. Fahadh Faasil plays a photographer who gets humiliated in a street brawl and vows not to wear slippers again until he has had his revenge. You’d think a premise like that could make for a straightforward action drama or a straightforward slapstick comedy, but the storytelling is unconventional and detour-laden, and (much like Kumbalangi Nights, Ee. Ma. Yau. and many other films) the film milks whimsical humour from sombre situations. (Funerals, for example, can be both romantic and funny.)

There is a climactic fight sequence and it’s superbly done – it is messy, realistic, comical, but also conveys what is at stake for Mahesh, how his whole sense of self is at stake. And yet, after all that is over and the task has been accomplished, the film ends on an almost sheepishly charming, down-to-earth note. Want a story about a seemingly ordinary man caught in a slightly-unusual situation, told with heart and depth? Here you go.


 One of the by-products of a cinematic culture that is moving from personality cults towards more grounded and realistic representations is that there are slyly affectionate inside jokes about older films and actors. For instance, Maheshinte Prathikaaram has a scene where a character, watching a film on TV, holds forth on the relative merits of superstars Mammootty and Mohanlal: the former will play any role, he says — a tree-climber, a tea shop owner, whatever – but the latter is great because he will only do “top-class” parts. (The reference won’t be immediately clear to an outsider, but this is a dig at Mohanlal’s tendency to play upper-caste characters.)

In this light, it’s intriguing to observe the friction within a film when a superstar of yore gets cast in a relatively non-showy part. In the 2019 Unda, Mammootty plays Mani sir, the leader of a police unit that is sent to Naxalite territory in Chhatisgarh for election duty. These cops are clearly out of their depth here, as lost as the “Sudani from Nigeria” was in a Keralite town – they struggle with lack of resources and information, language barriers, the hostility and suspicion that comes their way from the locals, and the note of terror that is struck with every uttering of the word “Maoist”.

It’s amusing to see Mammootty billed as “Megastar” in the opening credits of this film, where his role is so subdued, and where his character even becomes paralysed in a moment of crisis, unable to issue a command. He does briefly get to be the super-cop action figure in the climax, but the dominant image for much of the film is that of an avuncular man in a check-shirt, buying Parle G biscuits to distribute among his unit; or his eyebrows furrowing with concern and incomprehension when people speak urgently in Hindi in his presence.

In general too, Unda might be too quiet for some tastes if you go into it expecting a story about a police-Maoist confrontation. Like the Hindi film Newton, which covered similar ground, this is a slow-burn film, and that is part of the point. Those mythical demons, the “Maoists”, are notable mainly by their absence: wait and wait for them, but like Godot they might never show up. Instead there are other, more palpable dangers: in the cultural disconnect between this police unit and their setting; in the blatant and casual election-rigging by local politicians and their goons, which the police are expected to look away from; in the persecution of poor indigenous people. By the end, we will see that this is a story about the many ways in which people can be adrift, in a land that both is and isn’t their own.

[An earlier piece about Kumbalangi Nights is here. And here's one about Virus]

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Feeding diaries, contd: dogs and nilgai in the Indian Garden Park

I have lived in Saket for 33 years, but it took a lockdown-driven crisis for me to visit the Indian Garden Park (just 300-400 metres from my house) for the first time. Eleven acres of forest land, not too well maintained (which is of course the case for many such spaces in Delhi) but good for long walks, and some interesting terrain: sloping paths, little ruins, sudden inclines and gullies (this area was originally part of a fort).
For the first month of the lockdown, a resident named Rohit Chakrabarti began going to the park every day with heaps of food for the 30-odd dogs trapped inside. In the past few weeks, a few others have been helping out; and with the help of Maneka Gandhi’s team, the main gate has now been opened for designated feeders coming at specified times. 

I am not looking to develop regular bonds with new groups of dogs outside the many I already know and feed outside two flats in Saket (and on the route between those flats), but it was nice to get some feeding done yesterday. Not so nice to see that some idiotic youngsters have made a habit of breaking the clay bowls in which water is left for the animals. And not so good to hear about the dozens of pups who have died of starvation/dehydration/parvo here in recent times, despite the feeders’ efforts. (But that is one of the inevitable sideshows of these times; on my walk this morning, I saw a large monkey lying dead near a parked car.)

There are nilgai in the Indian Garden Park too; in the video here, you can see Rohit feeding one. Shy animals, as you might know, but extreme hunger overcomes that after a few days. 

Anyone here who lives in the vicinity of Saket/Sainik Farms/Saidulajab and feels like coming across one day with food for the dogs, let me know. It takes around an hour, and it provides some good exercise. (During the last two months, I have averaged around 12-13K steps per day, but I crossed 20K steps yesterday thanks to the park visit – and wore out my last decent pair of shoes.)

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Rafael Nadal in 2013: an essay for a Sportstar book

[Earlier this year, during that strange and unfathomable time when sports tournaments were being played around the world in crowded arenas, a new book celebrating 40 years of Sportstar magazine was published. The format had 40 writers doing essays about a key year in the career of 40 sportspersons. My piece is about what I consider Rafa Nadal’s best year, 2013, and I was very excited when Sportstar asked me to write it. Having been an avid reader/hoarder of the magazine during my cricket-watching years more than two decades ago (especially when someone like Nirmal Shekar or R Mohan wrote a piece about one of my favourites), it feels warm and fuzzy to be IN a Sportstar for the first time. Not to mention that Sachin Tendulkar and I are, ahem, co-writers here — and rival co-writers to boot, since his contribution is about Roger Federer! Back in 1996, I could never have guessed that such a thing would come to pass.

At the same time, without getting into sordid details, problems cropped up with the book – among other things, the production was delayed and delayed again and then again, and the essay had to be reworked more than a year after I submitted it. Won’t focus on that here, though. Here is the piece]


If you’re a sports lover who has pledged his troth to a player or team, you get used to moments of euphoria coexisting with moments of soul-crushing disappointment. Especially in a tense, oscillating match such as a Grand Slam final, where each hard-fought point, each rally ended with a decisive statement of intent, can make a big difference – not just in terms of who wins the current game, but for the psychological stakes involved.

In my most unforgettable sports memory, elation was preceded (for just a split second) by dismay, and the dismay was caused by a misunderstanding – the sort of misunderstanding that any long-time fan of Rafael Nadal might be prone to.

It’s that game, and that point at the end of the third set of the 2013 US Open final between Nadal and his most dangerous opponent ever, Novak Djokovic. Rafa has a break point that is also a set point. The rally stretches on, both men first playing cautiously, then speeding up the pace, turning defence to offence while sustaining a level of intensity that only their matches can produce. Djokovic’s forehand targets Rafa’s backhand, seems about to wrest control, but then Rafa gets the ball on his stronger side and lets one rip, smashing a forehand deep in the deuce court – so deep that, watching on a non-HD TV, I think the ball has gone just long; and meanwhile, out of the corner of my eye, I see Rafa looking like he has awkwardly fallen to his knee.

It’s all over, I tell myself in the time it takes these perceptions to coalesce: Djokovic will go on to win the game and then the set; and now it looks like Rafa’s famously fragile knee is in trouble, too; yet another injury in a career obstructed by them?

In another microsecond, I knew what had really happened. Rafa had caught the line with that blazing forehand; Djokovic, flailing, hadn’t been able to handle it; and Rafa, who had stumbled a little after hitting the shot, allowed himself to get down on that dodgy limb and celebrate with a mighty fist pump. Cut to his family and team in the stands, his girlfriend and dad exchanging goofy, disbelieving grins, the latter holding his head as if to stop a vein from bursting, like he had at the end of the 2008 Wimbledon final, like so many Nadal fans have done so, so often.

(Here is the point in question. The video embedded below has the full match.)

It’s hard to explain how much was at stake in that point, and what an incredible set this had been – a seesaw and a roller-coaster thrown into one. With the match tied, Rafa had fallen 0-2 behind in the third, and he came perilously close to going down two breaks; Djokovic was in one of his terrifying runs of form, reminiscent of 2011, when the brilliant Serb won six straight finals against Rafa. But Nadal held, broke back to make it three-all – and then went down 0-40 again before holding to reach 5-4. Then came that final game, with Rafa winning four straight points to steal the set. And Djokovic wilted, going down tamely in the fourth.

That game, that point, that moment, summarises what I think of as Rafa’s greatest season – which may be an unpopular view, because others will point to 2010, the only year in which he won three Slams, and still others to 2008 when he played that extraordinary Wimbledon final to dethrone Roger Federer and became world No. 1 for the first time after three straight years of tailing his older rival.

But 2013 is extra special for many reasons. In terms of the quality of competition he stared down, it was certainly superior to 2010 – there were far more triumphs against top-10 players, including three very satisfying wins against Djokovic. Two of those came at Slam level – the classic five-setter in the Roland Garros semifinals and the US Open final – but just as pleasing was the hard-fought win in the Montreal Masters semifinals, one of Rafa’s many high points during the most impressive non-clay run of his career: sweeping the three big autumn tournaments in North America – the Canada and Cincinnati Masters followed by the US Open. This is something that even hard-court masters like Federer and Djokovic haven’t done, and I rate it among the highest of Rafa’s achievements.

Then there is the fact that the 2013 season began with Rafa slowly, very slowly making his way back from one of his many demoralising injury layoffs. He didn’t play the Australian Open, opting to find form in small South American clay tournaments in February – losing the Vina del Mar final to world No. 73 Horacio Zeballos, then working his way up until he was confident enough, and ready enough, to win the Indian Wells Masters, beating Federer along the way and Juan Martín del Potro in the final. These were still baby steps, of course, on the road to the form that saw him beat the dominant Djokovic in vital matches later in the season.

So, 2013 for the win? I think so. With 2010, 2008, 2019, 2017 and his breakout year 2005 (first Slam, four Masters 1000 wins) coming a close second (in more or less that order).

There are some obvious things to be said about the experience of being an obsessive Nadal fan, and some of them were on view if you saw the expressions on his team’s faces at the end of that third set. They were probably thinking exactly what I, and millions of other Nadal fans, have thought thousands of times over the years: How did he pull that off?

Having followed him match by match, tournament by tournament, since early 2006 – pacing up and down in front of the TV, pausing between points to refresh the chat page on whichever tennis website I’m logged into at the time – I know all the mood swings. You feel exhausted, almost like you have played the match yourself. You wish, at moments, that he were a more efficient, balletic player like Federer – so that, win or lose, at least the match would be over quickly and you could get back to what remains of your life. But you also appreciate what he means when he says, in interviews, that “suffering” through a match is often more important than the final result. And that he can take nothing for granted, not even against the lowest-ranked opponent.

And there are the deflating blows that come with realising that his body has let him down yet again, just when you felt he was on the cusp of a big achievement or was rounding into peak form – as happened when he had to withdraw after two rounds of the 2016 French Open.

But for a diffident fan like me, following Rafa has also been a matter of constantly being surprised in good ways: the goalposts for what is possible have shifted and shifted and shifted again. Back in 2006, I was surprised when he beat Federer in the French Open final (after barely squeaking through in the marathon Rome Masters final they played a few weeks earlier, and struggling through early rounds at the French) because I thought it was pre-destined that Federer would complete the Roger Slam. Then I was surprised when Rafa won his first non-clay major in 2008. (One persuasive narrative back then was that Djokovic, who had just won the Australian Open, was set to be the true all-court successor to Federer.) I was surprised when he won a hard-court major at the 2009 Australian Open (after playing a five-hour semifinal), surprised when he made a brilliant comeback in 2010 after a disappointing few injury-afflicted months, surprised when he overcame his 2011-2012 setbacks against Djokovic. 

I was astonished when he returned to No. 1 in 2017 after two strife-filled seasons where it had seemed clear that he was in a sportsman’s final twilight. And most recently, when he took back the number one spot from Djokovic near the end of the 2019 season (a season that had begun with the Serb conclusively overpowering Rafa in the Australian Open final) – and then rounded his year off by helping Spain win the Davis Cup in its new format, all the while celebrating and encouraging his countrymen like a teenager in the arena for the first time.

To describe sports fandom as a roller-coaster ride would be to imply that the object of that fandom is mercurial or inconsistent, burning bright but briefly. But with Rafa, the greatest and most improbable of his legacies – one that most observers would never have predicted a decade ago – involves longevity. In 2014, he became the first male player to have won at least one major in 10 consecutive years – an achievement largely determined by his mastery of the clay at Roland Garros, but no less impressive for that. As of December 2019, he has been in the top 10 for over 760 consecutive weeks, never falling out of that hallowed space since he first entered it in early 2005 – and is almost guaranteed to break Jimmy Connors’s record of 787 weeks.

This wasn’t supposed to happen! These are achievements one expects from the more “efficient” great players, like Federer or Djokovic or Pete Sampras.

Given how accustomed Rafa’s fans are to “suffering” with him, it feels almost poetically appropriate that when I first began putting together notes for this piece, Nadal was in the midst of another injury-related setback. With Djokovic having made his own comeback, and generally appearing less prone to recurring injuries, who would bet on Rafa continuing to be dominant in his mid-thirties?

But after everything that has happened from 2005 on, who could bet against it? For many of us, watching Rafa make repeated comebacks and play tireless defence-to-offence against a sportsman’s biggest nemesis, Father Time, has been more fulfilling than watching all those close matches against his biggest flesh-and-blood rivals. His playing style won’t let him continue for more than another three or four seasons, some commenters (including some of us gloomy fans) were saying when he was still a teen. Look how that turned out.

Thursday, May 07, 2020

Lockdown chronicles – a reunion of old foes: a man in a mask and a dog in a muzzle

More about animal-care. I wrote five years ago about the wonderful incident of the black dog in our colony who made it all the way back to Saket after running away from Friendicoes, where we had sent her to be spayed (the post is here, for anyone interested). This dog, who still doesn't have a name apart from a generic Kaali, is the mother of my Lara, and as a result I feel a strong connection with her – even though she only sometimes came to our lane and I didn’t see her for days or weeks on end. In the past year or so, now that she is very old, she has settled down a bit and is being looked after by a nearby resident; I give her some paneer and biscuits whenever I see her.

Kaali developed a nasty, festering ear injury a few days ago, and once I realised how serious it was, I called Ravi and Manoj, who do so much animal-feeding and rescuing for us during these locked-down days. With the help of a guard, we managed to get her leashed and into an enclosed space (which can be the hardest part of these missions), and for the past three days extensive treatment has been underway. Anyone who has seen a deep ear injury in a street dog will know what I mean when I say this was a touch-and-go case. The initial cleaning resulted in the evacuation of literally dozens of big dead maggots – a day’s delay and they would probably have burrowed into her brain. But Ravi, as usual, with limited resources, carrying his own very basic medical kit everywhere, did a great job. Chances are she will recover fully in a few days.

Two things about this: 1) When I was a child, probably right up to age 11 or 12, my stock answer to the question “What will you be when you grow up?” was “A veterinarian.” (Then, of course, I got older and wiser and the answer became “a chartered accountant”, which seemed the practical thing, and which is what I still tell anyone who asks me the question today.)

Very often in recent times I have felt like that childhood dream has been belatedly realised – that I have become, if not anything like a full-blown vet, at least an acceptable apprentice. (My most damaged and troublesome dog Chameli has usually been the conduit for this.) And never has this feeling been more pronounced than in the past few days: no surprise when one is administering various sorts of medicines at regular intervals, cleaning deep and ugly wounds, and assisting in the removal of clusters of maggots from delicate places. My mother, who smiled proudly whenever I said “a vet” as a child, would have liked hearing about these adventures.

2) As I mentioned in that old post, Ravi was Kaali’s nemesis in 2015 – he was the one who took her to Friendicoes for her operation, she escaped from him and would bolt, snarling, every time she heard the sound of his car when he tried to find her. Now, five years later, their paths have crossed again in unexpected circumstances, and it feels like things have come full circle – it’s a tale that has redemption, grace, forgiveness, all those grand and inflated human themes. She has been terrified during the treatment, but there’s a more resigned, senior-citizen look in her eyes when she sees him, as if she’s saying, “Well, I can’t run away from you all my life, and there isn’t much life left now anyway, so let’s get on with this.” (Meanwhile, Ravi tells her elaborate stories in a steadily comforting voice even as he does the treatment: things like “Haan haan, Friendicoes mein woh Chhotu abhi bhi aapke baare mein poochte rahta hai – woh kahin phirse toh nahin bhaag gayi?”)

Today, after we removed her muzzle and leash and set her free, I was surprised to see her walking back towards him and wagging her tail a bit, even though she had been shrieking in pain when her ears were being cleaned. Displays of trust like this make many of these situations seem worth the effort.
[More about Ravi and Manoj and their efforts here]

Sunday, May 03, 2020

For Vimla Srivastava, in admiration

Had put this on Facebook around a month and a half ago, but wanted to share it here too. Shortly before the first of the lockdowns was imposed across India, I got news about the passing of someone whom I had never met and had only interacted with on email (a few brief exchanges over five years), but who I’m certain must have been a positive inspiration to thousands of people over her long lifetime. Vimla Srivastava Jauhari — teacher, humanitarian, animal-lover. 

In March 2015 I received an email from Vimla ji: 83 years old, from Hardoi district, UP. She had read about Pratima Devi/Amma — the “dog mother” of PVR Anupam — on my blog, and wanted to know how she could contribute a small monthly amount for her. “I know that Delhi is a rich place and there must be financial help for Pratima Devi,” she wrote, “But I am a pensioner and can part with a fraction of it every month for her cause.”

I sent Vimla ji the account details for Pratima Devi (remarkably, she thanked me for doing this!) — and starting that month, she arranged for a fixed amount to be transferred every month to the account. Most of our subsequent interactions were limited to her sending me yearly notifications that the transfers were continuing; I gave her updates about Pratima Devi and the dogs, sent photos. Once in a while, she would also send a general note, share a video link about environmental damage and so on. She followed my blog and Facebook posts occasionally, and asked how my mother was doing during the cancer treatment.

During one exchange, when I intended to write “Thank you for your continuing assistance”, I accidentally wrote “…for your continuing existence” instead. When I mailed to correct this, she replied:

“Your mail made me laugh...each healthy day (existence) granted by GOD after 80 is a blessing, no worries.”

Around a month and a half ago, I received a Facebook notification saying that Vimla Srivastava had passed away after a heart attack. I’m sure she will be missed and remembered by many people who knew her at much closer quarters, but I’m glad to have crossed paths with her, even if only in this distant way; though we never even spoke on the phone, it feels like a personal loss.

Saturday, May 02, 2020

Lockdown film recommendation: Portrait of a Lady on Fire

[Continuing with film recos -- this one is on for only another  week or so]

A familiar sinking feeling for an independent writer without a regular income source. You have deadlines for long essays that you’re carefully procrastinating on (note: these are not necessarily things you will get paid for, which makes the point about income irrelevant), you know you must get back to writing those pieces, or at least thinking about them, structuring them in your head etc… but then, at the end of a tiring day you take a break by watching a film, and you realise that you absolutely HAVE to write about this film (which no one will pay you to write about), and that this will take up a lot of time and mental energy.

The latest of those films, and one of the best things I have watched in ages: Céline Sciamma’s stunningly shot and performed Portrait of a Lady on Fire, about a growing closeness between two women, an artist named Marianne and her subject Héloïse, in 18th century France. Loath as I am to make “recommendations”, I would unhesitatingly toss this film at anyone who doesn’t mind languid narratives where nothing very major seems to “happen” for stretches, where the emphasis is on the quiet gesture and the unarticulated emotion.

That said, this film didn’t feel slow at all while I was watching it. And it worked at many levels, many of which I haven’t fully processed. It is a beautifully developed romance set in a very particular place at a particular time. It is an examination of idealised vs practical versions of love, and of the misleading idea that it is the artist who is both in control and feels most deeply while the subject is a blank slate. And it makes intriguing use of the Orpheus-Eurydice story as a parable for women’s agency. (What if it were Eurydice who asked Orpheus to turn around and look at her on their way out of Hades, thus sealing her fate but also ensuring that she got to choose her destiny, to win a form of immortality rather than live a mundane, subservient life?)

But as much as anything else, I saw this as a sort of meta-film that contrasts two different forms, painting and cinema, and their treatment of the artist-subject relationship. This is made most obvious in the extraordinary final sequence (no spoiler here, I don’t think anything could spoil the effect of that scene), a nearly three-minute take where the face of the actress Adèle Haenel becomes as much of a muse for director Sciamma’s canvas as the character Héloïse was for Marianne in the story. (By the way, it was only after watching the film that I learnt that Sciamma and Haenel had been in a real-life relationship. No surprise. There is something very urgent and personal about that final sequence.)

I'll save a longer piece for later, maybe after a second viewing. This film is on Mubi, and will only be there for another week – so don’t waste time.

P.S. I don’t usually like making direct comparisons between two films, or sweeping proclamations about one being “better” than the other – especially when the films in question are both of high calibre and very different in texture, genre or style. Few exercises are so pointless or reductive. But I’m tempted for once to get into comparison territory, given that a film this good was a potential contender at the Oscars last year. And especially given some of the talk I heard about how Parasite was a masterwork that had, purely on merit, succeeded in doing something that decades of foreign-language films had not.

This is not intended as a putdown of Parasite (and I clarified some of my thoughts about the Oscars in this piece earlier) but as a comment on narratives about why this or that film “deserves” an award. One of the themes of Portrait of a Lady on Fire is how art created by women – or the women’s gaze more generally – has historically been neglected, patronised or treated as less important or less “universal” than male art. The fact that France didn’t choose this film as its official submission to the Oscars was not, I’d like to think, because it was perceived as “just a women’s picture” – as a period love story that didn’t deal with Big Subjects. But history suggests that could be the case. If Parasite broke (or appeared to break) one glass ceiling, others are comfortably intact.

Friday, May 01, 2020

Rishi Kapoor, in memoriam

[I’m not overly fond of writing obituaries, and not just for the obvious reason. These things always have to be done on a tight deadline, which invariably means that within 15 minutes of sending the piece you recall eight other things you should definitely have mentioned. But Mint Lounge asked me to write something about Rishi Kapoor yesterday, so here it is]


If you’re growing up in the 1980s, a boy in love with Hindi cinema’s macho heroes, you can be forgiven for being less than enamoured of Rishi Kapoor. Here he is, as the diminutive Akbar in one of your favourite films, singing qawwalis and being romantic and chirpy, while your “heroes” Anthony and Amar (in that order) do the manly things, swaggering and getting into fisticuffs and being funny-drunk. Years later, you will be better placed to appreciate the centrality of Akbar – bard, commenter, dispeller of veils – to this film, and the quiet, tempering charm of the actor playing him. But back then, you see him as a third wheel, much like the kid brother who will try to placate Bachchan with “Chal mere bhai” in Naseeb a few years later.

Near the end of the decade, the same actor again plays a music-loving pacifist in another of your favourite multi-starrers, JP Dutta’s Hathyar. In the climax, as Sanjay Dutt and Dharmendra go down blazing in a haze of bullets, it is Rishi Kapoor’s Sami Bhai who tries to pry guns away, to negotiate peace between gangsters and cops. This sort of thing can be unappealing if you want some good old dhishkiyaon-dhishkiyaon, but even in that mood there was a moment that stuck with me for decades.

Sami Bhai has just been beaten up and is offering no resistance. Clutching a pole, out of breath, seeing that his assailant is about to walk away, he makes a trio of wordless gestures (ranging from “come, take out more of your anger on me” to “what, you’re done already?”) – the whole thing takes up maybe three or four seconds, but it is as good an acting vignette as you’ll see.

Of course, Rishi Kapoor did so much in the 1970s and 1980s, across genres, that it was impossible not to sit up and take notice, even if he wasn’t your preferred hero type. Glancing through his filmography is to be reminded that he was an essential presence in many different types of films: from his effortlessly lithe musical performances in Karz and Hum Kisise Kam Nahin to one of his few truly offbeat films of that period, Rajinder Singh Bedi’s Ek Chaadar Maili Si, to the thriller Khoj, where he more than held his own against Naseeruddin Shah in an exciting verbal joust that builds to the climactic denouement.

Looking back on his work during that time, it’s interesting to consider how often he seems to be a silent or passive presence, or how often we see the character he plays in relation to someone else – from the boy watching his teacher, Simi Garewal, undressing by the lake in Mera Naam Joker, to the adult looking at Dimple Kapadia by the sea in Saagar. In both cases, and in so many others, watching or romancing dozens of heroines over the years, he came to represent a relatively unthreatening variant on the male gaze – shy, longing, even courtly. And he frequently played secondary parts in woman-centric films like Prem Rog and Tawaif, unafraid to be the not-always-likable man who must grow inwardly before he can take on responsibility. (In this, he is a clear precursor to the Ayushmann Khurana persona of the current age, even though today’s films are more politically correct and overtly progressive than most of the social dramas Rishi Kapoor did in the 80s.)

Self-effacement was one of the keys to this persona. If he seemed to melt into the background in multi-starrers where he worked with action heroes, this was equally often the case in the “social dramas” where the focus was on the women. (In Damini, he did both: playing second fiddle to Meenakshi Seshadri – as the film’s protagonist, a tireless upholder of truth and justice – and the red-eyed Sunny Deol as a lawyer who fights a woman’s cause with macho zest.) And yes, in later years, there were times when the self-effacement yielded to a form of showiness or peevishness: there are some boastful passages in his autobiography Khullam Khulla, such as the ones where he seems to take credit for “introducing” a number of female stars, or says that Bachchan always had the advantage of writers and directors kowtowing to him. But perhaps that sort of thing is a natural by-product of feeling neglected or hard done by in one’s prime.

After a long gap in the 1990s and early 2000s, where he did little of note, Kapoor famously found a second innings, playing roles that his fan base of two decades earlier would have found it hard to imagine him in – from the pedantic movie producer in Luck by Chance to the sleazy Rauf Lala in the Agneepath remake, the middle-class Lajpat Nagar teacher in Do Dooni Chaar, or the
Dawood Ibrahim-like gangster in D-Day, launching into a colourful monologue at the film’s end, and using an explosive profanity that one would never have expected from the Chintu baba of old. He also played a version of himself in the affectionate, under-watched Chintu-ji, which was a part-tribute to his father’s brand of filmmaking. And most recently, he was the beleaguered Muslim lawyer in Mulk, trying to clear his family of terrorism charges.

These are all roles that permitted greater displays of versatility than the old Hindi cinema did, and in interviews and in his book Kapoor spoke about how he had waited for decades to be able to do such films. But while respecting the range he showed in his later years, I think any real appreciation of Rishi Kapoor the star-actor requires being able to marvel at the many quiet moments of magic he found within long-established templates. For a real tribute, you couldn’t do much better than to watch his many fine performances in song sequences like “Jeevan ke Har Mod Pe” or “Hoga Tum se Pyaara Kaun” or “Parda Hai Parda”, to see how an actor with integrity and a work ethic can enhance even formulaic-seeming situations.

[Some related earlier pieces: Hathyar, Chintu-ji, and one of RK’s most “unforgettable” 1980s films, Naseeb Apna Apna]

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Despatches from a room: The Daughter of Time and other ‘isolation novels’

[my First Post Bookshelves column – about stories set in confined spaces, where people rely on imagination to make sense of an inaccessible world]

In these strange times, as some of us struggle to remember what the world outside looked like until a couple of months ago (or if it even existed the way we recall it), and as parents try to find new ways to keep their children active – while also trying to keep their own thoughts from falling into the abyss – I have been thinking of Emma Donoghue’s Booker-shortlisted novel Room.

Told in the voice of Jack, five years old as the book opens, this is a story about a boy living alone with his mother in a small room, which neither of them ever seems to leave. Naturally they keep themselves busy: play games, clean and cook, watch TV together (he believes the things he sees on the screen have nothing to do with their world). Since we readers are privy only to Jack’s very limited perspective, it takes a while for us to conjecture what is really going on here – why he thinks the room is a planet unto itself, and why it’s such a struggle for his mother to explain what Outside is like.

When I first read Room, I saw it as a very dark allegory for certain aspects of “normal” childhood, including a close relationship with a parent. As a fable about growing up, and the agoraphobic terror-excitement of preparing to meet a new world, it reminded me a bit of Michael Ondaatje’s wonderful The Cat’s Table, in which an 11-year-old boy makes a long ship journey from Sri Lanka to England in the 1950s. Needless to say, this ship is much larger than the Room that Jack and his mother occupy, and there are colourful characters, friends, little adventures on board; but it is still a circumscribed space where the protagonist learns about himself, what lies beyond the world he has so far known, and what might happen when he gets there.

There is no dearth of other stories set in confined spaces, involving people who are isolated in one way or another. (Obligatory pedantic reminder: one doesn’t need to be physically isolated or quarantined to feel “alone” – people can be achingly lonely or cut off in crowds too.) There are books where a character, adrift, must use fantasy to nourish or save himself – as do the titular characters in Yann Martel’s Life of Pi or Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince. There are more forthright meetings between fantasy and madness, as in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s brilliant short story “The Yellow Wall-Paper”, about a woman growing obsessed with the wallpaper in a room where she may or may not have been imprisoned: here is a seemingly bleak tale that also offers a form of hope and validation – a sense that a screen (or paper covering) has been ripped apart, and new possibilities revealed for women who are being bullied or oppressed by men.

And there are doomsday books about things comparable to our current real-world situation: such as the passages in Max Brooks’s massively entertaining zombie apocalypse novel World War Z where privileged people discover that however carefully they build their fortresses and stock their provisions, they can’t stay forever untouched by a raging plague – something that was also the central theme of Edgar Allan Poe’s iconic “The Masque of the Red Death”.

On a lighter note, a very enjoyable “isolation novel” I recently read was Josephine Tey's 1951 mystery The Daughter of Time, in which Tey’s series detective, Inspector Alan Grant, finds himself bedridden in hospital, restless, with little to occupy his mind. This changes when a glimpse of a portrait of King Richard III leads Grant into a cerebral investigation of the man regarded as one of history’s major villains, famously caricatured by Shakespeare (Laurence Olivier’s celebrated stage performance as a very malevolent Richard was fresh in the public memory when this book was written) and denounced by generations of historians. What was the truth, Grant wonders, behind the disappearance of Richard’s two little nephews, and was there an injustice done to his reputation?

What makes this such a compelling and unusual murder mystery is that we never leave Grant’s hospital room. He isn’t exactly alone – nurses fuss over him, occasional visitors bring him books and indulge his theories, a young scholar plays apprentice and researcher – but this is in essence a very interior book, as far as one can get from a detective story involving action and legwork.

To fully enjoy this dissection of very distant history, you probably need basic interest in the period (it’s useful to have Wikipedia at hand to read up on the litany of royals with similar names). But I think there is much of general interest here as well — not least in the way Tey takes a scalpel to how history tends to be written and set in stone; how a single chronicler’s bias or ulterior motive, or even carelessness, can create a domino effect that echoes through the centuries, creating unshakable narratives and impressions for future generations. And, of course, how a great playwright and the actors who bring his work alive can contribute to solidifying those impressions.

So, was Richard III (to misquote Shakespeare) cheated of feature by dissembling historians? This has apparently been a widely debated question, but Josephine Tey helped bring the debate to a large public through this accessible, fast-paced genre work.

On the face of it, there is little in common between a Room and a Daughter of Time. One is an often morbid narrative about two people who are victims of a horrible crime (with one of them not even aware of it), while the other is a breezy historical mystery that investigates diabolical events but still manages to be a droll, comforting read (even the most dastardly villains here have been dead for centuries and pose no threat to Inspector Grant). But both books, and some of the others mentioned here, are about immobilised people in an unnatural situation, using what resources they have to stay productive and to find a form of escape: whether it involves traveling into the past, moving towards physical freedom, or re-evaluating the mechanics of an outside world that is temporarily out of reach.

P.S. more on Shakespeare's Richard III. From Donald Spoto’s Olivier biography:
Venomous, lethally acidulous, Olivier’s Richard was like a hideous accident — too ghastly to see as something possible for oneself, too fascinatingly grisly to ignore. His death seemed like the writhing of a pinned spider, each spasm a clawing response to the deadly sword thrusts until he was literally torn away from life. When the final curtain fell, there was often a moment of silence, as if the horrors they had seen had made the audience incapable of an immediate reaction. Then, as John Mills said, ‘People seemed to go raving mad. Everyone knew we were all watching something very, very unusual and very great. We had just seen a man in a weird, strange, frightening, intense mood— and there he was, taking a curtain call, apparently as normal as anyone. But not really.’

[More about Emma Donoghue's Room in this personal essay about my mother. Here is a post about World War Z. And a longer post about Ondaatje's The Cat's Table is here]