Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Notes on The Lives of Others

When I first heard about the German film The Lives of Others last year, it was in a negative context – it had just won the foreign-language Oscar over Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, which was widely regarded as a more imaginative, cinematically richer work. Having seen both movies now, I have to say I prefer Pan’s Labyrinth, but it feels like an unfair comparison – the films are so different in tone and in the way they deal with a vaguely similar theme: innocents endangered by a repressive, soul-sapping regime, trying to find something to cling to.

While Pan’s Labyrinth made magnificent allegorical use of a fairy tale to comment on Franco’s Spain, the narrative of The Lives of Others is grimly realist. It's set in socialist East Germany in the year 1984 (probably a nod to Orwell's novel about totalitarianism) and its muted, dull-grey look gives visual expression to a place that has had colour and vitality drained out of it. The story begins with a Stasi police captain named Wiesler being assigned to monitor the activities of a playwright, Georg Dreyman, who is suspected of potential dissidence. As Wiesler maintains a round-the-clock surveillance on Dreyman’s apartment through hidden microphones that record every conversation, he becomes a secret participant in the lives of the playwright and his lover Christa-Maria (in fact, we take his role as hidden audience so much for granted that a scene where he meets Christa-Maria in a bar feels like an intrusion - like the tearing down of the fourth wall).

A key subplot is that Christa-Maria, a stage performer, is in thrall to a powerful minister who wants Dreyman to get into trouble. In a notable early scene, this minister and the idealistic Dreyman have an exchange that is all civility on the surface but carries sinister undertones. Dreyman asks if there is any hope for his friend, a blacklisted theatre director who can no longer find work on an East German stage (incidentally the word “blacklist” is frowned upon by the regime: they wouldn’t do that to anyone!). “Oh, there’s always hope as long as he’s alive,” the minister snorts, “and perhaps even after that. Isn’t hope the last thing to die?” He then patronisingly commends Dreyman for his continuing faith in mankind. “What we like about your plays,” he says, “is your belief that people can change. But in reality, people don’t change.”

It could be said that the rest of the film is a counterpoint to these words, showing us the gradual transformation that takes place in the spying Wiesler, a transformation that is superbly expressed in Ulrich Muhe’s low-key performance. He portrays Wiesler as a misfit – a lonely, isolated figure – whose stiff walk (his arms appear glued to his sides in some scenes) and deadpan expression make him seem like a solemn cartoon character or a silent-screen comedian, but who grows in personal dignity as the story progresses. When he is moved by the sound of Dreyman's piano-playing, or when he reads a Brecht essay that he found in the writer’s apartment, a gentle, befuddled smile forms on his face – it’s as if he can’t quite comprehend what is happening to him. Shortly after this, when he encounters a child who blurts out that his father calls the Stasi “bad men who arrest innocent people”, he reflexively starts to ask for the father’s name (something that he’s doubtless done before in similar situations) but checks himself at the last moment. Here and in other scenes we see him becoming more introspective, questioning the purpose of his work – to the extent that he eventually imperils his own position by covering up for Dreyman.The performance is just right; if it had been even slightly amiss, it could have sunk the film, especially since the script by itself doesn’t provide a fully convincing explanation for Wiesler’s change of heart.

A running theme is the transcendental nature of art and how artists and their audiences are affected by it. “Writers are engineers of the soul,” someone says while toasting Dreyman (though this is ironic given that the playwright doesn’t have the freedom to openly write whatever he wants to). At another point, Dreyman wonders aloud while playing a sonata, “Can anyone who has truly heard this music be a bad man?” There is a reference to Lenin’s quote about Beethoven’s “Appassionata”: “If I kept listening to this music, I would not be able to finish the revolution.” During a conversation with the blacklisted director Jerska, when Dreyman rues that another, inferior director has made a successful career “by stealing all your good ideas”, Jerska replies that he doesn’t mind because at least this keeps his ideas alive. (In a more downcast mood, however, he likens his situation to that of a miller without corn.) And Christa-Maria is prepared to sell herself for the sake of her craft, which leads to a tragic climax.

The Lives of Others mostly hits the right notes, but one senses how easily it could have tilted into over-sentimentality. There are a couple of scenes where it plays like a German equivalent of the well-meant but bland "topical" TV movies that American networks specialise in producing just in time for the Prime-time Emmys (if this had been an American film, all other things being the same, I think it would have been easier for us English-speaking viewers to be critical of it and magnify its weaknesses). But anchored as it is by the Muhe performance, it remains a very powerful work, and one of its most effective decisions is not to have Dreyman and Wiesler meet in the end, years later, when Dreyman finds out about his secret benefactor. Instead of contriving a face-to-face meeting that would almost certainly have been anti-climactic, it gives the playwright another means to express his gratitude, a means that is consistent with the film’s theme of the redemptive, life-changing power of art. It’s a satisfying conclusion – so many good dramas don’t know how to end well, but this one does.

Friday, August 22, 2008

My, what big pecs you have, little princes: more from Kahaani…

Currently the problem with Kahaani Hamaaray Mahaabharat Ki (earlier posts about the show: 1, 2, 3, 4) is that the actors playing the younger versions of the Pandavas and Kauravas are much too old for their roles. The story has reached the point where the Pandavas and Kunti have returned to Hastinapura, and the princes are about to commence their education under Kripa (and later Drona), so you’d think that they would be aged somewhere between 13 (Yudhisthira) and 9 (Sahadeva) – definitely no older. That's probably how it's supposed to be too, given some of the childlike prattle and random fooling around that's happening in the show (Bheema gifts Duryodhana his pet rabbit, would you believe; Duryodhana reciprocates by sneaking food into Bheema’s room). Unfortunately, all the princes are played by muscular hunks with stubbles and impressively developed torsos, and this detracts from the intended cuteness of many scenes.

For example, the slapstick sequence where Bheema beats up cooks and palace guards who have mistaken him for a food-thief (throwing some of them into giant vats so that their dhotis catch fire, etc) was probably conceptualised as an endearing introduction to the gluttonous second Pandava, but it doesn’t play out that way at all. This Bheema is no lovable little kid, he’s a well-built bully, and this is nothing less than a cringe-inducing display of machismo directed at helpless domestic staff. What does he think he's doing, practicing for the Olympic wrestling medal?

Anyway, the brawl is interrupted by Yudhisthira who solemnly tells his younger brother “Nihatte par vaar nahin karte” (“You mustn’t attack the unarmed”). These words of wisdom apparently prove that the eldest Pandava is worthy of the title “Dharma Raj”, but in my view it’s much too little, much too late. (I’m no Dharma Raj, but if Bheema were my kid brother I would’ve marched him off to the detention room long before any of this happened.)

It probably wasn’t what Ekta Kapoor’s writers intended, but after watching this scene any sensible viewer will feel sorry for the Kauravas, who had to face much the same sort of thing from the overenthusiastic Bheema. Take a look at this passage from Kisara Mohan Ganguli’s comprehensive translation of the Mahabharata, available on the Sacred Texts site:
Bhimasena beat all the sons of Dhritarashtra. The son of the Wind-god pulled them by the hair and made them fight with one another, laughing all the while. And Vrikodara easily defeated those hundred and one children of great energy as if they were one instead of being a hundred and one. The second Pandava used to seize them by the hair, and throwing them down, to drag them along the earth. By this, some had their knees broken, some their heads, and some their shoulders. That youth, sometimes holding ten of them, drowned them in water, till they were nearly dead. When the sons of Dhritarashtra got up to the boughs of a tree for plucking fruits, Bhima used to shake that tree, by striking it with his foot, so that down came the fruits and the fruitpluckers at the same time.
(The reference to "one hundred and one" has me worried. Did Bheema also beat up the Kauravas' sister Duhshala? Anyway, the text goes on to add that he didn’t do any of this with malicious intent, it was all in good fun. Decide for yourselves.)

Ironically, while the princes in the serial look too mature for their age, their grandmothers haven’t aged a whit. The actresses - or more accurately woodposts - playing Ambika and Ambalika (whose function it is to stand around in the background and beam stupidly at everything being said) still have jet-black hair, no wrinkles and they dress more sexily than their daughters-in-law Gandhari and Kunti. It has become difficult to keep track of who belongs to what generation. Old man Bheeshma must be contemplating early retirement.

Meanwhile, in the parallel story set in Gokula, the adolescent Krishna is going through all the cute routines that have been passed down to us from the Bhakti tradition, long after the Mahabharata was first written: stealing butter, making naughty eyes at milkmaids, taming the snake Kaaliya and dancing atop his head. The problem is that the beefcake playing Krishna looks like he’d rather be reading a Penthouse like any normal young man his age, or at least taking part in a WWE competition. It’s disturbing when the "grown-ups" fondly refer to him as “natkhat baalak”. (I don’t want to get too explicit, but the shots of this “baalak” with white butter smeared on his face have some very adult resonances for those of us who have grown up in the kalyug of porn films.)

Am looking forward to seeing what the officially grown-up versions of these characters will look like. Oh wait, here.

(Note to eager offence-takers: I’m only talking about the actor who plays the role of Krishna; I’m not implying that the original Krishna would ever have read a Penthouse, which almost certainly wouldn’t have been available at the time anyway.)

Conversation with a news-channel reporter

Reporter: Mr Singh, we’re doing a story about the chick-lit genre, based on all these new books – The Zoya Factor, Almost Single and Meenakshi’s book – and we wanted a quote from you.

Jai: Okay.

R: Basically you can tell us all about how superficial and superfluous chick-lit is.

J: Hold on, are you giving me instructions on what to say?

R: No no, we just want your views on the subject...

J: Well, okay then, we can fix a time.

R: ...so that you can rip the genre apart.

J: Um, you are telling me what to say. What if I want to say instead that a book should be judged as an individual work instead of being lazily lumped with a whole lot of other books that might be of vastly varying quality? That there can be good chick-lit, bad chick-lit and a whole lot of other intermediate types? That the "how" is more important than the "what"? And that the notion of “ripping a genre apart” doesn’t make much sense to me?

R (speaks after long pause, sounds bitterly disappointed): er, oh okay, in that case, bye-bye. (Hangs up)

No room for nuance, people. None at all. This is why we prophets of complexity rarely appear on TV and never get invited anywhere.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

A 'righteous' murder: Vikas Swarup's Six Suspects

Vikas Swarup’s new novel begins with an account of the misdemeanors committed by a rich, unscrupulous young man named Vicky Rai, who knows he can rely on his dad’s contacts to shield him from the law. Vicky’s career in crime comes to a head when he whips out a gun and shoots a bargirl who refuses him a drink. Though there are witnesses to the murder, the trial turns into a farce and - to widespread outrage - he is soon released. Then, at a farmhouse party held to celebrate his acquittal, Vicky is himself shot dead by an unknown assassin.

The first half of this story is, of course, a barely disguised version of the Jessica Lall-Manu Sharma case. Since Vicky is the most visible face of the darker side of a society where the rich and powerful know they can get away with anything, his own murder seems like an almost symbolic act: an incensed middle class striking out against its tormenters; the shot that launches the revolution. But it’s also a real killing, carried out with a real gun, and there are six unlikely suspects: a native from an island in the Andaman, searching for a sacred stone that was stolen from his tribe; a popular young actress who pretends to be a bimbo but quotes Nietzsche; Vicky’s father Jagannath Rai, a slimy politician; an enterprising mobile-phone thief; a retired bureaucrat with a split-personality problem; and an idiot American who was conned into coming to India to get married. Which of them is the killer, what is the motive and how did most of them come to be at this party in the first place?

The thing to admire about Six Suspects is the breadth of Swarup’s storytelling. This book is really a collection of six separate stories – all of which are reasonably well-plotted – that eventually converge into a large narrative. Many other authors would have been temped to milk this material for all it was worth, to perhaps spread it over two or three books, but Swarup packs it all into one dense novel. However, this is to the detriment of his book, which is unwieldy, overwritten and under-edited. Conversations that could easily have been finished in three or four sentences meander on, there is too much exposition, and some of the sub-plots in the personal stories of the six suspects seem to have been included only so that each person could be given a novella-length background. It takes a lot of patience to get through the section about the tribal criss-crossing India – from Calcutta to Chennai to Banaras to Allahabad – in search of his talisman, or the one where the American, Larry Page, finds himself kidnapped by a terrorist group after being mistaken for the Google founder of the same name, or – worst of all – the bizarrely convoluted story about the bureaucrat possessed by the spirit of Mahatma Gandhi.

Even given this long-windedness, Six Suspects would have been a more convincing read if Swarup had stuck with the omniscient-narrator format. Instead, he has three of the suspects – the actress, the American and the thief – tell their own stories, and authenticity becomes a problem in these first-person passages. The actress says “so there I was, immersed in my private digital ecosystem” to describe her communing with an iPod. There’s no end to the puerile similes used by the lovelorn American (“I was nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking-chairs”; “I reckon a love like ours is scarce as hen’s teeth”), though they are amusing in small doses. And when “Munna Mobile”, the thief, goes to a Chinese restaurant in a five-star hotel for the first time, we get – purportedly in his own voice – this dubious wealth of description:
Brass lanterns hang from the ceiling, flame-spewing golden dragons adorn the walls. The furniture is elegant, rectangular mica-topped tables complemented by black, high-backed chairs. The waitress, a chinky-eyed girl clad in a long, slinky blue dress with dragon motifs and slits, welcomes me with the effusiveness normally reserved for heavy tippers.
Six Suspects is ridden with caricatures – from corrupt Indian politician, perpetually manipulating strings, to dumb, insular American who comes to love a third-world country (“where cows are worshipped like Goddesses rather than turned into steak”). It would be a mistake to over-stress this aspect of the novel – and to forget that people like Jagannath Rai and Larry Page really do exist – but the book’s use of these character types precludes any lasting insights into the workings of a very complex society struggling with injustice and disparity. Every nexus, every command issued by an oily politician is dealt with in straightforward cause-and-effect terms. The investigative journalist and the TV reporter (a Barkha Dutt stand-in, named – if you must know – Barkha Das) are sanctimonious. People speak in platitudes and articulate their flaws and motivations as if they were pinning easy-to-read labels on themselves for the edification of the reader. (“We hit people not to show our strength but to mask our weakness,” philosophizes a police inspector after an interrogation, “we pick only on the poor and the powerless, because they cannot hit back.”) Rarely do the bad guys bother to delude themselves that they are in some nebulous way working not for self-interest but for the greater good (which is something that happens all the time in the real world).

“Even murder can become addictive” is the final, anarchist sentence of Six Suspects. Swarup’s book is similar in some ways to another recently published novel, Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger, which was about a lower-class man simultaneously resentful of and aspiring towards the lives of the privileged. When Swarup has someone point out that “there are occasions when murder is not only justified, it is necessary...as a ritual of righteousness”, it vaguely echoes something said by Adiga’s protagonist, Balram Halvai: “Kill enough people and they will put up bronze statues to you near Parliament House in Delhi. But all I wanted was the chance to be a man – and for that, one murder was enough.” The difference is that the murder in The White Tiger is committed by someone who wants to step into his victim’s shoes, while the killing of Vicky in Six Suspects is to be seen as a wake-up call for a corrupt society. Adiga’s novel was more ironical, more attuned to how easily the leaders of a revolution can become the very thing they set out to destroy, but Six Suspects is powered by idealism. On more than one occasion, its generalisation of people and situations reminded me of Madhur Bhandarkar’s films, which
try to expose the dark underbelly of a social stratum by doling out clichés about it.

Except that while Bhandarkar at least deals with one issue at a time (the high-society-media nexus in Page 3, big-business corruption in Corporate, the politics of beggars’ cliques in Traffic Signal), Six Suspects tries to be a ready reckoner to all the contradictions and injustices in Indian society. Vicky Rai himself is a convenient amalgamation of many high-profile real-world offenders whose misdeeds – along with the justice system’s inability to prosecute them – have shocked middle-class India in recent years. (In the book’s first chapter – an improbably long and self-indulgent column written by an investigative journalist – we learn that apart from shooting the bargirl, Vicky has run over sleeping pavement dwellers in his BMW and killed endangered black bucks. Sounds familiar?) But there are numerous other allusions to burning topics of our time, so that you get the impression the author has a list of “points to be included” and is ticking them off one by one.

Call-centres make an appearance (Larry finds himself working in one and is confronted by an irate American customer who refuses to believe he is speaking to a real American), there are references to reverse-colonialism (“it has become almost de rigueur in Bollywood to have at least one song with some firang white dancers doing jhatka-matka at the bidding of our own desi brown-skinned actors”), the Bhopal gas tragedy, globe-trotting charlatans posing as holy men, the contrast between the glitzy mall culture and the lives of lower-class Indians, and the corruption that exists in every conceivable walk of life. There’s so much going on here that the book could almost have been sub-titled “An Encyclopaedia of the Social Issues Facing Modern India”, but somewhere amidst all this the novel that presumably set out to tell a coherent story is lost.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Climbing Mount Improbable with Richard Dawkins

I’ve been trying to fill a big gap in my reading – literature on popular science – and have been greatly enjoying some of Richard Dawkins’ earlier books, Climbing Mount Improbable, Unweaving the Rainbow and The Blind Watchmaker among them. My introduction to Dawkins was through The God Delusion (old post here), which, unlike his popular-science writing, is a strong polemic about a very sensitive topic, and calculated to evoke extreme reactions. But the roots of many of its ideas can be found in his earlier work, which falls more properly into his field of specialisation (evolutionary biology).

Much of Dawkins’ writing is geared towards opening the reader’s eyes to the wonders of the natural world and the laws that made it what it is – and, by association, showing that you don’t need to believe in a higher power in order to be overwhelmed by the beauty of creation. In fact, The God Delusion gets its epigraph from a line plucked out of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, from a passage where Ford Prefect is bemused by the myths that have grown around a planet named Magrathea. “Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?” he asks himself. Variations on this theme runs through all of Dawkins’ writing – in Unweaving the Rainbow, for instance, he argues against the idea that explaining how things work (“unweaving the rainbow”, as the poet Keats put it) means taking the mystery and the poetry out of them.

My favourite among his books so far is Climbing Mount Improbable, a collection of essays that have been expanded from various lectures Dawkins has given about natural selection. “Mount Improbable” itself is the metaphor Dawkins uses to show that the illusion of design in living things is just that – an illusion – and that the incredible complexity we see in the natural world (however improbable it appears when we take it in all at once) can be explained with great economy by Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Here, and in his other books, Dawkins has to repeatedly clarify that natural selection is not a matter of “chance” (a belief propagated by Creationists and advocates of intelligent design) but the end result of an unimaginably long accumulative process. In Climbing Mount Improbable, he uses the following analogy to explain this:
Mount Improbable rears up from the plain, lofting its peaks dizzily to the rarefied sky. The towering, vertical cliffs of Mount Improbable can never, it seems, be climbed. Dwarfed like insects, thwarted mountaineers crawl and scrabble along the foot, gazing hopelessly at the sheer, unattainable heights. They shake their tiny, baffled heads and declare the brooding summit forever unscalable.

Our mountaineers are too ambitious. So intent are they on the perpendicular drama of the cliffs, they do not think to look round the other side of the mountain. There they would find not vertical cliffs and echoing canyons but gently inclined grassy meadows, graded steadily and easily towards the distant uplands. Occasionally the gradual ascent is punctuated by a small, rocky crag, but you can usually find a detour that is not too steep for a fit hill-walker in stout shoes and with time to spare. The sheer height of the peak doesn't matter, so long as you don't try to scale it in a single bound. Locate the mildly sloping path and, if you have unlimited time, the ascent is only as formidable as the next step.
My initial acquaintance with this book was by way of the Pocket Penguin The View From Mount Improbable, which carries an excerpt about the evolution of that most intricate of organs, the human eye (an organ that apparently produced a “cold shudder” in Charles Darwin because he had doubts about whether its complexity could be fully explained by his theory). With the help of a marvelous series of diagrams done by his wife, the actress-illustrator Lalla Ward, Dawkins explains how eyes have evolved at least 40 times independently in various parts of the animal kingdom – from their most primitive forms in single-celled organisms billions of years ago (“...eyes so simple that they scarcely deserve to be recognized as eyes at all. It is better to say that the general body surface is slightly sensitive to light”) to the critical step that was the evolution of the lens.

The eye chapter (cheekily titled “The Forty-Fold Path to Enlightenment”) occupies a central position in Climbing Mount Improbable, but there are many other treasures in this book: among them, absorbing and detailed analyses of how wings and spider webs came into existence, and the spine-tingling final chapter ‘A Garden Inclosed’, about the astonishingly complex co-dependent relationship between a fig tree and the tiny wasps that live and die within the confines of the fruit (which Dawkins describes as “a flower garden turned inside out...and one of the wonders of the world”). In between all this, he also explains his use of computer biomorphs to artificially simulate the process of evolution. Other bits I enjoyed included the descriptions of the termite mounds – “insect skyscrapers” – that can be found in parts of Australia, and the feats of mimickry in the insect world, especially the startling achievement of the beetle that arches its abdomen backwards in order to superficially resemble a termite (Ward’s drawings are a big help here as well).

Dawkins’ great achievement is to make evolution and natural selection easy to understand, and even stimulating, for the layperson. His passion is truly contagious and his writing is free of distancing or hard-to-understand jargon, making it accessible to a layperson like myself. I think someone observed once that his writing has the effect of making readers feel smarter than they are. This is something I’ve experienced firsthand: if you were intimidated by the sciences when you studied them in school (as I was, at least from class 9 onwards), prepare to feel rejuvenated by the clarity with which R.D. explains things.

[The first chapter of Climbing Mount Improbable can be read here, though unfortunately it doesn’t include the diagrams. Suggestions welcome for more reading on these and related topics. I’ve read a few essays by Stephen Jay Gould – who disagrees with Dawkins over some of the finer points of evolutionary theory – as well as some Steven Pinker, Richard Feynman and Jared Diamond. Anything else that’s as accessible as the books mentioned in this post?]

Saturday, August 16, 2008

The human Federer: exhibit 2

Okay, I'm a full-fledged convert now. Anyone who ever thought (as I once did) that Roger Federer was more machine than human should look at this strange ritualistic celebration he performs over the supine body of his doubles partner Stanislas Wawrinka after they won their Olympic semi-final (don't blink, it's in the first couple of seconds of the video). I have no clue what the gestures mean but I submit that no robot on earth could be programmed to do them, not even a Swiss one.

So now we have a situation where Rafa and Roger could both finish the Games with a gold medal - one in singles, the other in doubles - just a day before the official changing of the number 1 ranking. Who would've thought it.

(Meanwhile, young Shamya Dasgupta is in Beijing and putting up photos of himself at matches featuring Nadal and Federer. Unquantifiable envy strikes.)

Update: Roger and Stan won the gold. Here's another video. And an AP news report that begins on this richly evocative note: "Roger Federer extended his arms in triumph and began to hop. Then he embraced his doubles partner and they hopped together."

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Thoughts on Abhinav Bindra (and: eat the rich)

Predictably, millions of people are enjoying the reflected glow of Abhinav Bindra’s medal, many of them going on about “national pride” and such as if they had personally fired the shots that clinched the gold. Equally amusing are the dining room/water-cooler conversations about how the boy “held his nerve”, “didn’t succumb to pressure”, “kept his hands steady at the vital moment”. I’m sure all this is true (and it might be equally true of the silver and bronze medallists, as well as dozens of others who didn’t even make it near the podium), but the way people learnedly say these things in casual conversation you get the impression that each of them knows about the finer points of 10 m air-rifle shooting and that they were closely following Abhinav’s shot-by-shot progress right from the start of the tournament (as opposed to merely switching on their TV sets after the news came in).

It’s also interesting that many of these opinions come from the same people who somehow know for a fact that Sania Mirza is potentially top-5 material but has failed to achieve everything she could have because of lack of focus or because of the media hype/endorsements. (Personally, I think it’s at least equally probable that Sania was never even top-50 material to begin with but managed to over-achieve her way into the top 30. But that hypothesis doesn't make for a nice bitching session, no?)

You’d have to be soul-dead not to feel happy for Abhinav, of course. It’s a great achievement and a lot of hard work must have gone into it. But on this post, Aishwarya mentions an astonishing quote by his dad:

“[As a 5-year-old] Abhinav kept a water balloon on our maid's head and began shooting, knowing little that a slight mistake could have proved fatal.”

The picture that springs to mind after reading the senior Bindra’s words is that of a little nawab clapping his hands regally, whereupon a coterie of subservient maid-servants queues up, each eager to be the one to sacrifice her head for the Greater Cause (i.e., getting India an Olympic gold 20 years hence).

Which means the Olympic win could be a landmark in more ways than one. Up to now, the most appealing story in Indian sport has been the rags-to-riches tale; the poor little boy battling the odds to make it on the big stage. This could change now, as the focus shifts to little tykes in fabulously wealthy households. I can just see preparations for future Olympic glory getting underway in mansions, palaces and farmhouses around the country. Fat kids, overfed on greasy snacks, will pin their emaciated cooks to the floor as they rehearse for the heavyweight wrestling title of the world. Spoilt little rajkumars with a fondness for equestrian sports will climb onto the backs of their personal chauffeurs, dig their spurs sharply into their sides and make them gallop from one end of the 100-acre farm to the next. (For all I know, they already do this, but from now on they’ll do it with a medal in their sights.) Aspiring pole-vaulters will stack up the domestic help one on top of the other to make a post of just the right height (and a cushion for the landing).

I also predict that the general tone of the comments on Rediff.com will soon change from “Abhinav deserves 20 Bharat Ratnas” to “Abhinav and his filthy-rich family should be arrested for bribing the Olympics committee and depriving poor people of the opportunity to win medals.” In fact, it’s already started happening: see a few of the comments on this piece. There's a suggestion that this medal win doesn’t count as a “real achievement” because Abhinav's background doesn’t have the romance of Irfan Pathan’s. And here's a gem:
Looks like they bribed the judges to get Abhinav to win this false medal. I think a CBI inquiry must be instituted. If the Fat PAPA Sardar can spend crores of Rupees to train his worthless son why can't he bribe the chinkie and other beggar Russian judges...
Nothing explains the human condition as lucidly as a Rediff messageboard does.


With ref. to this old post about the answers I’d like to see in Q&A columns in newspapers, I got a taste of my own medicine when Elle magazine asked me to answer a series of stock questions for their Contributor’s page. Initially I wondered if they expected dead-serious responses (that would have been very difficult), but the question about a pet octopus seemed to hint that it was okay to be flip. Here are the questions (in the form of sentences to be completed) and my answers:

The only thing that keeps me going in the morning: Knowing there are tax returns to be filed.

My idea of a hero is: Groucho Marx. He had principles. And if you didn't like them, he had others.

A place I could visit countless times: The toilet.

The colours in the surroundings that I cannot live without: Black. (Hard to sleep if it isn’t dark outside. Can’t live without sleep.)

If I had a pet octopus I would name it: Henry the Eight.

The most influential film director of all time is: Hitchcock. He defined paranoia, which is the key emotion in all our lives. (I’m looking over my shoulder as I type this.)

The one thing in the world I would never wish to change: my pet octopus.

The scariest story I have ever read: the annual Budget.

I always plan ahead because: what's the sense in planning for the past?

I would like to be remembered as: a loyal friend, a fearsome swordsman and a man who was kind to his octopus.

My mantra for success is: Fail as often as possible. The stuff that is left over will be success.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Security men I have known

Does anyone else feel sceptical about the little “bomb-checks” that take place outside the parking lots of movie theatres, malls and hotels? The ones where a bored-looking security guard positions a stick with a tiny mirror at its end under your car and pretends to study it from a couple of angles before waving you on?

Apart from being such a soporific process, it has to be commended for its pointlessness.
What is the sense of looking for detonating devices only on the underside of vehicles, and that too a small portion of the underside (determined strictly by the starting position and convenience of the lethargic security man who happens to be doing the checking)? What about inside the tank? Living as we are in a time when simply visiting a crowded public place has become a nerve-wracking affair, I demand that each car be disassembled in its entirety before it is allowed inside a parking lot. (Hypothetically, if they forgot to reassemble the vehicles, it could only improve Delhi’s traffic situation.)

Once, outside the Select mall, I encountered a marginally more creative security man who asked me to open the car’s trunk. But having gone this far in dauntless pursuit of excellence in his duty, he contented himself with giving a friendly squeeze to the spare tyre lying inside, while completely neglecting the heavy cloth bag on the side. Exactly what parameters are these people using? The randomness of it worries me.

My one experience of a security-checker who took his job very seriously was at the Siri Fort Auditorium parking lot a few years ago. I was late for a film screening, but this man was in no mood to let me pass. For starters, he was unimpressed by the press sticker on my car. “Half the vehicles in this city have those,” he snorted. “Any competent terrorist would be sure to get one.” In fact, he was more suspicious now. “Kaun se newspaper ke liye kaam karte ho – Times of India ya Hindustan Times?” he asked, reciting the only two paper names that non-journalists in Delhi know about. When I told him I was a freelancer and wrote for various publications, he laughed like Gulshan Grover: “Hum bhi alag kisam ki gaadiyon ko check karte hain. Shaayad hum bhi ‘freelancer’ hi honge.” (“I check different types of cars as well. Maybe that makes me a freelancer too.”)

After mocking me in this way he circled the car, glanced into the back-seat and asked me to take out the packaged review copy of a stout new book I had just picked up from the Penguin India office. “Itni badi kitaab aap padhoge?” he asked shrewdly, “ya iske andar kuch chipaaya hua hai?” He tapped the thing a few times to check for signs of hollowness before handing it back. Then he twirled his stick at me menacingly (as if to say “If I find out you’re a suicide bomber, I’ll give your scattered body parts a nice whacking”) and let me go.

I must confess that at the time I didn’t care for his unnatural dedication to the job, but he has grown in my estimation. Today we need all the obsessive security checkers we can get.

(From my Metro Now column)

Tuesday, August 12, 2008


And then there were five.

One of the pups has left the building, so to speak. She was very weak to begin with and had a festering wound, which didn't get many chances to heal what with the huge number of insects in the immediate vicinity. For the last few days we’ve been applying ointment and a spray on a vet’s prescription, but it all came too late for her. The others are doing reasonably well as of now, though I would be very surprised if all of them survived the next couple of months. Tried to get them taken in by Friendicoes but those guys already have far more animals than they can handle (many of which are diseased) and they told us candidly that pups this age wouldn't survive long in their shelter. Still, we’ve got the first round of vaccinations done (the next is due on September 1) and they get a good supply of milk and bread daily.

As mentioned earlier, please circulate this post/my mail ID to anyone who might be interested in adoption.

(Click pics to enlarge)

Saturday, August 09, 2008

A meeting with Manju Kapur

[Did this profile for the August issue of Elle magazine]

“Deceptively simple” is an overused term from the critic’s lexicon, but it sits very well with the work of Manju Kapur. The cosy, unthreatening titles of her novels (A Married Woman, Home, Difficult Daughters), their linear plots and the stillness of her prose conceal an acute understanding of social hypocrisies. Though her work is not judgmental in tone, it’s uncommonly perceptive about human foibles. She can write lucid, conversation-driven narratives about joint families while also making sharp observations about the inconstancy of people and their relationships, as well as the subtler points of self-deception in a tradition-soaked society.

It would be simplistic to assume that a writer capable of looking beneath placid surfaces should have led a notably unconventional or difficult life herself, but I’m struck by the apparent relaxedness, even cushiness, of Kapur’s home environment when I meet her for this interview. She lives in a spacious house in Lutyens Delhi with her husband and their children. Our conversation takes place in a cheerfully lit living room that contains, among other things, a plasma TV and a worktable. On the porch outside sits a table-tennis table (“it spoils the view,” she says, “but the children insisted on it”) and a clay-tennis court is visible in the background. Kapur herself is on an indefinite sabbatical from her job teaching English at Miranda College, and now divides her time between her home and the library of the Delhi Gymkhana, where she goes to write.

Her own straightforward explanation for the nuanced, almost anthropological quality of her work is that it comes from a lifetime of studying and teaching literature. “Literature by women, about families, always has these larger considerations,” she says. “With years of studying texts, it becomes almost second nature to look beneath the surface – at social and economic forces, gender relationships and how they are played out in an arena that, in my writing, happens to be the home. But then, all sorts of things happening outside do affect what is happening inside the home.” Home – and the absence of it – are also preoccupations of her latest novel The Immigrant. Set in the mid-1970s, this is the story of a woman named Nina marrying an NRI dentist based in Halifax, Canada, and her many tribulations in the new country – including an increasing lack of purpose and her husband Ananda’s sexual dysfunction problem.

“In my work, I aim to show rather than tell,” Kapur tells me. A reader conversant with her books would agree that it’s difficult to put labels on them or to describe what they are “about”. Even when she tackles controversial subjects such as a lesbian relationship (in A Married Woman) or the sexual abuse – quickly covered up – of a little girl by her cousin (Home), she doesn’t make them the focal points of the story. This is why I was surprised to see the publicity for The Immigrant focusing on the sexual dysfunction angle, complete with a jacket description that mentions that 30 per cent of adult men experience the condition. Doesn’t this make it sound almost like a tract, a “topical” book?

“Is that really in the blurb? Oh dear!” Kapur cries out in faux-dismay, leaning across to look at the cover page of the manuscript I’m carrying. But she quickly recovers, explaining that the genesis of the book was her desire to explore the NRI sensibility, as well as to convey a sense of the darkness that surrounded India around the time of the Emergency – “when there was this idea that India was just not a place to be in, you had to get out, nobody could get anywhere here. It’s something I grew up with too [Kapur herself studied in Halifax for a few years in the early 1970s, but unlike many migrating Indians of the time, she did return], and we all have family and friends who have had those NRI experiences. Of course, once I had the period and setting ready, I had to have some kind of crisis!”

When Kapur starts writing, she has a theme in mind but not a story: “The story takes shape gradually.” Revealing something of the tortuous, tentative way in which a book may arrive at its final form, she says, “In this case, I didn’t want Nina to get pregnant, and then I had to have a reason for that. Baby is out. Why is baby out? Infertility wasn’t enough of a reason and I didn’t want anything as extreme as impotence – there was more dramatic potential in a lingering dissatisfaction, which led me to Ananda’s sexual problem.” This in turn meant adding to his back-story, and numerous revisions were required before the final structure of the book emerged.

It isn’t surprising then to learn that Kapur’s laptop contains dozens of files with multiple draft of her novels. “I’m very good at cutting,” she says, “Fast and ruthless.” It all began when one of the many publishers who rejected her first novel Difficult Daughters sent back a note that said “it meanders too much”. Kapur chortles as she remembers how “that one word, ‘meanders’, inspired me to cut 30,000 words from the manuscript!” It was painful initially, she admits, but after eight years of not being published, the pain of cutting was much smaller than the pain of not being published at all. “I chose the lesser pain!”

Since Kapur’s work is characterised by a grounded, no-flourishes writing style, I’m surprised to learn that she was quite the experimenter in her early days. “When I first started writing stories and poems,” she says, “magic realism was all the rage, thanks in large part to Rushdie. I tried to write like that but in my hands it seemed inauthentic and laboured, and so I gave it up. Intuitively, I took the raasta of not standing between the reader and the story – I wanted to make it as transparent and seamless as possible.” Her first book originally had footnotes, a story within a story “and lots of other stuff I thought was very innovative – but it all had to go eventually!”

She also has a reputation for being a reticent writer; regulars at the ever-increasing book-launch parties in the capital would have a hard time placing her. Given this, what does she think about the recent developments in Indian publishing, such as the elevation of media-savvy young writers to pop-celebrity status even before their books are out? “It’s hard for me to see writing as a social stepping stone,” she says, “it’s such a solitary activity, whereas being in society means being gregarious. Of course, younger people have more energy, and if they can party and write, good for them. But if it interferes with your writing, I would say just don’t do it. As a writer, you have to serve your art, old-fashioned as it may sound – and personally I do this by not meeting anyone!”

And yet, The Immigrant is going to have an unconventional pre-launch at a Gurgaon call-centre of all places, probably in an attempt to reach out to a wider readership base. “Oh, that’s all Random House,” Kapur says wryly, “but it might be interesting to see what it’s all about. My maid’s daughter works at a call centre, I know a lot of young people who do, and I am all for anything that promotes reading among people who aren’t habitual readers. It’s a wonderful habit – it encourages introspection and thinking.” It’s vital that writers constantly read as well, she feels – “not just to keep up with contemporary fiction, but also to expose yourself to what words can do, to remind yourself that there’s always a new goal to reach.”

Why has she given up her day job? “Having had a few books published, I’m more confident with my writing now,” she explains, “and it had become difficult to write and work at the same time.” Earlier, when she was teaching, the way she wrote was dictated by term time and holiday time. “During holidays I would do the huge revisions, shaping, tightening, trying to bring together everything in my head. During term time, when my head was full of teaching, I would work on first drafts. You need to put down those words in the first place. That would be easier to do, to come home and just write 500 or 1,000 words that could subsequently be modified. But the fashioning, or making the thing into an artistic coherent whole” – she waves her hands around and raises her voice dramatically as she speaks these last four words, aware of how affected they sound – “that could only be done during the holidays.”

At a time when many writers are carrying their laptops to wifi-enabled coffeehouses in busy marketplaces, Kapur prefers a quieter setting. She likes the solitude of the Gymkhana library and the fact that it doesn’t have centralised air-conditioning. (“My daughter studies at the India Habitat Centre library and has to take along a shawl!”) Another advantage of the very traditional, colonial-era Gymkhana is that the Internet hasn’t encroached on its premises. “I prefer not to spend much time online,” she says, furthering the theme of the writer as solitary animal, “it’s too much of a distraction.”

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Ugly aur Pagli: when harried met silly

Sachin Khot’s Ugly aur Pagli wastes no time in assuring us that it isn’t trying to be a refined comedy. The first five minutes contain references to intestinal mishaps and other bodily functions, among them a scene involving flatulence in an elevator and a loving shot of the film’s drunken heroine spewing bright orange vomit on someone’s head. In other words, the classier elements of 1990s Hollywood B-comedies have made inroads into Hindi cinema. Or perhaps the scriptwriters read the recent news item about the fart joke being one of the oldest forms of humour, and decided to pay homage to the past.

When the abrasive Kuhu (Mallika Sherawat) staggers into the life of a wide-eyed young engineering student named Kabir Achrekar (Ranvir Shorey), he falls irredeemably in love (even though he describes her as a mix of Keshto Mukherjee and Medha Patkar, which suggests that his tastes may be kinkier than we thought). This is before they’ve even had a coherent conversation – his principle acquaintance with her at this point is through her loud snoring. Once she’s conscious and sober, she turns his life upside down, smacking him about some, making him wear her high heels, ordering him to perform a humiliating public stunt on her birthday. Kabir’s T-shirts, which have prescient lines printed on them (“I love drunk bitches” during his first meeting with Kuhu; “I will get wet on this ride” just before she tosses him into a swimming pool), appear more clued in to what’s happening than he is (or we, the viewers, are). There seems little option but to sit back and let the spirited Ms Sherawat lead us through a series of increasingly random situations and song sequences reminiscent of the good old 80s, when songs had no interest in a movie’s narrative flow.

To call this film fluff would be an understatement. It’s as messed up and capricious as Kuhu herself, and the only way to watch it is to adhere to the "ask no questions" rule (which is pretty much Kabir’s predicament vis-à-vis his “pagli”). One gets the impression that the shooting process was repeatedly interrupted and the filmmakers kept forgetting where to pick up the threads: entire sequences look like they were thrown in just because someone said, “Okay, we need a few beach-volleyball shots in Goa now” or “One song with flamenco dancers please.” Admittedly, this kind of madcap spontaneity results in a few moments that work well – such as the one where Kabir meets Kuhu’s high-society mom and spaced-out alcoholic dad (Tinnu Anand, in a neat throwaway performance) – but these are few and far between, and they can’t stop the film from plunging towards a soppy, tone-altering “explanation” of its leading lady’s actions. (Minor spoiler: it involves a deceased boyfriend and it’s supposed to be touching, but given some of the things this girl has done through the film, one is forced to wonder about the manner of the boy’s passing.)

What Ugly aur Pagli has going for it are the two lead performances, especially by Shorey, who has come along terrifically as an actor after his superb double role in Mithya. He injects feeling and integrity into even the shoddiest scenes: watch his mounting alarm and helplessness in the diner scene where a weeping Kuhu repeatedly blows her nose into his handkerchief while people gawp at them. Or the scene where Kuhu’s parents chance to see a pack of condoms planted in Kabir’s pocket by a friend, and the embarrassed Kabir can’t stop himself from meaninglessly stuttering out “Woh kya hai, in se pregnancy nahin hoti hai”. On paper, these are lazy, unoriginal samples of situation comedy, but Shorey makes them work. In fact, it could be argued that he’s almost too good: even during the song sequences – which occupy their own discrete, music-video universe and have nothing to do with the rest of the film – he stays in character (trying to channel the nerdier aspects of Kabir’s personality) when all the song demands is a blank-slate dancing hero flailing his arms and legs about.

Sherawat is a rawer, less assured performer, but she knows how to make a difficult character likeable (and it is a difficult character: not many Hindi-film heroines get to make their entrance with a puke scene). The chemistry between her and Shorey isn’t as effective as her teaming with Rahul Bose – another sensitive, new-age actor who ostensibly isn't the Sherawat "type" – was in Pyaar ke Side Effects, but it’s enjoyable, occasionally touching, and it provides one of the very few reasons to watch this odd little film.

[A version of this review appears in this week's Tehelka. And no, I haven't seen the Korean film My Sassy Girl, of which this film is apparently a scene-by-scene copy.]

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Pups require a home

Dog-lovers in Delhi who would like to provide a home to any of six mongrel pups, please send me an email on the ID on the Profile page. The pups are around a month old, “have very good personality”, as the matrimonial ads say, and are currently residing in the lane behind our house in Saket.

They’ve been well cared for by the local security guards, and we’ve been giving them milk and bread daily, but there’s the danger that they’ll start moving onto the main roads soon and get hit by cars. Please get in touch if you’re interested, or if you know of anyone who is. Here's a short clip of two of the little chaps wrestling.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Olympics: The India Story

[A diffident sort of review I did recently - it wasn't exactly by choice, and I'm not particularly well-read on the subject; think that comes across here]

Anyone who recalls – or has even read about – Indian hockey’s glory years at the Olympics will know what a significant fall from grace it was when the national team failed to qualify for the 2008 Games. The loss to Britain at the qualifiers last year was the latest in a painful series of debacles since the great achievements of 1928-1956 – an era that included an almost unreal period of dominance when Indian sports journalists could complain that a 9-0 margin of victory (against Japan, Berlin 1936) wasn’t emphatic enough, and American newspapers could exult because their team had managed to score a solitary goal against Dhyanchand’s magicians (in a 24-1 defeat at the Los Angeles Games, 1932).

There is, of course, much more to India’s Olympic encounter than hockey, but Boria Majumdar and Nalin Mehta have used the national sport “as the prism/metaphor to analyse the working of sports administrators in India”, and consequently to provide an understanding of why the country’s Olympic history has more troughs than crests. The genesis for Olympics: The India Story was Majumdar’s discovery of the International Olympic Committee’s public archive in Lausanne and, more specifically, thousands of letters and documents exchanged between the IOC and Indian sports administrator over 75 years. These made it possible to stitch together a coherent tale.

As the authors point out, India was the first colonized Asian nation to take part in the Olympics, and from the earliest years this participation was linked to the formation of the country’s nationalist identity: “at a time when nationalist sentiment in India was gaining pace, the Olympics were the only international arena where Indian-ness could be projected on the sporting field”. However, despite the initiative taken by people like Sir Dorab Tata, there were hurdles right from the start. The first few athletes sent to the Games had little idea of the standards expected in professional sport (a member of the Deccan Gymkhana thought that a 100-yard race could take “anything from half a minute to a minute”) or of the controlled conditions under which such an event was conducted. The creation of the Indian Olympic Association in 1927 was an important development, but it was followed by the inevitable politicizing that is so familiar to anyone who knows about the (more high-profile) ills that plagued Indian cricket in the 1920s and 1930s. Regional discord and other factors combined to sully sporting prospects, leading to farcical incidents like the one involving a national cycling squad that found itself stranded in Poland in 1955 due to an administrative mess-up. What successes there were – by the hockey team and by individuals like K D Jadhav – were achieved despite the system. Inevitably, Olympics: The India Story focuses on the behind-the-scenes politics that have left so many sportspersons frustrated over the decades, right to the present day.

The section on the 1982 Asiad Games and their effect on Indian television (not to mention the alarming mushrooming of flyovers in New Delhi) is a minor diversion from the book’s central theme, but it lays the ground for what is to follow: an examination of how the rise of TV as a medium coincided with the growing popularity of cricket in India and the simultaneous waning of the Olympic sports. The case made here is that the people who managed cricket made optimum use of the possibilities of the new medium, whereas “hockey and soccer were left behind because their administrators refused to change and by the time they did, they had missed the bus”. But an implicit question also raised here is: what if, in a media-savvy age, India had lost the 1983 cricket World Cup but won the hockey final against Pakistan in 1982, followed by an Olympic medal in 1984? How different might the modern history of Indian sport have been then?

Though Olympics: The India Story provides no answers to these difficult questions, it efficiently sets out all the facts. Much like Majumdar’s cricket opus Twenty-Two Yards to Freedom, this book is driven by research and has the feel of a lengthy thesis. The chapters are clearly defined, with objectives spelt out at the beginning and summarizing conclusions at the end, and there are plenty of endnotes as well as quotes from news articles and letters culled from the IOC archives. This doesn’t add up to thrilling reading – it’s dry and functional – but it makes for a well-produced, comprehensive reference work. In his Prologue, Majumdar also expresses the hope that this book will be a starting point for further research, and that the new material available will encourage more literature on a sadly neglected subject.