Saturday, June 05, 2021

The 1991 case-files: two real-life murders (and a few movies)

[Continuing the nostalgia/memory project that I referred to in this recent post about Ajooba]

Another despatch from the summer of 1991. As I have written earlier, that summer was a pivotal one for my film education – this being when I first developed an obsession with old American and British cinema that also led me to serious film literature for the first time. (Since I am still very much a young film student in my own head, it’s strange to think that a full 30 years have passed since the months when I lugged my heavy Leonard Maltin movie guide around with me to neighbourhood video shops, or to Palika Bazaar once in a while, and looked at movie entries in the book before deciding what to rent or buy.)

Some memories of the April to July period in particular are very vivid, and are supplemented by – or in some cases, contradicted by – my diary entries of the time. These include two other signposts: two killings that took place a little over three weeks apart. The first of them – the Rajiv Gandhi assassination on May 21 – everyone knows about. The second was much less public but created lasting shockwaves for my mother’s family: the murder of my great-grandmother – my nani’s mother who, for whatever reason, was known to all of us as “bhabhiji” – in her Nizamuddin house on June 14.

Looking back, both these incidents are inseparable in my mind from the ferocious movie-watching I was doing at the time – and the many ways in which I was processing or making sense of real life through films (while also being aware of the differences between the two things).

On the night of May 21, my nani was staying with us in Saket. (She divided her time between Saket and Green Park, where she had lived for years with an old friend, a reserved, silver-haired gentleman whom I knew as Badhwar uncle – and in whose house my mother and I had also lived for a year in 1986-87 when we moved out of my father’s place – but more on that another time.) Though my summer holidays had begun, we must have all gone to bed by 10-10.30 pm; this would be the last year of the Doordarshan era, and we weren’t in the habit of watching TV till late. And so, it was only at around 5.30 the next morning that we were woken by a call from Badhwar uncle, telling us about the assassination.

As my nani told it, his voice was shaking on the phone, and this wasn’t just because of the magnitude of what had happened. Badhwar uncle, who practised astrology (very seriously but non-professionally, only counselling acquaintances who came to him for advice), had once predicted that not only would Rajiv Gandhi not live to see 1992, but that his death would be so terrible that his face wouldn’t be left intact enough for identification.

I grew up to be an astrology-sceptic myself (and didn’t find it too interesting even as a child, having eye-rolled my way through parts of a Linda Goodman book my mother had lying around), but I had heard uncle make that prediction years earlier – possibly during the time when my mother and I lived in his Green Park house. And when I met him for the first time after the Rajiv Gandhi killing, he looked strained by the way in which it had come to pass; there was no gloating, no “didn't I tell you”, just tiredness.

This was my most first and most immediate association with the death of the young, pleasant-looking prime minister, but others came soon. Starting with the photographs in India Today and Frontline (it is still hard to believe today that they were printed in such widely read magazines that must have been lying around lakhs of houses for anyone, including children, to pick up). Those images of blood and gore and dismemberment and numbed survivors wading through slush (followed a week or two later by a particularly macabre picture of the reconstructed limbs of the suicide bomber) were my first direct acquaintance with what a bomb could do to a human body; this was the real thing, so removed from the glamorous explosions and sanitised aftermaths one got to see in action sequences in films. As someone who turned often to cinematic reference points even back then, I remember looking at these gruesome pictures and reflecting that the little girl in Mr India who was blown up by a stuffed toy – after she picked the thing up – would definitely not have been left in a state that allowed Anil Kapoor to lift her whole and rush her to a hospital in desperate hope of saving her.

Later there was the televised funeral, with the glimpses of Amitabh Bachchan in white kurta-pyjama standing near the pyre – it was strange to see AB on screen in this context, so different from the last two times I had seen him, in Hum and Ajooba earlier in the year. At a time when I was slowly moving away from the grand idiom of the Hindi cinema I had loved for years, this moment was another reminder that a superstar may be an all-avenging Tiger or a swashbuckling Arabian prince on screen (or a Supremo in a comic strip) but a bowed and helpless mourner, looking much smaller than life, at the funeral of a friend who couldn’t be saved even though he was the most powerful man in the country.

Though this messy real-life killing, and the way it played out on our TV screens and in the pages of news magazines, dominated our thoughts for several days, a more personal tragedy soon followed.

On the afternoon of June 14, while my nani played cards with a couple of her friends at our dining table, I was in the video room watching the 1974 film of Murder on the Orient Express. The film held no surprises for me as a mystery, since I had read the Agatha Christie book much earlier, but I was very interested in it for its large ensemble cast. This was in the first couple of months of my obsession with old Hollywood stars, which included leafing for hours each day through the Maltin guide and making my own filmography lists – and “multi-starrers” (to use the Hindi-movie term) held a special attraction since they allowed me to deepen my acquaintance with many different actors at the same time. Ensemble films or epics like Judgement at Nuremberg, Spartacus, The Longest Day and How the West Was Won had served this function over the previous few weeks. Though Murder on the Orient Express wasn’t an “old” film by my standards, it was useful for bringing together such disparate giants as Ingrid Bergman and John Gielgud and Wendy Hiller and Lauren Bacall and Richard Widmark (as well as the “younger” stars like Sean Connery, Vanessa Redgrave and one of my biggest crushes, Anthony “Norman Bates” Perkins).

Shortly after I began watching the film, I became vaguely aware that my nani was feeling uneasy in the room outside, and her friends were asking her if everything was okay and asking my mother to bring her a glass of water; but things settled down and I figured it was a bit of drame-baazi as distraction because she was losing her card game.

Less than an hour later, the phone call came. My mother answered it, spoke monosyllabically for a few seconds (with my nani yelling “Kaun hai? Kaun hai?” from a distance as she tended to). Then mum put down the phone and said, in a deadpan voice, getting straight to the point, no softening of the blow: “Bhabhiji ka murder ho gaya hai.”

On my TV screen, Hercule Poirot was interrogating the Russian princess. I registered what my mother had said, along with the wheezing gasps and groans that had started to come from nani (the contrast between the tone of the announcement and the tone of the response was like the difference between a studiously understated Nordic noir and a Sivaji Ganesan mythological), and realised I’d have to stop the film and go to play my own part in this real-world theatre.

Over the days that followed – going for the funeral, visiting the Nizamuddin house a couple of times, hearing much grisly speculation about what had happened – I found myself playing the part of Albert Finney’s Poirot in my head. I can’t provide too many details here, but suspicion danced around a couple of members of the deceased woman’s enormous family (which was made up of a dozen children, of whom my nani was the oldest, and many more grandchildren). As little details about fingerprints and unusual sightings and unidentified strangers and contradictory claims and property issues emerged, I imagined my Poirot self in a large room, interrogating members of my big fat Punjabi extended family (in what would have been a very incongruous Belgian accent given the circumstances) with several “a-ha!” moments as I noted an incongruous statement here, an overlooked clue there, and generally had a roomful of grand-uncles and grand-aunts gaping at my intellectual brilliance.

But of course, in real life, there were to be no epiphanies or denouements of that sort. The case petered out after a while, things were brushed under the carpet or rationalised away, life moved on. There was much bad blood among some members of the family for a while – some resentments and suspicions lasted in one form or the other for decades – but nothing like a full-fledged severing of ties or a full-fledged reconciliation. Those sorts of resolutions I continued to find in the thrillers I read and the suspense films I watched. (In the weeks between the two murders, I had watched a few Hitchcock films for the first time – among them Notorious, The Trouble With Harry, and The Birds. There was also a short and uncharacteristic dalliance with a few of the Roger Moore James Bond films.)

The uncertainty of those times – at the personal and political level – is reflected in two “by the way” postscripts in one of my diary entries near the end of June:

By the way: **** uncle dropped by in the afternoon, dropped some more dark hints about **** uncle, and then left. It didn’t seem to matter to anyone though, and soon we were talking about other things.”

By the way 2: Narsimha Rao is the prime minister now. Wonder who it will be tomorrow evening.”

P.S. the last time I met my great-grandmother – or “bhabhiji” – was a couple of weeks after RG’s death, and 10 days before her own, when she came to our Saket flat with one of nani’s sisters who was visiting Delhi. My diary tells me the date was June 4, but there aren’t any other details given; what I do clearly remember is my nani showing her mother those grisly assassination-scene photos in Frontline and India Today, discussing them using not-very-refined Punjabi phrases (and with a very Punjabi relish).

[Earlier posts about 1991: awaiting Ajooba; and my Leonard Maltin movie guide. And on Facebook, here is a public post about my learning of Satyajit Ray’s adolescent journal-writing, which I could identify with]

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