Tuesday, November 21, 2017

In which Sherlock Holmes meets Jack the Ripper

[the third entry in my series about crime fiction for Scroll. Earlier pieces here and here]
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“A fictional super-detective and a notorious real-life serial killer walk into a bar together…”

I don’t know if crime buffs have yet thought up a joke that begins with that line, but this gin joint would likely be in London’s poverty-drenched East End in the 1880s: the sort of place where shady characters might drop in for a peg or pint at any time, even 7 AM, to ward off the cold and other miseries. And the carousing sleuth and murderer would be Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper respectively.

These two men have often faced off in the pages of novels and short stories – and, apparently, in video games too. It’s a fascinating pairing for obvious reasons. They operated on opposite sides of the law in the same metropolis at the same time: Arthur Conan Doyle’s first Holmes story appeared in 1887, while the canonical Ripper murders took place in the summer and autumn of 1888.

And if you think the gap between fiction and fact creates a credibility problem, consider this paradox: Holmes, the imagined character, has been such a recognizable, well-loved and widely portrayed figure over the past century that many people think he was an actual person; while the Ripper, who really did exist, has become shadowy, mythical – and sometimes even romanticized – because he was never caught. (A dozen or more authors have written books naming their candidate and pompously declaring “case closed” – the trouble is that they have confidently identified a dozen different people.) So much so that the story has been mined even in science-fiction and fantasy, as in the Star Trek episode “Wolf in the Fold”, which identifies Red Jack as an evil energy force that shifts form over the centuries.

There is no point trying to list all the Sherlock Holmes-vs-Jack the Ripper fiction out there, but the more readable efforts include the novella A Study in Terror, notable for its narrative within a narrative: in the 1960s, ace detective Ellery Queen comes across an old document detailing Holmes’s efforts to solve the London murders; while he reads, Ellery conducts a parallel investigation of his own, eventually figuring that Holmes may have been deliberately elusive about the killer’s identity. In other words, here are two celebrated fictional sleuths tangling with a real-life mystery, and with each other, across time and space.


There is also the very enjoyable 1979 film Murder by Decree, notable less for its plot (which draws on a much-rehashed conspiracy theory involving a Royal Family scandal) and more for its atmospheric set design and its cast -- Christopher Plummer and James Mason had a grand time playing Holmes and Watson respectively, and the supporting players included such heavyweights as John Gielgud, Genevieve Bujold and Donald Sutherland.

For me, though, Lyndsay Faye’s 2009 novel Dust and Shadow: An Account of the Ripper Killings by Dr John H Watson has a very special place in this sub-sub-category of crime writing. This skilled debut manages to be that rare thing, a book that should please both Sherlock Holmes buffs (including the ones who have mixed feelings about other authors stomping on Conan Doyle’s terrain) and Jack the Ripper scholars who like their Ripper-based fiction to be rooted in the facts of the case (even if the “solution” offered is far-fetched).

*****

Dust and Shadow is, of course, told in Dr Watson’s voice, deliberately prim by modern standards – Faye does a fine job of imitating the style of the original stories – but also warm and admiring when he speaks of his brilliant friend, and appropriately repulsed when he sees the bodies left by the unknown killer. The narrative begins with a short prelude set in Herefordshire in 1887 – this makes for a nice Sherlock Holmes mini-adventure in itself, but also serves a purpose that the reader will only learn near the book’s end – and then moves to the summer of the next year. A series of murders and mutilations terrify Whitechapel. Holmes, naturally, becomes involved.

Perhaps more involved than even he would like to be.

One of the recurring themes in modern serial-killer fiction – such as Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon – is the idea that a psychopath and the detective who pursues him are two sides of the same coin: both geniuses, both deeply disturbed people, one of whom has transformed his darkest impulses from thought into action, while the other is always walking a fine line. “The reason you caught me,” Hannibal Lecter tells Will Graham in Red Dragon, “is because we are just alike.” Three decades later, the gorgeous-looking TV show Hannibal explored this thought over three seasons.


Faye subtly uses the idea in her novel, without underlining it or indulging in any anachronisms that would take us out of the world of 1880s England (a time when little if anything was known about serial killers and their psychological makeup). Reading Dust and Shadow, it made complete sense to me that if Sherlock Holmes had existed and become involved with the Ripper investigation – prowling Whitechapel’s alleys in disguise at odd hours, frequenting opium dens, employing esoteric methods to conduct an unofficial investigation – someone or the other might suspect HIM of being the murderer.

This is what happens here. Shortly after an encounter with the Ripper that leaves him injured, Holmes finds that an unscrupulous journalist is writing articles damning him. And that the killer might be setting out to implicate him too. This puts our super-sleuth in a race to not just solve the case, and heal his hurt ego, but also to clear his name – and what we see in the process is a vulnerable Holmes and a paternal, protective Watson who takes it upon himself to be more than just a silent admirer and chronicler.

Conan Doyle’s other fictional characters – including Inspector Lestrade and Mrs Hudson – are part of this story, as are the comforting bachelor’s quarters in 221B Baker Street, but so are real-life people from the period, such as George Lusk, head of a Vigilance Committee during the killings, and the much-disliked police commissioner Sir Charles Warren. The book’s third “hero” – a young woman named Mary Ann Monk, who collects valuable information for Holmes in the East End – was an actual (if very peripheral) figure in the Ripper investigation, but is fleshed out into a spirited and resourceful character here.

Apart from its storytelling merits, this book can serve as a lesson to many historical-fiction authors in how background detail and attention to language can bring internal logic and credibility even to a fantasy narrative. When Holmes goes undercover in Whitechapel, we have no trouble believing that someone with his powers of observation would soon be able to acquaint himself with every foul nook and dark cranny of the impossibly maze-like East End of the 1880s – a place that in real life confounded the efforts of a large police force and helped the anonymous murderer get away with his crimes.

A tour de force passage in this respect occurs near the end when Holmes interrogates a disoriented and scared witness who followed the Ripper to his house but has no idea exactly which labyrinthine part of Whitechapel he was stumbling through. By asking a series of questions, asking the witness to remember landmarks, the width of this or that lane, the nature of the traffic on it, and so on, Holmes unerringly arrives at almost the exact address. Riveting though this passage is on its own terms for a lover of detective stories (or Sherlock Holmes’s methods), it becomes even more so when you study the actual geography of the period (Faye provides a map too) and realise that there is nothing fictional about the details of the route being discussed.

****

Dust and Shadow did two things for me. First, speaking as a longtime amateur Ripperologist who has been fascinated not only by the case but also by the huge range of reactions it has spawned over the decades, it works as a good Jack the Ripper story, shorn of the sensationalism and the factual errors that have littered even many non-fiction books. I think authors like Philip Sugden and Donald Rumbelow – among the most scrupulous Ripper scholars – would have approved of it. (Incidentally I first came across Faye’s writing via her plaintive and unsettling short story “The Sparrow and the Lark”, told in the voice of Mary Jane Kelly, the last of Jack the Ripper’s victims. You’ll find that story – along with “A Study in Terror” and many other worthies – in Otto Penzler’s anthology Jack the Ripper: Fact, Fiction, Legend.)

Second, as someone whose reading of Conan Doyle’s original Holmes tales has been less than comprehensive (I devoured many of them at one go as a young teen, and somehow never revisited them), this book stoked a desire to rediscover some of those stories, particularly the longer ones. Not just to return to the world of Dr Watson and his moody flat-mate, but also to see – and this will sound blasphemous to Holmes purists – how the originals compare with Faye’s terrific reimagining.

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[Related post: this column about true-crime books; and an illustration from hell]

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Actorly pairings – expected ones and unusual ones

[Did this for Mint Lounge]
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Watching Saket Chaudhary’s Hindi Medium a few weeks ago, I found myself momentarily whisked away to another filmic universe. This happened when Irrfan Khan, playing a father who is trying to get his daughter into a good English-medium school, and Tillotama Shome, in a supporting role as a disdainful counsellor, first appeared together on screen. I had a hard time concentrating on the scene because my mind went back to the last time I had seen these two actors share a frame – in a vastly different sort of film in which they played very different roles.


In Anup Singh’s mesmerizing 2013 film Qissa: Tale of a Lonely Ghost, set just after Partition, Irrfan is a Sikh patriarch who, without heeding any counsel or acknowledging his duplicity even to himself, pretends that his newborn daughter is a son; Shome (in a stunning performance) is this unfortunate in-between, her life as partitioned as the newly independent country she is living in.

As a movie nerd who likes to connect dots, one might half-jokingly note that both these stories are about challenges facing parents. But the differences are much more pronounced. Qissa was a great big-theatre film, an intense widescreen experience that also, paradoxically, manages to feel claustrophobic. It is shot in dark, muted colours; even the daytime scenes have a stygian, oppressive feel to them. Hindi Medium, on the other hand, is bright and colourful, not least because of its depiction of the main family’s flashy, nouveau-riche lifestyle. It is an upbeat, fast-paced portrayal of modern life in a status-conscious world, while Singh’s film is a stately period work that finds exactly the right tone and pace to tell the story of a family frozen in time.

In comparing these two instances of co-stars in disparate films, I’m not trying to make a point about acting versatility (though Khan and Shome are both terrific performers, well capable of inhabiting a range of roles). It’s just that I was reminded of the effect our knowledge of an actor’s history can have on our viewing experience: how seeing the same performers in a variety of roles or situations can help one appreciate different filmmaking styles or sensibilities.

There are variations on this, of course. When watching a well-established screen pairing over a period of time, there might be a strong component of nostalgia involved. For example, we see Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy together as classic Hollywood matinee idols performing a love-hate waltz in Woman of the Year (1942) – and then again as a long-married couple in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner 25 years later (with Tracy, who died just after the film’s completion, looking haggard and older than he really was) – and we become aware not just that glamorous, larger-than-life stars are mortal, but of our own aging process and how it affects the way we experience films. Something similar happens when we see Farooque Shaikh and Deepti Naval as an elderly couple tentatively exploring romance in Listen…Amaya, with some prior knowledge of what these actors were like decades earlier in films like Chashme Baddoor and Saath Saath.


With cinema getting more self-referential by the year, there are also cases of contemporary directors wittily playing off or subverting our expectations of an old pairing. One of the most indelible images from the Middle Cinema of the 1970s was Amitabh Bachchan and Moushumi Chatterjee splashing through rain-drenched south Bombay in Manzil, while “Rim Jhim Gire Saawan” played on the soundtrack and KK Mahajan’s camera performed a dizzying dance around them – a marvelous portrayal of romantic love in a city that might swallow the lovers up at any moment. It’s likely that the director Shoojit Sircar and the writer Juhi Chaturvedi – both of whom were fans of the Middle Cinema – had those images in mind when they cast Chatterjee as Bachchan’s sister-in-law (with whom he is always bickering) in Piku, a film where the character name Bhaskor Banerjee was also a nod to Bachchan’s role in another major work of that decade, Anand.

At other times, the same director may use two actors in subtly similar ways in different situations. Most film enthusiasts know Akira Kurosawa’s medieval-era epic The Seven Samurai, in which the veteran Takashi Shimura plays the wise, grizzled, somewhat weary leader of the samurai while the younger Toshiro Mifune is the snarling upstart who wants to become a part of the group (and
must be kept in check by the older man). But many years before that, in a film set in contemporary Japan – Drunken Angel – Kurosawa had already begun the process of creating a mould for the two actors: Shimura was a jaded doctor who serves as a mentor and guiding light for Mifune’s brash young gangster.

To watch these two films next to each other is to see how a director might show versatility in one sense (that is, making movies with different subject matter and settings) while also achieving an authorial consistency in another respect – through the carefully worked out use of screen personalities whom a viewer can recognize, relate to and incorporate into their experience of a film.


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[Related posts: Qissa, Listen... Amaya, Familiarity breeds affection]

Friday, November 03, 2017

On How to Travel Light, a memoir about being bipolar

[Did this short review of Shreevatsa Nevatia’s new book, for Open magazine. As you can see, a review of a confessional book can become self-indulgently confessional itself. But I left out something very important too. Nevatia’s memoir made me think of my father, a delusional, paranoid, lonely man who died pathetically a few months ago, having spent years estranging himself from everyone who might ever have cared for him – and looked out for (as opposed to “looked after by”) in his last days by a son who discharged responsibilities without really caring about him; who was more scared about genetic legacies and inherited madness than anything else.
My father may have been an undiagnosed case of bipolarity - there definitely was a mental condition of some sort. And he wrote daily too. (A way of holding on to things, or convincing yourself that you’re sane?) There are still dozens of journals gathering dust in his house, and I can't look closely at them
]
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In my favourite chapter in How to Travel Light, Shreevatsa Nevatia’s memoir about his struggle with bipolarity, the author examines his relationship with films such as Apur Sansar and The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Discussing the scene in the former where the protagonist Apu stands in for a “mad groom” and marries a young girl he has never met before, Nevatia says that he sees two aspects of his own personality in these two men: Binu, delusional, clad in finery and destined to fall, and Apu, “scared and reluctant, but desirous of grandeur”.

To me, this passage – and what follows in the chapter – reads like intense, very personal film criticism of the sort I have special fondness for as a writer and reader. And a suggestion rears its head: obsessively finding patterns, connecting dots that most other people can’t see, locating yourself in gestures and lines of dialogue – all this may be a form of mental illness too. (Reviewers, beware.)

Other readers of How to Travel Light will undoubtedly find resonances in other chapters. They will probably find many things to admire, and a few things to be bored by, for a book like this is – to some degree at least – an exercise in navel-scratching. However well-written or insightful, there are passages that can seem of interest mainly to the author and the circle of family and friends who witnessed his ups and downs over the years.

Many people – friends, lovers, doctors, fellow sufferers, parents, siblings – flit through these pages, and one of the tics of Nevatia’s writing is to simply bring someone into the narrative by naming him or her, but without immediately explaining who this is. Add to this the fragmented, non-linear narrative – covering his many stints in rehab clinics, being sexually abused as a child by a cousin who was ten years older, the diagnosis of his condition in 2007, his ongoing attempts to give up drugs – and one gets the sense of a life lived in a blur, alternating between periods of rapture and depression.

Amidst all that chaos, there are startlingly vivid descriptions: Nevatia likens his isolation (and possible delusions of omniscience) to the terrifying Puranic image of Vishnu alone on his snake in an endless ocean. (Later, a memory of his grandmother dressing him up as the child Krishna is echoed in another Apur Sansar scene.) He tries to understand how his condition has affected his relationships. He mulls the social-media circus and how its momentary highs can make anyone seem potentially bipolar. And he circles back to the idea that many people need some “madness” to be able to do their best work, that the mind needs turbulence to thrive. (But how narrow is this window, officially known as hypomania? And what if you’re a journalist whose reliability might be compromised by a tendency to see ominous patterns?)

I didn’t always get a sense of the specifics of Nevatia’s condition or what was so abnormal about it – in fact, one late passage, a record of his encounter with a smug-sounding doctor, had me wondering what was wrong with her (not least when she says what happened to him as a child “was incest, not abuse. You were a consenting partner”). Many of the “perilous” actions he lists at one point (“Accusing my parents of neglect, I had left home in a huff. I had openly berated the state and its control. I had sidled up to an Australian woman in a bikini. There was something obviously blasphemous about my presumed possession of divinity…”) didn’t seem extraordinarily deviant.

But that could be part of the point, since this book is part of an ongoing attempt to understand. As he puts it, manic depression is a sort of whodunit, “and the suspects are often many – genetic predisposition, chemical imbalances in the brain, environmental factors”. Were drugs the effect or a cause of his illness? Was the foundation laid in childhood? Can anyone know for sure?

The one thing to be certain of is that writing has performed a cathartic function for Nevatia. If it can be a sort of madness at times, it can also be a way of preserving sanity, holding on to ephemeral things (such as memories or opinions) and making sense of an unordered world.


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[A somewhat related post, about Jerry Pinto's Em and the Big Hoom, is here]

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

A call for help for Pratima Devi

This is an update - a composite of my social-media posts from the last two days - about Pratima Devi, the “kutton waali Amma” of the PVR Saket complex, whose house was demolished by the MCD on October 30, leaving her and dozens of dogs with no shelter just as the winter chill sets in. Yesterday, Ambika Shukla and her team got a makeshift tent constructed with tarpaulin, and we cleared up a lot of the rubble. The hope for the moment is that the MCD and the cops will let her stay under the tarpaulin for some time at least. Meanwhile we are looking at legal representation.

There has already been some media coverage; here are a few points that might provide context to anyone else who can help:

- For a few weeks, an MCD councillor has been harassing Amma with accusations that she is supplying drugs to little boys in the complex. I know this to be nonsense. A few years ago, when Amma was unwell and didn't have much support for dog-feeding etc, she allowed some kids and adolescents to hang around at her place, even sleep on her charpoys etc - in exchange for what help they could provide with looking after the animals - and some of these kids were addicts. This has made it easier to spread rumours about her.

- While the land she has been occupying obviously isn't hers, she has got certain papers including an Aadhar card with a "PVR complex" address, and an electricity bill in her name, with a meter.

- There were other official papers - I don't know all the details, but I saw a couple of them myself a few years ago - by the MCD, giving her permission to occupy a spot near the complex. Now, apparently, some of those papers have vanished. Amma and her son claim that the councillor bribed one of her helpers to steal them from her trunk. I don't want to take such accusations at face value, but it is of course a possibility.

- During an argument with some onlookers (including a parking attendant and a shopkeeper who have old grudges against Amma), I was told things like "She is polluting this posh complex by keeping all these dogs here." Similar claims have been repeated in a Times of India story today (November 1). Which is rubbish. More than anyone, she has helped in regulating the dog population (regular sterilisations and vaccinations are carried out) and in keeping them content and non-aggressive by feeding them.


Just after the demolition
If the shopkeepers think the dogs are going to magically vanish if she is evicted, they are deluded; the MCD doesn’t have the authority to pick up stray dogs and dispose of them or relocate them. On the contrary, things will get much worse because now there will be dozens of frightened, hungry strays - used to being well looked after -  who will encroach on the complex and surrounding areas, and make life very difficult for everyone. But maybe that is part of the plan: to build a stronger case against the very presence of street dogs.

 – Apart from those who have been kind enough to offer help in the form of money or provisions, for those of you in Delhi and with some time to spare: do go across and meet Amma sometime in the next few days, just for a short while. It’s important to show the people who are keeping an eye on her from a distance - cops, MCD, the market association - that she has plenty of support. Call me if you’re coming. I have a lot to handle at home and in hospital, and my time is never my own, but I can try to come by.

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P.S. Amma has been written about in newspapers and featured on news channels in the past - see this piece in Mint Lounge, for example. And here is my first post about her from a few years ago.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Suspense thriller or marital drama? Looking back at Ittefaq

[With the Ittefaq remake coming out this week, here's a piece I did for Film Companion about Yash Chopra's 1969 film]
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“Har paagal kabhi na kabhi akalmandi ki baat karta hai” (“Every madman has moments of sanity”)
                  – chuckling psychiatrist in the 1969 thriller Ittefaq

Yash Chopra’s Ittefaq centres on a “paagal”, a word repeatedly used to denote any sort of strange behaviour, and bandied about (even by senior doctors and cops) with the merry disregard for political correctness that we see in so many old films about mental illness.

It is fitting, then, that parts of Ittefaq play like scenes from a madman’s dream. Consider the cornucopia of bright colours and geometric designs that fill the screen for two minutes before the opening credits even appear. The influence of Saul Bass’s famous title designs for Hitchcock and other filmmakers is obvious, but it
also feels a bit random, like some Rubik’s Cubes were tossed into a sabzi tray, chopped or grated, and the resulting fragments shot through a kaleidoscope. Anyway, no one would mistake the cheery background tune for one of Bernard Herrmann’s ominous compositions.

In its time, Ittefaq got much publicity for being a song-less Hindi film – but this doesn’t mean it was shorn of the other elements of our mainstream cinema. Unlike its relentlessly dark and gritty Western counterpart, the “Hindi-film noir” of the 1950s and 1960s was part of a tradition where many emotions and registers had to be mixed together. So there are tonal variations here, much juxtaposing of melodrama and studied restraint.

For instance, the opening sequence has a long, handheld-camera tracking shot from the POV of an artist named Dilip (Rajesh Khanna) as he enters his house. All very cinema-verite-like at this point, but then a zoom-in – accompanied by dramatic music – reveals the strangled corpse of Dilip’s wife, whereupon the camera whirls like a dervish and there is a spectacularly over-the-top, caterwauling performance by Khanna.

But in a suspense narrative like this, even theatrics do serve a purpose – we have to be on our guard, prepared that anything may be part of a subterfuge. The first thought that occurred to me was that the hysterical Dilip and his almost-equally-hysterical sister-in-law – who accuses him of murder – were putting on an act together. But there are other possibilities: Dilip is guilty and trying too hard to feign innocence; he killed his wife because he was mentally unstable (“paagal hai!”); he is innocent of murder but guilty of loving his art more than partying with his wife (“paagal hai!”); he killed her but then forgot about it because he had to finish a painting (“paagal! paagal! paagal!”).

Shortly afterwards, he escapes from a paagal-khana and breaks into a house where Rekha (Nanda) is alone, her husband away on a business trip. And now something intriguing happens. Even as the storm of a police pursuit rages outside, Ittefaq briefly becomes a two-person chamber drama of sorts.


After the initial wariness, Rekha and Dilip are soon chatting away like a married couple. There is a slow building of trust. “Bhaag toh nahin jaogi?” he asks her. “Abhi tak bharosa nahin?” she replies. They settle into a form of domesticity, bickering and making up; at one point, sounding like a hurt wife, she moans, “Maine tumhein kya takleef di?” Making a bed together at night, she playfully tosses a mattress at him. We are offered a vision of husbands and wives as jailers and qaidis to each other, shifting roles in turn.

And they confide in each other. Speaking of her (actual) husband, she says plaintively that there was a time when he was her dashing prince on horseback, but that the prince vanished within a few days. By the film’s end, this moment can be viewed as a red herring – diverting the viewer’s attention from what is really going on – but I prefer to take it at face value and to trust the genuineness of Rekha’s emotions.

There are, of course other things going on, including a bunch of elderly men sauntering about at 1 AM and laughing patronizingly when someone expresses fear of the “paagal” on the run. Despite the loophole-filled plot (and one delightful moment – for those of us who grew up making distasteful jokes about the large backsides of 1960s heroines – where Nanda’s sari-covered posterior becomes an important plot point, since it prevents a character from seeing something through a keyhole), the film manages to be gripping when it needs to be.

Ittefaq hasn’t aged too well if you’re a viewer who prefers the technical finesse and understatement of today’s multiplex Hindi film, so it is ripe for an updating – though the remake is likely to be very far in tone from the film Yash Chopra made. There will almost certainly be an extra twist or two, they will probably tone down the sentimental moral coda of the original, and “paagal” will be replaced by terms like “dopamine imbalance”. The doctors won’t openly laugh at their patients.

Plus, there will be no Rajesh Khanna, which means no subtextual analysis centred around one of our most popular screen personas. In the 1980 Red Rose, made long after he had lost most of his appeal as a romantic hero, Khanna was wittily cast as a serial killer-cum-playboy from whom no woman was safe. Ittefaq is in some ways the inverse of that film, with the young, boy-faced star as a pure-as-driven-snow victim of fate and coincidence, whose only crime may be overacting.


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[Earlier posts on Rajesh Khanna: Red Rose; Shaitani Anand]

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

A young woman meets her other-self, Through a Glass, Darkly

[this is the second entry in my Scroll series about crime fiction. Previous piece here]
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In a key passage in Helen McCloy’s 1949 suspense novel Through a Glass, Darkly, a psychiatrist-detective is speaking with a young lady who is at the centre of a storm. Faustina Crayle has been dismissed from her teaching position in a girls’ school under a veil of secrecy, and Dr Basil Willing has discovered the reason: many terrified people believe that Faustina has unearthly powers; specifically, that she has a silent, ghostly double – or a doppelganger, to use the old German word. Whether Faustina herself is complicit in these spectral sightings – whether she is innocent or malicious – is beside the point for the school’s management. She can’t be allowed to stay on.

Now Basil and Faustina are talking, the former probing gently, the latter trying to make sense of all the disquiet she has caused. And she says:

“Have you any idea what all this is like for me? How desperately I keep asking myself all the old unanswered questions. What is life for? Why were human beings made? Why do we assume so confidently that God is good, when He is so much more likely to be evil? Are we an accident of chemistry, without beginning or end or purpose? Super-colloids, acting out a heartless comedy? Are we a dream of God’s, as the Buddhists believe? Is that why, in early childhood, you stare at your face in the mirror and look at your hands and feet and say to yourself: I am me. I am Faustina Crayle. I am not anyone else. Yet, no matter how hard you try to realise your identity, something inside you goes on feeling that it’s not quite true…”
Out of context, this might sound like a bit of faux-philosophy inserted into a slim, fast-paced mystery. But when you read Through a Glass, Darkly from the beginning, slowly coming to inhabit the world of its characters, the conversation between Faustina and Basil is compelling, poignant, and feels central to the narrative (and not just because it occurs exactly at the book’s midpoint). Cards are placed on the table, a measure of clarity brought to what has so far been a mystifying story. (It is unsurprising that this happens when Basil Willing begins his investigation: he is Helen McCloy’s series detective.) A woman who is an object of suspicion for many of the characters is revealed as a sympathetic, sensitive and weary presence (though of course, we can’t yet be sure that Faustina isn’t other things as well). And then, after the man of science has reassured Faustina that she isn’t in mortal danger from a ghostly double, he walks out into the street, shivers, looks up at the night sky and says to himself: “Who am I to say what cannot happen in this unknowable world?”

At the very end of the book, someone else (I won’t reveal who) will make a similar gesture and pronouncement, and Willing himself will again be faced with self-doubt – even as he plays his role of the detective glibly winding things up.

******

Some months ago, when I began rekindling an old passion for crime writing, I found I hadn’t read several authors or books that were celebrated, even regarded as canonical, by serious genre buffs. It’s the sort of thing that can happen when, based on your familiarity with, say, Agatha Christie, Patricia Highsmith, Cornell Woolrich, Raymond Chandler and a few others – authors who tend to be well known to readers splashing about on the shores of the genre rather than plunging fully into it – you think you know almost everything there is to know about Anglophone crime writing of a certain vintage.

High on this list of neglected classics was McCloy’s affecting novel – a book I had never even heard of until I saw it had been ranked at number 12 on a famous 1981 poll of best impossible-crime novels. The four words that make up its title were for me mainly associated with Ingmar Bergman’s great film, which is concerned with the theological implications of the Biblical phrase: the idea that human knowledge is necessarily imperfect, that we will acquire complete vision – with the grace of a higher power – only in the fullness of time.

In a subtly different way, McCloy’s novel also touches on the theme of how limited human knowledge is – how little we yet know about the workings of the human mind, and about the possible links between the corporeal and the non-material worlds.

Consider how a school principal named Mrs Lightfoot tries hesitantly to make sense of the doppelganger phenomenon: “Suppose that an unconscious mind could gather unto itself enough vital energy to project some purely visual image or reflection of itself on the air? Perhaps through some form of refracted radiation? A dream-form that was visible to others as well as to the dreamer – visible but not material [like] reflections in a mirror […] rainbows and mirages.”

Here, a self-described modern woman is struggling to transcend the usual paranoid-sounding language about ghosts or witchcraft and to instead explore the possibility that whatever is going on has an explanation that might make more sense to us once our scientific knowledge has progressed to a certain point.

In my previous piece in this series, I mentioned books that seemed to be imbued with supernatural occurrences but ended with a logical explanation. Through a Glass, Darkly broadly appears to fit in that category, but to me it felt more like the converse (or a mirror image?). In this case, most of the main characters are devoutly rational, well-educated people whose gut instinct is to be cautious and “sensible”, and the book ends with Basil Willing putting forth his theory, a plausible one. Yet there are still unanswered questions, and little details that one can’t shrug off. For instance, if one attributes the goings-on to a cruel human agency, how does one explain that some of the appearances and actions of Faustina’s “double” play out like her own unrealized impulses?

Perhaps this is McCloy’s major achievement: there is something so viscerally creepy about both her premise and her presentation of it (notably in one scene where two schoolgirls watch Faustina painting in a lawn, her hand moving languidly as if in a slow-motion film; and in another, later scene set in a seaside cottage) that even the most secure reader might not be able to help looking over his shoulder. As with Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (and its superb 1961 film adaptation The Innocents), about a governess wondering if her young charges are possessed, a sense of claustrophobic unease is created, ensuring that the rational mind is never allowed full control.

The result is that however persuasive Willing’s explanation is, we can’t place ourselves completely in his hands. The lingering impression at the end is not just of a supposed criminal protesting innocence, but also of Faustina herself – a character we have come to feel for – frightened not by an earthly antagonist but by the terror of coming face to face with her own immaterial other-self.

No wonder this is a book that will make you steer clear of reflective surfaces when you’re alone late at night.


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[An earlier piece about books with the doppelganger theme is here]

Friday, October 20, 2017

At the FTII: an afternoon in a shrine of filmmaking

[did this for Mint Lounge. An earlier tribute to Kundan Shah is here]
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On the memorable afternoon I spent at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune earlier this month – I was there for a tribute to Hrishikesh Mukherjee – two moments stood out. One was chatting under the FTII’s beloved Wisdom Tree with the director Kundan Shah, just a few days before he passed away.

Kundan, with whom I had been acquainted ever since I worked on a book about his Jaane bhi do Yaaro in 2009, had looked quite fit for his 69 years, and the news was shocking. But with hindsight, I wonder if he seemed so spry, alert and youthful that day because he had entered a time machine and been transported back to the campus where he had once spent many happy times. The years seemed to fall off his face and voice when, over cups of evening tea, he gesticulated and theorised with the zest of the 21-year-old film student who imagines he will change the world through Cinema.

The other moment was a split-second one. I was sitting in the front row in the main auditorium when Jaya Bachchan, walking up on to the stage just in front of me, bent down quickly to touch the steps in obeisance. Most of us are, understandably, sceptical of the things celebrities say and do in public arenas, but I didn’t get the impression that Bachchan was doing something for effect; it was an almost imperceptible, matter-of-fact gesture, and felt like a private communion between an artiste and a space that was sacred to her. Later, during her session, she referred to the FTII as her matrubhoomi (motherland) and called the years she had spent there the happiest of her life.


This discussion, featuring her and the filmmaker Vishnu Mathur, was delightful because it didn’t seem in the least bit rehearsed: they contradicted each other when it came to a specific reminiscence, there were little detours and unselfconscious pauses, the way you’d expect in a private nostalgia conversation between two friends. They recalled persuading the celebrated archivist PK Nair to let them attend the screenings he held for himself at night, spoke of the awe they felt when giants like Satyajit Ray visited the institute – and how deflated a group of wannabe directors became when they earnestly asked the great man why he had used so many trolley shots in Charulata, and he replied in his sonorous voice: “Well, I had just bought a new trolley.” Bachchan mentioned hearing about a new film Hrishikesh Mukherjee was making, being intrigued by the title (Guddi), deciding she wanted to do it, and sulking when she heard another young actress had been cast. “Moushumi Chatterjee ko le liya! I know I can do better!” she said, mimicking her child-voice of ages past, and puckering her lips in the manner so familiar from her more impish roles.

It all felt so egalitarian. Kundan Shah was part of what we call the Cinema of Struggle of the 1970s and 1980s, making a small film on a budget of Rs 7 lakh, taking favours from friends, relying on the cooperation of former classmates who were struggling just as hard to keep their heads above water. Jaya Bachchan, on the other hand – notwithstanding her association with grounded, middle-class movies of the 1970s – is for obvious reasons a member of a more exalted circle in Bombay filmdom, and a higher-profile personality. Yet, at FTII, there was not the slightest gap between the two. You saw them as they must have been as students, long before those twinned imposters Success and Failure, Triumph and Disillusionment, came to define their lives.


Later, I wandered around the campus, gaped at the legendary Prabhat Studios and the ancient equipment housed in it, and saw the – now dry – Shantaram Pond where scenes from films such as Sant Tukaram had been shot. For a critic, accustomed to watching films as finished products, to be assessed from a cool distance, the experience of coming face to face with the mechanics of the process – seeing the rusty raw materials and deserted settings up close – is always a little humbling, and melancholia-inducing too.

Researching Jaane bhi do Yaaro years ago, I had collected plenty of fun anecdotes about the making of the film; the conversations with the crew made me feel like I had been there when it all came together. But there was something much more immediate about being at the place where the seeds of these careers – and so many others – had been sown, and to wander around the shaded woods where Kundan had filmed a few scenes of his zany, dialogue-less diploma short Bonga. Or the part of the campus where the opening scene of Guddi was shot, simply because Jaya Bhaduri – after she got the role she coveted – had requested “Hrishi-da” to shoot just one scene in her matrubhoomi.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

'Impossible crime' and rational explanation: on Paul Halter's The Demon of Dartmoor

[This is the first of a few pieces I will be writing for Scroll.in about the workings of crime fiction, with an emphasis on neglected or under-read classics]

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A spirited, self-absorbed young actor sits on a window-ledge posing for a photograph, and is then seemingly pushed to his death… with more than one witness independently swearing there was no one there to push him; that he appeared to have been “propelled forward”. The sense of menace builds when investigators realise that a very similar death had occurred 50 years earlier in the same old house, and that – more recently – a young girl fell off a nearby cliff after being pushed by an “invisible man”.

All this is happening in the misty Devon moors in the 1930s, and there is much talk of ancient legends, including a story about the Devil’s playing cards being scattered around a crime scene, and a headless horseman who may have been seen on one of the murder nights.


With such a premise and setting, it’s easy to think that Paul Halter’s 1993 novel Le Diable de Dartmoor – translated into English by John Pugmire as The Demon of Dartmoor – has supernatural underpinnings. Reading the story, we find that even the more level-headed residents of Stapleford village – among them a doctor and a teacher – think mystical forces could be at work.

But as it turns out, the solution to these mysteries is a wholly rational one, rooted in the human capacity for crime. And by the time the novel ends, most aficionados of the “locked-room” or “impossible-crime” tale will agree that the Frenchman Halter (not all of whose books are available in translation) merits his reputation as a successor to the celebrated John Dickson Carr, who specialized in this tricky subgenre of crime fiction.

****

The term “locked-room mystery” was once used in its most literal sense, to describe a crime – usually a murder – that takes place in a room bolted from the inside, so that there is no way for the killer to have got out, or even to have been there at all: Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is usually seen as the first major example of this form. Over time, though, the term has become a more general descriptor for any sort of seemingly impossible crime where “howdunnit” is more important than “whodunit”. Take Agatha Christie’s widely read classic And Then There Were None (or Ten Little Niggers) – here, the “locked room” is a whole island cut off from the shore, where ten people die one by one, leaving the baffled police with multiple victims and no killer. Another favourite premise involves an open field where footprints can be seen in the snow, or sand, leading up to a crime scene, but none leading away. (One of my very favourite short stories in this vein is Fredric Brown’s “The Laughing Butcher”, about which another time.)

Naturally, plotting and executing such stories with any success requires an author to be highly skilled at the art of misdirection: at strewing red herrings about for us to slip on, using intriguing but ultimately irrelevant details to divert us while crucial information is consigned to the background or falls out of sight.

There are countless examples of such misdirection – almost as many as there are such novels or stories – and it’s fascinating to see how many different tricks the genre’s most prolific and inventive writers have up their sleeve. But one widely used technique is to use the possibility of the supernatural to confuse the reader, so that you’re not sure if what you’re reading is a ghost story – belonging to the realm of fantasy – or a mystery with a plausible, real-world explanation.

Take the oeuvre of Carr, who wrote so many novels and short stories both under his own name and as “Carter Dickson” that it won’t hurt to give away the denouement of just one of his stories (without naming it). This one centres on a young woman who dies after being savagely blinded – her eyes torn out – even though she is alone in a room with only one entrance and a single barred window set in the wall.

The final explanation lies in a pair of diabolically engineered binoculars which “stab” anyone who puts them to their eyes and tries to bring the lens into focus. Yet, throughout the story, Carr builds atmosphere by creating an almost gothic world of family curses, sooty stone towers, gallant swains and headstrong (or vulnerable) women; there are references to sinister black ravens, which signal death for someone who has transgressed. All this combines to create an effect that could easily have come from one of the great haunted-house tales.

In The Demon of Dartmoor (don’t worry, no spoilers here), Halter does something similar by mining our uncertainty about the nature of the mystery. Part of the trick is this: the multiple murders seem confounding when we look at them as a whole. If an apparently invisible antagonist is responsible for the deaths of three girls and one man in the present day, as well as another murder half a century earlier, surely something otherworldly must be afoot. But when you break the crimes down, treat them on individual terms, and allow for the possibility that just one of the witnesses might be mistaken (or lying) about a specific detail, a different picture emerges.

This is not to say that Halter cheats the reader – he is scrupulous throughout. The method by which Nigel the actor is killed while posing for a photo is clever and plausible, and also so obvious – after it has been explained – that you might want to smack yourself on the head. And we are given one important clue. But to figure out the solution, it is important for the reader to focus on the details of this one incident – including the witnesses’ description of the victim’s body language at the crucial moment – rather than get lost in a tangled forest where we are constantly thinking about invisible men, misty moorlands and ancient spells.

Halter’s prose, at least as one experiences it in translation, is only functional – nothing polished or literary about it – but there are a few clever decisions he makes at the level of sentence-phrasing. Consider the end of the chapter leading up to the actor’s death, after he has jumped up on the window sill for the picture, for an example of how an author can hoodwink a reader even while playing completely fair. (And I won’t say more.)

*****

If supernatural allusions can be used to give a reader the chills, or create uncertainty about what direction the story is going in, occasionally they can provide a light touch too. In the delightful
short story “The Problem of the Old Oak Tree”, written by Edward D Hoch (another astonishingly prolific master of the impossible-mystery form), a country doctor named Sam Hawthorne relates a stumper he became involved with in 1927. During the shooting of one of the first sound films, a stuntman parachuting off a small biplane landed in an oak tree – with a reputation for being haunted – and was then found to have been strangled to death. How could this have happened?

In this case, the oak tree adds colour to the story – it certainly makes a visual picture of the death more striking and vivid – and some humour too. (“Even a haunted tree doesn’t strangle people with a piece of wire!”) But Hoch never encourages us to think that the tree might really have something to do with the killing: the story unfolds like a regular investigation, with little clues and conjectures piling up slowly, until Dr Hawthorne solves the murder.

And then, at the very end, having completed his narrative, he casually informs his listeners that the oak tree was around only for another year or so – it toppled over after struck by lightning. Much the same way that a supernatural-seeming tale might be felled by the thunderbolt of cold reason.

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[If that sounds like I am coming down too heavily on the side of rationality, my next piece will centre on a terrific 1949 thriller that contains a practical explanation – and is full of characters who are sceptical and well-educated – but still doesn’t allow its smugly rationalist detective the final word]

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Kundan Shah, in memoriam

[Did this little tribute to Kundan Shah – whom I met just last week at the FTII – for Film Companion. More about Kundan in my book Jaane bhi do Yaaro: Seriously Funny Since 1983]

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“I’m doing well,” Kundan Shah said when I asked about his health at the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune just last week. “There are ups and downs, of course. But I walk a lot, and as long as I can do that, I’ll be okay.” We were at the FTII to participate in a Hrishikesh Mukherjee tribute, and when I heard the shocking news yesterday about Kundan passing away in his sleep, my first reaction was to be grateful that I had those few minutes with him in Pune.

It was our last, and warmest, meeting. When I came down from the stage after a session, he was kind enough to greet me from the front row and say he enjoyed the talk. I played fly on the wall during a tea session as he chatted with old friends and colleagues about their institute days, discussing the difference between Bimal Roy’s and Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s approach to shot-taking, or Guru Dutt’s and Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s use of melodrama. And beneath the FTII’s famous Wisdom Tree, we posed for this photo alongside Amit Tyagi, the dean of films who had, in another lifetime, played the small part of the bearded reporter asking Tarneja hard questions in Jaane bhi do Yaaro’s press conference scene.



Posting the picture on Facebook last week, I was presumptuous enough to call it “a mini-gathering of Jaane bhi do Yaaro people”. But then Kundan himself had told me, after my book about his film came out in 2010, that I was now officially “part of the team” – among the sweetest words I have heard as a writer-journalist, and it was unsurprising that they came from a lovely, down-to-earth man. A man whom I had come to think of as a friend, despite the 30-year age gap between us.

It hadn’t been like this in March 2009, when I rang the bell of his Bandra office for the first time. If I wanted his inputs for a book about Jaane bhi do Yaaro, he had said curtly on the phone, I must come to Bombay and meet him so he could gauge firsthand if I was the right person to do this. The initial few exchanges (“Arre, why do you want to write about this film? Who will read such a book?”) made me feel like I was in a job interview and had to speak in platitudes to prove my worth. But gradually, the ice melted. We began talking, and kept talking for another week – followed by another long series of conversations two months later.

Even once a rapport was struck, there was quite a bit of parrying: with him as the artist who could get evasive about his work, or just be uncomfortable about discussing it in too much detail; and me, the chronicler who probed, speculated, asked inconvenient questions or even said uneducated things. At the time, my experience of old Hindi cinema was limited, and Kundan sometimes got annoyed when I didn’t get one of his specific references, or when it turned out I hadn’t seen a film like Teen Bahuraniyan or Paigham, which had been a formative influence on his sense of comedy. You should have researched much better before coming here and trying to write a book about JBDY, he said in one of his sourer moments – though the crankiness never lasted more than a couple of minutes, and he lightened up on realizing that I knew Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd.

The overriding impression was of a very regular-looking man – a civil servant in a checked shirt, diligently keeping 9 to 5 hours (much like the Common Man Wagle from the TV show he directed in the 1980s) – whose head was full of zany ideas. So full of them that I have wondered at times if this didn’t become a kind of roadblock for him: he seemed to flit from one thought process to the next, he was constantly revising and tweaking, and this can sometimes prevent you from concentrating on one thing and getting it finished. I have a draft – one of many he wrote – of the mythical JBDY sequel which never got made, and it’s great fun to read (emerging after 25 years in jail, Vinod and Sudhir now find themselves in such an unapologetically corrupt India that they can only cope by growing little devils’ horns on their heads!) – but it is also all over the place, uneven and fragmentary, often incoherent and non-sequiturish.

But then, this would have been just as true for the original JBDY script, and look how that turned out.

We watched Jaane bhi do Yaaro together on his laptop. He laughed quite a bit, but more AT the film than WITH it – pointing out lapses in editing or an awkward moment in the acting or writing, shaking his head at continuity errors such as in the scene where Ahuja’s henchman becomes a different actor from one shot to the next. “If this film is being seen as the ultimate satire in Hindi cinema, all it tells me is that Hindi cinema hasn’t achieved much.” At other times, he remembered the background to each scene, or the many trials that the crew had undergone.

He was often self-effacing, talking about how he made his diploma film Bonga as a tribute to Godard’s Bande Part even though he hadn’t seen the latter at the time. “But I vaguely knew what it was about, and I had seen the famous dance scene.” And he used the word “fluke” a great deal, whether discussing his life or his professional arc. He always emphasized the randomness of things … all of it leading up to the observation about how his iconic film “just happened somehow, nobody could have planned for something like this to be a success”.

****

What happened to his career after JBDY? Many who knew him feel that the set of factors that came together for him in 1982 – a youthful crew with just the right sensibility, their expectations for success set to zero but still hungry to do something they believed in; the NFDC financing a bizarre script and keeping an eye on things without interfering too much – never came together in the same way again. That he wasn’t temperamentally suited to the demands of a commercial industry, he was too much his own person.

He certainly experienced his share of disappointments (and it can’t be pleasant for a creative person to repeatedly hear himself described, in semi-pitying terms, as someone who did something brilliant 30-odd years earlier and then never achieved on a comparable level again), but my gut feeling is that he wasn’t the stereotype of the depressed artist who brooded for days about the things that hadn’t worked out. Coincidentally, the last time I met him, he was discussing the “cliché of the misunderstood poet” and how Guru Dutt had handled it in Pyaasa. But he was smiling and gesticulating and speaking excitedly, like a film student, not like someone who felt the theme could in any way apply to his own career. My dominant memory of him is of someone who was always alert and active and curious, even when simply working by himself in his office.

I have a few recordings of our 2009 conversations. I’ll be listening to them again soon, listening in particular for the traces of irritability in an otherwise genial, inclusive voice. I also look forward to watching the video of his last public talk – a session about film comedy at the FTII, which I am told went wonderfully well. And then there is the last, forever-to-be-treasured email, which he sent me on October 3. “Many thanks for the photos. Really enjoyed meeting you. Next time you’re in Mumbai, please call. Love and regards, Kundan.”


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[Scroll.in has an excerpt about Kundan from my book here. And here's a little more in The Hindu]

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

On scary clowns, It, and the importance of not being expressive

[my latest Mint Lounge column]
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“What kind of scary-ass clowns came to YOUR birthday parties?” Chandler caustically asks Joey in a Friends episode, as the live audience guffaws. It’s the punchline for a scene where the dim-witted Joey seems to be under the impression that clowns don’t have heads. But it’s also one of the rare times when I haven’t found one of Chandler’s ripostes funny.

Because, well, what’s so odd about suggesting that a clown might be scary? As a child I was terrified by a man in baggy pants and whiteface, holding out a balloon at a party – and this was years before I had encountered any horror films or books about predatory clowns. (On that occasion, I stayed convinced that the clown was meant to be part of a fright-game, like a haunted-house ride at an entertainment park.) Later, the cover illustrations on Enid Blyton’s circus books gave me the chills, and so did the mysterious clown in the classic DeMille film The Greatest Show on Earth – never mind that one of the most genial of actors, James Stewart, was under the costume.


Given all this, it was a surprise that I was underwhelmed by the new adaptation of Stephen King’s mammoth novel It. The film is wonderfully well-performed by a cast of young adolescents – as small-town kids in the late 1980s, confronting unthinkable evil – but I just didn’t find its main antagonist, Pennywise the clown, scary. Even though plenty of menace and atmosphere is injected into his first appearance: he peers out of a sewer on a rainy day, speaks cajolingly to a little boy who has lost his paper boat – and then, baring multiple rows of serrated teeth, chomps the kid’s arm off before pulling him into the drain.

That scene is gruesome all right, in the best King style, and it has a visceral effect, but for me the film’s creepiest moment didn’t involve the hyper-active Pennywise; it came when one of the kids finds himself alone in a room, surrounded by regular clown figures – plastic toys, stuffed dolls with faces frozen into immobile grins.

At this point the penny, so to speak, dropped. The problem wasn’t that I had suddenly lost my fear of clowns. It was that Pennywise was too expressive, too talkative – and therefore, too close to seeming human, the grotesque makeup notwithstanding. His lips move, he snarls and dances and chortles, and even if he does these things exaggeratedly, at least he seems relatable.

In a recent article titled “A Theory of Creepiness”, David Livingstone Smith refers to the hypothesis of the Uncanny Valley – put in very simple terms, this is the idea that close replicas of human beings can produce intense feelings of discomfort in us, because they stand on the border between familiarity and weirdness; our brains aren’t quite sure what to make of them.


Any horror-movie buff would understand. Throughout its history, the genre has made extensive use of both the replica and the human-like creature whose behaviour is somewhat off – from the sallow-faced sleepwalker in the silent classic The Cabinet of Dr Caligari to the ventriloquist’s sinister dummy in the chilling anthology film Dead of Night to the countless slasher movies about possessed dolls. Not to mention the antagonistic clowns and jokers with painted smiles (the new It film even makes a fleeting reference to the 1989 Batman, in which Jack Nicholson played The Joker).

But as Smith also observes, one of the most terrifying uncertainties involves the question of whether something is animate or inanimate. This put me in mind of the creepy waxworks in the 1933 film The Mystery of the Wax Museum and its 1953 remake House of Wax, about sculptors who create wax statues out of murdered people. The madmen played in those films by Lionel Atwill and Vincent Price (not to mention a similar character played by Sunil Dutt, of all people, in the 1974 Geeta Mera Naam!) could glower or psycho-laugh all they wanted, but there was no ambiguity about their nature. On the other hand, the blank-faced wax figures were truly unsettling – a case of the victims being creepier than the villains who had knocked them off.

Thinking further, could the animate-inanimate phenomenon be linked to actors who are so inept that they barely seem like real people? Might every Suniel Shetty film be subtextually a horror film too? Less flippantly, there certainly have been cases in very low-budget horror movies where terrible acting has made the project more otherworldly – and therefore creepier – than anyone could have intended it to be. For one among many examples, check out the underground classic Shaitani Dracula on YouTube, especially the scene where the portly and harmless-looking actor-director Harinam Singh looks straight at the camera and introduces himself as the titular villain.

While leaving these matters for you to ponder, I should mention my one truly creepy experience on the night I watched It. Returning
from the multiplex very late, I had to pass a McDonald’s in a deserted community centre. Watching old Ronald sitting there on his bench out of a corner of my eye, I thought again for the umpteenth time how odd it is that children line up to have photos taken with this silent fiend. And how I’d rather have the gregarious Pennywise walking and chattering alongside me than a clown just sitting a distance away, regarding me with an unblinking, plastic grin.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Hindi Medium, Bareilly ki Barfi, becoming other people (and finding yourself)

[my latest Mint Lounge column. More thoughts on the role-playing theme and the Forest of Arden can be found in my book The World of Hrishikesh Mukherjee]
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Watching two recent films – both somewhat uneven and protracted, but also full of inspired little moments and good performances – I was reminded that role-playing and masquerade have been vital themes throughout the history of screen comedy. In Hindi Medium, the well-off Raj (Irrfan Khan) and Meeta (Saba Qamar) pretend to be poor and live in a lower-middle-class district for a few days so they can exploit a school quota system for their child. And in Bareilly ki Barfi, the simpleton Pritam (Rajkummar Rao) is forced to pose as the self-important author of a book written by his friend.


In both cases, minor deceptions are set against, or foreshadow, major ones. For instance, a hilarious little scene in Bareilly ki Barfi shows that Pritam has led his mother to believe he is a high-flying car salesman. The film lets us think this too for a few seconds – we see him in a fancy showroom speaking carefully rehearsed English sentences in an urbane patter. But when a customer says he’ll take the blue car, a close-up has Pritam reverting to his small-town dialect, hollering for the blue one to be wrapped (“lapet lo!”), and the setting changes; it turns out he is a sari-seller.

For all the breezy fun – or slapstick – in such stories, they often serve as parables too: disguise or pretence are shown as having a liberating function. Midway through Bareilly ki Barfi, it seems like Pritam has turned into a Frankenstein monster, shrugging off his chains, relishing his new life a little too much. This turns out to be a red herring: in the end he goes back to being the sweet, shy boy who wanted to help his friend all along. But there are also telling moments such as the one where, having parked his bike in the middle of the road in heavy traffic, he puts on a bit of “swag” for the furiously honking motorists around him – and one senses that this isn’t just a performance, that he is enjoying this opportunity to be someone else. Or to tap into a latent side of his personality.

Hindi Medium makes it clear that Raj and Meeta were once lower-middle-class themselves, but having moved up the social ladder, they now have the aspirational pretentiousness of the nouveau riche. (For a school meeting, they dress in what they think are classy clothes, but end up looking like the flamboyant “godman” Gurmeet Ram Rahim.) And though the film never stops being lighthearted, they must face the repercussions of their game. A slapstick scene becomes somber when a genuinely poor man, Shyam (the always wonderful Deepak Dobriyal), who had befriended Raj, discovers that the latter is a “sahab”. And for all the self-serving superficiality of the protagonists’ journey when it began, by the time it ends they have new reserves of empathy – it is possible to hope they will be better people (and more responsible parents) in future.

There are obvious moral lessons on offer in a story about privileged people temporarily experiencing the unprivileged life (Preston Sturges’s superb 1941 comedy Sullivan’s Travels may have provided the cinematic template for this sort of thing), but it can work in the other direction too. One of my favourite films, the
dialogue-less 1987 Pushpak, has an out-of-work man played by Kamal Haasan getting the chance to fill a rich man’s shoes and live in a plush hotel suite for a few days; but he also debases himself in the process, and the not-so-desirable side of the moneyed life comes to haunt him in the form of a hired assassin. Decades before that, in one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most unusual early films Rich and Strange, a working-class married couple come into a sudden inheritance, go on a long cruise, get to indulge themselves, but also become bored and corrupted as a result.

But coming back to this matter of so many films being about people pretending to be other people and often discovering alternate personalities within themselves – isn’t this what many actors do too? There are countless instances, but consider Cary Grant, one of the finest movie performers ever in my view. Grant belonged to a generation of Hollywood personality actors who were often seen as playing “themselves” in film after film. Yet, as many biographers have noted, his suave man-about-town personality was a carefully constructed one, miles removed from that of his “real” self, Archie Leach, who was born in a poor family and worked as a circus performer before trying his luck in the movies.

Little wonder one of the darkest, most self-referential moments in a 1940s Hollywood film came not in a noir but in a great screwball comedy, His Girl Friday: during one of the many exchanges of rapid-fire banter in that film, Grant, playing a newspaper editor, looks off-screen and says “The last man who said that to me was Archie Leach…just a week before he cut his throat.”


As the writer Thomson put it in an essay titled “Educated Archie”, the line is “a tremor in the great satin shroud of Hollywood illusion”. But it is also a reminder of how closely linked illusion and reality can be; and that not just movie characters but also the actors who play them – and the viewers who watch it all – can have different personalities jostling for dominance.

As a shy child, I used to be disbelieving when I read pieces claiming that some high-profile stars – from Robert De Niro to Amitabh Bachchan – were very reserved in real life. Over time, though, I realised that it is possible to be deeply private or even unsocial while also having a secret self that relishes the spotlight; that introversion and extroversion are not airtight categories, and shy people might have a showman side that can be a revelation even to themselves. Bareilly’s Pritam would probably agree.


[Earlier Lounge columns here, and here's an old post about Pushpak]

Sunday, September 03, 2017

Fathers, sons, storytellers: on Orhan Pamuk's The Red-Haired Woman

[Did this review for Scroll]
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“I want to be a writer,” the young Orhan Pamuk tells his mother at the end of the 2005 coming-of-age memoir Istanbul. It is possible to view this statement of intent as a soaring moment of modern literature – one that deserves to be filmed on 70mm, accompanied by a Hans Zimmer score, the scene building to a freeze-frame on the face of the resolute young man who will go on to become a globally celebrated Nobel Laureate.

Such triumphalism would be reductive, though, given that Istanbul is a book about boredom, inertia, and huzun, the Turkish word for melancholy, which Pamuk presents as a key characteristic of his city, infecting all its residents; and also, that a running theme of his work is the frustration inherent in being a serious writer – the obsessive need to transform experiences into words, set against the impossibility of doing this to full satisfaction.

One way in which he has dealt with this theme is to scrape away at the nature of storytelling, often using sly, self-referential devices to make the reader wonder how much a story can be trusted. You see this, to varying degrees, in the multi-narrator technique of the early novel The Silent House, the much more complex shifting perspectives of the star-making My Name is Red (where even a corpse, a tree and a much-used coin are given voice), the dense meta-narrative of The New Life, and the use of a theatre setting in the wonderfully absurdist Snow.


If the young man in Istanbul is the “real” Pamuk, there are other versions, with other destinies, to be found in his fiction. Compare the closing sentence mentioned above with the opening sentence of his new novel, translated (by Ekin Oklap) into English as The Red-Haired Woman. “I had wanted to be a writer,” the narrator-protagonist Cem tells us. “But after the events I am about to describe, I studied engineering geology and became a building contractor.”

This coming from someone who once worked in a bookstore, wanted to do little more than read and write, and even imagined that he and the woman he married would read a book together before making love. But if Cem doesn’t ever become a storyteller himself (at least in the sense that he hoped to be), he never stops being an absorber of stories, or understanding his life through the things he has read. Over the course of this narrative, he will have special reason to become obsessed with tragic father-son relationships in literature: with Sophocles’s play Oedipus the King, in which the hero inadvertently commits patricide; and its complement, the story from the Shahnameh in which Rostom unknowingly slays his son Sohrab.

Cem himself will have troubled relationships with two “fathers”, and much later a confrontation with a “son”. The question arises: is art reflecting life, or is life walking obediently in art’s footprints?

*****

The Red-Haired Woman opens in the mid-1980s with the teenage Cem – whose father has been arrested because of his Leftist politics – taking up a job as an orchard watchman (he hopes this will be a temporary detour before completing his education) and then becoming apprentice to a veteran well-digger. On a deserted plateau around 30 kilometres from Istanbul, he and Master Mahmut sleep in a tent, under the stars, at night – with the city’s lights “reflecting off the clouds like a yellow fog” in the distance – but for much of the day their gaze is downward, as they move ever deeper into the ground. The literary-minded Cem thinks of Jules Verne’s novel Journey to the Centre of the Earth, but we see that Master Mahmut is, in his own way, a creative person – obsessive about his work, refusing to compromise as he assails the layers of rock that stand between him and the water he believes is waiting to gush to the surface.

Meanwhile, during their occasional visits to the nearby town of Ongoren, Cem sees and slowly becomes obsessed with a red-haired woman; is this purely a sexual attraction, the reader might wonder, or as a member of a theatre group, does she also represent the artistic aspirations he has temporarily put aside? As he and Master Mahmut dig on and the prospect of finding water seems ever more remote, Cem’s newfound distraction becomes all-consuming and leads to a tragedy whose implications even he doesn’t fully understand.

This first section of the book – which takes up close to half the narrative – is gently reflective, focused and mainly deals with the events of a few weeks: Cem learning about the nuances of well-digging, the forays into the town, his long-awaited meeting with the Red-Haired Woman, his conversations with Master Mahmut, the stories they exchange – from Mahmut’s religious parables to Cem’s summary of the Oedipus tale.

The second section, after Cem leaves the well and the town, is looser, more diffused. The next decade or two of his life flies by in a few pages. He courts a girl named Ayse, they marry, are unable to have children but find ways to fill this gap, including traveling and making plans for the expansion of their own construction company. Privately, he remains tormented about the possibility that he had betrayed Master Mahmut. And then, a summons from the past draws him back to that defining phase of his life, and back to Ongoren.

The quickening of the narrative in these sections also seems to reflect the pace of development around Istanbul: we learn that the areas surrounding the city of the 1980s have expanded and urbanized so much that Ongoren has become essentially an extension of the capital. (Old-time Delhiites who remember what it was like to travel on the scrubby road towards Gurgaon 30 years ago might be able to relate to Cem’s feeling of disorientation when, looking down from an airplane, he is unable to identify the once-barren landscape where he and his master dug their well in 1986.) And yet, throughout all this, Pamuk never lets us forget Master Mahmut, the role people like him play in facilitating such development, and the patience that is integral to their work: there is a brilliant, recurring dream-image of the well-digger toiling away all by himself, as if on an alternate plane of reality, determined to reach the earth’s core if he must.

*****

This may be the “easiest” Pamuk book I have read so far, but even his most accessible, plot-driven novels (Snow and The Silent House are among the others that come to mind) tend to have surreal passages or philosophical musings that steer close to pedantry – and I don’t mean that as criticism; it feels almost necessary in stories about self-reflective characters whose lives have been influenced by literature and who are often forced to confront the relevance (or irrelevance) of what they are reading, in a confused and torn world. For instance, one question briefly raised here is: what do the differences between the Oedipus story and the Rostom-Sohrab story tell us about the differences in Western and Eastern culture and attitudes? But there is also this counterpoint: in a situation where we are concerned with the life and emotions of a specific individual, does that larger picture matter all that much?

Since there is so much going on in this relatively slim book, the narrative can feel a bit uneven or unbalanced, especially in the second half. Near the end there is a revelation that can be seen as either an implausible coincidence (if you take the plot purely at face value) or as Pamuk trying too hard to make a symbolic point about fathers and sons treading similar paths. But as always, he is more concerned with raising questions than with answering them. And without revealing any specifics, many of the reader’s assumptions about this story and its storyteller are overturned by a final, short section, where we get a different narrator and the ground shifts a little beneath our feet.

The Red-Haired Woman is about many things, but I saw it principally as being about the many ways in which we are shaped by what has gone before us: from the lives of our parents (whose shadows we might not be able to escape even if – or especially if – we are rebelling against them) to the stories we read and love. And how these influences can, over time, become a self-fulfilling prophecy. A bit like the story Master Mahmut tells about a prince who, in making a carefully worked out effort to escape an encounter with Azrael the angel of death, ends up in the pre-ordained meeting place.


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[Some earlier posts about Pamuk are here]