Friday, May 19, 2017

Chaar Rahein - K A Abbas at the junction between tradition and progress

[Did this for Mint Lounge. A Khwaja Ahmad Abbas retrospective is part of the Habitat Film Festival in Delhi this month, starting from May 21. Schedule here]

In an early scene in the 1959 film Char Dil Char Rahein, a man named Govinda stands at a crossroads, under a four-pronged sign, wondering which route the woman he loves has taken. Govinda is played by one of the era’s biggest stars, Raj Kapoor, and the high-angle shot is framed so that we can see all the place names on the signpost. One of its “arms” points toward Ram Kund, an orthodox village still riven by caste discrimination. Another toward Sultanabad, which we will soon learn is a colonial-era kingdom about to lose its princely status to the government of independent India. There is also Hotel Parbat, described later in the story as a “Holiday Home for the Elite”.

And the fourth sign – the one facing us, the film’s audience – simply says “Nav Bharat”. New India. It is a pointer to the heavy symbolism of this narrative (near the end, all the characters in the story will come together to help build this road), but also a reminder that the film was made by a man whose production company was called Naya Sansar, and who stood for forward-looking ideals throughout his writing and filmmaking career.

Char Dil Char Rahein is one of the films being shown at the K A Abbas retrospective in New Delhi from May 21. Despite the presence of such stars as the Kapoor brothers Raj and Shammi, Meena Kumari and Nimmi, it didn’t do well commercially and it’s hard to find a good print today (which is also the case for much of Abbas’s other work). But it is one of the most structurally interesting Hindi films of its time, with separate stories coming together through the device of the crossroads and the personal journeys of the characters passing it. Two years earlier, Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s debut film Musafir had used a house and its landlord to link three discrete narratives. If the “makaan” in that film represents a society made up of many types of people, Char Dil Char Rahein is about the tradition-modernity conflict facing a nation; it is, literally and otherwise, set at the intersection between old roads and a new one.

Thus, in one story, an upper-caste boy shakes up his village by trying to marry a dark-complexioned, “achut”, or untouchable, girl. (“Bhayankar Naye Vichar!” – “Terrifying new notions!” – exclaims the temple priest, half-genially; meanwhile the boy’s father berates him for having forgotten about their customs after having picked up new-fangled ideas during his stay in the big bad city.) In another, a courtesan is torn between her love for a driver, her responsibilities to her mother, and the patronage of an insomniac Nawab who is depressed about his fall in status. And at Hotel Parbat, we are reminded that while Nawabs might be disappearing in the new India, there are other varieties of “saab log” being served by minions, and the class divide is very much here to stay.

Flipping through Abbas’s writings, including the recently published compendium Bread Beauty Revolution, one repeatedly encounters the loaded word “progressive”. It often occurs in the discourse of the Left-leaning artists involved with the Indian People’s Theatre Association in the 1940s – people who had a strong, egalitarian vision for independent India and brought their sensibilities into the literature, theatre and cinema of the period. One possible definition of the word comes from Abbas’s recollection of meeting Jawaharlal Nehru for the first time and being told that to bring about great change, it was imperative to keep asking questions. “Never believe anything – whether it comes from your father, grandfather, from your professor, from a leader, a Pandit…”

For a creative person, progress can mean other things. It can mean not having the time to dawdle; you work swiftly, move from one project to another. (Abbas wrote 74 books, in addition to his journalism and film scripts.) It can mean being distrustful of anything that is established or popular or seemingly approving of the social status quo: Abbas was often disdainful of commercial cinema and the star system, even as he worked as a writer on glamorous, larger-than-life films such as Mera Naam Joker and Bobby (both of which he also subsequently novelized, with very mixed results). In the films he directed and had greater control over, he opted for atypical subjects, cast newcomers and made very
interesting decisions. For instance, in Saat Hindustani (1969), the titular characters were written and cast to avoid the usual stereotypes about people from different parts of the country: the Malayalam actor Madhu would play a Bengali, while the sophisticated Jalal Agha would be cast as a Maharashtrian powada singer.

Of course, any life that tries to grapple with grand concepts like progress and equality must also deal with the many thorny complications of the real world, and this friction often comes through in Abbas’s work – both his films and his writings. “My complaint against the youth is not that they are disobedient to their parents,” he said in a 1982 interview to Suresh Kohli, “but that they are not disobedient enough.” He was speaking in the context of young people being too respectful, not doing enough to move away from the hoary ideas of their progenitors – an echo, perhaps, of Nehru’s words about the need to question everything.

But as a counterpoint to this, consider another little anecdote related by Abbas in his memoir I am Not an Island. Casting for Saat Hindustani, he interviewed an intense youngster who introduced himself only as Amitabh and seemed just right for the role of Anwar the Muslim (partly because, in keeping with Abbas’s vision of “scrambled casting”, this actor was not a Muslim himself). The deal was almost done when the long-limbed young man revealed that he was the son of the poet Harivansh Rai Bachchan, one of Abbas’s acquaintances. Whereupon the director said that the contract could only be signed once he had the father’s written permission, because “I wouldn’t like to have a misunderstanding with him”.

Temporarily at least, the idealist who advocated youthful disobedience and the forging of one’s own path in the world had become an avuncular, stick-wielding figure who needed to ensure that the youngster sitting in front of him hadn’t run away from home. Among the things that make Abbas’s work so interesting is this acknowledgement of the gap between ideology and lived experience.

Friday, May 05, 2017

Small-town storyteller: on Anees Salim, his people and their seas

[Did this piece – about one of my favourite contemporary writers and his new novel – for Open magazine]

“For whatever we lose (like a you or a me)
 it’s always ourselves we find in the sea.”

Much like the four children in E E Cummings’s enigmatic little poem “maggie and milly and molly and may”, the adolescent narrator of Anees Salim’s new novel The Small-Town Sea loses things, finds things – and learns something about himself – after he moves with his family to the small coastal town where his Vappa, or father, had grown up. These are unhappy circumstances: the father, a middle-aged writer, is dying and wants to spend his last days listening to the sound of his childhood sea. For the nameless narrator, a city-bred boy, time passes slowly in this new setting – there isn’t very much to do, he can’t even locate his favourite cartoon show on TV.

What does he find in the small town and its sea?

He finds a secret beach, curtained off from the rest of the shore by a row of black rocks, where he and his reticent Vappa get to share a few quiet moments, and where the latter tells him, as they head back to the mainland, “You should learn to walk alone.” He goes on his first boat ride, and decides that the sea is like a forest – once you’re in it, you want to be out of it. He finds a new friendship, with an orphaned boy named Bilal, and they live the life of the imagination together. He also discovers that in the real world, adults often speak in coded language, especially when they are making big, life-changing decisions for other people.

What does he lose? His father, of course – that’s what the family is here for – but not long after this he also loses something more unexpected, something he isn’t prepared for.

Through all this, his rich inner life sustains him, as it has sustained other characters in Anees Salim’s novels. But for how long?


“Being prone to wild stretches of imagination is the malady that haunts anyone with a penchant for storytelling. What say you, Mr Unwin?”

From Imran in Vanity Bagh – a young mohalla-dweller who becomes a patsy in a terrorist act – to the delightful Hasina Mansoor in Tales from a Vending Machine, working at an airport kiosk and dreaming about a more exciting life, to the melancholy Amar Hamsa in The Blind Lady’s Descendants, Salim’s narrator-protagonists have this penchant for storytelling. First, in the obvious sense that they are telling us their stories; but also in the sense that they often make things up for themselves. Most of their flights of fancy are explicitly presented as such: for instance, when Hasina imagines being the pilot-heroine who rescues her “kidnapped” plane from a terrorist; or when the boy in The Small-Town Sea uses playful storytelling devices such as a bird’s-eye or fish-eye perspective (he is writing to a London-based literary agent, so why not try to impress). But at other times the reader might wonder how reliable these narrators are. Without giving much away, near the end of the new book, when something is (literally) lost in the sea, it is possible to wonder if one of the characters was a real person or a projection of the narrator’s fears and insecurities.

Throughout these books, there is a suggestion that fantasy may not be enough, that the real world will take over in cruel ways. In the bittersweet ending of Tales from a Vending Machine, Hasina has landed herself in a sticky situation, and one is unsure whether to worry for her or to feel assured that her natural pluck will see her through. The Small-Town Sea has passages where life throws a cold bucket of water in imagination’s face: such as a scene involving a pigeon that the narrator has kept tethered in a cowshed, or a story he constructs around a wall-photo of his dead father that apparently goes missing.

Salim spent most of his own small-town childhood and adolescence daydreaming, he tells me over the course of an email interview. “I was an overambitious child and an introvert, a fatal combination. I lived under the impression that I was cut out for big things, even when I was bad at studies and even worse at socializing.”

Dusty little Varkala offered a licence to fantasize. “My hometown has a famous beach which attracts foreign tourists, and one of my early fantasies revolved around a French or English lady falling in love with me, taking me out of India, and me living the rest of my life – with or without her – with a view of the Thames or the Eiffel Tower. But I was too shy even to smile at those bikini-clad beachcombers.”

And so, writing as a form of escape – “it works like a tranquilizer for me” – began at age sixteen.


The cliché has it that a novelist begins with an autobiographical work – it’s the easiest way to get started, to build your confidence – and then moves further afield. Salim’s arc is more complicated: his first published book, The Vicks Mango Tree, is still his longest, most sprawling, moving between a large cast of characters, and the only one without a first-person narrative. The subsequent novels are more intimate, filtered through the distinct perspectives of characters like Imran, Hasina and Amar.

One reason for this could be that he was writing for decades before he became a published author; when he got his first book deal in 2011, aged forty-two, there were seven novels in various stages of completion. It is a story of patience, of writing for passion and self-expression, even while building a career in another profession (advertising) – and it is a story strikingly different from that of many of today’s aspiring writers, who seem to expect a book deal before they have a first draft ready.

When publication did happen, it happened in a rush that saw four books come out in under three years. Which brings me to a personal aside. During the judging of the 2013-2014 Crossword Fiction Prize, which I participated in, an unusual situation arose. Having just finished reading the dozens of books submitted for the longlist, and being fans of both Vanity Bagh and The Blind Lady’s Descendants, we had to ask the organisers if it was okay to have more than one novel by the same author on the shortlist. Eventually, deciding this wouldn’t be fair to the many other contenders, we opted to leave out Vanity Bagh in favour of the more recent Salim novel. (Personally I would also have considered including Tales from a Vending Machine, a book that seems relatively lightweight on the surface, more in the Young Adult subgenre than Salim’s other novels – but which is still perhaps my favourite among his work.)

During the judging process, there was a constant sense of been stirred and excited by the discovery of an unexpected new voice. (The other judges were Anjum Hasan, herself one of our finest contemporary novelists and critics, and J Devika, whose ear for the rhythms of language can be seen in her excellent translations.) Even our casual email exchanges included blurb-like observations like “He breaks down the barrier between the high-brow and the popular spectacularly” and “His writing communicates at different registers to different people” and “Malayalam colloquialisms are deftly translated into English, and they don't jar at all, but suit the characters perfectly.”

“He is able to create an intimate sense of place and community without binding himself to locality in a narrow sense,” read part of the award citation written by Hasan. “At all times, he remains scathingly funny and achingly sad.”

Scathingly funny, achingly sad. That descriptor applies especially well to Salim’s last two novels, which draw most explicitly on his own life. “Autobiographical” may be an inadequate word to describe them, though. “Alternate Personal History” or “Dark Fantasy-Memoir” might work better.

In his emails, Salim comes across as someone who is aware of the coin-flip that can separate a hopeless, wasted life from a (somewhat) fulfilled one. “I started writing to fight unhappiness,” he says, “Maybe I was fighting depression without knowing it. The home library became an asylum for me and books worked like antidepressants.”

He freely admits that many elements in The Blind Lady’s Descendants – the large house, the blind grandmother, the beach with foreign tourists milling about – were taken from his own childhood. And yet, that book is presented as a lengthy suicide note by a young man who – having told us on the very first page that he regards bad luck as a family member, that his parents should never have met and he should never have existed – is about to walk into the tunnel that had claimed his doppelganger uncle decades earlier.

Or is he? I mentioned unreliable narrators earlier. Might it be possible to see this book as a sly joke by a protagonist who is really quite determined to stay alive and to keep boredom and ill-luck away through the act of relentless writing? What happens if a literary agent happens to read his manuscript and make encouraging noises? Could one novel lead to another, and another, and another? Could Amar Hamsa become someone like Anees Salim?

The Small-Town Sea had an even more morbid genesis: it came out of a nightmare Salim had about his own death, and his thirteen-year-old son being consequently left stranded. “I saw him living the life I had lived in my hometown, lonely and crestfallen. It was both an easy and difficult book to write. Easy because I was writing about people I live with. Difficult because I feared I was writing not just a novel, but the collective horoscope of my family.”

Private memories worked their way into this book, such as a phase in his twenties when he was madly in love with a girl who lived on the other side of the town. “Every night I hovered around her house, pretending to wait for a friend, and watched her making appearances at her window, until the day I found the house empty. That wound took a long time to heal, and I willingly reopened it while writing The Small-town Sea.” In the book, this memory is used in a deathbed scene: Vappa, talking incoherently in his final moments, alludes to this girl from his youth, to the embarrassment of his gathered family.

With Salim having imagined two deaths for himself in The Small-Town Sea and The Blind Lady’s Descendants, these books are in some ways darker than his earlier work. But they are just as funny too, built on his strengths as an observer of the small moment and how it fits into a larger pattern. Information about a world, the people inhabiting it and the many sides to their personalities is revealed in layers, so that you might not realise the import of a little detail until later in the narrative.

Here is a world where one brother might be an atheist while another is so full of religion-fuelled mythmaking that he believes a story about Neil Armstrong converting to Islam after hearing the call of the muezzin on the Moon. There are moments that might discomfit the secular-progressive (Hasina’s Abba matter-of-factly telling her it’s okay to love Pakistan and Osama bin Laden, “but never let anyone, especially the Hindus, know your true feelings”) and there are other moments that reaffirm the many ways in which the minority community has been judged and isolated over time. (“I don’t consider myself as a spokesperson of the Muslim community, but I would like to records its fears, misgivings and hopes.”) Here is human complexity in all its shades, presented with such a combination of throwaway casualness and attention to detail that after a while you stop pondering matters of morality and political correctness and instead see the people only as truthful creations.


While growing up, Salim tells me, he dreamt “about writing big books, bagging big awards, living in big cities, running into V S Naipaul during my morning walks, being chased by beautiful girls”.

An intriguing admission, seeing that after having achieved at least the first two of those dreams, he still stays away from the limelight. His Facebook page is active with droll one-liners and observations, but he is among a very small tribe of well-regarded writers who are not part of the social literary scene. (When we decided on The Blind Lady’s Descendants for the Crossword prize, we were almost certain we wouldn’t get to meet its author at the ceremony, and so it proved.)

Is this a deliberate attempt to save himself from distractions? “When my first book deal came through, I tried to polish my social skills, but it didn't work,” he says. “Even though I have been published by four publishers, I have met only two persons from the publishing world. It isn’t just literary events that I stay away from – I find excuses to skip parties, reunions and weddings.”

“But I attend funerals. They somehow inspire me to write more.”

Little wonder that even his “suicide notes” are so alive and vibrant even as they deal with sad subjects: the fear of obscurity or irrelevance, the temporary comforts that reading and writing can bring to people who otherwise have trouble finding themselves in the sea.

[Here is an earlier piece, “A tree named Franklin”, on other aspects of Anees Salim’s work. And here’s something more about the Crossword award judging process]

Friday, April 28, 2017

Remembering (and Re-Introducing) Vinod Khanna

[Obituaries can be reductive things, especially when written on a short deadline and attempting to say meaningful, summarising things about a long career. Still, here’s my piece on Vinod Khanna for Film Companion]

In her just-published memoir Freedom: My Story, the director and editor Arunaraje Patil recalls working with Vinod Khanna for the first time in the 1976 Shaque. This being a low-budget film made by FTII graduates who took their cinema seriously and had a proper script ready beforehand, sessions were held to help the actors understand their characters’ back-stories, behavioural traits and motivations – and Khanna was initially surprised. “[On the first day of shooting] when he saw our commitment to detail, he told us that he had not done the necessary preparation and that if we let him off that day, he would come fully prepared the next day. And he was true to his word… He spent a lot of time with us and the unit even when he was not required.”

The story suggests that like other mainstream stars of the era, Khanna could be taken unawares by a working environment that wasn’t slapdash, where dialogues weren’t scribbled down on the sets an hour before the shooting began, and actors weren’t mollycoddled. But it also suggests that he had the discipline and humility to step out of his comfort zone.

Little wonder then that this strikingly handsome man, who might have made a career out of being a poster boy, letting his sunglasses and open shirts do most of the work for him, participated in a number of relatively offbeat or understated films – starting with Gulzar’s Mere Apne and Achanak and Sunil Dutt’s Reshma aur Shera, and continuing for the next two decades, through Meera, Lekin… , Muzaffar Ali’s uncompleted Zooni, or Patil’s Rihaee (in which he played a man who returns to his village to find his wife pregnant by someone else).

Yet Khanna’s abiding legacy will be his work in commercial cinema. (My first major memory of him was the buzz created in the mid-1980s by his impending return to films after a five-year stint with Osho – followed by the frisson-producing opening credit in Insaaf, which proclaimed “Re-Introducing Vinod Khanna”.) And the most intriguing thing about his mainstream career is the transition, over a few short years in the 1970s, from being a dashing young villain – devilishly good-looking and urbane in a way that other bad men of the time simply weren’t – to becoming a conservative, mostly straight-arrow hero.

It’s quite a leap. To appreciate it, look at some of his early films. Watch the sneering, clean-shaven Khanna in the goofy 1971 Elaan, for instance, where he plays sophisticated henchman to Madan Puri and Shetty, derisive one-liners dripping from his thin, curved lips as he effortlessly steals scenes from the “hero” Vinod Mehra. Or a moustached, more bucolic Khanna as the dacoit Jabbar Singh (a proto-Gabbar), terrorizing a village in Mera Gaon Mera Desh. Watch Aan Milo Sajna or Purab aur Paschim for glimpses of a screen personality that was edgier, less predictable, therefore more unsettling than the regular villains of the time.

Then fast-forward a few years and see how Khanna – through a shift to more positive parts, such as the large-hearted truck driver Sher Khan in Prem Kahaani – became the solid second lead in Amitabh Bachchan films such as Hera Pheri and Khoon Pasina. And yes, “second lead” it very much is, though others might phrase it differently. Personally, I don’t subscribe to the myth-making idea that if Khanna hadn’t left the film industry for Osho, he would have usurped Bachchan’s number one position. The latter did far too many things far too well, and was attuned to the demands of mainstream cinema in ways that most of his rivals weren’t. (I can't picture Khanna giving a great song performance along the lines of “Khaike Paan Banaraswala” or “Jahaan Teri Yeh Nazar Hai”, for instance.)

This might not seem a kind thing to say – especially in an obituary – but keeping in mind Khanna’s undisputed status as a big star from the mid-70s onward, chunks of his career have a cipher-like quality; and not just because of the years when he was absent. No doubt he worked in many terrific films during his hero period – among them Qurbani, The Burning Train and the Amitabh films – and nothing about his performances can be faulted. He had a strong screen presence, could be very sympathetic when required, and he always looked great. But equally, very few of those films can be said to rise or fall on the strength of his contribution.

He could come across as a little bland in some of them, and this quality was cleverly harnessed by Manmohan Desai (a man no one could accuse of blandness) in Amar Akbar Anthony. In their entertaining book about Desai’s film, William Elison, Christian Lee Novetzke and Andy Rotman make a few subtextual observations about Khanna’s Amar – the Hindu as eldest brother, the head of the multicultural family who is expected to be restrained and proper and humourless, while there are no such constraints on his siblings Anthony and Akbar.

Even if you dismiss this as academic “over-analysis”, and even if you disregard his later roles as a benevolent paternalist and his political career with the BJP, one can note that Khanna’s mainstream career – after he “graduated” to being a leading man – has a certain primness to it. As a leading man, he was more vanilla than Bachchan’s heroes, not as uninhibited and energetic as the dancing stars like Jeetendra and Rishi Kapoor, and there weren’t as many flourishes of personality as Shatrughan Sinha. “Solid” and “personable” are the words that come to mind.

This might be an unpopular opinion, but I prefer the actor’s earlier avatar, and feel that if he had stuck with it for a few more years, we might have seen a truly potent villain (or an anti-hero who was nastier and less sympathetic than Bachchan’s Vijay) instead of a generic, honourable hero.

The steely glint in the eye, the withering putdown, the smirk that could make that handsome face look so cruel – vestiges of these qualities can be seen in even the good-guy roles. Watching these with knowledge of his early career, I sometimes fancy him as a Jekyll waiting impatiently for his inner Hyde to reemerge.

Consider something like the “O Saathi Re” sequence in Muqaddar ka Sikander, a film that gave Khanna one of his most thankless second-lead parts. In itself, this is a lovely scene built around a lovely song: Bachchan is performing soulfully, Raakhee is watching him all teary-eyed… and by her side there’s Khanna smiling at them both like an extra. The villainous VK of a few years earlier would have cracked a barbed whip, or walloped them over the head with a briefcase full of gold biscuits. And then sneered. And it would have been great.

[Some earlier pieces about Vinod Khanna-starrers: Elaan, The Burning Train, Parvarish]

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Walking alone: on Mukti Bhawan and parents as mirrors, irritants and guiding spirits

[my latest Mint Lounge column]

When you’re reading lots of books, watching lots of films, and also negotiating the thorny business of real life, certain themes can recur in unexpected ways. In the last few months, via two relationships involving very different degrees of emotional engagement, I have been dealing with the subject of parents’ mortality. As things got especially complicated last week, I happened to watch Shubhashish Bhutiani’s Mukti Bhawan, in which a man half-heartedly spends time with his father who wants to die in Benares. I also chanced to read Anees Salim’s new novel The Small-Town Sea, written in the voice of an unnamed boy who is first preparing for a parent’s imminent death and then dealing with its unforeseen aftermath.

And if that weren’t enough, I reread Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, with Sheriff Bell’s recounting of a dream about his father wordlessly riding ahead of him. “I knew that he was goin’ on ahead and that he was fixin’ to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold and I knew that whenever I got there he would be there.”

Parents in these narratives alternate between being guiding spirits, irritants, and reflecting surfaces – mirrors in whose crumbling faces we can see our future and in whose increasingly childlike behaviour we can see our past.

Much like his last novel The Blind Lady’s Descendants, Salim’s new book finds matter-of-fact humour in the minutiae of the characters’ lives even while dealing with doomed protagonists and depressing subjects: loneliness and abandonment, the fear of obscurity. The reading process is so full of delights that the essential sadness imbuing the story is only felt with hindsight. Mukti Bhawan similarly weaves wry little moments – a chat about wanting to be reincarnated as a kangaroo, for example – into the fabric of a bleak larger picture.

Both works touch on the many forms of mutual dependence in a parent-child relationship. In a shattering passage that closes the first section of The Small-Town Sea, the young narrator, who is addressing a literary agent in London, says: “Mr Unwin, till here it has been [my father’s] story. And where his story ends, there begins mine. From here, I will walk alone.”

“I will walk alone.” Mukti Bhawan has two mirroring scenes near the end that involve parents, literally, letting go of their children – setting them free to tread their own path. For most of the story, Daya has been emotionally arm-twisting his son Rajiv into keeping him company. But at the end, the father dignifiedly says, okay, it’s time for you to leave now, and quietly watches his departing son. In a slice-of-life film that doesn’t over-emphasize the Big Moments, this scene speaks volumes: it is a second severing of the umbilical cord, and a coming-of-age experience for Rajiv that will in turn help him to be a better, more empathetic parent to his young daughter.

Longtime movie buffs know that our cinema has been moving from the mythic mode – built around larger-than-life stories involving archetypal characters – to a more intimate, novelistic one centred on details of individual lives. One offshoot of this is that parents have become a little more human. In many old Hindi films, they were deities to be worshipped (the noble mother) or asuras to be feared (domineering patriarchs), or a combination of both things. Recent films like Mukti Bhawan, the Kannada comedy-drama Thithi (2016) or the more mainstream Piku (2015) and Kapoor & Sons (2016) contain more grounded portrayals of parents becoming children again in their old age, while caregiving children in turn become like parents.

This cycle-of-life theme involves many subtle shifts in power equations. One of the pleasures of watching Thithi, for instance, was that our feelings about the four generations of men in the film kept changing: we realise that the old Gaddappa, shown as an idler with nary a care in the world, quaffing cheap liquor as he ambles through the fields, was once a responsible family man; or that the infant-like 101-year-old Century Gowda (whose death kick-starts the film) may once have been a bullying parent. A memory of a man jumping into a well to save his little son – whom he then raises in the absence of the boy’s mother – is set against the image of the same son decades later, trying to discipline his vagabond father.

Similarly, though the Daya we see in Mukti Bhawan is frail, dependent and a loving grandfather, there are fleeting references to a past when he poured cold water on his son’s dreams. Lalit Behl, who is fabulous in this role, played a different sort of weary patriarch in the 2014 Titli (directed by his real-life son Kanu), a man who sits on the sidelines, seemingly befuddled by the aspirational or violent behaviour of his three sons; near the film’s end, a throwaway scene suggests that some of the family’s capacity for crime flows from his own past, though we get no details.

These are all works that examine the many ways in which parents can infect their children’s destinies, for good and for bad. And how, even when they are too enfeebled to be “parent-like”, they can inadvertently teach us just as much about life as when they were fully in control and we were under their thumbs.

[An earlier piece about Piku is here. And here is an essay about changing families in Hindi cinema. Plus a piece about my father as Darth Vader]

Friday, April 07, 2017

Lurching soon to a bookstore near you...

In post-grad nearly 20 years ago, Shamya Dasgupta and I spent a lot of time talking about cinema. The Ramsay Brothers didn’t feature in those conversations - it was more about Ghatak and Ray and Keaton and Tarkovsky - but look where grim-visaged fate has now led us. Shamya’s massively fun book about the Ramsays, Don't Disturb the Dead, will be out next month, and I have done an introductory essay for it (about horror and its subtexts: naturally the piece is titled “Do Gaz Genre ke Neeche”).

Excerpt from the book have been published in this weekend's Mint Lounge; the links are here and here. And here is a listicle-like companion piece I did about films that are referenced in the Ramsays’ work (including some unexpected ones. Sholay! The Good, The Bad and The Ugly!). 

Do look out for the book.

[Also, an old piece about a long-forgotten Hrishikesh Mukherjee film made in collaboration with the Ramsays: Shaitani Anand!]

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

A pat of butter and a picnic basket of movie memories

[Wrote this for the film section of the Amul India book, which you can get here. My dadi – who is mentioned in this piece and was one of the most important people in my life – died three months ago. I never got to show her the book, but I had told her about the essay when I was writing it, and she was delighted]

Looking through a selection of Amul’s Bollywood-centred ads, I did a double-take – the sort that Rishi Kapoor pulled off so well in 1980s social dramas – and flipped back for a closer look. There she was, the Amul girl, looking sultrier than I had ever seen her before – and small wonder, since she was made up to resemble the glamorous Urmila Matondkar in Rangeela. “Not MASOOM anymore?” asks the tagline, a reference to Urmila’s role as a child-actor in the 1983 film of that title. (Back then, she could have played the Amul girl, instead of the other way round.)

Masoom, Masoom…Makhan, Makhan. Looking at the ad, I had one of those flashback moments you see in comedy scenes from old movies, where a memory-trigger is followed by a ululating sound and images of bright concentric circles, and you find yourself in the past. I was six when Masoom released, the film was very popular in my household – not least because of a conceit that at that age I looked like the cherubic Jugal Hansraj – and around this same time I had a habit of orchestrating little “picnics” on my grandmother’s bed on weekend mornings. The fridge would be raided, out would come many little plates with bread slices, jam, cheese, occasionally salami…and of course, the butter. I didn’t have much brand-awareness back then, but I remember holding the fresh packet, still cool and hard, and rolling the words “a pat of butter” over my tongue. 

I was fascinated by that word, “pat”, which I had come across in a children’s book. No one would use such a word for butter in my house, it belonged to the faraway world of Enid Blyton’s scones and macaroons and potted pies – but the Amul packet brought the Famous Five’s Kirrin Island excursions closer home.

Today, like Urmila, I’m all grown-up – there are no fantasy picnics – but some things haven’t changed. One is Amul, still encountered every day at mealtime. Another is Hindi cinema, which I spend a great deal of my professional life thinking and writing about. And there are the ways in which these two things have intersected over the decades via those delightful ads, nearly as ubiquitous as Bollywood itself.

Romanticizing the past, making it seem simpler and more idyllic than it ever was, is something we all do. So when I look at the older Amul film ads, my first reaction is that they are so direct and minimalist. The one for Amar Akbar Anthony (or “Amul Akbar
Anthony”), for instance, has the three brothers in their readily identifiable garb, each biting into bread. “Roti, Kapada aur Makkhan” has a neta in white, holding up a buttered slice. Or there is the moving tribute to Raj Kapoor: no text, just the legendary showman dressed up as his emblematic character, the clown from Mera Naam Joker, waving out at all of us.

But even with these “simple” images, you wonder: is the joker wearing an apron? That painted smile on his face, is there a tiny dab of butter hidden in it? A drop of Amul running down the politician’s kurta? Such is the history of these ads, and our associations with them. You have to look again, and then again, to catch little things you missed.

And in this sense, these ads have something in common with the best of old Hindi cinema: they are unassuming if you give them only a casual glance, but become sharper and cleverer when you look more closely. There is a prevalent view that today’s “multiplex” films have become edgier, more nuanced, having moved away from tropes and archetypes of the past. There certainly is something to this idea, but it doesn’t recognize how many of the
older films, while being products of a particular time and culture, contained unexpected depths. Working on a book about Hrishikesh Mukherjee recently, I became increasingly appreciative of the layers hidden beneath familiar surfaces; how even seemingly innocuous movies like Chupke Chupke or Guddi were often ahead of the curve in their depiction of class or gender conflicts, how they contained gentle but clear-eyed satire on the workings of our society, even as they operated within safe, domestic, middle-class settings. Gentle satire is something the Amul girl – who would fit right into a Middle Cinema household, a benevolent version of the enfant terrible – specializes in too.

No wonder the ads have never lost their capacity to stimulate and sometimes startle, even though the concept is so direct, and even though the mascot has remained the same chubby doll for decades. The willingness to take on any issue under the sun, the wordplay (“Rich taste se hum sabke baap lagte hain,” booms Shahenshah “Amultabh Makkhan”), the little visual touches (the Kashmiri Hamlet in Haider holding up not a skull but a plate of a large, misshapen mound of butter – you couldn’t call this a “pat”!), the delicate taglines (“Every Bite is Special” for Taare Zameen Par, a reference to the special-needs child who is the film’s protagonist) – it all adds up so well.

In the past 20 or so years, the ads have been a little more cognizant of how Bollywood has become fashionable and global, and how the conversations about films are no longer just about (or mainly about) the films themselves: they are about the stars, their very public romances and rivalries, the behind-the-scenes doings. The Salman Khan case. The IPL matches. The fact that two big-budget films – the Shah Rukh-starrer Dilwale and the Bhansali opus Bajirao Mastani – came out on the same day. (“Released daily” is Amul’s droll description of itself here, a reminder that some blockbusters don’t have to be waited for!) They are aware, in our media-saturated age, of the stories behind the stories. They are also aware of how iconic Bollywood references can be used to comment on real-world events in other spheres: the play on the Deewaar line “Mere Paas Ma Hai” in an ad depicting the split between the Ambani brothers Mukesh and Anil; the use of famous song lyrics in unexpected contexts, such as “Dosh Dosh na Raha” in an ad about a housing society scam involving four former chief ministers, or “You are my Sania” for Sania Mirza.

And to me, one of the wonders of the Amul ads is that they have managed to retain their charm and subtle wit even while dealing with material that is sometimes best suited to shrill Page 3 tabloids.

Do I have a favourite? It’s nearly impossible to pick, but look at the one for another cherished childhood film, Mr India. “Formula that makes food disappear,” it says, a reference to the invisibility theme. That would be a good enough Amul ad, you’d think, but no, the creative team wasn’t done, they wanted something more – so they added a little reference to the heroine, an
“UtterSri Devicious” at the bottom. For me, as an outsider, this is a glimpse into the playfulness and inventiveness that lies behind the making of these ads: how they toy with word arrangements, allow themselves to be cheesy if they think it works in a given situation, find little moments of inspiration tucked into a sentence, like a dab of butter transforming the texture and taste of a hot aloo parantha.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Cinema, cities and citizens: notes from two panel discussions

[Did this piece – a part-report of two sessions at the recent City Scripts festival – for Mint Lounge]

At the City Scripts festival in Delhi earlier this month, two panel discussions used different lenses to examine the symbiotic relationship between films and urban life. In one, the screenwriter-filmmakers Urmi Juvekar (who wrote Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! and Shanghai among other films) and Kanu Behl (who directed the acclaimed Titli) spoke about “the city in cinema” – how has Indian cinema depicted specific cities and city subcultures? In the other, critics Trisha Gupta, Mihir Pandya and I discussed “cinema in the city” – how have urbanites experienced films over the decades? These are separate topics, but they overlap in some ways.

The Cinema in the City talk included our personal experiences during the onset of the video era (all three of us being from the generation that grew up in the 80s or later), the concurrent downgrading of the single-screen hall, and the rise of sleek, homogenized multiplexes. Speaking for myself, as a child I remember having the vague sense that movie-halls were not respectable places. This was partly because many Delhi theatres had become neglected and shabby by the late 80s, but also because of the vulnerable nature of our family unit: a young divorced woman, her son, and her widowed mother. We lived in Saket, a stone’s throw from the Anupam theatre – which would become the city’s first multiplex a decade later, in 1997 – and we were undiscerning movie watchers, but not once did we go to Anupam; this shady-looking building was not for us. Much better to rent “original copy” videocassettes each Friday, even if the prints included those silly ads dancing about on the bottom of the screen. (Later I learnt that many of the more conventional families of the time opted for this brand of laziness too.)

Other things were discussed at this session – for instance, how home viewing could become a communal experience if you had a building-full of people gathered together in a small living room to inaugurate a newly purchased video-cassette player; or the colourful histories of old-time single-screen theatres, as chronicled in Ziya Us Salam’s book Delhi: 4 Shows – but I want to come now to The City in Cinema. As Urmi Juvekar noted, Hindi cinema has moved towards more intimate, personal narratives compared to the generalised, “broad-stroke” storytelling of the past: “This shift has been partly facilitated by the medium becoming cheaper and more accessible,” she said, “It’s a bit like the selfie culture – you take many more photos now, and they are mainly photos of yourself.” And this means the use of settings that have a distinctive character, rather than all-purpose representations of City, Village or Small Town.

When she began researching for Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! – based on the real-life thief Bunty – Juvekar met people who thought of Bunty as a hero, and then she realized that Delhi, a city overrun with aspirational stories, had to be central to the narrative. “We wrote it in terms of where the character comes from, and how the
setting defined him.” Behl had a comparable experience while scripting Titli, which is about both upward mobility – a young man tries to pull himself into a better world against many odds – and about emotional violence within a particular type of family. “When we asked ourselves what this film was really about, we knew what milieu it needed.”

It’s a good thing that gritty new “multiplex films” – including not-very-mainstream films that probably wouldn’t have filled 1000-seater halls in the old days – are telling stories about underdogs and marginalized lives. But this also raises a point that tenuously links the two City Scripts panels.

Film-watching in its traditional form has been conducted in public spaces that are, theoretically at least, open to all: people from assorted backgrounds, with different sensibilities and expectations, come together in the same space, and the results can be discomfiting or intrusive in some contexts while being bonhomie-creating in others – much like the business of living in a crowded, messy democracy is. During our session, Gupta mentioned a Bandit Queen screening where a mad scramble by people queued up outside the door (many of them drawn by the potential adult content) resulted in a man sitting, unbidden, on her lap. Personally, I have been irritated when the chap seated next to me during a Siri Fort Auditorium film festival (open to all, low-priced tickets) has leaned over and asked, “Iss phillum mein SCENES honge na?” (“This film will have SCENES, right?). But I have also felt stirred when viewers in the same hall have hooted and clapped raucously during a dramatic, “paisa-vasool” scene that seemed to demand exactly that sort of appreciation. Or at the entry of a much-adored superstar. (As the documentary Videokaaran tells us, Rajinikanth fans have been known to pre-install a garland at the exact spot on a screen where the actor’s face will be when he makes his first appearance.)

How does one reconcile this passionate, demonstrative film-watching with the requirements of being quiet and decorous in a multiplex? Besides, the very nature of these modern theatres – the conditional access to the plush mall, the over-priced tickets – ensure that less privileged viewers are debarred from them. As Pandya pointed out, Hindi cinema has become “bewafa” (treacherous) towards the lower-middle-class viewers who had stayed faithful to it by frequenting halls during the video and television era of the 1980s.

Put differently: Lucky and his friends, or Titli and his brothers (one of whom works as a guard, stationed firmly outside a mall), may be convincing subjects of the brave new cinema. But in the multiplex age, how easy would it be for these city-dwellers to regularly watch films on a big screen, the way they would like to see them?


[A review of Ziya Us Salam's Delhi 4 Shows is here]

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Sexuality, consent and the 'available' woman: in praise of Aarah's Anaarkali

The main plot-mover in Avinash Das’s excellent new film Anaarkali of Aarah is an incident that begins as a show of buffoonery but grows into something dark and nasty, even as we go from chuckling to shifting uneasily in our seats. Anaarkali (Swara Bhaskar), the star of a small-town troupe, is singing and dancing for her admiring audience when Dharmender (Sanjay Mishra), a very drunk and very smitten vice-chancellor, clambers onto the stage. At first he behaves like any number of over-enthusiastic men at this sort of show, briefly making a spectacle of themselves before staggering back into the audience. But he doesn’t back off: he goes from begging for Anaarkali’s personal attentions – in the manner of a pitiful, Devdas-like swain – to pawing and assaulting her.

Much of the scene’s effectiveness comes from how it toys with our perceptions: this flailing middle-aged man, barely in control of his movements, doesn’t fit our general ideas of what a menacing sexual predator might look like (Mishra, wonderful actor though he is, has a screen personality that seems better suited to playing savants or eccentric sidekicks); and Anaarkali, who has just performed a raunchy song in a garish costume, all gyrations and winks at her mostly male fans, doesn’t - initially at least - look like an imperiled woman.

Yet that is the very point, and it’s what makes the scene so discomfiting. In the space of a few seconds, the power equations shift: we see that Anaarkali, so assured when she is performing of her own will, embracing both her art and her sexuality, has suddenly had that control wrested from her (Bhaskar shifts gears from fiery self-possession to vulnerability with consummate ease); and that Dharmender, a man with political connections in Aarah, is a very real threat to her autonomy and livelihood.

It is one of many fine moments in a story about social hegemonies and the many subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which sexual oppression plays out. After last year’s Pink, which affirmed the “No means No” mantra in the context of a young urban woman being sexually harassed – with the film underlining that it doesn’t matter how she dresses or how hard she parties – Anaarkali of Aarah tackles the theme in a different setting. But in the process, we are reminded that ideas about “loose” or “available” women transcend the rural-urban and class divides. In the south Delhi of Pink, these perceptions might be directed at an office-going girl who lives away from her parents in a PG accommodation and goes out with boys late at night; in the Aarah of Das’s film, it might be a woman in a “not very respectable” profession that invites the male gaze and seems to hold out a promise of more than just looking. 

And in both these stories, the woman says: yes, I’ll do this and this and this if I choose to, but that doesn’t mean you can assume I’ll do this as well.

Pink was a good film, but I thought Anarkali of Aarah was sharper and more focused overall, largely because it keeps its lens fixed throughout on a compelling woman protagonist. Bhaskar’s performance and Anaarkali’s centrality to the narrative (the film’s men, though well written and acted, orbit around her) make this a more overtly “lady-oriented” film (as censor-board chief Pahlaj Nihalani would reproachfully say) than Pink, with its grandstanding male lawyers and male judge, was. The first scene – a tragedy from Anaarkali’s childhood – prepares us to meet someone whose life will be tinged with melancholia, but this doesn’t happen. Instead of being crippled or dispirited by the past, she derives strength from memories of her mother – a woman who probably had less agency and fewer choices than Anaarkali does, but who managed to retain her dignity and self-worth even in a tough situation.

After a very taut first half – including a tense, masterfully staged scene where Anaarkali, accompanied by her partner Rangeela (Pankaj Tripathi), goes to meet Dharmender – the film slackens a little. To a degree, this has to do with the protagonist’s shift to a new setting and the need to lie low for a bit. (I was reminded of the post-interval change in tone of Nagraj Manjule’s Sairat, which has a comparable narrative arc.) But the pace picks up again as the story moves back to Aarah (you have to go home to stare down old demons) and towards a stirring climactic scene where what might seem on the surface to be “just” a lowbrow dance performance becomes an exhilarating reclamation of sexuality and choice.*** And the buildup to this Big Moment is paved with some lovely scenes in a minor key, such as a brief meeting between Anaarkali and Rangeela at the courthouse when the affection between them is palpable despite everything that has happened.

It could be pointed out that like the young women in Pink, Anaarkali too eventually needs a man to help her pull off a final coup (which has the feel of a deus ex machina). But the assistance in this case feels more incidental; one gets a stronger sense that events have flown from the force of her own personality, her upbringing, her unwillingness to keel over in a situation where many of us would think that was the safest, most practical option.

I don’t know how much this film has been directly influenced by real-life events, but it seems particularly topical in the current climate. An early scene is reminiscent – in its depiction of how “fun and games” can cross a line and become lethal – of the recent shooting of a dancer at a wedding party near Bathinda. (And again, lest you think that this sort of thing happens only in “backward” places, remember Jessica Lal.) But on a broader note, there is also the ongoing farce of the “anti-Romeo” squads in Uttar Pradesh which infantilize young women who have boyfriends, telling them they need to be careful “for their own good”, even if that means staying shut up at home until their parents find a socially approved groom. This suppressing of female sexuality (or requiring that no such thing should exist) goes hand in hand with the assumption that women who don’t fit the good-girl mould are fair game and shouldn’t complain about harassment. Against this background, how satisfying it is to see a scene - even if it feels a bit like wish-fulfillment - where a woman looks a powerful man in the eye and tell him that whether he thinks of her as a randi or something “a little less than” a randi (a reference to an earlier dialogue) or as a housewife, he mustn’t touch her without permission. 

*** The climactic scene can also be viewed as a comment on the subject-gaze relationship. Earlier in the film, Dharmender crudely broke the Fourth Wall by encroaching on Anaarkali’s performance; now, as he sits next to his wife and daughter, she pays him back in the same coin, stepping off the stage, dancing around him and fracturing his personal, domestic space

Thursday, March 23, 2017

What is 'normal'? And other questions raised by Jerry Pinto's Murder in Mahim

[Did this review for Scroll]

“Bombay doesn’t do night. The sun falls into the sea but darkness doesn’t stand a chance.” That’s an unusual opening for a noir thriller – which is one way of classifying Jerry Pinto’s Murder in Mahim – but the words also herald a crime that takes place in near-darkness. Even if a city has a million neon lights, we are told, there will always be shadowy places that are good settings for murder; and there is the nighttime of the heart and mind.

When a young man’s slashed body is found in a Matunga Road Station toilet, along with a suggestion that more deaths are to come, the race to find the killer begins, and the book efficiently sets about ticking all the boxes for a brisk police-procedural: mystifying detours, small twists that anticipate bigger ones, colourful characters with obscure motivations who might be helpers or suspects (or both?).

But this is also, importantly, a story about the broadening of worlds – about the circle of what is socially acceptable or “normal” widening, until it is much more inclusive than before. An early passage mentions NRI kids snatching a few games of baseball in a space that has traditionally been one of our major cricketing cradles: “Shivaji Park, the heartland of conservative Maharashtriana, was changing.” It’s a nice microcosm for some of the other things that will happen in this story. Much like the park, the mindset of the book’s protagonist will change as he ambles down Mumbai’s mean streets, interacting directly with people who were earlier only abstractions for him.

This is a 53-year-old former journalist named Peter D’Souza, who becomes involved with the murder investigation – first because an old friend, a police inspector, has sought his aid, but later for more urgent reasons. Peter and his wife Millie are well-read, cultured sorts – they quote poetry by Wilfred Owen or Keki Daruwalla at each other in everyday conversation – but some things lie outside their sphere of immediate experience; we see that even a generally progressive outlook can have blind spots, little patches of unease. When we first meet them, they are very concerned that their son Sunil may be gay, and the murder investigation – which centres on clandestine trysts between men – hits a little too close to home.

Reading Murder in Mahim, I was reminded of the observation made by Douglas Adams’s Dirk Gently that to fully solve a crime, one would need to “solve” the milieu in which it occurred. This book is about the many ways in which a society’s underbelly interacts with its mainstream, and the oppression, exploitation – and finally, criminality – that can result. The plot unfolds against the background of the 2013 Supreme Court judgement on Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which had strong repercussions for people leading what are considered sexually unconventional lives. And this, remember, is a place where, even in educated circles, the word “chakka” might be used as a catch-all pejorative to describe a man who is somehow “less” than a man.

Much like another dark thriller from a few years ago, Anita Nair’s Cut Like Wound, this book is about the fluidity of gender roles and sex: the falsity of many of our perceptions about what is masculine and what feminine; the thin line between being in control of your sexuality and becoming someone else’s puppet or keep; the many unusual and poignant forms that love can take in a time of suppression. But it is also about aspiration, where it can lead underprivileged people, and it touches on other social divisions such as caste and class. (In one passage, when Peter gets a lecture about the importance of diversity from a flamboyant “queen” named Leslie – insider to the workings of the gay underground – he wonders offhandedly if Leslie knows anything about the struggles of other types of marginalized people, Dalits or Adivasis, for instance.)

Though I guessed the killer’s identity a few pages ahead, there are enough surprises sprinkled through the narrative to keep a thrill-seeker occupied. In any case, Pinto doesn’t seem too concerned with constructing an impossible-to-guess whodunit: this is much more about “what happened”, how a motley group of people get caught in an unfortunate, escalating series of events, how one small transgression leads to other big ones, until the line between law-breakers and lawmakers becomes vanishingly thin.

But despite the grimness of its subject matter – including the death of a child – this is in the end an unexpectedly optimistic book, one with sympathy and hope for the better side of human nature. (To return to that opening – “Darkness doesn’t stand a chance.”) And much of this reassurance comes from the anchoring roles played by Peter and Millie. Theirs is a genuinely warm relationship: unlike the tortured protagonists of many other novels in this genre, they are comfortable together, have conversations, grow in each other’s company. Over the course of the story, these two middle-aged, middle-class, “regular” people go from having conniptions when their son is described as a “gay activist” to asserting “He may be homosexual, but he’s not a murderer”. By the end, they are acknowledging that maybe people shouldn’t be put in boxes. A world has changed, just a little.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Some weird ways of looking at Vikramaditya Motwane's Trapped

[Since everyone has reviewed this film already, here’s a bullet-pointed “anti-review”]

– Here is one way of describing the plot of Vikramaditya Motwane’s Trapped. Man makes his way to the top of a skyscraper, spurred mainly by love. Gets in deep trouble when he’s up there. As his situation comes home to him, he grunts, whimpers, makes monkey sounds, jumps up and down, waves frantically at things. But he is alone, severely restricted in his options. Eventually he gets down – climbing tentatively, painfully down the side of the building – and returns to the reassuring (urban) jungle he had been plucked out of.

Does that sound like King Kong with a happy ending? I think so.

If that sounds facetious, bear with me for a bit. (And for those who ask silly questions like “But did the filmmakers really intend this?”, I absolve Motwane and his writers Amit Joshi and Hardik Mehta of all responsibility for my feverish interpretations.)

The famous, and still startling, image of Kong the giant ape atop the Empire State Building (representing the peak of human progress in the early 1930s when the original film was made) is often seen as alluding to the conflict between Id and Superego, between our primitive impulses and the modern world which keeps those impulses in check. Motwane’s film deals, in macabre and funny ways, with how close our “savage” side is to the “civilized” one, and the many overlaps and intersections between the two. (Surface appearances aside, which is the real savage in the Kong climax: the lovelorn ape, or the sleek, unfeeling planes that shoot him down?)

Trapped is a film about contrasts: for instance, the gap between being part of society – with its shackles and superficial niceties – and being free to “be ourselves” but only because we are terrifyingly alone. The first few minutes give us a well-scrubbed Shaurya (Rajkumar Rao) sitting at his work-desk, trying to stay composed when he calls the girl he likes and hesitantly asks her out. There is the sense that deep emotions are being reined in by the demands of being restrained, not seeming too eager, not moving too fast (being un-ape-like). But later, once he’s trapped in his high apartment, running out of time, he becomes a neo-caveman, using fire as if discovering it for the first time (in a city where neon lights blink through the night, mocking him from a distance), treating a sleek plasma TV as something that is easily dispensable (remember Kong knocking off the Empire State Building antenna).

– But being in an ivory tower (or on a mountaintop, or on a deserted skyscraper) also means you are cut off from the bustle of life, from the experience of being amidst people, including people you might find in “normal” life find problematic or intrusive. After a few days of his isolation, Shaurya has fantasy-yearnings about being in the Mumbai local again. This is the sort of crowded, sweaty, stinky experience that most people do NOT fantasize about. Who can blame him, though?

– On another level (get it? “Level”?), one can see Shaurya’s predicament as an allegory for upward mobility and the loneliness that may come with it; finding oneself in a new world, well out of one’s depth, and not knowing how to handle it. First he is told by laughing property agents that it would be impossible to get even a single-room flat for 15K rent; then he is led by a tout to a too-good-to-be-true space which is his for just that amount. He is clearly set up for a fall, and will end up in a situation not unlike that of the socialites in Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel, who are trapped in their dinner-party and can’t leave even when they want to. (Closer home, imagine Mukesh Ambani sitting all alone on the top floor of Antilla, unable to go anywhere.) There is a straight line from the scene in Bunuel’s film where sheep wander into the party area and are barbecued on the fireplace (“So close to civilization is the cave,” as Roger Ebert put it) to the scene where a retching Shaurya kills and eats a pigeon.

– Speaking of that pigeon-eating scene: what does it mean to be human as opposed to a primate? A social animal versus “just” an animal? No easy answers, and again, lots of overlapping. There is a flashback scene where Shaurya, sitting in a restaurant with his meat-eating girlfriend Noorie, makes a surprisingly eloquent case for vegetarianism. I say ‘surprisingly’ because in most ways she is more sophisticated than he is, and at the start of the conversation one is tempted to slot her as cool and progressive and slot him as conservative, tradition-bound, bullying – the sort of man who might covertly approve of people being assaulted for eating beef. (As we know from current real-world experience, one may ban slaughterhouses and be a villain still.) But at one point, watching Noorie eat her meal, I imagined her as one of those socialites in The Exterminating Angel, feathers and claws hidden in a purse. And suddenly it was no longer easy to stick labels.

– There is a very funny and unexpected reference to Charles Darwin, evolution and the survival of the fittest midway through the film. Darwin would appreciate that men – social animals – can revert to an ape-like state when left alone for long stretches of time. Movies have shown us this too: remember the snarl on Jack Nicholson’s face in The Shining; or Martin Sheen whirling about in his room on a drug trip early in Apocalypse Now; or Tom Hanks in Castaway, chattering at his volleyball the way Shaurya talks to the rat he has caught. When Shaurya climbs down the building in the end, it might glibly be described, in Darwinian terms, as a Descent of Man. But has he evolved into something better than he was at the start? Hard to say. 

[Related post: Hell is other people - on The Exterminating Angel]

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Finding the voice (and other challenges of the “collaborative memoir”)

[Did this piece about a new spate of movie-star memoirs for The Hindu]

“I am ashamed to say it, but I actually ‘bought’ that award,” Rishi Kapoor writes in his recent memoir Khullam Khulla, referring to the best actor trophy he got in 1974 for Bobby. This admission was hailed as a rare instance of frankness in an Indian movie star’s autobiography – indeed, much of the pre-publication buzz around Khullam Khulla had centred on Kapoor’s straight-shooting persona, so often seen on his Twitter feed.

Even here, however, there is a side note. Any informed reader will know that the bought prize is the Filmfare Award, but when it came to specifying the magazine’s name, Kapoor and his publishers decided – just before the book went to press – to play it safe. “We told him the current editor is a friend of yours, why step on toes by spelling it out – it is understood anyway,” says HarperCollins India’s Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri.

The story is a reminder of the pressures that bear on film-star biographies or memoirs. There has been increasing interest in such books, with publishers – Om Books International and HarperCollins being among the most active – finding market-savvy ways to create and promote them. But there are many challenges too. Even when a celebrity sets out to be brutally forthright, the nature of the profession – which involves living for years in the public gaze, within the protective shell of an Image – makes true candour hard to achieve. Much easier to fall back on platitudes or evasions, which most stars have traded in for decades anyway.

Besides, book-writing is not a cakewalk. A film star with interesting thoughts and anecdotes may be unable to translate them into engaging prose – most of them are not Twinkle Khannas – or simply too busy to sit down and get the work done. This is where a co-author with a flair for structure, a sympathetic ear and the ability to coax out little details – to locate a voice that is more introspective and vulnerable than the sanitized one already in the public domain – can be so useful.

It’s an open secret that celebrity memoirs are often ghost-written, or given such dedicated personal attention by the book’s editor that it amounts to the same thing. In such cases, the celebrity is credited as the sole author at publication time, but this has been changing lately, with a spate of books where another writer officially gets second billing. Recent examples apart from Kapoor’s memoir (co-written by critic Meena Iyer) include Karan Johar’s An Unsuitable Boy (helmed by senior journalist Poonam Saxena), Dilip Kumar: The Substance and the Shadow (which has an “as narrated to” credit for Udayatara Nayar, a friend of Kumar’s wife Saira Banu), and, a few years earlier, the Leela Naidu memoir co-authored by Jerry Pinto. Still to come are memoirs of Nawazuddin Siddiqui (by Rituparna Chatterjee), Asha Parekh (Khalid Mohamed), Hema Malini (Raj Kamal Mukherjee), and at least two books – you could call them casting coups – where a celebrity will write about a celebrity: director Raj Kumar Hirani is working on Sanjay Dutt’s life-story, while a book on Kamal Haasan is being done by K Hariharan.

How do such projects get rolling? Usually a publisher sends out feelers to a celebrity, and if the latter agrees they look for the right co-writer – often settling on a journalist who has interacted with the subject on earlier occasions. This, with a few minor variations, is what happened with Kapoor and Iyer, with Johar and Saxena, and with Bharathi S Pradhan who wrote the Shatrughan Sinha book Anything but Khamosh – not a first-person memoir but an authorized biography involving the very close cooperation of the actor. Pradhan had known Sinha for decades, and the possibility of such a book had first arisen around 25 years ago.

The sceptical reader may feel that long associations beget hagiographies, but ultimately that depends on the personal integrity of the individuals involved. “Shatrughan Sinha was very clear that he didn’t want an Akbar-nama,” says Dipa Chaudhuri, chief editor, Om Books International, “so we made sure to give the book a polyphonic treatment.” If the actor mentioned something contentious, Pradhan got the versions of the other people involved. Even the Foreword was by one of Sinha’s political rivals, Shashi Tharoor.

At any rate, the subject-writer pairing is crucial. Poonam Saxena worked so well for An Unsuitable Boy not just because of her interest in Karan Johar (“I always found him articulate and sensitive, and had the sense that he had a story to tell”) but also her open-mindedness about popular cinema and its distinctive language; this made it easier to get into the mind-space of a filmmaker who often gets derided for his “unreal”, larger-than-life work and not always appreciated for the small ways in which he pushes the envelope while dealing with subjects such as infidelity or homosexuality within a very mainstream framework.

There are also the rare cases where a collaborative memoir comes out of an author’s all-consuming interest in a subject. Writer Rituparna Chatterjee was based in California and on sabbatical when she saw Talaash on Netflix, and was blown away by Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s performance in the supporting role of Tehmur. “He played it so brilliantly that the character stayed with me for months – like some of the greatest characters in literature, like Uriah Heep and Miss Havisham. Tehmur had such a creepy, haunting quality about him.”

What followed is almost as much of an underdog-beating-the-odds story as Siddiqui’s own rise to success was. Chatterjee chased the actor down through her contacts, and he said yes. “Imagine, a random girl popping out of nowhere saying I want to write a book on your life! But when I narrated the story and said how profoundly his art had moved me, he was touched and agreed.”

Determining narrative structure and what to focus on is key for mid-career books such as the ones on Johar and Siddiqui. Saxena sees An Unsuitable Boy not as a comprehensive narrative but a confessional memoir, written at a specific point in Johar’s personal history. “I didn’t want to structure it too rigidly – that would have reduced the emotional impact. It had to be free-flowing.” Chatterjee is especially interested in Nawaz’s deep connection to his roots as a village boy, and how that intersects with his life as a Bollywood star. “This juxtaposition of two worlds is something I'm portraying heavily.”

One challenge will be to maintain the credibility of Nawaz’s voice, given that the book is being written in a language the actor himself is not proficient in; Chatterjee is doing double duty as interviewer and translator. But collaborative writers face other roadblocks too. Time constraints and random schedules, for example: busy actors and directors might suddenly be available for a few days and then disappear for months at a stretch. Chatterjee got her interviews because Nawaz’s brother Shamas and the Freaky Ali production team arranged for her to follow him around the country during the shoot. “It was crucial that he be free mentally, since I needed much more than soundbytes,” she says, an observation that is echoed by Saxena. “This book required hours of sitting together with Karan – and when that happened, I kept my inputs to a minimum and let him talk, reflect, put his thoughts together, so that I didn’t get facile, pre-packaged answers.”

Insecurities and whimsies must be dealt with too. As Dipa Chaudhuri points out, the writing and production process can get complicated because celebrities tend to go back to ground zero. “They start revising something that was discussed months ago, or the family steps in to say no, no, it was really like this.” In these situations, the collaborator has to be respectful while also being assertive enough to manage time, probe and help the subject to arrange his thoughts.

That’s a lot of work, and it has a poignant coda. At the inevitable launches and lit-fest appearances once the book is done, the collaborator often gets treated like a prop – or not even invited to be part of the discussion – while the celebrity gets all the attention. But that comes with the territory, and most writers are stoical about it. No one said it was easy being a Boswell.