Monday, May 21, 2018

Talkative trains, unexpected halos: two scenes that are 'pure cinema'

[the latest of my columns about "movie moments" for The Hindu; this one is a tribute to those two masters, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger]

A spirited young woman named Joan embarks on a journey. “I know where I’m going!” she calls out as the train starts moving – she is off to Scotland to wed a rich industrialist – but we have already been given signs that she isn’t as certain as she appears; is she marrying for love or for status?

The dream sequence that follows clarifies the state of her subconscious. Joan is at the altar, in a bridal gown. “Do you take Consolidated Chemical Industries to be your lawfully wedded husband?” the priest asks. I do, she replies. He looks up and raises his voice. “And DO YOU, Consolidated Chemical Industries, take Joan Webster as your lawfully wedded wife?” Cut to a close-up of the giant locomotive ploughing through the night. Are we imagining it, or does the deep whistle sound uncannily like “I DOOOOO…”?

On another train, in another film, two men – Colpeper, a traditionalist, and Peter, a sceptic – are having an argument. Though they maintain a veneer of civility, the dialogue becomes intense and edgy. The train pulls into a station, and in a final sarcastic response to one of Colpeper’s observations, Peter says, “I’ll believe that when I see a halo around my head.”

At this precise moment, the sunlight coming in through the carriage window creates an ethereal glow behind and around his face.

In both these scenes, three of the basic components of film – light, sound and timing – are used to create a magical, almost mystical effect. And in both, the knockout moment lasts just a second or two at most. But that’s more than enough.

The first film is I Know Where I’m Going! (1945) and the second is A Canterbury Tale (1944). Both were written and directed by the phenomenal duo of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who helmed some of the best British cinema of the 1940s –beautifully shot films (the others include A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes) that tore the curtain separating reality from fantasy. On the face of it, the stories were prim and stiff-upper-lip, about English stoicism in times of war and other crises. But there was always something playful, sinister or fairytale-like underneath.

Scenes from the Powell-Pressburger oeuvre often come to my mind when someone unfavourably compares cinema with literature, or suggests that the former requires much less rigour on the part of creator and consumer. A good book does things that a film cannot do, we are often told, and there’s no denying this. But it’s important to acknowledge that the opposite can also be true; that the mediums are so different (when each makes full use of its own strengths) that comparisons are a child’s game.

The two scenes mentioned above contain effects that could only have been achieved on film, and for which the written word has no direct equivalent. I plead guilty here: in this column, I have laboriously used words to describe these scenes, but such descriptions can never convey the fullness of the viewing experience. The many sights and sounds, working in conjunction, as everything builds toward a defining moment; how that moment fits into the film’s larger design; how Peter, just when he is most smug and seems to have had the last word, is “duped” by the framing and lighting; how Joan’s self-assurance is wittily undercut by that surreal image of the train engine bellowing.

As a Powell-Pressburger addict, let me also point you to another shot in A Canterbury Tale that was echoed, more than two decades later, in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick’s film has a famous “match cut” in which a shot of a bone – hurled into the air by a prehistoric ape – cuts to a shot of a similarly shaped satellite. (In a split-second, the film has moved a million years forward in time!) Well, the establishing scene of A Canterbury Tale does something comparable. The narrative opens in medieval times – with a view of Geoffrey Chaucer’s pilgrims – and then transitions to the World War II era via a cut from a hawk soaring across the sky to a fighter plane occupying the same space (the link is emphasized by two close-ups of a man watching from the ground, played by the same actor dressed first in 14th century clothes and then in a modern army uniform).

It’s an inventive shot on its own terms, but it is also an apt beginning to a story that will climax with a different sort of pilgrimage, where we come to see that Peter the agnostic might -- though he doesn't know it himself -- be an angel in disguise. With a halo made of light and shadow.


[Earlier "moments" column here. And here's a longer piece about A Canterbury Tale, one of my favourite films]

Friday, May 11, 2018

Shoo, mosquitoes! On Hun Hunshi Hunshilal, a musical satire about hyper-nationalism

[Did this piece for Mint Lounge. Much obliged to Sayantan Mondal, who made this film available online]

With mosquito season underway, and given the nonchalance with which most of us are using creams, sprays and other repellents to stay dengue-free and undisturbed by buzzing sounds, my mind turns to the 1992 Gujarati film Hun Hunshi Hunshilal. Which is a musical about mosquitoes, and about people who want them destroyed.

That’s one way of describing it, anyway.

A plot summary would go something like this: in the land of Khojpuri, which resembles modern, democratic India but where the man in charge – played by Mohan Gokhale – is incongruously called a Raja (king), a massive pest-control drive is on. The film’s unlikely protagonist Hunshi (the deadpan Dilip Joshi) works long hours in a laboratory and comes up with an onion-based remedy to end the menace. But then he falls in love with his colleague Parveen (Renuka Shahane), who may be on the side of the “enemy” – she is concealing a diary with information about the mosquitoes’ whereabouts and activities.

Who are these mosquitoes? Sanjiv Shah’s film doesn’t clearly spell this out, though there are references to anti-dam activists and other such deshdrohis. The colour red is associated with the insects – “Macchar laal garam! Hatt!” (“Red-hot mosquitoes! Shoo!”) go the lyrics of one song – which might suggest this is a story about anti-Communist paranoia. But I think it’s more general than that: the “macchar” can be anyone or anything that makes people in power uncomfortable. As one conversation in the film suggests, they could be the sound of our conscience buzzing away in our heads, keeping us awake when all we really want to do is to turn our faces away and cherish our own privileges.

The regime’s methods of dealing with this problem are inventive, to say the least. In one surreal sequence, when the king launches a wholesale war on the colour red, his cronies go on a destructive spree and sing things like “Laal tamatar kuchal do.” (Crush all red tomatoes”.) Mosquitoes attack in the dark, the king observes during a press interaction. You’d think the logical solution would be to provide electricity everywhere? Oh no. “We will destroy all bastis and settlements where there is darkness,” he proclaims.

At this point, the tortoise symbol on a wall behind the Raja starts to make sense. One question implicit in Hun Hunshi Hunshilal is: when your national saviour is the tortoise coil (a reference to the much-used kachua-chaap of days past), could it mean that you’re slow and lumbering and going around in circles?

By now you would have figured that this film doesn’t set out to make its points subtly but through deliberate exaggeration – a mode that isn’t to all tastes, especially among viewers who fetishize “understated” cinema. But Hun Hunshi Hunshilal knows there are things worth getting very angry about, and that honestly expressing anger can involve being pedantic, using symbolism or over-the-top humour. Watching it, I was reminded of the many “parallel” films of the 70s and 80s – among them Arvind Desai ki Ajeeb Dastaan and Party – that ended with persecuted characters looking accusingly at the camera, daring us to hold their gaze.

I was conflicted about the film for other reasons. It falls flat in places if you’re expecting it to be uproariously funny. There are a few slow-paced scenes and a few self-indulgent fillers. What does work consistently well, though, is its use of music. Rajat Dholakia’s many compositions range from full-fledged folk songs to parodies of Hindi-film music to a stray line or chorus that serves as commentary. Dialogues punctuate musical scenes rather than the other way round. Some of the more stirring scenes made me wish I understood the language so I could experience the words and music directly, instead of squinting at subtitles.

The narrative has traces of George Orwell’s 1984 (in the central character’s journey from being a cog in a totalitarian system to becoming a little more aware) and Ketan Mehta’s splendid Bhavni Bhavai, another Gujarati satire that made powerful use of music and had Mohan Gokhale in an important role (between the two films, from 1980 to 1992, he graduated from playing the oppressed to the oppressor!). But Hun Hunshi Hunshilal is ultimately a one-of-its-kind work. Though its low budget is evident, there are some wonderfully realized moments: the song “Hawa hai”, with its 360-degree pan across the skyline of a city “made of
air and illusion” as Hunshi himself seems to adopt a mosquito's vantage point; a scene, chillingly framed to resemble a firing-squad execution, where mosquito figurines are shot at. There are little digs at popular cinema and at the idea of the larger-than-life hero (“Mard ko dard nahin hota,” Hunshi says after being roughed up by the diary-seeking goons; a particularly funny lyric goes “Here come the movies, with the actor too tall and the screen too short”). And there is plenty of goofiness, including some moments that could be random asides or brilliant inspirations or a mix of both: watch the scene that begins with Hunshi dropping one of his beakers at the sight of the heroine, then droning “Saare jahaan se acccha” before singing a version of the classic song “Jaane kahaan mera jigar gaya ji”.

The art design is very funny too, with images of giant mosquitoes, including a poster of one being crushed underfoot by a Hanuman-like deity, and vivid use is made of colour – as in the scene where Hunshi seems to be surrounded by red things, including a red-beaked parrot that tells fortunes. “Abhi abhi toh laal hua tu” (“You have only just become red”) an astrologer tells him.

But my lasting impression is of the clever wordplay that includes digs at ultra-nationalistic fervor – something that is as relevant today as it ever was. In one scene, the words “kshay ho” (let there be destruction) replace the traditional “Jai ho” and there is something scarily immediate about this chant which links nationalism with decay. The film satirizes the idea that once a specific enemy has been identified and vanquished, prosperity will return for good. “When all the mosquitoes have been killed, whom will the government target next?” a reporter asks in one scene. “Good question,” the king replies. “Ha ha. Good question.” And that’s all he says. The thought is left hanging, and buzzing, in the air.

[A post about Ketan Mehta's Bhavni Bhavai is here]

Wednesday, May 02, 2018

'Modelling is hard work, but it is stigmatized': Manjima Bhattacharjya on fashion and feminism

[Did a short piece for India Today about Manjima Bhattacharjya’s new book Mannequin: Working Women in India’s Glamour Industry. Here is my interview with the author, in Q&A form]

Intro: Mannequin
: Working Women in India’s Glamour Industry is, among other things, an account of the emergence of the glamour industry in India, from Jeannie Naoroji’s “girls” in 1960s Bombay to the post-liberalization era when the influence of satellite TV, India’s wins at the Miss Universe and Miss World contests in 1994, and the advent of India Fashion Week opened new ways of looking at luxury and beauty. It examines the hierarchies within the profession and the prejudices of the Indian middle class towards those who are perceived as trying to “exceed their brief”. It is about young women, often from conservative families and small cities like Benares and Agra, making little strides for themselves. “For her, the anonymity and cosmopolitan freedom in a metro is non-negotiable, and she is willing to fight for it.”

The result is a book that is wide-ranging and personal even while it mostly maintains its focus on the challenges and prejudices facing women in the profession of modelling – “profession” being the key word because, as Bhattacharjya points out, this work sometimes isn’t viewed as work at all.


While the growth of the modelling industry (or the “glamour industry”) is your primary subject, you also use it to shed light on how the feminist movement – and its perceptions on objectification and agency – has changed over the decades. What was the starting point for this book? Did it come out of an innate interest in the beauty industry, or from your grappling with feminist issues?

Neither, actually. When I started my Ph.D (in the mid-2000s) I had no idea I was going to be studying women working in the glamour industry. The group hadn’t even registered on my radar as a possible area of serious study. All I knew was that I wanted to look at new areas of work that women, particularly young women, were being drawn into in post-globalization India.

At the time, for example, there were hordes of women across South Asia being employed in export processing zones and in garment factories. Tribal girls were migrating en masse to metro cities to work as live in domestic help in newly nuclear families. And there were also a remarkably high number of young girls wanting to be models and participants in beauty pageants – which is what I finally chose to explore in detail because it was so under-studied; in fact I couldn’t find any academic literature on it at all. 

Bringing the feminist movement into the picture and even putting myself into the narrative came much later, much more recently. (I’ve been working on this book for a while!)

As you point out, words like “sashay” (to describe walking down the ramp) seem geared to making modelling sound like a breeze – all fun, no real work – whereas the reality of a model’s life is very different. Tell us something about the challenges and difficulties they face.

Models do different kinds of work. There is the performative work, or physical and emotional labour involved in preparing for and performing at fashion shows and shoots. The networking, inculcating a commercially viable image, the enterprise or business part of it, which is also hard work. Then there is which bucket of “modelling” they do – ramp, TV advertising, magazine editorials. The nature of work in all these is different. And then there’s the body work or “aesthetic labour” – like many in the service industry, the work involved in having to look a certain way. And that’s a lot of work! It’s not just vanity, it is their bread and butter, the source of their livelihood.

Challenges include working odd hours, long hours, having to look as fresh as a daisy and maintain poise and smile even when they are bone-tired after a 12-hour shoot, all kinds of (sometimes harmful) products being used on their hair, body, face, doing things that might endanger them for the right shot. And the cherry on top: not getting paid on time or at all or only in part for the work rendered. And often there’s nothing they can do about it because they didn’t have a written contract. But I’d say what irks many of them most is the suggestion that what they do is not really “work”.

You mention how models are often treated as dolls or puppets, or as canvases for designers: hair pulled carelessly, sequins stuck on them with glue etc. Given the inherent nature of the fashion industry, are there any practical ways of improving the treatment of models?

I think what’s important is to acknowledge that everyone has a role to play and should be treated with compassion and respect, beyond the right as workers to be paid fairly, on time, work in decent conditions without exploitation and abuse. Practical ways might be to have written contracts, payments processed on time, more transparency in dealings, more egalitarian work cultures, a regulatory body that can respond to cases of sexual harassment.

Why has the organizing of unions for models’ rights not really worked?

Well, there have been experiments in the past to unionize models. In Russia, for example, in the late 1990s. In India too, the last big attempt was around 2003, when a group of models tried to set up “Models United”, and I’ve documented that interesting moment in the book because not many people actually know about it. The effort fell apart for various reasons – mostly, lack of solidarity amongst the models because of the insecure nature of modelling. Ultimately the models who had joined the union could not stay united, because some were scared of losing the patronage of powerful choreographers and designers if they stuck to the charter of demands made by the union.

As you put it near the end of the book, an important factor in defining empowerment is respectability. How, as a society, does one sensitize people towards modelling as a profession that deserves to be taken seriously?

I think it’s not just about modelling. The absence of dignity in labour is a long-standing issue in the country. And there are two additional problems when it comes to women: often, gender-based work (or things considered "women's work" traditionally) is not really valued as “work” at all – especially things like domestic work, or home-based work, child care and so on. Secondly, when it comes to labour that is linked to “performing sexuality” or where part of their occupation is presenting themselves publicly in a desirable or sexy way, it is devalued even more and stigmatized. Because all interactions are filtered through a moral and judgmental lens, and they are easily “othered”.

Many models face harassment or find people cross all kinds of boundaries because of their assumptions around what “models are like”. These assumptions – that they are “available”, not “good women” or not worthy of respect - become justifications for misbehaviour. (I remember one of the first articles I wrote - that I was paid for and made me feel like a real writer - was on this. It was called "Why the bikini is badnaam")

So the first step is probably to open up the space to talk about models as people, with interesting lives and struggles and dreams and hopes. And rights!

What do you see as the primary differences between the Indian modelling industry of the 70s/80s and the post-liberalisation world?

I’d say size is the biggest difference. Volume of work was completely different. I mean all we had in the 70s and 80s was Doordarshan, and Femina/ Women’s Era kind of magazines. There was limited work, and there were a handful of models. There was no fashion designer – the local darzi was the designer. All this changed with the setting up of NIFT, and the emergence of fashion design as a vocation in the 1990s. With satellite TV, and the opening up of trade restrictions, there was lots more to advertise, and more platforms for advertising to happen. Fashion magazines like Elle India also began in the late 1990s. The modelling industry sort of boomed from the late-1990s onward, and became diversified.

More generally, what are the main differences between the modelling industry in India vs in First World countries?

I think this has been changing. When I did my research, most women who’d modelled abroad would say it was more professional, better paid, more respectable, safer, but also involved much harder work to get gigs, and a lonely life. The girls who are modelling in the First World countries (and China) also start very, very young, much earlier than in India. In India it was more about being networked with the right people, and winning local titles to open up career paths. 

With the entry of international modelling agencies, some of these differences might have reduced. But I recently read an expose by a Venezuelan model named Anyelika Perez, which outlined all kinds of sexual, financial and emotional abuse she had faced at a young model (she started modelling at 15). And I wondered if there really was much difference in reality between the two. In both places, models seem to be silent and unheard, without much access to redress.

Perhaps one difference might be that some models in the West have managed to use social media to really speak out, or have a voice and put out their opinions on various things. Less so in India.

What about the hierarchies within the modelling world? Is it more difficult for models from small-town backgrounds, who don’t speak English well, to fit into this world?

It depends. Certainly, when I did my research, the industry did seem to exclude those who were disadvantaged by language or “class”. But some were able to overcome these obstacles by joining grooming classes, or finding the right networks, or joining international modelling agencies. Some weren’t.

From what I could see, senior models, or more prominent models were more powerful and able to command their dues. Younger and newer entrants were more vulnerable to exploitation.

I thought you covered a lot of fascinating ground in the “Short History of Objectification” chapter – particularly about how feminists and liberals should be careful not to mimic the behaviour of conservative groups who are always trying to ban things that discomfit them. And how some feminists of an earlier time may themselves have “objectified” women whom they saw as oppressed or exploited, by treating them only as voiceless victims.
How did your encounters with people in the modelling industry change your preconceptions and attitudes?

Listening to people tell their stories from their standpoints is a very powerful thing. And in the chapter you talk about, I think many of the older feminists are saying that: we should have listened to the girls' points of views. Just listening to the girls’ journeys, the kinds of struggles they’d faced to move to the city, the small victories, negotiating to not be married off, to work just a few years, step by step expanding their boundaries - made me appreciate their courage and ambition. 

It’s certainly not easy in our country for a girl to move from a small town to become a model. It sounds simple, but there are so many levels of negotiations and transgressions and hoops to cross, hurdles to jump over. Over time, I began to admire how these girls were able to make lives for themselves, create something independently when no opportunities really existed.

But I didn’t actually realize how these interviews were influencing me until much later. I started reflecting on this change only when I put myself in the book.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Rajinikanth as Karna, Mammootty as Duryodhana: Thalapathi revisited

[Did this piece about Mani Ratnam’s 1991 Thalapathi for Mint Lounge. Much, much more to say about this remarkable film – possibly as part of a collaborative project with my Mahabharata-obsessive friend Karthika Nair – but here’s the short version]


Contrary to what you’ve been hearing from some quarters, airplanes and internet technology are almost certainly not a bequest from the days of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. However, mythology has other, softer ways of affecting our contemporary lives – by supplying the tropes and archetypes of our popular culture, for instance.

Take the celebration of male friendship in Hindi cinema, which draws heavily on mythological relationships such as Krishna-Sudama (a parable about true love being eternal and transcending the class divide), Krishna-Arjuna (two good guys combine philosophical wisdom and fighting skills to defeat evil), and even deity-devotee friendships like Rama-Hanumana.

But one of the most striking examples of male bonding – especially the sort that plays out in dramatic, morally ambiguous circumstances – is the one between Karna and Duryodhana in the Mahabharata. And I can’t think of a better cinematic treatment of this relationship than in Mani Ratnam’s 1991 film Thalapathi, where Rajinikanth plays Surya, a modern-day Karna who is abandoned as an infant, grows up in penury and becomes regent and friend to the ganglord Devraj (Mammootty).

Notably, the two men start as adversaries and their friendship begins as a result of Devraj recognizing that one of his minions had transgressed and that Surya did the right thing in punishing him. “I am not a virtuous man,” he tells Surya when he first extends the hand of friendship, “but I value justice.” Devraj belongs to the (perhaps overworked) tradition of cinematic crime bosses who have their own moral codes which they scrupulously adhere to – but the film is less concerned in giving us the details of his underground activities than in examining his friendship with Surya; it's enough to know that the two men operate in a deeply unjust world where many official lawmakers, including policemen, are corrupt and predatory, and that they provide an alternate means of justice to underprivileged people.

As with anything else in the Mahabharata, there are many possible perspectives on Karna and Duryodhana. Some tellings and analyses treat the relationship as purely one of convenience – two men brought together by hatred of a common enemy – or interpret it cynically: the “good” Karna feels bounden for life to his benefactor, while the “bad” Duryodhana is simply exploiting the skills of the great warrior he has unexpectedly discovered. The anthropologist Iravati Karve, for instance, scoffed at the idea that such a friendship would be possible between such social non-equals.

But even in the more sentimental-emotional renditions of the epic, which treat the friendship as wholly genuine, Duryodhana is mostly the story’s main antagonist or “villain”, with Karna as the person who humanizes him.

An intriguing aspect of Ratnam’s film, then, is how sympathetic and conscientious it makes its Duryodhana, who is an exemplar of friendship and justice. “You are making me a better person,” he tells Surya, “People used to fear me earlier, but now they respect me.” But both men benefit from the relationship: Surya is also made more stable and responsible by Devraj’s guiding presence.

In an interview with critic Baradwaj Rangan, Ratnam said he wanted to give his Karna a happy ending because “I’ve always wished that he lived on [in the Mahabharata] … there’s so much stacked against him.” This need to reverse a doomed hero’s destiny, to give him a ray of hope, fits well with this film’s tone. Rajinikanth’s Surya, though a fine performance with some very moving moments – such as when he learns his mother’s identity – is different from other Karna-inspired suffering heroes: Amitabh Bachchan’s intense, brooding Vijay in Deewaar, or the reticent and melancholy Karan played by Shashi Kapoor in Kalyug (a much more sombre Mahabharata updating).

Surya might not perform any cigarette-flicking tricks, but in some ways he is very much a Rajinikanth hero. Within the first 15 minutes of his onscreen appearance, we see him beat up a hoodlum in an action sequence, and shake his hips in a raunchy song (the great Ilaiyaraaja composition “Rakkamma Kaiya Thattu”). Thalapathi is a reminder that the Mahabharata lends itself to “masala” treatment just as much as a Shakespeare play does; that loud, dramatic moments can coexist with small, subtle gestures and revelations of character; that an “item number” where Rajinikanth and Sonu Walia and their backup dancers shake their hips at each other can exist in the same space (literally in this case) as a more restrained interlude that introduces one of the film’s women protagonists (Subbalakshmi, played by Shobhana).

During the Bhogi festival, Surya and Devraj sing undying love to each other, in the time-honoured tradition of Hindi-film buddies like Veeru-Jai and Dharam-Veer. There is even a lighthearted comic take on the idea of “daan veer” (generous) Karna, who can never refuse anyone anything: at one point Surya, who doesn’t have money on him, orders a young woman to hand over her bangle – to pay for someone’s hospital treatment – with the assurance that he’ll get it back to her.

And yet there is also a bittersweet tinge throughout the film, a dramatic heft and a final sense of loss – notwithstanding the relatively “happy” ending – that comes in large part from the Devraj character.

A pivotal scene in the original Mahabharata is the one where Krishna tells Karna the truth about his birth and invites him to join his brothers, the Pandavas; Karna declines, citing his loyalty to Duryodhana and saying that even if he were offered kingship of the world, he would pass it to his friend. In its climactic passages, Thalapathi offers us a rarely glimpsed possibility of what might have happened if the truth had come out. So deep is Devraj’s love that on learning that his nemesis, an upright district collector, is Surya’s brother, he promptly declares a stop to hostilities, says that Surya’s family is like his own family, and decides to end his illegal activities.

It is a classic example of cinema as wish-fulfilment: such is Ratnam’s craft, the power of this film’s narrative arc, and Mammootty’s stirring performance that one is, temporarily at least, seduced into thinking that this could have been an apt alternate ending for the epic: that a great friendship could have helped avert a cataclysmic war, and the Duryodhana-Karna relationship could have received as much positive press as the Krishna-Arjuna one.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Right hook: two films about love and boxing

[Starting this weekend, I’m doing a monthly column for The Hindu about cinematic “moments” — a scene, a gesture, a glance or a line of dialogue. This first piece is about two excellent recent boxing films]

In a lovely little scene in the 2016 Finnish film The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki – directed by Juho Kuosmanen and based on actual events from 1962 – the eponymous boxer protagonist Olli Mäki worries that he might let his girlfriend down by losing a big championship match. “How can I be disappointed,” she replies, smiling, “when I haven’t asked anything of you?”

This tender moment contrasts strongly with the expectations bearing down on Olli everywhere else he goes. “It’s nice that you’re modest,” the match sponsors say when he plays down his own chances, “but we want a world champion.” The words are spoken in a bantering tone, but they must feel ominous coming from businessmen in sharp suits, spending big money on trying to get Finland an international celebrity.

We think of sports films as being about triumph in the arena or stadium. Even when a film’s tone is mainly subdued rather than dramatic, one expects it to build toward a climax that – temporarily, at least – makes the hard work, sacrifices and self-doubt seem worthwhile. Given this, it’s strange to reflect on the arc of the two best “boxing movies” I have seen recently.

The other one is Anurag Kashyap’s Mukkabaaz, in the last scene of which the protagonist Shravan lets his opponent knock him out. Then, still flat on the floor, he turns and looks towards his wife Sunaina – and at the camera – and grins the broadest grin we have seen from him, as the music hits a crescendo. It’s the sort of exhilarating scene that, in most sports films, would have been reserved for the final moment of glory. But over the course of this narrative, Shravan has proved himself in other arenas and has now been reunited with the woman he loves, whom he calls his “aatma”.

When you first watch these two films, the differences between them are much more obvious. Mukkabaaz is a kinetic, wide-ranging work about many types of discrimination (rooted in caste, class, gender, even physical disability), how they intersect, and how sport can be a way of productively channeling aggression and frustration. It uses songs such as “Paintra” and “Bahut hua Sammaan Tumhara” as battle-cries directed by the unprivileged towards their oppressors. And it manages to simultaneously be a big-picture narrative and an intimate, detail-heavy one: the mute Sunaina works both as a symbol – of Shravan’s soul, silenced by circumstances but alive with spirit and defiance – and a credible person in her own right, the sort of strong, inspirational heroine that much of our indie cinema is now giving us.

Olie Mäki, on the other hand, is quieter, more reserved, and feels more languid – and not just because it is shot in dreamy black-and-white (an artistic decision that makes it feel like the film was made in the year it is set in, not half a century later). Shravan and Olli are very different people in different cultures and personal circumstances, and this is reflected in the tones of the films.

Any two stories about boxing will, of course, have a few similar scenes or character types. For instance, in both these films, the hero is trained by a street-smart coach who must have his wits about him as he strikes deals and negotiates the politics of his world. Both have scenes where a boxer is peremptorily told to take off his shorts, in a very public setting, while being weighed – giving us a sense of how sportsmen are sometimes treated more as pawns than human beings.

But the key similarity is a final act that undercuts conventional ideas about success and failure. The very title of the Finnish film is ironic but well-earned: in 1962, Olli went on to lose his big match in anticlimactic fashion – lasting just two rounds against the American Davey Moore – but described it subsequently as his “happiest day”. He was deeply in love and on his way to getting married; losing this match (and yet not disappointing the person who mattered most) must have been liberating.

Shravan probably feels freed too at the end of Mukkabaaz (possible subtitle: “Shravan ki zindagi ka sabse khush din”?). The journey was more important than the destination; he has nothing left to prove (as a pugilist, that is) and has learnt that there can be many types of passions and goals, not just the one you fixate on early in life.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Still laughing after all these years

[My latest Mint Lounge column, on two comedies that turn 50 this year]

In one of the funnier scenes in the 1968 Sadhu aur Shaitan, a taxi driver named Bajrang (Mehmood) is told by a passenger (Ashok Kumar in a terrific cameo) that he should be proud of being from the same land as “that great hero Prithviraj”. The allusion is to the king Prithviraj Chauhan, but Bajrang hasn’t even heard of him and instead thinks of the actor Prithviraj Kapoor.

Ironically, another comedy from that year – Teen Bahuraniyan – has the real Prithviraj Kapoor as a patriarch who disapproves of the obsession with film stars. Little wonder, since this has brought disharmony to the old man’s house: his three sons and daughters-in-law are behaving like buffoons as they try to impress their new neighbor, the glamorous heroine Sheela Devi (played by Shashikala).

In the annals of Hindi-film comedy, 1968 is remembered mainly for Padosan, full of wacky performances not just by established funnymen (Kishore Kumar, Mehmood, Keshto Mukherjee) but also by a glamorous leading lady (Saira Banu) and a leading man (Sunil Dutt) who was more often associated with bland (or even stodgy) characters. The two films I mentioned above haven’t hit their half-century with the same panache, but they have some things in common with their more famous sibling: Teen Bahuraniyan involves an attractive “padosan” who lives in the house opposite and causes hearts (of men and women) to beat faster; Sadhu aur Shaitan has meaty roles for Mehmood and Kishore Kumar, whose scenes together are among the film’s high points.

But the differences are just as notable. One reason why Padosan has more lasting appeal than the other two films, I feel, is that it doesn’t have a serious bone in its body – it ratchets up the humour just when it starts to seem like things might be getting solemn, or that there might be a “message” around the corner.

In comparison, you can catch Teen Bahuraniyan and Sadhu aur Shaitan glancing about sheepishly like well-brought-up youngsters who are worried they are having too much fun. Teen Bahuraniyan flounders in its second half as it gets preachy about the neglect of household duties (and places disproportionate blame on the three flighty bahus as opposed to their equally silly husbands). Sadhu aur Shaitan is salvaged by a final act where Bajrang ferries passengers around, unaware that there’s a dead body in the back-seat, but before this too much time is spent on an establishing story about a good man being conned. Both films contain speeches about the importance of honesty and hard work over status anxiety or wealth-collection. Don’t give us money, give us love, two children sing to Lord Krishna in Sadhu aur Shaitan’s opening scene. Our house has two birds in it – one is love, the other is peace of mind, croons the family in Teen Bahuraniyan.

It can be a mistake to over-analyse or dissect comedy, but to look at these three films together is to also see how the staging of a little moment can make a difference; how holding a shot a second longer than necessary can make what might have been a delightful throwaway gesture seem forced and underlined; and how even loud, unsubtle comedy depends for its effectiveness on the quality of the acting and writing. Kishore Kumar, for instance, had the Groucho Marx-like ability to be over the top so wholeheartedly that the more lunatic he got, the more effective he was. Playing a thick-moustached Yamraj (God of Death) in a theatre production in Sadhu aur Shaitan, Kumar can have a viewer in convulsions just with an exaggerated booming voice that parodies mythological-film performances. On the other hand, actors like Rajendranath and Jagdeep (both of whom play key parts in Teen Bahuraniyan) have their strengths as physical comedians and mimics, but without the right direction or editing they are often loud without being especially funny.

There are other lessons too. However outdated a film might look to our eyes, some of its worth can lie in the effect it had on its original audiences. When I spoke with writer-director Kundan Shah – helmsman of Jaane bhi do Yaaro – about his initiation into movie comedy, Teen Bahuraniyan was one of the first films he mentioned. This was before a DVD or YouTube print of this relatively obscure film was available, so I asked Shah what exactly had appealed to him. “I can’t explain such things,” he said a bit crabbily, “You have to experience it for yourself.”

Well, I did, eventually, and on the face of it there is little connection between Shah’s darkly edgy film – with humour masking angry social commentary – and an old-fashioned, home-bound comedy-
drama. But look more closely at Teen Bahuraniyan and you see some wordplay and sight-gags that one can trace in Shah’s work: a scene where a woman moves in tune with her husband who is doing sit-ups while listening to her demands; Fourth Wall-breaking interludes where story updates are scribbled by children on a blackboard.

Now, when I think of Ravi Baswani’s hysterics in Jaane bhi do Yaaro, or Pankaj Kapoor delivering deadpan monologues at the camera, I picture similar scenes featuring Rajendranath and company. Which is a bit disconcerting, but also a reminder that fifty-year-old films, including uneven ones, can cast long shadows.

[Earlier piece on Padosan and Saira Banu here; and a tribute to the late Kundan Shah here]

Thursday, April 19, 2018

"Your f*** is the problem" - on Unfreedom, a film about victims, bigots and sandcastles

[Did this short review of the film Unfreedom – censored and unreleased in India in 2015, now available on Netflix – for India Today]

On a pristine beach, a large door stands by itself, one of a few elements and markers constituting a spare outdoor “house” – a space where two young women are free to make love, to build sandcastles like children, to get married around a sacred fire with only a large trident as witness; no prying or judging eyes.

It’s a surreal, dialogue-less scene, and if there had been more visual poetry like it in Raj Amit Kumar’s Unfreedom, this could have been a brilliant film. As it stands it has good intentions and earnest performances, but is stymied by excessive symbolism and on-the-nose dialogue that underlines each thought and action. Even that scene on the beach ultimately doesn’t trust the images to make the point – instead it ends with one of the women telling the camera: “This is our home. A home without walls. Just earth. Water. Fire. Love. It’s actually none of your business to pass judgement and rules and regulations.”

Unfreedom cross-cuts between two unrelated stories, in New York and New Delhi. In the first, a young terrorist named Hussain (Bhanu Uday) kidnaps and tortures a liberal Muslim scholar (Victor Banerjee); in the second, the distressed Leela (Preeti Gupta) tries to break free from her controlling father (Adil Hussain) and rebuild a life with her former lover (Bhavani Lee).

These narratives examine different forms of intolerance, and the many ways in which people can be caught in a continuum of innocence, complicity and guilt. Oppression and conditioning paint them into corners, leading them into degrees of extremist behaviour: a boy who watched his family massacred goes on to perpetuate a cycle of violence himself; a woman is so haunted by social expectations that while trying to assert her sexual autonomy, she also insists on marrying her lover (even if the latter is reluctant to enter a full-fledged commitment). When society curtails freedoms – to love in the way one needs to; to follow (or not follow) a particular faith – the results can be explosive in unpredictable ways, with a victim in one context becoming a criminal in another.

These are worthy themes in themselves, but in exploring them the film often meanders, preaches and makes forced parallels between the stories: in the closing sequence, split screens are used to connect dots – right down to showing characters similarly framed or performing similar actions – but this is reductive and misleading. Some of the characters feel like caricatures too (take the glowering, xenophobic morality-keeper telling Sakhi when she uses the F-word, “That is the problem. Your fuck is the problem”) but this is a point more open to argument; real-world bigotry and fanaticism demonstrates that the line between “realistic” and “stereotyped” is always blurred.

In any case, conversations about the film’s merits or demerits are likely to take a back-seat to the controversy surrounding it. In 2015, Unfreedom went unreleased because the censor board, worried by its explicit treatment of homosexuality, felt it would “ignite unnatural passions”. There is something genuinely unsettling about this; it makes the censor-board chiefs seem like (slightly more benign) versions of the homophobic patriarchs who savagely assault the two lovers in one scene.

As for the supposedly incendiary content: there is some discussion of religious fundamentalism, some provocative exchanges (including the “blasphemous” line “What the fuck does Allah have to do with this?”) but nothing we haven’t seen in other, subtler films. And there are nude scenes, a couple of which are clichéd and heavy-handed (woman exposed and defenceless, sobbing on her bathroom floor; bohemian artist sauntering naked through her studio apartment), while also giving the impression that Unfreedom is too glossy and prettified to do full justice to the horrors of its subject matter.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Churchill does punk, Padmaavat does praying mantises (on criticism and creativity)

[Here’s a little piece I wrote a couple of months ago, before I had to take a longish break from work. This appeared in The Hindu’s Sunday magazine]


There are two questions, closely linked, that I am often asked in film-criticism classes or at talks. One is if I harbor any screenplay-writing or novelistic aspirations. (A less polite version of the question goes “Aren’t all critics just failed authors/filmmakers?”) The other is that old chestnut about whether a reviewer let his imagination go berserk while analyzing a film, creating interpretations that the director (or screenwriter, or cinematographer) never intended.

Among the many possible responses, one can banter: no, I’m perfectly happy being a parasite or a eunuch, I sometimes say (alluding to two of the more vivid descriptions for critics), “And anyway, why add to an already-massive stockpile of bad novels and scripts?” Or one can get pedantic, hold forth on how “critic” and “artist” are not hermetically sealed categories and that a good piece of criticism (especially a long-form one) should ideally also be a good piece of writing.

But there are times when criticism and creativity collide in a more direct way, when a reviewer just has to impose his own personal screenplay on a film. This can happen if you’re sitting through something that isn’t at all working for you, and one way to stay sane is by hurriedly organizing a private show inside your head. Watching a trifle called Dhan Dhana Dhan Goal some years ago, about a bumbling NRI football team, I slipped into an alternate-world scenario where John Abraham’s nose – badly wounded during a match – acquired a personality of its own and ascended divinely into the clouds. I was also so bored by Jodha Akbar that I conjectured a story about the Mughal Empire being in crisis because the emperor and his new bride were weighed down by so much jewellery they were too tired to consummate their marriage.

At other times, a jarring scene might briefly take you outside a film that you are generally enjoying. This happened to me during viewings of two recent, high-profile films.

Late in Darkest Hour, Winston Churchill (played by Gary Oldman, even more heavily made up than in his role as the disfigured Mason Verger in Hannibal) is under pressure to broker peace with Hitler. Ducking into the London Underground, the Prime Minister spends some time with “regular people” to find out how they feel about getting into bed with Nazis. The resulting sequence – which prioritises a form of emotional realism over historical accuracy – has been trashed by many critics, but it’s possible to see it as a sort of opium-dream that Churchill is having in the depths of his despair; a way of building his confidence.

Think I’m stretching? Maybe. But because you can hardly take this scene at face value, it’s possible to go much further. One of its key
elements – clearly intended to stir the modern viewer and make a point about the need for a democratic, egalitarian way of life – is a young black dandy in top hat and tails who completes an inspirational line of poetry for Churchill, appears to be in a romantic relationship with a white woman, and generally represents the hope of societal equality in a heavy-handed, anachronistic way.

But this dude and his clothes teleported me out of the film instantly, because I was reminded of the stoned dancer in the 1981 music video for the great Blondie song “Rapture” (which you must watch on YouTube) – and that in turn got me thinking of another famous Gary Oldman performance, as Sex Pistols frontman Sid Vicious in
Sid and Nancy. My mind did return to Darkest Hour’s world of stuffy old Oxbridge-accented parliamentarians, but for a few beautiful moments I was in a space where Churchill and King George VI were boogeying together to punk rock as German bombs fell about them.

On a similar note, I mostly liked Padmaavat (a hard admission to make in the current climate where this film is widely seen as a steaming cauldron of misogyny, jingoism and Islamophobia), but then came the action sequence where one of Chittoor’s defenders continues slashing about for a bit after his head has parted ways from his torso and rolled out of frame.

The scene put me in mind of the grisly mating habits of that fascinating insect, the praying mantis. Briefly: the female sometimes bites off the male’s head mid-coitus, but his hindquarters continue to do their job for a while. (Then she gets annoyed and eats the rest of him, gathering important proteins for the baby mantises to come.)

This isn’t meant as a facile comparison. With all the narratives about Rajput heroism – something that Padmaavat cares deeply about – I feel the martyrdom of this unheralded creature, also in the name of preserving and perpetuating its species, deserves respect. In fact, given the recent video by writer and standup comedian Varun Grover about how the Padmaavat story was the result of one over-chatty parrot and four inefficient courtiers who failed to kill this bird, there may well be a parallel-universe version shot in the style of a wildlife feature with exotic creatures playing the key parts. An ostrich as Khilji? A peacock as Ratan Singh? Lemmings as the
jauhar-committing women?

These would be good stories and I hope some of them get made. It’s the sort of thing we need more of, in a world of over-earnest films and angry responses to them.

Wednesday, April 04, 2018

The Terror: a tale of two ships and the monstrous Arctic

[Did this short review of the new TV series The Terror for India Today. Have watched three episodes so far, and it has got me reading a great deal about the doomed Franklin expedition. More on which here]


“Terror is signaling, Sir John,” someone says early in the new series The Terror. The words are innocuous in the given context (a ship’s captain is being alerted to a message from her companion ship) but they carry a portent – in much the same way that the title of the show’s second episode, “Gore”, could refer to a character’s name, but also signal what will happen to him.

Such wordplay is par for the course in a series that takes a real-life mystery – the 1845 disappearance of two Royal Navy ships, Erebus and Terror, in the Arctic – and infuses supernatural elements into it. So far, The Terror has only hinted at the latter (the first two episodes were available on Amazon Prime at the time of writing; the others will follow in weekly instalments). But it’s clear that this show, adapted from a Dan Simmons novel, will glide on thin ice as it balances creature-feature horror tropes with psychological tension and the restraint and authenticity required of a historical narrative.

What helps is the setting and the period – something that is evident from the many majestic shots of ice-crusted ships moving through an unfathomably large (and uncharted) Arctic desert. In this place, the line between “real” and “mystical” is very easily blurred, and even a rational mind can get spooked. This is conveyed very well through the grand bleakness of the visuals: men playing football on the ice after the two ships are stuck; a scene that cross-cuts between a postmortem on an unfortunate young sailor and a different sort of operation being conducted on a ship’s bowel. The cast includes those wonderful character actors Jared Harris (who was excellent as George VI in The Crown and as Lane Pryce in Mad Men) and Ciaran Hinds, as captains who try to be civil with each other but
can’t quite see eye to eye. And Marcus Fjellström’s effective, minatory score seems to evoke the Arctic wind groaning at these intruders, warning them to stay out of what they cannot understand.

“This place wants us dead,” one character says to another. It’s a dramatic, shiver-inducing line that could come from a straightforward horror story – but it is also plausible here, since these men are facing the cold implacability of nature, seemingly impervious to their plans and conceits.

Is she really so detached, though? From our vantage point in 2018, knowing about global warming and the far-reaching effects of Victorian-era industrialization and exploration, the story of these doomed ships carries another resonance. It’s almost as if nature, knowing what we will do to the planet, is taking a form of pre-revenge by toying with these men for sport. The big scary horror-movie monster stalking them could just be one of her minions.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Print the legend: David Niven at the Oscars

Having had to take a break from writing for a while, one way I’ve been distracting myself is by looking at old film-related footage and comparing it with the things I have read about the events in question. Consider David Niven’s best actor Oscar win for Separate Tables in 1959.

Niven’s The Moon’s a Balloon, and its companion piece Bring on the Empty Horses, were two of the funniest, most enjoyable film books I encountered in my early teens, and they still rank among my favourite pick-it-up-and-randomly-open-a-page reads. From his account of the Oscar ceremony:

Irene Dunne was finally introduced and I carefully composed my generous-hearted-loser face, for she it was who would open the big white envelope […]

Such was my haste to get on that stage that I tripped up the steps and sprawled headlong. Another roar rent the air. Irene helped me up, gave me the Oscar, kissed me on the cheek, and left me alone with the microphone. I thought the least I could do was to explain my precipitous entrance, so I said “The reason I just fell down was…” I had intended to continue “…because I was so loaded with good-luck charms that I was top-heavy”. Unfortunately, I made an idiot pause after the word “loaded” and a third roar raised the roof.

I knew I could never top that, so I said no more on the subject, thereby establishing myself as the first self-confessed drunk to win the Academy Award.
Fun story. Now compare it with what happens in this video (starting around the 50-second mark):

No tripping, no sprawling (though quite possibly he was doing all that in his head) – just an elegant Brit cantering up the steps and then saying: “I’m so loaded down with good-luck charms I could hardly make it up the steps” (no pause after “loaded”, no mirthful roar of misunderstanding from the audience).

In his written account, Niven also neglected to mention the presence of John Wayne (somewhat hard to miss at 6 feet 4) on the stage. That isn’t such a big deal, but it may be relevant here to recall a famous line from a great film Wayne would star in a few years later: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Rereading The Moon’s a Balloon now, I wonder just how much else Niven embellished as he tried to be the PG Wodehouse of memoir writing. Perhaps, given that he was chronicling his years in a profession built around artifice, and his time in Hollywood the dream factory, he felt it would be apt to try some fantasy-making of his own.

Or maybe these books are just reminders of how unreliable our memories are, how we create narratives about ourselves in our heads until at some point they become "true" and What Really Happened is replaced by What Should Have Happened. Another win for poetic realism.

[More in this series soon]

Monday, February 26, 2018

Travelers, platforms: recent depictions of vulnerable parents and headstrong children

[in my latest Mint Lounge column, thoughts on a lovely scene in the new film Love Per Square Foot]

In some of the busier, more detail-rich Hindi films of recent years, the supporting characters have been more compelling than the protagonists. I can’t think of many better examples of this than Anand Tiwari’s Love per Square Foot, a romantic comedy-drama released on Netflix earlier this month.

Taken as a whole, the film blew hot and cold for me. Despite the likable duo at its centre – Sanjay (Vicky Kaushal) and Karina (Angira Dhar), two bank employees who fall in love after making a joint deal to buy a flat – the narrative was long-winded and sometimes seemed like it was trying too hard to be cute. But this was partly made up for by some fine sequences involving a trio of veteran actors: Raghuvir Yadav and the real-life sisters Ratna Pathak Shah and Supriya Pathak.

One wonderfully delicate and moving scene is set during the retirement celebration of Sanjay’s father Bhaskar (Yadav), a railway employee who came to Mumbai thirty years earlier to be a singer but ended up in the much less glamorous profession of train announcer. This hasn’t killed the artist in the man, or his need for riyaaz: the first time we see him, at the film’s beginning, he is practicing on his harmonium, clearing his throat, testing the word “yaatri” (traveler). Now, in the retirement scene, Bhaskar makes a hesitant speech about train lines being like haath ki lakeer (palm lines) and how one might easily get on the wrong platform in life too; how announcers like him are like parents gently steering their children towards the right path (even as those children get impatient and complain).

In a room full of appreciative (if somewhat jaded-looking) colleagues, he then not only makes his last train announcement but is also coerced to sing a few lines of the classic song “Musafir hun yaaron” – and we see people on a platform, listening. The inner world of a peripheral character has come alive: Bhaskar has, very briefly, realised his dream of singing for a public (though the lyricism of a Gulzar-penned song is then followed by a mundane announcement about a Bandra train). At the same time, the words “na ghar hai, na thikaana” comment on the ongoing struggles of his son, who is trying to break away from his father by getting his own space in the big city.

Watching the scene, I was reminded of another, younger version of Yadav (one of our finest actors, though his career has had many starts and stops) – as the junkie Chillum, who lives and dies near the railway tracks, more often than not finding himself on the wrong path, in Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay. But I was also reminded of how adept the “multiplex film” has become at depicting a certain sort of vulnerable parent – a character who might at first seem to exist in the narrative only as an obstacle or antagonist for the younger generation, but who has a hidden depth and a back-story, even when the film doesn’t overtly explore it.

In Love per Square Foot itself, Bhaskar isn’t the only such parent. Another strong scene has Karina’s mother, the chatty Mrs D’Souza (Ratna Pathak Shah), feeling wounded when her daughter gives her a lecture about wanting to be her own person – “not like you, dependent on your brother”. Oh no, you’ll never be me, the mother replies in a tone that combines hurt with sarcasm. You’re not capable of the sacrifices I made to bring you up.

It has generally been a good time for well-written and performed parental figures who get to both shape and passively comment on their children’s lives. Pankaj Tripathi and Seema Pahwa got deserved praise for their roles as the heroine’s fretting parents in Bareilly ki Barffi, but Tripathi also played a different, more sinister father – a real-estate developer whose life and actions cast a shadow over those of his children – in one of last year’s most underrated films, Shanker Raman’s Gurgaon.

Just as interesting is when the generational conflict plays out in ways where the viewer is left a little ambivalent. Without making sweeping statements about self-centred youngsters and their sacrificing parents, it seems to me that the arc of our socially conscious cinema – emphasizing progressiveness, self-actualisation, individual freedom – often stacks the cards in favour of the young and against the old. However, some of the best writing gives us people who might be innately tradition-bound but are also trying to understand new ways of living and thinking.

One of the most complex scenes along this vein occurred in Anurag Kashyap’s excellent Mukkabaaz, when Shravan (Vineet Kumar Singh) explodes at his father, who is questioning his decision to become a boxer. The scene – driven by Singh’s heartfelt performance and a script full of gems (“You are both zeroes,” Shravan rages at his parents, “How did you expect me to become an Aryabhatt?”) – seems to put us in the young man’s corner. And yet there is something about the sad-looking father’s expression as he sits there in his faded pullover, tries to rage back and comically mispronounces “passion” as “fashion”. He does eventually stand by his son, and you wonder if this “shunya” (zero) once had mad dreams of his own, how life ran roughshod over them – and how much the son owes, without realizing it, to his parents having gone for stability over passion.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Ae ajnabi: a few of my favourite sad love songs (or break-up songs)

[Did this piece for Mint Lounge’s recent issue themed “love” – or “post-love”, I’m still not sure]

When I think of sad love songs from old Hindi cinema, my mind turns to two 1960s classics that, in different ways, mislead a viewer. Watching “Dost Dost na Raha” on Chitrahaar without having seen the film it was from, Raj Kapoor’s epic melodrama Sangam, I thought the song was about the hero Sundar (Kapoor) having been betrayed by his lover Radha (Vyjayanthimala) and his buddy Gopal (Rajendra Kumar). The visuals underlined this: here was Sundar singing at a piano, looking heartbroken and sardonic in turn; behind him, the other two squirmed, their flashback-memories suggesting perfidy.

This interpretation turned out to be wrong: Sundar isn’t indicting his loved ones, he is just relating another friend’s tragic story. And though the lyrics make Radha and Gopal feel sheepish, they are the story’s real romantic couple and have nothing to be ashamed of. (Except, perhaps, that they have spent so much time indulging a whiny, masochistic man.)

Vyjayanthimala shows up again in Jewel Thief as Shalu, singing the plaintive “Rula ke gaya sapna”. When you first see this beautifully filmed nighttime scene – Shalu in the moonlight, Vinay (Dev Anand) rowing a boat while listening intently – you’ll assume she is mourning the broken romance that has been mentioned earlier in the story. But this is a thriller and the scene turns out to be a red herring, a clever exercise in misdirection.

Watched together, these two sequences also point to a difference between the sad love song that centres on the hero’s pain versus the one that focuses on the heroine’s: the former mode tends to be self-righteous and accusatory (remember the soaring “Dil ke jharokhe mein” from Brahmachari, with Shammi Kapoor’s steely gaze directed at Rajshree), while the latter is gentler, more about immersing oneself in the pleasure-pain of loss than in blaming the duplicitous other. Even the title song of Barsaat, so effectively reprised in the film’s closing scene – over the funeral pyre of a young woman who was abandoned by a playboy – expresses regret, “mil na sake haaye, mil na sake hum”, instead of hitting out.

This is, of course, a generalization, and, as with everything else in Hindi cinema, there are exceptions: take the lovely “O Saathi Re” scene from Muqaddar ka Sikandar, in which Sikander (Amitabh Bachchan), instead of going on about his unrequited love, pays tribute to the girl who reached out to him – as a friend – when no one else would. Or other scenes that blur gender lines, such as three wonderful songs that are primarily about a woman’s inner world
but are sung in a male voice: “Tum bin jeevan” from Bawarchi (with Kaifi Azmi’s lyrics including the lines “Baante koi kyun dukh mera / Apne aansu, apna hee daaman”); “Kai baar yun bhi dekha hai” from Rajnigandha; and Khamoshi’s haunting “Woh shaam kuch ajeeb thi” in which the singing is done by the Rajesh Khanna character but the scene’s focus is the great Waheeda Rehman, lost in the memory of an earlier love that has emotionally drained her.

The post-love (or interrupted-love) song encompasses many other forms and themes. There are tragic songs performed in the exalted mode (“Aaja re pardesi” from Madhumati, “Beqas pe karam kijiye” from Mughal-e Azam). There is judaai in the name of duty or social propriety (“Chalo ek baar phir se” in Gumrah), or through death (“Lagi aaj sawaan ki” from Chandni). There are rousing compositions that transcend their contexts (it’s possible to be stirred by Ismail Darbari’s “Tadap tadap ke iss dil” from Hum Di De Chuke Sanam even if you can’t work up sympathy for Salman Khan or Aishwarya Rai), and other rousing compositions that work brilliantly alongside the film’s visuals (“Ae ajnabi” from Dil Se).

In the 1970s and 1980s, the high emotional registers of the mainstream were balanced by the more muted approach of the so-called Middle Cinema, which didn’t deal with concepts like eternal soulmates but with the matter-of-fact possibility that love can fade, people might simply grow apart because it’s the nature of the beast, not because of warring parents or glowering villains. However, grounded situations can still have ethereal music and lyrics – see Gulzar’s Aandhi (“Tere bina zindagi”) or Ijaazat (“Mera kuch saamaan”).” And even in today’s indie cinema, so self-conscious about “cheesy” love songs, there is room for something as raw and heartbreaking as “Bahut Dukha Mann” from Mukkabaaz, which plays in the background as the boxer Shravan searches for his kidnapped wife, his “aatma” (soul).

I have special fondness, though, for the deliberately funny-sad song that moves from one meter to the next within seconds. Decades before Dev D’s “Emosanal Atyachaar” offered a hilariously rude commentary on our many angst-filled Devdases (“Bol bol, why did you ditch me / Zindagi bhi lele yaar, kill me / Bol bol, why did you ditch me / Whore”), there was “Na jaiyyo pardes” from Karma, in which two separated lovers express themselves in very different tones. First Poonam Dhillon plays it dead straight, reaching longingly towards the van carrying her beloved away; then Anil Kapoor yodels in the voice of Kishore Kumar, singing words like “O my darling don’t cry […] me going to die, oh bye bye”. To evoke a classical theory of aesthetic expression, these songs combine shoka rasa (sorrow) and haasya (merriment) in one package – and that’s as good a monument as you’ll find for the exhausting tragi-comedy of the romantic condition. 

Here are videos of some of the songs mentioned here:

"O Saathi Re"

"Mera Kuch Saamaan"

"Beqas pe karam kijiye"

"Emosanal Atyachaar"

"Na Jaiyyo Pardes"

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

An update to the Padmaavat post (after seeing the film)

When I wrote the original Padmaavat-related post, I hadn’t seen the film, and was called out for this during a longish Facebook discussion – the point I tried to make there was that I was putting down generalized thoughts about a certain form of criticism/reading, and that watching this specific film was not imperative to that end.

Well, I saw Bhansali’s film yesterday and liked it much more than I had expected to. One reason I had been putting off seeing it was that I don’t usually have the stamina these days for a nearly-three-hour movie-hall experience. Another was that SLB’s last, Bajirao Mastani, had left me largely bored and distracted. But this was a very different experience. While Padmaavat was patchy in places (I don’t know enough yet about what was censored or otherwise edited out) and began on a less-than-promising note with a computer-generated ostrich and a seemingly mummified Raza Murad, I was eventually drawn into its world, and thought the final 20-25 minutes ranked among the best work this much-maligned auteur has done.

This includes the things that come just before the Jauhar sequence: the brilliant Mirch Masala-like scene of the women hurling coal at Khilji, engaging in one of the last forms of violent resistance left to them; and before that, the Ratan Singh-Khilji swordfight. Wonderfully shot, performed and choreographed (Sham Kaushal’s work as stunt director merits that word), this scene combines some of the epic grandeur of similar scenes in non-Indian films like Troy with a quality that evoked war depiction in dance forms like kathakali. (The actors here are very much in character – Khilji a rude, swaggering force of nature, Ratan Singh prim and courtly in his movements – the way you don’t often expect actors to be in fight sequences. I was also reminded of some of the stylised action sequences from old Japanese films performed in the Noh tradition.)

Anyway: having watched the film, I now find it even harder to relate to Bhaskar’s article (which I was earlier looking at in abstract terms). Especially since the film did have a couple of scenes that made clear nods to contemporary gender-related discourse – such as the one where Padmaavati, addressing a woman who has accused her of bringing calamity on the kingdom, says words to the effect “You blame ME for drawing his attention, instead of blaming HIM for directing his unwanted attention at me?” Costume, setting and formal speech aside, this scene could easily have been from a socially conscious 2018 film about the victim-blaming culture. In any case, it made nonsense of my earlier thought-exercise about the possible inclusion of a supporting character who would provide an alternate, “progressive” perspective. This film didn’t need any such character.

Inevitably, some of the criticisms of my post have gone the route of “but you’re a man, you don’t have the right lenses to understand the problems with the film”. It is of course true that we all have lenses that derive from our life experiences, from our privilege and lack of privilege (which are things that are very complex and intersect and play off each other in dozens of ways – someone who is deeply privileged in one sense can be deeply unprivileged in another sense, and even within the same situation). But this is a very patronizing way of dismissing both my experience and the experiences of the women who share my views about this subject in general, and about this film in particular. The person I saw Padmaavat with (sensitive, intelligent and someone who has, like most women, experienced forms of sexual harassment or discrimination herself and even written about them) was even more moved by the film and its climax than I was. And she didn’t see any “glorification” or “misogyny” in that final passage.

It’s unfortunate that I even feel the need to say something so defensive-sounding or so obvious
— but that’s what some of the discourse around reactions to Padmaavat (and ideology-blinkered criticism more generally) has come down to. And again, I’m not saying this to weigh the argument in my favour or to suggest that my view of the film is the “right” one or the “only possible reading” — just to reiterate that this isn’t anywhere near as simple as Men Feel This, Women Feel That.

[And now I should get back to the much less respectful piece I was writing, about the decapitated-but-still-fighting Rajput soldier as a version of the heroic male praying mantis, who continues servicing his woman after she has ripped off his head mid-coitus and eaten it]