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]

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Scattered thoughts on narrative context, ideology-oriented criticism and the Padmaavat discussion

[Note: this post isn’t “about Padmaavat” as such – not having seen it yet, I can’t say anything specific about the film – but it derives from some of the conversations around it, especially the recent Swara Bhaskar piece “At the end of your magnum opus, I felt reduced to a vagina – only”]

[A new post -- written after watching Padmaavat, which I liked very much -- is here]

At writing classes where I talk about film and literary criticism, narrative context gets discussed a lot, and a stimulating conversation along these lines began at the Sri Aurobindo Centre for Arts and Communication last week when, just as I was wondering if I should mention Padmaavat, the students did it for me.

These were intelligent, introspective students who came across as being liberal and engaged with social issues, but also had some reservations about Swara Bhaskar’s recent article. Both at the big-picture level of “why impose our contemporary moral codes and ideas about individual freedom on historical figures?” and at smaller, more specific levels. For instance, one of them said it was problematic to paint the film as being exclusively about women being sacrificed at the altar of patriarchal “honour”: Rajput men also went out and died for what they saw as a just cause; there was a common code of conduct in the face of invasion by someone who was considered the enemy. Another noted that Bhaskar had conflated Sati with Jauhar when they are different things involving different levels of agency and coercion.

My take: I liked some things about Bhaskar’s piece. It was thoughtful, made its points firmly and passionately, but without adopting the “this is so offensive, it mustn’t exist” stance that we routinely get from people who want to silence things that make them uncomfortable. (I stress this because I’m sure there are plenty of gloating social-media reactions that try to make a false equivalence between critical pieces like this one and the bullying diktats and threats issued by the Karni Sena etc.) Also, it’s refreshing when someone within the film industry is willing to express views that may raise the fraternity’s hackles.

Like the SACAC students, though, I had a couple of issues. Some thoughts:

-- Film being a powerful, seductive medium, it’s understandable – as someone living in a world that seems to be regressing in many ways, and where the likes of Donald Trump and the RSS hold positions of power – to feel discomfited by the knowledge that a filmmaker with Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s reach and his very particular artistic sensibilities has spent hundreds of crores on a huge, glamorous film about a woman celebrated for committing
Jauhar (and played by a very popular star). Here is a director whose images and use of music can be so overwhelming that, irrespective of context, it can sometimes feel like his cinema is endorsing or celebrating whatever it depicts. To a degree, I get the exasperation of those who say “At this point in our cultural discourse about gender inequality and sexual harassment – when we are in the MeToo/Weinstein/post-Nirbhaya moment – HE had to make a film about THIS?”

But once the choice of subject has been made, creative freedom exercised, what then? As a professional critic, or as a reasonably analytical viewer grappling with the film, is it okay to employ the progressive-ideology lens to the exclusion of all else (and in some cases, even at the expense of clear-sighted criticism)?

Bhaskar says:

The context of art, any art is the time and place when it was created and consumed. And that’s why this gang-rape infested India, this rape condoning mindset, this victim blaming society is the actual context of your film, Sir. Surely in this context, you could have offered some sort of a critique of Sati and Jauhar in your film?
I’ll come to that last sentence in a bit. But first, this matter of context. Yes, films carry subliminal messages; no one can pretend that a historical/period film made in 2018 was created in a vacuum; in the first place, many filmmakers who choose historical subjects do so because the narrative resonates with something in the present day, allowing connections to be (subtly or overtly) made.

But how far must one take this idea that the “context” of a historical film is the present day? Does catering to modern sensibilities mean airbrushing the troublesome aspects of the past, thus putting us even further out of touch with history than we already are? (Many of those things are, of course, still very much part of our world – during my class, a student mentioned “all those old 1960s films where women were shown touching their pati parmeshwar’s feet”, and I pointed out that many women across different societies still do such things today – but that's another discussion.) Does it, for instance, mean making a film about Abraham Lincoln and being over-careful not to show the man using words like “negro” or behaving less than civilly with his own slaves – even though he almost certainly did such things within situations that the film otherwise covers? Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (one example among many period films) has been criticized for the opposite reason that Bhaskar criticizes Padmaavat: for its sanitizing of its hero so he comes closer to the 21st century view of what a great emancipator should be like, thus making things as morally unambiguous as possible for the contemporary viewer. (Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi did similar things on occasion, despite Nehru’s advice to Attenborough in the early 1960s not to deify Gandhi because he was too great a man to be deified.)

My point is not that either of these criticisms is less or more valid. (Or to facilely compare Lincoln and Padmaavat.) But it’s possible to respond to both criticisms with the same counter-argument: that when telling a story, including dramatizing real history, a writer or director can choose what to show or omit. (And of course, when he does this, we might be able to conjecture something about his priorities and attitudes.)

-- About this:
“Surely you could have offered some sort of a critique of Sati and Jauhar in your film?”

In a narrative film made by Sanjay Leela Bhansali, what would such a critique look like?

I think we can all agree that it would be tonally off and laughably didactic to have a sutradhaar-like character, almost addressing the camera directly, making a speech about why Jauhar is bad. But there might be subtler ways to do it, even in a Bhansali film, and I had a short thought exercise about this with my class. What if SLB had decided, while remaining faithful to the internal logic of his narrative and to his own vision, to include a supporting character who was so ahead of her time, so individualistic (in a milieu and period that did not encourage individualism) that she voiced her desire to continue living, even if it meant being captured by Khilji? Life – under any conditions – being more valuable than patriarchy-defined honour. This small, anachronistic part (and it would have to be a small part, given the film that Padmaavat has set out to be) could be played by an actress known for strong, independent characters in today’s indie cinema, someone like Shweta Tripathi, or Radhika Apte, or Bhaskar herself.

But would that be enough, or might it make things even worse by establishing an alternate perspective and then coolly demolishing it in the interests of the main narrative? My feeling is that at the end of such a film, there would still be hardline liberal critics saying “But… hers was such a small, marginalized voice, and it was drowned out in the end by all those the glorious images of Deepika consigning herself to fire.”

The point again being, once Bhansali has made the decision to deal with this subject, it is pretty much guaranteed that some sensibilities will be discomfited – independently of how well-made or poorly made the film itself is.

-- Other, non-Padmaavat-related thoughts about narrative context: things I bring up in classes and constantly think about when I hear, e.g., about Karan Johar being told to apologise to Mohammed Rafi’s fans because a character in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil said something dismissive about the great singer. Or during firsthand encounters such as the one where a friend – an excellent writer and journalist – astonished me by alluding to “that racist scene in Queen” (the one where Kangana Ranaut’s sheltered, parochial Rani reacts with some alarm to a black man).

It is widely understood (though alas, not at all widely practiced) that a serious critic should avoid confusing the voice or actions of a character within a film/book with the ideological position of the narrative itself. This is not to say authors and filmmakers don’t have lenses (everyone does, including the liberal viewers to whom it is blindingly obvious that their stance is the only correct one) or that there is a mathematical formula for assessing such things: these assessments are naturally subjective, and with certain types of controversial films or books, long and passionate arguments in each direction can be made endlessly until the internet crashes or our species weeds itself out.

But speaking for myself, I find that too often viewers want to rush to easy judgements about a film based on something unpalatable that happens in it. And all the better if the judgement is one that will get them brownie points from readers and acquaintances who demand that a film be a vehicle for a clearly spelt out progressive message. More prescriptive than descriptive.

For instance, I have written before about the bizarre labelling of Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s 1982 film Naram Garam as “misogynistic” (that very strong, very over-used word again) by a prominent critic of the time, based almost solely on a scene where an old, impoverished man who is worried for his young daughter asks the Amol Palekar character to take this “beti ka bojh” off his hands. Never mind that it is completely credible, within this narrative situation, that this man would say such a thing. Never mind, too, that the young woman in question (Kusum, played by Swaroop Sampat) is the most sympathetic, poised and probably the most intelligent character in a film filled with buffoonish or irresponsible men.

(Incidentally there is a Rani Padmini link in that film. Among the men who look at Kusum through their own prisms, rather than as a person in her own right, is the Shatrughan Sinha character, who dewy-eyedly worships an ideal of Good Womanhood and sees Kusum as a modern-day Padmini. This “misogynistic” film treats his delusions as comedy and, I would argue, also offers a sly commentary on Sinha’s macho and paternalistic screen persona.)

-- But there is also a subtler point to be made about the complicated process of artistic creation: I’m not sure I can make it well, but here’s an attempt.

I know film buffs, professional critics among them (one of the best of them, Baradwaj Rangan, wrote two recent posts defending Padmaavat), who are willing and able to make clear-cut distinctions between cinema as cinema and cinema as social/ethical document. In the sense that even if they agree (to take two iconic examples) that Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will is a celebration of Hitler and Nazism, and hence “immoral”, or that DW Griffith’s Birth of a Nation finds the Ku Klux Klan admirable, they can still assess them purely on cinematic terms.

I am more conflicted on this point (at least when it comes to explicit propaganda such as Triumph of the Will), and that’s all I’ll say about this for now. But I have a different sort of problem with ideology-oriented criticism: too often, it puts blinkers on a critic’s eyes. It encourages reductive readings that begin by asking a simplistic, one-note question (“What is the author’s/filmmaker’s POSITION on this hot-button subject?”) and then manufactures a simplistic, one-note answer (“THIS is his position”).

But many – maybe most – good creative works do not provide easy answers to such questions. They are often the result of an artist (consciously or sub-consciously) engaging with the many contradictions in his own self, asking questions based on real human conflicts and lived experience rather than sweeping idealistic positions.

In this light, I’m thinking about a scene from the Netflix series The Crown. At the end of the season 2 episode “Marionettes”, set in 1957, changes are being implemented to make the English monarchy seem less remote and elite, to be more in touch with “regular people”. Queen Elizabeth II and her mother are preparing to meet a group of plebeians including a car dealer and a retired boxer, who have been invited to Buckingham Palace for lunch – a first for this royal family, and a considerable shaking up of their world. As they move towards the hall for introductions, the Queen Mother (who isn’t just the Queen Mother but also a grieving widow who believes that the health of her late husband was badly affected by the pressures of his station) delivers a pained and indignant monologue about the thanklessness of their position; about how the monarchy has gone “from ruling to reigning to being nothing at all.
Marionettes”. As they line up before the door that separates them from the “commoners”, mother and daughter are palpably distressed. Hans Zimmer’s rousing music, the long tracking shots, the opulent art design (all very Bhansali-like in some ways!), can combine to create the impression that the show itself is seduced by the idea of the monarchy and that the authorial voice is on the side of the Queen Mother; that that is the only “view” being expressed here.

I disagree. My feeling is that the series sets out to hold – and largely succeeds in holding – many different positions at the same time. In this case: it understands the need for the world to move forward, to become less feudal and more egalitarian; yet it also sympathises with the predicaments of individual people who are being swept along by the winds of change; people who grew up knowing only a certain sort of world and none other, but then found themselves having to accommodate new ideas and moral codes (often at an age when it is very difficult to dramatically change oneself). An empathetic viewer can feel for such a character in a well-made film, even if he loathes the world that this character represents.

Put simply: it often happens that authors, scriptwriters and directors set out to tell a story about a multitude of people (and the multitudes within each of those people) without passing judgement in a heavy-handed way; and yet, so many of the people who experience these books and films – including professional critics who should at least try to be more reflective – are in a rush to Judge, Judge, Judge. (And a corollary to this is that when a critic does write a relatively nuanced or searching piece, readers often miss the nuance or ambivalence and take from the piece only what they were already pre-disposed to see in it.)

[To be continued. Meanwhile, here's a somewhat related piece from 2013, about reactions to the film Kai Po Che]

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Footprints, weapons, people, houses: how crime writers make things disappear

[my latest crime-fiction column for Scroll]

In the Tamil writer Rajesh Kumar’s cheesily titled short story “Hello, Dead Morning!” – translated into English by Pritham K Chakravarthy for The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction, Volume 2 – a man is found hanging from the ceiling in a windowless room that’s locked from the inside. This seems to point to suicide… except that the room has no chair or stool that he could have stood on and kicked away.

The solution, provided at the end of a twist-laden narrative, is that the man did himself in by using a big block of ice, which melted quickly in the summer heat, leaving only a damp patch on the ground. And no, this isn’t a big spoiler: most long-time readers of crime fiction would already have figured it out. Ice – in the form of daggers, cudgels or other tools – has been used so often as a murder weapon (or as in this case, a suicide aid) in such stories that it is now a genre cliché; skilled authors have employed almost every variation on the basic idea.

But writers who operate in the “impossible crime” subgenre – and are likened to magicians playing games of misdirection or sleight of hand – can make other things vanish too. Things that don’t conveniently melt away on their own. Some examples, in more or less ascending order of size:

An important letter or document
As in Edgar Allan Poe’s classic short story “The Purloined Letter” – one of a few Poe tales that supplied a template for modern crime writing – which explores the idea of an item being hidden in plain sight. Which is to say, placed in such an obvious spot that no one would think of looking for it there (or recognizing it for what it is).

in which two sets of footprints lead up to a murder site, one set belonging to the deceased and the other presumably to the killer; but no footprints lead away. Or, as in John Dickson Carr’s great
how-dunnit The Three Coffins, a “hollow man” exits the scene of his crime leaving no traces on the snow-covered ground outside. Again, there are many variations on this plot, though most serious crime writers and readers agree that some solutions amount to bending the genre’s unstated rules: for instance, involving a helicopter or some other flying device – which the murderer can use as a getaway – is a cheap trick.

(Incidentally, this head-scratcher of a trope also features in an unsolved real-life crime: the creepy Hinterkaifeck case of 1922, where a German clan was found massacred in their farm. A few days earlier, the patriarch had mentioned seeing unfamiliar footprints in the snow leading to his house but none leading away.)

A weapon
(other than the hackneyed ice-dagger, that is)
What about when a murder case seems clear-cut except for the important detail that there is no apparent weapon at all? One of the most fun solutions to this puzzle occurs in Bill Pronzini’s story “Proof of Guilt” (included in the Mike Ashley-edited anthology The Mammoth Book of Perfect Crimes and Impossible Mysteries), with its simple-seeming premise: a man has been shot dead in his office; the only person who could have done it claims innocence but also admits to having had a motive for murder; despite all common sense pointing to this man being the killer, the police can make no arrest because there is no gun, only a bullet. The answer to the mystery is a good demonstration of how a clever crime writer can extract humour as well as suspense from a given situation.

Murderers slip away and become untraceable, or their victims’ bodies can’t be found. This is so commonplace in crime writing that instead of dwelling on it, I’ll just point you to a tense passage in Gaston Leroux’s groundbreaking 1907 novel The Mystery of the
Yellow Room, in which four people – including the story’s main detective – close in on an escaping burglar in a hallway late at night, then realise he has disappeared from this confined space. So unsettling is the episode for all involved that it leads to some pseudo-scientific speculation about the “dissociation of matter” – but the explanation turns out to be pleasingly straightforward. (It is only one of the mysteries solved in this book, the other major one being how a violent and noisy attack could have taken place in a locked room which, when opened, had only the wounded victim inside.)

But coming to bigger things than people, and to one of the biggest books I know. The Otto Penzler-compiled anthology Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries has sixty-eight crime stories over 950 pages (with each page divided into two columns, in the style of the old-time mystery magazines), but its largest and arguably best sub-section is the one titled “And we missed it, lost forever” – which deals with Disappearances.

There are fine pieces here by such writers as Dashiell Hammett, HRF Keating (who also created the series about Inspector Ganesh Ghote of the Bombay CID), the astonishingly prolific Edward D Hoch, and one of my favourite short-story writers, Stanley Ellin. But the three stories I’d like to mention are about things that you’d think are too big to be whisked out of sight:

A car
Jacques Futrelle was one of the early masters of the impossible crime, and his “The Problem of Cell 13” is one of the most frequently anthologized short stories ever. A little less intricate, but just as enjoyable, is “The Phantom Motor”, in which a car enters a long, tunnel-like stretch of road with a policeman keeping watch at either end – but never comes out. Each policeman thinks the other took a bribe to let the car zip past at above the speeding limit, but it soon becomes obvious that something odder is afoot.

A school bus (albeit a small one)
Hugh Pentecost’s “The Day the Children Vanished” involves
another baffling disappearance along another long stretch of road: in this case, a nine-seater van bringing children home from school never makes it to its destination, though there are no exit points along the road (the stretch is bordered by a mountain on one side and by a frozen lake on the other).

A large house
In the novella-length “The House of Haunts”, also known as “The Lamp of God”, a group of people wake up to find that the big black house right next door – which they had visited and walked through the previous night – has vanished. What makes this Ellery Queen tale (the name refers to both the fictional detective and to the pseudonym of the two writers who created him) doubly puzzling and urgent is that the house is at the centre of an inheritance battle. As you might imagine, Ellery – who is among the people who saw and then “un-saw” the black house – has plenty of work to do.


It bears mentioning that in most of the above cases, the disappearance – though an important plot device – is not in itself what makes the stories so readable. Their lasting value (I find myself rereading many of them – not something you’d expect to do if the only attraction was the revelation at the end) comes from clever plotting, sharp and economical prose, and compelling characters. For instance, while “The Day the Children Vanished” builds sympathy for the parents who anxiously await news of the school bus, it is also about a final, poignant hurrah by an old vaudeville performer who gets to play hero for a while. Disgrace and redemption, which have formed the dramatic arcs of so much high literature over the ages, are just as central to this “pulpy” suspense tale.

It might also be said that, given the vintage of many of these books and stories, they perform a function comparable to that of a time machine. “The Phantom Motor”, for example, being published in 1905, offers a glimpse of a very different era in automobile transport and road manning, a world where forty miles an hour is well-nigh unthinkable and there is an uneasy suspicion about motorized technology. This adds to the narrative tension – the characters themselves are never quite sure where new science ends and black magic begins – and even a jaded 21st century reader can easily disappear (so to speak) in these pages.

[Earlier crime-fiction pieces: a young woman and her other self; Sherlock Holmes meets Jack the Ripper; 'impossible' crimes and rational explanations; Blaft's Tamil pulp fiction]

Mini-review: teen runaways in The End of the F***ing World

[The 300/400-word “review” is not something I generally care for, but it’s fun to dabble in once in a while, and it does require its own discipline. Have been doing a few of these short pieces for India Today, a sort of throwback to my first journalistic bylines nearly 20 years ago. Here’s one on the new Netflix show The End of the F***ing World]


“I’m James. I’m 17. And I’m pretty sure I’m a psychopath,” are the first words we hear in this darkly offbeat Netflix show; one way of looking at The End of the F***ing World is that it is about a young man coming to discover that the world is more twisted than he could ever aspire to be. It must be deflating at that age to realise you aren’t all that special or dangerous; that even if you tortured animals as a kid and scalded your own hand in oil, there are much worse, less self-reflective people than you around.

This tightly constructed, easy-to-binge-watch British series (with eight episodes of around 20 minutes each) centres on James and Alyssa, his restless and depressive new friend -- if that’s the correct description for someone whom he plans to kill (or so he claims). They agree to run away, leaving behind the town where they feel like misfits. “If this was a film, we’d probably be American,” Alyssa deadpans with the wisdom of one familiar with the Hollywood tradition of malcontents on the road, which stretches back at least to Nicholas Ray’s 1948 classic They Live by Night and includes Terrence Malick’s Badlands and Tony Scott’s True Romance.

At first, these two seem like cold fish -- desultory, blank-faced, with a mechanical and bored attitude to everything, even sex. (James seems only marginally more enthusiastic about killing Alyssa, but keeps putting it off – and if you look at that as an inability to commit, what you have here is a macabre love story.) But soon, circumstances bring out their vulnerable sides -- the first three episodes give us two nasty middle-aged men whose behaviour makes these kids seem like, well, kids -- and they become easier to care about.

I had heard this was a black comedy and was a little disappointed on that score -- there is some dry, morose humour (one high point involves a sad-faced gas-station attendant named Frodo, who looks like a very young version of Pink Floyd legend David Gilmore), but not as much as I had hoped for. There are other things to enjoy, though, notably the lead performances by Alex Lawther and Jessica Barden, a rock soundtrack that uses classics like “I’m laughing on the outside, crying on the inside” to unusual effect, and (if you’re into this sort of thing) a stylized murder scene with blood flowing dreamily at the camera. At times, the voiceover-driven narrative does come across as pretentiously, show-offishly nihilistic; but you’d expect an angst-ridden teen to be like that.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Bad parents, problem children: Frankenstein at the movies

[Did this piece for Mint Lounge as part of their “200 years of Frankenstein” package]

Among the many ways of looking at Frankenstein, and by “Frankenstein” one necessarily means not just Mary Shelley’s groundbreaking book but what that book birthed over two hundred years – as other authors, playwrights, theatre producers and filmmakers prodded away at it, moving body parts around in their sinister laboratories – here is one interpretation. It is about terrible and unhappy parents, terrible and unhappy children, and how, to misquote Philip Larkin, we pass misery back and forth.

You’re Victor Frankenstein, you think you’ve done your best, but here’s this monster you created, which refuses to be what you hoped it would be. Worse, it turns around and blames you for everything that’s wrong. Look at the Paradise Lost line – “Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay, to mould me Man?” – which serves as an epigraph for Mary Shelley’s novel, and then listen to director Guillermo del Toro, who is currently working on a Frankenstein film: "It’s the quintessential teenage book. You don't belong. You were brought to this world by people that don't care for you and you are thrown into a world of tears and hunger.”

Most parent-child relationships, when looked at over a period of time, bring high tragedy and slapstick comedy together in the same frame. Little wonder then that cinematic Frankensteins have inhabited every mode from deep seriousness to goofy, pseudo-science-driven humour – and that the most enduring films accommodate both extremes.

Consider one of the most effective scenes, gentle, idyllic and horrifying all at once, in James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein. Boris Karloff’s Monster comes across a little girl, joins her in placing flowers on a lake’s surface and watching them float – and then, in all innocence, dunks her into the water too, causing her death. So iconic was this moment – often censored in early screenings – that forty years later the Spanish director Victor Erice made it the focal point of his coming-of-age narrative The Spirit of the Beehive: the six-year-old protagonist Ana is traumatised when she watches the scene; in the days that follow, she becomes aware of subtler monsters in her own world.

Or see Whale’s 1935 sequel, Bride of Frankenstein, in which Karloff’s plaintiveness – as the Monster yearns for a companion who will love and understand him – brushes up against Elsa Lanchester’s brief but delightfully lunatic performance as his bride-not-to-be (the actress also played Mary Shelley in a short scene, so impishly you wondered if she was plotting to capsize Percy Bysshe’s boat).

Those are still the two best-known Frankenstein films, and to modern eyes they can seem creaky and overwrought. Taking cues from theatre adaptations staged in Mary Shelley’s lifetime, they turned Victor Frankenstein into the prototype of the mad scientist, shrieking that he knows what it’s like “to be God” (in the book he is a diligent, conscientious man). But Karloff’s performance helps erase some of the differences. While the creature in Shelley’s novel gains in eloquence and dignity once he learns to use language, the “dumb” movie Monster is sympathetic by other means, conveying childlike pathos through his gestures and expressions. In fact, one can argue that in the broader-comedy scenes where he grunts words – the refrain of “Good! Good!” when an old hermit makes him taste bread and wine – he becomes less likable.

Of course, there are other films where the Monster is not meant to be at all likable – see the 1957 Curse of Frankenstein, starring those two masters of the Hammer Horror franchise, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, and watch Lee play the role as a deformed, inexpressive zombie, starting with the shocking moment where he rips the bandages off his face as the camera zooms in on him.

Another dominant mode is that of parody mixed with affection for the source material. Mel Brooks’s 1974 Young Frankenstein, shot in atmospheric black and white, has madcap scenes like the one where the doctor’s assistant brings along a brain labeled “Abnormal” – thinking it belonged to someone named “Abbie Normal” – but the film also understands the sense of wonder and danger that permeates the original story. This is equally true of three 1980s films – Gothic, Haunted Summer and Rowing with the Wind – which aren’t straight renderings of the Frankenstein tale but dramatize the famous 1816 summer house party involving the Shelleys and Lord Byron, where both Frankenstein and the John Polidori horror story “The Vampyre” were conceived.

And, of course, there are “serious” Frankenstein movies, which usually err on the side of earnestness. Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein set out to be faithful to the book, in a way the Karloff films never did, but the promise was marred by
half-hearted execution – and ironically its best moments were the more inventive ones such as the scene where the naked creature (played by Robert De Niro, channeling a middle-aged Travis Bickle) slips about like a newborn baby in what looks like amniotic fluid.

Frankenstein is often regarded as the first true science-fiction novel, and this perception has become increasingly relevant in our time, where artificial intelligence has taken on forms that Mary Shelley couldn’t have envisioned. The idea of an imitation human being more humane in some ways than the flesh-and-blood people around him is a theme that has informed a lot of modern sci-fi about automatons: from the replicants in Blade Runner to the 1999 Bicentennial Man (adapted from Isaac Asimov’s The Positronic Man) and Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence (based on Brian Aldiss’s Supertoys Last all Summer Long, and often seen as a futuristic version of the Pinocchio story).

But it’s just as instructive to go back in time, to two decades before the Karloff films, when a 12-minute Frankenstein was made by Thomas Edison’s studio in 1910. Watching this relic (you’ll find it on YouTube) is like getting into a time machine: given that the world of the Shelleys seems so impossibly distant to us today, it’s unsettling to realise that the Edison film is closer in time (a mere 92 years) to the publication of the book than to our present day.

What I find fascinating about that ancient film – as a cinema student and as someone who thinks of the Frankenstein story as being rooted in honest scientific curiosity – is how much it does with the very limited motion-picture technology of the time. For instance, for the challenging scene in which the monster comes alive, a wax replica of a skeleton was placed in a vat and set afire until it dissolved and crumpled. They then played the film backward, so that the impression we get is of something hideous being forged out of fire and sitting upright after its limbs have formed.

To watch that scene is to think of the imagination and daring required of early filmmakers when they wanted to do something more ambitious than simply record reality. One could say those pioneers were kindred spirits of Victor Frankenstein, tinkering in their workshops until their children grew and became something vast and uncontrollable, slipping out of their Godlike hands.

[Related posts: Erice's The Spirit of the Beehive; Draupadi and the bride of Frankenstein]

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Rahi Masoom Raza’s Scene 75: death of a writer foretold

[did this review – of the English translation of Raza’s savagely funny 1977 novel – for Scroll]

"The world of Hindi films is a world of incomplete people. Here, when two people come together, they don’t multiply. They become one."
To pre-millennial urban Indians who grew up reading mainly in English while also watching Hindi cinema, Rahi Masoom Raza is best known not as a novelist and poet but as the dialogue writer of the 1980s television Mahabharat, as well as many 1970s and 1980s movies. Looking up his filmography, I was delighted to find that in addition to winning awards for reasonably well-respected films like Yash Chopra’s Lamhe and Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Mili, he worked on some of my more disreputable childhood favourites such as Dance Dance and Adventures of Tarzan.

But Raza was also a “serious writer” (in the generally used, narrow sense of that term), the author of acclaimed books such as Aadha Gaon and Topi Shukla – and like many others negotiating the world of commercial Hindi cinema, he would have had to balance his individualistic side with the more formulaic demands made on him. In the best cases, such marriages could result in fine films which combined surface lightness with thematic depth, bringing together the strengths of two mediums. In many other cases, a writer could feel stymied, exploited and unappreciated.

This conflict informs his 1977 novel Scene 75, which has just been translated into English by Poonam Saxena, and in an early passage of which we find a writer struggling with a film scene. But he couldn’t understand “Scene: 75: Day: Post Office”. And [the director] was not wrong in asking him why he couldn’t understand it, because were there any scenes in commercial Hindi cinema that one couldn’t understand? The scene in question involves Sanjeev Kumar playing a roadside munshi and Leela Mishra as an old woman dictating a letter to him; the book will have many other references – including some very funny ones – to real-life actors and writers (even Raza himself).

Scene 75 can broadly be described as a story about a writer named Ali Amjad, who comes from Benares to Bombay to work in films. That synopsis doesn’t begin to convey the book’s tone and effect, though; this slim, conversational novel is also a complex beast that demands a reader’s full attention. This is because Raza approaches his themes (the marginalization of the writer, the many duplicities of the world) in a roundabout, non-chronological way by evoking the world around Ali Amjad, including the many colourful personalities whose lives are interlinked: his three roommates in the guesthouse he stays in when he first arrives in Bombay, his neighbours in the housing society he later moves to.

In fact, for large, entertaining chunks of the book, we barely hear anything about its “protagonist”, but we know he is around, watching and absorbing. The things he sees and hears provide him with material as a writer, but also add to his despair.


The book’s preface includes these lines from a Raza poem – “Whoever you see / Whoever you meet / They seem like someone else / In this neighbourhood / It’s as if no one has an identity” – and the question of identity runs through the story. People wear masks, pretend to be what they are not. A Muslim adopts a Hindu identity so he can get a job in a prejudice-ridden society complex. A Hindu wears a suit and a new name and goes to church with his Catholic girlfriend. Neighbours become secret lovers while maintaining outward facades. A long-married woman is a lesbian who slides her hands all over a friend’s body on the pretext of teaching her how to tie a sari properly. (The friend gets something out of it too – she learns how to tie a sari.) A young woman begins an affair with one of her father’s employees, and is soon in something close to a ménage-a-trois with her own mother.

Elsewhere, an assistant bill collector who gets paid Rs 192 a month pretends to be a sales supervisor earning many times more, and must weave a tangled web when he is in danger of getting found out. Another man, we are told, plays three roles, as a homeopathic doctor, a writer and a husband: “All three were full-time jobs, but Guptaji did them in such a way that none of the three knew about the others.”

All this reminded me of the pretence-and-masquerade themes that were so common in the Middle Cinema that Raza was associated with; the grappling – often in lighthearted contexts – with the idea of what is real and what is illusory, and how the twain might meet. Reading about the Ramnath who becomes a Peter Singh, one remembers that in this same period Raza was writing for films like Gol Maal, with lines like “Jo milte hain, woh nahi milte, aur jo nahi milte, wohi vaastav mein milte hain […] isi hone na hone, milne na milne ke beech, ek maya ka samudra hai.” (“Those who meet don’t really meet, and those who do not meet are in reality meeting […] and between this being and not being, meeting and not meeting, is a sea of illusion.”)

It’s just about possible to imagine some of Scene 75’s characters, their activities toned down, glimpsed on the periphery of a 1970s Hindi film – the many residents of the multistoreyed building in Mili, for instance, each bearing quirks and secrets. But there are scenes and lines in this novel – as it portrays religious and class divides, social aspiration and sexual transgressions with sharp, dry humour – that you wouldn’t find in a mainstream Hindi film of the period.

Besides, the narrative structure is closer to other, more experimental cinemas of the time: like Luis Bunuel’s The Phantom of Liberty or The Milky Way, which follow first one set of characters, then take a sudden detour to track someone else, and so on (“it's like the camera is telling the viewer, hmm, this new person might have an even more interesting story, so let's take a chance and see what he's up to," Bunuel’s screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere told me years ago). For example, at one point in Raza’s novel, two friends are laughing about something but then the narrative takes us into the kitchen of the same house where the maid is also giggling with her boyfriend – and then we get the back-story of this new character. Which means we must follow the narrative closely to figure out what is happening at what point, or whether we have returned to the present from a flashback.

This sinuousness, and the “dense forest of names” that Ali Amjad finds himself beset by, couldn’t have made the translator’s task easy; Saxena also notes that Raza was sometimes careless with details and continuity. But she persevered and did a fine job of capturing the earthy humour that must have had a very specific flavour in the original Hindi. I found myself mentally re-translating bits like this one: “Midha liked bill collector Bholaram’s wife, Rama. Her skin was pale like a champa flower. Her eyes looked as if they understood the language of eyes.”

Some passages can seem as raw and unstructured at first as a scene from a hurriedly made 1970s Hindi film, but have a similar truth and directness that will stay with you. As for the throwaway observations that are hilarious and cuttingly sad at once, there are too many to list – but here’s one:

Lisa placed her hand on Ramnath’s lips and he kissed it. He had learnt all this from watching Hindi films.

“If you marry me, where will you keep me?”

“In my heart,” Ramnath said, thumping his chest.

“Where will I go to the bathroom?”

Ramnath had no answer to this question.
Eventually, in a surreal yet credible turn of events, Ali Amjad finds himself working as a scriptwriter not for movies (good or bad) but for a beggars’ workshop. This makes a poetic kind of sense, given everything that has preceded it. And it leads to a melancholy, dreamlike final segment that prepares us for a writer’s death. The question of how he dies, and whether the death is literal or metaphorical or both, is almost irrelevant. The bigger question – addressed in the book’s searing final paragraph – is: does anyone care?