Sunday, March 01, 2015

"That’s why they call it an Intro” (things you learn at a Book Fair, contd)

[This is also up on the website Anti Serious]

An alarming thing happened at the World Book Fair in Pragati Maidan last week. Outside the HarperCollins stall I met someone who was halfway through my Jaane bhi do Yaaro book and had apparently been enjoying it. (I haven't got to the alarming bit yet.) He said a few nice things, I mumbled self-effacingly, the afternoon sun beamed down at us, having ended the Delhi winter a month before schedule, but it wasn’t too hot and all was well. Then he made an observation about Jaane bhi do Yaaro (the film) and I said “Yes I mentioned that in the book’s Intro”, and he replied “Oh I didn’t know that. I haven’t read the Intro yet. I will read it after I finish the book.”

* Dramatic double-take followed by a series of heavy blinks in slow motion. Visions of concentric circles and iris wipes leap into my head. I hear those ululating sounds which indicate, in slapstick comedies of yore, that a character is day-dreaming, followed by Alfred Hitchcock’s recorded message at the initial screenings of Psycho, meant to dissuade viewers from walking in after the film had begun: “Psycho is most enjoyable when viewed beginning at the beginning and proceeding to the end. I realize this is a revolutionary concept, but we have discovered that Psycho is unlike most motion pictures and does not improve when run backwards.” *

I spluttered, remonstrated. My reader looked sheepish, admitted that he was in the habit of tackling Introductions last, having been advised to do so by an English Literature teacher or some such animal. To fortify his case he mentioned a classic he had read recently, where he went straight to the main body of the book and only later read the Intro for context. The name Virginia Woolf came up. At which point I saw the lighthouse, so to speak, and realised he was talking about the sort of Intro where someone other than the author writes an analysis or tribute, usually for a new edition of a book that was first published decades or centuries ago. 


“But I’m alive! I wrote this Intro myself! It was part of the narrative!”

In a calmer mood later, and flipping through my poor misunderstood book, it struck me that the word “Introduction” on the contents page – seemingly demarcated from the other chapters by a visual break and Roman-numeral pagination – can indeed be misleading. But it is still worrying to think this may have happened to a large number of readers. People tend not to be very rigorous when reading film literature anyway, and I’m sure it’s possible to treat the JBDY book as an anecdote-trove – to open it at a random page to read about something of specific interest. But when I wrote the thing I intended it to be a flowing narrative that would ideally be experienced in sequence; not a patchwork. And that opening section was important to the continuity. It provided background information for what was to come: what the film had meant to me over the years, what the Hindi cinema of its time was like. Skip it and you’re just as adrift – for a while at least – as the people who made the film in 1982 were, fumbling about, not quite sure what they were doing.

One lives and learns, though. My next book has an intro too, a long one, but I’ll keep all bases covered this time by using that ever-reliable tool, the subhead. The title will say

Introduction (Or: READ THIS FIRST, BLOCKHEADS)

Monday, February 16, 2015

Tale tweakers - books that twist and shout

[From my Forbes Life column – this one about books with surprise endings]

One barrier to discussing a good twist-in-the-tale narrative is that you can’t properly describe its effect without spoiling it for the reader. I anticipate that difficulty arising in this column, so let me first indulge myself by mentioning one of my favourite such stories, which you won’t easily find in print nowadays.


Stanley Ellin’s “The Question My Son Asked”, published in the mid-1960s, is narrated by a state executioner, a man who initially seems defensive about his profession but is really quite proud of himself. Unimpressed by anti-capital punishment arguments, he believes that anyone who commits a heinous crime no longer qualifies as human and must be destroyed the way a rabid animal would be. And of course, someone has to do the dirty work – to pull the switch for the electric chair. But the executioner now finds that his own son doesn’t want to continue in the family line. They talk about ethics, the son asks a provocative question, and the narrator, after hedging for a while, admits that it isn’t just a matter of social consciousness – he enjoys the power that comes with holding someone’s life in his hands and watching the electric current jerk a still-living body around.

What is impressive here is how the story initially seems to be about one thing and then becomes something else; how our view of the protagonist changes; how the tone goes from sombre, almost melancholy, to dark and macabre, and does this without undermining the more philosophical elements in the narrative.

The tweak in the tale is a tricky thing to do well – it can often be a gimmick, aimed at giving the reader a quick shiver at the expense of inner logic. But there have been many books and stories where surprise endings (or mid-narrative surprises) are central to the story’s purpose. Serious literary fiction has sometimes hinged on major revelations: in William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice, the young,
lovelorn narrator Nathan learns relatively late in the story about the terrible choice offered to Sophie, a Holocaust survivor, when she was in the concentration camp, and our feelings about the characters’ inner struggles and destinies are affected by this disclosure. And Gautam Malkani’s Londonstani, about the lives of a group of second-generation Asian “rudeboys” in London, ends with a surprise that overturns all our assumptions about the narrator’s identity.

Some of the best sources of good twists are anthologies in the noir and science-fiction genres. The many gems in the collection The Best American Noir of the Century (edited by James Ellroy) include Harlan Ellison’s riveting, novella-length “Mefisto in Onyx”, about a man blessed (or cursed) with the ability to “jaunt” into the minds of other people. To his dismay, an old friend asks him to scan the mental “landscape” of a convicted serial killer, whom she believes to be innocent, and the story climaxes with a fascinating game of one-upmanship and one surprise following on the heels of another. Another personal favourite is The Other Side of the Sky, an Arthur C Clarke collection that includes the celebrated “The Nine Billion Names of God” (one of the subtlest end-of-the-world stories ever written) and “The Star” (about the end of another world, not ours, with a shiver-inducing final sentence). Or for a wider range of sci-fi authors, try the Brian Aldiss-edited A Science Fiction Omnibus, which includes Bertram Chandler’s “The Cage”, a sobering tale that provides a sharp, cynical answer to the question “How do you know a species is capable of rational thought?”, and Ted Chiang’s beautiful “Story of Your Life”, about a woman who experiences the past, present and future simultaneously.

Roald Dahl is one of the acknowledged masters of the story-ending frisson, and The Collected Short Stories of Roald Dahl is the best primer to his work. My favourites here include “Pig” (young boy raised by his great-aunt to be strictly vegetarian must go out into the
big bad world after her death), “The Great Automatic Grammatizator” (a frightening cautionary tale about mass-production in literature, which seems even more relevant today!) and “The Wish”, a tense story about a little boy inventing a game to be played on a colourful carpet in his house: he has to cross to the other side by avoiding the reds (which represent fiery coals) and the blacks (which are poisonous serpents). Dahl’s achievement here is that by the end, the carpet’s dangers are as real to the reader as they are to the boy.

Ira Levin was not as prolific as Dahl, but he was described as “the Swiss watchmaker of suspense novels” by none less than Stephen King. It’s a good analogy, for Levin’s novels are masterpieces of construction. Since they are thrillers which can be read in a couple of hours, highbrow critics don’t think of them as “serious literature” – but it’s only when you try putting yourself in the author’s position that you realize the rigour and ingenuity involved. Most of his books accumulate little details and surround one major surprise with a few minor ones.

Consider the structure of Levin’s brilliant A Kiss Before Dying. The first section of the book is about the carrying out of a murderous scheme, and throughout we are privy to the ticking of the killer’s mind, his paranoid inner state. Yet here’s the rub: we never learn his name, and the implications of this emerge in the next segment of the narrative, where the focus shifts to another character who starts a private investigation into the murder. She encounters a few suspects, but the reader is now flummoxed: it is possible that the killer is one of the men she meets, but we have no way of knowing who it is. So ingenious is the change in perspective that a character whom we knew intimately in the first section of the book is now a stranger to us. This is the set-up for the novel’s major disclosure, which occurs mid-narrative.

I’ll finish by mentioning an iconic murder mystery and a book about that mystery. Agatha Christie is often downgraded today as a writer whose work centered too much on neatly packaged solutions, but she was an expert plotter, a quality that is too often
underestimated. In The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, her best-known novel, the revelation of the murderer was a shock to the system for first-time readers. But perhaps a tribute to that book’s influence is that, decades later, a psychoanalyst was inspired to write a book-length study claiming that the real murderer was not the person named by Christie. In Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?, Pierre Bayard revisits the text of Christie’s book and discovers hidden currents that suggest an alternate solution. In the process, he deconstructs many aspects of the suspense genre itself, implying that the reader, not the author, is the final arbiter of a novel’s “meaning”. That may be the biggest twist of all.

[Some earlier Forbes Life columns: time travellers, doubles, parents, satire, popular science, writers on writing, translations, houses]

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Continued thoughts on Birdman (and Gravity)

(a follow-up to this post)

More than once while watching Birdman, I felt that Gravity might have been an equally apt title for it. Two meanings of that word fit this film: the lead character Riggan is preoccupied with subject matter that has gravitas and is “grounded” (as opposed to the “lightweight” superheroes-with-wings blockbusters made for summer audiences), hence his staging of a Raymond Carver story that he associates with respectability. And visually and thematically, the film is concerned with the divide between being tethered and feeling liberated. (Is it possible to be both things at once?)


So the opening scene of the main narrative has Riggan in a state of levitation; but after this he spends most of his time in the theatre’s confining backstage spaces, with the camera tracking him at close quarters as if to make sure he won’t suddenly take wing again (and also possibly to keep Riggan’s Icarus-like alter ego away from him!). And the film’s last shot has Sam searching for her dad in his hospital room, seeing the open window, rushing to it in panic…and then doing what any of us would instinctively do in her place: she looks down. (Everyone knows the law of gravity: things/people that fall/jump from high places go only in one direction.) It is only after that, when she doesn’t see what she had feared, that she looks up…and a smile lights up her face.

This is an enigmatic, possibly pretentious, ending, open to interpretation: the way I saw it was that Riggan, having achieved the success he wanted in a sombre medium, has freed himself. He can be a superhero again (if he chooses - Birdman 4 is waiting for him), or he can do whatever else he feels like doing without worrying about expectations. And okay, if you want to be literal-minded and “realist” about it (though I don’t think the film invites us to do this – I’m a little surprised by how many reviewers seem so sure that all the supernatural stuff is happening only in Riggan’s mind), maybe he is dead – because after having achieved creative fulfillment, there’s nowhere else to go. But the basic principle about being liberated still applies.


Incidentally, I was thinking of the connections between Birdman and Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity before I knew that cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki had supervised and executed the spectacular long takes in both films. The films are polar opposites in a way, even though both feature a dizzying series of circular movements and narrative twists that lead up to a moment of truth for the main character. If Birdman’s backstage set creates a mood of claustrophobia – and Riggan is in danger of being hemmed in, of being swallowed up by his own insecurities and the need for other people’s approval – Gravity is about the opposite but equally potent fear, agoraphobia: being adrift in the vast nothingness of space, being bound to, or responsible to, nothing. Both have allegorical endings: but in Birdman, Riggan attains a very agreeable lightness of being and is free to glide away into the ether, while in Gravity Sandra Bullock’s Ryan Stone falls out of space into the water and then staggers back to terra firma. Two characters, two different epiphanies. 

(And am I over-reaching by pointing out that both Riggan and Ryan are in their underwear during their Big Moment? Possibly. But well, as DH Lawrence said, trust the tale.)

Monday, February 09, 2015

Strutting and fretting his hour upon the stage – on Michael Keaton and Birdman

There was a time in the early 1990s when I would have called myself a Michael Keaton fan, but looking back now I realise what scant foundation there was for such fandom; Keaton did so few memorable movies. I was very taken by his roles – and his talent for being quirky, enigmatic and an everyman at almost the same time – in Tim Burton's Beetlejuice and the Batman films.*** And there were a few other good parts in movies I barely remember now – Pacific Heights, Clean and Sober. He was solid and dependable and non-self-aggrandising in the Jeff Bridges way, though even Bridges, one of the most inconspicuous of lead actors, wound up with a much higher profile and a larger, more varied body of work.

I also remember really enjoying Keaton’s small part as Dogberry in Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado about Nothing, partly because it seemed so cool that a guy who had been Batman could also do Shakespeare (imagine the reverse, Branagh fighting super-villains in a cape and mask. Doesn’t work, unless you create a hallucinogen-driven genre-bender by throwing in Emma Thompson as Catwoman and Woody Allen as the Riddler). Besides, I was in a phase of fascination with how a certain sort of American actor could perform Shakespeare with raw effectiveness, and Keaton’s Dogberry was a bit like watching Edmond O’Brien’s superb Casca in the 1953 Julius Caesar, or Victor Mature in that beautiful scene in My Darling Clementine where the sharp-shooting Doc Holliday briefly becomes a poet and finishes a Hamlet soliloquy for an old actor.


This has been a long-drawn way of saying that, having possibly not even thought about Michael Keaton for years, I was firmly in his corner, cheering away during every minute of his performance in Alejandro González Iñárritu's Birdman. He plays Riggan, an actor pushing 60, best known for a superhero role in a blockbuster film years ago; yet we learn later that as a boy, Riggan’s creative aspirations took flight when (a possibly drunk) Raymond Carver scribbled a note on a cocktail napkin for him. And now, all these decades later, he is trying to “atone”, to do something literary and Important by adapting a Carver story for the stage. But is he up to it? Is “relevance” a trap for the unwary? Will the production – with all the backstage insecurities, the addition to the cast of the volatile Mike (Ed Norton), and Riggan’s own personal feathered demon squawking in his ear – explode in his face?

In the year that marks the 25th anniversary of the Tim Burton Batman, there’s an obvious temptation to look at Keaton’s casting here as semi-autobiographical, even as a sort of tribute (though at surface level Birdman seems to be expressing disdain for the big-budget superhero film). But it's also possible to over-stress the connection: I don’t think Keaton was ever caught in the superhero mould the way Christopher Reeve was after the Superman films. Partly because the scenery-chewer in the 1989 Batman was Jack Nicholson’s Joker, and partly because the iconic Batman representation is that of the masked hero with much of his face covered (and usually in nighttime scenes).

Even so, the casting makes Birdman more urgent and poignant, while also giving it a sly sense of humour that it might otherwise have lacked. This is a darkly good Broadway film, oppressive and crepuscular in a way that Alexander Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success was (though it isn’t quite as nasty as that 1957 classic). And on another level it is a super behind-the-curtains theatre film too, an All About Eve-like study of the many complicated interrelationships between actors and understudies, directors and critics, those who are reaching for success and those who have been drained by too much of it.

And it is about constant movement – and about going around in circles – in a way that neither of those films was. Emmanuel Lubezki's camera moves with all these characters – following them,  swerving past them to get ahead and then looking back at them cheekily, or just contemplating a corridor for a few seconds before heading down it – through the labyrinths of the green room, the dressing rooms, the other momentary respites of Backstage, and the tunnel-like paths that lead to and from them. And these dizzying long takes are very effective for a claustrophobic, air-deprived setting where people can quickly get old and jaded and tunnel-visioned (Mike tells
Riggan’s daughter Sam he wants to take out her eyes and put them into his own head, so he can look at this world through young, relatively uncorrupted eyes). This main setting is so restrictive, little wonder that a game of “truth or dare” can only be played on an open rooftop, where the sounds of the street temporarily drown out the hypnotic drumbeats that make up much of the film’s “inner space” soundtrack. Or that Riggan’s big moment, the moment of his rebirth, so to speak, comes when he is walking around in the outdoors, in the hurly-burly of Times Square, dressed like a newborn baby. Or that there is such a feeling of liberation in the film’s final shot, which presents the possibility that being a birdman – or a batman – isn’t a fate to be ashamed of, even for a Serious Actor.

P.S. I didn’t study the mechanics of Birdman’s lengthy takes as closely as I would have liked to, but I’m fairly sure that the film has at least one scene where a small shift in time is covered in a continuous, unbroken camera movement, rather than by the conventional cinematic language of a dissolve or cut. (I’m thinking of the sequence where we see Mike making out with Riggan’s daughter behind the scenes, and then the camera glides away from her and down near the stage where Mike is playing a scene with the other actors.) Oddly, the only other such scene I can think of just now is the 360-degree camera movement that bridges 20 years in Yaadon ki Baaraat, with the shot beginning at the feet of a little boy and ending with the man he has grown up into!



------------------
 
*** It’s intriguing to think of Keaton as a sort of proto-Johnny Depp, in terms of being a kindred soul for Tim Burton, a vessel for that director’s off-kilter views of the world: if Beetlejuice had been made 10 years later, there is little doubt who would have played the part. And I don’t find it difficult to imagine Keaton in the lead in Ed Wood.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Road House blues (and other warm or creepy homes in literature)

[From my theme-driven books column in Forbes Life]

One of my earliest, most cherished literary memories doesn’t involve the written word at all: it involves a couple of drawings from a Ladybird Children’s Classics edition of Johann Wyss’s 1812 novel Swiss Family Robinson. The story (which I probably thought at the time was a companion piece to the similarly titled Robinson Crusoe) had a family shipwrecked on an island where they proceed to use available resources as best as they can, and the pictures that most enchanted me were of a cave-house dug into a cliff, to spend the winter in. The interior was cosy, warm and well-lit, the doors and windows were rounded, there were little bookshelves, and the rooms in which the children lounged on bunks seemed to belong to a particularly luxurious boarding-school hostel. Even the stalactites hanging from the cave’s roof looked friendly.


The image of the cave-house changed the tone of the book. Even on a strange island, you can find your personal castle, it seemed to say. By this point in the story, the Family Robinson are well-settled in their new surroundings – in control, with much of the danger having passed.

There are many other comforting houses in children’s literature, of course; another personal favourite is Moon-Face’s little "flat"
in Enid Blyton’s Enchanted Wood series located near the top of the tree, complete with a slide that takes you back to the bottom – which becomes a meeting point for the characters before their faraway-land adventures begin. Elsewhere, there are reminders that outward appearances can be deceptive: in Hansel and Gretal, the children are lured into a witch’s captivity because they are mesmerised by her cake-and-chocolate house – a cautionary lesson about excessive sweet consumption for young readers to this day – and in CS Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, four children living together in an old country house discover, in the wardrobe, a portal to the magical land of Narnia. (Given that the story is set during the Second World War, the escapist implications are obvious. Yet there is also the knowledge that the real-world house is a place that must in the end be returned to: you can’t stay in fantasy-land forever.)

Anglophone literature of an earlier vintage was often set in a world of ancestral estates or mansions that a family might have stayed in for centuries. Hence the many novels that are named for residences – such as Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey – or otherwise feature houses that are inseparable from the story and the characters: Pemberley in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, where the relationship between Elizabeth and Darcy – dislike slowly turning to love – deepens; or Mrs Havisham’s frozen-in-time mansion Satis House in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, mouldy and in disuse, its
appearance echoing the heartbreak and festering bitterness of its owner. And try imagining PG Wodehouse’s delightful Blandings Castle stories without the setting: an English country estate where imposters hop in and out, stern aunts get their comeuppance, lovers are reunited – and all the while, the absent-minded Lord Emsworth, king of this particular castle, thinks only of his beloved pig the Empress. When Evelyn Waugh called Blandings a Garden of Eden, it was a recognition that such a setting was more like a state of mind than an actual, physical space.

Much less welcoming houses may be found in the mystery and horror genres. “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderlay again” is the famous opening sentence of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, told in the voice of an unnamed young woman who marries a wealthy man named Maxim de Winter, goes to live in his estate as a happy young bride…but then finds herself in the shadow of Maxim’s deceased first wife, with every corner of Manderlay haunted by Rebecca’s memory. More recent haunted-house novels include Stephen King’s The Shining (in which a writer named Jack Torrance takes up a position as the off-season caretaker of the Overlook Hotel one chilly winter, and finds the hotel exerting a strange spell on him) and Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, about
experiments in fear conducted by a Dr Montague and his subjects in the spooky Hill House. The accent in these books is on psychological horror the house becoming a channel for the demons in the characters’ minds – rather than in the sort of supernatural terror you find lurking in the vampire’s castle in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (with one of its creepiest images – Jonathan Harker held captive in the ancient house and watching from a window as Count Dracula crawls, spider-like, down a wall and disappears from sight).

Other “house” books supply commentary on class relations and how they affect human transactions. Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher is an account of a real-life crime – the murder of an infant boy in an English country house in 1860 – but one of its subtexts is the complex set of relationships between the “masters” and the “servants” living in Road Hill House (a maid moves up the ranks when she becomes the second wife of the house’s owner, leading to resentment among other members of his family, and complicating the question “who did it?”). A famous novel written a decade before the Road Hill murder, Charlotte Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, is about the upward mobility of the wild child Heathcliff, and what the farmhouse of the title represents to him – a place of aspiration but also deep loss.


Sarah Waters’s The Little Stranger, combines two of the themes listed above, being an atmospheric haunted-house story but also being about the blurring of class lines in post-WWII Britain, and the effect this has – materially and psychologically – on the old rich and their one-time servants. The setting for this cultural clash is a once-grand mansion called Hundreds Hall whose inhabitants, the Ayres family, used to be landed gentry but are now casualties of a changing order: the vastness of their house is scarcely representative of their actual financial standing and lifestyle. Into this world comes the book’s narrator, Dr Faraday, who had seen Hundreds Hall as a child, because his mother once worked there as a nursemaid. Faraday becomes the Ayres’s friend, but he can’t understand why the family is so terrified of the house. Surely there’s a commonsense explanation for all those strange noises and sightings. Or could it be that his changed status is making the house uncomfortable? 

The most moving aspect of this story though is the theme of people clinging to the past, afraid to let go, and tied almost as if by a magic charm to the place they spent their entire lives in. “I expect you think that we’re absolutely mad to go on living in Hundreds, trying to keep it the way it was,” a member of of the family tells Faraday, “but we have to sort of keep the place in order, keep up our side of the bargain."

[Some earlier Forbes Life columns: time travellers, parents, satire, popular science, translations]

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Decaying standards for public-service announcements

(From the Exciting Pictures department)

When you’re doing hospital duty and dealing round the clock with red-tapism, miscommunication, unfathomable billing procedures, blank-faced nurses and untraceable doctors, when ward boys giggle at each other in Malayalam upon seeing you scald your hand at a water dispenser, and when the sole bright spark in your day is being able to say a firm No to the Spinach-Corn-Cheese-Burst Dosa at the hospital's Sagar Ratna, this is not the sort of image you hope to be confronted with:



The very walls are mocking me now, you think (because by this time you feel like you’ve been decomposing for days, and you aren’t even dead) – but then your eye takes in the full picture and all is well again, at least for a few seconds:


(Another good thing about this is, it encourages you to while your time away by making up number problems, e.g. If you put six plastic bottles, a paper towel and a banana peel into a plastic bag and leave it out in the open for a thousand years, will it be possible to locate the right doctor by the end of that time? And can you go home?)

Monday, January 26, 2015

A tough, uncommon nut - Kundan Shah on RK Laxman

Just heard about RK Laxman’s passing. One of my abiding memories of speaking with Kundan Shah for the Jaane bhi do Yaaro book years ago was the boyish, hero-worshipping grin on Kundan’s face when he spoke of Laxman and their brief association. Here are the relevant bits from the transcript (some of it is in the book too):
I was doing Wagle ki Duniya with Laxman – I was just an instrument for him on that show – and I tell you, he’s the best actor I’ve ever seen. Sometimes you can’t narrate a gag, you have to act it out, which Laxman did phenomenally well. But of course, you couldn’t ask him for a retake!

Once I met him at the Times of India office. I thought his office would be fantastic – I mean, Laxman IS Times of India, a good cartoon by him tells you more than all the headlines put together. But his cabin was an isolated place on the side – one of the most spartan rooms I’ve ever seen. There was no visitor’s chair even. He had an artist’s desk, a huge thing high up. And because his chair was high his feet wouldn’t touch the ground, so he’d constantly be tapping them against the underside of the table while working. It’s rumoured that the table has little holes or dents now.

It’s difficult to become fond of him, you know – he’s like a snake, he’s always ready to strike. And he’s got humour on his side: he could be wrong and you could be indignant as hell, but he would let loose one wisecrack at you and the whole room would be in splits. He is one tough nut, very temperamental. He would reach his office early and read all the newspapers for cartoon ideas. And he was so irritated until he got the right idea that if he heard someone outside his cabin laughing he’d go take out all his frustrations on that poor guy: ‘You fucker, you’re doing no work, what do you mean by laughing like this?’ But the day he got his cartoon early, he’d go to the same guy and say ‘Why aren’t you laughing?’

He told me that Rajiv Gandhi would always tell him, why do you depict me so short? I’m quite tall. Bal Thackeray (who had been a cartoonist himself) would call him up just to chat, and perhaps to ensure that Laxman wouldn’t caricature him that day.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Good golly, Miss Dolly - my attempts to make sense of Dolly ki Doli

[Did this for The Daily O]

The best thing I can find to say of the new film Dolly ki Doli – about a con-woman using marriage as her playground and decamping with valuables midway through each suhaag raat after drugging the groom-of-the-moment – is that it has the sense to be only an hour and 40 minutes long. This is a definite point in its favour. If they had chipped away another hour and a half, it may even have been a good film.

What is this movie about, I kept wondering, and why does it exist? Some observations that may or may not answer those questions:

It could be a sort of fable (though the thought and energy required to interpret it in those terms probably isn’t worth it) – an allegory about the Revenge of the Dowry Givers; a satire on the socially sanctioned assessment and bartering of young women, their subsequent shackling into married life where they are treated as inflatable sex dolls by husbands and as slaves and jewellery banks by parents-in-law; an exercise in wish-fulfillment that takes women’s empowerment into a new dimension.


If this is the case, the central character is meant to be a blank slate on which men (and their overbearing parents) can scrawl their own fantasies or ideals. “Dolly” is different things to different people – a gharelu ladki, a seductress, and so on – and you’d think such a tabula-rasa role would be well suited to Sonam Kapoor, who is as synthetic and vacant here as anything I have seen her in so far (with the exception of Dilli 6, where she had a few good moments). That isn’t how it works though. Kapoor is passable in the scenes where Dolly is carrying out her charades (because, think about it, what standards do we use to judge her performance in those bits? Anything goes. Every gesture and expression, however broad or unconvincing, can be explained away as being part of an act), but when Dolly is with her own people, being “herself”, there is no sense of a person with any inner life. Instead she mechanically drones lines that might sound meaningful on paper (“I would rather be in an actual jail than in your shaadi ka jail”) but have little overall relevance to this hodgepodge of a film, which doesn’t stay focused on any one thought for more than a few seconds.

But here’s another theory. The pastiche-like feel of the film, the wild tonal shifts, the problems in logic, the lack of continuity, scenes such as the one involving a misplaced dadi, the non-sequiturish incomprehensibleness of the note left behind by Dolly at the end (why do I do what I do, she says, pronouncing Hindi words with the diligence of a child in elocution class. Well, why does a sabzi-wallah sell sabzi and not alcohol?)… all this can be easily explained if one assumes that Dolly ki Doli isn’t a film but the sum of a series of auditions where actors like Rajkummar Rao, Varun Sharma and Pulkit Samrat were asked to try out a few different things – look, here is a role you could be playing in a big-budget film we may or may not be planning, so:

“Speak in a Sonepat accent.”


“Put on a moustache and try to look grown-up and policeman-like.”


“Be sleazy.”


“Look avuncular.”


“Bumble.”


“Do pelvic dance.”


“Say ‘dadi!’ and slap your forehead while looking surprised and sad.”


“And Sonam, no, you don’t have to pronounce ‘वे ’ as ‘Vay’ just because it’s written like that – ‘woh’ will do nicely. Oh well. Whatever.”

And then all those audition clips were thrown together.

Ultimately though, I have decided that this film is best seen in meta terms, as yet another self-examination by the movie industry. What better way to comment on certain feudal-patriarchal traditions in our society than to reference another major feudal-patriarchal tradition, the star system? So here is a savvy con-woman getting the better of a host of men who are clearly out of their depth in her company – and as if to echo this, we have a privileged, glamorous, second-generation actress in the lead role, surrounded by “plainer” actors from more low-key milieus. (“Itni lambi ladkiyan hoti hain?” asks a boy’s mother amusingly, and one is reminded that as a physical specimen of lambaai and gorapan, Sonam Kapoor bears roughly the same relationship to actors like Rajkummar as the elven-queen Galadriel does to the Dwarf Lords in Tolkien.**) No wonder then that when all these non-starry men can’t track down or tame Dolly (she is always out of reach), it needs a cameo appearance by a mainstream star (Saif Ali Khan) to help apprehend her.

And no wonder too that the final, “money shot” cameo – even though it’s only a photograph – is by Salman Khan. Forget all those platitudes about shaadi as a jail, or the “serious” angle of a woman, let down in love, avenging herself on other men. THIS is what the film has been building up to all along: Salman as the ultimate ideal of malehood, the prem rattan, the superstar capable of turning even our opportunistic heroine into a bag of mush. Poor Saif. Despite that grand, star-cameo entrance, even he turned out second best in the end. And as for the film’s ostensible leading man Rajkummar… at least he got an item number.

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** No offence intended to Lady Galadriel or her followers

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Love, virtually: about a scene from Spike Jonze’s Her

End-of-year and beginning-of-year lists can be dreary things, but recently I saw an online poll that didn’t restrict itself to “Name your favourite films”. It asked supplementary questions, aimed at building a conversation about movies and contemporary life. Among these: what was the most striking or emblematic image (or scene) you saw in a film last year?

Even this question is reductive in its own way – it is hardly possible to “rank” all the memorable moments from films I watched in 2014. But Spike Jonze’s futuristic Her has a scene that has stayed with me over the past 12 months. It involves two people in an intimate situation (watch it out of context with the sound turned off and you think you can guess what is going on), but unable to interact at a human level because a machine is overseeing and directing what they do.


That makes Her sound like a horror film, and indeed the opening title appears in a serrated font, in a neon white against a black background, with a creepy soundtrack. It is tempting to see the “her” of the title – a conscious, intelligent Operating System called Samantha, with whom a man named Theodore develops a deep emotional bond – as a predatory ghost in the machine, a version of the girl crawling out of the TV screen in Ringu. But this film is not so easily classified. It can be described as a bone-chilling romance (there’s a poster blurb for you) between a man and a machine, but in another sense it is a love story between two operating systems or facilitators who make life easier for others by simulating emotion. (Theodore is human all right – nebbish, a little lost in person – but his job involves writing intimate letters on behalf of other people who don’t know how to express themselves.) It is also a version of the Pinocchio tale ("what is it like to be alive in that room just now?" Samantha asks from her virtual plane) and a logical step forward in this sense from Spielberg's A.I. Artificial Intelligence. And it is about how relationships, and attitudes to relationships, are changing in a tech-dependent world.

In the bleak scene I’m talking about, Theodore agrees to an arrangement where a real-world woman fills in as the operating system’s “body” so that he and Samantha can at least come close to making physical love. If this strange ménage-a-trois is to work, it is important that Theodore doesn’t address the human woman Isabella directly, or even acknowledge her reality; she must remain a passive medium. Dazed by the weirdness of the situation, though, he forgets this: when Isabella arrives at his door, he reflexively starts talking to her, introducing himself, and the look she gives him is that of a deer caught in a firestorm. For a few seconds – before he remembers to give Isabella the apparatus that will enable Samantha to “plug in” – here are two flesh-and-blood people who have no idea how to deal with each other because there is no machine between them, shepherding the encounter. This is awkward taken to a whole new dimension.

All this is happening in 2025. It's puzzling to find a film set in the very near future; that isn’t how science-fiction usually works. But part of the point is that technology is now altering our lives and behaviour more rapidly than ever before. A couple of decades ago, artificial intelligence was still a distant, theoretical enough concept for us to feel we couldn’t seriously be affected by it on a daily basis. Today, smart devices and Apps have anthropomorphised “personalities”, including human names and voices, and one is aware that a lot more may happen in 10 years.

Watching the threesome scene, I thought of human-facilitator-human relationships of the present day: about the gap between chatty, over-familiar interactions on a social-media page (between people who might not know each other well in the “real”
world) and the more tentative conversations that might occur if those same people happen to run into each other offline, exposed without their facilitators. But it is easy to play prophet of doom, to make noises about how technology is building cocoons and disconnecting us from each other. So perhaps I should also - in the New Year spirit - note the film's brighter passages, such as a scene on a beach where groups of people are lazing about, chatting, sun-bathing, their gadgets (temporarily at least) ignored. Or blink-and-miss moments like the one where Theodore, walking down a road, sneezes and a woman nearby says a quick “Bless you”, and it comes as a surprise to find that in a world where people are always chattering at their operating systems, old-fashioned displays of etiquette are possible too.

[From my Business Standard column]

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Small-town boy, shape-shifter, comedian: meeting Adil Hussain

[Did this profile of the actor Adil Hussain for Man’s World magazine. I’m undecided about Hussain as a screen actor – have seen him in a few films, without being especially struck by any one performance but he was very pleasant and well-spoken in person]

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“I have been a clown since childhood,” is one of the first things Adil Hussain says, and I sit up. The remark doesn’t quite gel with his screen image – refined, understated gravitas has been his stock-in-trade in films – or with the soft-spoken man sitting in front of me. Watching Hussain, fit and trim, looking much younger than his 51 years, speaking eloquently about his life, it is hard to picture him doing stand-up comedy for a raucous audience. But that is how his career as a performer began in his home-state Assam in the early 1980s, when the group he was part of, Bhaya Mama, “became a craze across the state”.



Photo by TARUN GARG
This is also a reminder of how atypical Hussain’s acting trajectory has been. Most viewers who know him only through his movie roles – of which there has been a steady flow in the past four or five years, films as varied as Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, Gauri Shinde’s English Vinglish and Chandra Prakash Dwivedi’s recent Zed Plus – would reckon he is a late starter, someone who came into the public gaze when he was well into his forties. Yet, as Hussain points out – not boastfully, just putting things in perspective – he was in his teens when he signed his first autograph.
 

Bhaya Mama mostly did satire founded on sociopolitical engagement – something that came naturally to young people in the politically turbulent northeast of the time. “We were brutally honest, and covertly responsible for the fall of two governments in Assam,” says Hussain, “We did hundreds of shows, in every nook and corner, to make people aware of what was going on.” The students’ agitation of 1979 had created a lot of tension, and Adil, like other youngsters in the state, didn’t go to school for two years. During this time, many frustrated students took up guns or went astray; he was among those who found catharsis and an anchor in creative expression. “Of course, given the political climate, my father was nervous – if I came home at 2 AM, he didn’t believe I had only been singing or performing, he thought it must be something more dangerous!”

At the same time, he had been doing serious plays in school – “there was a playwright, Rukmul Hazarika, who did absurdist plays inspired by Beckett” – which meant that without really planning it, he was tapping into two sides of his personality simultaneously; feeling his way around, seeing what worked for him.
There was no tradition of acting in the family – his father was a teacher, two brothers were lawyers – but being the youngest of seven siblings meant he wasn't burdened with expectations or sternly told what career path he must follow. “The universe was very kindly conspiring to prepare me for acting.” 

The results have been visible over the past few years, with Hussain appearing in many different sorts of high-profile movies, from international productions by directors like Mira Nair (The Reluctant Fundamentalist) and Danis Tanovic (Tigers) to mainstream and multiplex Hindi cinema (Sriram Raghavan’s Agent Vinod, Vikramaditya Motwane’s classy period film Lootera). He has not had to carry these films on his own shoulders – and there is probably still a question mark about whether he has the right screen presence to do this – but he has played solid supporting parts in all of them.

For a boy from small-town Assam (he grew up in Goalpara, “which is probably the most neglected district centre in the country – everything happened far away for us, even the newspaper came three days after it was published”), it must feel surreal walking the red carpet at international film festivals alongside celebrities like Cate Blanchett, or performing a scene with the French superstar Gerard Depardieu (in Life of Pi). But the way he sees it, "It’s a blessing in disguise that I got recognition at this age, or this level of maturity, because my head is less likely to be turned." Besides, if he was going to be swayed by praise, it would have happened long ago, when he got excellent notices in British newspapers for his stage performance in Roysten Abel's production Othello: A Play in Black and White. “Adil Hussain playing Othello is the best piece of Shakespearean acting I have seen,” gushed a 1999 review in The Scotsman.

No wonder he isn’t distracted by what he calls the paraphernalia that comes with being in the film industry – “all this stuff we are going to do in a little while,” he says, rolling his eyes in mock-terror as he points towards our photographer setting up his equipment in the next room. “It’s nice, but I don’t take it too seriously – and I hope it stays that way!” When the shoot begins, he is professionalism exemplified – bringing out and trying on a variety of shirts and coats, asking our lensman Tarun what he thinks will work – but it is also obvious that posing for a still camera doesn’t come naturally to him. “What role am I playing here, I ask myself?” And then, with a theatrical wave of his hand, “Adil, who is being photographed!

Things might have gone differently. "I did once dream of becoming a big commercial star," he admits, "But then I happened to watch Dustin Hoffman and Steve MacQueen in Papillon – knowing nothing about American cinema – and they seemed so authentic, I thought they were non-professional actors who had been picked up for this project." Later he was astonished to see the same actors in other, very different films, and that altered his view of the profession. “If it weren’t for that experience, I might have gone to Bombay directly. Instead I came to the National School of Drama in Delhi.” In the process he realised that acting is as large and complex as life, there is no one theory. “There are personality actors and there are character actors. Charles Bronson, Clint Eastwood, Bachchan saab – fantastic performers but they have found a persona that is loved by the audience and they stick with it. I was more interested in being a shape-shifter.”


Consequently, staying away from comfort zones has been important for him while choosing roles. Take what is arguably his best-known film part, as Sridevi’s patriarchal, condescending husband in English Vinglish. This is an unsympathetic character, not author-backed at all, but Hussain leapt at the opportunity because he found the role truthful. “This man is not likable, but he is real. He is a product of a society and a way of thinking: that a woman should only be in the kitchen and invisible. Playing it truthfully allows a viewer to look at the film and say yes, he is like that, and even I am like that sometimes, or my husband is like that! It is important to recognise yourself in uncomfortable things.”

In any case, he doesn’t find it useful to think of characters as good or bad. “I don’t even use the word ‘character’ or charitra, because I feel that amounts to a diminishing. I prefer ‘role’ – called paatra in the old Sanskrit tradition – which recognises the complexities and dimensions of people.” And for him, the foundation of being a good actor is empathy. “An actor has to become like water to fit the paatra, and water has three important elements: it is transparent, extremely fluid, and it quenches your thirst. And to become like that is a lifelong journey, maybe several lifetimes.” 


This is why he sees his teaching stints – at the NSD – as a learning process, and says he is constantly aware of his own limitations. For instance, though his features don’t mark him out as belonging to a particular region, and have enabled him to be cast as a south Indian, a Bengali and a Maharashtrian, he admits to struggling sometimes with accents. “I would need a lot of preparation time to play a Haryanvi or Punjabi character. And after watching myself in Zed Plus, I realised that a few of the pronunciations were off.” That apart, getting inside the skin of a small-town puncture-wallah wasn’t a problem. “I grew up in a small town, sat about with all kinds of people. When you grow up without television or telephones, what do you do? You hang around, observe, climb trees, you are curious about the outside world: your hard-drives are free. Now, of course, people are completely immersed in all these strange devices.”

Even as Adil speaks with enthusiasm about his forthcoming films – including Feast of Varanasi, “a small British film, a fantastic thriller that weaves in Indian casteism”, Prashant Nair’s Umrika, which has been selected for the Sundance festival, and Parched, shot by Russell Carpenter, the DoP of films like Titanic – he says he wants to get back to theatre. And there are other activities that demand his time. Such as cooking, which he enjoys very much (“I just made a banana walnut cake with palm jaggery”), or painting, which he discovered a flair for when doing a long take in a film where his character was required to dab at a canvas. Adil improvised for the shot as he had been asked to, but then found that he wanted to finish the painting. It now hangs on a wall in his friend’s house, where we are meeting. On the wall opposite is an MF Hussain original. As our man jokes about not wanting to sign his own painting because he is still only “the other Hussain”
and about how Life of Pi briefly put him in "the Rs 4000 crore club" even though he still hasn't made it to the Rs 200 crore club in India I think I see a glimpse of the comedian from the Bhaya Mama days.

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[Here’s a post about Lessons in Forgetting, in which Hussain played the lead role – a father searching for the truth behind his daughter’s death]

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

PK as a reworked Bawarchi, Aamir as oracle, other thoughts

For anyone who has been left fatigued by Aamir Khan’s messiah persona in films like 3 Idiots and Taare Zameen Par as well as in television’s Satyamev Jayate, the obvious joke about his role in PK is that this is inspired casting because in most of his recent films (notable exception: Talaash) he has played an extraterrestrial or an automaton or God Incarnate anyway, the only problem was the film itself didn't know it. (Here is a post demonstrating that Aamir’s intense character in Dhobi Ghat was really a Na’vi.) PK is different. It knows.

But jokes aside, I thought Aamir was quite good in this film, and that the first half had some lovely things in it, especially in the 45 or 50 minutes leading up to the interval. Its best bits, when “PK” tells his story to Jaggu (Anushka Sharma), do what good science-fiction writing does so well (and no, I’m not saying this film is sci-fi ): making the familiar very unfamiliar, providing a fresh look at things we take for granted (so that you may end up asking ‘what really IS so strange about a man pairing a formal shirt with a flouncy skirt?’ or ‘why shouldn’t cars dance?’). For PK, everything has to be learnt from scratch, and his childlike perspective on our vulnerable little world – our pale blue dot, as Carl Sagan put it makes this part of the film very engaging. Plus there is the sweetness of the idea that an alien newly landed on Earth, and unused to verbal communication, might end up speaking exclusively in Bhojpuri because that is the language of the only person he succeeded in “transmitting” from. (Midway through the story, I was expecting that PK would tap into Jaggu’s linguistic reserves as well, thus allowing Aamir to spend the second half of the film moving between Bhojpuri, urbanite English and Hindi. Done well, that could have been light commentary on how our perceptions of and attitudes to people change depending on language and accent.)

In this post Baradwaj Rangan mentions the connection between Hirani’s and Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s cinemas. For me, PK had very clear echoes of Bawarchi, in which Rajesh Khanna’s Raghu – the all-purpose cook and problem-solver, a version of the natkhat spiritual guide Krishna – shows a squabbling family the road back to love. That film announced its allegorical intentions from the
outset, opening with a shot of a stage curtain that parts to reveal the inaptly named house “Shanti Nivas” – much like PK begins with a view of the cosmos, eventually homing in on our tiny planet, clouds parting to reveal the "stage". In one of the most self-consciously beautiful shots in Bawarchi (a film that does not, generally speaking, contain visual flourishes), Raghu walks out of the mist, from a sylvan Vrindavan-like setting – this is a still image that looks like a painting – towards the camera, on his way to the Sharma family’s house (in PK, the alien emerges from a cloud too, or from a spaceship hidden in one).

The bawarchi spends much of the story marveling at the Sharmas’ pettiness, at the little things that create gulfs between them, and the household with its disparate character types (the brothers played by AK Hangal, Kali Banerjee and Asrani don’t even seem like they could belong to one family) can without much trouble be seen as a symbol for a multicultural nation. (“Iss naatak ka sthaan hai Bharat” says Amitabh Bachchan’s voiceover just before the curtain opens in that first scene.) Raghu unites them (much as PK shows Indians of different religions that they are children of one God) but then there is a further union to be effected: Jaya Bhaduri is in love with a man who is not approved of by the family (in the same way that the Pakistani Sarfaraz in PK is an automatic figure of suspicion for conservative Indians). In Bawarchi, this boyfriend, woodenly played by a non-entity, is one of the film’s weak links; in PK, Sarfaraz is played by Sushant Singh Rajput who is a fine young actor, but cast here in a thankless, cipher-like role. In both films the protagonist’s final task is to bring the lovers together. Then he walks back into the mist, in search of other houses that need his intervention (or other planets with semi-intelligent life on them).

Bawarchi has the intimate, TV-drama feel of much of Hrishi-da’s post-1960s work, and needless to say it isn’t anywhere near as technically sophisticated as PK. But even in its weakest moments – when it fails to find a balance between big-picture lecture-baazi and telling a small-canvas story – it has nothing quite as heavy-handed as the Live TV show scene in the climax of Hirani’s film, where Tapasvi Maharaj (Saurabh Shukla) is exposed as a charlatan. This was one of the most tedious and stretched out sequences I have seen in a major film in a long while – it got so bad after a while that I was feeling embarrassed on behalf of the writers and director.

My problem wasn’t with the implausibility or lack of “realism”: the nitpicking questions like “how could they do all this on a Live show, shifting the cameras to Jaggu and bringing her romantic past into it?” Because it’s understood that the film is now in a symbolic, courtroom-like space where everyone gets involved, positions and counter-positions are furiously debated, and souls may be at stake. (Of all things, the framework reminded me of the climactic scene – the trial in Heaven – in Powell-Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death.) But the sequence is astonishingly static, has no regard for storytelling economy – there are far too many flashbacks and reaction shots – and invests too much time and dramatic energy in the supposed suspense around what really happened when Jaggu and her boyfriend were supposed to get married. Watching it, I keep wondering how an overwritten, over-performed scene like this even made it out of the editing room in this form, at a level where people like Hirani, Vidhu Vinod Chopra and “Mr Perfectionist” himself were involved. How could no one notice that the scene was sucking the life out of the movie? Even knowing that the film was trying to simplify a delicate subject for a mass audience (with the Parikshit Sahni character being a stand-in for the gullible Godman-junkie whose eyes need to be prised open), it could have been so much sharper.

And don’t get me started on the forced romantic track near the end. Or on poor, poor Sushant Singh Rajput, who does the crestfallen, St Bernard-caught-in-the-headlights expression so well even in his good roles, it can take a while to realise how poorly done by he is in this one.


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While trying not to fall into the critic’s trap of reviewing the film he was hoping to see rather than the one the filmmakers set out to make, I’ll say this: given the available raw material and at least some of what is actually on screen, including Aamir’s strangely affecting performance, this film could have done other things. The whimsical, montage-like, tourist-guide-to-this-weird-planet tone of the first half could have been sustained. Yet, after those early scenes with the alien’s-eye view, it settles down into handling a Single Important Issue, and in doing this it becomes leaden and treats the audience as dolts. (Which, to be fair, many people in this country are when it comes to religion. And this returns us to the old question “Is it okay for a narrative film to occasionally discard subtleties like the Show, Don’t Tell principle and instead turn into a public-service show?” My instinctive answer is “No”, but I do sometimes wonder.)

Much like Chetan Bhagat, who has self-consciously moved from being “just” a storyteller to being a writer who Sets Out to Make a Difference and Herald Change, Aamir now has a clearly defined image. In an email exchange, a friend who is something of an insider in the film industry made this observation about the difference between PK / 3 Idiots and Rajkumar Hirani’s Munnabhai films: that the relatable, human qualities of Munnabhai and the detached, nearly omniscient status of PK and Rancho are offshoots of the personalities and approaches of the lead actors – Sanjay Dutt being a malleable, non-cerebral performer who won't ask many big, weighty questions like “What is the ultimate purpose of this scene?” and Aamir being a control freak who will try to ensure that everything he does is Meaningful in a clearly observable, quantifiable sense. With Munnabhai, we are invested in his own personal growth and we don't feel like the film is preaching at us through him; with the Aamir roles, it is hard to escape the sense that we are being talked down to. No wonder PK starts to slacken (at least for those of us who think we are already knowledgeable about the hazards of Godmen etc) around the point that the protagonist goes from being a wide-eyed outsider learning new things to being the smug know-it-all spreading the message of peace and oneness.

[Related posts: Sagan's inquisitive alien, new ways of looking at the world, a book about Aamir]

Saturday, December 27, 2014

On Anurag Kashyap’s Ugly - power struggles, mindgames and innocence sidelined

One of my favourite Anurag Kashyap-directed scenes (and one that is a lot of fun to watch and discuss with students) is the chase through the slum in Black Friday. The scene begins in a purposeful, no-nonsense vein – Imtiaz Ghavate may have been involved in the Bombay blasts. He must be apprehended. Senior cops, shouting instructions, and their minions, who will do most of the running, gather to make enquiries. Everyone looks very determined – but then, as Imtiaz keeps eluding the police's welcoming arms and everyone starts tiring, the tone becomes almost comical. There are many stops and starts, the cops-and-robbers theme is deglamorised, we see how mundane and chancy such pursuits can be. A flabby policeman bleats “Imtiaz, ruk ja yaar” (and there is a contrast with Amitabh delivering fiery dialogues from a nearby TV). By the end of the scene, trapped as we are with the characters in Dharavi’s labyrinths, we have lost sight of the Big Picture, the fact that this is part of an investigation into a major terrorist attack. What matters are the little details: what we learn about Imtiaz and these cops and the world they are stumbling around in – a slum so congested that a large pipeline running through it performs the function of an arterial road.

And then he is finally caught, smacked hard by a senior officer – this is as much a bucket of cold water for the viewer, who has been enjoying the circus – and the next scene, an interrogation in a menacingly lit room, returns us to that larger picture and to the razor-sharp focus that is the need of the hour.


Something comparable happens over the course of Kashyap’s powerful new film Ugly. The serious situation that demands our attention is established early on – a little girl has vanished, probably been kidnapped – but then the narrative enters a warren of side-lanes to examine the shadowy back-stories and inner lives of the many people involved. And the thing that matters (or the thing that we thought mattered) is lost sight of and returned to, very unsettlingly, only in the film’s final moments.

When a struggling actor named Rahul (Rahul Bhat) and his small-time casting agent Chaitanya (the excellent Vineet Kumar Singh) realise that Rahul’s daughter Kali has disappeared from his car, they begin a frantic search. A suspicious man is encountered, a chase ends with a gruesome accident… but all this fast-paced action is immediately followed by a protracted scene in The Police Station Where Time Stood Still. Rahul and Chaitanya find themselves being interrogated by cops who are more interested in cracking gratuitous jokes than in recognising the urgency of the situation. They ask what “casting” means, discuss the real names of famous actors, make judgemental noises about talaaq causing problems by breaking up society’s moral fabric, and dwell on frivolities (how is it that Rahul’s daughter’s phone displays a photo of him when he calls her? How does that phone-camera work?).

At first this scene looks like one of those extended Kashyap setpieces that sometimes invite accusations of self-indulgence. After it had gone on for a bit, I thought “Okay, can we get on with the story now?” But later, after seeing the whole film, I felt that the scene’s meandering on was part of the point. We are aware that time could be running out for the little girl, and already the need to find her is being eclipsed by mind-games and irrelevancies. In this case, the game of one-upmanship involves policemen using their position to
toy with people who are otherwise more privileged than them, people who can afford to buy shiny pink phones for their children, and who need to be pulled down a peg or two. (“Mere saab tum dono se bahut zyaada padhe likhe hain,” Inspector Jadhav tells Rahul and Chaitanya.) But this isn’t the only such game that will be played here. 

Much of Ugly is about a power struggle between two men who knew each other in college and whose lives have taken very different turns since then. One is Rahul, the other is police chief Shoumik (Ronit Roy), who is married to Rahul’s ex-wife Shalini (Tejaswini Kolhapure), and information about them comes to us in layers. When we first meet Shoumik, he is intoning that women must be kept in their place, and we see that he maintains an iron hand over his depressive wife, tapping her phone calls, even supervising how many litres of petrol she has in her car. His resentment about her falling for Rahul in their college days manifests itself in withering coldness. “Tera first choice bhaag gaya,” he tells Shalini when he hears of Rahul escaping custody, and he also implies that she came to him “second-hand”. (There is a close connection between this character and the part played by Roy in Vikramaditya Motwane’s Udaan – another hard-edged, controlling alpha-male who may once have had a sensitive side but has now settled into a regimented view of social norms and gender roles.) Rahul, on the other hand, comes across as a nicer guy at first, because we see him as a concerned father, the underdog, and a contrast to the autocratic Shoumik. But still waters run deep, it turns out that the man who is now a failed actor may have had the cards in his favour in the distant past, and that he may not have been a likable winner at the time. Our feelings about these people, and the others around them, keep shifting, which adds to the sense of paranoia, the suspense about who is conning or double-crossing whom.

Ugly
is, on one level, a police procedural, a view of investigators trying to get their work done while also dealing with a perplexing new world of technology, and learning on the job. But it is more effective in its depiction of wasted lives, and the lengths people will go to so they can break out of their private traps. There are affecting touches, such as a scene where the dowdy Shalini mentions a glamorous red dress she had bought thinking she would wear it at one of Rahul’s premieres when he became a star, but there are also flashes of humour when you don’t expect them: a hood wearing a “Prem Rogue” T-shirt; the priceless expression on Shoumik’s face when he hears the lyrics of “Tu Mujhe Nichod De”, a song performed in a sleazy video by Rahul’s girlfriend.

One easy way of describing this film is to say that it is about innocence lost and forgotten in a world where being hardened and competitive is everything: fending for yourself, battling or nurturing your personal demons, looking for small and big ways of getting back at someone who has wounded you. It leads up to a last scene that is calculated for maximum visceral effect, confronting us with exactly what we don’t want to see (even if we know beforehand that this will be a dark film). Kashyap often deals in excesses, and often overreaches, but I thought that final unflinching scene was absolutely necessary. It is almost as if the viewer is being told, “Remember what all this was originally about? It didn’t really matter all that much to the characters in the story – they were too caught up in themselves and in their adult games. But does it matter to you?"

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P.S. The Inspector Jadhav character in this film (played by Girish Kulkarni) reminded me just a little of one of the most memorable characters in Indian English fiction of the past year, the fat, seething policeman Ram Manohar Pande in Shovon Chowdhury’s novel The Competent Authority, haunted by the thought that rich, English-speaking people are laughing at him behind his back, and determined that the laughter must stop. Consider this a plug for the book.