Tuesday, May 26, 2015

A tree called Franklin (and other names and markers in Anees Salim’s novels)

[Did a version of this piece – some thoughts on the work of one of my favourite contemporary novelists – for Forbes Life]

When I tell you that one of the funniest words I have read in a recent Indian novel is “Franklin”, further explanation is clearly required. In Anees Salim’s excellent Vanity Bagh – narrated by a young man named Imran, who lives in the Muslim colony that gives the book its title – a tree standing opposite a mosque is called Franklin, after the priest who planted it a century earlier. “The mohalla-wallahs are so obsessed with spinning yarns and naming things that they haven’t spared even this tree,” Imran tells us early in the book. But having offered this detached commentary, he himself continues to refer to the tree by its name: it isn’t important to the plot, but it is very much part of the book’s setting, so there are throwaway lines such as “we were idling our time away by Franklin”, or “he pulled over by Akbar Electricals and trudged up to Franklin”, or “under Franklin stood Mary Pinto, seriously irritated with something.” (Imagine the puzzlement of a reader who had carelessly sped-read the explanation at the beginning, or allowed his attention to drift!) What makes this anthropomorphising even droller is that other trees in the story are steadfastly referred to as just banyan trees or willow trees or salt trees.

The good-natured humour of these references aside, there is a deeper resonance to Imran’s remark about the naming or defining of things. He and his friends (Zulfikar, Zia, Jinnah, Yahya, Navaz) have the names of famous Pakistani politicians or cricket stars: “the mohalla-wallahs always named their children after people with successful professions”. As he tells his story – about growing up in Vanity Bagh, about his family and neighbours, about the sequence of events that leads to his group of “five-and-a-half men” becoming pawns in a terrorist act – he adorns the text with little things said by various people, presented as quotations, complete with their names at the bottom and their years of birth and death in brackets. If the quote is from someone about whom Imran has limited information, the dates might be missing, but the brackets stay; like this:

“The month of Ramzan is here, when the pious eat on the sly”
– the madwoman outside the mosque ( –2007)

“If this city had a WTC, they would have bombed it as well”
– Public Prosecutor ( – )

Imran’s obsession with numbers and dates
(which, by the way, I can personally relate to) is clarified later in the book: “I loved memorizing digits that, when fenced by brackets and partitioned by a hyphen, became studies in longevity.” It isn’t just a fetish, it is also a way for this young man to make sense of the things and people around him by giving them finite shape and meaning and a back-story; by gathering information about wheres, whens and hows.

And at a broader level, this idea can be extended to the terrain of religion, which is an unavoidable presence in this story. Because yarn-spinning and labeling done by people hundreds or thousands of years ago has created a situation where two human colonies in the same city, located just minutes apart, might come to view each other only in terms of their singular “Hindu” and “Muslim” identities, and do terrible things if they feel threatened. (If Vanity Bagh, nicknamed "Little Pakistan", is the Muslim colony in the book’s unnamed city, its nemesis – its shadow other – is a Hindu neighborhood called Mehendi.)

In his essay collection Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny, Amartya Sen notes the hazards of “a solitarist approach to human identity, which sees human beings as members of exactly one group…This can be a good way of misunderstanding nearly everyone in the world”. That each of us can be many different things at the same time, surprising others and ourselves in the process, is a central theme of Sen’s book. It is also an important undercurrent in Anees Salim’s work, over the four novels (published in barely two years) that have made him one of the most notable voices, and one of the outstanding storytellers, in contemporary Indian-English writing. Salim's last three books – Vanity Bagh, Tales from a Vending Machine and The Blind Lady's Descendants – feature lower-middle-class Indian Muslim protagonists and chronicle the minutiae of their lives, including things that get lost in the mainstream narratives and clichés about the community. He depicts cultural confusion with amazing lightness of touch, since his focus is on multi-dimensional people rather than on big statements – and because he is effortlessly funny even when telling very sad stories.

In The Blind Lady’s Descendants, the narrator Amar – a melancholy man who is writing this book as a sort of lengthy suicide note, perhaps using the written word to keep himself and his luckless family “alive” in the face of impending obscurity – is an atheist; in pointed contrast is his pious brother Akmal who earnestly tells anyone willing to listen that Neil Armstrong heard the call of the muezzin when he set foot on the moon. However, Salim doesn't present Amar and Akmal as symbols or archetypes, and the reader has to come to terms with the many nuances in the narrative. Despite my own mindfulness about generalizations, I admit to having been jolted at times. When Amar casually mentions having felt up his cousin Razia when she was 11 and he 13 (“I had slipped a hand down her silky stomach […] but she had darted away before my finger, shaped like a fish bait to enter her, reached its destination, glaring murderously at me”), it came as a minor shock, not just because this bit of offhand raunchiness marked a shift in the book’s tone, but because on some subconscious level I was still thinking in stereotypes: I was thinking of Amar as only a sensitive introvert (hence incapable of having a ribald or sexually inquisitive side) and of the characters as Good Muslims (in the sense of being respectful of bonds and distances and veils), and forgetting that they are human beings with the same impulses as anyone else. One can imagine some readers being discomfited by the fact that the grown-up Razia – a reasonably self-possessed, mature young woman – continues to refer to Amar as Brother. But feelings and equations can change over time, or exist in opposition. (Amar may pride himself on being a rationalist, but that doesn’t stop him from being spooked, and ultimately overcome, by the thought of a mystical connection between himself and an uncle who had died on the day Amar was born.)

The people in Salim’s stories are sometimes constrained by their larger identities even as they try to break away from them, and this tension is the warp and weft of their lives. Many of those quotations that dot the pages of Vanity Bagh are from films starring Sean Connery or Chuck Norris or Sylvester Stallone, and attributed to the actors rather than the characters – here is an Imam’s son living in a conservative setting, whose thoughts are shaped by movies from a country that would in many ways be antagonistic to, or suspicious of, his family’s way of life. When the Oscar-winning “king of sound engineering” (Resul Pookutty, though he isn’t named) visits the jail Imran is in, Imran’s principal motivation for wanting to meet this local celebrity is that he had shaken hands with Will Smith on the Oscar stage.

Similarly, in Tales from a Vending Machine, the young narrator – a spirited, winsome, occasionally muddled girl named Hasina, who works at an airport vending machine – reads a lot (without always understanding context) and wants to lead a modern, self-reliant life; she day-dreams about battling a terrorist who tries to “kidnap” the plane she is piloting. But she also weeps when she hears of the execution of Saddam Hussein, thinks of the Twin Towers’ destruction in terms of an exciting movie scene, with “the top of the building crumbling smoothly to the ground like a wedding cake”, and in one of the book’s most uproarious scenes – reflexively yells “Allahu Akbar” back at the fake terrorist who has accosted her during a mock drill at the airport (all Hasina was required to do was slump over and play dead after being “shot”). Again, as so often in Salim’s work, the breeziness of this scene doesn’t mask the question it raises: in a scripted attack of this sort, why are the “terrorists” cast as purdah-wearers who shout “Allahu Akbar” before attacking?

In telling these stories about people who might mock faith and its rituals, but who are also capable of feeling defensive about their culture in specific situations (much like the hero of Mohsin Hamid’s 2007 novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist), Salim shows how a particular world can become both a cage and a sanctuary. What happens when the boundaries of what you can and cannot do are pre-determined by authority figures in your community – and when this in turn creates a vicious circle because people on the outside are constantly judging you? In Tales from a Vending Machine, Hasina is frequently conscious of people she meets looking disapprovingly at her veil. Including a former class-teacher who is (understandably) saddened that this promising student was made to leave school at a young age… but also the painter MF Hussain (in an amusing cameo), who many on the Hindu right would stereotype as an Islamist making fun of their religion.

And so it goes. These books deal with the messy complexities of human lives, and the subtle ways in which people can both be defined and, briefly at least, resist definitions. For all the cataloguing and classifying in Vanity Bagh – all the neat attempts at ordering the world – you have to think how odd a name “Vanity Bagh” is for a Muslim colony, or “Franklin” for a tree waving its leaves at a mosque.


[A little more about Anees Salim in this post about the Crossword awards judging process that ended with a fiction prize for The Blind Lady's Descendants. Here's a review of Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist. And here, only because Imran is so dismissive of Resul Pookutty, is a review of Pookutty's memoir Sounding Off]

Monday, May 25, 2015

Very fragmented notes on Tanu Weds Manu Returns

-- What a goofily ungrammatical-sounding title. Reminds me of the famous promotional tagline for The Birds, which got pedants all worked up: “The birds is coming” (with the “B” deliberately in lower-case).

-- As must already have been noted hundreds of times elsewhere, Tanu Weds Manu Returns is a triumph for Kangana Ranaut as well as for an ensemble of supporting performers, including Deepak Dobriyal, Swara Bhaskar, Eijaz Khan and Jimmy Shergill reprising their roles from the first film. This is one of those rare times where I wished a sequel would expand into a full-fledged franchise, so we can keep revisiting these performers in these roles, not necessarily to see where they will end up (chances are this lot will keep going round in circles, creating new complications for themselves), but to eavesdrop on conversations, observe shifting equations, and see more of those crowded family functions where the less predictable facets of small-town Indian life may be revealed.

-- This film belongs to the tradition of what Stanley Cavell called “the comedy of remarriage” – a reference to the many wonderful screwball comedies in 1930s and 1940s Hollywood where married couples broke up and explored other possibilities as a necessary prelude to the realisation that they couldn’t do without each other in the long run. (And this was something that most people around them could usually see before they could. Though in some cases there was also a subconscious little waltz going on, centred on the thrill of waiting it out, playing the game without quite acknowledging it.)

Classics in that subgenre include His Girl Friday, The Awful Truth, The Philadelphia Story and My Favorite Wife. Cary Grant was a vital force in all of those films, and I think this had a lot to do with one of his most distinctive qualities as an actor, which David Thomson drew attention to in a once-infamous essay: Grant’s ability to tap into the light and dark shades of his personality simultaneously, never allowing one to drown out the other. That quality was particularly effective in films like His Girl Friday, where, despite the generally manic tone, you always got a sense of an internal conflict: the man battling with himself, both drawn to and put off by (or intimidated by) the woman; the playing out of that conflict, up to the realisation that one feeling carries more weight than the other. 

In contrast, the Manu of Tanu Weds Manu Returns is bland, hard to read, and something of a non-entity, both at the script level and in R Madhavan’s pleasant but workmanlike performance. And this may have been deliberate. Both Tanu Weds Manu and its sequel often toy with the complexities of gender equations in a seemingly conservative society: how women can be the ones to take initiatives or assert themselves in contexts where you wouldn’t always expect it. But I wonder if the current discourse about empowering and giving more agency to women characters in our cinema is about to lead to a situation where the men in some films have almost no agency or personality. (See the Rajkummar Rao character in Queen, for instance.) Manu is a cipher here; the viewer gets very little sense of what is going on in his head. 

 -- Delightful though it is on many levels, I’m not sure TWM Returns works too well as a remarriage-comedy in the sense that Cavell used the term. One problem being that I was less than convinced by the Tanu-Manu romance in the first film: first a dreamy-eyed NRI falls in love with a sleeping girl, then the girl (who turns out to be a madcap whenever she is awake) falls gradually in love with the idea of someone being so much in love with her. If you find that unconvincing, it isn’t so easy to invest in the sequel’s conviction that these two people have to get back together, so what if a vulnerable young college-goer gets caught up in their courtship dance.

The opening of this film pointedly contrasts the noisy camaraderie of a large middle-class Indian wedding (I can’t get “Sun Sahiba Sun” out of my head now) with cold and gloomy England, where Tanu
– who draws so much of her energy from being around people only has pigeons and raccoons for company. If you were truly deeply moved by the Tanu-Manu romance in the first film, you’re supposed to be shaken by what they have turned into, by this dark winter of the soul (which can only be healed by a return to sunny, clamorous India). But the quarreling couple we see in the asylum scene is pretty much how I would have expected the two people from the first film to wind up a few years after their wedding. (My wife is bipolar, Manu tells the doctors, and we are invited to read this as a manifestation of his resentment rather than as a balanced diagnosis. But one thing that neither film has ever addressed full-on – though Kangana’s performance screams it out in nearly every scene – is that Tanu is a bit of a nut, and possibly dangerous too. Her expressions during the bonfire scene in the first film still make me shiver.)

-- Though the supporting cast, and most of the dialogue, in TWM Returns is so sharp that the pace is never allowed to flag for long, it comes close a few times: notably in the exasperating scene where Datto’s brother gives a little lecture to his family and community about the need to value women. Again, a byproduct of the New Indian Cinema where the need to be self-consciously progressive and socially responsible is sometimes prioritised over narrative flow or internal credibility. (But since Anand L Rai is the director who got so much flak for Raanjhanaa, I won’t go on about this. Perhaps he just felt the need to spell things out.)

-- There is also a nod to the great cinematic theme of obsessive remaking, casting a lookalike in the mould of your idealised love – a theme that has anchored films as otherwise disparate as Hitchcock’s Vertigo, V Shantaram’s Navrang and Yash Chopra’s Lamhe. Tanu Weds Manu Returns briefly flirts with the idea, as in the scene where Manu scrutinises Datto when she tries on the earrings he has given her; in a different sort of film, this might have been close to the creepy scene in Vertigo where Scottie waits for Judy to emerge from the bathroom, made up as Madeleine. But again, Manu is such a blank slate that you can’t ascribe many such motivations to him. And the film, being essentially lighthearted in tone, isn’t trying to go down that particular vortex; it remains a sidenote.

(But I’ll still use this opportunity to link to this terrific Adam Gopnik story about death, replacement, love, pet fish and Hitchcock’s blondes. Read.)

-- Having begun this post by mentioning pedants, let me be one myself. People, stop calling Tanu Weds Manu the “prequel” to this film. (This means you too, Wikipedia.) A prequel is a specific sort of sequel – it isn’t a synonym for “precursor” or “predecessor”. Look it up. Yes, I know we are living in a world where “anyways” will soon replace “anyway” in the OED, but let’s beat back the gathering ravens for as long as we can.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Rafa Nadal probably won't win the French Open this year, but so what?

[Did this for the Daily O]

Pilgrimages aren’t my thing (to put it mildly), but early last year I went for one in, of all places, a quiet nook of Paris. The venue was the Roland Garros stadium where the French Open, one of tennis’s four Slams or majors, begins each May. I was visiting in March, two months before the start of the 2014 tournament, and not the best time for a guided tour: the players’ locker rooms were being renovated and the main arena, the famous Court Philippe Chatrier, looked a shadow of its elegant self – none of that gorgeous, shimmering red clay I had been viewing for years on television, just craters in the ground and plenty of dull, regular-coloured mud that I could easily have seen back home in Delhi just by looking out my balcony, thank you very much.

And yet, the visit was totally worth it.

This was the motivation for it: since 2006 I have been a huge fan of Rafael Nadal, who had (as of early last year) won this most prestigious of clay-court events a record eight times. Watching Rafa slide his way to title after title during this part of the tennis season has been a highlight of my sports-watching summer for years. Having resigned myself to never seeing him play at Roland Garros in person, I felt I should at least go and do some good-old-fashioned matha tekna at the grounds while he was still their reigning champion. Sit on the press-conference chair. Examine the players’ signatures on the wall. And so on.

It also seemed urgent, because how much longer could the reign last? Rafa’s great rival Novak Djokovic needed only the French Open to complete his own haul of major trophies, and he had plenty of support and goodwill to supplement his all-round game. Every one of the Roland Garros staff I spoke to during my time there, including the guide, wanted Novak to win in June; they were fed up of Rafa’s dominance.

When the 2014 tournament began, I was back in Delhi, of course, and even more convinced that the RG darshan had happened not a moment too soon. Rafa had had a mediocre clay season (by his standards), losing early in tournaments he had dominated for years and then unconvincingly winning the Madrid Masters final when his opponent Kei Nishikori was undone by a back injury. Then, in Rome, in the last tournament before the French Open, Rafa lost the final to Djokovic. The Ultimate Dethronement seemed ordained.

It wasn’t. Two weeks later, sitting in the home of a friend (who, as a Roger Federer devotee, has been affably ruing Nadal’s very existence for years), I watched Rafa win a tense French Open final for his ninth title. (That’s 50 percent more than the legendary Bjorn Borg, who was once considered the last word on this surface.) “Well, there you go,” said my long-suffering friend, “There was only ever going to be one result. Rinse and repeat. This was boringly predictable.”


Philippe Chatrier in March 2014, looking none too glamorous
- and a little bit like Rafa's future
But this year even he will probably concede that Rafa isn’t the tournament favourite. Having struggled throughout 2015 – with a match record that is easily his poorest since 2004 – and not having won a title during the European clay season, it seems very likely that a 10th RG is not on the cards. Djokovic is looking stronger than last year too, and the draw, announced yesterday, has him and Rafa in the same quarter, tantalising and dismaying tennis fans in equal measure.

I haven’t had much time to worry though, since I’ve been too busy giggling at some of the narratives being propagated on sports messageboards and media, and endorsed both by Nadal-haters who are drunk on Schadenfreude AND by Nadal fans who think he is a machine that will go on winning till the end of time. Here are just three of those narratives, which are closely linked to each other:

– Rafa’s game has been figured out by the other players; he is losing more often because he no longer has the “locker-room aura”, and more players “believe” they can beat him,

– So he needs to “evolve” with the changes in the sport, by retooling his own game,

– He has plenty of time to do this because he is only 28 and should have lots of time left as a top player.

That second statement is arguably the funniest: I don’t know any player who has adjusted and evolved his game more often than Rafa has. But the thing is, he has done this many times over the course of a decade – and sports fans’ memories tend to be very short-lived.

It certainly isn’t the case that players have conveniently started figuring Rafa out only now. Opponents who could execute a certain sort of game well HAD been “figuring him out” as early as 2006 (go back and look at his matches against players like James Blake, David Nalbandian, Nikolay Davydenko and Tomas Berdych). He came right back, found new ways to face the challenges posed by different conditions, surfaces and opponents. In the process, he achieved things that many of his fans didn’t expect him to achieve. My own Nadal fandom has been about being pleasantly surprised time and again: by the 2008 Wimbledon win over Federer; the career Slam with a US Open final win over Djokovic (who is unquestionably the better hard-court player overall); the hugely successful comeback in 2013; and many others triumphs over the years.

But of course, if you only started watching tennis (or acquired the wondrous gift of consciousness) in the past two years, you would think he has plenty of adapting and learning still to do; that he is obliged to not just keep the rampaging Djokovic (whom he has already beaten six times at Roland Garros) at bay forever, but also hold off any other contenders who may emerge in the future. Well, sport doesn’t work that way. There is an age and decline factor at play here.

Which brings me to that “He is only 28”. (Twenty-nine next month, actually: his birthday is on the very day that potential quarter-final against Djokovic is scheduled!) But as Dharmendra growled in Johnny Gaddaar, “It’s not the age. It’s the MILEage.”

When Rafa first began winning big, in 2005, critics looked at his arduous, physical game and said “It can’t last. No longevity there.” A judgement that became more confident when the first of his many injury-related breaks occurred.

What actually happened since then? Despite the timeouts, he has played close to 900 matches for an overall win-loss percentage that is still marginally the highest in the men’s game. He has spent nearly 10 full seasons ranked in the top 4, most of those in the top 2. And he holds the record for most consecutive Slam-winning seasons (10). All this from someone who was never supposed to have a long career!

So here’s a tip, based not just on defensive Nadal fandom but also on knowledge of tennis history (and the oldest rule of sport and life, that nothing lasts forever): forget that youthful-seeming “28”. Instead watch Rafa on clay this fortnight, or however much of the fortnight he survives – and then, regardless of what happens, whether he loses in the quarter-final to Djokovic, or in the first round to someone you never heard of, or something in between, ignore the shrieking, sensationalist, eyeball-seeking newspaper headlines and the gloating comments on messageboards and remember this: the amazing thing, the unthinkable thing isn’t the loss but the fact that he won so much and for so long.

In a recent piece, the generally excellent Rohit Brijnath wrote, somewhat over-dramatically, that “the French Open is all that Rafa has got left”. That may be true in the short term and on the small scale (the scale at which too many narrative-seeking journalists and attention-deficient fans operate). In the big picture though, he has one of the most exciting, inspiring careers the sport has seen, and no one is taking that away from him. Not Djokovic, and not even paranoid fans who go on stadium pilgrimages because they don’t expect to see their favourite’s name on the winner’s roster a few months later.

[More fanboy pieces about Rafa here and here and here]

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Ghosts of Delhi cinemas past - a book about single-screen theatres

[Did this piece for Scroll]

Among the many bits of information and trivia in Delhi: 4 Shows, Ziya Us Salam’s paean to the single-screen movie halls that once dotted the capital, here is one that caught my attention: South Delhi’s first cinema was probably the Gautam Nagar-located Sudershan, established soon after Independence and originally known as Mohini. (Jawaharlal Nehru watched Baiju Bawra there in the early 1950s!) This came as a surprise because I had spent a lot of time in modest-sized Gautam Nagar during my post-graduation years without ever hearing of this theatre – which once catered to a good-sized audience for “devotional films” such as Har Har Mahadev and Jai Santoshi Maa – or even seeing its fossilised remains.

But then, Ziya’s observation that the hall was doomed by the growing tendency of upper-middle-class South Delhiites to watch films on videocassette hit close to home; when I was a child, my family numbered among those non-theatre-going killjoys. We moved to Saket in the mid-80s, our flat just a five-minute walk from the Anupam hall that would, a decade later, be transformed by the PVR group into India’s first multi-screen theatre. When that happened in 1997 I saw one of the first films shown there, Jerry Maguire, and have been a multiplex rat ever since. Yet in those earlier years when Anupam was a single-screen hall, we never watched a film in it.

There was a practical reason for this: I was living with a single mother and a widowed grandmother, we weren’t the sort of family unit that could comfortably venture to a shabby, not-too-well-maintained theatre that might house black-ticket sellers and other disreputable types. But also, like many other urbanites in those years, we were perfectly content getting prints of new releases on cassette each weekend and watching them on our own time. (Which also invites a sheepish admission: as a film writer, I spend a lot of time tut-tutting at people who watch movies on small – or tiny – screens; yet, during my own formative years as a movie buff, roughly between ages 10 and 20, my total hall visits, not including sporadic film-festival outings, could be counted on the fingers of two hands.)

There is a little about Anupam in the South Delhi segment of this book – along with a short description of the quiet, green Saket of yore – but some of the most involving passages in Delhi: 4 Shows are about the long-demolished or radically refurbished theatres in the first parts of the capital to have movie halls: central Delhi, including the Connaught Place and Paharganj areas, and what we now call Old Delhi – Chandni Chowk, Kashmere Gate, Sadar Bazaar, the Jama Masjid area. Ziya covers those parts of the city before turning his gaze up north, westward, south and “along the
Yamuna”. Describing what the halls looked like in their pomp – from grand edifices such as Chanakya (originally given the goofy fusion name Chanakyarama) to the asbestos-sheeted Chanderlok in CR Park, which recreated the ambience of a small-town mandva for the migrant workers living around the area – he briefly sketches their histories, provides anecdotes, mulls the reasons for their decline (or in some cases, examines the possibilities that still lie ahead).

Delhi: 4 Shows is a wonderful idea for a book, and more importantly a lot of serious research has gone into it. I have to admit to not being a fan of what I have seen of Ziya Us Salam’s reviewing, and I didn’t think much of his anthology Housefull – a collection of facile write-ups about some of the major films of Hindi cinema’s “golden age” – but he is on firmer ground here, allying his journalistic strengths and nose for information to his passion for the subject. This isn’t a book you would read for a strong narrative flow (it is essentially a collection of vignettes, categorised by region), but it has definite archival value in a country that can be terribly careless about preserving records of its cultural past.

Evoked here is a period when movie timings didn’t have to be looked up because it was understood that there were four fixed shows – 12, 3, 6 and 9 pm – each day; when producers and distributors would make carefully thought out decisions about where to screen a particular film, keeping in mind the locality and the audience profile (the contrast with the sterile, homogenised multiplex culture is obvious); when theatres like Ritz (Kashmere Gate) had private boxes for burqa-wearing ladies and the proprietors of Alpna (Model Town) hired buses to fetch their viewers from ISBT or the railway station; when theatre employees sat in tarpaulin-covered cycle-rickshaws shouting out information about a movie through loudspeakers; and families had to book tickets days in advance, because communal movie-watching could be as much of an event as organising a birthday party. (The idea that movie outings were once a meticulously pre-planned ritual is probably as quaint to today’s youngsters as it was for my generation to learn that in the 1950s people would don their best clothes and jewellery for plane journeys.)

There are many engaging details here for film historians. How interesting to learn that Paharganj’s Shiela missed out on being Asia’s first 70-mm-screen cinema because the electricity department got tangled up in red tape. (Writing about Shiela’s fading fortunes today, Salam notes that while it once played “If You Miss the Train I’m On” for its queuing guests, it may now have to revise the theme song to “Old Man River”.) Or that New Amar (Hauz Qazi) informally reserved stalls for sex workers, due to its closeness to the red-light area GB Road. Or that people flocked from miles away to Rajouri Garden’s Vishal in 1984 so they could thrill in the novelty of watching Chhota Chetan with these newfangled things called 3-D glasses (Vishal was the only hall in the city that showed the film for the first few weeks). There are also apocryphal stories such as the one about a monkey who would regularly drop in to watch screenings of Hanuman Janam at Sadar Bazar’s West End. (Whether the story is true is almost beside the point; movie halls are places of worship for many of us, so why not believe in miracles.) And there is name-dropping. When the Hollywood epic The Robe was screened at Regal in 1953, the hall
installed cinemascope for the purpose, and Nehru was in attendance again. Alfred Hitchcock visited Rivoli when Psycho opened there, and President S Radhakrishnan came for a Come September screening at Odeon in 1962. Halls in far-flung places had to make do with less exalted visitors though: Najafgarh’s Suraj had its small brush with stardom when the comedian Jagdeep came for the premiere of his B-film Soorma Bhopali.

Since this is a collection of standalone write-ups on a few dozen cinema halls, there is inevitably some repetition, and the less engaged pieces can read like a roll-call of the major films shown at a theatre over the decades. (I was a bit puzzled by the repeated mention of some not very high-profile films, such as the 1983 Sanjay Dutt-starrer Main Awara Hoon, or Gulzar’s 1975 Khushboo.) But the better pieces – the ones on Paharganj’s Imperial or Chandni Chowk’s Moti, for example – provide a sense of a movie-hall’s place within the larger socio-cultural theatre of the nation, and in turn, the culture that grew up around it. (The Hindu families who had come to Paharganj after being displaced from the newly created Pakistan, Ziya says, were initially so scarred that they couldn’t watch the popular Muslim socials of the time – so Imperial complied by showing them mythologicals and Punjabi family dramas.) These halls were dream-palaces where business, art and entertainment commingled, but their personal histories also intersected with the larger national narrative. Reading about murderous rioters attacking the Sikh-run Swarn hall after Indira Gandhi’s assassination, I couldn’t help think what a grotesque merging of real-life tragedy and reel-life drama it was that the film playing at the time was Jeene Nahin Doonga. Or that when Badarpur’s Seble hall reopened after a similar mauling by rioters who had the covert encouragement of politicians, the film it showed was Dharm aur Qanoon.

If you’re a Dilliwallah and a movie buff, this book can make you feel nostalgic about an era and place that you never personally experienced. But though its main tone is one of longing for a bygone time, Delhi: 4 Shows is also a reminder of the many movie-going cultures that still exist outside (and to a degree, within) the big cities. Describing the Samrat hall in Shakurpur, a shrine to Mithun Chakraborty’s B-movies, Ziya notes that even in the 2000s “Cinema lovers in other parts of Delhi did not come to know, but Jallad, Chandaal, Guru, The Don and Gautam-Govinda set the screen on fire at this hall. No English newspaper mentioned these movies in its cinema lists, no music channels played their songs, and no critics reviewed the films, yet they all ran full house to an audience that knew what it wanted.” After all, multiplexes with their limited seating, expensive tickets and “highbrow” viewers (who often do decidedly lowbrow things like barking into their phones during a screening) cannot replicate the visceral experience of watching a popular Salman Khan or Sunny Deol film with a single-screen audience, surrounded by seetis and taalis.

Besides, as Sharmila Tagore points out in her Foreword, even long-defunct halls continue to be part of the Delhiite’s everyday discourse since areas are still identified with reference to those landmarks: we still talk about the Uphaar or Kamal or Archana complexes while giving directions. Which reminds me of one of my favourite PVR Saket-related encounters. I was walking home from the complex once when a group of men, dressed in dhotis and worn shirts, looking fatigued and confused, hesitantly sought directions. “Bhai-saab, yeh Anupam taakees kahaan hai? (Where is Anupam taakees?)” they asked. It was only when they added “phillum jahaan lagti hai” that I realised they were saying “Anupam Talkies”. A plush new multiplex had been reclaimed by the language one today associates with a world of noisy projectors and “air-cooled” sheds. The Ghost of Dilli Past would have approved.

[Also see: this nostalgia post about the PVR Anupam complex, including the Madhuban restaurant. And this old piece I did for City Limits magazine about movie-watching options in Delhi]

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Catchers in the rye - about a boy named Manan and a girl named Ela

[Did this piece – a composite review of two fine Young Adult novels – for Open magazine]

“He closes his eyes and finds today’s date floating towards him. Shimmering in the darkness, swiveling – like the text on the Windows 95 screensaver. […] All his life’s problems are in the past.”

“The day I turned thirteen was the day I wanted to die. The day the blackness fell on me so sharp and exact it took the shape of a monster bird that dug its claws in my shoulder and never left.”

The first of those quotes is from the opening paragraph of Mohit Parikh’s Manan; the second begins Sampurna Chattarji’s Ela: The Girl Who Entered the Unknown. If you tried to identify the general mood of the books from these lines, you’d think the former would be affirmative, the latter dark. In fact, it turns out to be almost the reverse – but rather than use limiting descriptors, perhaps it is better just to say that here are two very sensitive and engaging Young Adult publications, part of a growing landscape of such titles in Indian English writing. Both these books – broadly aimed at readers in the 13-to-18 age bracket – employ stream-of-consciousness to express the turmoil in a youngster’s mind: the conversations with oneself, the tendency to flit from one thought to the next. They are similar also in that each begins with an incident that leads to renewed self-awareness, or a rethinking of one’s place in the world.

Ela’s situation is the more dramatic of the two: at her own birthday party she learns, in the worst possible way – a nasty little boy and his gloating mother being the catalysts – that she was adopted. Her parents, who now suddenly feel like strangers, had never told her; they were going to, they plead, they didn’t mean for it to happen like this – but a large hole has opened beneath Ela’s feet. Her voice is that of a poised, eloquent teenager, mature beyond her years, but she was clearly unprepared to deal with this, and emotional trauma gives way to physical illness.

The 15-year-old protagonist of Manan isn’t so poised or self-confident to begin with, but that could be about to change. The big event in Manan’s life, the thing that will leave “April 23, 1998” seared on his mind, is that a hair has sprouted on his balls: puberty, too long delayed, may finally be rapping at his door. Surely this means he will catch up with his taller, better-built, more hirsute classmates, and adults will no longer look disbelieving when they learn he is in the 10th grade?

Manan. The name has “a man” in it, and much of this story is about a boy’s preoccupation with achieving that desired but also scary state of being, with all the things it implies. (“He is a man. A man, a male, masculine. […] He has seen Shrey and Kshitij make comments about girls from Girl’s Polytechnic College and he has not scolded them […] He has even uttered an expletive – a phrase for a non-existent male body part – and it has felt good.”) But the name also suggests a life of the mind, and the book places us firmly inside his head, where contrary feelings jostle hotly with each other for space. Unlike Ela, this narrative is in the third person, but it is very much the subjective third person, closely allied to Manan’s consciousness. In one passage he imagines his brain as a gooey, florescent lump that can be extracted from his skull – by untangling the threads that comprise it – then dry-cleaned and put back inside.

Place and period are important in Parikh’s novel. There are little details that many people who grew up in 1990s middle-class India will recognise, such as the Mario Bros video games (the ones I played were on an unwieldy, jukebox-shaped thing in a corner of a nearby video parlour), or the advent of this mysterious new creature called the internet, delicate and precious in those days because even just “logging on” could be such an adventure: the dial-up, the clanging bells, the knowledge that the whole thing would disconnect if someone happened to call on the landline you were using (or if there was a cross-connection – which happened often to the phone in my room).

But I could also relate to Manan in terms that are independent of time and setting, such as the theme of an introverted boy grappling with this coming-of-age business. What happens when you already feel so mature inside – wiser, more evolved than many of the adults around you – that growing up seems redundant in some ways; and yet you also know there are nebulous things still to be negotiated: physical changes, sexual awareness. And throughout, the fear that growing up might mean becoming preoccupied with “boring” stuff like electricity bills and bank accounts and office ledgers. It may mean the end of the particular forms of romanticizing that are youth’s privilege, as when Manan thinks about the girl he loves (or thinks he loves). What if he spoils her life by entering it, he wonders.

If he marries her they might fight. They might become ordinary. They might have to talk about festivals and constipation and plumbing. Instead, he can be at a distance, like a line that is parallel. Going along with her, looking out for her forever, but never intersecting. Like how sages are. In that poem, Upagupta does not accept the invitation of a dancing girl who is young and beautiful and whose house would be comfortable in the rough night. Instead he chooses to sleep in dust and promises to come to her when the time is ripe. A year later, when the dancing girl suffers from smallpox and is abandoned by the villagers, the young man offers her water to drink and balms her wounds with sandal paste. Aren’t such men the greatest?
This idealising also goes hand in hand with his suspicion that sex is inherently dirty, that people who have experienced it are “fallen” in some way. As the internet leads him from abstracted, detached awareness to full-blooded understanding of the graphicness of the act, a repulsed fascination arises: how to trust or respect the grown-ups he sees around him, with the knowledge that that is what they do in private? These thoughts are further complicated by his having to serve as go-between (I was reminded of LP Hartley’s coming-of-age novel of that title) for his sister and her boyfriend.

Manan is part of a generation of young people who suddenly had to deal with the outside world coming at them through a computer screen, assailing them with more information than their minds were ready to process. For Ela, on the other hand, born and raised in a time when cyber-space is taken for granted, it becomes a way of returning to normal life. “And then the whole wide world I’d stayed away from came rushing back in and I remembered that miracle called the internet, I remembered there was a way to get in touch, privately, they called it email, the medicines had made me a moron, how could I have forgotten…” 

Here and elsewhere, Ela speaks in a breathless rush, some sentences flowing on for up to two pages; so skilful is Chattarji’s writing that even everyday incidents are given an edge, and we are always aware of how precarious this girl’s state of mind is. The marketing machinery may peg this as a story about How to Deal with Finding Out You were Adopted, but as with any really good book Ela is not restricted by its ostensible subject. It is as much about discovering the possibilities of the world – and yourself – beyond the certainties you have been raised with. 

Though Ela’s reactions seem over the top at first, gradually we see why she feels hard done by. At one point she mentions that her school had taught its students to be respectful and sympathetic towards less fortunate children; that they had visited schools for the poor, donated clothes and books. Even in doing these “noble” things, Ela intuitively realised that they, the privileged lot, would never truly think of these poor children as equals. And now she knows that she might easily have been in those straits herself, if her adoptive parents hadn’t “rescued” her. How does a 13-year-old deal with such a seismic shift in her sense of being?

One way of doing this is to turn to the world of the imagination. (“Reading is like dancing for the brain!”) Ela starts to heal herself through story-telling followed by story-sharing, and the help of a classmate with whom she has an unknowable, almost telepathic bond. And here one can note that while both Manan and Ela have rich inner lives, they are put to different ends and have different effects. The make-belief world Ela immerses herself into has its dangers (and the peril of complete submersion) but in the end it saves her. For Manan, on the other hand, the life of the mind becomes stifling. Fantasy can be liberating, or it can become a cul-de-sac, depending on the sort of young person – or young reader – you are.

It is hard to do interior monologue well even in short doses, much less sustain it over the course of a whole book, yet there are few missteps in these two narratives. Chattarji is the more assured and fluent writer, but there is something very appealing about the occasional rawness of Parikh’s prose. Some passages in Manan feel clumsy (“He freezes. The world freezes too, ceases to exist; present only: an onlooker looking on. Then the world resumes, as a blur, as a noise, as a something that has happened to enable the happening of this: she crossing the road, him watching her, she unaware of him”), but on the whole this tremulous vulnerability works very well for the story. A visual equivalent for it may be found in one of the drawings (by Urmila Shastry) in the book, Manan’s body depicted as an assortment of giant ice-cubes slithering off a bicycle. Though come to think of it, that image could represent any young person at the crossroads, trying to find the balance between fitting neatly into an icebox – becoming “square” – and melting in a puddle on the road.


[Here is a review of another YA book, Musharraf Ali Farooqi's Tik-Tik, the Master of Time]

Saturday, May 09, 2015

Father and daughter go to alimentary school - on Shoojit Sircar's Piku

[Did this for The Daily O]

Shoojit Sircar’s Piku (subtitled “Motion se hi Emotion”) is about Bhaskar Banerji (Amitabh Bachchan), an old man with a bowel disorder, and his daughter Piku (Deepika Padukone) who has spent too much of her young life attending to him and having conversations about constipation (which infiltrate other aspects of her world, freaking out co-workers and potential boyfriends). It is about how father and daughter, in different ways, find catharsis through a Delhi-to-Kolkata road trip in the company of cab-agency owner Rana (Irrfan Khan).

And of course, once you use a word like “catharsis” – and think about other dual-meaning terms like “anal-retentive” or even “tight-arsed” – the metaphorical possibilities of this story should be obvious. Crabby old Bhaskar needs to purge himself, not just of the stuff choking his intestines, but of something else – something that can perhaps be freed only when he returns to the city of his childhood and re-experiences a little of his past: cycling about near Kolkata’s crumbling havelis, dodging trams, bringing home a greasy bag of street food. A Delhi-hater might even say that on some level this film is about a provincial Bengali disinfecting himself after years of inhaling the capital’s shit. (Living in Delhi’s Bangla colony and setting up shrines to Rabindranath Tagore and Satyajit Ray inside your house isn’t enough. You need the real air and kaalchar.)

More likely, Bhaskar and Piku just need something, anything new. “Kuch naya karne ko mila,” he says happily after Rana advises him to try Indian-style squatting in the toilet (this doesn’t solve the old man’s problems, but it makes him feel a little more alive), and the words apply just as well to their unusual car journey. The first time we see Bhaskar stepping outside his cluttered, self-contained CR Park house, he is cycling very tentatively in a lane, with two people running alongside to keep him steady. This short and uncertain exercise is a dress rehearsal for the road trip, and by the end we will see that the road trip itself was the prelude to a final liberating ride. The two cycling scenes and the car journey sandwiched between them can be viewed as stand-ins for three life-stages: childhood, the long middle stretch, and childhood revisited in old age.

Yet it would be a mistake to confine Piku to this sort of symbolism. After their 2012 sleeper hit Vicky Donor, Sircar and writer Juhi Chaturvedi have again imbued a film with so much verve, attention to detail and such a sense of lived-in-ness that you don’t have to dwell on Deeper Meanings if you don’t want to; it works so well as slice-of-life storytelling. Chaturvedi’s naturalistic dialogue is unafraid to use ellipses and to not spell everything out
it leaves us free to observe these people and conjecture things about their personal histories. And though the story follows a rite-of-passage formula and is always headed for a specific sort of resolution, the characters have many dimensions. When Bhaskar does the seemingly “cool”, non-fatherly thing of telling a young man that Piku has had physical relationships (“Bhirgin nahin hai”), it is really because he is scared she might get married and leave his house. What a tragedy it is that women are restricted to wifely roles when we have the example of great heroines like Sarojini Naidu and Vijaylakshmi Pandit, he says magnanimously, but later a casual exchange suggests that he wasn’t so progressive within his own marriage: his wife had to leave her teaching career after marrying him; as so often, there is a gap between stated ideals and lived experience.

Similarly, the Irrfan character Rana could easily have just been the outsider who watches, comments and supplies wisdom, the Krishna-like saarthi who literally and otherwise chauffeurs Piku and Bhaskar to the place they need to reach – but it is subtly indicated that Rana has his own demons, that this is a therapeutic journey for him too. A fine scene near the end puts him on the receiving end of a lecture and implies that he feels guilt for not having been attentive enough towards his cancer-stricken father. If Piku represents one extreme – the young woman whose life is flying by at the service of a parent’s ailments – Rana could be near the other extreme; the child who never even knew enough about a parent’s condition to be able to talk about it. (How easy it is for him to up and leave early one morning without even informing his mother and sister back home.) We are also allowed to wonder what effect his experiences in a menial job in Dubai have had on his present-day class consciousness, his insistence on being not a “mere” driver but an owner. Such little touches are not vital to the story we are being told, but they give us a sense of the characters’ inner lives.


When art sets out to remind us of the unglamorous rudiments of the human condition – that beneath our posturing we are just bags of mince and shit with very limited sell-by dates – the mode is usually bleak or surreal or self-consciously depressing. This has not (to say the least) been the case with Sircar and Chaturvedi’s work together. In Vicky Donor, Dr Chaddha compartmentalized people into “sperrrm types” but also affectionately oversaw the transformation of squiggly raw materials into flesh-and-blood human beings with personalities and feelings. In Piku there are little moments that steer close to detached, Bunuel-esque nihilism (the scenes where potty talk happens at dining tables, even as the camera offers us loving close-ups of Bengali dishes, or in a sophisticated restaurant with romantic music playing in the background, reminded me of the famous reversal of roles in Bunuel’s The Phantom of Liberty, where defecation is a public act – people do it while making polite conversation together at a table – and eating a clandestine one) – and yet this manages to be an essentially warm, life-affirming film.

With a couple of exceptions such as a slack scene involving a knife (which seemed to me to exist mainly to set up the sort of dramatic intermission that our multiplex movies require these days), the storytelling is crisp and focused, and the performances by the three leads as well as the supporting players are super. (In her first scene as Bhaskar’s perky, much-married sister-in-law, Moushumi Chatterjee’s opening words to Bachchan are “How are you? Motion
toh hua na?” As Dorothy never said, “We’re not in Rim Jhim Gire Saawan Land anymore, Toto.”) Padukone and Irrfan – an unlikely couple in many ways – find surprising chemistry together, the sort of chemistry that facilitates an ending where romantic loose ends don’t have to be neatly tied up. (Watch the final shot – no spoiler here – where a game of badminton is being played in a driveway, with one player inside the gated area and the other outside.)

And there is Bachchan, of course. In the past couple of decades there has been much talk about AB’s passage from the anti-authority hero of the 1970s, champion of the downtrodden (onscreen), to a symbol of benevolent authoritarianism himself (on and off screen). But who knew, back in the day when we were kids imagining ourselves as leather-jacketed Sikandar on the motorbike singing “Rote huay aate hain sab…”, that one day we would see the 70-year-old version of that fate-conqueror complaining that his bowel is dispensing “one small piece at a time” – and that we would STILL cheer for him. Well, fans grow older – and wiser – too.

[A post about Vicky Donor here. And a very short profile of Juhi Chaturvedi in this post.]

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

“In the end, he gets nothing” (from Orson Welles on his 100th)

It’s Orson Welles’s birth centenary today. From Peter Bogdanovich’s superb book-length collection of conversations with Welles, here are some quotes from the big man. First, on two of his greatest movie roles.

On Shakespeare’s Falstaff, a character with whom I think Welles may have identified:

Bogdanovich: You called him “the one good man”.

Welles: I think he’s one of the only great characters in all dramatic literature who is essentially good. He’s good in the sense that the hippies are good. The comedy is all about the gross faults in the man, but those faults are so trivial: his famous cowardice is a joke – a joke Falstaff seems to be telling himself against himself; a strong case could be made for his courage. But his goodness is basic – like bread, like wine. He’s just shining with love; he asks for so little, and in the end, of course, he gets nothing.

Even if the good old days never existed, the fact that we can conceive of such a world is, in fact, an affirmation of the human spirit. That the imagination of man is capable of creating the myth of a more open, more generous time is not a sign of our folly. Every country has its “Merrie England”, a season of innocence, a dew-bright morning of the world. Shakespeare sings of that lost Maytime in many of his plays, and Falstaff – that pot-ridden old rogue – is its perfect embodiment. All the roguery and the tavern wit and the liar and the bluff is simply a turn of his – it’s a little song he sings for his supper. It isn’t really what he’s about.

And this about Harry Lime, his small but enormously memorable role in The Third Man:

Bogdanovich: You have the smallest part but it dominates one's whole memory of the film.

Welles: That's the part, you know. Every sentence in the whole script is about Harry Lime – nobody talks about anything else for ten reels. And there's that shot in the doorway – what a star entrance that was! In theatre, you know, the old star actors never liked to come on until the end of the first act. Mister Wu is a classic example. I've played it once myself. All the other actors boil around the stage for about an hour, shrieking, "What will happen when Mister Wu arrives?" "What is he like, this Mister Wu?," and so on. Finally a great gong is beaten, and slowly over a Chinese bridge comes Mister Wu himself in full mandarin robes. Peach Blossom (or whatever her name is) falls on her face and a lot of coolies yell, "Mister Wu!!!" The curtain comes down, the audience goes wild, and everybody says, "Isn't that guy playing Mister Wu a great actor!" 
That's a star part for you! What matters in that kind of role is not how many lines you have, but how few. What counts is how much the other characters talk about you. Such a star vehicle really is a vehicle. All you have to do is ride.

And this in response to Bogdanovich asking him what to teach a group of people who wanted to be directors:

"The movie director must always remain a slightly ambiguous figure, because so much of what he signs his name to came from elsewhere, so many of his best things are merely accidents over which he presides. Or the good fortune he receives. Or the grace [...]

Hold a mirror up to nature – that’s Shakespeare’s message to the actor. How much more does that apply, and how much more is it true, to the creator of a film? If you don’t know something about the nature to which you’re holding up your mirror, how limited your work must be! The more film people pay homage to each other, and to films rather than to life, the more they are approximating the last scene of The Lady From Shanghai – a series of mirrors reflecting each other. 

A movie is a reflection of the entire culture of the man who makes it – his education, human knowledge, his breadth of understanding – all this is what informs a picture [...] and the degree to which that can be done depends on what he has of himself by way of raw materials [...] the angle at which you hold that mirror, which is determined by moral, aesthetic and ideological orientation. Everything depends upon that angle. A mirror is just what it is."

And here's another great quote, from an earlier post: "Let filmmakers beware of films..."

(Oh heck, just read the whole book. It’s packed with gems. And go watch or re-watch Chimes at Midnight, Touch of Evil and F for Fake.)

Saturday, May 02, 2015

Notes from a judging process – on the pitfalls and pleasures of the Crossword Awards

[Did a version of this for the Daily O]

This will sound strange, even hypocritical, coming from someone who has accepted invitations to judge literary prizes a few times, but the idea of competitive awards for the arts makes me uneasy. I don't like the thought of creative works being thrown into a horse race, assessed by supposed gatekeepers of culture, and awarded marks and ranks so a single "winner" can emerge, just to satisfy our need for patterns and clean narratives.**

At the same time, there are good justifications for the existence of such prizes. The Raymond Crossword Award – in which I
participated as a judge for the fiction category this year – culminated in a pretty good show at the NCPA Mumbai this week, one that brought glamour, music and humour to a field that doesn’t often get a showcase of this sort. The award itself encourages and rewards writers, and brings high-quality books to the attention of readers who might not otherwise find out about them. And I emphasize “books”, in the plural, because the dreamer in me wishes each literary award committee would simply announce a shortlist of five titles (or 10 or 20 titles, depending on the overall size of the field) and leave it at that, taking the proceedings no further. So that readers can then explore the many riches on offer.

Silly fantasy, I know.

But even while congratulating Anees Salim on his win for The Blind Lady’s Descendants, I would encourage you to look as closely at the other shortlisted books, which represent a marvelous variety of styles and subjects. Just one example: Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar's The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey and Amitabha Bagchi's This Place are utterly different novels in terms of form, use of language and character types, yet both beautifully capture a sense of a setting (a Santhal village in Jharkhand and a Baltimore community respectively), the people in it, and the particular shapes that communal life can take. Ranking one of these books over the other is not something I, at any rate, could do with confidence. And yet, for our final discussions, we judges HAD to rank, and convince ourselves that the rankings had an internal logic.


Given these subjectivities inherent in “jury duty”, it helps if the actual process is made as efficient and clear as possible. Unfortunately this wasn’t the case here. The three of us – author/editor Anjum Hasan and author/academic Devika J were the other judges for the fiction prize – were disappointed by the apparent lack of organisation, and our initial impression was that the awards this year were more a brand-building exercise (or a “we have the brand, so let’s just keep it going” exercise) than a sincere, properly thought out celebration of literature.

Things would have been better, we felt, if R Sriram, a man of integrity and taste, who co-founded the Crossword Awards nearly two decades ago and still works as a consultant for the prize, had had a more direct role to play. Sriram has been candid about the shortcomings, among them the bizarreness of the 1.5-year period. Most awards operate on a 12-month cycle – preferably a calendar year, for obvious reasons – but the rule for this edition was that eligible books had to have been published between March 2013 and September 2014. I suspect this was as confusing for the participating publishers and writers as it was for us. (All books have a publication year listed, of course, but not many authors would be able to say, with certainty, that theirs was a “March 2013 book” rather than a “February 2013 book”.)

A reason for this timeframe oddness, apparently, is the uncertainty about sponsorships for the prize. As one of my fellow judges put it during an early email discussion, “I think the main problem is no one seems to want to take ownership of the prize. Crossword don’t put down the money themselves [...] This year the sponsor is Raymond, the other year it was Economist, before that it was Vodafone. How can any self-respecting award have this kind of musical chairs sponsorship?”

The silver lining is that things are set to improve in the next couple of years: Sriram tells me that Raymond has committed for the next two years as well, and that in the near future they will revert to a saner, calendar-year format.

In any case this wouldn’t have mattered much if the other things had been done well. If, say, the lists had been properly drawn up and the books we were to read had arrived in good time.

For clarity, here’s an outline of the process for the fiction prize. Publishers were asked to send Crossword a specified number of titles each for award consideration. Once this “longlist” was ready, the three judges came into the picture. We were to divide the books – there would be around 80, we were told – amongst ourselves. After an initial reading marathon, each of us would identify the five or six books from our respective quotas that we regarded mostly highly. At this point, with a total of 15 to 18 books in the fray, all the judges would be required to read everything and arrive, through discussion, at the final shortlist – and thence the winner.

Early on we learnt that the “around 80” was really 90-plus books – but that was okay since we had plenty of time on our hands. Except…we didn’t, since there were mix-ups and delays. The lists we were sent were far from finalised. The first list didn’t represent a couple of major publishers at all (it was subsequently updated). There were some titles listed that later turned out not to be eligible, because the author didn’t have Indian citizenship, or because a book had first been published years earlier, or belonged in the “translation” category. It became clear that Crossword didn’t have a basic filtering process in place before dumping 90-odd books on us.

As for the books themselves, it took forever for some of them to reach, even though it should not – in theory – have been a very thorny business to collect three copies of each of the longlisted titles, arrange them into sets, and send them out to three addresses in three different cities. Instead they came piecemeal, one couriered box at a time, weeks apart. With some duplications, many missing titles, some books that hadn’t even been mentioned in the longlist. Nervously aware that each of us would have to read around 30 books in a couple of months just to get through the first step of the process, we sent increasingly shrill reminder emails, and rarely got coherent responses. Samples of email chatter:

Judge: only three eligible books from Penguin in one-and-a-half years? That seems hard to believe. Also, nothing from Bloomsbury and Roli who both do fiction.

Terse response: They haven’t sent anything. Will still check with them.

Judge: were the publishers originally told to send 4 books per imprint or 6? I think we should be careful about this. We don’t want publishers comparing notes later and finding they were given different criteria.

[No response]

I wouldn’t let the publishers off the hook either. This is conjecture, of course, but looking through some of the titles submitted, it felt like the decisions were being made by marketing teams, based on which author was putting the most pressure on them, rather than by editors. When the first longlists (including updates) were ready, Anjum – who, as The Caravan’s literary editor, has been following recent publishing developments more closely than either Devika or me – noted that many acclaimed books published over the given period were not on the list at all. Accordingly she made a list of around 18-20 titles and asked Crossword to have those sent across as well. (The judges had been given leeway to do this.) We diligently revised our schedules to accommodate 110 titles rather than the original ninety.

One of those specifically-requested titles was The Blind Lady’s Descendants. That’s right – the book that ended up winning the fiction prize was not even submitted by its own publisher (Tranquebar) for the initial 90-book longlist.

That list also didn’t include another eventual shortlistee, Amit Chaudhuri’s Odysseus Abroad, which was one of the most acclaimed titles of the past year. Altaf Tyrewala’s Engglishhh and Kaveri Nambisan’s A Town Like Ours, both of which made it to our “pre-shortlist”, hadn’t been submitted either, and had to be asked for.

I could give you an idea of how surreal it was to not see books of the quality of Chaudhuri’s or Salim’s on the longlist, simply by quoting passages from some of the titles that WERE on it, but this website will run out of bandwidth. (Hint: if, in a bookstore you find yourselves within arm’s reach of a “medical thriller” titled Coffin Her Back – with a front-cover blurb that says nothing more effusive than “A decent first-time effort” – take a minute to open a page at random and read a few sentences. But only if you haven’t recently been operated on. This book will open your stitches like a freshly sharpened knife.) Also taking up a lot of space on the longlist was an over-generous sprinkling of barely written, not-at-all-edited books by Srishti, Leadstart and other publishers who operate in a grey zone located just on the outskirts of Self-Publishing.

And no, I am not being snobbish about popular or mass-market fiction. One of the things that makes me uncomfortable about such awards is the unspoken (and vague) distinctions that get made between “literary” and “popular” – distinctions that can be unfair to the really good writers of genre or fast-paced fiction like Anuja Chauhan or Samit Basu or Krishna Shastri Devapulalli (to name just three whose work I am reasonably familiar with), who tend to get sidelined in the “fiction” category while also getting dwarfed by the Ravi Subramanians and Ravinder Singhs in the “by popular vote” category.

Which is a good time to mention this observation Devika J made about our eventual winner: “Anees Salim breaks down the barrier between the high-brow and the popular quite spectacularly […] There is a way in which his writing communicates at different registers to different people, and that's no mean achievement.”


The choice of The Blind Lady’s Descendants was unanimous – in the sense that the book topped the final, “order of preference” list submitted by all three judges. More specifically, on each of those three lists there was another book that was joint first with Salim’s – except that it was a different book in each case, so we had our clear winner.

And a little admission: one book that all the judges loved (and which featured in the top 2 in two of the judges’ final lists) was not included in our final shortlist.

How does that work? The book in question was Anees Salim’s Vanity Bagh, which was one of three Salim novels eligible in the (1.5-year) period under consideration. After a bit of back and forth over email, we decided that there were so many good books to pick from this year that we should restrict the shortlist to one novel per author, rather than have two Salims on it and take away a spot from another writer.

Speaking for myself, I loved The Blind Lady’s Descendants (having read it twice now, I find myself mesmerized by how it manages to be so funny and light while also dealing with one of the saddest of subjects – the fear of obscurity and irrelevance, and the temporary comforts that writing can bring). And yet, in a way I saw Salim’s win as a win not just for this novel but for the sum of his achievements over the period: for Vanity Bagh as well as the delightful Tales from a Vending Machine, which is the fastest paced of his books, seemingly written for younger readers (and therefore perhaps most prone to snobberies about not being “literary” enough for a prize) – but which I think is in its own way as good as either of the others.

Which is a long-winded way of saying that for all the shortfalls in organization, for all the inherent flaws in such a competitive process, at the end of several months we had a very satisfying winner. Along with a solid list of other nominees. 


** More on competitive prizes
what I’m more interested in are the processes involved. When I became obsessed with the Oscars as an adolescent, I spent a lot of time making lists of potential nominees, conjecturing why this or that film or performance would be favoured. But even back then I never thought the results would represent an objective “best” – the inherent subjectivity of the process was a given, as was the fact that actual merit might be just one among a multitude of intersecting factors behind a vote. (Among those factors, well-chronicled in Oscar history: the perceived topicality of a film’s subject matter, or the “holdover award” given to a respected performer who had never won for his or her best work in the past.) In any case the period leading up to the announcement of the nominations was the most exciting for me; after that it became predictable, and awards night itself didn’t interest me much unless there was a thoroughly unexpected winner.

Monday, April 13, 2015

The invisibility and nudity ring: vanishing Vinod in a 1971 film called Elaan

[Did a version of this for the Daily O]

With India’s newest Invisible Man film – the Emraan Hashmi-starrer Mr X – about to release, there has been much talk about computer-generated effects, and even more talk about the fondly remembered Mr India. But forget all that. It is time to rescue from film vaults another, older movie that features an invisibility device.

Historically, the 1971 Elaan has minor importance for being the first ever pairing of Rekha and Vinod Mehra, who were an under-appreciated screen couple. Be warned though: the Rekha and Vinod Mehra in this film are a species or two removed from the same actors in, say, Ghar, which was made years later.

I’ll skip the preliminaries, such as the grisly courtship scenes between their characters Naresh and Mala (which include him being molested by a tribe of her sahelis at a picnic), and get to the main plot. Naresh – an upwardly mobile journalist
runs afoul of one of those “international” crime syndicates that use high-tech gadgets (blue rotary phones! walkie-talkies! flower pots that can be twisted about to make a door open!) and do unspeakably evil things such as printing literally dozens of fake one-rupee notes and hanging them on a clothes-line to dry. (“Ek din India ki currency fail ho jaayegi aur hum log maalamaal ho jaayenge! Ha. Ha. Ha.”)

"Well, Mrs Gandhi is saying Garibi Hatao."

This shot of white-skinned masseuses in floral bikinis, a VAT 69 bottle and a topless Madan Puri, all in the same frame, will reveal their satanic depths.

When you learn that the villains’ main den (“Phase 1”) is on a distant island, that one of the head villains (the ever-reliable Shetty) is bald and that the other head villain is played by Amrish Puri’s brother, dots will start to connect in your head. There is already a pre-echo here of Mr India. Then the invisibility theme makes its appearance. Pay attention now.

Naresh finds himself locked in a cellar with a seemingly crazy old man who claims to have invented an “atomic ring” that can make you disappear. Where is this ring, you ask. It turns out
he has kept it safely buried in his thigh for years, waiting for a goodhearted person he can bequeath it to. When Naresh respectfully addresses him as “Baba”, the old savant realises his Bilbo Baggins is here at last; so he tears open his own leg, extricates the ring from its gory hiding place, and tells Naresh:

“Put this in your mouth, then take off all your clothes, and see what happens.”

(Or words to that effect.) I should mention that there is no disinfectant in this cellar.

Remember this excellent Christopher Walken monologue from Pulp Fiction?
This watch. This watch was on your daddy’s wrist when he was shot down over Hanoi. He was captured, put in a Vietnamese prison camp. The way your dad looked at it, that watch was your birthright. So he hid it in the one place he knew he could hide something. His ass. Five long years, he wore this watch up his ass. Then he died of dysentery, he gave me the watch. I hid this uncomfortable hunk of metal up my ass two years. Then, after seven years, I was sent home to my family. And now, little man, I give the watch to you.
At least the Walken character didn’t ask little Butch to put the watch in his mouth. No such luck for Naresh.

In most invisibility stories, either the device-user disappears fully, along with the clothes he is wearing (Mr India, The Lord of the Rings), or the body disappears but the clothes can still be seen (the 1933 Invisible Man with Claude Rains, the Kevin Bacon-starrer Hollow Man). The science of Elaan is a little more complicated: you have to take off all your clothes if you want to turn invisible – otherwise it won’t work at all.

And it must be done in a pre-specified order.

1) First remove your shirt.

2) Carefully place the atomic ring in your mouth – not like you’re Rajinikanth flicking a cigarette, but like you’re Vinod Mehra ingesting a Hajmola for a TV ad. 

3) After this, remove your trousers. (No one ever needs underwear.)

It is only the magical combination of ring-in-mouth PLUS trousers-off that leads to invisibility. Omit one of these important steps and you’re either standing there half-dressed and visible with a ring in your mouth, or naked and visible with a ring in your hand.

Also, the moment your body comes in contact with any sort of cloth – if someone throws a towel over you, for example – all of you becomes visible again.

This is where I present my carefully worked out thesis that Elaan isn’t so much a film about invisibility as a film about the liberating joys of nudity.

No one is too impressed with the invisibility idea to begin with. It is treated as a plot detail, easily jettisoned when other details – such as sleek orange cars – come along. Unlike Mr India and (presumably) Mr X, where so much hinges on this marvelous superpower – and the writers know they can build an adventure around it – Elaan looks at its own script and goes: “Invisibility? Uh-huh. What else you got?”

Consider a scene where Naresh meets Mala, who has joined the CBI after her father is murdered. (It’s that easy. You just join, and get a special number and your own wristwatch-like gizmo, on which CBI boss Iftekhar can call you anytime – and he does, usually at the precise moment when you’re undercover in the villains’ den with bad guys all around you.) She yearns to avenge her daddy; we know this because she is throwing darts at a board with an expression of annoyance, like a picnic has just been cancelled due to rain.

So Naresh gives her the good news straight.

“Mere paas atomic ring hai!”

“Atomic ring? Woh kis kaam ka hai?”

“Usse mooh mein rakhne se aadmi gaayab ho jaata hai. Iss se hamara mission aur bhi aasaan ho jaayega.”
(Mala titters, like she has heard that the weather will improve in the evening. The background music is soft and romantic and not at all conducive to conversations about atoms and protons. So they talk about things more exciting than invisibility, such as where to go for dinner.)

The nakedness, on the other hand, is what really drives this film. Often, when Naresh is being pursued by the bad guys (say, during a breakneck car chase), he has to dump his clothes and vanish. Which means that whenever he wishes to become visible again, he must:

1) find a clothes store, 
2) find a shoe store, 
3) sneak into each of them by turn, 
4) pilfer things in his invisible state without the salesmen noticing anything amiss, 
5) wait for a changing room to be unoccupied, 
6) enter the changing room,
7) check for CCTV cameras...

See how this sort of thing might slow down the pace of what was intended to be an action movie?

By the film's climax, the dominant mode is low comedy, and people are falling over themselves to get hold of the ring mainly because it gives them an excuse to take off their clothes. After all, what is the point of having both Rajendranath (as Naresh’s buffoonish friend Shyam) and an invisibility-nudity ring in the same film if you can’t use lines like these?

Naresh (having been cornered by the bad guys): “Shyam, apne mooh se ring nikaalo.”

Invisible Shyam: “Par main toh nangaa hoon!”

So Naresh takes off his own coat and puts it around Shyam’s lower half (wisely), and voila, the buffoon reappears.


Elaan’s casting was prescient, I feel. After early stints as a hero in B-movies, Vinod Mehra would go on to become one of the invisible men of mainstream Hindi cinema – not so much a second or third lead as a noble foil who always had a brave, rueful smile on his face as if mindful of his place in the pecking order; making up the numbers in multi-hero films like The Burning Train and Jaani Dushman; or appearing as a martyred policeman in the “Pre-Credits Backstory Compression” (to use Rajorshi Chakraborti’s delightful phrase in the piece he wrote for The Popcorn Essayists) segments of 1980s movies; or stumbling about in a shawl while a bizarre series of opening titles played out.

In Elaan, having got a chance to play hero, he shows terrific screen absence in scenes like these:

Vinod Mehra in an intense romantic moment with Rekha:

Vinod Mehra looking heroic as he rides a motorbike, with Shyam sitting behind him and holding on for dear life. 

(Please remember, while looking at the above image, that Naresh is nude. Thank you.)

And here is the closest thing this film has to a special effect:

Twinkle twinkle, fading star

No wonder Elaan has remained largely unseen for decades. But you could say that's a pretty good achievement for an invisibility film.

P.S. Among the high points of Elaan is one of those actors who would overshadow Vinod Mehra in the decade to come – the dashing young Vinod Khanna, still in his villain phase. 

Managing somehow to look cool even when sitting at a contraption with blinking neon lights and speaking long-distance with his island bosses, Khanna seems to have sky-dropped in from another, classier film. And he gets to be sutradhaar at one point too, with a dialogue that sums up the film’s generally disdainful attitude to invisibility. “Chaalis saal se atomic research ki hai. Ek angoothi banaayi hai jiss se aadmi gaayab ho jaata hai. Wah re, Aladdin ki aulad!” Then he chuckles for a bit and goes back to sleep. As you should too.