Saturday, June 25, 2016

Nadal as the anti-Hitchcock hero (and other thoughts on tennis and suspense)

[Did this piece for Mint Lounge’s tennis special]

The final leg of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1951 film Strangers on a Train has the narrative cross-cutting between two actions, until they converge in an exciting fight scene atop a carousel. In the first of these actions, the suave psychopath Bruno Anthony leaves his house to travel to a fairground where he wants to drop off a cigarette lighter. His purpose in doing this is to incriminate the story’s hero, Guy Haines, in a murder that Bruno has committed. The lighter belongs to Guy and has two tennis racquets embossed on it.


While this is happening, Guy – a tennis star with political ambitions – is playing an important match, but also knows that he must get off the court, and out of the stadium, in time to intercept Bruno and save himself; at the changeover between games, he looks tensely at the courtside clock, and we count the minutes with him.

As the sequence progresses, the cutting between the two narratives becomes increasingly urgent (and visually symbolic: at one point, Bruno must retrieve the lighter from a storm drain it has fallen into, his fingers slipping down ever further into the darkness; meanwhile, Guy’s racquet points sun-ward as he makes overhead shots). There is a hint of character development too. Guy has been a limp-wristed sort so far, not a strong, assertive hero (Farley Granger, who plays the part, had a similarly passive role in Hitchcock’s Rope), but now, facing crisis, he doesn’t have the option of playing the waiting game: he has to speed it up, move out of his comfort zone, take risks.


I have sometimes thought of that match while watching the theatre of men’s tennis over the past decade and a bit: a period that saw the riveting Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal rivalry followed by the ascent to greatness of one-time “third wheel” Novak Djokovic, and the continued doggedness of Andy Murray, perpetual bridesmaid in Grand Slam finals, who doesn’t get enough credit for his achievements in such a high-octane era. As a Nadal obsessive who has a great deal of respect for all those other players, I feel like playing devil’s advocate and wondering: what if Guy Haines was Federer, and what if the man he was playing in that scene was Rafa Nadal? Would the hero ever have got off that court? Would Hitchcock’s film have had a chance to end, much less reach its spectacular climax?

We saw a version of this story emerge in the last decade, when Federer fans had reason to view Nadal as the moustache-twirling cinematic “heavy”, always impeding their hero’s progress. Circa 2005, here is Roger, an efficient, confident, attacking player, accustomed to swanning his way through matches and finishing in time to toss out bon mots at the press conference. After which he can go eat a five-course meal on a glacier, or don a cape and rescue Sherlock Holmes at the Reichenbach Falls, or whatever it is Swiss superheroes do. Most of his opponents, much less skilled, play the game on his terms. But now the script changes. Along comes this Nadal, this Spaniard in the works, with his two-handed backhand and almost robotic ball-retrieving, grunting and fist-pumping as if every point isn’t just a point to be quickly won or lost, it is a battle for his very soul. Not only does he make you play endless rallies, he also takes his sweet time between them. (“He towels off after EVERY POINT, even after his opponent has double-faulted!” a friend of mine, no Rafa fan, once wailed. Not so far from the truth.)

In Strangers on a Train, the tennis match is a pit-stop on the road to something much more important – the real game with the highest stakes lies ahead, in the fairground confrontation. (In an impeccably crafted film, those tennis scenes are casually shot by Hitchcock’s standards.) For Nadal, on the other hand, the court itself is the carnival. There have been times, watching some of his longest matches (the epic 2012 Australian Open final and the grueling Madrid Masters semifinal of 2009, both against Djokovic, come to mind), when I have felt that even if he lost, the thrill lay in just being part of something surreal and never-ending.

Those words could describe another cinematic tennis match, from a very different sort of film. Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 Blow Up is one of those cool, avant-garde European movies that initially pretend to be narrative-driven (this one even pretends to be an exciting mystery), before yielding to abstract, enigmatic commentary on modern life, hedonism and flawed perceptions. In its closing scene, the protagonist Thomas watches a group of mimes “play” a tennis match with an invisible ball. At first bemused, he eventually succumbs to the conceit: his eyes move back and forth as if he is watching a real match.


You might call this match existential tennis, where the purpose isn’t to get a result but to go through the same motions over and over. And that is how some exasperated Federer fans describe not just Nadal’s playing style, but also most of the baseline-rally-dominated matches that Djokovic and Murray have played in recent years. For those purists, this is the un-beautiful game, so repetitive and tedious that their eyes glaze over and they can barely see the ball after a point.

Can we propose this binary then: that Federer was like the dashing hero of a Hitchcock thriller – a throwback to the crisper tennis of a past era, before surfaces around the world were slowed down – while Nadal, grinding away for hours, was the lead in a languorously paced film? Well, yes, if you have a very narrow view of what exciting tennis (or stirring cinema) should be. But here’s a caveat. Don’t try telling me that being a Nadal fan doesn’t involve high suspense – I have 11 years’ worth of chewed fingernails and accumulated grey hair to counter that thought.

Some of this suspense has come in great matches: such as the heart-stopping moment during the 2008 Wimbledon final when Nadal – with the match on his racquet in the fourth-set tiebreak – temporarily melted into a puddle of nerves; or the extraordinary see-saw of the third set of the 2013 US Open final, which Rafa somehow stole from under Djokovic’s nose after being nearly a double-break down. However, the bulk of the suspense has been off-court, in the constant second-guessing about his many injuries: how long before his knee, or shoulder, or back, gives way this time? How much is his team disclosing to the outside world? Can he make it through another round after that exhausting last match? When is a comeback likely to occur, and how effective will it be?

Given all this drama, watching Rafa win quickly can feel anti-climactic, even portentous. I was astonished a few weeks ago when I tuned in to his first-round match at the French Open to find that, in only sixty-five minutes of play, he was up 6-1, 6-1, 3-0 against an admittedly low-ranked opponent. It should have been thrilling, but it felt like the usual order of things had been mangled – it was too good to be true. A few days later, just as talk had begun about Rafa being in contention to win his tenth French Open, he pulled out of the tournament with a wrist injury.

Hitchcock once made a distinction between surprise (a sudden explosion that a viewer couldn’t possibly have anticipated) and its more effective cousin, suspense (we know there is a bomb under the table, but we don’t know when, or if, it will go off). For casual tennis watchers, Nadal’s pullout came as a blindsiding surprise. For perpetually jittery, stressed-out fans like yours truly who follow every practice-session report and press conference, it was more like the newest twist in a decade-long suspense series. Following him over the years has been – depending on the context – like watching an “arty” film full of long pauses and silences; or like watching a fast-paced thriller, waiting with bated breath for the moment where the roundabout careens out of control. That’s a good, varied menu if you’re a movie buff, and I’m not complaining.


[Some earlier posts on Rafa Nadal/tennis are here]

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

What about the good trip? Scattered thoughts on Udta Punjab

Is it a problem that my favourite scene in Udta Punjab isn’t one that depicts the horrific repercussions of drug use (as this film effectively does for much of its duration) but one that reminds us that a good high can, however temporarily, bring bliss and sweet silliness?

(And if I were to confess this to Pahlaj Nihalani, would he wag his finger at his detractors and say “I told the nation so”?)

I’m talking about the scene where we realise that the cop Sartaj (played by the likable Diljit Dosanjh) has a needle stuck in the back of his neck, shortly after having been attacked by a junkie. It took me a while to appreciate this tonally weird sequence, which leads one through a series of reactions, from alarm (“he’s been stabbed and he doesn’t know it yet!”) to bafflement (what's going on, is it a threat or a fashion statement? He knows it’s there and he doesn’t mind?). It’s only later, when Sartaj and his companion on this nighttime adventure, Dr Preet (Kareena Kapoor), have fallen off his bike, and we see front views of him with the syringe shyly bobbing about behind his turban, that the goofiness of the situation sets in.


There is visual poetry in these images. We also see the gradual loss of inhibition in a man who has so far been controlled and proper – there are glimpses of the feelings Sartaj is developing for Preet, which he wouldn’t otherwise express; then there is the tender moment where Preet discreetly takes the needle out of his neck and asks him to stick his tongue out just to make sure things are okay… and all this while, their languorous conversation is continuing. I thought these were lovely touches. Just clarifying, I didn't feel like sticking a needle into myself (that particular temptation has eluded me throughout my adult life, possibly because I was sated by years of passive substance-inhalation in my infancy and childhood), but the scene was still happy-making.

In the larger context of the film, it also performs the twin function of implicating and softening the viewer, getting us to lower our guard. I’m no Kareena fan, and found some of her scenes a little grating, but by the film’s end I could see the larger purpose in casting her as the beatific, lecture-dispensing doctor who gets to play Nancy Drew for a bit. In terms of providing an initial glimmer of light that makes the finale seem even darker, the casting made as much sense as her rosy-complexioned Desdemona in Vishal Bhardwaj’s Othello-in-the-UP-hinterland.

I’m probably revealing a personal bias in this post: one of my favourite themes in literature and film is that escapism/fantasy can be enormously sustaining in the right dose (and naturally, the dose varies for different people), but become destructive and crippling if taken too far. And that many lives are spent walking the tightrope, finding or failing to find a balance. (Of course, "escapism" and "fantasy" can cover a range of things, and the meaning of what is nourishing and what is destructive changes accordingly. For instance, it is one thing to feel a powerful adrenaline rush when watching a favourite actor delivering a great performance, or a favourite sportsman setting a record – to have an otherwise gloomy week brightened up by these things; but it is another thing to become obsessed to the point that you come to believe there is a real connection between you and the person on the screen, and that you must devote hours on end to trolling anyone who says anything negative about your hero.)

Udta Punjab has other variations on this theme. Consider how the rockstar Tommy Singh (Shahid Kapoor) is in danger of being destroyed by drugs but is saved – and rediscovers himself – when he gets a chance to help someone who is in even worse straits. (This is the second time in the past year, after the wonderful Shaandaar, that Kapoor has played a nutty prince who tries to rescue Alia Bhatt from a form of captivity. And Shaandaar, remember, had its own mind-altering substances in that magic mushroom song – a hallucinogenic trip put to good, constructive use.) But the clearest playing out of the theme is in the little promise of romance between Sartaj and the doctor. The stimulant in his system is what relaxes Sartaj and allows him to get mushy around Preet (which she eventually responds to). Yet substance abuse, in another context and another dose, is also what, a few scenes later, puts a swift end to their chance of happiness together.

P.S. A related thought: one result of the preposterous censorship controversy is that too many defenders of Udta Punjab (including its makers) have been put into the position of over-stressing the fact that it is not (not, NOT) a celebration of drug use: that it Gives. The. Message. That. Drugs. Are. Bad. Underline, underline. Which is fine, I suppose: being good-intentioned and trying to improve society aren’t terrible crimes in themselves, and a powerful medium like cinema certainly can help get the anti-drug message across. It just sticks a little in the craw for me, given how much I have enjoyed some films where you see addicts really having a good time, no matter how temporary it might be or how it all might end.

It is entirely possible for someone who has never done drugs himself (or someone who has seen up close how harmful substance abuse can be) to still feel the exhilaration of a scene like the one in Pulp Fiction where John Travolta goes on that nighttime car ride after shooting up, with the seductive strains of Bulwinkle Part II playing in the background, and lovingly shot slo-mo scenes of the needle entering the vein and the blood mixing with the heroin, and… well, you know. There’s a cinematic high if ever there was one. But again, I suppose it depends on how successfully you can separate escapism from reality (or good escapism from too much escapism). Anyway, it should be possible for a film to honestly depict the rush, while maybe also depicting the long-term consequences.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

A man of two minds: on Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer

[Did this review for Scroll]

I am a man of two faces, and also a man of two minds, the narrator-protagonist of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Sympathizer says in the novel’s opening paragraph. “I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or a horror movie, although some have treated me as such. I am simply able to see any issue from both sides.”

The theme of two-facedness will run through this book: near the end, it will find an echo in a tragically grotesque image – a two-headed baby, a victim of a chemical experiment, preserved in formaldehyde – that could come from a horror movie about mutants, but could just as easily be the narrator’s view of himself in a distorting mirror. As we travel through the tortured landscape of his mind, his dual-sidedness will also be revealed as a metaphor for his war-torn country, Vietnam.


In its use of a protagonist who is buffeted around by circumstances, and who can be seen as representing a nation’s turbulent history, this book is reminiscent of such modern classics as Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum and Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. Our country was cursed, bastardized, partitioned into north and south, the narrator tells us. Being the child of a Vietnamese mother and a French-Catholic priest, he wears the “bastard” tag himself: he belongs nowhere. (“Just as my abused generation was divided before birth, so was I divided on birth, delivered into a post-partum world where hardly anyone accepted me for whom I was, but only ever bullied me into choosing between my two sides.”)

This also means he is well-versed in the art of deception. After spending six idyllic years as a student in America in the 1960s, he returns and works as an aide to a South Vietnamese general – but all the while he is really a spy, secretly passing on information to the Communists in the north. Then, in the mid-70s, after the end of the war and the fall of Saigon, he finds himself back in the US, this time as a refugee – still an associate of the general, still a Communist spook, and not quite sure of his place in the world.

As if conscious that nothing must be too clearly stated, the narrator (perhaps one should call him The Narrator) doesn’t name himself and many of the people around him, instead designating them the General, “the crapulent major”, “the affectless lieutenant”, the Poet, the Auteur, and so on. This sort of thing can become strained or self-conscious even in clearly allegorical literature, but it works here, and it is poignant that when names are given, they are usually of the few people with whom the narrator has an emotional connection: an American friend named Claude, a woman called Mrs Mori (or, as they become more intimate, Sofia), and most importantly, his childhood friends Man and Bon, whom he describes as his blood brothers and fellow musketeers. Even this relationship, though, is complicated by the fact that while Man and the narrator are Communists, Bon is not, and is unaware of their allegiance.

The early passages establish most of this information and include an intense account of the 1975 evacuation, the escape from Saigon to Guam and thence to America. A non-Vietnamese reader might want to quickly reacquaint himself with the basic historical facts before reading this book. (I’ll admit to feeling a little muddled during some of the initial scenes, swamped by the casual references to Vietnamese politics, the rival armies, their strategies and subterfuges.) Because, remember, this isn’t just a story about a particular place in a particular moment, it comes to us in the voice of a double agent who often says “we” when he is talking about the side he is betraying; a conflicted man who struggles to reconcile the political with the personal. What happens when the wife and little boy of his closest friend are killed in front of him, and he has to help the friend carry their bodies to the plane on which they are fleeing Saigon… all the while knowing that the fatal bullets were fired by people whose side he himself is secretly on?

Later, in the US, here he is, a communist at heart and in theory, benefiting from the trappings and privileges of a capitalist society – an all-too-familiar example of an ideologue confronted with a yawning gap between his stated position and life’s inconvenient realities. He is caught in what must be very frustrating situations: being unable, for instance, to reveal the truth even to those liberal, anti-war Americans who might sympathize with him. His moral compass is further muddied when he has to participate in a murder (or “assassination”), and then singlehandedly carry one out, to avoid suspicion falling on himself.

The Sympathizer becomes more darkly funny when the narrator is employed as a consultant on a film about Vietnam, made by a celebrated American director. I was a little unsettled by these passages, because while the film being shot comes across as a cliché-ridden travesty – a simple-minded Hollywoodisation of “exotic” people – there are also sly allusions to Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. (The character played by the Method-acting Thespian dies with the words “The whore! The whore!” on his lips, much as Brando’s Kurtz mumbles “The horror! The horror!” in Coppola’s epic.) Most film buffs would agree that Apocalypse Now is more ambitious and hard-hitting than what we call “typical Hollywood”, far from a gung-ho celebration of
American superiority. And yet, reading about the fictitious film in The Sympathizer is to be reminded that even Coppola’s epic, as it travels into the Vietnamese jungles, treats the Vietnamese themselves as shadowy figures on the periphery of the narrative: inarticulate (or rather, not articulating at all), with no inner lives and no agency. And thinking about this, one is further reminded that the source for that film, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, for all its literary merits, referred to the native Africans’ language as “a violent babble of uncouth sounds”.

Given the very specific nature of the Vietnam-US encounter, one hesitates, as a non-Vietnamese reader, to claim too much identification with the narrator’s story – and yet, there is a larger resonance here for anyone from a third-world country who has felt ambivalent about the American behemoth; for urban Indians like myself, who have resented the superpower’s bullying and hypocrisy while at the same time being, in many ways, products of American popular culture, deeply influenced by and even passionate about their films, music and television. As the narrator puts it:

We ate their food, we watched their movies, we observed their lives […] we were the greatest anthropologists ever of the American people, which the American people never knew because our field notes were written in our own language in letters and postcards dispatched to our countries of origin, where our relatives read our reports with hilarity, confusion and awe.
In one startling passage, the narrator wakes groggily after a drunken binge and is “frightened by the severed head of a gigantic insect gaping its jaws at me, until I realized it was only the wood-paneled television, its twin antennae drooping”. The imagery is vivid on its own terms, but it has another dimension when one considers the monstrous force of American pop-culture, broadcasting its version of events far and wide, exercising control on other parts of the world.

Though the book has many sharp moments like these, I felt the prose was sometimes over-cooked. One example among many: “As the debacle unfolded, the calcium and lime deposits of memory from the last days of the damned republic encrusted themselves in the pipes of my brain,” the narrator says. At other times he tries a little too hard to be funny (“I stopped breathing and waited for the General to pull out the pistol with which he was going to remove my brains in an unsurgical fashion”). It can be argued that some of the florid prose reflects the fact that the narrator – not a novelist by profession – is writing his story during a year-long captivity, where he has little else to do but revisit and polish sentences, use the process as a way of staying sane and motivated. But even so, the overwriting came close to distancing me from the character, especially in the early chapters, when it is more pronounced.

In the long run, though, this ceases to matter as the book heads for its searing conclusion – a brilliant, absurdist final segment that involves both interrogation and self-interrogation. By the end, one can see how adept Nguyen is at foreshadowing, so that one incident, image or turn of phrase that occurs early in the narrative – such as an allusion to what the narrator feels is an unnecessary rape scene in the Auteur’s movie, or the observation that Vietnam’s “demureness” stirred pederastic fantasies in Western writers – acquires a potent new dimension in a later scene.

******

This book is about many things: the gap between youth and adulthood; rigid ideology set against a more capacious understanding of people and the contradictions they carry within themselves; how two-facedness can mean hypocrisy, fence-sitting or betrayal – but can equally mean the ability to be more empathetic than those who too easily choose sides. It is also about the life of the mind, about the search for nuance that can come
through writing. During his confinement, the narrator writes a 295-page-long “confession” for a leader known only as the Commandant. But the Commandant is unsatisfied. He doesn’t want complex thoughts or excessive introspection, he wants clear, succinct language – the language “of the people”. And one is reminded that this is how it tends to be with people in positions of power, whether they are right-wing or left-wing, nationalists or communists: their interests lie in keeping things simple, clear-cut, black and white, in discouraging too much reflection.

In a sense then, it is appropriate that The Sympathizer itself is not a simple or straightforward read. One reason for this is Nguyen’s decision to not use quote-marks for the dialogue passages, and to use long paragraphs in such a way that the text flows on and on and comes to resemble stream-of-consciousness, even during a dialogue scene between two people. In many such passages, you have to read carefully to separate conversation from description or thought, or even to make out who is saying what. The author is not attempting neat, ordered clarity – instead, this device effectively creates the sense that many voices are concentrated in one: that our narrator is in an endless monologue with himself, weighing first one position, then the next; and that the other characters are versions of himself, united by humanity but divided by belief systems.

Friday, June 10, 2016

In which Gulshan Grover plays a good guy (and can't finish his bath)

[my latest Mint Lounge column]

Middle age can make you mushy in unexpected contexts. In the 1980s, if someone had told my child-self that one day I’d feel nostalgic watching an actor of that era play himself in a film, Gulshan Grover would be last on my list of possibles. Not because he was a villain, but because he was oily and reptilian and henchman-like in ways that other bad men weren’t. As a personality, he was a few shades below Amjad Khan, who was always a classy actor, or Amrish Puri – who could leer and roll his eyes with the best of them when required, but had gravitas and authority too – or Kader Khan,
who knew how to command a scene even if his sense of humour was an acquired taste. Compared to these performers, Grover was the lizard on the wall, the lead villain’s callow son who leered and struck a pose for a bit, before getting beaten up by the second hero.

For me, then, one achievement of the new direct-to-web film Bad Man – a mockumentary directed by Soumik Sen and available on the online video platform Voot – is that it makes Gulshan Grover likable and, in his own way, charming. The film weaves a series of zany, slapstick skits around this basic premise: Grover, at age 60, decides that he wants to play the hero in a movie, to make himself relevant again and to get revenge for all the beatings he took in his iniquitous heyday. Naturally, his film will be called “Good Man”.

There are many levels on which a Hindi-movie buff of my generation can enjoy Bad Man. It is both an affectionate tribute to and a parody of the industry and the people who had their moments in the sun without quite becoming A-list stars – people like Chunky Pandey, who has a nice self-deprecating part here. There are funny turns by Anuvab Pal, as one of Grover’s inept sons, Farah Khan as herself, a cameo by a homily-spouting Mahesh Bhatt (“Gulshan Grover, never over”) and wry one-liners such as the one about needing to use a cauliflower in a fight scene because of sponsorship.


But the film also had me thinking about the king-sized lives of 1970s and 80s super-villains, who had to be omnipotent and secure in private fortresses until they were taken down in the end. Recall the astonishing set design in films like Parvarish, Mr India, Naseeb or Shaan, where bad men had their private lava pits, spiky walls, rotating floors, sharks/crocodiles, and a supply of dancing girls silhouetted behind curtains, presumably shimmying in eight-hour shifts (this was pre-liberalisation). Or the brilliantly inventive climactic scene of Teesri Aankh, where Dharmendra – arriving in Amjad Khan’s multi-level lair to rescue his friends – must negotiate a convoluted obstacle course (golden exploding owl statues! Karate babes with foot-long fingernails!) while singing “Salaam Salaam Main Aa Gaya”.

These settings and appurtenances were well removed from our middle-class realities (or realities anywhere), and perhaps this is why Bad Man’s opening scene is such a rib-tickler. Gulshan Grover is in the shower, a fancy shower in a big mansion, but then the water supply runs out (the municipal corporation had sent a warning SMS). Here is an old-world villain in a very mundane situation. Shortly afterwards, we see him in white kurta, eating muesli at the breakfast table. His aging colleagues – including Ranjeet, now looking like a jovial Punjabi taaya-ji – discuss medical ailments such as colonoscopy and bleeding fissures.

Watching this, I pictured how differently things might have gone for movie villains past. Imagine: the water tanks in Mogambo’s (or Shakaal’s) den are emptying; shark carcasses are stinking up the place; sidekick Tom Alter, in a scuba-diving outfit, sprinkles chlorine tablets into the tank, but it doesn’t help. What to do? The criminal mastermind gets his men to bring in penguins, seals and other relatively low-maintenance marine animals, then watches in despair as Neetu Singh and Zeenat Aman coochie-coo and high-five at the creatures instead of being scared. He tries to recoup his fading dignity by squishing the hero between lethal, electrically operated moving walls, but there is a power cut and the generator won’t start.

You don’t even have to look at flashy urban dens. Consider Sholay, and Gabbar Singh’s men coming to Ramgarh for their quota of grain. The scene is played to stress the bullying of the dacoits and the helplessness of the villagers, but extend the thought a little and in the next scene you can picture the family-less bandits having poorly cooked daal-chaawal together on their sunbaked rocks. Now go further. Imagine that the taalaab near the hideout is drying up. Where do they wash their clothes, those distinctive khaki uniforms? Picture them sheepishly handing a sack of clothes to the village dhobi, collecting the inventory, then sitting about on the rocks in their underwear, waiting.

Takes some of the sheen off the badness, doesn’t it?


In an age of nuanced cinema, the old-style villain was one of the first things to go out of fashion – these days we no longer hanker after grand depictions of evil but celebrate “shades of grey” and speak pedantically about how people are never all bad or all good. Perhaps, then, one good way of humanising the bad guy is to have him standing soapily in his shower, cursing the water board, like any ordinary mortal. Gulshan Grover can be one of us.

[Related post: how comedy can make villains look ridiculous]

Thursday, June 09, 2016

On a biography of Shashi Kapoor, householder and movie star

[Did this essay-cum-review for Open magazine]

My childhood memories of Shashi Kapoor are mainly of ‘Amitabh’s favourite heroine’, as one waggish description of the time had it. Kapoor was the fair-complexioned second lead and occasional foil to the superstar in films ranging from those signposts of the Angry Young Man era, Deewaar and Trishul, to the fast-paced thriller Shaan and the goofy comedy Do aur Do Paanch. Through most of these pairings, he was a gentle, jolly co-star; it was scarcely believable that his Trishul character, the pampered younger brother Shekhar, could hold his own against Bachchan’s smoldering, forged-in-iron Vijay during a climactic fight scene.

Later, in the early 1990s, there was the plump, droopy-eyed man apologizing in a magazine interview for making a mess of his directorial debut Ajooba, and for letting his friend Bachchan down in the process. As a young teen who had moderately enjoyed that Arabian Nights-style adventure, I was a bit puzzled by Kapoor’s contriteness: Ajooba was a disappointment to those of us who had been led to expect something with cutting-edge special effects, but it was more fun than some of the other things Bachchan had been doing around the same time, such as Toofan and Aaj ka Arjun. That apart, it was very unusual to see a well-known film personality admitting to failure.

In between all this, I was struck by Kapoor’s dignified turn as a modern-day Karna in Kalyug – a film I went out of my way to seek out because of a Mahabharata obsession – and dimly aware of his pencil-moustached “serious” roles in films like New Delhi Times and Vijeta. Though not one of my very favourite actors, he was always a pleasing personality, and even at a time when I was more interested in macho men and less so in sensitive, dreamy-eyed heroes like Shashi and his nephew Rishi, I think I realized there was something special about someone who could easily shift between the mainstream films I liked and the somber ones by Shyam Benegal and others.


In more recent years, there have been poignant firsthand sightings – the old, ailing version of the matinee idol, sitting quietly in a chair in a cranny of Prithvi Theatre. All these Kapoors (or perhaps one should say “Shashis”) can be found in Aseem Chhabra’s Shashi Kapoor: The Householder, the Star. The first thing to be said about this elegantly produced book is that it is – appropriately, given its subject – likable and light on the eye. It is also slimmer than you may at first realize – the actual text occupies around 180 pages, which includes chapter endnotes as well as lots of black-and-white photos interspersed with the writing. 

The opening chapter, “A Star is Born” – in which vignettes from Kapoor’s early life are provided in the hurried style of childhood scenes unfolding in the first 15 minutes of a 1970s Hindi film – and the last, “Things Fall Apart”, are the ones that are biographical in the conventional sense of that word, while the others are packed with information about the many cinemas Kapoor was associated with as actor and producer: mainstream Hindi movies ranging from Yash Chopra’s Dharmputra in 1960 to the same director’s Silsila more than 20 years later, the “middle” or “parallel” films of the 70s and 80s, the collaborations with Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, beginning with The Householder in 1963, other international productions such as Conrad Rooks’s Siddhartha and Stephen Frears’s Sammy and Rosie Get Laid. Kapoor appeared in dozens of – largely forgettable – commercial Hindi films in the 1970s, but Chhabra emphasizes his achievements as an Indian actor who attained some international recognition (with critics of the stature of Pauline Kael mentioning him in reviews) decades before the word “crossover” became commonly used and Irrfan Khan and Priyanka Chopra went global in a much more connected world.

The book does a good job of recording the many influences that played out on the actor over the decades: the socialist egalitarianism of his father Prithviraj Kapoor; the long-term emotional mooring provided by a romantic relationship formed early in his life – with Jennifer Kendal, whom he married in 1958
when he was twenty and she was twenty-five; the work ethic of Jennifer’s family of theatre performers; and how all these factors helped in forging a man who maintained the discipline of a good repertory actor – a team player – even at a time when he was a glamorous celebrity. But there is also the suggestion that in an environment that could be inimical to idealism and discipline, these qualities sometimes came back to bite Kapoor: he was a conscientious producer who had his directors’ and actors’ interests in mind, but this may have made it easy for people in a mercenary industry to take advantage of him.

There are some nice anecdotes too, such as an amusing description of Geoffrey Kendal – Shashi’s father-in-law, initially disapproving of his relationship with Jennifer – setting “stern restrictions on his daughter”, standing stiffly as she tries to hug him; here is a Shakespearean actor from England behaving like a patriarch in a Hindi film. Or the one about the writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala being so resistant to getting involved with filmi people that she pretended to be her own mother-in-law on the phone when Merchant-Ivory tried to contact her. (A shy literary novelist inadvertently playing out the sort of slapstick scene that you might find in a Hindi-film comedy – like the Shashi-starrer Pyaar Kiye Jaa?)

My main reservation about the book has to do with a bias: I like my film literature to have a strong personal touch, to convey an immediate sense of the author’s relationship with his subject. Chhabra does some of that (his Introduction begins with an account of his own wedding day and an argument with his wife just before they chanced to see Kapoor from a distance in the Taj Mahal hotel in 1985), but he does it very sporadically, almost as if he is shy about putting too much of himself in the narrative. There is a brief reference to watching Heat and Dust as a student in Manhattan and “feeling exhilarated that India and a majestic Shashi were on a giant screen in New York City”, a mention of skipping a school play rehearsal to watch Sharmeelee at Delhi’s Regal Cinema in the early 70s, and another one of being moved by Siddhartha which he saw in an art-house theatre in London. Taking just these instances, here is someone experiencing three different sorts of Shashi Kapoor films in different parts of the world, at specific stages in his life. I wish he had elaborated on these experiences and what they meant to him, and that there were fewer review-reports of what other people thought of Kapoor’s films when they came out.


That said, if you want basic information about Kapoor’s life and career, this book serves the purpose. It brings out the dichotomy between an actor-producer who could be very discerning and serious-minded when it came to projects he really believed in (such as Junoon and Kalyug) and the man who was mockingly called “taxi” by his own elder brother Raj Kapoor because he had signed on so many films at once that he was working four or five shifts a day. (Shashi’s daughter Sanjna tells the author that her father sometimes had no clue about the stories of films he was acting in.) Reading about this contrast, I was reminded of Kapoor’s first scene in Merchant-Ivory’s 1970 film Bombay Talkie: playing a Bollywood actor, he speaks with a visiting English journalist (played by Jennifer) in clipped English, sounding sheepish and defensive about the sort of work he does in Hindi cinema; but then a metamorphosis occurs – a shot has to be taken, he goes and stands on the keys of a giant typewriter created for a song sequence, asks for his cue and starts prancing around unselfconsciously. In a matter of seconds, we get to see two very different sorts of performers – two avatars of one of Hindi cinema’s warmest, most loved personalities.

[Other recent pieces about film books: Smita Patil; Amar Akbar Anthony; V Shantaram; Funky Bollywood; Gaata Rahe Mera Dil; Bollywood and the Anglophone Nation. And an old piece about Madhu Jain's book on the Kapoor family]

Monday, June 06, 2016

Chupke Chupke, with drivers, botanists and communists

[An excerpt from my book The World of Hrishikesh Mukherjee: The Filmmaker Everyone Loves. This is from Chapter 4, titled “Milavat, Banavat”, and is largely about Chupke Chupke. This text doesn’t include the footnotes in the chapter]

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Given the layers in his work – discussed in the last couple of chapters – I always feel uneasy about the use of the word “simple” to describe Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s cinema (even when it is meant as a compliment). That word, along with the related “innocent” or “sweet”, often attaches itself to the so-called Middle Cinema of the 1970s, including the work of other directors such as Basu Chatterji and Sai Paranjpye – I have used them as lazy shortcuts myself over the years – and in a broad sense one can see why. These are grounded stories involving people who are ordinary folk, “like us” – not the two-fisted superheroes and ultra-glamorous heroines of the mainstream. Thinking of these movies, we picture middle-class people in jobs where everyone rises from their desks in unison as the clock ticks 5.30 pm, and where romance can be conducted in off-hours over milk shake, cups of tea, or even – if the relationship is really serious and one person is drawing a decent salary – over Vegetable a la Kiev at a clubby restaurant (described as a “hotel”).

The courting lovers travel by bus or on shabby scooters (when poor Jeet sees his girlfriend being taken around by her boss in a green Premier Padmini in Rang Birangi, he is dismayed – she has moved well out of his league). On the rare occasion when an unmarried boy and girl meet at one of their homes, if there isn’t a parent or a sibling around you can be sure of the decorum-ensuring presence of the ancient family retainer, named Ramu kaka or Raghu chacha – there he is in the background, diligently polishing some knickknack or the other, waiting for bitiya’s instructions to bring tea. In other scenes, mildly naughty old people exchange harmless jokes. The most dangerous things awaiting the hero are the barbs issuing from Utpal Dutt’s sharp tongue (meanwhile villains in more exalted places in the Hindi-film world were dipping their victims into shark-fested pools or squeezing them between sliding walls bedecked with iron spikes). There are little misunderstandings before things are nicely resolved, and you come away feeling that all is right in the world.

Seen in one way, all this is indeed innocent and safe and down-to-earth. But nostalgia for a past when things were always “uncomplicated” can take on a patronising tone – and simple, in any case, is not the same as simple-minded. What does it mean to use these words for Hrishi-da’s films given that his work was always so mindful of human foibles and self-deceptions, so aware that our strongest relationships are perched over a pit of quicksand, that we need to constantly replenish ourselves to keep life interesting, that fantasy can play a special function in humdrum middle-class lives... and most importantly, so emotionally mature that it could treat these subjects with light humour?

[…..]

Are drivers people? Can cooks be philosophers? And other breaches of “etiquette”

In some way or the other, his best films are about how little transgressions may occur, how small battles may be won, within the boundaries of a conservative society where roles tend to be pre-defined: where certain divides are very hard to bridge, family is sacrosanct, young people are expected to unconditionally “respect” their elders (even when those elders are being unreasonable or behaving more immaturely than the youngsters) and women are permitted to dream only so long as those dreams don’t clash with their principal “duties” within the family structure.

To clarify: when I say “transgression”, I use it in a benign sense (and always within quote marks) as a lapse or breach that usually has a desired outcome, such as lampooning social barriers. (And this is a form of milavat as well: after all, introducing liberal ideas into a tradition-bound society is a way of “diluting” or “corrupting” it – just ask the patriarchs!) It is a big, scholarly-sounding word, but think of its use here in ironical terms, the same way Prof Parimal Tripathi uses shuddh Hindi – and words like shahensheelta and vaahanchaalak – to jeejaaji’s (Om Prakash) bewilderment in Chupke Chupke.

Now there’s a film where transgressions are couched in humour from beginning to end.

******

“The p is silent, as in pshrimp,” he reminded her
(The immortal Psmith, one of the great comic creations in 20th century literature, explaining how his name is to be pronounced, in PG Wodehouse’s Leave it to Psmith)

Words in which the P is more legitimately silent – “pneumonia”, “phthisis” – occur in Chupke Chupke, but even without them this film – a peppier, more manic remake of the Bengali Chhadmabeshi – would be arguably Hrishi-da’s most Wodehousian work. It is set in a world made up of imposters, shams and counter-shams that become more and more chaotic, and like Wodehouse’s characters (and without wanting to undermine the heartbreak suffered by Monty Bodkins and other young swains) the people here are relatively privileged sorts. They are better placed than the protagonists of the other comedies Biwi aur Makaan, Gol Maal or Naram Garam – they don’t have to worry much about such things as financial security, finding accommodation or a secure job – which is why this is a “light” film in the purest sense of the word. There isn’t much at stake. If Parimal’s deception were to be discovered by his wife’s brother-in-law, it would cause nothing more than a few indignant “hmmphs” or raised eyebrows, after which you sense that this family would sit down together, digging into mithaai and singing songs.

But even a comedy where there isn’t much hanging in the balance for the main characters can offer piquant little observations about the workings and fragilities of a society. Consider: a botany professor pretends to be a chauffeur as part of a game of one-upmanship with an older man whom his wife hero-worships. In the process, he brings spice and frisson to his marriage, while also confounding the patriarch who finds that a “mere” driver can speak better Hindi than he does. In performing his various roles, Parimal shows up the little pretensions and snobberies of his own class while bonding with lower-class or even disreputable people: the poor old caretaker whom he helps at the beginning of the film (and for whom something is at stake – he needs a day’s leave to visit his ailing grandson), and later, in one of the funniest scenes, with a thief who has broken into the brother-in-law’s house.

Meanwhile Sulekha (the “driver’s” lawfully wedded wife, though no one knows it) breaks one social code after another, to the dismay of her middle-class family – first she sits in the front seat with the chauffeur (pretty radical in itself, but more is to come), then sings a song with him (“Toh kya hua? Driver insaan nahin hota?”), and eventually runs off with him. All this is part of their charade, but Sulekha has already been established early in the film as having an egalitarian side: she is labeled “communist” by a classmate when she carries her own bags from the bus to the guesthouse rather than have a chowkidar do it for her. (It’s a funny, throwaway line but it does also tell us something about the assumptions of the society these people belong to – and it isn’t like India is much less feudal today, 40 years after the film was made; even our cricketers get scoffed at by the cricketers of other countries for their apparent inability to carry their own bags from bus to hotel!) She even goes to the extent of sitting down next to a man who she thinks is a
chowkidaar and having a little conversation with him, something none of the other girls would do. Later, there are audacious scenes like the staging of the song “Ab ke Sajan Sawan Mein” with its startlingly sensual, desire-soaked lyrics, performed within the context of a family gathering. (Sulekha croons words like “aag lagegi badan mein” while elderly relatives nod their heads approvingly as if she is singing a bhajan; just out of sight of her suspicious brother-in-law, she clasps the hand of Parimal, hiding on the other side of a curtain.)

The driver-memsaab romance can be played for laughs here, but imagine a scenario where such a thing really did happen in a “respectable” middle-class family. You don’t have to look too far,
actually. Dharmendra, Sharmila Tagore and David plot the deception in Chupke Chupke; six years earlier, in Satyakam, the same three actors feature in a Very Serious scene where it is revealed that Ranjana was condemned to a life of disgrace when her mother ran away with the family driver. Some auteur-theorists would make a lot of noise about this small but pronounced link between two immensely different types of films; I’ll simply place it on record and move on.

****

Much film analysis tends to read deep meaning into how a movie ends – what the takeaway or the intended purpose of the last scene is – and goes on to deduce the film’s “message” or “ideology” from that closing scene. This can seem like a logical thing to do, but it can also be a reductive, one-note way of approaching a film. It may fail to take into account the shackles on mainstream filmmakers: how they are sometimes expected to keep mass-audience considerations in view, to wrap things up on a note that provides comfort or affirmation. A popular film may contain many effective, memorable scenes that serve a questioning or even subversive function, but then end on what seems like a conventional note.

The easy way to look at such an ending is to cluck one’s tongue and pronounce that the film has “copped out”. Look at Anuradha, the movie is so sympathetic towards her throughout, but eventually she ends up staying with her husband and probably never realising her dreams. Look at Manju in Khubsoorat – such a ball of tradition-defying dynamite, but at the end she is dressed in bride’s clothes and safely co-opted into the family structure.

However, there is no reason why every challenging film must end on a hard-hitting or symbolic note, like a Jaane bhi do Yaaro, with its implicated heroes looking straight at the viewer and making a throat-slitting gesture, or Govind Nihalani’s Party (the ghost of a murdered activist, his tongue cut out, appears in the nightmare of a complacent, middle-aged poet), or Saeed Mirza’s Arvind Desai ki Ajeeb Dastaan (exploited carpet-makers stare out at us accusingly). Or like Satyajit Ray’s Seemabaddha, where the last shot tells us (with heavy-handed symbolism, if one is to be blunt about it) that the once-likable protagonist has sold his conscience. 


In old Hollywood, directors and screenwriters were often under pressure to end a film in a way that would not leave a sour taste in the viewer’s mouth. And the results have been argued about for decades. When Alfred Hitchcock alters the second half of Patricia Highsmith’s dark novel Strangers on a Train so that the “hero” Guy Haines is allowed to retain his integrity, or when another Hitchcock film, Suspicion, involves a last-minute change that disallows the Cary Grant character from being a wife-killer, does it amount to a compromise that cripples the films? Some would say yes; others (and I am in this corner) point out that these movies have already done their job by peeling back layers, allowing us to see dark possibilities and to recognise that even if there is a nominal “happy ending”, the world has already been ruptured and will never be quite the same again. A canny filmmaker can achieve such effects even while working within the shackles placed by a studio system or a box-office-minded producer.

Though Chupke Chupke may seem too frothy a work to even be discussed in such terms, look at its last scene. Family and community have been neatly reaffirmed: one married couple has been reunited, another young couple has just been wed, new bonds have been formed in the presence of approving elders, it has been established that everyone is comfortably middle-class, that the person who shook up this world wasn’t really a driver. And furthermore, all this happens in a temple! (And the real driver, James, is on the outskirts of the group.) On the face of it, what could be more conformist than that?

Yet, simply by presenting a number of subversive possibilities over the course of its narrative – a married woman runs away with a servant; her husband makes the most of a bad situation and promptly commences a new relationship, even engaging in bigamy; the older people, though shocked, have to find ways to shrug their shoulders and take all this in their stride – the film has shown us what can happen to a particular world when its foundations are shaken, and even made a subtle statement about the impracticalities of being too rigid or hung up on tradition. The fact that this wacky story “regresses to the mean” in its last scene takes away nothing from what went before. (If you were to ask a Chupke Chupke fan about the most memorable scenes in the film, he probably wouldn’t even think about the ending!)

By mentioning these buried themes, I am not trying to wring the joy out of the movie or reduce it to an academic listing of “talking points”. It is, before anything else, a light comedy that can be enjoyed exclusively on that level. (Personally I could watch some scenes again and again for nothing more “significant” than Dharmendra’s expressions in them, as when he growls at the thief after the latter wishes him “all the luck”.) But the themes are very much there too, and to deny them would be to adopt the unfortunate attitude that many intellectuals display towards popular cinema – that it shouldn’t be discussed on any level other than the most obvious, surface one.


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[The World of Hrishikesh Mukherjee is available here. Other excerpts can be read in Mint Lounge and on Scroll]

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

How sci-fi cuts us down to size (and shows us what we can be)

[From my Forbes Life book column]

It takes a while to figure out exactly what Isaac Asimov’s “Does a Bee Care?” is about – short though the story is, and simply told, you might need a couple of readings to grasp its full scope. The narrative begins with a man, or a creature that has the appearance of a man, hanging around as a spaceship is being constructed. No one pays “Kane” much heed, but his presence has an effect on some people; it stimulates their minds, creating ideas that can have far-reaching consequences.

Eventually we learn that this alien entity had been deposited on earth as a sort of ovum, and that its natural process of maturity required driving a whole planet towards civilization, so that it could find the way back to its own corner of the galaxy. Driven by instinct over thousands of years, not fully understanding why these things had to be done, “Kane” lit sparks in the minds of individuals like Newton and Einstein, all with the sole purpose of facilitating space exploration. “Does a bee care what has happened to a flower when the bee has done and gone its way?” is the story’s closing line. The flower in this analogy is earth, which has thus been “fertilized”, and the knockout punch is that the things we are so proud of – our capacity for scientific thought, our accumulation of knowledge through the centuries – are incidental byproducts of the actions of this extraterrestrial “bee”.


If you have watched Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey, you may see a very fleeting resemblance in the story of the apes in the “Dawn of Man” segment – where a new strain of consciousness is awakened by the appearance of a mysterious black monolith, which points primitive man towards a new future. That film was based loosely on an Arthur C Clarke story titled “The Sentinel” (Clarke later developed it into a novel as the film was being made), and anyone who knows science-fiction writing of the 1940s or 50s will know that masters like Asimov, Clarke and Robert Heinlein often took on human hubris and punctured it. They also took special pleasure in pulling the carpet out from under such ideas as patriotism. Most of them did it gently, though, and with humour.

I was thinking about this given all the talk there has been in India about nation-love, and about showy ways of demonstrating it (saying “Bharat Mata ki Jai”, standing up in movie halls for the anthem, bullying those who don’t, and so on). A lot of this has been downright absurd, but of course we don’t have a premium on this sort of thing. Consider this quote about NASA’s Pluto mission last year, which came from a White House representative: “I'm delighted at this latest accomplishment, another first that demonstrates once again how the United States leads the world in space.” It is especially amusing to see patriotism take front seat in such a context. Here we are talking about a journey through millions of miles, a vastness that makes any distance between two points on Earth look insignificant by comparison. Yet we can be parochial even about such achievements.

In Clarke’s story “Refugee”, a character reflects how odd it is that shrill nationalism had managed to survive into the space age – a time when the astronaut's-eye view should have made the artificial geographical divides on our tiny planet appear ridiculous and irrelevant. Others have expressed this thought in different ways. As Carl Sagan put it, Earth when viewed from a long way off is just a pale blue dot, incredibly fragile-looking; the sight should humble us, make us feel protective of the little rock we inhabit, and forget about the many divides we have created over the centuries.

Many people think sci-fi deals only with “otherworldly” things, not with essential questions about humanity. (This snobbery is even more prevalent when it comes to fantasy, but I’ll save that for
another column.) Actually, this is one of the few genres that can remind us how trifling we are in the larger context of the universe while at the same time showing us the potential and the value of our species. The authors I mentioned above have all written beautiful stories that demonstrate the best in human nature. Asimov’s collection Robot Dreams has the incredibly moving “The Ugly Little Boy”, which centres on an organization named Stasis Inc that has transported a Neanderthal child through time and kept it enclosed in a special centre. A woman named Miss Fellowes is employed to look after the child; initially she is repulsed by its feral strangeness, by the largeness of its head, but soon she comes to see it as she would any other lonely infant: “It was a child that had been orphaned as no child had ever been orphaned before. It was now the only creature of its kind in the world. The last. The only.”

What follows is a most unusual bond, one that is headed for tragedy, given the nature of Stasis Inc’s operations; but the story ends with Miss Fellowes doing something that will take your breath away even as you realize – if you put yourself in her place – that it was the only thing she could have done. As the author points out in his introduction, the story “is only tangentially about time-travel. What it is really about is love”. This is true of much other writing in the genre.

Among my favourite stories to combine humour with the subject of what it means to be human is Clifford Simak’s “Skirmish” (you’ll find it in the Brian Aldiss-edited anthology A Science Fiction Omnibus, a book I highly recommend). It involves a newspaper reporter named Joe Crane – your average Joe – gradually discovering that small, machine-like aliens from another planet are scouting earth with the intention of “freeing” their brethren – the earth machines that are being controlled by humans. The problem for Joe, as he begins to piece things together, is that he alone is in possession of this information and has no tangible proof: if he tried to take it to the authorities, he would be treated as a drunk or a psycho.

You have to read the story to see how Joe handles this great responsibility that has fallen on his shoulders – and to see how the last line of the story (I can tell you, without any spoilers, that it is “Well, gentlemen? he said”) shows how politeness and etiquette can coexist with firmness of will, even in very strained situations. That’s one of the things that allows us to call ourselves rational, or civilized.

But as a companion piece to this affirmative narrative, I would also point you towards Bertram Chandler’s “The Cage”, which offers a much more bittersweet view of what an “evolved” species might be. “Only rational beings put other beings in cages,” goes a cynical but reasonable observation in the story. The best of sci-fi shows us how to break the cages we have built for ourselves and for others, or at least how to bend the bars. 


[Some earlier Forbes Life columns are here]

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Birds and cages: on Phobia, a feminist horror film

Watching Pavan Kirpalani’s compelling, creepy film Phobia, about a young artist who has a traumatic experience and becomes agoraphobic – afraid to leave her apartment or be around people in social situations – I was struck by a paradox. In movies about this condition, the protagonist is unnerved by large, open spaces, but for us viewers it is almost the opposite: we feel claustrophobic, trapped in the restricted setting necessitated by the story, and all too aware of the frightening things that can happen in even a small, familiar space. What might fleetingly be seen on the grainy footage recorded by a closed-circuit television camera? What could lurk in a shadowy corner of the room, or behind the bathroom door, or in a bookshelf’s crevices?

There have been many iconic films in this subgenre, works of psychological horror that confine themselves to an indoor location and toy with the line between the real and the supernatural: two that come instantly to mind are Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, about a caretaker losing his mind in the hotel that he and his family are spending the winter in by themselves (Phobia has a little nod to Kubrick’s film in the naming of its main setting, the Overlook Apartments), and Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, about a sexually repressed young woman having a nervous breakdown as she spends a few days alone in her sister’s house.


“Repressed” is not a word you’d use to describe Mehak (Radhika Apte) – not at first, anyway. Phobia opens with the Kafka quote “I am a cage, in search of a bird”, and Mehak is initially presented as a free bird, no cages or fetters. She is a young, attractive painter – which is often filmic shorthand for “bohemian lifestyle” – and in the first scene she is at a party, glamorous and confident, surrounded by men-friends, chattering away about a 70-year-old who may have been hitting on her. This story culminates in an eerie twist that prepares us for the strange things that subsequently happen to her, but which will also allow us to wonder about her state of mind and her capacity for making up things.

Here, on the face of it, is a cosmopolitan narrative about a modern, liberated woman. And yet, I felt the film had an intriguing feminist subtext – I saw it as a parable about someone who, having perhaps become complacent about her privileges, has her wings clipped and then must fumble her way towards (a more hard-earned) freedom.

To clarify: I’m not endorsing Phobia only on the grounds that it is about something “important”. The first function of a good horror film – long before it makes you think about buried themes and ideas – is to get under your skin while you’re watching it in that darkened hall (not on your blasted iPhone!), and Phobia works on this visceral level. Some of the scary scenes – even the ones that draw on genre tropes such as a “ghost” crawling out of a bathtub – are very effective, as is the set design, with its black-and-white paintings of people in spare, desolate settings that mirror Mehak’s situation. (I half-expected the film to end with a Shining-like scene, with Mehak trapped inside one of those old-world pictures!) Like many fine horror films, this one doesn’t reveal all its secrets – even when the story has reached something of a resolution, it leaves you with the feeling that some things still lie just out of sight. And Apte’s outstanding performance is a reminder that psychological horror depends so much for its effect on good acting. It’s telling to contrast Phobia with the 2013 Aatma, which is also about a woman being spooked: one reason for the difference in quality between the two films is the gap between Bipasha Basu’s one-note performance in that one and Apte’s utterly believable one here.

In other words, Phobia is perfectly satisfying as “just” a horror movie. But it is also worth engaging with what is going on here at a sub-narrative level. Consider what happens in the film’s first 15 to 20 minutes (and no, this isn’t a spoiler): a self-assured young woman suddenly finds herself in a situation where she is a defenceless victim, cowering before a male assailant. And significantly, this occurs just after she has rejected a sexual proposition made by Shaan (Satyadeep Mishra), the friend who was sharing a taxi with her. They have slept together once before, he is hoping it might happen again and invites her up to his apartment, and she says no, not tonight. So he says a genial goodbye and gets out of the car. But it is almost as if her simple act of exercising choice has shaken the natural order of things and invited the fires of hell on her: the cab-driver takes advantage of her drunken sluggishness and attacks her – an attack that wouldn’t have happened if she had said yes to Shaan. And the long-term result is that she becomes highly dependent on Shaan, who moves her to a new flat and cares for her.


None of this, it must be stressed, happens overtly: Shaan is not the stereotype of a chauvinist bully, and everyone wants Mehak to be “cured”. But the upshot is that she is now safely in a cocoon (or a cage), the way some people expect a “good” woman to be: at home with dozens of bottles of mineral water and regular supplies of food (brought by Shaan – the caveman-provider?), wary of the world outside her door, every visitor seeming a threat, no real motivation to step out or meet anyone.

One possible interpretation of that Kafka line is that even when we are seemingly free, we carry invisible cages with us wherever we go. What if society doesn’t let you be everything you’d like to be? What if the sensitive, metrosexual friend-cum-occasional-lover turns out to have a hidden patriarchal side? This film is in some ways reminiscent of Navdeep Singh’s NH10, which also had a resourceful young woman having her sense of self undermined, her confidence bruised (and again, this happened during an attack while she was in a car). There is a hint of agoraphobia in that story too, in the way the Anushka Sharma character is plucked out of her familiar urban habitat and must rediscover herself in the wide open spaces of the Haryanvi hinterland.

At a time when many writers and directors are creating stories about strong women facing the challenges of holding their own in an oppressive society, Phobia is a fine example of how the theme can be treated within the framework of horror. I was halfway through writing this piece when I checked the Wikipedia entry for Agoraphobia and found the following sentence: “Researchers have found similarities between symptoms of agoraphobia and the stereotypical female sex roles cast upon society […] the socialization of stereotypic feminine behaviour – helplessness, dependence, unassertiveness – contributes to the development and maintenance of the characteristics of agoraphobia”.

That sounds like a pat association, but it has definite relevance to this story. No wonder the last scene, Mehak stumbling along unsteadily like an infant learning to walk, but finally making her way out of the building – whereas she could barely take a few steps out of the apartment door earlier – carries such a sense of release.

[Did this for Mint Lounge. Some posts on related films: NH10, Aatma. And a long essay about my horror-film love]

Thursday, May 26, 2016

On Sairat, and the importance of a good poem

[From my Mint Lounge column]

It isn’t easy to identify the precise moment when the tone of Nagraj Manjule’s Sairat goes from lilting and upbeat to dark and disturbing. The gentle slapstick of the opening scene, a village cricket match with Manjule himself as a droll commentator – a director presiding over his mise-en-scene – is followed by vignettes from a soft-focus love story between two likable young people: Archana (wonderfully played by Rinku Rajguru) is a plucky upper-caste girl while Parshya (Akash Thosar) is the swaggering hero of the match, hitting fours and sixes to rescue his team. It’s all warm and sunshiney at this stage, but if you have experienced Manjule’s earlier feature, the excellent Fandry, you suspect it won’t last.

One turning point is a scene that doesn’t directly involve the Archana-Parshya romance. It is set in a classroom where an adolescent named Prince – the son of a powerful sugar baron-cum-local politician – slaps the new teacher who told him to stop talking on his cellphone. Earlier, during the cricket match, Prince was presented as an object of mirth, striding up to the pavilion like a little nawab, but now this image is swung on its head (in the same way that Parshya will go from being a cricketing hero to an underdog in life). Much like the Fourth Wall-breaking last shot of Fandry, where a stone is hurled straight at the camera and the screen goes black, the classroom scene comes as a bucket of cold water in the viewer’s face.

The suddenness of the violence apart, why is the moment so unsettling? What we are seeing here is the unchallenged hegemony of the powerful over the weak, a version of many familiar sights in the real world – such as the one of the rich, entitled kid getting off his big car in the middle of a city road and slapping the rickshaw-driver who has scraped past him (or even just glared at him a little too long). But the scene also depicts a subset of the privileged-underprivileged relationship: the bullying of those who don’t care about culture or art over those who are trying to teach, learn or just think. 


The teacher was talking about modernism in Marathi poetry when he was distracted by the sound of the boy on his phone. He was giving his students context, history, something they should be able to relate to; he was probably about to share poems and discuss how to read and absorb them. But this process of sensitization, of education in the arts – and in the art of reflection and empathy – is savagely ruptured by a boy who has no use for such trifles.

This episode is a reminder that though Sairat is likely to be categorized as a film about caste relations – that’s what the forbidden love story hinges on – it is about other power equations too, in the realms of class, gender and family. And a question raised along the way is: when certain prejudices are firmly embedded in a society’s consciousness, what happens to education and culture? One of the film’s most poignant sights is the face of the teacher in the next scene, where he goes with the school principal to the sugar-baron’s house. If you’re naïvely optimistic, you might think this scene will be about Prince being reprimanded, but of course it is about the teacher being shown his place: the principal is apologetic (“he didn’t know, he is new here”); the father doesn’t even have to raise his voice; and the teacher seems a little awed, as if he has received a valuable lesson in social propriety. The master has become the student – no way he’ll make a rookie mistake like that again.

Though these characters live in a specific, circumscribed milieu (Prince and his father are the big fish in a small pond), there is a clear link between these scenes and larger goings-on in the country: where influential people can have a book or film banned because it offended their sentiments, where authors are coerced not to be “anti-national” in their writings, and are silenced or even murdered (usually by people who have never read, much less tried to understand, their work). Where textbooks are rewritten or bowdlerized to ensure, as an education minister in Rajasthan recently put it, that no defiant Kanhaiya Kumar-types are born in the state; where another minister manufactures a “degree” out of a six-day stint in a prestigious American university (this is fitting in an era of tweet-sized conversations!), and anti-intellectualism becomes something to wear on your sleeve. In such situations, the sensitizing role of literature, and art in general, becomes both imperiled and more urgent.

Good education – of the sort the teacher in Sairat was trying to impart – can take the form of appreciating a novel, or poetry, that challenges long-held assumptions, and the introspection this involves can make powerful people uncomfortable: no wonder old Hindi cinema has so many authoritarian fathers who can’t stand the thought of sons doing “unmanly” things like leaving the family business to pursue a career in music or art. The uneasy relationship between power and creativity is a theme in other cinemas too. In the Oscar-winning German film The Lives of Others, a hard-edged police captain named Wiesler, assigned to monitor the activities of a playwright suspected of dissidence, finds himself undergoing a transformation, the catalyst for which is art: he is stirred by the playwright’s piano-playing, and by a Brecht essay that he chances to read. “Writers are engineers of the soul,” someone says in this story about a soul-crushingly totalitarian regime. By the end of the film, Wiesler has been elevated; his own soul has been saved.

Others are more resistant to change. A few days after watching Sairat, I happened to see the first episode of the sharply written British-American television series Episodes, in which Friends star Matt LeBlanc plays himself (or rather, a version of himself). The show had an actor auditioning in front of a TV executive, and reading from a scene where a headmaster tells a well-off but empty-headed student to stop trying so hard, because “intelligence can only come in your way”. This is played for comedy, but the series repeatedly comments on the ignorance and crassness of authority figures: the money-minded producer, who controls so much of what viewers around the world get to see, doesn’t watch any TV himself and has little interest in creative processes.

The line about intelligence being a liability reminded me of a startling exchange in Sairat. Learning that his son has been romancing an upper-caste girl, and that the family is in deep trouble for it, Parshya’s father beats his head and laments: “What was the point of educating him?” So hopeless are this man’s circumstances that for him, the purpose of learning is to maintain status quos, not to broaden horizons. In other words: what does education do? It makes you intelligent. If you’re a lower-caste boy trapped in this medieval-era district, what does being intelligent mean? It means being smart enough to know your place in the world, and not to cause trouble or lock eyes with your “superiors”. QED.

Let’s hope too many of our writers and historians don’t internalize that lesson.


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[A post about Manjule's earlier film Fandry is here. And a piece about The Lives of Others is here. Also see this comment by my friend, the writer Karthika Nair, about the importance of freedom of artistic expression]