Sunday, July 26, 2015

Clowns, MBAs, dragonflies: about a few dark allegories

[From my theme-based ForbesLife books column]

Hear the term “fantasy writing” and the images that leap to your mind may be from the Tolkien universe – The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, the mythological back-stories collected as The Silmarillion – or from CS Lewis’s Narnia, or one of the countless series inspired by them. These are settings that have been created from the ground up. Even when the things that happen in the story comment on aspects of our own world (Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials are often-quoted examples in recent literature), the reader knows that the place itself is invented.

But fantasy is a broad word. Another form is that of the allegorical narrative which is located in a mostly familiar setting but has things happening in it that don’t fit the straitjacket of “realism”. George Orwell’s Animal Farm is a famous example: as far as we know, pigs don’t use human speech or organize themselves into dictatorships; yet this novella is set in our world, and most people with knowledge of the political events of the time would recognise it as a story about the Russian Revolution.

Such writing sometimes takes the form of speculative fiction set in the future, as was recently done by Shovon Chowdhury in the splendidly imaginative The Competent Authority. The India of this dystopian novel, having been comprehensively nuked by China, is run by a mad bureaucrat, and the only hope for the future may lie in going back to the past – so a group of people with special time-travelling powers set off to see what can be done to alter history. “Fantastic” as all this may sound, there are instantly identifiable figures here, such as an unnamed prime minister who comes from a long political dynasty (she is the granddaughter of a much-feared woman PM of the 1970s, if that helps) and a crude, bullying policeman.

A slimmer, less ambitious but often-potent satire is Sowmya Rajendran’s The Lesson, which takes the unsavoury facts of gender discrimination in real-world India and only mildly exaggerates them to create a picture of a society where state-sanctioned rapists coolly make phone appointments with their next victims – the women who are “asking for it” – and Dupatta-Regulators ensure prescribed standards of morality (while having fevered nightmares about an anarchic world where everyone roams around naked). The icy detachment of Rajendran’s writing is sometimes very effective – as in a scene where a woman who is to be raped on a live TV reality show is briefed about the “hot” actress who will play her in the buildup episodes – though I felt a little more could have been done with the premise, and the satire could have been more cutting.

“He feels empty. Hollow. Unreal. He feels he has no business being alive.” These words could describe some of the people in Rajendran’s book, but they are the opening lines of Altaf Tyrewala’s long story “MmYum’s”, included in the collection Engglishhh: Fictional Dispatches from a Hyperreal Nation. And they refer not to a flesh-and-blood person but to a mascot clown named Arnold, made of plastic and sitting on a bench outside a chain store. Fed up of being someone else’s puppet, he decides to get up and wander the streets.

The misadventures that follow comment on the workings of capitalism and those who become slaves to it – including conscientious objectors who end up being fence-sitters because they can’t resist an occasional dose of junk food and gassy cola – but they also comment slyly on this type of narrative. “You must be dumbfounded to see me,” Arnold tells a writer named Unnati in one scene. She shrugs her shoulders. “It’s an allegory, all sorts of things can happen in allegories. I don’t mind playing along.” As she knows, one of the characteristics of this form is that it spells ideas out for the reader – in an often simplified, pared down way – while simultaneously making inside jokes and self-referencing. 

If lazily done, this can become tedious very fast. But that isn't a word I would ever use to describe Ramiah Ariya’s funny, fast-paced novel The Exorcism of Sathish Kumar, MBA. While Tyrewala’s Arnold is, almost literally, tied down to his job (in fact, the poor mascot clown that replaces him has screws driven through his hands and feet to keep him from bolting), the protagonist of Ariya’s book isn’t much better off: as the narrative opens, Arjun is summoned by the upper echelons of management in his tech company and deputed to the mysterious “EXM” team, with a very strange list of tasks to perform – procuring gaanja, for example. The depiction of the corporate world here may remind you of the more surreal Dilbert strips, such as the ones where the geeky engineer goes to the dreaded Accounts department and meets trolls who feed him unicorn horns. Ariya's book becomes increasingly weird and fable-like as it goes along, culminating in encounters with a sorcerer who communes with the dead, a strange otherworld named Ahi, and the revelation that the true meaning of life is shareholder profit (something that most corporate slaves learn over time without ever having to go to strange otherworlds).

Franz Kafka was one of the major practitioners of a different sort of fable – the claustrophobic, nightmarish sort – and Kafkaesque was the word that leapt to mind as I read Aditya Sudarshan’s intense The Persecution of Madhav Tripathi. (An early chapter is titled “The Castle”, as if in tribute to the master of paranoia’s famous story about alienation.) Sudarshan’s novel is about a privileged man who at first seems to have the future nicely laid out before him –
but after loses his bearings (literally and otherwise) while coasting down a city road, Madhav Tripathi finds himself caught in an escalating series of strange events. This story about liberals – or people who think they are liberal and sophisticated – being beset by the forces of darkness, and exposed to their own pretentiousness in the process, may be too dense for some tastes. But it is full of arresting imagery, such as an early scene, a party set at a wildlife sanctuary, where guests float about like butterflies (or perhaps like the dragonfly pictured on the book’s cover, which also makes an appearance later in the narrative). “Civilization” meets the cave in these passages, as it does in most of the other books mentioned here – and by the time you finish reading them you may no longer be sure which is which.

[Some other Forbes columns: names and markers in Anees Salim's novels; Sita's Sister and other myth-retellings; books with twists; time-travellers; parents; writers on writing; satire; popular science; translations; doubles. And a more detailed review of The Lesson is here]

Saturday, July 25, 2015

There and back again – the loneliness of the long-distance dog

Something wonderful happened today, a very welcome and unexpected end to a matter that had caused us a lot of distress over the past week.

The back-story: for the past four or five years (at least), an unspayed bitch – an excessively fertile street dog who lives in our colony without being regularly fed by anyone – has been delivering one or two litters of pups annually, in large numbers, near our back-lane. The vast majority of them die, of course, succumbing to starvation or weather or being run over by callous or careless drivers; a few survive, growing into skinny dogs, scavenging for food, very rarely getting lucky and fed by one of the approximately 0.005 percent of neighborhood houses that are animal-friendly.

Most of these pups are born and grow up in the same place where Foxie and her siblings were born in mid-2008, and the sound of their mewling often gives me sleepless nights and keeps old wounds fresh. For reasons that have to do with emotional self-preservation, I have kept my distance from this situation in the past few years. But this time Abhilasha and I decided to be a little more pro-active: we took two of the surviving pups to Pratima Devi, assumed financial responsibility for their upkeep, and then set about getting the mother sterilized with the help of Ravi, an autorickshaw-driver who assists Pratima Devi and takes dogs to Friendicoes for operations.

After somehow managing to lure this scared, people-wary girl into our driveway, we kept her locked up there and then got her into Ravi’s vehicle with some difficulty (and this on a mad, mad, mad day where I had to rush back home for an hour or two shortly after getting my dadi admitted to hospital, yet again). The dog reached Friendicoes okay, the operation went off fine, she spent two days recuperating…and then, on the 21st evening, just as Ravi was going to bring her back, she bolted from a momentarily unlocked cage and vanished into some distant nook of Jangpura or Defence Colony.

The search that followed spanned days – with Ravi and his assistants travelling from Def Col to South Ex to Andrews Ganj in pursuit, catching sight of her and then losing sight again – and was always doomed to failure; even if she had been within catchable range, the sound of Ravi’s vehicle would be enough to send her into hiding. It was very upsetting. Here we had been congratulating ourselves for pulling off something important and hard to do, and now it seemed that we had not only separated a dog from her home permanently but also condemned her to being hunted by other dogs in unfamiliar territory. In between my hospital rounds, I kept calling a guilt-stricken Ravi for updates, or arranging for our car to be made available for another search. People who were trying to help would call up, asking me what the dog’s name was, because that might make it easier, and I didn’t know what to tell them: no one has ever given her a name, I had never interacted with her at any length myself; it was becoming hard to explain why I felt so responsible for her welfare.

And then, this morning, I got a call from the guard who sits at the end of the lane and occasionally looks out for the pups. She was back.

This scrawny, aging, mangy creature – weakened and unsettled by the surgery, bearing a very visible scar – had somehow, over a period of three or four days, found her way back to Saket, a good 8 or 9 km from where she ran away. And that’s only as the crow flies: the actual journey must have been a much more complicated one, with many stops and detours. Through the unfathomable traffic of two ring roads and numerous other thoroughfares, through other dogs’ territory, in a city that can be very hostile to strays. And at the end of it, she was reunited with her remaining pup, whom we have been fostering.

It’s one of those animal tales you sometimes hear about but don’t expect to see firsthand. I was looking at Google Maps earlier today, wondering which route she took, and marveling at the many potential hazards along even the easiest of them. What a heroine.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

A rude, gritty Mahabharata - on Aditya Iyengar's The Thirteenth Day

[Did this for Scroll]

What need for another Mahabharata-inspired novel, you ask? Our bookstores are spilling over with them, and that’s if you include only the re-imaginings and perspective tellings published in the past few years. One way of looking at this is that “epic lit” has become a profitable little cottage industry for mediocre writers and lazy publishers. But when depth of knowledge aligns with imagination, the story’s many possibilities can still be given fresh life – as in Aditya Iyengar’s sharp new book, which uses for its canvas a brief mid-war period where mind-games are lost and won.

Any Mahabharata buff knows that the 18 days of the Kurukshetra war don’t carry equal heft. Far from it. The fighting in the first dozen days is relatively low-intensity (but don’t tell that to the thousands of “ordinary” soldiers who have their heads lopped off), with only one major dramatic occurrence, the fall of the grand-patriarch Bheeshma on the tenth day. It is from day 13, with young Abhimanyu leading the charge into the Kauravas’ Chakravyuha formation, that things really heat up. Iyengar’s The Thirteenth Day spans the period – three nights, three days – between these two events.

Three is in fact is the book’s talismanic number, since that’s how many interweaving voices tell the story. There is the Pandava prince Yudhisthira, for whose claim to the throne the war is being fought; his voice has the introspective timbre of a man aware that he is one of history’s foils, never quite a hero in the sense that the people around him would want him to be, always in the shadow of – and dependent on – his brothers Bhima and Arjuna. The second narrator is the Kauravas’ lynchpin Radheya – better known as Karna in the epic’s mainstream renderings – who was brought up by a low-caste family but has lately learnt that he is the Pandavas’ elder brother. Cynical, often rough-edged and rude, this is the voice of someone who was raised in horse-stables and continues to be jeered at as a “suta”, even after being admitted into the warrior class.

While staying mostly faithful to the events described in the original, Iyengar reinterprets the Kaurava attempt to capture Yudhisthira as a stratagem that will allow Radheya to take the throne for himself by revealing his real status and overseeing a truce. But it is Abhimanyu – the book’s third narrator, full of teenage bluster and impatience, and obsessed with posterity – whose actions will determine the result of that game.

A notable thing about this book is that “dharma” goes unmentioned. There is no moralizing about good and evil, or suggesting that the Pandavas represent the former and the Kauravas the latter. At the same time, unlike many revisionist tellings, The Thirteenth Day doesn’t try to highlight the Pandavas’ flaws or the good qualities of Duryodhana (known here as Suyodhana); it simply doesn’t bother with the moral angle. Realpolitik is the meat of this story – its characters are hardened warriors concerned with winning a war, that’s all. Most of the action takes place either on the battlefield or in the army camps at the end of each day. And most of it is fuelled by masculine ego and swagger. The women in these protagonists’ lives – Draupadi, Subhadra, Uttaraa – are on the fringes, only sometimes alluded to. (“I wrote some rubbish to Mother and went to bed,” Abhimanyu says in the manner of the college kid who has more important things on his mind than parents.) The most pronounced female presence is that of the melancholy Shikhandi, who was used on the battlefield as the pawn to bring Bheeshma down; her unenthusiastic attitude to the war serves as an effective counterpoint to Abhimanyu’s.

There is no sentimentalizing either, which is intriguing given that two of these narrators are among the Mahabharata’s most hero-worshipped characters, with a large dewy-eyed fan following built up among listeners and readers over the yugas. In scores of other books, Karna’s battles against misfortune and Abhimanyu’s gallantry have been milked for every drop of emotion (and I don’t mean that as a putdown; there have been superb sentimental-humanist renditions of the Mahabharata, such as the ones by Kamala Subramanian and Ramesh Menon). In Iyengar’s novel though, there is a detachment even in the accounts of Radheya meeting his real mother Kunti, or the wounded Abhimanyu having his head smashed in. Sentiment is trumped by cool self-analysis: when he thinks Bhima has been killed, Radheya wonders if he should be feeling sad about the death of a younger brother. The book’s most tender moment involves the death of an elephant.

In other words, The Thirteenth Day belongs to a tradition that tells us the Mahabharata in its core form – called “Jaya” – was grittier and sparer than the version most of us know today. And godless too, the original epic’s Yadava chief Krishna not having yet been conflated with the Vishnu-avatar of the Bhakti Tradition. (In The Thirteenth Day, Krishna performs some splendid chariot-manouevering in one scene and is respected as a strategist, but otherwise stays mostly in the background.) This tradition includes Iravati Karve’s critical analysis Yuganta, MT Vasudevan Nair’s Randaamoozham, told in Bhima’s voice, and Shivaji Sawant’s Mrityunjay, all of which – to varying degrees – treat the epic in realist terms.

Explored here are the practical workings of a world where titles such as “Maharathi” can be bought or transferred (much like examinations being given by proxy in our own present day); the settling of personal scores, even among people fighting the same side; the necessity of being tactful once in a while (even if you have had a good day, you mustn’t show much celebratory emotion in the presence of a colleague who lost a kin); the impossibility of properly disposing of hundreds of decomposing bodies each day. That Iyengar knows the Mahabharata well is obvious in his treatment of peripheral figures such as the old King Bhagadatta. There is attention to detail – especially in the descriptions of combat – and a ring of truth in many of the character portraits, such as the suggestion that Suyodhana’s skill as a mace-fighter is linked to his pride about his looks. And there is humour: in one passage, after hearing that the soldiers consider Bhima the army’s heart and Arjuna its brain, Yudhisthira makes the mistake of asking which part of the human anatomy he is deemed to be in this analogy. Soldiers are a crude lot, comes the reply, so let’s not go there.

And crude they are. Most of the voices we hear in conversation are not those of genteel nobles, but the bawdy ones of men in war, inured to wine-drinking sessions even as the stench of carcasses drifts across to them. (“Don’t say I didn’t warn you when Radheya is riding our boys like a bull in heat,” someone says.) Which leads me to a minor quibble: given that Iyengar’s descriptive prose is assured and elegant (this is one of the two best-written Mahabharata novels I have read recently, the other being Sharath Komarraju’s The Winds of Hastinapura), some of the slang in the actual dialogues – or the way “putra” and “my boy” are both used at different times – feels a little incongruous.

But since demythologizing is the buzzword here, with characters and incidents constantly having the sheen of epic romance removed from them (Bheeshma on his famed bed of arrows is likened to a cockroach on its back), perhaps slang is an acceptable mode. As the author observes in an introductory note, in our own “Selfie Yuga” we have all become our own bards and myth-creators through social media. Perhaps it was ever so. The book ends with a minstrel’s lament where we see that the process of legend-creation has already begun, with hundreds of thousands of deaths ascribed to the slain Abhimanyu; there will no doubt be further exaggeration in other ornate verses to come. But an earlier description is more in keeping with this narrative’s earthy, matter-of-fact tone: “The boy had balls. Great, big ones."


[This blog is of course littered with Mahabharata posts, most of which you'll find here. Some pieces about recent novelisations: Sandipan Deb's The Last War; Karna's Wife/Draupadi in High Heels]

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Hrishi-da in a house full of bitches

From the Hrishikesh Mukherjee files: screen grabs of two pages from a nice magazine piece about the director (this is from the September 1977 Cine Blitz), written from the perspective of a nervous journalist visiting Hrishi-da’s Carter Road house and being introduced to all his dogs and given their back-stories.

A Hrishi-da quote from the story: “They have lesbian tendencies,” he says of two girls who are inordinately fond of each other. And here’s an excerpt from another page:
The pup had a very filmi story attached to her. This owner (a lady) had a 14-year-old daughter who had a tremendous crush on Rajesh Khanna. Having got the pup on the day that Rajesh married Dimple, she named the bitch Dimple and would give vent to her anger by calling to the pup and then mercilessly kicking it away. The mother of the girl, unable to bear this, handed the pup into Hrishida’s care and he changed her name to Sweetie.
Interesting thing about this anecdote no indication is given that the girl’s mother was an acquaintance of Hrishi-da; she is simply presented as “a strange visitor” who walked into his house one day and asked him to take the pup. Maybe it was generally felt that Rajesh Khanna’s favourite directors should get to atone for the consequences of all his actions.

[Earlier posts about the HM book: a photo from the Satyakam set; Biswajit and a five-year-old movie star]

Saturday, July 11, 2015

“It's alright, Ma, if I can't please them” – Bob Dylan and the extremes of fandom

[Did this piece for The Daily O]

In the opening chapter of Stephen King’s new novel Finders Keepers, an old author is jeered at, rebuked, and finally shot dead, by a “fan” who can’t come to grips with what the writer did to his most famous character in his third book.
Here’s what I want to know – why in God’s name couldn’t you leave Jimmy Gold alone? Why did you have to push his face down in the dirt? […] Advertising? I mean, advertising? House in the suburbs? Ford car in the driveway? Wife and two little kiddies? Everybody sells out, is that what you were trying to say? Everybody eats the poison?
What the unhinged fan doesn’t know is that the author, Rothstein, has two further Jimmy Gold novels written out in his private notebooks – two books in which the character “becomes himself again”, turning his back on the conformity he had briefly embraced. But it might not have made a difference anyway. This reader is too far gone. His identification with Gold ran so deep that the change in arc amounted to a personal betrayal. And the only possible response is to confront and silence the treacherous artist.

I thought of this scene while reading David Kinney’s The Dylanologists: Adventures in the Land of Bob, especially a passage about an obsessive Bob Dylan fan named Peter playing a record in his therapist’s office, and telling the shrink by way of self-analysis: “This is how I feel. Everything I’m trying to tell you is on this record. It’s all there.”

The song he plays is “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” – you know, that collection of angry-sad aphorisms, some of which have now become platitudes through repetition and overuse. A song packed with lines like “He not busy being born is busy dying”, and “Money doesn’t talk, it swears”, and “Even the president of the United States / sometimes must have to stand naked”, all of them much less effective on paper than in the young Dylan’s sneering-yet-weary voice.

There is this stanza too – “Advertising signs that con you / Into thinking you’re the one / That can do what’s never been done / That can win what’s never been won.” Which begs the question: what would Peter think, decades later, watching the older version of Bob Dylan appear in ads for soft drinks, cars and lingerie? Is there material here for a new Stephen King short story?

Maybe, but for now we have The Dylanologists, which is about the long history of Dylan-obsession, and, by extension, about the complicated relationship between an artist and his audience. Including that age-old debate: does the former have some sort of responsibility to the latter?

For Dylan, the answer has been a clear no. (“I never asked for your crutch, now don’t ask for mine,” he sang in “Fourth Time Around” – to a lover, to John Lennon, or to a needy fan?) Kinney’s book has for its epigraph this amusing exchange: “You don’t know who I am, but I know who you are,” a fan says. “Let’s keep it that way,” the legendary songwriter replies. As Kinney observes, “Dylan created personas and then demolished them, denied they had ever existed, and scorned the people who still clung to them. Almost as soon as any one image was lodged in the public’s mind, he began to resist.”

This is not a new thought, of course: apart from being discussed in earlier books, it was a subtext of Martin Scorsese’s documentary No Direction Home,which includes scenes from Dylan’s famously uncooperative press conferences (Question: “What about the recurring motorcycle imagery in your songs?” Answer: “Um, I think we all like motorcycles to some degree”) – and directly addressed in the film I’m Not There, which was constructed entirely around the enigma of Bob, how he could be many things and many people at different times.

But what Kinney does is to shift the focus to those who became caught in obsession’s web, with results varying from the very scary to the very poignant: the Dylanologists, sniffing out and collecting memorabilia for years, sifting through hundreds of hours of audio footage in hope of finding a previously unknown 10-minute outtake, hiding recording gear in a loaf of bread and sneaking it into a concert. This book is about how these manias came into being, and what they led to; about how personality, life experience and chance can mingle in strange ways so that one person becomes deeply, even fatally affected by another’s work.

The chilling Eminem song “Stan” has a fan deciding that he and his idol are just alike, and that his hero consequently owes him his time and attention; eventually he drives himself and his girlfriend off a bridge just to get “even”. But that’s a dramatic ending, a clean break. The stories in The Dylanologists are about people who survive and lead an outwardly normal existence, even as they give over decades of their lives to Dylanology (and its many subsets, such as “garbology” – going through the singer’s trash bin to find scraps of paper that would unlock a hidden meaning).

In its pages you’ll meet people like the woman who was so mesmerized when she first saw Bob on stage that it ended her long-time love for opera – “they are trained animals compared to what Dylan does”. But there are other, more intense fandoms, revealed in an ever-broadening spiral of madness. One person writes a 536-page Dylan to English Dictionary to decode the layers of meaning behind lyrics – and then, after half a lifetime of Dylanologising, “realises” that “Blowing in the Wind” was really a veiled racist rant, and that he had wasted all these decades worshipping a bigot. Someone else asks for a single screw from a piano – owned by another collector – that Dylan used. (“What would the man do with it? Wear it on a necklace like a totem?”) There are those who don the accoutrements of a regular life – marriage, secure job, mortgage – but feel like charlatans (like Jimmy Gold in Stephen King’s novel?), never quite part of the world they have settled for. A high-schooler who thinks about killing himself, and when he racks his brain for reasons not to do it, this one makes the most sense: he doesn’t want to miss the next Dylan album when it comes out.

Through all this, Kinney keeps himself mostly in the background, though he claims, in his Introduction, to being an “unreformed obsessive” himself. Writing about his early encounters with Dylan’s work, he says: “There were songs about girls, and war, and politics. I didn’t know who all of the characters were: Johanna, Ma Rainey, Cecil B DeMille, Gypsy Davy. I couldn’t honestly say I knew what Dylan was saying half the time. But the lines were riveting.”

A personal aside: I can relate to some of this. In the mid-1990s I went through a phase when the lyrics of every song in Highway 61 Revisited, Bringing it all Back Home and Blonde on Blonde – the three great albums of Dylan’s controversial 1965-66 electric phase – were firmly implanted in my head, through months of listening to them on my player at home and on my car deck (and always in Dylan’s own voice – it was only later that I came to enjoy some of the cover versions, such as Eddie Vedder’s “Masters of War” and “Lou Reed’s “Foot of Pride”). And though it has been years since I heard those albums in full, I still sometimes find myself silently mouthing lines from “Tombstone Blues” or “Desolation Row” or “Stuck Inside of Memphis” (even when some of these numbers are musically repetitive or boring, the words just trip off your tongue).

In the internet’s early years, I read fan sites, pored over analyses of the more surreal, stream-of-consciousness lyrics; I particularly remember the interpretation of the “sword-swallower” stanza in “Ballad of a Thin Man” as a conservative homophobic being caught unawares in a homosexual experience (and the “one-eyed midget” in the same song being a euphemism for a penis). Other lines worked best when you didn’t try to pin down their exact meaning, when the associations and imagery they created in your mind – the vaguer the better – was what mattered. (Does “the ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face” become more vivid when you see it as a description of Joan of Arc being burnt at the stake? Doubtful.)

It didn’t seem like a phase at the time; it felt like obsession. But now, reading The Dylanologists, I know better. For a short while in my teens, I probably convinced myself that I could write a long, line-by-line analysis of “Visions of Johanna”. But a man named John Stokes
– one of the many Dylanologists mentioned here – actually went ahead and did it, and did it on an epic scale, producing 65,000 words about that song: a labour of love, creativity and grand folly that might be said to exist almost independently of the verses that inspired it. One of the achievements of Kinney’s book is that it almost convinces you that Bob Dylan’s greatest legacy might be as a cipher, a pretext for the playing out of other people’s life-stories, forever disappearing through the smoke rings of their minds.

[An earlier Dylan post, about No Direction Home, is here]

Saturday, July 04, 2015

Biswajit, Hrishikesh Mukherjee and a five-year-old movie star

(Part of a series of posts around the upcoming Hrishi-da book)

Trivia question: Which popular Bengali star of today was directed by Hrishikesh Mukherjee when he was only five years old?

Answer: Prosenjit Chatterjee – of whose performance in the 1968 Chhotto Jignasa a reviewer wrote “He is the grandest thing to happen to the Bengali screen so far this year.” (The piece appeared in February, but still.)

If you look at that write-up, you’ll notice a “Chief Advisor” credit for Hrishikesh Mukherjee at the bottom. The film was produced by Prosenjit’s father Biswajit, but he had a falling out with the original director – at which point Hrishi-da stepped in to complete the film pro-bono, as a friendly gesture.

Biswajit told me this when I met him in Mumbai two years ago while doing spade-work for the book. He seemed reasonably fit and active in his late 70s, but it was hard to recognize him. (Sunken cheeks make other aging actors look fragile, mildly different; but with Biswajit – who had a distinctly cherubic face in his prime – they had the effect of greatly altering his features. Besides, he hasn’t been in the public eye to the degree that other, higher-profile stars have been; we haven’t seen him growing old over the years.) Here is a photo, take at the Govinda’s restaurant in the ISKCON temple, Juhu: 

He spoke warmly about his association with Hrishi-da, but also expressed sadness that he had never worked with the director on any of his “real classics”. I disagree with that: while three of the films they did together (Pyaar ka Sapna, Phir Kab Milogi, Do Dil) were mediocre or passable, Biswajit played a starring part in one of Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s most delightful films, the under-watched 1965 musical-comedy Biwi aur Makaan. And though far from being one of my favourite actors, he really is very good in that film, as the singer Arun who has to disguise himself as a woman so he and his friends can get accommodation in a bachelor-unfriendly flat. A much warmer, more appealing performance than his more famous adas and nakhras as a woman in “Kajra Mohabbat Wala”.

To my disappointment, the actor barely remembered making Biwi aur Makaan. In general, his memory was sketchy. But not when it came to Chhotto Jignasa – he couldn’t stop saying how pleased he was about being the only producer who got Hrishikesh Mukherjee to direct a film in his first language.

(Earlier post about the HM book: a photo from the Satyakam set)

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Gaata Rahe Mera Dil... an interview with the authors of a book about Hindi film songs

[Did a version of this Q&A for Scroll]

Introduction: Anirudha Bhattacharjee and Balaji Vittal won the National Award for best film book in 2012, for RD Burman: The Man, The Music. Their new collaboration Gaata Rahe Mera Dil: 50 Classic Hindi Film Songs expands the canvas to look at some of the most iconic songs from the long and varied history of Hindi-film music. The book combines deep-seated knowledge of musical traditions, anecdotes and back-stories, and analysis of what these songs contributed to the form and language of Hindi cinema.

Your RD Burman book was one of our most detailed cinema books and clearly a labour of love, but this must have been an even more daunting project. Such a huge treasure trove to choose from, thousands of songs representing many musical forms. What criteria did you use to keep the list down to fifty?

Anirudha Bhattacharjee: The song had to be well known. It had to be very melodious. Should have struck a chord with the listeners when released and also thereafter. Nostalgia value was a must.

Balaji Vittal: We wanted to pay tribute to the composers, lyricists, filmmakers and singers who comprise the hall of fame – anyone who reads Gaata Rahe… should get a panoramic view of the who's who of Bollywood playback. But yes, it’s true that even 500 songs wouldn’t have been enough!

Did you consciously go for as much variety as possible? What are the extremes represented here – between, say, Hindustani classical and western-influenced music?

AB: Not really. We went mostly by gut feeling. We did think of genres – like the rain song, the qawwali, semi-classical, disco, songs set on modes of transport like the train, the boat and the car, ghost songs, the ghazal, medley, soliloquy, cabaret, Arabic, etc – but in the end it was the heart ruling the head. We found that we had missed the lullaby, but some of the songs chosen are soft and tranquil enough to act as lullabies too.

We tried not to include too many of our personal favourites – else the list might have been very different. Having said that, we were both born in the 1960s, and most of the songs are from the period 1951 to 1977. We prefer arrangements without clutter, hence we avoided very fast and frivolous songs as well as songs with an overdose of leather.

BV: Variety in genre, instrumentation and mood were key. One can also see from the selection the gradual changes in the landscape in the choice of instruments, recording techniques and arrangement styles – as well as the different sound flavours identified with different singers and composers, and the personal styles of different poets.

You begin with a prologue about “Babul Mora” (from the 1938 film Street Singer) and then “Chale Pawan ki Chaal” (from the 1941 Doctor). How did these early songs pave the direction of Hindi-film music?

BV: How could we think of writing a book on Bollywood music history and not pay homage to KL Saigal? "Babul Mora" was not a playback; the song was recorded live whilst the sequence was being shot. It is a landmark that represents a period before playback singing. This chapter is followed by a rare translated extract about how the idea of playback singing came into being.

"Chale Pawan ki Chaal" can be technically called the first road-song, set in a fast-paced rhythm that OP Nayyar would patent later. It is very significant for other reasons too, as you will read in the book – not the least being that it features another granddaddy of Indian films, Pankaj Mallick.

AB: I think the best-remembered songs are those that we can hum along to. “Babul Mora” is such a song, which, despite being from the 1930s, gives the average listener a comfort level. This was a light song with a classical base (Bhairavi / Sindhu Bhairavi), and subsequently defined the types of songs that would flood Hindi films. Most of the other songs before or around that time were rather complicated and mandated a generous level of classical knowledge. Their reach too was relatively low.

When in your view did the defining era for Hindi-film music begin? Who and what were the major catalysts?

AB: Each era came with its own flavour. The 1930s and the 1940s were more in the mould of sombre songs. Raichand Boral, Pankaj Kumar Mallick, Khemchand Prakash, Anil Biswas, brought in lots of folk and classical music. Husnlal Bhagatram were the masters of Punjabi melodies – as was Naushad, who fused UP folk with Indian classical music. C Ramachandra was an instinctive composer, and his melodies were very fresh even when he blended Indian music and western genres. SD Burman came with his repository of Bengali folk and Rabindra Sangeet. He was perhaps the greatest singer among the old masters.

However, the first defining era I think is the 1950s. Shankar Jaikishan changed the landscape. Their melody was light, and their arrangement trendy. They could also handle large orchestras and could create the big sound without being noisy. They influenced an entire generation of composers. OP Nayyar had a style which was very different from any other composer of his time or any other time. Madan Mohan tasted little commercial success, but is one of the most revered composers even today, forty years after he left us. His tunes were very intense, and could create a deep feeling of tearful craving. Salil Chowdhury was the composer’s composer, I don’t think there will ever be another like him. His knowledge of Indian melody and Western Classical-based arrangement is still unparalleled in Indian film music. Roshan fiddled with lots of classical music, but came out with soft, simple, and hummable tunes. Jaidev and Khayyam had a distinctive style, which they could maintain through three decades. Film music evolved during the 1950s.

The next defining time was the coming home of RD Burman. He redefined sound. And AR Rahman with his electronic sound could be the catalyst of our times.

BV: And then there have been the unsung heroes, like Sajjad Hussain. It is impossible to pick one, two or even three catalysts. The inconclusiveness is what makes for interesting debates. One more pitcher of beer please!

Was Hindi-film music in the 1930s and 40s limited by primitive technology? (You mention that there weren’t proper reverb systems and that mikes needed to be heated and prepared, which complicated the song-recording process.) And were there any upsides to this – in the sense that it forced composers and musicians to innovate?

AB: Primitive, yes. Recording facilities were limited. Studios were not equipped in the manner one would have liked them to be. Regarding innovation, I would not be able to comment as I was not there then. One needs to be there to understand what went on. Armchair journalism in film and music is the reason why nobody takes the critic seriously!

BV: Fifty years from now, when someone writes another Gaata Rahe Mera Dil, they will state that the early 2000s were limited by primitive technology! The industry will keep innovating, of course. But it would be sad if technology were to completely replace melody – music should always be about melody first. Everything else later. Our book has emphasised this.

You mostly focus on the songs themselves – the music, instrumentation and lyrics – but there are a few instances (e.g. the grand Awaara dream sequence) where you dwell on the picturisation too. When you think of your favourite Hindi-film songs, are the visuals an essential part of your fondness for them?

BV: Absolutely! In motion pictures, visual appeal is important. It demonstrates the film-maker's imagination. The split-screen sequence of "Ek pyaar ka nagma hai" (Shor) shows a happy family, as well as the calamity that hits them, and the submission to destiny. Each mood captured so poignantly on the lens by Manoj Kumar. Also check out Raj Kapoor's passion for the grandiosity in the medley in Awaara. Or how Yash Chopra brings adultery into the flower gardens of the Netherlands. But we also love songs that have been left out of the film altogether.

AB: I love all forms of music. Visuals are secondary. Some songs are BHNS (Better Heard and Not Seen, a jargon in use on social media since the days of Yahoo Groups). For the regular viewer, however, visuals do play a very important role.

You mention that there have been times when a beautiful song had already been composed and the director had to create a situation for it in the film’s narrative – even something as iconic as “Waqt ne kiya, kya haseen sitam” (Kaagaz ke Phool). Any instances of key films that moved away from a director’s or writer’s initial vision because of the demands of the music?

AB: Many. SD Burman was someone who could create or alter song situations. “Mora gora ang lai le” (Bandini) is one, where he demanded that Kalyani (Nutan) would sing this song outside her house. Another would be “Jaltein hain jiske liye” (Sujata), where the phone was brought in as a prop at the insistence of Burman.

BV: The star system sometimes played a role in this too. “Zindagi kaisi hai paheli” (Anand) was supposed to be a background song, but Rajesh Khanna found the song so enchanting that he wanted to be part of it. Raza Murad also had reportedly stated that “Main shaayar badnaam” (Namak Haraam) was supposed to be pictured on him. Priya Rajvansh too wanted a piece of “Tum jo mil gaye ho” (Hanste Zakhm) and so the Lata Mangeshkar one-liner was added later.

Picking a single representative song from a soundtrack as brilliant and varied as Guide (SD Burman) must have been very difficult. Why did you go for “Mose Chhal Kiye Jaaye / Kya se Kya Ho Gaya”?

AB: To be very frank, it gave us the opportunity to showcase two songs instead of one within the same story. It also sums up the dilemma of the lead pair, of having loved and lost.

BV: This twin song – "Mose chhal kiye jaaye" and "Kya se kya ho gaye" – was the climax of the saga, when Raju and Rosie, the estranged lovers, confront each other. Their estrangement had to go through that one final public catharsis where each accuses the other. The twin song sums up their ornate tragedy. SD Burman had composed two very different-sounding songs with the same tune, which was incredible. And Fali Mistry's cinematography painted the tears of Raju and Rosie in a motley of colours.

The use of the song in Hindi cinema has undergone a change. In the earlier sort of sequence, actors lip-synched and the narrative entered a new, “non-realistic” space when a song began. Now songs tend to be used more as background, running through a film in snatches rather than occupying a separate 5-6-minute space. Has this in your view affected their charm or durability?

BV: You think so? I observe nowadays a number of song sequences force-fitted just to capture the music-channel space and for DJs to add to their playlists. In fact, many of them feature in the closing credit rolls. So technically they are not part of the storyline at all! Film producers are trying to cover some of their investments beforehand – all you need to do is throw in a Bhangra mix or a tapori number. That is why many of the songs today are quickly forgotten and replaced by new ones. Many of them sound similar anyway – synthetic voices, same rhythm.

AB: How many songs, say from the last ten years, can you sing in full? I bet you would not be able to name ten. Previously, people used to remember songs with the full set of music – preludes, interludes and coda. Hemant Kumar said even snake charmers would use his been music. The connect then was both aural and visual; the common man become the character while crooning the songs. That art is almost extinct.

Actors like Dev Anand, Shammi Kapoor and Nutan gave so many outstanding performances within song sequences. Do you get the impression that the young actors of today are more self-conscious about doing old-style musical scenes?

AB: The running-around-trees business was invented as an escape mechanism; it never happens in real life. Singing while running around trees or in rocking boats is an exercise best avoided! And singing while biking or driving could be life-threatening as well. The new-age filmmakers and actors are perhaps more conscious about this, as is the metro audience. Obviously, the language of Hindi cinema has been affected.

What we really lost in this transition is the sad song. I went to a corporate fest in Gurgaon as a judge and found that there were at least five entries where the song was “Abhi mujh mein kaheen” (Agneepath, 2012), one of the best songs of recent times. This shows that people still love melody and are sold on sad songs too. But today we hardly create nice, lovable sad melodies, something like “Main shayar badnaam” (Namak Haraam) or “Sada khush rahe tuh” (Pyar ka Saagar).

Also, the new heroes do not have innately romantic voices. Imagine Hemant Kumar or Talat Mahmood singing for say, a Shahrukh Khan or a Sanjay Dutt. It is almost nightmarish! How many leading stars would be able to pull off a “Kuch toh log kahenge” I wonder? Or a “Saranga teri yaad mein”?

Related to this: most of the major directors from the 50s and 60s had a degree of training in music, and they took the shooting of song sequences seriously. V Shantaram, Raj Kapoor, Guru Dutt, later Vijay Anand, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Nasir Hussain. Have we in some ways moved away from that culture to one where directors are not as entrenched in music?

AB: Technology often comes with a price tag. I do not know how much the present-day directors know music. However, the directors you named were all musically very creative. Shantaram is supposed to have helped his composers with the creation of tunes. Raj Kapoor could play more than one instrument (he in fact played the tabla with Kishore Kumar during the latter’s audition at a radio station) and at times used to play secondary percussion during the recording of background scores of his films. Guru Dutt brought with him the teachings of Uday Shankar’s school. Vijay Anand supposedly learnt music, and the Anands as a family were known for their musical sense. Hrishikesh Mukherjee was a sitarist himself. Nasir Husain understood what goes and what does not, and, as per Pancham, could inspire composers to give their best.

Add the fact that their stories were socials and mostly around the theme of romance. Today there is lot of aggression in the stories. It certainly does not lead to musical outputs.

BV: Even today's filmmakers, we are sure, understand music. But when a producer has invested Rs 200 crores, the director is left with very little room. Forget music, the director would not even have much of a say in the screenplay of the film. For example I can't believe that a third-rate film like Chennai Express was directed by the same Rohit Shetty who had made very different films like Zameen. The music often has to match the hero's persona and the lowest denominator of public tastes.

I noticed that post-1982, you only have one other song from the 1980s (from Qayamat se Qayamat Tak). Was that a particularly dry decade for Hindi-film music? And if so, why?

AB: Well, you’ll agree that the 1980s were not what you call very musical. The best singers were past their prime. Some were no more. Creative composers got less work. I feel that the mass-scale migration from villages and small towns to cities created a culture which was not conducive for cerebral consumption. Also, a film named Deedar-e-Yaar failed in 1982. The producer, who was also the hero, went south to recover losses and played the leading role there in a few films….. Whatever happened next is history, and better not discussed here!

BV: The Bappi Lahiri brand of music in the period between 1982 and 1988 was all nonsense. Even today when I hear “Oo La la” from Dirty Picture, it brings back bad memories of “Ui Amma” from Mawaali. Kudos to Jagjit Singh for having creating global space for the non-film ghazal. And 30-year industry veteran Khayyam came up with a stunning album in Bazaar. And RD Burman too delivered the oceanic Saagar. But by and large, 1983-1988 was musically very bad. The music matched the quality of the films. We have had badly made films earlier too, but in these, the intent itself was shallow – those vulgar pelvic grinding by Sridevi, or the imitation disco stories, were made solely to cater to the front-bench audience. These could not be viewed with the family.

And then came the revival in QSQT.

The last song included in the list is Roja’s “Dil Hai Chhota sa, Chhoti si Asha”. Why end in 1993?

AB: We kept a shelf life of twenty years for a song to be in public memory. And we finished writing the book in 2013.

BV: A song has to stand the test of time for at least (we guess) two decades for it to be considered a classic. We have included "Dil Se" in the "new age" tributes. Albums like Dil Chahta Hai, Don, Rab ne Bana di Jodi and select tracks from Omkara, Tashn, 3 Idiots, Badmaash Company, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, Chak de India, Ye Jawani Hai Diwani will make for enjoyable listening years later too.

This is the sort of project that can easily move beyond the confines of a one-time printed book. Have you considered expanding it into a website with essays on other songs, as well as multimedia and space for discussion? Or a regularly updated e-book?

AB: Never thought of it, but now, as you have mentioned it, we are thinking! Movin Miranda, a friend who works out of Kuala Lumpur, had actually suggested this.

BV: In the countdown to the launch, we have already published posts on the songs that could not be included in the 50 Classics list. The Facebook page on the book invites discussions and debates. The back cover of the book urges everyone to write their own stories on 50 or 100 songs! We would love to see Gaate Rahe Mera Dil start a trend of more music fans crafting their own list of songs.

Two people writing a book together: how does that work? Does one of you handle research while the other does the actual writing, or is it more integrated than that?

AB: We share the workload. Both of us do the running around and writing, and exchange chapters to review / add / edit material. For this particular book, Balaji did a lot of travelling though. You will find many firsthand interviews which he managed via extensive travel.

BV: We have done college quizzes and Antakshari together and hence always enjoyed a deep understanding. We research independently so that we get more “masala”. While drafting the manuscript, we alternate between one of us writing the first draft and the other adding to it. Sometimes an insightful interview with a luminary itself provides the core of the story script e.g. in the case of “Woh shaam kuch ajeeb thi” (Khamoshi). It starts with composer Hemant Kumar stretching out his long legs and telling Gulzar something.... and, in a snap, Gulzar gets the first two lines of the song.

There are more cinema books in India now than there were a few years ago. But when it comes to something like popular cinema (or in this case, popular film music), do we have enough people willing to read thoughtful literature about it? Or is there still the attitude “Watch the film/listen to the music and that’s enough. No need to analyse”?

AB: Rightly said. Film magazines are seen and not read. Most film books read either like a PhD thesis / seminar paper, or something like a cheap bestseller. Film music books are worse. Serious writers are very few, and what we get is mostly gossip or 30 superlatives spread in many forms over 200-250 pages. Forget research, there is not even basic sincerity.

However, film criticism is now acknowledged as a subject. The awareness level of the audience is now higher. The internet, now a household commodity, has been a major catalyst in the change – hence we do have a serious readership for cinema. Though after a certain point, most readers tend to get restive. Somehow, our DNA is attuned to stories and gossip, and not appreciating the technicalities of cinema. I am told that film-based books, apart from autobiographies by stars, do not sell. Coffee-table books sell because of their novelty value and celeb tags.

Coming to music, there is nothing called music criticism (especially for film music) in our country. Branded critics take pride in naming some ragas, without trying to explain why and how this fits the need of the script. There are some critics who have no clue about music, and are mostly engaged in equating the commercial success of the film with its musical greatness. Some of them have vested interests too. Sadly, critics who review classical music do not tend to touch film music. Maybe they consider it beyond their dignity. Ashok da Ranade is perhaps the only classical music critic who does write about film music.

Given the state of things, we thought that there is a world to be explored in dissecting popular film music. Hence we did get into analyses. It also helps us appreciate music better. I always ask myself – why do I like this? And then try and put my mind into it. I call up my friend Ranjan Biswas too - who is a brilliant western classical musician - to discuss progressions and chords.

BV: Things will change, hopefully. Wanting to read about your favourite music or film is a natural progression. The success of Anupama Chopra's book on Sholay or yours on Jaane bhi do Yaaro bear testimony to this. But writers must make sure that the research is original and that the stories are interestingly told, keeping the general audience in mind. A technical discourse will not sell. Also, e-book versions present easier procurement and storage options. These would help. Also, I get the sense that the publishers have that “3000 copies” number in mind when launching a film book title. The traditional channels will work in a limited way only. Publishers must invest in film and music-based books with newer and more innovative channels of distribution. They must leverage social media to create those affinity groups, forums etc.

You stress in the Intro that there could be dozens more books like this, with completely different lists of classic songs. Could you name just five songs that you seriously regret not being able to include here? (I know that will be another torturous exercise in list-paring!)

Bhattacharjee (centre, in red kurta) and Vittal (in blue shirt) at an
RD Burman tribute show in Dubai

AB: Five is too small a number. I can name a hundred easily. If you notice, we have kept the selection to one song per film. In a film like Amar Prem, any of three Kishore songs or the two Lata solos could have been there. Hence, we used the chapter to talk about all the five. Using this principle, the number of songs actually discussed in the book could be 200. However, to name just five (and this list will be entirely personal, and I am not considering the films which are already there in the book), in no particular order:

‘Mujhe le chalo’ (Sharabi, 1964) – The ultimate sad song in my opinion. There was a time when I used to get up early in the morning and sing this song at a stretch. Sanjeev Ramabhadran, a US-based musician, sings it like a dream. 

‘Lau lagati’ (Bhabhi ki Choodiyan, 1961) – My favourite Yaman from films. There is a Marathi / Konkani touch which makes it sound so honeyed. It reminds me of a similar Yaman-based song, the Ganesh Arati “Sukh karta dukh harta varta vighnachi”, which was taught to me in college by Nagamani, a friend who, in my opinion, was the closest to Lata I’ve ever heard.

‘Na tum bewafa ho’ (Ek Kali Muskayee, 1969) – This is my dearest Lata-Madan Mohan song. Even today I call up my friend Pathasarathi Bhattacharyya Ekalavya any time of the day and ask him to sing this song. He knows my fixation and would never say no. He is easily one of the best singers today in Bengal – only that he is an oncologist by profession.  

‘Aaja piya tohe pyaar doon’ (Baharon ke Sapne,1967) / Baahon mein chale aao (Anamika, 1973)’ – Two songs which made me take note of a composer named Rahul Dev Burman. The reason why I could write the previous book. And this one too. 

‘Aankhon aankhon mein hum tum’ (Mahal, 1969) – My favourite romantic song. There are very few days when I do not sing this. Connects me to my childhood, the rains, and one very cold night in 1989 when this song was playing on someone’s tape, softly cutting through the pin-drop silence of the fog, taking me back in time. Very nostalgic.

BV: 1) O sajna barkha bahaar aayee (Salil Chowdhury – Parakh) 2) Mere sapno ki rani kab aayegi tu (SD Burman - Aradhana) 3) Na tum bewafa ho (Madan Mohan - Ek Kali Muskayee) 4) Aapki yaad aati rahi raat bhar (Jaidev - Gaman) 5) Sajanwa bairi ho gaye hamaar (Shankar-Jaikishen - Teesri Kasam).

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Hrishikesh Mukherjee book (and a photo from the Satyakam shoot)

As some of you know, I have spent much of the past two-and-a-half years working on a book about Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s cinema. More hard work, zeal and paranoia have gone into this than in any other single project I have ever undertaken, and a lot of it coincided with periods when things weren’t good (to put it mildly) on the personal front; when, among other things, I spent a lot of time dealing with illnesses and the surreal madness of hospitals. There was one particularly bad phase that lasted around four months – though it felt much longer at the time – when, having dropped the thread of the book, I was certain I could never pick it up again; paralysed by the very thought of opening a word-file that I knew was full of sentence fragments which needed to be reexamined, made sense of, organised into something readable (or at least something sane).

But enough of the dramatics. (And there are no inspirational lessons to be found here.) The book is done now
or as “done” as such a thing can ever be and should be out this September. And since this is a time in publishing when writers have to do their own marketing and publicity, I will in the coming months be putting up information and updates, sharing photos, drawings, and general reflections about Hrishi-da’s work and how I tried to engage with it. Hopefully some of this will be of interest to regular readers of this blog – not just those who like Hrishi-da’s films but also those who are interested in the workings of popular cinema more generally. (Rest assured that the other posts with my regular writings will continue – I do have to earn a livelihood, or pretend to.)

For starters, here’s a photo I like very much. This was taken on the set of one of my favourite Hrishikesh Mukherjee films (and his own personal favourite), Satyakam. Hrishi-da is to the right, Dharmendra in the centre, and on the left – only the back of his bald head clearly visible – is the wonderful actor David Abraham, who played such an important role in the Hrishikesh Mukherjee universe.

One of the things I like about this photograph is how it almost gives the impression that David is directing Dharmendra, while the real director passively looks on. In Hrishi-da’s very first film Musafir, David played the landlord who steers different sets of tenants to a house where the many stages of human life play out; over the next two-and-a-half decades, in films such as Anupama, Abhimaan, Chupke Chupke, Kotwaal Saab and Gol Maal, the actor often played someone who wasn’t a full-fledged part of the narrative but commented knowingly from the sidelines, providing avuncular advice to young people, often expressing opinions that Hrishikesh Mukherjee himself expressed in his interviews. In many of those films David can be seen as a director-substitute, which gives this picture an odd resonance. 

(The scene being rehearsed here, I’m almost sure, is the one where David’s character, the crafty Rustom, holds a mirror up to the idealistic hero, showing him his own hypocrisy – it’s one of the film’s many morally discomfiting moments, a depiction of a rogue briefly turning into a sutradhaar and guide.)

My editor Udayan and I both considered using a cropped version of this image on the book’s front cover. (One such design was created and it looked appealing to my eyes.) I was very tempted, especially since some of my favourite cinema books use similar covers to terrific effect. This one, for example:

One problem is that the Satyakam photo may not mean much to someone who is only casually familiar with Hrishikesh Mukherjee's work. It isn’t a great composition – it might have been better if we could see more of David’s distinctive face – nor does it represent an immediately identifiable scene from a popular HM film (like the Psycho pic above does). Imagine a black-and-white image of Hrishi-da on the sets of Gol Maal, overseeing the film-studio scene where Deven Varma tries on a fake moustache in his makeup room while a fretful Amol Palekar watches. What a brilliant cover shot that might have been.

[To be continued]

Thursday, June 18, 2015

"This is the rapist from the government" - on Sowmya Rajendran's The Lesson

[A shorter version of this review appeared in Open magazine]

The 2012 “Nirbhaya” gang-rape case led to much-needed public discourse about sexual violence and gender discrimination in India, but it also opened cans of nasty-looking worms, bringing into clearer relief a society’s deep-seated chauvinism, lack of introspection, and reverence for status quos. In recent times we have had people in positions of power linking sexual assault with chowmein-eating, a “spiritual guru” with a large following saying rape isn’t possible if the girl is not in some way compliant (it takes two hands to clap), and the extolling of “Bharat” as the unspoiled, sari-clad twin of the hedonistic, westernized “India” who is always “asking for it”.

In such a climate, the problem for a parodist, or for a writer of allegories, is that life always seems a dozen steps ahead – even when it is jogging backwards. How does one effectively do satirical exaggeration, or create a simplified parable, when the real world is overrun with politicians raving incoherently about "dented-painted women" and senior lawyers puffing their chests out and proclaiming that a daughter who had a pre-marital relationship should be burnt alive (but only in a gated farmhouse, you mustn’t disturb the neighbours)? Can fiction be much more dystopian than reality?

And so to Sowmya Rajendran’s slim novel The Lesson, which is a satire built around a series of archetypes. The characters are given no names: they are known as “the rapist” (a government employee socially sanctioned to deal with women who go to pubs, have multiple boyfriends, or sully the holiest of all institutions, Marriage, by seeking divorce), “the moral policeman”, “the media mogul” and so on. And the woman at the story's centre, the one who has transgressed so dramatically that a brand new punishment must be devised, is just “the second daughter” – a fitting tag given this is a society where women are defined mainly in terms of their relationship to men. But her acts of defiance, both at the beginning and at the very end, will drive the plot and, finally, supply a fourth-wall-breaking-moment where a hitherto immersed audience is slapped in the face with its own complicity.

These people inhabit a world where the unspeakable has been normalized. The rapist (who is a regular guy in many ways, stressed out by his work, prone to headaches and performance anxiety, thinking sadly about his wife and little daughter back in his hometown) simply calls up his next victim and tell her, very politely, that she has a lesson scheduled for Sunday, and what time would be convenient? Dupatta-regulators ensure prescribed standards of morality, the media mogul literally has a pair of Golden Geese in a cage (the male violently pecks at the female, as if in imitation of its human counterparts) and the Conduct Book contains a law – no, wait, it’s only a “guideline” for now, but a strong one – that a raped woman must kill herself if her family comes to know. Outrageous things are said with a straight face, injustice and persecution are taken for granted, and whatever hope there is comes in tiny slivers: hardened sorts like the moral policeman do show signs of being real human beings with real emotions when things get too personal, when their own loved ones are in danger.

Rajendran’s writing is effective when it adopts the mode of icy detachment, as in a scene where a woman who is to be raped on a TV reality show is briefed about the actress who will play her in the buildup episodes (so that the audience will “enjoy the show” better). I liked how the seemingly casual, almost gratuitous use of the word “rape” (“For how long will he rape me?”, “He’d never raped a pregnant woman before this and he wasn’t sure if he liked the idea”) echoes and comments on the offhand (and non-ironical) overuse of the word in the real world, e.g. “I raped that guy in the college debate”. Also notable is the book’s recognition that the patriarchy can in some ways be oppressive of men too, through its insistence on defining templates for maleness: there is a conversation about the pressures of being “The Only Son”, there are glimpses of the distant pasts of people like the president and the moral policeman, which humanise them – to a degree – and suggest that they are products of a social framework.

On the whole though, The Lesson is hit and miss, very sharp at times, earnest and over-expository at other times, and I have rarely been this conflicted while writing a review. Part of me felt it was heavy-handed; another part recognised that some of the talk around sexual harassment in this country has been so confounding, so much from a surreal otherworld, that there is no point trying to underplay things. Besides, it goes without saying that such a book will mean very different things to different people. For the privileged male like yours truly, some of it might seem shrill and stretched out. A reader who gets squeamish easily or has limited tolerance for dark humour might think it in poor taste, even repulsive. On the other hand, for someone who has grown up in a very conservative environment and lived with the worst controlling aspects of tradition, it might not even read like exaggeration, more like an unvarnished record of what daily life can be like.

Personally I wished a few more inventive things had been done with the premise, that there had been more passages with the kinetic energy of the one where a dupatta-regulator has a waking nightmare about being surrounded by acres of human nudity (“He looked out of the window and saw a naked man on a motorbike, his fat, hairy legs straddling it […] the dupatta regulator’s eyes were drawn to the pockmarks on his arm, a constellation of acne scars”). Most of all – and it feels odd saying this about a story with a rapist and his target as protagonists – I thought the book could have been funnier, more biting. It is occasionally blunted by verbosity, as in a conversation where the dupatta-regulator explains “if a student wears her dupatta properly, she is automatically protected from molestation. If you were molested in spite of wearing a dupatta, it means only one thing: you were not wearing it properly.”

But even if it doesn’t have the caustic power of the best satire – the quality that has you shaking in laughter even as the punch to your solar plexus knocks you breathless – The Lesson is provocative, driven by understandable anger, and a baby step in what will hopefully be a more extensive tradition of abrasive, absurdist writing that shakes and discomfits a society. One might say we are asking for it.

Saturday, June 06, 2015

A tribute to Guide in its 50th year

[Did a shorter version of this piece for The Hindu]

If you call yourself a movie buff and haven’t yet seen Vijay Anand’s Guide, or don’t remember it well, you must make up for that lapse soon – but for now, just go to YouTube and search for “Guide snake dance”. Watch the scene where Rosie (Waheeda Rehman), a former dancer “rescued” from a courtesan’s life and now stifled in a marriage to a self-centered man, breaks her shackles during an outing with Raju the guide (Dev Anand).

See the look on Rehman’s expressive face as she watches a village girl perform the cobra dance; how Rosie, initially seated on a cane chair like a privileged memsahib, gets up and perches on the floor as the performance begins; how she begins to sway while still in that position, continues her graceful movements while rising, and then joins in the dance. (Meanwhile Raju goes from being a “mere” guide to occupying that chair himself and supervising her
performance – a foreshadowing of what will happen to their relationship later in the story.) Note the long takes that follow – so characteristic of Anand’s cinema – culminating in the scene where the camera follows Rosie dizzily as she circles the arena, and how the sequence as a whole suggests that she is having something like a religious experience, the bliss of self-expression combined with the joy of having transgressed.

Now here is the equivalent passage from RK Narayan’s novel The Guide, two sentences in Raju’s voice: “She watched [the cobra] swaying with the raptest attention. She stretched out her arm slightly and swayed it in imitation of the movement; she swayed her whole body to the rhythm – for just a second, but that was sufficient to tell me what she was, the greatest dancer of the century.”

Rather terse, isn’t it, compared to that mesmerising scene?

Which is not to imply that the movie is “better”, or that Narayan’s cool, refined prose (more elaborate elsewhere) expresses Rosie’s circumstances less poignantly than the combination of Rehman’s acting, SD Burman’s music and Fali Mistry’s cinematography do – it is just to point out that a good commercial film may achieve its ends in very different ways from the literary work it was based on, and that it can be silly to compare two such disparate forms. Such comparisons are usually more deferential to literature anyway, more sympathetic towards writers whose visions were “ruined” by money-minded filmmakers. In an essay titled “Misguided Guide”, Narayan related, with dry humour, the processes by which his low-key, Malgudi-centered story was transformed into a colourful, pan-India extravaganza. But it is possible to enjoy that essay even while appreciating how Guide uses cinematic form and language.

Those long takes, for instance, add dramatic intensity to many scenes – such as the one where Rosie confronts her husband Marco in the caves, a brilliantly atmospheric setting for the playing out of overwrought emotions – and give the performances the dimensions of good theatre. Music – and the way it plays out on screen – is another of the film’s crowning achievements. (Would it be facetious to point out that the book has no soundtrack?) Look at the “Tere Mere Sapne” scene where Raju plights his troth to Rosie. “Khandaron mein guide khada hai” (“There is a guide waiting for you amidst the ruins”) he first tells her in dialogue, but prose is inadequate to this situation (a woman has just left her husband; a hitherto carefree man is baring his heart to her), so he has to shift to the more exalted meter of song. Though more than four minutes long, the sequence is made up of just three shots – there are only two cuts, each of which occurs after Rosie draws away from Raju; she is still conflicted, and the process of reassuring her must begin anew. This is then done at a dual level, by the song’s lyrics as well as by the camera’s sympathetic, probing movement – leading up to the long, pivotal final shot and a beautiful moment where Raju stands at a distance and holds his hand out, and the camera first tracks from him to Rosie, bridging the large gap between them, and then tracks back, this time “coaxing” her to him by not allowing her the option of “escaping” to another shot (via a third cut).

Music and visuals meld perfectly in other scenes too, such as the shot in “Aaj Phir Jeene ki Tamanna Hai” where Raju emerges from the darkness of a Chittoor Fort ruin as Rosie sings the line “Kal ke andheron se nikal ke”. Or in the heartbreaking contrast between the union of Rosie and Raju in “Tere Mere Sapne”, and the distance that has opened between them in “Din Dhal Jaaye”.

Part of Narayan’s concern was that the film had made something too big-canvas and starry out of his narrative about circumscribed lives. But the expansion of scale and setting doesn’t compromise the story’s essential concerns: how people and their power equations can change over time, how love can fade and be replaced by self-deception or self-interest, and how, despite all this, a form of redemption may still be possible. This is also a rare popular film that comes close to transcending the expectations created by the star system: it is possible to watch Waheeda Rehman and Dev Anand, to be fully aware of who they are, and to still feel how stifled Rosie is, how liberating the very act of walking through the marketplace in her ghungroos is for this girl who loves dancing more than anything else, for whom it is an art (and who has tragically been told that practicing it consigns her to the damned).

Because Rehman’s performance is one of the finest we have ever had, it is easy to overlook Dev Anand. He was at a point in his career where the urbane charm of his early days had begun veering towards the self-conscious, head-bobbing mannerisms that became so common through the 1970s and later. Yet that rarely happens in this film, even with the obvious temptations of the scene where Raju gives Rosie a lecture about self-actualisation. Anand seems to know exactly when to stay in the background: watch his expressions during the snake-dance scene and the ones around it, where he discovers new dimensions to Rosie’s personality and begins to be intrigued. This is a performance made up of finely observed moments, such as the way he doesn’t look directly at Rosie when she comes down the stairs at a party shortly after they have had a bitter argument; or a split-second shot where Raju, reeling after a physical altercation with his friend, tries feebly and fails to shut the door of a car that is about to drive away.

Guide does have minor weaknesses: in its final leg it uses the plot thread about Raju being mistaken for a holy man to indulge the traditional narcissism of the Hindi-movie hero; it seems a pity that a film with such a fascinating, ahead-of-her-time heroine should marginalize her in its final half-hour and end with a close up of its male star looking saintly, his voiceover saying “Sirf main hoon” (words that would define Dev Anand’s later screen work!). Thankfully, that pat ending can’t diminish the power of all that went before it. Now 50 years old and yet timeless, this is one of our cinematic landmarks, and a testament to the possibilities of artistic collaboration within a commercial system.

[A longer post about "Tere Mere Sapne" is here. And more about RK Narayan's "Misguided Guide" here]