Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Inside of a dog (and its writer friend)

[My Forbes Life books column for this month]

It is generally felt that writers tend to be “cat people” much more than “dog people”. If this is true, two explanations come to mind. The first has to do with the personality stereotype: many serious writers are somewhat cat-like themselves – aloof, solitary, prone to hissy fits if something doesn’t go exactly as they’d like it to. These are, of course, generalisations – I have known some gregarious and friendly writers, and a few very social cats – but the broad point stands.

The second reason is a related one: even pampered, house-bound cats are usually lower-maintenance and less dependent on their humans than dogs are, which makes them better companions for someone who needs plenty of alone time to think about his work, or simply to stare into his computer screen for hours waiting for an elusive Muse to show up. (I have firsthand experience: it took me three days to begin writing this column, largely because of the demands made on me by a puppy we are fostering.) But this is also why it can be so interesting when authors do become close to dogs and write about them. You might get prose that is full of raw emotion, where the writer holds nothing back; or writing that is polished and distant and cat-like on the surface, but with slivers of deep feeling buried within it.


An example of the latter is in one of the finest animal books ever written, the literary editor JR Ackerley's My Dog Tulip, first published in 1956. When we look at Ackerley through a prism of temporal and cultural distance, he seems an archetype of the English man of letters of his generation: reserved, proper, perhaps a little snooty. But to read this book is to find not just a sharp, affectionate sense of humour but a startling candour. And the catalyst for this is Ackerley’s 16-year relationship with his German Shepherd, a relationship that began when he was middle-aged, but which provided him a new perspective on other creatures, on the nature of love, and ultimately on himself too.

One of the wonderful things about this slice-of-life memoir is its combining of elegant, literary writing with subject matter that is usually taboo in polite circles. Entire chunks are dedicated to Tulip’s toilet habits, and later to her sex life. At one point, shortly after making an offhand reference to a historical record of the emperor Napoleon’s “well-formed motions”, our venerable author describes Tulip’s squatting: “She lowers herself carefully and gradually to a tripodal attitude with her hind legs splayed and her heels as far apart as she can get them so as not to soil her fur or her feet. Her long tail, usually carried aloft in a curve, stretches rigidly out parallel with the ground...” But after this almost poetic description, the idyll is broken: Ackerley and Tulip are rudely set upon by a cyclist who objects to a dog using the sidewalk thus, and the elderly writer responds by letting loose some choice cuss-words. Dog-lovers everywhere, then and now, can get seriously worked up in these situations.

As Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, author of The Hidden Life of Dogs, points out in her introduction to a recent edition of My Dog Tulip, a remarkable thing about Ackerley’s writing is that though he leaves the reader in no doubt that he loves Tulip deeply, he never asks us to do the same; he doesn’t construct her as a protagonist with universally desirable qualities. And yet, there is so much grace and tenderness in some of his descriptions, such as the almost reverential one of watching Tulip give birth to her first litter, “licking and nosing this package out of herself, releasing the tiny creature from its tissues […] performing upon herself, with no help but unerringly, as though directed by some divine wisdom, the delicate and complicated business of creation”.

****

The inimitable Groucho Marx once quipped, “Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.” The line is obviously funny as a non-sequitur, but Alexandra Horowitz gave it a new dimension by using Inside of a Dog as the title of her book about “what dogs see, smell, and know”. Reading this book, one realizes that the inside of a dog might really be too dark for a human being to “read”.


By drawing upon the word umwelt – used by the German biologist Jakob von Uexkull to describe an animal’s subjective inner life or “self-world” – Horowitz lays out the many ways in which we humans routinely misinterpret or anthropomorphize the behaviour of our four-legged companions; but she also demonstrates that taking a coldly scientific view of animal behaviour does not amount to discounting the higher emotions. When your dog licks your face on your return home, this behaviour may be genetically rooted in the phenomenon of puppies licking their mother’s snout to get her to regurgitate food for them; but over time, in domestic animals, this has also become a ritualized greeting that (in conjunction with other displays such as tail-wagging) clearly says “I’m glad you’re back.”

This balancing act between the rational explanation and the emotional one lies at the heart of many meaningful human-dog relationships, and it reminds me of Arthur C Clarke’s superb story “Dog Star”, which broadly fits in the “science fiction” genre (and is by one of the leading exponents of that form), but is also an intensely emotional tale about love.

It begins with the narrator, an astronaut on a space station, millions of miles from earth, being awakened from sleep by a vivid dream where he thought he heard the barking of his dog Laika. She isn’t really there, of course: the melancholy narrator then dips into his memories from years ago and tells us about how, back on earth, he adopted her as a puppy and, to his own surprise, grew enormously close to her over time. However, a devastating separation loomed: accepting a prestigious research position in a space observatory necessarily meant leaving behind his closest friend and companion. “After all, she was only a dog. In a dozen years she would be dead, while I should be reaching the peak of my profession. No sane man would have hesitated over the matter, yet I did hesitate.”

The final sentences of the story – once the narrator has returned to the present and is analyzing his dream and its aftermath – are heartbreaking, because they involve a man refusing to succumb to comforting delusion even though he so badly wants to: a scientist who, after relating a story about an unfathomably close relationship, provides a rational explanation for the “supernatural” event he just experienced. But then, in the story’s very last sentence, he allows himself to get emotional again, and the effect is stunning – a reminder of the dark and mysterious places that can exist inside of both dogs and their humans.


[Some earlier Forbes Life columns are here. And a piece about cat books is here]

Saturday, December 03, 2016

And yet more venting about the demonetization situation...

...after a talk this morning with a woman, Meena, who has been staying at our place, looking after mum, and who suddenly decided to leave after a fight with the day-attendant. Meena had only been with us for 19 days, so after calculating what we owed her based on the monthly wage, we got around to the matter of how this payment was to be made.

Hardly any cash at home. Of course. (I’m not getting into details of how much time I have spent in the past 3 weeks trying to withdraw money, and not succeeding, in a situation where two people I am responsible for are seriously ill and might well need to go to hospital on an emergency basis as the Delhi weather and pollution levels get worse for the ailing and vulnerable. Including an 88-year-old who knows nothing of debit/credit cards, is accustomed to having at least 70-80K in her house in cash for contingencies, and is getting psychologically very affected by this whole business of being unable to withdraw her own money from the bank account she has had for decades. Jana Dhana Manaa, as Tagore never wrote.)

Meanwhile Meena doesn’t have a bank account. She showed up at our place today still looking worried but also hopeful, explaining how someone else she worked for had told her about the concept of the “Self”-addressed cheque. What this person presumably told her was that *anyone* could take such a cheque to the bank and withdraw money with it, but through miscommunication and lack of basic understanding, this in Meena’s mind became: “With a ‘Self’ cheque, you can go to *any* bank and withdraw money.”

I could narrate the gist of our conversation in dialogue form here, but that wouldn’t adequately convey the almost panicked look on her face when I tried explaining the rudiments of the banking process. I ran her through it step by step, used what I thought was pure logic: if I had an account in Kotak Mahindra and wrote her a cheque from my cheque-book, why would another bank honour it and give her cash on my behalf? It would have to be Kotak (not that there is a hope in hell these days of getting anything out of them). But at the end she still looked uncertain and then sullen, as if she was becoming convinced we wanted to cheat her by making things more complicated than necessary.

So here’s a woman, living and working in the national capital, reasonably competent at what she does, reduced to a stuttering wreck when discussing basic concepts such as deposits and withdrawals. She is one among millions. Meanwhile, jackasses everywhere – in the government, on Facebook, on WhatsApp, NRIs who know nothing about the India that exists outside their pretty pink bubbles – continue speaking as if everyone in the country has access to 3G and smart-phones, and knows what Paytm is and how to use it. And singing hosannas to a PM whose story is so inspiring because he started off as a chai-wallah – never mind that he gives the impression of being thoroughly out of touch with most ground-level realities.

P.S. on a somewhat related note, with my Airtel wi-fi switching on and off for most of yesterday, I had a late-night talk with a customer-care guy who explained that a cable had broken down and parts of the NCR had had connectivity problems for a few hours.
But of course, the whole country, down to the remotest village, is using Paytm, plastic and net banking. No problem at all.


[Earlier posts about the currency crisis here and here]

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

How Arrival and Te3n play with our ideas about film narrative and chronology

[Spoiler warning: if you haven’t seen Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival and intend to see it, don’t read this yet]

A film begins with a montage of scenes showing a young woman and her terminally ill child – the many joys and agonies of their years together, until the child dies in adolescence. After this five-minute prelude, we segue to the woman, Louise, now alone, working as a linguist. She appears focused, inward-looking – melancholy, perhaps? The plot proper begins when she is contacted by government agents to help them communicate with aliens who have arrived in space pods parked around the planet.


Most viewers, accustomed to interpreting cinematic language without thinking consciously about it, would read this sequence from Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival as follows: Louise had a child at some point in the past; now, after her loss, she has to move on with her life, perhaps by immersing herself in her work. When she has visions of her daughter later in the narrative, we assume these are flashbacks; memories that, for reasons not yet clear, are coming back to haunt her during the current assignment.

Cinematic language aside, this is a familiar trope from other sci-fi films such as Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity or Robert Zemeckis’s Contact or even M Night Shyamalan’s Signs, in all of which an otherworldly experience helps the main character achieve a form of catharsis, years after a tragic event. Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 Solaris, in which a psychologist sees visions of his long-deceased wife while on a space station, arguably supplied the palimpsest for this sort of narrative; and Arrival is a similarly slow-paced, some might even say ponderously paced, film that evokes both Solaris and another iconic “thinking” sci-fi movie of that era, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

But as it turns out, the scenes showing Louise with her child aren’t flashbacks, they are flash-forwards. That opening sequence was a red herring, a necessary component in the build-up to the film’s big reveal: that Louise’s attempts to understand the complex, non-sequential written language used by the aliens eventually leads to her perceiving all the events of her own life in simultaneous rather than linear terms. Her experience of motherhood will come after the main events depicted in the film, not before.

No wonder some friends sent me sharply worded messages last week, when I “spoilt” Arrival for them by writing an enthusiastic Facebook post about the superb novella the film is based on, Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” – and specifying that no spoiler alert was needed. Chiang’s story brilliantly uses language – shifting tenses, apparently ungrammatical sentences – to disorient the reader and slowly allow us to realize what is going on with Louise, but it doesn’t contain a specific, jaw-dropping climactic twist. Arrival, on the other hand, does. And it achieves this by toying with our expectations of filmic narrative.

Flashback to around 125 years ago. In the beginning, there were static images. Then the images began to move – meaning that a new dimension, time, came into the equation – and cinema was born. Naturally, understanding the flow of narrative time became central to any understanding of the new medium, especially when it began to tell stories. Early film viewers’ brains became hard-wired to grasp that when Scene A is followed by Scene B, it means B is showing events that take place after A.

Later, the complicated business of cross-cutting came in, via such pioneers as Edwin Porter and DW Griffith. Audiences learnt that when a sequence cuts back and forth between two events involving different sets of people, it means the two events are happening simultaneously. (Other ways of depicting simultaneity would emerge – the split-screen technique, for instance – but that would be years in the future.)

Today, over a century later, and despite decades of being exposed to formally experimental cinema, we still make some basic assumptions as viewers, and we are taken aback when a narrative film breaks one of the “rules”. If Arrival is one example – its secrets residing in Chiang’s concept as well as what cinema does with that concept – another can be found in a very different, less ambitious movie released earlier this year. In Ribhu Dasgupta’s Te3n, John (Amitabh Bachchan) searches for the man responsible for his granddaughter’s death; he is aided in this by a priest named Martin (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) and a cop, Sarita (Vidya Balan).
This is an uneven film, but structurally it does something very provocative. Almost throughout the second half, the action cross-cuts between John conducting his private investigation on the one hand, and Martin-Sarita sleuthing and bickering on the other, and the mystery depends on the viewer not realizing that these two threads aren’t occurring at the same time – the Bachchan scenes take place at an earlier point. In other words, the film has tinkered with the classical definition of cross-cutting as an editing technique that shows simultaneous action.

Looking at such movies with hindsight, it is instructive to consider the many little decisions that went into misdirecting the viewer. When Te3n came out, many people were puzzled by Vidya Balan’s role, which was much longer than the guest appearance it had been billed as, but wasn’t a meaty enough part for a leading star. But this prolonged “cameo” was necessitated by the film’s structure: if this supporting part had been played by a less-known actress, leaving Bachchan and Siddiqui as the film’s two stars, the lack of interaction between John and Martin in the second half would have become much too obvious. To fill that gap, we are kept distracted by the sparring scenes between Balan and Siddiqui as they mull the case, run over all the possibilities, disagree, banter.

In Arrival, creating the big reveal necessitated some changes from the source material. In Ted Chiang’s novella, Louise’s daughter dies at age 25 after a rock-climbing accident; in the film, she dies as a child. One can see why: if the film had had the daughter living to be a young woman, Louise’s youthful appearance in the “present-day” scenes would have given the game away; the surprise depends on the character not aging more than a decade or so over the course of the story.

The film also cleverly constructs some ambiguous little moments where a sensitive viewer might overanalyze what the character is feeling or thinking. This is done by the script in conjunction with Amy Adams’s delicate, enigmatic performance in the lead – her expressions and gestures capable of being read in different ways. In an early scene, as Louise prepares to enter the alien spaceship for the first time, a scientist runs her through a medical checklist and asks her to confirm that she isn’t pregnant. She looks a bit startled and pauses for a second before saying no. As it turns out, this moment really means nothing in the context of the narrative, but a viewer who thinks Louise’s motherhood experiences were in the past will imagine a world of remembrance and pain behind her tiny hesitation. It is one of the many ways in which this artfully made film turns us into active participants while we are viewing it – and even when we are misinterpreting what we see.

[from my Mint Lounge column]

Monday, November 28, 2016

A Hrishikesh Mukherjee film festival

People in Bangalore, here's something you might be interested in - a three-day Hrishikesh Mukherjee film festival featuring 13 of his films (and including some of my personal favourites: Anuradha, Satyakam, Guddi, Gol Maal). The organisers, Pickle Jar, very kindly invited me to come across and maybe introduce a film or two, but I can't make it. It should be great though - do spread the word. See the images below for the schedule. And the Facebook link for the event is here





Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Anticipating Arrival (and a plug for Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life")

I learnt only yesterday that the new sci-fi film Arrival is based on one of my very favourite novellas, Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life”. Judging by the Wikipedia entry for the film, the adaptation makes significant departures from the original, with a more action-driven narrative – which is fine; I look forward to seeing the film, sulking about some of the changes while also (hopefully) appreciating some of the others. But I thought I’d use this opportunity to point you to Chiang’s haunting story. I first read it in Brian Aldiss’s anthology A Science Fiction Omnibus (the revised and updated 2007 edition), and being unprepared as I was for what the story was about, the first few pages made for very strange reading.

To start with, the tenses seem all mixed up. You figure out soon enough that the narrator is a woman addressing her daughter, but it takes a while to understand at what point in their personal histories this narration occurs. The “present” seems to be the moment where the woman and her husband decide to have a baby (the story’s opening line is “Your father is about to ask me the question”), but does this mean she is telling the story to a child who does not yet exist? And is she speaking of future events as if they have already occurred? What’s with the many disorienting sentences like this one: “I remember what it will be like watching you when you’re a day old.” Or “I’d love to tell you the story of this evening, the night you’re conceived, but the right time to do that would be when you’re ready to have children of your own, and we’ll never get that chance.”

Those of us who can read comfortably and fluidly in a language sometimes take the reading process for granted, but with this story I felt at times that (despite the conversational directness of the prose) knowing English wasn’t enough; the author had taken away some of the reader’s safety nets, our assumptions about how a story should be told. (During the first few minutes of my first read, I even wondered if there had been some copy-editing errors.)

But this is deliberate, and very much part of the point. “Story of Your Life” is about many things – parental love and grief, seven-limbed extraterrestrials, the illusion of free will, the nature of time – but it is also in an immediate sense about language and how it affects our experience of the world. (No spoiler alerts needed here – the story’s value lies in the way it is told, not on the plot points.) The narrator is a linguist whose attempt to understand the complex language (Heptapod B) used by visiting aliens eventually leads to her perceiving the events of her own life in simultaneous rather than sequential terms. This is the central premise of a story of tremendous emotional power, which is on one level about a specific person grappling with too much knowledge – and the joy and pain it brings – but also on another level about the difficulties of true communication and understanding. Highly recommended: read it before or after watching the film, or even if you don’t plan to watch the film at all.

(A sample passage: “Usually, Heptapod B affects just my memory: my consciousness crawls along as it did before, a glowing sliver crawling forward in time, the difference being that the ash of memory lies ahead as well as behind; there is no real combustion. But occasionally I have glimpses when Heptapod B truly reigns, and I experience past and future all at once; my consciousness becomes a half-century-long ember burning outside time. I perceive – during those glimpses – that entire epoch as a simultaneity. It’s a period encompassing the rest of my life, and the entirety of yours.”)

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Some more thoughts on this currency/demonetisation mess...

... and on an empathy deficit that is now rivalling the shortfall in cash. I’ve been seeing and hearing a lot of the Mahatma Gandhi quote “Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen, and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him.” It’s a fine thought (and one that can be put to good ironic use these days, what with Gandhi’s face on currency notes smiling gently at – or, if you squint hard, mocking – poor people who can no longer use their cash), but it isn’t a practical one. Very few of us can pretend to be saints who adopt that stance in our daily lives – or even once in a while, when agonizing over major decisions.

Perhaps a more realistic talisman would go something like this: each time you feel tempted to comment on an issue that you have been directly affected by – but which you know is ALSO affecting the lives of people who are much less fortunate – in any such case, before you make that sweeping statement, please count to twenty quietly; introspect a little, allow yourself to consider the possibility that there are things you have been shielded from, that the worst of what you have personally gone through is not necessarily the worst that anyone else might experience.

If you have spent a tough few hours in a bank queue (perhaps made a little less tough by the entertaining conversations around you, or the weather being relatively pleasant, or the option of playing a game on your smart-phone) and felt the relief of having seen some money at the end of it, along with the satisfaction of having contributed to the grand National Cause in some yet-to-be-fully-perceived way – even in the self-congratulatory euphoria of this moment, give yourself some time to consider those who may be facing greater hardships, and much more serious repercussions when they leave their work for days on end to stand in lines.

Consider that if you’re reading this post, that in itself is a guarantee that you are immeasurably better off than a very large number of people in this country. That from the vantage point of some of these people, the difference between your lifestyle and Mukesh Ambani’s might be negligible.

A notable characteristic of our species is the inability of even generally well-meaning people to see how privileged or lucky they are compared to many others. And linked with this, a self-absorption that leads to the inference of general lessons from our own very specific experiences. These traits show up in many general contexts, of course. (Feminists have long been subjected to casual, irresponsible remarks about feminism being too shrill, angry or exaggerated because, you know, things aren’t as bad as they are made out to be – and such assertions come not just from men but also from privileged women who don’t recognize the long and complex history of the movement and how they have benefited from it.) But they seem to come snarling to the surface in extraordinary situations like the current one.

It’s too easy now to cross a line from being happy for ourselves to being unthinkingly callous about others. Take a tweet from a journalist-columnist a few days ago, about how the bank she happened to go to in a certain colony at a certain time was well-managed and her work got done quickly. Up to this point, no problem – she was simply sharing an experience – but this was then transformed into a general statement of How Things Are; “the crisis has passed”, she ended by saying. Well, no, it hasn’t for millions of people – and that’s the politest, mildest observation one can make at this point.

Yes, of course many of the severely affected people (definitely not all, but many) are finding ways of “getting by” for the time being: helping each other, extending credit, relying on trust and goodwill, using our ancient philosophy of jugaad. Many of them are also deeply conditioned with a fatalistic impulse that comes partly from religious faith, from ideas about today’s suffering being a necessary prelude to a better tomorrow (in this life or the next). But just because the worst-hit are putting on a brave face and using whatever tools are available to them doesn’t mean that others should pretend that “everything is okay” or that “these are only small sacrifices”, or that anyone who raises questions about the manner in which this whole thing has unfolded is a “Congress stooge” or a “presstitute”.

I’m not addressing the larger question of whether this was a good idea or not, and what it may or may not achieve for the country's long-term future – I’m no expert on the subject, and many people who are can’t seem to agree with each other about the details. (Plus, if I’m advocating introspection, I have to consider the possibility that my dislike for Modi and his party might taint my views on just about anything this government does.) But there have been all-too-clear problems with the implementation. Even in an age where anyone with a computer or a smart-phone can express an opinion hastily, and 50 times a day, it should be possible to stop and consider that there may be some truth in the constant stream of reports about people suffering; that the trials of the underprivileged aren’t just the private fantasies of change-resistant libtards.

The Champion of the World

[Dara Singh's birth anniversary today. A little tribute in my latest Mint Lounge column]
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For the longest time, I didn’t know – or care – what his face looked like. All I saw was a pair of eyes rolling theatrically above a monkey snout.

And this despite the fact that I had long heard stories about Dara Singh from my grandmother and her friends: about his legendary prowess as a wrestler, about how handsome, rugged and yet gentlemanly he was when encountered outside a film studio or at the racecourse in 1960s Bombay.

But I was growing up in the mid-1980s, watching Ramanand Sagar’s TV Ramayana, in which Singh, close to sixty at the time, played Hanuman. So all-pervasive was that show’s influence in the single-channel era, as a child one couldn’t picture its actors outside a mythological context. I had watched Subhash Ghai’s Karma and Manmohan Desai’s Mard  around the same time – films in which Singh, wearing his own face, had decent-sized parts – but if I ever thought of him, it was as Hanuman; my mind refused to create an image of his real visage.


I am thinking of Dara Singh now for two immediate reasons: one, it’s his birth anniversary this Saturday; and two, I just read a new book about him, Seema Sonik Alimchand’s Deedara a.k.a. Dara Singh! . But there’s another, broader reason too, involving the growing nationalistic discourse we see around us today, and how that discourse has become closely tied to a Hindutva revival. Today the very name “Dara Singh” raises conflicting feelings in me. On one hand, I picture the gentle giant in likable supporting parts in films like Mera Naam Joker and Anand. On the other, there is the link with hardline religiosity – via the unquestioning devotion of Hanuman the ultimate bhakt, precursor of some of today’s tweeting hordes, tearing his chest asunder to reveal an image of his God residing in his heart.

There are also associations with a certain sort of Jat machismo, which I became wary of early in my life, having seen a number of hearty Punjabi relatives: sweetly boisterous people in most everyday contexts but containing a capacity for anger and violence that came to the surface when, for instance, the subject of Partition arose and there were dark murmurings about “the Mohammedans”; or a wave of pride sweeping across a room when an ancient uncle boasted that in 1947 he had helped load three trains with Muslim corpses and send them to Pakistan.

How could one not feel ambivalent about Dara Singh, given that it is from these same admiring relatives that I used to hear stories about this “invincible” man and his undefeated record. One thinks then about the subtexts of those wrestling bouts of the 50s and 60s. In a wonderful fanboy piece about Singh, first published in the Hindustan Times Brunch, Vir Sanghvi noted that the wrestling matches he watched as a boy weren’t real sport so much as carefully scripted morality plays, “a sort of Ram Leela in swimming trunks” – and that Singh was the Indian superhero who was called on to defeat the evil, racist gora. It goes some way towards explaining the roles he would later play, first in B-movies as our Steve Reeves, then in mythologicals.

But this is also why reading the new book was a revelation in some ways. I don’t want to over-stress the merits of Deedara a.k.a. Dara Singh! – it is hagiographical in places; it was written not just with the cooperation and approval of Dara Singh’s family but draws strongly on his memoir Meri Aatmakatha; you don’t want to take everything in it at face value. For instance, the author is tactfully compliant and unquestioning when it comes to such subjects as the validity of Singh’s status as “world champion” in a sport that was never really regulated; she simply gushes on about his many victories over famous opponents like King Kong.

But there are interesting things in the book – among them, a sense of personal growth, which comes through best in the passages that don’t present Singh in the best light. A story about how a young Dara, finding himself in tough straits, tries his hand at petty theft, and even gets a sense of power and fulfilment from it, but repents after one of his victims gets into trouble. The long journey of a man who was once a benevolent paternalist, telling his new bride who wanted to continue her education, “No wife of mine will work”, but who decades later watched with a mix of pride and bemusement as his eldest daughter began working as a flight attendant with an American airline.


Here is the actor who specialized in playing mythological characters, symbols of pride and inspiration for a religion; and yet – I was startled to learn this – Singh was, according to his family, an agnostic who recognized the important role played by religion in Indian society but himself believed that “you have to do things yourself. There is no God up there who will do it for you”. I have a feeling he wouldn’t be pleased about some of the jingoism that passes in the name of religion these days.

Those of us who are proud of having a liberal or progressive sensibility are sometimes too quick to congratulate ourselves: we overlook the ways in which our upbringing and circumstances were conducive to the early seeding of these qualities; and we undervalue the struggles of people who were born in more restrictive, conservative settings, and who had to feel their way around – make mistakes, then introspect – before grasping the real meaning of concepts like equality and freedom of expression. The Dara Singh story is about a man who grew to contain multitudes, which is more inspirational than any narrative about a beefy pehelwan proving Indian superiority by strong-arming international opponents in rigged matches.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Report from outside a bank: 'achha din' for an 'achha aadmi'

One of many life lessons learnt in bank queues over the past few days: if you want your work done quickly, try wearing the mask of a Samaritan-activist. Outside Kotak Mahindra in Saket yesterday, after an hour and a half of waiting in a line that was cheekily moving BACKWARDS instead of in the direction of the bank entrance, realization dawned that some people had left their names and numbers with the guard and were now being admitted into the premises despite having just shown up and not having stood in line at all.

A gregarious middle-aged man decided enough was enough. He left our “official” line, pushed his way to the door and began an impassioned speech about the injustice being done to those of us who had been waiting for hours, especially – pointing at the women’s line – “yeh bechari ladies, jo kab se yahaan khadi hui hain”. Inviting the rest of us to join him in his tirade, emboldening even the quietest of the women to yell at the guards, he speculated that the people being let in were relatives of the bank staff; that he could see them having tea inside, chatting away and taking 20 minutes over what should have been a 5-minute transaction (this could well be true); that we should call “the media and 100”. He loudly and ostentatiously made a call to someone from a TV channel himself, then continued complaining for the next 10 minutes – never about his own predicament, only about how much the rest of us were suffering. And he banged on the shutters. A guard warned him that the bank officials would call the police and have him taken away. “Haan haan, bulaa do!” he shouted. “Jail mein daal do mujhe.”

After some more of this, the door opened slightly, a voice said “Uncle, aap andar aa jaayiye”, and that was the last we saw of Uncle until 10 minutes later when he emerged with a smile on his face and his bag looking much bulkier than it had earlier been. Some of the people around him made angry sounds about how he had got his own work done despite having been much further back in the line, and what about the rest of us, why didn’t he get the staff to let the ladies in as well etc. “Kya bol rahe hain aap log?” he said, making his way through the crowd and towards freedom, “If the police had come and arrested me, would all of you have followed me to jail as well?”


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[And no, the rest of us didn’t get any cash. Didn’t happen today either, this time after standing in line for more than three hours, and despite the bank manager coming out at intervals to supervise things]

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The end of Federer-Nadal? Reflections on a golden age in men's tennis

[Did this summing-up piece for BusinessLine's BLink]

In the same way that many young film buffs are patronizing towards old movies – seeing them as creaky, mannered or generally incapable of matching the technical advancements and the edgier screenwriting of today – there is a species of sports fan who always trumpets the glories of the present over the past. Back in my cricket-watching days, when the Sachin Tendulkar-Don Bradman comparisons had just begun, a friend casually dismissed the idea that the Australian legend’s unbelievable batting average meant anything important. “The game was clubby and undemanding in Bradman’s time,” he said, with all the sagacity of someone who had studied cricketing history in depth (he hadn’t). Making vague sounds about the 1932 Bodyline attack “solving” Bradman, he neglected to acknowledge that the Don still averaged as much in that unsuccessful series as most top batsmen do overall, and that he faced the short-ball barrage without a helmet.

For such fans, modern athletes are by definition superior, and great contemporary matches are spectacles the likes of which have never before been seen. These perceptions are encouraged by a sports media that – faced with strong competition for eyeballs and click-throughs – never misses a chance to bulk up a current player’s or match’s credentials for “greatest of all time” (GOAT). In the process, while some statistics are overstated, some historical details are overlooked: for instance, that batsmen once played on uncovered, “sticky” wickets; or that tennis players had more demanding schedules 60 years ago, with far less cushy modes of travel and less time to get acclimatized to a variety of conditions.


Which is a roundabout way of saying that even someone who has been enthralled by men’s tennis over the past decade should be a little wary of the more dramatic narratives surrounding it. And yes, this comes from a card-carrying fan: since early 2006, I have followed the sport week in and out, tracking even the first-round matches of ATP-500 tournaments. Being a Rafael Nadal KAD (Kool-Aid Drinker, a sometimes disparaging term used for a huge fan of a player or team) during this period hasn’t stopped me from admiring the achievements of Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and many others near the sport’s top tiers. There is little doubt that this era – which has also coincided with improvements in TV coverage and other viewing options, including sophisticated live streams – has been a stirring, special one.

What I’m not so sure about is whether it is the Golden Age of Golden Ages that it is sometimes made out to be, by fans crowding tennis websites, as well as by journalists. That Federer, Nadal and Djokovic are great champions is indisputable; but it is not uncommon now to find arguments that they are THE best male players ever (the order varies, depending on who you ask), a position that casually undermines the achievements of past greats such as Pancho Gonzalez, Ken Rosewall, Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg. Here is current-day chauvinism hard at work.

Still, now is a good time to attempt a summing up: Federer and Nadal have both fallen out of the top 5 for the first time since June 2005, and given a combination of age, on-court mileage and injuries, there is no guarantee that either of them will return to the summit. Meanwhile, in another recent twist, Djokovic – who went from being solid supporting player to becoming an all-conquering champion in his own right – has shown low motivation and suffered a minor decline after completing his Career Slam at the French Open in June. Both he and Andy Murray – who has just reached the number one position for the first time, after years of playing in the shadow of the other three – will turn 30 next May; very few male players have won multiple Slams past that age. It certainly feels like the age of the Big Four is winding up.

******

In discussing what was so special about the last 10 years, one has to begin with Federer-Nadal, their names now linked together for all time. It wasn’t a very close rivalry, especially after Rafa rose from being a clay-court giant to all-surface excellence by 2008-09: his left-handed, top-spin-heavy game being laboratory-made to break down Federer’s one-handed backhand, the head-to-head between them is 23-11 in Nadal’s favour (and an even more lopsided 9-2 in Grand Slam matches). But the duopoly exercised by these men between 2005-2010 – and the best of their matches, such as the 2006 Rome Masters final and the 2007 and 2008 Wimbledon finals – left a huge impact on the sport, improving TV ratings and motivating other players, Djokovic, Murray and Stan Wawrinka among them, to raise their own games.


Sports narratives have always thrived on contrast, and here was an irresistible one, even if it was founded on clichés about style and aesthetics. Federer-Nadal was seen as a face-off between an elegant, versatile, preternaturally gifted champion who was to the manor born versus a brutish young caveman who slogged his way to the top through sheer grit and a repetitive game. This was simplistic and unfair to both players, implying as it did that Federer didn’t work extremely hard to get where he did, and that Nadal didn’t have much natural talent; and also neglecting basic facts, such as that the Spanish “beast” comes from an old-rich background and lives a mollycoddled life in a family mansion. But the narrative made for exciting theatre and brought more viewers into the sport, both to watch and to have impassioned online arguments about the perceived characteristics of their favourite player vis-à-vis his nemesis.

The rivalry is still seen as the high point of men’s tennis over this period, even though it was followed by two others – between each of these players and the rapidly ascending Djokovic – that were more competitive. (The Djokovic-Federer head-to-head is currently 23-22, while Djokovic-Nadal is 26-23; in both cases, the younger man took the lead after trailing the more established player for years.) In fact, Djokovic and Nadal have played each other in the finals of all four Slams – something Federer and Nadal didn’t do – with more evenly matched results.

Part of the reason why the matches involving only Nadal, Djokovic and Murray didn’t capture the imagination in the same way as Federer-Nadal had was that there wasn’t enough variety involved. Unlike Federer – whose primary game was a crisp, attacking one aimed at finishing points quickly – the other three are all, to varying degrees, baseline players with extraordinary defence-to-offence skills. If the much-feted 2008 Wimbledon final between Federer and Nadal was hailed for its contrast in styles, the epic 2012 Australian Open final between Nadal and Djokovic was an intense, sometimes exhausting exercise in watching two players cut from the same cloth finding mad angles from every corner of the court.


This sort of play – often described by vexed Federer fans as boring and unappealing to the eye – has been on prominent display recently, in Slam finals between Djokovic and Murray. And to understand the nature of this game, and the era as a whole, one must factor in something that had a huge impact on the sport: the slowing down of playing surfaces around the world.

Around a decade and a half ago, the International Tennis Federation (ITF) responded to the charge that too many matches were “serve-fests”, with not enough long rallies, by making changes to the faster courts: Wimbledon used a variety of rye-grass that made the surface dry (especially after the first few days of play) and caused the ball to bounce higher and slower than before; the US Open added more silica sand to its acrylic; other tournaments followed suit. Some of the most notable characteristics of the modern sport – including all those eye-popping rallies with seemingly impossible-to-retrieve balls being put back into play – have been a direct result of this slowing down.

This homogenization has also aided the all-surface success of the top players. Between 2009 and 2016, Federer, Nadal and Djokovic each completed the Career Slam – winning all four majors at least once – which used to be among the rarest of tennis’s achievements. Many excitable fans regard this as further proof that we are in an age of unparalleled riches; the more circumspect point out that when most surfaces play similarly it becomes easier for the leading players to do well round the year. When Bjorn Borg won Roland Garros and Wimbledon back to back thrice between 1978 and 1980, the two tournaments – one on slow clay, the other on genuinely fast-playing grass – involved very different skill-sets, and different sorts of players tended to excel at each; this was what made Borg’s achievement so remarkable, and it also helps explain why someone as good as Sampras reached the French Open semi-final only once, though he won Wimbledon seven times. When Federer and Nadal achieved this same “Channel Slam” in the 2000s, the surfaces were more similar. Even during one of his great career years, 2010, when he eventually won Wimbledon, Nadal struggled in the first week – when the grass is fresher, moister and plays more like it did in the past – being taken to five sets by the much lower-ranked opponents Robin Haase and Philipp Petzschner.

******

But every sport goes through cyclical phases; if the last decade was marked by slowing down, there is now, inevitably, talk of speeding up – and not necessarily by changing surfaces again. Recent exhibition matches, some featuring top players like Federer, Murray and Lleyton Hewitt, have experimented with new scoring systems, such as one where you need a minimum of four games (rather than six) to win a set, a tie-break is won by the player who reaches five points (instead of seven) with a difference of two, and there are no “advantage” points (at 40-40 or deuce, whoever wins the next point wins the game).

If any of these ideas are implemented in official matches – and it will probably take a while for that to happen – we might, with hindsight, view the past decade as the final showcase for the truly epic match: the Slam final or semi-final that stretched over four or five hours. It would also be a reminder that tennis needs to be jazzed up for the young, impatient viewer. If some people viewed the Sampras-Ivanisevic serve-and-volley points of the 1990s as one-dimensional, then long-drawn-out battles of attrition can be just as dull; perhaps the sport needs a middle ground.

What else does the future have in store? If Djokovic and Murray start to wind down soon, we could be in for a cooling-off period where the next dominant champion is hard to identify – something like the sport saw in 2002-03, when the ball was in the air between Hewitt, Federer, Andy Roddick, Marat Safin, Juan Carlos Ferrero and the aging Andre Agassi.

Some young players who showed terrific promise a few years ago – Grigor Dimitrov, Kei Nishikori, Milos Raonic among them – haven’t quite been able to break the Big Four stranglehold. But there is a generation just behind them, which has made big strides this year. There is the Australian Nick Kyrgios, supremely talented but already with a well-earned reputation as a bad boy, churlish on the court, capable of tanking a match if he doesn’t feel too motivated on the day. There is the much steadier Austrian, Dominic Thiem, who has had a terrific 2016 – even making it to the prestigious year-end championships featuring the top eight players – but who may also have over-played and tired himself out. The German teenager Alexander Zverev, who already has some impressive wins against a number of top 10 players – including Federer – to his credit. The Frenchman Lucas Pouille who beat Nadal at the US Open this year, and shortly afterwards won his first ATP tournament in Metz.

It’s hard at the moment to imagine that any of these players could forge rivalries as dramatic as the ones involving Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, but sports-followers must always expect to be surprised. When Sampras retired with a record 14 Slams as recently as 2002, no one could have thought that three different players would overtake or threaten that record within the next 15 years. When Djokovic was world number one with a buffer of several thousand ranking points over his nearest competitor in June, it didn’t seem conceivable that he could lose the top position this year. Perhaps, a couple of years from now, we could see finals that are high-octane and intensely fought, but still take up only 80 minutes of our time and have scorecards that read 4-2, 4-2, 4-5(3), 4-2 – at which point even those who once complained about the length of Nadal-Djokovic matches might get dewy-eyed about the good old days.

[A few earlier tennis posts are here – among them, this long piece about narrative-making in sport]

Monday, November 14, 2016

The solitary and the communal viewer

[Did this piece for a Mint Lounge special about “120 years of watching movies in India”]
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Two movie-watching vignettes, a decade and a half apart:

It’s 1990 or 1991, I’m a young teen standing a few feet outside the room where my mother and nani are watching a film on our video-cassette player; peering in unobtrusively so they don’t ask me to come in and sit down with them. This isn’t a single incident, it is a composite of many. It could be that I am embarrassed by the tackier scenes – or the raunchier ones like the Ajooba song where Amitabh Bachchan and Rishi Kapoor, shrunk to finger size, cavort inside the blouses of their girlfriends – or maybe I just want to watch the film “alone”. Though I don’t know it yet, my childhood love affair with Hindi cinema is about to end.

Cut to 2005, and I’m watching Rohan Sippy’s Bluffmaster in a Noida hall with a girlfriend, soon to be my wife, in whose company I am finding my way back to Hindi films. We have just had a fight and it looks like the next two hours will be strained – I won’t say a word unless she speaks first, I have told myself sulkily as the screening begins – but around 45 minutes in we are both sufficiently engaged by the film’s pace, music and the likable performances, to begin whispering to each other. Bluffmaster is hardly likely to be remembered as one of the seminal achievements of its time, but in that situation, with the right company, it works.

Now that this memory montage has begun, other incidents unspool non-chronologically through my mind. With three friends, I’m watching Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le Fou at the rundown Paras hall in South Delhi during a film festival. Godard’s experiments with cinematic form have long been subjects of wonder for us, and so, when the image on the screen shakes wildly and loses focus for a few seconds, even though we know this is a technical problem (one frequently experienced at this venue), the joke is inevitable. “What was JLG trying to say here?” one of us goes in a faux-pedantic tone. We conjecture. We crack up. An avant-garde director has been out-avant-garded by faulty projection.

A few seconds of frivolity enhanced that viewing, but at other times laughter is sacrilegious. Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo is playing in a small hall at the PVR Saket multiplex, part of a half-hearted (and short-lived) effort by the theatre to screen “international classics” once a week. Right film, poor print, wrong crowd. The seats immediately around me are empty, I made sure of that, but from two rows ahead issue the groans of young plebs who clearly equate the director’s name with “murder mystery”. “Hitchcock has lost it, man,” someone says as if speaking of a school pal.

Chewing glumly on stale popcorn, I flashback to a few years earlier when I’m viewing a restored Vertigo print in my room, letting the languid visuals, punctuated by slow dissolves and Bernard Herrmann’s music, wash over me. The quality of that experience is inseparable from the fact that I am alone.

Harrowing and invigorating things may happen in the same venue. Watching The Tin Drum in Siri Fort Auditorium on an uncomfortable seat, and with the stench of sweat in the air (not to mention a whispered “iss film mein SCENES hain, na?” from a hopeful patron of B-porn), does nothing to help me engage. But years later, in this very hall, elderly viewers burst into cheers when the young Dev Anand makes his appearance in the 1951 classic Baazi, and I am swept along by the worshipful tide; somehow the creaking seats and the bad print don’t matter so much.

******
These and so many other experiences were defined by the company I kept, or didn’t keep, while watching a film – and some of them cast a long shadow. Take those adolescent, from-outside-the-room viewings. Mainstream Hindi cinema circa 1989-91 was more chaff than wheat, but I wanted the option of enjoying even mediocre films without hearing family members snort “Kya bakwaas hai!” This sheepishness helped birth my career as a Solitary Watcher, which dovetailed with a growing interest in old Hollywood and “world cinema” – new windows that I discovered on my own – and led to a phasing out of other people from my viewing life. Through the 1990s, I was almost always watching films alone, on cassettes hired from local parlours or Embassy libraries, or during occasional film-festival jaunts.

There were stray moments that don’t fit into this arc: such as allowing myself to be taken to a Dilwale Dulhaniya le Jaayenge screening in 1995, and enjoying the film hugely. But it was only in the 2000s that I properly returned to communal viewing – and, not coincidentally, to a renewed engagement with Hindi cinema – in the company of my wife, and a few other friends, who were egalitarian viewers, capable of watching and having intense conversations about anything.

The internal divide continues, of course: here is the solitude-loving nerd who still loves watching DVDs alone, replaying a scene endlessly or pausing a film to make notes, and here is the more social animal who is stimulated by seeing a film with someone else, discussing afterwards, refining his own thoughts through conversation.

Many years after that disastrous Vertigo viewing at PVR, I read a Jim Emerson piece titled “Movies too personal to share with an audience”, which suggests that some films (Vertigo among them) are best seen alone rather than with company. That sounds right, given my own experience, but I’m wary about such a clearly spelled-out thesis. There are other intersecting considerations: the type of company matters, as does the mood you’re in on the day. Are you a professional critic with an urgent deadline? Are you showing someone a film for the first time (and playing mentor) or watching with a friend who insists on complete silence throughout?

You could make this broad statement: a larger-than-life Hindi film full of seeti-bajao moments – say, a Salman Khan blockbuster – works best with a crowd, while a less showy film is best seen alone. But I have had both rewarding and disappointing experiences that contradict this idea. For instance, it is possible to watch a particular film by yourself, and later with an audience, and to enjoy it both times – but to be stimulated by different things on each occasion. Watching Anand alone, I was stirred by Bachchan’s understated performance as the cynical doctor, and annoyed by Rajesh Khanna’s mannerism-laden inspirational hero; watching it with an audience in a setting that lent itself to the grand theatrical gesture, I changed my mind and saw Khanna as the film’s true star and energy-dispenser.

And there are the serendipitous moments, which no amount of theorizing can prepare you for: when, for instance, a roomful of strangers unites in solidarity not over something cherished like Dev Anand (or Inspirational Anand), but something execrable. Watching Ram Gopal Varma ki Aag, a terrible Sholay remake, should have been among my worst hall experiences. Instead it was marked by a wave of bonhomie: audience members guffawed each time a scene desecrated an iconic moment from the original. “Khota film donon taraf se khota hota hai,” someone hollered at the screen, a riff on one of Sholay’s most famous lines (Khota sikka toh dono taraf se khota hota hai”), and we all applauded.

If a great film can be underwhelming in the wrong company, a terrible film can become enjoyable with the right crowd. Perhaps what finicky movie buffs need is permanent access to a private screening room along with programming software that gauges our personality, pulse rate and frame of mind on a particular day and tells us exactly who we should take along for the ride. Perhaps that will be the next revolution in film-viewing.


[A related piece here: notes from the centenary film festival]

Thursday, November 03, 2016

No slave to an image: a tribute to Kirk Douglas on his 100th

[My Mint Lounge column this week]

A few weeks ago I moderated a conversation with the director Dibakar Banerjee at an event about gender empowerment and equality. Self-searchingly, choosing his words with care, Banerjee talked about the small ways in which gender roles used to be reaffirmed even in his well-educated family: during mealtimes, his sister always got up and served him when his plate needed to be replenished – this wasn’t a sternly imposed routine, it was just something everyone took as a given. It was only years later, having been more sensitized over time, that he properly reflected on such things.

I was reminded of a passage in The Ragman’s Son, the American actor Kirk Douglas’s wonderful memoir, published in 1988. Recalling little childhood games where he, as the boy, was expected to win battles of daring against his older sisters, Douglas wrote, “I wanted to feel like a man […] a man is supposed to be strong, to be active, he must do things […] What a lot of shit that is. All the movements now are encouraging women to be stronger. I’d like to be in a movement for men to be weaker. Why do men always have to be strong? We’re not, and we know it. Why do we force ourselves to play those roles?”

“Play those roles” – an interesting choice of words for a professional actor. I have been thinking quite a bit about Douglas, mainly because he turns one hundred next month, having outlived nearly all his contemporaries from one of filmdom’s greatest, most vital eras. But also because of a gap between some perceptions of his screen image – the man’s man that Hollywood sometimes required him to be – and what you see when you look more closely, both at the actor and the person.

Douglas was among the first Old Hollywood stars I encountered, courtesy his lead role as the slave rebel in the 1960 Spartacus, a film I adored as a teen. At the time, though, I was much less interested in him than in the British heavyweights – Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov – in the cast. Having simplistic notions about American stars being brawny types and Brits being more sophisticated, I may have felt Douglas was a glorified action hero whose main purpose was to look convincing in the gladiatorial scenes. It probably took me a while to notice how inward-looking his performance was, as an uneducated slave who grows in stature and eventually becomes more cultured – in the truest sense of that word – than the smooth-talking politicians in the Roman senate.


Taking a long-shot view of Douglas’s career, you might easily associate him with swaggering, macho roles. Square-jawed, well-built, quick in his movements and capable of looking very dangerous if required, he played a variety of such parts: from bad guys in film noir – notably in Out of the Past – to a tormented boxer in Champion, to one of the most unpleasant “heroes” of any 1950s Hollywood film, the newshound Chuck Tatum in Billy Wilder’s superb Ace in the Hole. He played cowboys alongside his friend and great contemporary Burt Lancaster, he played swashbuckling pirates and two-fisted detectives, he played the sort of character who grabs the heroine by her hair or neck and draws her to him in a show of male aggression. (Iconic scenes from Ace in the Hole and The Bad and the Beautiful come to mind.)

Shift to a close-up, though, and the vulnerabilities beneath the surface reveal themselves – not just when he portrayed a clearly emasculated figure (as in one of his best-known parts, the painter Vincent Van Gogh, in Lust for Life) but even in action roles: as the gunman Doc Holliday in Gunfight at the OK Corral, or as a doomed non-conformist in one of his personal favourites, Lonely are the Brave. The grand battle scenes in Spartacus are more than offset by the look of quiet despair mingled with pride in his eyes when his men rise as one claiming “I am Spartacus!” in an attempt to protect him from his captors.

Off-screen, Douglas had a clearly liberal sensibility: he helped the blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo get a screen credit again, after years of having to work pseudonymously, and he co-produced the anti-war film Paths of Glory – an essential, bitter antidote to hubristic ideas about patriotism and military heroism, just as relevant to the India of 2016 as it was to its original audiences. Many clues to the development of his personality, and his sensitization to various forms of oppression, can be found in The Ragman’s Son – in one telling passage, for instance, Douglas (who was born Issur Danielovitch, a child of Russian Jewish immigrants) describes how he first became aware of how non-Jews spoke about Jews in private, after he had changed his own name to a Gentile-sounding one.

Personal growth is a motif of that memoir
– making mistakes, learning from them, then making new ones and starting over again and nearly 30 years later its author is still active. “He not busy being born is busy dying,” wrote our new Nobel Laureate, Bob Dylan, once. Googling to see what Kirk Douglas is up to these days, I was pleased to find that his mind still seems sharp, and that he now blogs sporadically. In his last post, published around a month ago, he celebrated the many ways in which the world has changed and become more progressive since his own youth, but also drew a lucid, cautionary parallel between the rise of Hitler in the 1930s and the hate-mongering engaged in by the Trump campaign in the present day.

Happy hundredth, Kirk. And even if we can’t all be Spartacus, may we have a bit of him in us. 


[Related posts: Ace in the Hole, Paths of Glory, Spartacus. And an anecdote about Douglas and John Wayne]

Saturday, October 29, 2016

An award for the Hrishikesh Mukherjee book

Some welcome news to help brighten what has been a tough few months - my book The World of Hrishikesh Mukherjee has been given the Book Award for Excellence in Writing on Cinema (English) at the Mumbai Film Festival, MAMI. In the pic below, I am with Arpita Das, who has been doing a super job of curating this award, and two of the jury members for the cinema writing prize, Ambarish Satwik and Ravi Kant.


And here, courtesy Shubhodeep Pal, is a pic from the ceremony, the only one I have currently. (Should get a few others soon.)



As I said during my very brief acceptance speech, I'm very glad this award exists; and not just for the obvious reason, but because books on cinema tend to get short shrift at the more general literary awards, where other categories - such as politics, business, family histories - get taken more seriously.
 

Also letting myself get vaguely sentimental here: for all the good things about the prize (including the sense of recognition for a book that, irrespective of its final merits or flaws, represents a lot of hard work), the best by far was the look on my mother’s face when she heard the news. She has been in a lot of pain for months now, has been bearing it with incredible courage, and this was at least a temporary boost. 

Meanwhile, please treat this as yet another plug for the book - pick it up yourself if it seems like something you'd be interested in, or spread the word.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Blind man's bluff: on Don't Breathe and a very unlikely predator

[my latest Mint Lounge column]

In a recent column, I wrote about how weird it feels – if you grew up with 1980s Hindi-film stereotypes – to see someone like Gulshan Grover playing a good guy. There was almost something comforting about those old-style villains back in the day – you knew their function in the story, you knew that slime and venom were their usual stock in trade. Nowadays, the lines are more blurred.

But there is also the opposite phenomenon: that of being unsettled by a movie villain who, your instincts tell you, shouldn’t be a villain.

This can be a personality-centred matter: it can mean being startled when Ashok Kumar – our beloved Dada Moni, katha-vachak of TV shows like Hum Log – was revealed to be the criminal mastermind at the end of Jewel Thief (1967). Or it can be about the associations one has with a character type. Watching the recent live-action version of The Jungle Book, despite my familiarity with the story and its assumptions, I cringed a little when Sher Khan plummeted to his death at the end. Given everything our self-centered species has done to hasten tiger extinction in the real world, it was troubling to see a tiger – no matter how malevolent – presented as a force to be destroyed (with the audience cheering Mowgli on).

Unexpected villain-predators are often to be found in the horror or suspense genres, which might contain narrative twists or fantastical elements. Monsters in horror cinema have come in all shapes and sizes, depending on the nature of the film: they can be gargoyles with flaming red eyes, but they can just as easily be cherubic children, or the sweet-looking dolls or clowns that cherubic children like to play with (there has been a whole tradition of that narrative, including The Omen, It, and the Child’s Play series).


As a longtime horror buff I have encountered a range of such antagonists over the years, but I was still blindsided (so to speak) by the one in Fede Alvarez’s creepy new film Don’t Breathe. This predator-monster is a sightless old man, known only as Blind Man in the script. He is also a former soldier. And at the start, it seems like he will be the victim, since the premise is that three youngsters have broken into his house – where he lives alone, or so we are told – to rob him.

Those kids are in for a surprise, though, and so are we viewers.

I’m spoiling nothing by telling you that Blind Man really is unsighted – the film doesn’t play an underhanded trick on us by revealing that he can see, or part-see. What it does do is to slowly, craftily turn the tables so that the hunters become the hunted, and Blind Man, who is always alert and ramrod-straight, becomes a nightmarish presence. The first time we see him up close, he is sitting up in his vest on his bed, head turned in the direction of one of the kids who has broken into his room. Despite the context of the scene, he already looks like a menacing figure here; the image is disconcerting, and the memory of it becomes more so as the film proceeds.

There are a couple of reasons why it is so disquieting to see a blind person in an aggressor’s role in a film. The first is obvious: the condition seems to demand sympathy, concern or assistance. It is
much more common, in thrillers or horror films, to see blind people being persecuted, sometimes to a point where it can become gratuitous or sadistic. A trio of endangered heroines come to mind: Audrey Hepburn in Wait Until Dark (1967), Raakhee in Barsaat ki ek Raat (1981), and Ida Lupino in Nicolas Ray’s under-watched film noir On Dangerous Ground (1951).

The second reason has to do with the nature of film-watching itself. We are seeing the images on the screen with our eyes, assessing and judging the characters, who are – most of the time – oblivious of our presence. This is why we can feel so exposed when a film unexpectedly breaks the Fourth Wall and has its characters looking straight at us, locking their eyes with ours. Conversely, when a sightless character is on the screen, we feel not just sympathy but also – perhaps on a subconscious level – a bit of relief, and a touch of superiority. They can’t see us. We are safe.

But the old man in Don’t Breathe allows us no such safety nets, as he moves swiftly through the labyrinths of his large house, the nooks and crannies of which he knows more intimately than the intruders. The inside of the house is very dimly lit, with some sections not lit at all, which means that the kids are effectively almost as blind as he is – and more disadvantaged in some ways, since his other senses have been heightened over time. Plus, he has had special forces training as an armyman, and the film makes the most of this.


Watching him, I was reminded of Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth, another initially sightless being who awakens from slumber and stalks his quarries through hallways and trapdoors. More improbably, I had a sudden memory flash of watching a film called Qatl in a movie hall three decades ago. In that one, Sanjeev Kumar played a blind man who carefully – and without any aid – plots the murder of his unfaithful wife, by rehearsing his movements for weeks beforehand. Qatl, as I realised when I rewatched bits of it on YouTube the other day, is a shoddy movie full of unintentionally funny scenes. But there was a special thrill in experiencing it as a child, and being mesmerised by the sound of the sightless protagonist’s cane tapping on the floor as he measures the distance to where he needs to be to get the perfect shot.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

The woman who ran with hares and tortoises: an ode to Sai Paranjpye

[Sai Paranjpye is receiving a lifetime achievement award at MAMI this year. I did this tribute for Scroll]
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Having just re-watched the two superb comedies Sai Paranjpye made in the early 1980s – films that count among my generation’s most treasured Doordarshan-era memories – I want to play devil’s advocate for a moment and ask: why do we not think of Katha and Chashme Buddoor as regressive or misogynistic?

That will seem a bizarre question to anyone who knows these films, and yes, this IS a purely speculative exercise – but I’m not being flippant. Such allegations are routinely (and often, carelessly) leveled at movies featuring morally ambiguous subject matter or characters who behave in less-than-exemplary ways. So why should beloved, nostalgia-evoking films be shielded from critical examination?

A memory jig: in Chashme Buddoor (1981), three bachelors-roommates get involved in different ways with the same woman. Neha (Deepti Naval) and the relatively seedha-saadha Sidharth (Farooque Shaikh) fall in love, but the antics of his Roadside-Romeo friends Jai (Ravi Baswani) and Omi (Rakesh Bedi) muddy the waters, and it takes a complicated scheme – combined with a climactic twist – to set things right. By the end, Jai and Omi have helped their friend mend his romance, but they continue to pursue women through south-central Delhi’s tree-lined boulevards, referring to them as “shikaar” (prey), and we are expected to see them as harmless clowns. (It helps that they are played by affable comic actors – one wispy like Stan Laurel, the other portly like Oliver Hardy – whom we can smile indulgently at; whom we don’t think of as “dangerous”.)


In Katha the following year, Shaikh – now cast against type, but still recognizably the Farooque Shaikh we all love – plays Bashu, who charms his way through life, duping a population of chawl-dwellers including his upright friend Rajaram (Naseeruddin Shah) and a young woman named Sandhya (Naval again). Eventually he abandons Sandhya at the wedding mandap and flies off to Dubai, presumably to continue his conning and philandering; there is no hint of comeuppance.

Looking closer at the films, one finds that in Chashme Buddoor the ethics question is diluted by the sly meta-references sprinkled throughout the narrative. When Omi and Jai tell fabricated stories about their “conquests”, the three friends look straight at the camera and enter Flashback mode; Neha and Sidharth go from making digs at “unrealistic” song sequences in movies to accepting that maybe when you’re deeply in love you DO hear orchestras in parks and come up with rhyming lyrics for songs. This film isn’t just about its own plot, it is also a comment on tropes of commercial cinema – including the more dubious ones such as a dashing “hero” successfully “wooing” a demure young woman
(mainstream stars Amitabh Bachchan and Rekha show up in guest roles to enact such a scene for us) by using methods that in most real-world contexts would be considered sexual harassment, or at least would be experienced as such by the woman. In this light, Omi and Jai can be seen as basically sweet boys who have over-dosed on cinema and need a sensitizing real-world experience.

Katha makes for a more intriguing case study. Despite being based on a well-known fable (the hare and the tortoise) and having elements of folk theatre in its staging, it is a more straightforward narrative. And so, even if you love the film, as I do, you might wonder a bit about its final act.

Some would say that Naval’s Sandhya is an educated, liberated young woman who makes her own choice about going to bed with the man she loves, but the scenes in question make it clear that her decision to have sex with Bashu is heavily based on the assurance that they are getting married, that the date is in fact fixed for just a few days away; some coercion is implied. Later, after being left groomless, when she says an initial no to Rajaram’s proposal, it isn’t because she was so much in love that she can’t get over Bashu or trade him for someone else; it is because she feels she is no longer “laayak” or worthy of Rajaram.

One is reminded that in this setting, even educated people have clear notions about women’s honour and chastity – and that in real-world India, the families of women exactly in Sandhya’s position frequently file rape charges against the men who have “cheated” them. This retrospective conversion of a consensual sexual act into rape is of course highly problematic for anyone with a liberal sensibility (among other things, it is closely linked to the notion that a wife is a husband’s sexual property – hence there can be no such thing as marital rape – and to the appalling court directives which prescribe that a woman marry her rapist so that her “honour” can be preserved), but such are the social realities of the chawl-dwellers depicted in the film. And given this, what does it say about Katha that the man who caused them so much emotional damage is simply allowed to get away in the end, a hare turning into a falcon and flying away? Or that he is played by one of Hindi cinema’s warmest, most likable personalities? Doesn’t the very casting of Shaikh amount to a covert indulgence of Bashu’s actions?

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There are different ways of answering these questions – the least convincing, and most patronizing, of which would be to say that Paranjpye is a woman director (and a sophisticated one), so we should just trust her intentions and place ourselves in her hands. A better way would be to look at the special qualities of her work that come through so well in these two lighthearted films, full of quirky little touches but also emotionally mature, generous and understanding of people.


To watch a Paranjpye film is to see – from the very first frames and sounds – a host of cultural influences playing off each other in delightful ways. There are unusual juxtapositions: wall-pictures of Serious Men like Gandhi, Vivekanand and Bertrand Russell get wide-eyed when pin-ups of confident-looking models in bikinis take up residence on the adjacent wall; the use of classical Indian music and credit titles chastely presented in the Devanagari script (a rarity for Hindi films of the time, even the ones that were targeted mainly at non-English-speaking audiences) go hand in hand with an urbane, cosmopolitan sensibility.

There are subdued moments involving deeply felt emotion, but there is humour and fantasy too: see Rajaram’s nightmare about being “Adam-teased” by the apple-bearing Eves from his office, then being rescued by the jhaadu-brandishing Sandhya. (Does this imply that he needs a devi-figure to protect and nurture him, an ayah who can keep his house clean, or a combination of the two? You decide.) Or look at the impish, knowing presence of Paranjpye’s real-life daughter Winnie in Katha and in a small part
in Chashme Buddoor (where her act of sprinting off to greet a boyfriend and leaping joyously into his arms – after having accepted a lift from a “shikaar”-hunter– works both as an act of confident self-assertion and as a lovely, non-sequiturish touch of the sort that populates this cinema).

These varying tones – and the resultant difficulties in slotting a Paranjpye film – are also reminders, once the narrative begins, of the many contradictory impulses acting on both women and men in a society that is orthodox in some ways, downright regressive in others, and forward-looking in others. I can’t think of many other Hindi movies that capture the friction of these opposing forces as astutely – and with as much lightness of touch – as these two comedies do.

Repeatedly these films show the many facets of people and how they might behave differently given specific pressures or challenges. The lonely trophy wife played by Mallika Sarabhai in Katha can be seductress, or prisoner, or both at once. During her most vulnerable moments in that climactic scene, Sandhya may be close to the stereotype of the “abla” woman, but she is also capable of taking her future in her hands and switching the power equations around by being upfront with Rajaram (when she didn’t really have to be) – the staging and the performances ensure that our final takeaway from the scene is not that she is a helpless victim but that she is strong enough to deal with what has happened.

In this world, both rogues and simpletons can have hidden depths: Rajaram may be the most adarsh-vaadi of Gandhian heroes, but watch him smiling indulgently when Bashu plays a phone-trick in the restaurant to squirm out of paying the bill. In this and in other early scenes, he is implicated in Bashu’s smaller misdeeds, and he must consequently bear some responsibility for the larger ones that follow. But equally, the rogue’s actions can open a doorway to self-discovery for the simpleton. Rajaram is clearly a more mature, less rigid person at the end of Katha; the ending as a whole becomes a little easier to digest when you think of Bashu as a Krishna-like figure, using unsavoury means to reach a desired end (decades before Akshay Kumar in OMG – Oh My God!, here is a smug interloper who twirls his key-ring like a sudarshan chakra).

When we speak of the Middle Cinema of the 70s and 80s, we tend to lapse into language about “simpler”, more “innocent” times. Nowhere is this dewy-eyed naiveté about the past more shown up than while watching something like Chashme Buddoor, which IS such a charming, innocent-seeming film, but is also full of references to girls in an unsafe city being picked up by hoodlums like crows picking up paapad – or Katha, with its laments about how the sachaai ka zamaana is long gone and crooked people always stay ahead of truth-tellers. One of Paranjpye’s achievements is that she manages to be warm and affirmative at the level of individual stories even while keeping this larger picture, and the many dangers of the world, in the frame. In one emblematic image in Chashme Buddoor, the heroine walks along the road, humming
to herself, swinging her bag unselfconsciously, barely aware of what is going on around her – it is a bracing sight, since this is not how young women of her background are conditioned to be like in public – but we also see the men walking or cycling past stop to look at her, and wonder what might be going on in their minds. Paranjpye doesn’t underline the moment, she lets us register it and moves on.

Among the many wonderful touches in these films that feel like they were thought up on the set rather than carefully scripted beforehand, there is one where Jojo, played by Paranjpye’s real-life daughter, shows Bashu a photo of her dead mother – “Yeh thi meri asli maa” – and the garlanded picture is that of Sai Paranpye, looking stern. “She was a terror!” Winnie says with some feeling. That’s hard to believe if you were to imagine the person by the films she made, so sharp and clear-sighted, but so gentle and funny too.

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[Here’s an old post about Katha, with an interesting comments section. And two tributes: to Farooque Shaikh and Ravi Baswani]