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]

Friday, June 05, 2015

Bangla Chini, fish fry: on Shovon Chowdhury's Murder with Bengali Characteristics

[Did this review for Open magazine]

It was once said of Saki that his humour writing was so intense it could induce literary dyspepsia: you couldn’t read too much at one go, because a pleasant version of reader’s fatigue would set in. I sometimes feel the same way about Shovon Chowdhury, whose 2013 novel The Competent Authority, a sprawling speculative fiction set in a dystopian future India, was one of the most singular achievements in our recent fiction – so inventive, so packed with funny ideas, that lesser writers may have tried to spin full-fledged stories out of Chowdhury’s parenthetical asides (such as the one about Bangalore having escaped being nuked because the Chinese had aimed for the airport region, figuring the city would be somewhere nearby!).

Given this, it is perhaps unsurprising that Chowdhury’s new novel, located in the same 2030s world, sometimes reads like an elaborate outtake. Well under half the size of the first book, Murder with Bengali Characteristics examines a smaller section of the canvas, moving the spotlight from the Competent Authority-ruled India to… Bengal, which is now a protectorate of China. The plot centres on an old teacher’s murder in the Maoist-ridden Liberated Zone of Junglemahaland, and an investigation that leads Inspector An Li and his cohorts through the Protectorate’s messy political hierarchies (including a depressed Governor and a trigger-happy General). Meanwhile two businessmen bumble about trying to prevent China and India from going to war; it would badly affect their mining operations in Chhattisgarh.

The wry Chowdhury humour, on view from the opening paragraph, can be more than a handful for the reviewer who likes to mark funny sentences for future reference. (I gave up doing this after a couple of dozen pages, but there are hundreds of lines like this one: “Because [Information Officer] Crazy Wu spent so much time making knowledge disappear, no one knew more than him”) As a satire on national characteristics – and a comment on our stereotyping – this book reminded me of Zac O’Yeah’s Once Upon a Time in Scandinavistan, which was set in a Europe colonised by India. Much of the humour and tension in both novels comes from the cultural contrast between ruler and ruled. A passage in Chowdhury’s book, where the Chinese police unemotionally deal with a loud, profanity-spewing Calcutta crowd, underlines the difference (“Their movements were precise. They spoke very little. As usual, they took all the fun out of it. With the local police, on the rare occasions that they took action, there was blood and passion, the hurling of mighty curses, mothers and sisters invoked in vain, blows exchanged in anger. The lunge. The clutch. The heave into the van. There was a certain intimacy. With the Chinese, the whole process was soulless”) – though when it comes to private crimes like murder, we are told, it is the Chinese who are intimate while Indians don’t get personal. (“Chairman Mao taught us the virtue of using our own hands. In India, you hire someone. If he gets caught you take care of the family.”) Which makes the investigation a tricky business.

This is an outlandish yet very familiar world: one where an ancient leader has been kept alive and venerated decades after he had to be surgically removed from the chief minister’s chair (no, really – the chair had partially fused with his backside), where ideologies are defined in dire terms (“once no one has any fish, everyone will be equal. This is the basic principle behind communism”) and the essence of governance is that you must never let criminals out of your grip. A Maoist leader reads a sentient copy of Stardust in his jungle retreat. Drones hurl threats in ways that suggest they have been watching too many B-movies. The Chinese destroy Kali temples – not a good way of endearing themselves to the Bengalis – so they can end the “thug threat”. A car is allowed freedom of speech and a firewall may have feelings, but people aren’t encouraged to read; no software can translate the “high-flown” Ananda Bazaar Patrika anyway. And below the breathless lunacy of the premise, there is – as in the first book – a real sympathy for history’s undervalued “little people” who, with some luck, might be rays of hope in a despot-filled world.

So much of this is stimulating in theory, and yet, much as I wanted to love Murder with Bengali Characteristics, I was underwhelmed. Partly that may have to do with a prior expectation that this would be a murder mystery. But even if you aren’t expecting an Agatha Christie-like denouement, you may feel the book meanders. This is a collection of encounters, interrogations and pen portraits – all mostly done well on their own terms – but sometimes that feels like all it is, with each chapter being something of a standalone, only tenuously tied to its neighbours. There are a few too many people for a short novel, the narrative becomes diffused, and it isn’t always easy to keep track of who did and said what, or who reports to whom.

It doesn’t help that no character here is as delightful as the vulgar, malcontent policeman Ram Pandey from The Competent Authority, and no subplot as intriguing (or as moving) as the time-travelling one in the earlier story, where people with special powers find they can go back to, say, 1948 to try and prevent Gandhi’s assassination. There’s a danger of this turning into a mini-review of The Competent Authority, but what to do? Murder with Bengali Characteristics may have worked better if it had – in a shortened form – been published as an adjunct, a sort of “DVD extra”, to the first book.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Monday, May 25, 2015

Very fragmented notes on Tanu Weds Manu Returns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 24, 2015

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

[Did this for the Daily O]

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

And yet, the visit was totally worth it.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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