Saturday, January 20, 2018

Bad parents, problem children: Frankenstein at the movies

[Did this piece for Mint Lounge as part of their “200 years of Frankenstein” package]

Among the many ways of looking at Frankenstein, and by “Frankenstein” one necessarily means not just Mary Shelley’s groundbreaking book but what that book birthed over two hundred years – as other authors, playwrights, theatre producers and filmmakers prodded away at it, moving body parts around in their sinister laboratories – here is one interpretation. It is about terrible and unhappy parents, terrible and unhappy children, and how, to misquote Philip Larkin, we pass misery back and forth.

You’re Victor Frankenstein, you think you’ve done your best, but here’s this monster you created, which refuses to be what you hoped it would be. Worse, it turns around and blames you for everything that’s wrong. Look at the Paradise Lost line – “Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay, to mould me Man?” – which serves as an epigraph for Mary Shelley’s novel, and then listen to director Guillermo del Toro, who is currently working on a Frankenstein film: "It’s the quintessential teenage book. You don't belong. You were brought to this world by people that don't care for you and you are thrown into a world of tears and hunger.”

Most parent-child relationships, when looked at over a period of time, bring high tragedy and slapstick comedy together in the same frame. Little wonder then that cinematic Frankensteins have inhabited every mode from deep seriousness to goofy, pseudo-science-driven humour – and that the most enduring films accommodate both extremes.

Consider one of the most effective scenes, gentle, idyllic and horrifying all at once, in James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein. Boris Karloff’s Monster comes across a little girl, joins her in placing flowers on a lake’s surface and watching them float – and then, in all innocence, dunks her into the water too, causing her death. So iconic was this moment – often censored in early screenings – that forty years later the Spanish director Victor Erice made it the focal point of his coming-of-age narrative The Spirit of the Beehive: the six-year-old protagonist Ana is traumatised when she watches the scene; in the days that follow, she becomes aware of subtler monsters in her own world.

Or see Whale’s 1935 sequel, Bride of Frankenstein, in which Karloff’s plaintiveness – as the Monster yearns for a companion who will love and understand him – brushes up against Elsa Lanchester’s brief but delightfully lunatic performance as his bride-not-to-be (the actress also played Mary Shelley in a short scene, so impishly you wondered if she was plotting to capsize Percy Bysshe’s boat).

Those are still the two best-known Frankenstein films, and to modern eyes they can seem creaky and overwrought. Taking cues from theatre adaptations staged in Mary Shelley’s lifetime, they turned Victor Frankenstein into the prototype of the mad scientist, shrieking that he knows what it’s like “to be God” (in the book he is a diligent, conscientious man). But Karloff’s performance helps erase some of the differences. While the creature in Shelley’s novel gains in eloquence and dignity once he learns to use language, the “dumb” movie Monster is sympathetic by other means, conveying childlike pathos through his gestures and expressions. In fact, one can argue that in the broader-comedy scenes where he grunts words – the refrain of “Good! Good!” when an old hermit makes him taste bread and wine – he becomes less likable.

Of course, there are other films where the Monster is not meant to be at all likable – see the 1957 Curse of Frankenstein, starring those two masters of the Hammer Horror franchise, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, and watch Lee play the role as a deformed, inexpressive zombie, starting with the shocking moment where he rips the bandages off his face as the camera zooms in on him.

Another dominant mode is that of parody mixed with affection for the source material. Mel Brooks’s 1974 Young Frankenstein, shot in atmospheric black and white, has madcap scenes like the one where the doctor’s assistant brings along a brain labeled “Abnormal” – thinking it belonged to someone named “Abbie Normal” – but the film also understands the sense of wonder and danger that permeates the original story. This is equally true of three 1980s films – Gothic, Haunted Summer and Rowing with the Wind – which aren’t straight renderings of the Frankenstein tale but dramatize the famous 1816 summer house party involving the Shelleys and Lord Byron, where both Frankenstein and the John Polidori horror story “The Vampyre” were conceived.

And, of course, there are “serious” Frankenstein movies, which usually err on the side of earnestness. Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein set out to be faithful to the book, in a way the Karloff films never did, but the promise was marred by
half-hearted execution – and ironically its best moments were the more inventive ones such as the scene where the naked creature (played by Robert De Niro, channeling a middle-aged Travis Bickle) slips about like a newborn baby in what looks like amniotic fluid.

Frankenstein is often regarded as the first true science-fiction novel, and this perception has become increasingly relevant in our time, where artificial intelligence has taken on forms that Mary Shelley couldn’t have envisioned. The idea of an imitation human being more humane in some ways than the flesh-and-blood people around him is a theme that has informed a lot of modern sci-fi about automatons: from the replicants in Blade Runner to the 1999 Bicentennial Man (adapted from Isaac Asimov’s The Positronic Man) and Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence (based on Brian Aldiss’s Supertoys Last all Summer Long, and often seen as a futuristic version of the Pinocchio story).

But it’s just as instructive to go back in time, to two decades before the Karloff films, when a 12-minute Frankenstein was made by Thomas Edison’s studio in 1910. Watching this relic (you’ll find it on YouTube) is like getting into a time machine: given that the world of the Shelleys seems so impossibly distant to us today, it’s unsettling to realise that the Edison film is closer in time (a mere 92 years) to the publication of the book than to our present day.

What I find fascinating about that ancient film – as a cinema student and as someone who thinks of the Frankenstein story as being rooted in honest scientific curiosity – is how much it does with the very limited motion-picture technology of the time. For instance, for the challenging scene in which the monster comes alive, a wax replica of a skeleton was placed in a vat and set afire until it dissolved and crumpled. They then played the film backward, so that the impression we get is of something hideous being forged out of fire and sitting upright after its limbs have formed.

To watch that scene is to think of the imagination and daring required of early filmmakers when they wanted to do something more ambitious than simply record reality. One could say those pioneers were kindred spirits of Victor Frankenstein, tinkering in their workshops until their children grew and became something vast and uncontrollable, slipping out of their Godlike hands.

[Related posts: Erice's The Spirit of the Beehive; Draupadi and the bride of Frankenstein]

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Rahi Masoom Raza’s Scene 75: death of a writer foretold

[did this review – of the English translation of Raza’s savagely funny 1977 novel – for Scroll]

"The world of Hindi films is a world of incomplete people. Here, when two people come together, they don’t multiply. They become one."
To pre-millennial urban Indians who grew up reading mainly in English while also watching Hindi cinema, Rahi Masoom Raza is best known not as a novelist and poet but as the dialogue writer of the 1980s television Mahabharat, as well as many 1970s and 1980s movies. Looking up his filmography, I was delighted to find that in addition to winning awards for reasonably well-respected films like Yash Chopra’s Lamhe and Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Mili, he worked on some of my more disreputable childhood favourites such as Dance Dance and Adventures of Tarzan.

But Raza was also a “serious writer” (in the generally used, narrow sense of that term), the author of acclaimed books such as Aadha Gaon and Topi Shukla – and like many others negotiating the world of commercial Hindi cinema, he would have had to balance his individualistic side with the more formulaic demands made on him. In the best cases, such marriages could result in fine films which combined surface lightness with thematic depth, bringing together the strengths of two mediums. In many other cases, a writer could feel stymied, exploited and unappreciated.

This conflict informs his 1977 novel Scene 75, which has just been translated into English by Poonam Saxena, and in an early passage of which we find a writer struggling with a film scene. But he couldn’t understand “Scene: 75: Day: Post Office”. And [the director] was not wrong in asking him why he couldn’t understand it, because were there any scenes in commercial Hindi cinema that one couldn’t understand? The scene in question involves Sanjeev Kumar playing a roadside munshi and Leela Mishra as an old woman dictating a letter to him; the book will have many other references – including some very funny ones – to real-life actors and writers (even Raza himself).

Scene 75 can broadly be described as a story about a writer named Ali Amjad, who comes from Benares to Bombay to work in films. That synopsis doesn’t begin to convey the book’s tone and effect, though; this slim, conversational novel is also a complex beast that demands a reader’s full attention. This is because Raza approaches his themes (the marginalization of the writer, the many duplicities of the world) in a roundabout, non-chronological way by evoking the world around Ali Amjad, including the many colourful personalities whose lives are interlinked: his three roommates in the guesthouse he stays in when he first arrives in Bombay, his neighbours in the housing society he later moves to.

In fact, for large, entertaining chunks of the book, we barely hear anything about its “protagonist”, but we know he is around, watching and absorbing. The things he sees and hears provide him with material as a writer, but also add to his despair.


The book’s preface includes these lines from a Raza poem – “Whoever you see / Whoever you meet / They seem like someone else / In this neighbourhood / It’s as if no one has an identity” – and the question of identity runs through the story. People wear masks, pretend to be what they are not. A Muslim adopts a Hindu identity so he can get a job in a prejudice-ridden society complex. A Hindu wears a suit and a new name and goes to church with his Catholic girlfriend. Neighbours become secret lovers while maintaining outward facades. A long-married woman is a lesbian who slides her hands all over a friend’s body on the pretext of teaching her how to tie a sari properly. (The friend gets something out of it too – she learns how to tie a sari.) A young woman begins an affair with one of her father’s employees, and is soon in something close to a ménage-a-trois with her own mother.

Elsewhere, an assistant bill collector who gets paid Rs 192 a month pretends to be a sales supervisor earning many times more, and must weave a tangled web when he is in danger of getting found out. Another man, we are told, plays three roles, as a homeopathic doctor, a writer and a husband: “All three were full-time jobs, but Guptaji did them in such a way that none of the three knew about the others.”

All this reminded me of the pretence-and-masquerade themes that were so common in the Middle Cinema that Raza was associated with; the grappling – often in lighthearted contexts – with the idea of what is real and what is illusory, and how the twain might meet. Reading about the Ramnath who becomes a Peter Singh, one remembers that in this same period Raza was writing for films like Gol Maal, with lines like “Jo milte hain, woh nahi milte, aur jo nahi milte, wohi vaastav mein milte hain […] isi hone na hone, milne na milne ke beech, ek maya ka samudra hai.” (“Those who meet don’t really meet, and those who do not meet are in reality meeting […] and between this being and not being, meeting and not meeting, is a sea of illusion.”)

It’s just about possible to imagine some of Scene 75’s characters, their activities toned down, glimpsed on the periphery of a 1970s Hindi film – the many residents of the multistoreyed building in Mili, for instance, each bearing quirks and secrets. But there are scenes and lines in this novel – as it portrays religious and class divides, social aspiration and sexual transgressions with sharp, dry humour – that you wouldn’t find in a mainstream Hindi film of the period.

Besides, the narrative structure is closer to other, more experimental cinemas of the time: like Luis Bunuel’s The Phantom of Liberty or The Milky Way, which follow first one set of characters, then take a sudden detour to track someone else, and so on (“it's like the camera is telling the viewer, hmm, this new person might have an even more interesting story, so let's take a chance and see what he's up to," Bunuel’s screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere told me years ago). For example, at one point in Raza’s novel, two friends are laughing about something but then the narrative takes us into the kitchen of the same house where the maid is also giggling with her boyfriend – and then we get the back-story of this new character. Which means we must follow the narrative closely to figure out what is happening at what point, or whether we have returned to the present from a flashback.

This sinuousness, and the “dense forest of names” that Ali Amjad finds himself beset by, couldn’t have made the translator’s task easy; Saxena also notes that Raza was sometimes careless with details and continuity. But she persevered and did a fine job of capturing the earthy humour that must have had a very specific flavour in the original Hindi. I found myself mentally re-translating bits like this one: “Midha liked bill collector Bholaram’s wife, Rama. Her skin was pale like a champa flower. Her eyes looked as if they understood the language of eyes.”

Some passages can seem as raw and unstructured at first as a scene from a hurriedly made 1970s Hindi film, but have a similar truth and directness that will stay with you. As for the throwaway observations that are hilarious and cuttingly sad at once, there are too many to list – but here’s one:

Lisa placed her hand on Ramnath’s lips and he kissed it. He had learnt all this from watching Hindi films.

“If you marry me, where will you keep me?”

“In my heart,” Ramnath said, thumping his chest.

“Where will I go to the bathroom?”

Ramnath had no answer to this question.
Eventually, in a surreal yet credible turn of events, Ali Amjad finds himself working as a scriptwriter not for movies (good or bad) but for a beggars’ workshop. This makes a poetic kind of sense, given everything that has preceded it. And it leads to a melancholy, dreamlike final segment that prepares us for a writer’s death. The question of how he dies, and whether the death is literal or metaphorical or both, is almost irrelevant. The bigger question – addressed in the book’s searing final paragraph – is: does anyone care?

Saturday, January 06, 2018

Looking ahead by looking back? A TV wish-list for the Hindi-film buff

[did this piece for Mint Lounge]

Most film buffs agree that the well-made long-form series (including web shows where a season’s worth of episodes might be released at one go) has outshone cinema in many ways. I’m a relative newbie to this world, but after having watched only a few such shows – The Crown and Mindhunter among them – the medium’s strengths are obvious: complex, carefully planned narrative arcs (writers often schematize a story so that a later episode makes you view a much earlier one in a new, more poignant light), the versatile and often contrapuntal use of music (Mindhunter’s first season ends by using the Led Zeppelin classic “In the Light” in ways that defy all our soundtrack instincts – yet it is brilliant), the occasional experimenting with episodes that work as self-contained mini-films.

Little wonder then that for Indian cineastes and book lovers, two of the most keenly anticipated events of this year are the Netflix adaptation of Vikram Chandra’s cops-and-gangsters novel Sacred Games – this series brings together such heavyweights as Anurag Kashyap, Vikramaditya Motwane, Saif Ali Khan and Nawazuddin Siddiqui – and the eight-part BBC series of another literary door-stopper, Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy. These sprawling novels deserve such a format.

What other Indian narratives could make for great TV or online shows? There are obvious stories in our literature, from ancient epics (and their many contemporary retellings or perspective tellings) to modern novels with a big canvas. But speaking as a film-history nerd who recently encountered the show Feud (about the Bette Davis-Joan Crawford rivalry), my “to be developed in 2018” wishlist would include any well-dramatized story about the Hindi film industry of the 1940s and 1950s.

There is plenty of promising source material (though authenticity may be in question). Consider Dev Anand’s deliciously florid autobiography Romancing With Life, which often reads like a
screenplay complete with full-fledged conversations, and scenes such as the one where the young Dev meets his idol Ashok Kumar (who keeps blowing cigarette smoke into his face) or has a last, weepy rooftop tryst with forbidden love Suraiya. Or take Saadat Hasan Manto’s gossipy, irreverent accounts of stars and directors.

Many of our major films have also had riveting back-stories: I can just about picture a limited series about the making of Mughal-e-Azam or Mother India or Sholay. Or Guide! The comic possibilities in an episode about RK Narayan’s growing dismay as his quiet Malgudi-based story is turned into a glamorous, pan-India spectacle are practically endless – and much of the material for this is already laid out in a sardonic essay that Narayan wrote about the experience.

Speaking of which, there is rich material in the travails of writers who worked in Hindi cinema – including those who sometimes had to strike a balance between their highbrow impulses and the formulaic demands made on them. Rahi Masoom Raza’s novel Scene 75 – just translated into English by Poonam Saxena – provides a sharply entertaining look at such people on the fringes of an industry where even a prominent writer’s sudden death must not be allowed to interfere with the joviality of a premiere.

Of course, such real-life narratives can be laced with a bit of “what if”, as the critic David Thomson did in an essay titled “James Dean at 50”, imagining a middle-aged version of the Rebel Without a Cause star (in reality, Dean died in his twenties). Some speculative fiction along those lines: what if Guru Dutt had lived and gone on to make more Pyaasa and Kaagaz ke Phool-like films that played with form? Would the New Wave or “parallel” movement then have come to Hindi cinema earlier than the 1970s? If Geeta Dutt had survived and sustained a decades-long rivalry with Lata Mangeshkar, would we have developed a more wide-ranging notion of what a heroine’s singing voice might be like? What if Bimal Roy had not arrived in Bombay in 1950 with his team (including Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Nabendu Ghosh)? How would that have impacted the social-message film and the later Middle Cinema? Or going a few decades back, what if Prithviraj Kapoor had listened to his father and stayed away from films altogether?

Yes, I know: given the neglect of – or even lack of awareness of – old cinema, it’s unlikely that enough viewers will be interested enough in such material to justify the production of an elaborate series. And there are other problems. When a film is clearly about (as opposed to “loosely based on”) a real-life story, and uses actual names, there will always be the question: how much dramatization amounts to crossing a line?

I was thinking about this while watching “Paterfamilias”, an outstanding episode of The Crown, about the boarding-school childhoods, 25 years apart, of two still-living royals – Prince Philip and his son Prince Charles. Beautifully written, structured, shot and performed, the episode combines grandeur with intimacy in a way that recalls the similar paralleling of the lives of a father and son in The Godfather Part II. Yet it has invited strong criticism for a scene (one that is central to the episode’s thematic concerns) that exaggerates a historical detail involving Philip’s own father.

In the Indian context, given how much we love using our “hurt sentiments” to get films banned and books pulped, it goes without saying that a show about the private lives and artistic compromises of real-life icons would – if it hasn’t already been sterilized at the production stage – face trouble. But we excitable fans can still dream – they did once call it the dream factory, after all – and make wishlists for the years ahead.

[Related posts: on RK Narayan’s essay about the Guide film; a preview of Sacred Games the TV series]

Friday, December 29, 2017

Reinventing the reel: Newton, A Death in the Gunj, Anaarkali of Aarah (a yearend list of sorts)

[For Mint Lounge’s yearend issue, Uday Bhatia and I did a piece that linked some of the best Hindi films of 2017 with earlier works. Here are my three contributions to the package. Full piece here]

Dance as self-expression in Anaarkali of Aarah, Teesri Kasam and Guide

Hindi cinema has usually represented the courtesan, tawaif or nautch girl (each term linked to the others but also carrying subtle shifts in meaning or implication) as women performing for men, subject to the Gaze. Which is one reason why the final scene of Anaarkali Of Aarah—where the titular character uses a dance
performance to reclaim her own sexuality, break the Fourth Wall and confront the powerful man who has been harassing her—is so exhilarating. Here is a woman expressing self-worth in a space traditionally associated with male privilege.

This is also evocative of two of Waheeda Rehman’s best roles: as Rosie in Guide and as Hirabai in Teesri Kasam. There are scenes in both films where the male leads—played by two of our biggest stars, the late Dev Anand and Raj Kapoor, respectively—are cowed down by the passion and abandon with which the heroine flings herself into dance. In Teesri Kasam, the naïve Hiraman (Kapoor) idealizes Hirabai (Rehman) and is shaken when he learns that she has been performing in this “disreputable” field since childhood; in Guide, Raju (Anand) wants to heroically rescue Rosie from her shackles, but himself feels insecure and subservient when she moves into the performative realm.

These are not feminist films in the direct, self-conscious way that Anaarkali Of Aarah is (it would be ridiculous to expect this, given that they were made in the mid-1960s), but they are remarkably progressive in their own contexts. And much of this has to do with Rehman’s personality. When in full flight as actor and dancer, she could make everything else in a film swim around her. Watch her magnificent snake dance in Guide and then that last scene in Anaarkali again; though separated by more than 50 years, they are part of the same conversation.

Familial ghosts in A Death in the Gunj and Trikaal

There are many ways in which to talk about Konkana Sensharma’s excellent directorial debut A Death In The Gunj—among them being its examination of the little cruelties and hegemonies that an “unmanly” man may be subjected to, even by a world that thinks of itself as modern. Shutu, played by the mesmerizing Vikrant Massey, has predecessors in our cinema: the many young men, in films like Parichay or Alaap, who prioritized “soft” pursuits like art (mainly music) or love over the family business, causing patriarchal wrath to descend on them.

But A Death In The Gunj is also notable as an example of the ensemble family film. By this I don’t mean a multi-starrer about a large clan, but an intimate, chamber drama-like story where a group of people are together in a relatively small space for a short period, and many mini-tragedies and mini-comedies unfold simultaneously.
In this sense, it is strongly reminiscent of Shyam Benegal’s Trikaal, another film about a number of individuals with idiosyncrasies, personal demons and complicated interrelationships, and, like A Death In The Gunj, set in an atypical, old-world location (a mansion in 1960 Goa). Both works are marked by soft indoor lighting that makes the night-time scenes ominous and claustrophobic: Cinematographer Ashok Mehta made brilliant use of candle-light in Trikaal, while lanterns dominate Sensharma’s film.

Interestingly, both feature séances too—though in the newer film, what seems at first to be a supernatural interlude turns out to be another cruel joke played on Shutu; while in the older film, there really is some form of magic involving Kulbhushan Kharbanda marvellously chewing up the scenery. Which is not to say that A Death In The Gunj doesn’t have its own ghost — albeit a more melancholy one.

The perils of idealism in Newton and Satyakam

Amit Masurkar’s Newton—about an idealistic government clerk, a stickler for rules, sent for election duty in Naxal land—carries echoes of a nearly 50-year-old film with a similarly unbending hero: Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Satyakam, about a young engineer, Satyapriya (Dharmendra), who refuses to compromise even if it imperils the people who are dependent on him.

In some ways, the differences are just as important. Newton has a dry sense of humour (a herd of goats obediently bleat “haiii” as if in response to the question, “Do you have voter IDs?”), while the stately 1969 film rarely permits itself a smile. But at the centre of both stories are two earnest men whose inflexible commitment to their principles is often a source of frustration to everyone around them.

And yet, here’s a modest proposal: Neither film is unequivocally supportive of its hero. This is more obvious in the newer film, because it is more multilayered at a surface level and allows for perspectives other than Newton’s—notably that of chief of security Aatma Singh (a terrific Pankaj Tripathi), who understands ground realities and the nature of realpolitik in a complicated country better than Newton does. Or the local girl who tells the clerk, with a quiet smile, “You live only a few hours away but you know nothing about us.”

However, Satyakam—on the face of it a more moralistic film—also has scenes where the protagonist has a mirror held up to him (in one case by a character who might otherwise have been stereotyped as a slimy opportunist). Though Mukherjee repeatedly claimed that it was his favourite work, his career is more noted for protagonists who have a much greater sense of fun than the dour Satyapriya—people like Anand and Gol Maal’s Ram Prasad, who contain multitudes and are more understanding of the chimerical sides of human nature.

Both films allow us to reflect that if the world were made up entirely—or even mostly—of Newtons and Satyapriyas, then yes, it would probably be a better, more ethical place; but it would also be much blander, more robotic, less human. A landscape of clockwork oranges.

[Related posts: Anaarkali of Aarah; Trikaal; Satyakam; Guide]

Monday, December 25, 2017

On Kadvi Hawa, and our obsession with takeaways

[did this for Mint Lounge]

To my mind, Nila Madhab Panda is one of our more interesting contemporary directors, even though his output is uneven. Panda’s films tend to be sombre, languidly paced and deal with important social issues, which are all qualities that we associate with heavy-handed message-mongering – and yet his better work finds a way to approach a subject tangentially and to bring to it the ambiguous, shifting texture of a dark fable. This makes it very different in effect from, say, Madhur Bhandarkar’s forays into social commentary, which are glossier, more accessible, and more didactic.

Panda’s Jalpari, for instance, links female infanticide with drought – two symptoms of a barren society – through a mostly realist narrative that alludes to mermaids, witchcraft and a mysterious swamp that everyone stays away from. In I am Kalam, a dhaba bordering a desert land is like a magical space of transition, a portal to a new destiny; a scary close-up of a villain burning the young protagonist’s precious papers might remind you of the witch at her oven in Hansel and Gretel.

And in his latest, Kadvi Hawa, a debt-collector whose appearances herald farmer suicides is feared as a Yam-doot or a messenger of death – though he is really just a morose man with problems of his own, clattering about on a little scooter and carrying files instead of a long noose.

Kadvi Hawa is not an easy film. It is slow to the point of meandering, and announces its intentions to be this way right from the long, poetic opening sequence where an old man taps his way through a beautiful but parched rural landscape until he finally reaches a rundown bank and is then made to wait for hours. But if you have the patience for it and if you’re in the right mood, it is very rewarding, with two wonderful performances by Sanjay Mishra (as the old man, Hedu, who turns out to be both blind and a “seer” – in the sense of clairvoyant) and Ranvir Shorey (as Gunu babu, the callous collector who reveals new sides as the story moves forward). At its heart, the film is a character study of these two people who shoulder different burdens (to put it very simply, one is haunted by a lack of water, the other by an excess of it) and are driven by their desperation towards a moral abyss.

The one scene that seemed forced to me came after this main narrative has ended: before the closing credits, we get text with information about farmer suicides in India as well as the problem of extreme climates around the world caused by human irresponsibility. Here was the moment where – instead of simply absorbing the experience of having watched a quiet, superbly acted slice-of-life story – we could congratulate ourselves on having paid for tickets for a film about Important Things.

I’m not saying Kadvi Hawa isn’t about those big issues (though the way it links them is a bit random and overdone, like a tourist at a buffet breakfast piling bacon and idlis on a single plate). But for most of its running time, “Suggest, don’t tell” is the chief mode. The social and ecological conditions that have caused the characters’ problems aren’t presented to us explicitly – we are allowed to conjecture their importance to the Hedu-Gunu story.
Information accumulates on the fringes; people speak in muttered half sentences; there are effective little moments such as the one where a girl is called out from her classroom, the teacher casts her a quick concerned look, and we only gradually realise that her father has killed himself.

Given these strengths, that closing information feels like an attempt to inject gravitas and respectability into a film that already had those things. We are being spoon-fed.

Some weeks ago, at a literature festival, I was involved in a discussion about the popularity of “takeaways”, or easy-to-digest ways of understanding creative works. This is based on the expectation that a casual reader (or viewer) should be able to say “Ah! This book/film was about *insert preferred theme or idea*” As if that was the only thing it was about, and as if anything can or should be reduced to a single defining message.

Such simplifications naturally occur when people think of books and films in purely utilitarian terms, focusing on the final takeaway rather than the fullness of the experience. Pandering to such a view, a film version of a famous literary work might end with a scroll saying “Research shows that killing an authority figure produces crippling guilt in 76 percent of people, and causes the breakdown of marriage and the onset of delusions in 17 percent. In many countries, including Scotland, these figures have been increasing since 1372 AD.” Which is useful information, no doubt, but it doesn’t tell us much about what makes Macbeth a good play or Maqbool a good film.


[Here's a post about Panda's Jalpari: The Desert Mermaid]

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Voyeur: a documentary about the unholy pact between Gay Talese and Gerald Foos

[Did this short review of a new Netflix documentary for India Today]


Who is the voyeur in Voyeur? The obvious answer is Gerald Foos, a Colorado motel-keeper who spent three decades spying on the sexual and other activities of his guests through vents installed expressly for the purpose. But the man we meet first in this Netflix documentary is the celebrated journalist Gay Talese, and this is what he says: “My life has pretty much been living through other people’s experiences… watching other people."

A parallel is thus drawn between Foos and Talese and their interests in observing, chronicling, hoarding; there is a visual link of sorts, too, between Talese’s neatly organized “bunker” – where he keeps everything he published as well as all the notes he ever wrote – and a cute little model of Foos’s (now demolished) motel. Talese admits that he is a voyeur himself, deciding how to "shade and colour and choreograph" other people’s stories.

In what feels like a version of Folie à Deux, the paths of these two men crossed in 1980 (spurred by the publicity around Talese’s book Thy Neighbor’s Wife – about American sexual mores post-WWII – Foos contacted him with information about his own “research”) and they became friends for a while. Journalistic ethics were muddied (Talese eventually published a New Yorker article and a book, before realizing that Foos’s story had holes larger than the ones he had cut out in the motel’s ceiling) and the voyeur came to feel like he had been exploited, his secrets excavated. “You don’t put that kind of stuff in there, you don’t write about a man’s money. I’m really mad at Gay,” says the man who spent years spying on other people in their most private moments.

Despite this gripping subject matter, and a few stylistic flourishes – Foos creepily playing a younger version of himself, complete with dyed beard, tinkering about with the doll-house, lifting the roof to peer inside; an arresting series of dream-images of his “subjects” looking up, seemingly aware of his presence – Voyeur is often a listless film. Perhaps its banality is part of the point (viewer, you came in expecting a racy narrative about a man who secretly watched people having sex; instead see two old guys – their heydays long gone – grumbling and pontificating), but it also feels unfocused, and doesn’t address important questions. How did Foos lead a somewhat functional life while spending night after night on his watching station? What did his two wives think? (The second wife, Anita, is very much part of this film, but she is usually a cipher, a taciturn presence lending strained support, vacantly singing Happy Birthday to him.) How did a journalist as canny as Talese let himself be misled?

For anyone who has read Talese’s article and heard about the subsequent controversies, little here will be new or revealing; in fact, the article contains things that make Foos seem more interesting – a melancholy, philosophizing scholar manqué – than he comes across in Voyeur. This film offers a mildly intriguing portrait of the contradictions in a man who wanted to play God and maintain full control over his private universe but also yearned to share his story with the world via a famous practitioner of long-form journalism – thus ensuring that some of the control would be lost. An introvert who spent years in solitude on a viewing platform, and an exhibitionist who wanted to brag about his “achievement”. At times, it feels like Foos may have been an apt subject for another recent (and superior) Netflix production, Mindhunter, which is about other sorts of attention-seeking sociopaths who were committing much bigger crimes in the same period.

[Related piece: journalistic ethics in the context of the Jeff MacDonald murder case]

Friday, December 15, 2017

Discarding a life, leaping into another one: on MG Vassanji’s Nostalgia

[Did a shorter version of this piece for India Today magazine]

“We leap from one life into another, be it imperfectly, and hope […] that the past does not catch up with us. But sometimes it does […] Reminders of our discarded lives can not yet be completely blocked…”

Anyone familiar with MG Vassanji’s writing will know that these lines, from his new novel Nostalgia, could easily have come from any of his earlier narratives. A theme running through Vassanji’s work – starting with the 1989 novel The Gunny Sack – is the imposition of the past on the present: how an individual's many selves interact with each other, how people are shaped by their histories even as they try to evade them.

Perhaps this is unsurprising given his own multi-cultural background; descended from Gujarat’s Khoja community, he grew up in Kenya and Tanzania, went to the US to study at age 20, and has lived in Canada since 1978. The search for self runs through not just his fiction – which made him the first two-time winner of Canada’s Giller Prize – but also such works as the hesitant, moving 2008 travelogue A Place Within: Rediscovering India, about his attempts to understand the complexities of his ancestral land.

However, Nostalgia marks a clear formal departure for the sixty-seven-year-old author. This is a work of speculative fiction, located in a future where technology has made it possible for people to “rejuvenate” – that is, acquire greatly extended life-spans along with the implantation of fictitious new “memories”, thus replacing their earlier lives with new ones. As the story begins, the narrator Dr Sina, himself one of these new-generation people or GNs, meets a patient, Presley Smith, who seems afflicted by visions from a previous life. When Sina tries to solve this mystery, also encountering religious “pro-deathers” along the way, he finds his preconceptions and complacencies challenged.

It’s unusual for a writer, at this stage in his career, to take a right turn into a completely new storytelling mode. But this book began with a single, persistent idea, Vassanji tells me during a phone interview. “Suppose we could get rid of past memories – painful ones, extra baggage as we live longer lives, or for reasons of vanity. I played around with this thought, on and off, began a novel, set it aside.”

Playful and breezy as Nostalgia seems compared to his earlier novels such as The In-Between World of Vikram Lall, it wasn’t easy to write – which is why it took 15 years to finish. “Since this was something I hadn’t done before – creating a world as opposed to dealing with already-known things – I was worried about saying something outlandish. Also, with a futuristic setting, one had to think carefully about the philosophical conundrums faced by these characters.”

It’s doubly intriguing since Vassanji doesn’t seem especially interested in science-fiction, and even appears to share the disdain that many literary writers – from Margaret Atwood downward – have for the more supposedly conventional aspects of the genre. “I am not fond of technology-oriented sci-fi – rockets and men and women with odd features,” he says, reductively; he also tends to blur sci-fi and fantasy, which are very different genres, each with many subsets (during our talk, he brings up Star Wars while listing things he doesn’t like about sci-fi).

But what he wanted to do was to use speculative fiction as a vessel – “without getting into many technical hijinks” – to explore ideas. Many kinds of tensions run through this story: between youth and old age, privilege and lack of privilege, religious faith and scientific progress. “While playing around with the dominant themes – the absence of death and memory – I realized the obvious: as we hang on to life, we hold on to our jobs, hoard our wealth – retirement funds, investments, etc – which leaves younger people at a disadvantage.”

One challenge he set himself was to keep the details of geography abstract, so that the book didn’t come across as a too-obvious allegory for real-world politics. For instance, Maskinia, the “barbaric” war-torn country behind the Long Border – where a young journalist is apparently killed and cannibalised during an assignment – isn’t a readily identifiable place but is presented as “our Other, our id – our constant dark companion on the bright path of our progress”.

And of course, he had some fun along the way -- though perhaps not as much as someone keener on fully fleshing out an imagined world would have. The book’s tongue-in-cheek asides include a reference to three Khans, Salman, Shahrukh, and Aamir: names given to virtual practice partners for tennis players, each programmed with different games and personalities. Many passages feel very cinematic – the juxtaposition of a monkey army (a reference to the Ramayana) with an Apocalypse Now-like helicopter attack complete with a “Ride of the Valkyries” soundtrack; the theme of memory implantation, strongly evocative of the new Blade Runner 2049 – though Vassanji denies any filmic influences on his work.

Most of all, Nostalgia is about the dual nature of memory as something that can bring great pain ("thoughts burrow from the previous life into the conscious mind, threatening to pull the sufferer into an internal abyss") but which is also essential to being human, being able to construct narratives – a theme that might be particularly important to a novelist. “I who implanted idyllic fictions am a fiction myself, and that fiction is falling apart,” Dr Sina says. He could be speaking for every writer who creates worlds, or reminding us that we are all storytellers, forming narratives about ourselves – and then erasing them when they become inconvenient.

[Two earlier pieces on Vassanji here: a profile for The Hindu, and a review of The Assassin’s Song]

Monday, December 11, 2017

Mughal-e-Azam, on stage and screen

[did this for Mint Lounge]

We had good seats near the front of the auditorium, but Maharani Jodha Bai still looked diminutive. Seated on the extreme left and near the front of the stage, she prayed aloud to a Krishna statue, speaking half to her God and half to herself, trembling in anticipation of seeing her grown-up son Salim after years.

Meanwhile, from the shadows on the far right of the ornate set, the prince emerged, slowly made his way down a stairway and across the stage, came up behind his mother, and gently said the word she was yearning to hear: “Ma”.

Elegant as this scene was, it was one of the few moments in Feroz Abbas Khan’s magnificently ambitious theatre production Mughal-e-Azam – a tribute to K Asif’s classic 1960 film – where I felt underwhelmed. The two people on the stage seemed small and distant, too removed from us to do full justice to this grand reunion. In my mind’s eye, a very different scene was unspooling: the look on Durga Khote’s beautiful, expressive face – seen in extreme close-up – as she played the queen onscreen, while Dilip Kumar, every feature of his side-profile visible, strode regally up to her in medium shot.

But then, the team that brought this production to life probably expected their audience to have some associations with the film. Which is one thing that made watching it such an unusual experience.

Indian cinema has famously derived much of its language – including the floridity and the episodic structures – from the Sanskrit and Parsi theatres of yore. Yet we haven’t had a continuous tradition, like the America and British one, of films being adapted from well-known, widely seen modern plays – something which facilitates studying the differences between the two mediums.

Khan’s production – which reverses the usual process, being a play that is based on a film – thus makes for an engrossing case study. Before watching it (during its September run at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Delhi), I was curious about how a stage production, with obvious limitations of technology and space compared to a big-budget film, would handle the visually spectacular scenes from the original Mughal-e-Azam: the climactic battle with its large cast of soldiers, elephants and horses; the musical numbers such as Madhubala’s famous Sheesh Mahal dance.

I was also thinking of a conversation I had once with Naseeruddin Shah about the stage director Jerzy Grotowski, who believed theatre shouldn’t try to compete with cinema; that films will always do certain things better, and it was a mistake to try to recreate glossy or larger-than-life moments on stage through technical gimmickry.

As it happens, the staged Mughal-e-Azam showed creativity in dealing with the “big” moments. It recognized its limitations, trusted the audience’s familiarity with the source material, and allowed us to use our imaginations at key moments. The one-on-one battle between Akbar and Salim had the actors waving their swords about in much the same way as Prithviraj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar did, but with inventive set design, including line drawings and animation, standing in for the infantry and cavalry; it was arguably more artistic than the somewhat clunky (by today’s standards) scene in the film.

Similarly, the “Pyaar kiya toh darna kya” sequence had dozens of glass panels dangling from the ceiling to evoke the idea of the Sheesh Mahal without trying to precisely mimic iconic moments like the one where Anarkali is reflected in hundreds of tiny mirrors. The knowledge that the actors were really singing, in front of us, added immediacy to the experience, and there were other fine setpieces – such as one where the hall resounded with music created exclusively by the anklets of dancers surrounding Anarkali – that were especially suited to a live performance.

While these passages worked wonderfully, some of the non-musical scenes – where characters simply speak to each other – felt banal. It was also interesting to consider what had been omitted, including two of the most famous scenes in the original Mughal-e-Azam: Salim gently stroking Anarkali’s face with a feather (a scene that is routinely described as being more erotic than a hundred other more sexually explicit movie sequences); and the wistful moment where an armour-clad Akbar, visiting his son-turned-antagonist in his tent, comes up behind Salim and then spontaneously kisses his shoulder.

Both these images have adorned a thousand Mughal-e-Azam film posters, but it’s easy to see why neither was in the play. These are deeply intimate moments, depending for their impact on camera “tricks” such as close-ups and the audience’s ability to register every detail – the moistness of an eye, the trembling of a lip, an almost imperceptible smirk – on a face. Their effect couldn’t be replicated on stage, regardless of how good the actors were.

And so, watching the staged Mughal-e-Azam became a reminder that a well-made film can be both grander than and – in some ways – more personal than an opulent theatre production. As well as a demonstration of how good theatre can use its own strengths, even find its own gimmicks, to hold an audience that has been seduced by an impudent younger medium.

[Some more thoughts about film and theatre in this piece about the 1972 version of Cabaret]

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Romantic hero, comic foil, mediator: a tribute to Shashi Kapoor

[Did this obituary for Scroll]

In Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur, the self-pitying, drug-addled Faizal, upset about living in an elder brother’s shadow, mumbles these memorable words:

Hum toh sochte thay ki Sanjeev Kumar ke ghar mein Bachchan paida huwe hai, lekin jab aankh khuli to dekha ki hum Sasi Kapoor hai.” (“I thought I was a Bachchan, born in Sanjeev Kumar’s house, but later realized I was only Shashi Kapoor.”)

Yes, Faizal pronounces the name closer to “Sasi” than “Shashi”, making the sentence sound comically rustic. And the reference is, of course, to Trishul, which we have seen him watching in an earlier scene – one of many films in which “Sasi” was the clear second lead to Bachchan’s intense hero.

Many boys of my generation, growing up in the 1980s, would have understood why Faizal felt he had been let down by fate. As a Bachchan-worshipping child, I always thought of Shashi Kapoor as a pleasing screen personality, but he didn’t figure on my shortlist of favourite heroes – in fact, I probably didn’t think of him as one. He and his nephew Rishi occupied a very different niche from that of the action men, and it felt ludicrous when a film insisted on giving one of them a fight scene where they could trade punches with the heavyweights on equal terms. In a climactic dhishoom-dhishoom in Trishul, when Shekhar (Shashi) gives his half-brother Vijay (Bachchan) as good as he gets, it is not just implausible but also thematically flawed. (Surely part of this film’s point is that Shekhar, the mollycoddled legitimate son, would be much softer around the middle than Vijay the smouldering anti-hero, forged in the fires of abandonment and hard labour.)

My feelings about Kapoor would change somewhat over the years. As an adult watching those films again, I find myself more interested in his characters than I had been before, and more willing to embrace his special charms. Consider an old favourite, the 1980 comedy Do aur Do Paanch. The exuberant song sequence “Tune abhi dekha nahin” is part of a running series of gags in the film’s first half, where Kapoor’s Sunil and Bachchan’s Vijay – rival conmen – get the better of each other in turn; but watch the scene out of context and it feels like a commentary on Bachchan’s stature as a one-man industry, a magician who stayed several steps ahead of his rivals. (“Duniya deewani meri / Mere peechhe peechhe bhaagi / Kismein hai dum yahaan / Thehre jo mere aage.”)

And yet, its effect also depends on how well Kapoor plays sidekick and foil, standing by and watching the superstar perform to the gallery. Shashi gets tripped, takes pratfalls, is elbowed away when he tries to dance with his girlfriend, gets doused by a sprinkler… and in between all this he also holds the stage for a few seconds, not least during a little tap-dance where we see how nimble-footed and graceful he was even in his forties. It’s brief, but it’s as magical
as the little moment during the opening scene of Merchant-Ivory’s Bombay Talkie 10 years earlier, where Kapoor – playing a version of himself, a Hindi-movie star – dances on a giant typewriter while rehearsing a song.

My own viewing preferences as a child notwithstanding, Shashi Kapoor had a varied existence outside the Bachchan universe and the Hindi-film mainstream. Much has been said and written – notably in Aseem Chhabra’s Shashi Kapoor: The Householder, The Star, and Madhu Jain’s The Kapoors – about his status as one of India’s first international stars, decades before Irrfan Khan or Priyanka Chopra, and this in an era when our film industry was largely cut off from the rest of the world and its dramatis personae didn’t get out very much. We have his work in a range of films, including the Merchant-Ivory productions (The Householder, Shakespeare Wallah and In Custody), Conrad Rooks’s Siddhartha, Stephen Frears’s Sammy and Rosie Get Laid and his own productions Kalyug, Junoon, Vijeta and Utsav, which – sometimes uneasily – bridged the divide between mainstream Hindi cinema and the “parallel film”.

In the mainstream itself – the medium where he did the bulk of his work as a star-actor – it’s astonishing how many films there are, and how integral his presence is to them, even if that isn’t how it might seem at first viewing. From the earnest 12-year-old boy of Awaara, preparing the ground for the adult version of the protagonist Raj, to the toothy swain in songs like “Likhe jo khat tujhe” (Kanyadaan), and the young chauffeur in Waqt, trying desperately to get his mother to the hospital while everyone else sways to “Aage bhi jaane na tu”. And then the 1970s, a decade spent under the shadow of two megastars. (Apart from playing second lead to Bachchan so often, Kapoor was a policeman in Prem Kahani who worries about his wife’s relationship with her ex-lover…played by the era’s biggest romantic star, Rajesh Khanna.)

Though Kapoor did the grinning, romantic-hero parts very well, showed an unexpected flair for comedy, and had a reassuring integrity in serious, dramatic scenes, he could seem a bit one-dimensional in commercial films. Was this because he was usually cast in certain types of roles, or because of a lack of discernment in choosing films, or because he couldn’t fully submit to the higher registers of emotion demanded by mainline Hindi cinema? (Other actors such as Waheeda Rehman and Balraj Sahni have admitted to struggling with this.) Or was it a combination of all these factors? He may have become sheepish about the reactions of his wife and children to some of his work; in the 1970s, he was shooting simultaneously for so many mediocre films that his brother Raj disparagingly called him a “taxi”.

Since he was almost never required to carry a major 1970s film on his own shoulders, one tends to remember him in multi-starrers: the Bachchan films, of course, but also others like Manoj Kumar’s Kranti, in which Kapoor was almost inevitably cast as the pampered, white-suited, colonial-era prince who joins the other, more rough-hewn heroes in their fight for independence. Kranti is an intriguing work in his filmography, though not many credit it as such. What we see over the course of this narrative is a character who is born to privilege but undergoes a reformation and realizes what the “right side” is. It is a reminder of Kapoor’s function as the Moral Hero, as Karan Johar puts it in the Foreword to Chhabra’s book.

The best-known avatar of that moral hero is Ravi the younger brother in Deewaar, an idealistic, well-scrubbed man in a police uniform, eyebrows raised and nostrils flaring with righteous zeal. It is easy, from a distance, to remember Deewaar as a film where Ravi remains untouched by darkness, a smugly goody-goody hero from beginning to end. Up close, though, it isn’t that simple. Kapoor’s most memorable scenes are the ones where Ravi has to look into the mirror and introspect after shooting and wounding a young boy who was stealing food for his starving parents. Or when one gets the sense that for all his righteous posturing, he feels a smidgen of resentment about his mother’s special affection for her errant older son.

A few years later, in one of his best-regarded roles in Kalyug, Kapoor would play a modern-day version of Karna, the Mahabharata’s tragic anti-hero. But good as he was in that part, it was a casting anomaly (Bachchan was the original choice!) and the image that suited Shashi Kapoor much better was the straight-arrow hero Arjuna, vanilla on the outside but capable of showing layers. In a revealing scene in Deewaar, Ravi tells his girlfriend, with a troubled look on his face, that the mythological hero Arjuna had Lord Krishna guiding him, but that he himself doesn’t feel strong enough to be a modern Arjuna. In moments like these, one sees a different sort of internal conflict playing itself out, a subtler, less dramatic one than that of the Angry Young Man.
Here’s another thing about Arjuna: he is comfortable with his feminine side, and he has a strong streak of pacifism: he could tell God “I will not fight”, and briefly at least hold his own in a conversation that ends with a call to arms. As a child, I may have chuckled when I saw Shashi Kapoor flamboyantly holding apart those uber-macho heroes Bachchan and Shatrughan Sinha at the end of their fight scene in Kaala Patthar, ordering them to bury the hatchet. Today I think of it as one of the emblematic images of his career, and a reminder of why he was such an appealing hero in a testosterone-fuelled age.

(And a sidenote: shortly after that Do aur Do Paanch sequence, the Shashi character gets his back on Bachchan and sings a version of the song himself. But the playback singing is done in a deliberately croaky style by Rajesh Roshan. While Bachchan had Kishore Kumar singing for him. Typical.)

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Tu Hai Mera Sunday, and the quiet charms of the not-quite narrative

[did this for Mint Lounge]

“What is this life, if full of care / we have no time to stand and stare,” a little girl lisps in a scene in Milind Dhaimade’s charming, low-key Tu Hai Mera Sunday. The WH Davies lines are part of a school assignment, but they have a wider relevance in this film about a group of friends who treasure their Sunday football games.

Cross-cutting between many stories, Tu Hai Mera Sunday examines the importance of being a slacker once in a while. The striking image we see in the first frame – a landscape of dusty old bikes piled up in a dump – could be a stand-in for the characters’ lives, which badly need to be un-cluttered: this could mean taking a break from the cut-throat corporate world to prevent yourself from having a status-anxiety-induced breakdown in public, or just finding a quiet space in a mad metropolis. (“Mumbai mein koi na koi jagah toh hogi na, jahaan mil ke kuch na kare. There must be somewhere in Bombay where we can hang around doing nothing.”) Even if that space is on the roof of a skyscraper, where Kavya (Shahana Goswami) goes to feel like the city, its crowds and noise are faraway things. (One might think of her as a distant cousin of the Rajkummar Rao character in Trapped, finding both a prison and a form of release many storeys above ground level.)

As if to give its stressed characters a breather, Dhaimade’s film is in no hurry to move its plot forward. It is mainly interested in watching a bunch of people dealing (or not dealing) with their problems. Or just having conversations that may not be about anything specific. But even at its most laidback, this isn’t what you’d call a non-narrative or anti-narrative film: those terms are best reserved for experimental or avant-garde works by directors like Terence Mallick or Mani Kaul. “Not very interested in narrative” may be a better descriptor, and there are many types of films in that sub-category too.

For instance, some stories get their tone from a passive protagonist – a person who is frozen in a state of inaction, because of circumstance or a character quirk, or both. The books of Kazuo Ishiguro, who just won the Nobel Prize, are full of such people, and the films adapted from them – notably the 1993 Remains of the Day, about an emotionally repressed butler – suggest turbulence buried under a placid, seemingly uneventful surface. Another of my favourite films in this vein, Saeed Mirza’s 1978 debut Arvind Desai ki Ajeeb Dastaan, is about a rich young man who wants to empathize with the unprivileged, but has no idea how to step out of the bubble he was born in; here is a truly limp-wristed “hero”, even though Dilip Dhawan, who played the part, could be as dashing as any of our mainstream leading men of the time.

Then there are works that refuse to provide a dramatic resolution or payoff, even when a definite narrative arc is involved. I was thinking of this while watching the new Netflix show Mindhunter, about an FBI unit’s efforts in the 1970s to understand the psychological makeup of serial killers. Part of the point of this series – co-produced by David Fincher, who also directed four episodes – is that there may not be any clear patterns or explanations when it comes to the sociopathic mind. Accordingly, even as it follows the broad format of a police procedural, Mindhunter is a work of ellipses and quiet fadeouts rather than full stops or exclamation marks – and this is made most obvious in its use of brief, ambiguous interludes about an anonymous man doing mundane things in Kansas. (Any true-crime aficionado will realise that this character is Dennis Rader, the notorious “BTK” killer who operated between the 1970s and the early 1990s, but he is never clearly identified and has no connection with the main narrative.)
This makes the show similar in effect to one of Fincher’s best feature films, Zodiac, which played out as an existential, no-solutions-here narrative even though its premise – detectives and journalists on a killer’s trail – was a dramatic one.

In recent Hindi cinema, examples of the “soak in the mood” film include the dreamlike Gurgaon – which is about a dysfunctional family becoming involved with crime, but has the texture of a story set underwater, where time moves at its own pace – and Mukti Bhawan, about an old man and his son making an appointment with Death in Benares, and then finding they will have to wait.

Like the above works, Tu Hai Mera Sunday prioritizes whimsy over exposition for most of its running time – but it becomes markedly more conventional, even conservative towards the end. In the last scene – set on that same skyscraper rooftop – Kavya and Arjun (Barun Sobti) express romantic feelings for each other, and then start talking about marriage, as if it were the inevitable (or the only possible) next step. It felt off-key to me that in a film about the importance of taking it easy and watching life go by, two urbane young people who have only known each other a few weeks, and haven’t even kissed yet, would so abruptly speak the language of proposals and engagement rings. But perhaps this is a reminder that cinema and life both naturally gravitate towards some sort of narrative; that it’s risky to be too unstructured or disorganized, and useful to have safety nets when you’re twenty storeys high.

[Related posts: Arvind Desai ki Ajeeb Dastaan; Gurgaon]

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

In which Sherlock Holmes meets Jack the Ripper

[the third entry in my series about crime fiction for Scroll. Earlier pieces here and here]

“A fictional super-detective and a notorious real-life serial killer walk into a bar together…”

I don’t know if crime buffs have yet thought up a joke that begins with that line, but this gin joint would likely be in London’s poverty-drenched East End in the 1880s: the sort of place where shady characters might drop in for a peg or pint at any time, even 7 AM, to ward off the cold and other miseries. And the carousing sleuth and murderer would be Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper respectively.

These two men have often faced off in the pages of novels and short stories – and, apparently, in video games too. It’s a fascinating pairing for obvious reasons. They operated on opposite sides of the law in the same metropolis at the same time: Arthur Conan Doyle’s first Holmes story appeared in 1887, while the canonical Ripper murders took place in the summer and autumn of 1888.

And if you think the gap between fiction and fact creates a credibility problem, consider this paradox: Holmes, the imagined character, has been such a recognizable, well-loved and widely portrayed figure over the past century that many people think he was an actual person; while the Ripper, who really did exist, has become shadowy, mythical – and sometimes even romanticized – because he was never caught. (A dozen or more authors have written books naming their candidate and pompously declaring “case closed” – the trouble is that they have confidently identified a dozen different people.) So much so that the story has been mined even in science-fiction and fantasy, as in the Star Trek episode “Wolf in the Fold”, which identifies Red Jack as an evil energy force that shifts form over the centuries.

There is no point trying to list all the Sherlock Holmes-vs-Jack the Ripper fiction out there, but the more readable efforts include the novella A Study in Terror, notable for its narrative within a narrative: in the 1960s, ace detective Ellery Queen comes across an old document detailing Holmes’s efforts to solve the London murders; while he reads, Ellery conducts a parallel investigation of his own, eventually figuring that Holmes may have been deliberately elusive about the killer’s identity. In other words, here are two celebrated fictional sleuths tangling with a real-life mystery, and with each other, across time and space.

There is also the very enjoyable 1979 film Murder by Decree, notable less for its plot (which draws on a much-rehashed conspiracy theory involving a Royal Family scandal) and more for its atmospheric set design and its cast -- Christopher Plummer and James Mason had a grand time playing Holmes and Watson respectively, and the supporting players included such heavyweights as John Gielgud, Genevieve Bujold and Donald Sutherland.

For me, though, Lyndsay Faye’s 2009 novel Dust and Shadow: An Account of the Ripper Killings by Dr John H Watson has a very special place in this sub-sub-category of crime writing. This skilled debut manages to be that rare thing, a book that should please both Sherlock Holmes buffs (including the ones who have mixed feelings about other authors stomping on Conan Doyle’s terrain) and Jack the Ripper scholars who like their Ripper-based fiction to be rooted in the facts of the case (even if the “solution” offered is far-fetched).


Dust and Shadow is, of course, told in Dr Watson’s voice, deliberately prim by modern standards – Faye does a fine job of imitating the style of the original stories – but also warm and admiring when he speaks of his brilliant friend, and appropriately repulsed when he sees the bodies left by the unknown killer. The narrative begins with a short prelude set in Herefordshire in 1887 – this makes for a nice Sherlock Holmes mini-adventure in itself, but also serves a purpose that the reader will only learn near the book’s end – and then moves to the summer of the next year. A series of murders and mutilations terrify Whitechapel. Holmes, naturally, becomes involved.

Perhaps more involved than even he would like to be.

One of the recurring themes in modern serial-killer fiction – such as Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon – is the idea that a psychopath and the detective who pursues him are two sides of the same coin: both geniuses, both deeply disturbed people, one of whom has transformed his darkest impulses from thought into action, while the other is always walking a fine line. “The reason you caught me,” Hannibal Lecter tells Will Graham in Red Dragon, “is because we are just alike.” Three decades later, the gorgeous-looking TV show Hannibal explored this thought over three seasons.

Faye subtly uses the idea in her novel, without underlining it or indulging in any anachronisms that would take us out of the world of 1880s England (a time when little if anything was known about serial killers and their psychological makeup). Reading Dust and Shadow, it made complete sense to me that if Sherlock Holmes had existed and become involved with the Ripper investigation – prowling Whitechapel’s alleys in disguise at odd hours, frequenting opium dens, employing esoteric methods to conduct an unofficial investigation – someone or the other might suspect HIM of being the murderer.

This is what happens here. Shortly after an encounter with the Ripper that leaves him injured, Holmes finds that an unscrupulous journalist is writing articles damning him. And that the killer might be setting out to implicate him too. This puts our super-sleuth in a race to not just solve the case, and heal his hurt ego, but also to clear his name – and what we see in the process is a vulnerable Holmes and a paternal, protective Watson who takes it upon himself to be more than just a silent admirer and chronicler.

Conan Doyle’s other fictional characters – including Inspector Lestrade and Mrs Hudson – are part of this story, as are the comforting bachelor’s quarters in 221B Baker Street, but so are real-life people from the period, such as George Lusk, head of a Vigilance Committee during the killings, and the much-disliked police commissioner Sir Charles Warren. The book’s third “hero” – a young woman named Mary Ann Monk, who collects valuable information for Holmes in the East End – was an actual (if very peripheral) figure in the Ripper investigation, but is fleshed out into a spirited and resourceful character here.

Apart from its storytelling merits, this book can serve as a lesson to many historical-fiction authors in how background detail and attention to language can bring internal logic and credibility even to a fantasy narrative. When Holmes goes undercover in Whitechapel, we have no trouble believing that someone with his powers of observation would soon be able to acquaint himself with every foul nook and dark cranny of the impossibly maze-like East End of the 1880s – a place that in real life confounded the efforts of a large police force and helped the anonymous murderer get away with his crimes.

A tour de force passage in this respect occurs near the end when Holmes interrogates a disoriented and scared witness who followed the Ripper to his house but has no idea exactly which labyrinthine part of Whitechapel he was stumbling through. By asking a series of questions, asking the witness to remember landmarks, the width of this or that lane, the nature of the traffic on it, and so on, Holmes unerringly arrives at almost the exact address. Riveting though this passage is on its own terms for a lover of detective stories (or Sherlock Holmes’s methods), it becomes even more so when you study the actual geography of the period (Faye provides a map too) and realise that there is nothing fictional about the details of the route being discussed.


Dust and Shadow did two things for me. First, speaking as a longtime amateur Ripperologist who has been fascinated not only by the case but also by the huge range of reactions it has spawned over the decades, it works as a good Jack the Ripper story, shorn of the sensationalism and the factual errors that have littered even many non-fiction books. I think authors like Philip Sugden and Donald Rumbelow – among the most scrupulous Ripper scholars – would have approved of it. (Incidentally I first came across Faye’s writing via her plaintive and unsettling short story “The Sparrow and the Lark”, told in the voice of Mary Jane Kelly, the last of Jack the Ripper’s victims. You’ll find that story – along with “A Study in Terror” and many other worthies – in Otto Penzler’s anthology Jack the Ripper: Fact, Fiction, Legend.)

Second, as someone whose reading of Conan Doyle’s original Holmes tales has been less than comprehensive (I devoured many of them at one go as a young teen, and somehow never revisited them), this book stoked a desire to rediscover some of those stories, particularly the longer ones. Not just to return to the world of Dr Watson and his moody flat-mate, but also to see – and this will sound blasphemous to Holmes purists – how the originals compare with Faye’s terrific reimagining.


[Related post: this column about true-crime books; and an illustration from hell]