Sunday, February 26, 2017

Tales from the crypt: on George Saunders’s brilliant Lincoln in the Bardo

[A review of one of the best novels I have read in a while – did this for Scroll]

In his fine monograph Angels and Ages, Adam Gopnik built a thesis about liberal thought and expression by drawing on the connections between Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln, two epoch-defining figures who were born a few hours (and an ocean) apart on February 12, 1809. Among other things that linked them, each man lost a favourite child: Darwin’s daughter Annie died aged 10 of tuberculosis; a decade later, Lincoln’s 11-year-old son Willie succumbed to a form of typhoid.

It is sometimes thought, Gopnik says, that because child deaths were so much more common in the 19th century, parents of the time “felt them less, or differently, than we might think – or made less of a fetish of them”. However, he makes the opposite proposition. “If anything, the grief was deeper, because their shock was less. There was no surprise to buffer it, no sense of a million-to-one shot to place it in the realm of things that never happen. It was […] the one thing you had always actively dreaded.” And he points to the many reports of Lincoln’s immeasurable sorrow, at a time when one would think the President had enough to distract his mind (the Civil War was underway, he was the target of much nationwide hostility).

One of the more affecting details in those reports – the fact that Lincoln would visit the cemetery alone at night to hold his son’s embalmed body – is the foundation of George Saunders’s fabulous, and fabulously hard to classify, new novel Lincoln in the Bardo.

A brief plot summary: young Willie Lincoln dies, and is interred in a Georgetown crypt. As the narrative begins, he finds himself in a bardo (the word never occurs in the book itself, only in the title), an intermediate place populated by ghosts – or souls, or spirits, pick your word. Its occupants, who are active only during the nighttime, don’t know they are dead (some of them may have dimly suspected this, but they have suppressed the thought) – as far as they are concerned, they are temporarily in “sick-boxes”, waiting to get well and be returned to their former existence, where their loved ones patiently wait.

But when the new arrival’s father, the President himself, penetrates this darkness, it shakes up their sepulchral after-lives (this is something new – the people from “that previous place” don’t open vaults and touch “sick-forms”). Some of the ghosts now attempt to help the confused and lonely Willie, and to communicate – in whatever way possible – with the strange, comically lanky but very magnetic man who is visiting their terrain. In the process they understand new things about their own situation, and deal with it (or don’t deal with it) in different ways.


Critics tend to over-use the word “extraordinary” while describing a book of the moment. I’m happy to fall back on it for Lincoln in the Bardo, not just to indicate its quality and emotional impact but also the apparent ease with which it breaks away from regular storytelling forms. The novel has undergone so much experimentation, in so many directions, over the past few decades (to cite some high-profile contemporary writers, look at the work of David Mitchell or Zadie Smith), that it’s risky to call a new book the “first” in any sort of narrative – but Saunders’s work has as good a claim as any other. A label like “historical fantasy”, while broadly accurate, doesn’t begin to scratch its surface; at the very least, you’d have to add a few further descriptors. (“Absurdist-philosophical, pseudo-journalistic, interior-monologue narrative poem”?)

Reading it, images and passages from other stories kept running through my mind: the great Michael Powell film A Matter of Life or Death, in which a brain surgery being conducted on earth runs
alongside a grand celestial trial (real or imagined?) where nothing less than the meaning of civilization is debated; or Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book (recently adapted into a multi-illustrator graphic novel), in which a living infant is nurtured by supernatural creatures. But ultimately, Lincoln in the Bardo is a one-of-its-kind.

For one thing, it moves fluidly from the profound to the flippant, and in ways that remind us that the two things aren’t mutually exclusive: when a cemetery watchman offers an amusing description of Lincoln on his mount (“…his legs are quite long and his horse quite short so it appeared some sort of man-sized insect had attached itself to that poor unfortunate nag who freed of his burden stood there tired and hangdog and panting as if thinking I will have quite the story to tell the other horsies upon my return …”), it doesn’t detract from the pathos of the situation.

For another, it merges fantasy – often grotesque, profane, scatological fantasy – with straight-faced reportage. Saunders alternates between his invented otherworldly tale – much of which comes to us in the fascinating voices of two bardo-dwellers, Hans Vollman and Roger Bevins III, who are longtime companions – and fragments from actual news reports, letters and the vast literature about Abraham Lincoln: his presidency, the war, his bereavement, the many perceptions of him during his lifetime.

Some short chapters entirely consist of such fragments, and yet the book never seems derivative, because it carefully uses those sources to build its own distinctive structure and mood, or to create a sense of urgency. There are also contradictions in some of the historical literature quoted, which is fitting given that this story is partly about the vastness of human experience and the unreliability of our perspectives. In one chapter, made up of real, effusive accounts of the state dinner hosted by the Lincolns on the night that Willie fell very ill, one report says that a bright golden full moon shone in the sky; another describes “a fat green crescent”; yet another says it was “a silver wedge”; we are also told that there was no moon at all. Similar anomalies occur in a brilliant chapter containing descriptions of Lincoln’s face and eyes.

In the fictional sections, I particularly liked how the bardo’s inhabitants adopt forms and shapes that reflect their personalities, attachments, or states of mind at the time of death. Bevins III, a suicide who had in his dying moments regretted his act and become aware of the world’s many sensory wonders, now has numerous sets of eyes, noses and hands (with bloody slashes on all the wrists), and can’t keep extravagant descriptions out of his speech. Vollman, who was felled by a ceiling beam as he was anticipating the consummation of his marriage later that night, has a dent in his head but is also naked with a huge swollen penis. A woman who died during a surgery and is worried about her three daughters is surrounded by three gelatinous orbs that alternate between painfully crushing her and abandoning her (which causes even more torment). A landowner fretting about his many properties floats about horizontally, his head facing in the direction of this or that estate.

While this is a fantasy-adventure populated by shape-shifting creatures, it is also a story about the many things we take for granted, our disregard for our own worth and how our lives intersect with those of others. A reader might at first feel pity or revulsion for the restless spirits “trapped” in the bardo, but to experience this book fully is to be reminded that regular existence too – the cycle of birth and death, being confined to our physical bodies, vulnerable to ailments, emotions and self-deceptions – can feel like a trap. The bardo-dwellers are very much like us in many ways: like them, we defensively construct stories for ourselves, repeat the same things endlessly in conversations, play out our essential natures over and over, have no real sense of the passage of time.

Saunders has done a strange and wonderful thing: apart from blurring the line between the (in any case misleading) categories “literary” and “genre” – or “realistic” and “outlandish” – he has created a novel of ideas where the ideas are often spelled right out but the effect isn’t heavy-handed, because this premise and framework seem to require it. Multiple narrators speak to each other and to us, probing, reflecting, trying to make sense of things (picture M Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense told through the accounts of the many bemused ghosts who don’t know they are dead). Gradually, these Greek chorus-like voices come to seem like components of a single shared consciousness. And amidst all this, we get Abe Lincoln’s agonized musings filtered through the spirits who enter him in turn and relay his words to us. Here is someone responsible for so many lives (and so many deaths), now petrified by his own grief; but ultimately the grief also serves as a catalyst, enabling him to see more clearly.

In these passages, the book cleverly literalizes the idea that a conscientious state leader must contain multitudes, must accommodate the perspectives and whims of a variety of people, cutting through the cacophony of voices in his head, streamlining confused thoughts into a series of decisions that may, possibly, bring about the greatest possible good in the long run.

But perhaps part of the point is that you don’t have to be an American president to face such conundrums; we are all leaders in our own lives. As Lincoln in the Bardo draws to a close, there is a powerful scene where the over-descriptive Bevins narrates a list of experiences, from the mundane to the very special, from “milk-sip at end of day” to “the way a moistness in the eye will blur a field of stars” to “someone noticing that you are not at all at ease”, all of which add up in countless ways to make us what we are; and then ends his monologue by saying:

None of it was real; nothing was real.

Everything was real; inconceivably real, infinitely dear.

These and all things started as nothing, latent within a vast energy-broth, but then we named them, and loved them, and in this way, brought them forth.

And now must lose them.
Taken as a whole, the passage is as pure a summing up of life’s wonders and prisons (and prisons-disguised-as-wonders, as well as wonders-disguised-as-prisons) as you’ll find in fiction. And it comes in a book that is funny, fresh and imaginative, a story about a president in a moment of private and public crisis (if “bardo” means a nowhere-land where one is uncertain of the way forward, the book’s title has an obvious double meaning), but also about all of us, perched on the junction between flesh and spirit, trying to balance the limitations of one with the possibilities of the other.


[An older post about Angels and Ages - with the emphasis on Charles Darwin - is here]

Friday, February 24, 2017

“All that remains are images, and a reminder to preserve them” – notes from the BD Garga cinema exhibition

[Did this for Mint Lounge]

During a 1957 trip to Moscow, the film critic and historian Bhagwan Das Garga experienced something very special: a clandestine screening of Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible, Part II, made more than a decade earlier but banned by Stalin. In an essay about the film for Sight and Sound magazine months later, Garga wrote of the exigencies of scribbling notes with an interpreter’s help:

“Eyes glued to the screen and hand scratching away frantically in the dark – possibly it was not the best way to watch a film for which I had waited all these years. But I was anxious to conserve as much of the experience as I could.”

The mental picture this conjures fits the man well. Garga was only in his thirties then, but by the time he passed away in 2011, aged 86, he had dedicated a lifetime to the delicate art of recording and conserving that which is in danger of being lost; keeping cultural artefacts from slipping out of our hands and memories. To this end, he made dozens of documentaries – Amrita Sher-Gil and Satyajit Ray were among his more notable subjects – and he continued publishing books about cinema and gathering memorabilia into his eighties.

To experience his writing is to find oneself wading in history, surrounded by ghostly voices, and to be reminded that film is so fragile and ephemeral – the word “film” here applying not just to neglected old movies, but to the stock on which they were recorded. One of Garga’s most poignant experiences as a young man, mentioned in his book The Art of Cinema, was a meeting in the 1940s with the son of the filmmaking pioneer Dadasaheb Phalke, and learning that a trunkful of Phalke’s films needed to be salvaged since the material was inflammable nitrate stock. No one they contacted was willing to help; on the contrary, some distributors suggested they melt the reels down to retrieve a few rupees’ worth of silver.

I thought of that story and others when I attended the exhibition “A Story Called Cinema: The BD Garga Archives”, held earlier this month in Delhi’s Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts. In one of the exhibits, a tent made up to resemble the travelling shows of the past, scenes from Phalke’s 1919 film Kaliya Mardan were being shown. The child-God Krishna – wearing what looked like a striped pajama top! – was in underwater battle against the giant snake Kaliya; it was thrilling to watch, but also a reminder, as the same few minutes of film played over and over, that this is one of very few Phalke works still extant.

Though some of Garga’s own documentaries were being screened too, and lobby cards and posters from his personal collection were on display (as was a letter written to him by an ailing Satyajit Ray), the exhibition wasn’t so much about him as about Indian cinema’s bygone years – which is exactly as he would have wanted it. Here, in one room, was a brightly coloured bioscope, its many viewing portals offering austere black-and-white images – and here, in a neat reversal, was a DVD player, itself a dull-grey but showing scenes from newer films, complete with sound and colour. There were photos from the 1920s and 30s, of actors and directors who are barely known today as well as more familiar personalities in unrecognizable avatars (the very young and lean Prithviraj Kapoor in a 1934 film; a vampish Lalita Pawar in a slit dress) – but there were also life-sized cardboard cutouts of contemporary actors: Amitabh Bachchan in Mard, Dimple Kapadia in Saagar. And, from the early years of sound cinema, there were elegies for the orchestra pits of silent movies, lost in the age of the “all-talking, all-singing picture”.

Looking at exact replicas of the clothes worn by Raj Kapoor as the tramp in Shree 420, or Balraj Sahni as the farmer in Do Bigha Zamin, I experienced the mixed emotions I had felt in Paris’s Cinémathèque Française on seeing gowns from Jean Cocteau’s 1946 Beauty and the Beast or Louise Brooks’s dress from Pandora’s Box (1929). For the film buff, it can be spooky and melancholia-inducing to encounter such iconic costumes now made banal: in faded colours, hung up for display, even posed to mimic a gesture or action.

These exhibits might seem misty and distant to our modern eyes, but there were also reminders that the more things change, the more they remain the same. Garga’s own writing often demonstrates this. Here he is on censorship, in a 1968 essay: “Our censors eulogize the Middle Ages and Victorian virtues, ignoring the mainstream of modern thought […] Little do they realise that traditions cannot be dug up and revived. They can no more be willed or argued into existence than the drainage system of Mohenjodaro be made to work […] These are the zealots who held up a film, Temples of Tomorrow, on the plea that its title, which referred to our new projects, dams etc, violated Hindu sentiments.”

Similarly, the old films he wrote about may look and sound creaky, but the content is often still fresh, easy to relate to… and in some cases, more wicked and hard-hitting than what we have today, as I discovered when I recently watched Mehboob Khan’s 1942 Roti. My appetite for the film had been whetted by clips shown at one of the talks at the exhibition, but I was scarcely prepared for the off-kilter force of its opening sequence, a caustic exercise in social propaganda. A sutradhaar (storyteller)-like figure mocks the hungry poor. “Bhookh lagi hai? Bhookh lagi hai?” he leers – and then, when an old man is hit by a car as he struggles to retrieve a piece of bread, come the words: “Mar ja mar ja mar ja! Bojh zameen ka halka kar ja.” (“Die! Die! Die! Make the earth’s burden lighter.”)

It is all heavily stylized, with echoes of German Expressionism, theatre and Russian montage, but the premise – that the world isn’t for the poor, that they will be redundant no matter who is in power – is as topical as ever. It struck me that if such a scene were to be attempted in a current-day satire – with a character singing a tuneful but sadistic song telling poor people to “Die!” – it’s unlikely that our censors would recognize the narrative context; they would probably cut the scene because it “offends sentiments”. And I can picture the ever-vigilant Garga rolling his eyes at that, and opening a new page of his notepad.


[More soon on Roti, and other related films of the period]

Monday, February 13, 2017

“His lines are laced with libido” – on Tanveer Bookwala’s erotic collection Wet

[Did this review for Scroll]

The explicit sex scene is one of literature’s great levelers – the place where the inexperienced hack who can barely string together a grammatical sentence might stand on an equal footing with the acclaimed, much-awarded author. Looking for unintentionally funny porn? You can browse the scores of “bestsellers” written by randy teens to impress their friends, and published by low-investment-no-editing houses such as Srishti; but you can just as easily look at the entries that get shortlisted for the Bad Sex in Fiction Award, many of them by heavyweights such as Haruki Murakami, Tom Wolfe and Philip Roth (to say nothing of Tony Blair).

In the first type of book, you’ll find delirious, trying-too-hard sentences like “The friction between a virgin vagina and virile vigor (sic) produced such fire on bed (sic) that it could easily put two flint stones to shame” (from Novoneel Chakraborty’s That Kiss in the Rain… Love is the Weather of Life) or displays of juvenile wonderment (“He pulled off her bra to discover that her lofty [sic] boobs did indeed meet the idea he had of them” – Tuhin Sinha’s That Thing Called Love). In the other type, equally ludicrous things might be done in a more literary-seeming way: consider “He kissed the slight, rose-coloured trench that remained from her knicker elastic, running around her belly like the equator line circling the world” (Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North). Or “I came suddenly, a jolt that emptied my head like a spoon scraping the inside of a soft-boiled egg” (from Jonathan Littell’s epic The Kindly Ones). Or, for spiritually inclined readers, “She took my head in both hands and guided it downward, between her fragrant thighs. 'Yoni puja – pray, pray at my portal' ” (Paul Theroux’s A Dead Hand).

Which is to say that any writer, regardless of pedigree and experience, whether fumbling and self-conscious or smug and overconfident, can easily go wrong with the sex scene. (It is also possible on occasion that a well-written sex scene provokes discomfort leading the reader to perceive the writing itself as poor, but I won’t get into that discussion here.) Writing erotica is never easy, it always comes with the risk that you’ll become a laughing stock. And this is why I was willing to overlook some of the more cringe-inducing passages in Tanveer Bookwala’s collection Wet.

It does take some overlooking, though.

The first of the seven stories, “The Clinic”, begins with the narrator watching his wife moan in ecstasy as another man performs oral sex on her. The scene builds in intensity, there is much slithering and throbbing and bucking and dribbling and twitching and plunging, things seem to be going well generally, and the woman, we are assured, is having a grand old time. But then comes this odd little description: “Rocky sucked hungrily on her lips, nipping them, refusing to let go, much like a stubborn dog refusing to part with his meat. The sexual tug-of the dog and the very wet bone, the thrill of fresh meat, Sheila’s legs open, splayed…”

At the end of the passage, Sheila duly “shuddered and came like a deluge”. Later in the book, when another woman being thus serviced “gushes like a waterfall”, I had visions of the author carrying along a snorkeling mask on his own carnal adventures – but sticking with Sheila for now, all I could think was: did she have an orgasm because someone was chewing, dog-like, on her “wet bone”? Sounds like the perfect woman for a lazy, unimaginative man… or for a threesome involving Hannibal Lecter and Rin Tin Tin.

At this point, only two pages into the book, the epigraph “To every woman I have ever known and those I am yet to meet” felt less like an enticing promise and more like a threat. In the fashion of the over-smart reviewer who gets off on trashing everything, I had this sentence scribbled out in my notepad: “If this is what the author thinks will rock the world of women he is yet to meet, female readers may consider filing a restraining order.”

Reading on, though, I found myself willing to give Wet a chance. This is not to say that the banalities, clichés and ill-conceived metaphors disappear, they don’t. Many sentences are overcooked, clumsy (“The steam from the tea made the dust of their love dance”) or plain wrong (“the desire to see Ria’s breasts were clearly worth the big bucks”), and some of the writing is like a parody of those annual Bad Sex Award excerpts. “Sharma’s cock was flicking like a firefly trapped in a jar,” we learn, “His mouth was dry. His erection, erect. (Sic) He looked at his mother-in-law in a bid to kill it.” You’ll find similarly amusing things on pretty much any page. “The Scandinavian, made-to-order shower gel made love to her loofah.” “It was a blasphemous cauldron of smell and taste.” “Abdul tore through her expensive silk shirt, shredding it; the sounds of the seams coming apart echoing around the kitchen like the original sin.”


So, here’s the obligatory warning: while this book (obviously) isn’t for a squeamish or prim reader, it isn’t for fans of sharp or economical prose either. However, there are interesting things going on here at the idea level. Bookwala’s writing may seem forced in places, but there is nothing inauthentic about the dark sensibility of the stories. A sense of danger runs through them: they are about the many effects of sexual desire, how it can cross over into game-playing and fetishism, how the yearning to submit fully to an impulse can coexist with a deep fear of submission. And there is plenty of matter-of-factly subversive content, as in a passage where a young boy masturbates near the temple where his father is a priest; as he experiences his first orgasm, an ethereal white light flashes before his eyes and he imagines the woman whose photo he is looking at screaming God’s name.

Apart from being attentive to the desirous woman seeking out new sexual identities (in itself a risky thing for a writer to do in our current cultural climate), Bookwala probes the morally ambiguous aspects of sex. In one story, a horny sexologist can’t believe his luck when a voluptuous young woman walks into his office out of the rain, wet but shyly willing to get “wetter”. In another, a man becomes so addicted to porn, and to virtual sex with the images on his computer screen, that he barely registers his flesh-and-blood wife. In a tale that involves S&M and an uneasy bridging of the class divide, a wealthy writer(!!) bullies her meek husband around but finds a new life of the flesh with her servant. A phone-sex encounter turns into something with incestuous overtones.

Interestingly, the one story that involves a more-or-less conventional sexual relationship – “The 3 a.m. Show”, about two young lovers setting out to lose their virginity on Valentine’s Day – may be the strangest of the lot, since it takes a surreal turn midway: I won’t give away details, but suffice it to say that the lovers become the stars of a baroque, decadent nighttime performance. At its best – again, not so much in the actual writing but in the concept and structure – this piece about voyeurism suggests what Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” could look like if written in an age of projection rooms and hidden cameras. It gets my vote for one of the two most intriguing stories in the collection.

The other one is “Tipping the Velvet”, in which a bereaved woman named Gita finds herself gliding, unexpectedly but very enjoyably, into a first lesbian encounter… but that isn’t the most mysterious thing that will happen to her over the course of the night. In both these stories, there is some formal experimentation, including crosscutting (in one passage, Gita, while in the throes of passion, has visions of cemeteries and coffins) – they move back and forth across the line that separates reality from fantasy, private lives from public ones, “normalcy” from “deviant” behaviour.

If this reads like a schizophrenic review, I plead guilty. But that’s the nature of the book: even if you overlook the flaws in the writing, Wet can annoy and intrigue you at the same time. The author profile in the beginning says that Bookwala’s lines “are delicately laced with libido”. Not really: there is little that’s delicate or subtle about this collection. It is bold, brash, in your face, tiresomely florid at times … yet a case can be made that this approach is well-suited to the telling of stories about obsession verging on insanity. 

[An earlier post on Urmilla Deshpande's "carnal prose" collection Slither is here]

Saturday, February 11, 2017

In praise of “commercial” acting

[my latest Mint Lounge column]

“I am a hardcore commercial actor and I hate it when people remark that what we do is not art,” Rishi Kapoor says in his recently published memoir Khullam Khulla: Rishi Kapoor Uncensored. “How many actors can enact singing a qawwali like me? Or dance like Mithun Chakraborty? Or do a ‘Khaike paan Banaraswala’ like Amitabh Bachchan? It’s very easy to sneer at us and say that ‘serious’ cinema is superior to what we do.”

This passage reminded me of an old magazine piece from the early 1990s – I think the interviewee was Subhash Ghai, who, when asked why Hindi cinema couldn’t produce an actress of the quality of Meryl Streep or Susan Sarandon, shot back, “Can they dance as convincingly as Madhuri Dixit does?”

Such quotes, especially when taken out of context, might sound arrogant or amusing to someone who looks down on our traditional forms of cinematic expression, or on the Music + Drama formulation that produced the much-maligned word “melodrama”. You might dismiss them as coming from an overly defensive actor and director trying to mount a case for the formulaic films they specialised in.

But lazy and formulaic work can just as easily be produced in what we call “meaningful” – as opposed to “commercial” – cinema. Without getting into a broader debate about these categories, here’s a personal peeve: assessments of a film’s artistic merit are too often based on the idea that if something looks easy, is pleasing to the eye or gets your adrenaline flowing, than much effort or rigour can’t have gone into its creation. It’s all fun and games onscreen – ergo, the putting together must have been all fun and games too.

This snobbery manifests itself in many forms. For instance, well-informed movie buffs have long known that the Oscars seem incapable of honouring great work in comedy: some of the genre’s most timeless films and performances haven’t even been nominated. And here too, there are hierarchies. If a comedy has a clearly detectible “serious” function – say, dark social satire along the lines of Dr Strangelove or Jaane bhi do Yaaro – critics elevate it above comedy that is perceived as “only” providing belly-laughs. As if successfully providing belly-laughs – or skillfully doing physical slapstick like Harold Lloyd or Jerry Lewis, or engaging in verbal calisthenics like Groucho Marx – were a walk in the park.

On a related note, an actor’s work is frequently measured by the nature of the role and the film rather than by the actual performance. Much as I liked Deepika Padukone in Piku, I was surprised by the many reactions suggesting she had come of age as a performer by playing an understated part; I thought Padukone’s chomps as an actor (and as a star-actor, which is a marginally different but no less worthy thing) were already evident – for anyone who was willing to look – in her more mainstream roles in
films like Ram-Leela and Chennai Express. Incidentally, those two films are very different in tone, aesthetics and quality, but they would likely be clubbed together by the sort of viewer who celebrates Piku as being superior only because it isn’t glossy and doesn’t have songs. This, unfortunately, is what happens when people deal in categories rather than looking closely at individual entries in those categories.

On the subject of songs, Rishi Kapoor’s quote is a reminder not just of his own vibrant performances in qawwali scenes like Amar Akbar Anthony’s “Parda hai Parda” but also the general undervaluation of song-and-dance sequences. There are tiers of respectability here too. Some musical scenes announce their value immediately: take Waheeda Rahman’s brilliant snake dance in Guide, a scene that is driven not just by her remarkable dancing-acting but by the narrative subtext – Rosie, a caged bird, is throwing off her shackles, this is her first shout of rebellion. As the sequence builds in intensity and rhythm, almost anyone watching it will recognise that something profound and life-altering is going on.

In contrast, there is the song sequence that, at first glance, can seem nothing more than a rowdy bunch of people having a good old time – but which reveals layers as you re-watch it. I receive odd looks when I say that the ensemble sequence “Gallan Goodiyan” in Dil Dhadakne Do (2015) is a lesson in good filmmaking. I stick to this position, though, and not just because of the scene’s technical achievement – it is a single unbroken take, with Carlos Catalan’s camera whirling around the ship’s ballroom and focusing in turn on several different characters as they enter and exit the frame – but also because of how the lyrics, framing and gestures sum up things about the story and the characters.

Some characters participate wholeheartedly in the song, others linger on the fringes or appear briefly, and the size and nature of these appearances mirror the characters’ role in the narrative: for instance, the brother-sister duo Ayesha (Priyanka Chopra) and Kabir (Ranveer Singh) are the leads in the song, much the same way the film pivots around their conflicts and personal growth. Or note the throwaway moments like the one where Ayesha sings the line “Pyaar karne se bhi mushkil hai nibhaana” directly to her ex-boyfriend Sunny (Farhan Akhtar) and how it subtly comments on their relationship while also being an organic and credible part of a larger, playful interaction involving many other people.

In short: this is an excellently crafted scene, built around a catchy tune and robust singing, and extremely well performed. It is part of the film’s overall narrative movement and makes for good, economical storytelling in its own right.

And yes, it’s massive fun to watch too. Should we hold that against it?

[A related piece - about good acting in action sequences - is here. And here's a review of a recent book about Amar Akbar Anthony, which closely examines Akbar's function in the film]

Monday, January 23, 2017

Innocence and experience in Shlok Sharma's Haraamkhor

[my latest Mint Lounge column]

In a piece for Lounge last week, I mentioned the written disclaimers that were required to be shown before 1930s Hollywood gangster films, stating that the protagonists were public menaces whose activities must be condemned. Such proclamations are usually reductive, and aimed at viewers who need a simple, easily articulated takeaway from every “message” film they watch. But good films tend to resist such simplification; even when they end on an affirmative note, along the way they might do things that discomfit our moral impulses.

Shlok Sharma’s Haraamkhor – which is largely about a relationship between a 15-year-old girl named Sandhya and her teacher Shyam – begins with a title card telling us that sex with minors amounts to child abuse, a social evil that must be fought. Well-intentioned as this public-awareness message is, it barely scratches the surface of what this fine, subtle film actually does. In the end, yes, we do see that young people are vulnerable and easily exploited, and that a sweet schoolteacher could be a big bad wolf (even if he is played by someone as likable as Nawazuddin Siddiqui). But the art and craft of Haraamkhor lies in how it prods us to that conclusion, and the little ways in which it implicates us along the way.

This is achieved on many levels. For instance, those of us familiar with Siddiqui’s impressive body of work view him as an underdog in a glamorous film industry, and this affects our perceptions of the characters he plays. (More on that in this piece about Manjhi the Mountain Man.) Then there is the film’s use of a lilting track involving two little boys – Kamal (who has a crush on Sandhya) and his lovable, savant-like friend Mintu – who serve a function akin to Shakespeare’s clowns in this narrative, providing the leavening touches that offset the dark central story and sometimes blindside us. Also, the film doesn’t spell out everything about the Sandhya-Shyam relationship, instead inviting us to conjecture.

Most importantly, there is Shweta Tripathi’s remarkable performance as Sandhya. It is possible to wonder about the aptness of casting someone who was in her late twenties when the film was made. (In Sandhya’s second or third scene, a talkative viewer behind me was saying “Oh, she’s only in the 9th standard? I thought she was a college-girl”.) But if Sandhya had been played by a very young, possibly inexperienced actress, we would have seen Shyam as a pedophile, thoroughly in control of the situation, from the very first scene – and that would have been too easy. Part of this film’s skill is in making the relationship seem almost like one between equals: an unusual, uncomfortable romantic liaison where the girl sulks when she sees the man in an intimate embrace with his wife, and complains “Aapne kaha thha aapka usske saath ab sambandh nahin hai” (“You said you no longer had physical relations with her.”)

We can tell that Sandhya is in many ways mature for her age – she watches the hypocrisies and prevarications of the adult world from a distance, and seemingly understands much of it (not least because of her troubled relationship with her father) – but we also grasp that she hasn’t quite gained entry into that world yet; that she is emotionally raw, and may initially have seen Shyam as a father-substitute more than a lover. In a wonderfully performed scene – one of many where nothing seems to “happen” at plot level – Sandhya is eating an ice-cream, laughing and joking with Shyam. I won’t reveal the context, but they have come to the city for a very specific reason, and in this sequence we get to see both a little girl and a troubled young woman. Even as we judge Shyam for taking advantage of her, we see layers in their relationship that go beyond the predator-victim binary.

Many of us take an idealistic, patronising view of unprivileged or disadvantaged people. The rich say of the poor, “They have so little, they lead such simple lives, but look how warm their smiles are.” The emotions and capacities of physically disadvantaged people don’t always get full recognition. I was recently watching My Left Foot (1989), about the paraplegic artist Christy Brown. One of the great things about that film, and Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance in the lead, is that it lets us feel for Brown’s appalling personal circumstances, but also shows us qualities that we don’t associate with “victims”: he can’t move his limbs, but he has a rich and varied inner life, he even has a lascivious side. Closer home, Shonali Bose’s Margarita with a Straw (2014) was about a girl afflicted with cerebral palsy, who shows sexual desire (making many viewers very uncomfortable).

As adults, we similarly construct narratives about the innocence of children – who, of course, are also underprivileged citizens. One of Haraamkhor’s laugh-out-loud moments – and for some viewers, it could be nervous laughter – occurs when the sweet little Mintu uses a very adult expletive (the asterisked version: “ch*****”) while chatting with his friend. The moment doesn’t feel gratuitous, it feels organic; it’s plausible that a kid in this milieu would pick up the word. But Mintu uses the word without being aware of its precise meaning, its implications, and its place in an adult world of verbal violence with gendered overtones. And this ties in with the film’s larger themes. Haraamkhor is about the emotional and physical exploitation of a young person, but it is also a coming-of-age tale about someone who is dealing – in her own uncertain way – with difficult circumstances, standing unsteadily on the fragile bridge that links innocence with experience.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Gangs of Cinemapur: a look back at the gangster movie

[Did this long piece as the Mint Lounge cover story last week]

A man sits in the shadows, head bowed, providing evasive, monosyllabic answers to a cop’s questions, and looking up only in response to “Record ke liye apna naam bata?” (“Tell me your name for the record”). The man is the gangster-politician Arun Gawli – played here by Arjun Rampal – and the film is Ashim Ahluwalia’s Daddy, its title referring to the term of obeisance used for Gawli in a world where “Bhai” or “Dada” are the norms. The scene is from one of two widely watched new trailers for upcoming films about the underworld.

As if to complete a pattern – to tell us that a “daddy”, or a dada, can have a mommy standing firmly behind him – the other trailer, for the Shah Rukh Khan-starrer Raees, begins with the words “Ammi Jaan kehti thhi…” (“My mother used to say…”). It’s a reminder of how central the mother figure once was, as solace-provider or avenging angel, for Hindi cinema’s anti-heroes who lived outside conventional moral zones – such as the farmer-turned-dacoit Birju in the 1940 Aurat (and its more famous remake Mother India), or Amitabh Bachchan’s many Vijays from Deewaar (1975) to Agneepath (1990) via Shakti (1982).

I didn’t think of those films, though, on hearing the opening words of the Raees trailer. I thought of that ball of dynamite James Cagney and his very special relationship with an ever-lovin’ Ma in two of his best gangster roles.

Mothers, molls, modes

In The Public Enemy (1931) – a film with an outlaw brother-vs-upright brother angle that Deewaar owes a debt to – Cagney’s Tom Powers is called “my baby” by his mom long after he has fallen in with a gang of thugs (and after his brother has dramatically rejected a wad of Tom’s ill-begotten money). In White Heat (1949), Cagney’s psychotic, oddly infantile Cody Jarrett sits on his mother’s lap during a tender scene (the actor was pushing fifty at the time), goes memorably berserk in jail when he hears about her death, and hollers “Made it, Ma! Top of the world!” in an explosive ending.

Mothers aren’t always so important to gangsters. Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather and The Godfather Part II are among the most feted and widely seen films ever, but how many of us remember any notable scenes involving Vito Corleone’s wife, who is mother to Sonny, Michael and Fredo? Though very much around in both films (and played by two actresses in different time periods, much the same way Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro both played Vito), she is a silent, peripheral presence; many Godfather buffs wouldn’t even know her name (it’s Carmela).

Generally speaking, the women in this very male-centric genre play small but important roles. They can be molls or floozies who bring out the nasty in the protagonist: watch Tom smash a grapefruit into a part-time girlfriend’s face in a famous breakfast-table scene in The Public Enemy. They can be moderating influences, or the key to a mobster’s humanity: see the warm, wise, knowing presence of Diane Keaton’s Kay in the Godfather films, and how Michael (Al Pacino) begins his fall into perdition when he chillingly shuts the door on her near the end of The Godfather Part II. See the upwardly mobile Shoaib (Emraan Hashmi) in Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai (2010) – set in the 70s – getting gooey-eyed as he goes to watch the romantic film Bobby with his girlfriend, instead of the action or revenge dramas of the period. Or Anita (Parveen Babi), the golden-hearted “bad girl” in Deewaar offering a brief glimmer of hope that Vijay’s story might have a happy ending.

Even a moral compass can throw up faulty readings. In the Raees trailer, a mother’s quoted words – probably spoken with genuine good intentions – are used to justify a life in crime. The full sentence is “Ammi Jaan kehti thhi koi dhanda chhota nahin hota / Aur dhande se bada koi dharm nahin.” (“…no work or business is too small. And no religion is bigger than work.”) We are left in little doubt about the nature of the protagonist’s “dhanda” when a cop, played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui, retorts, “Jissko tu dhanda bolta hai na, crime main bolta hoon” (“What you call business, I call crime”).

Of course, in most gangster films, crime IS business, or a way of life, and a point often made is that the line between gangster and legitimate businessman may be very thin. This begs the question: how to define a gangster, or a gangster film?

He might be a kingpin who runs large syndicates and is mostly impervious to the law (like the Haji Mastan or Dawood Ibrahim-inspired dons in so many Hindi films over the years), or a small-time criminal who wields a limited degree of influence in his immediate circles and can easily get into trouble – like the eponymous hero, played by Jean Gabin, of the 1937 French film Pepe le Moko. He could be a family man – or a Family man, if you prefer the capitalized version – or he might be someone who insists, as the villainous Anna Seth does in Parinda, “Dhande mein koi kisi ka bhai nahin, koi kisi ka beta nahin.” (“In this business, there are no brothers or sons.”) There are many available dramatic arcs for these characters. A lone wolf works his way up to becoming a messiah-like figure for a community – see Velu Naicker in Nayakan (1987), based on the real-life “godfather” of Bombay’s downtrodden Tamils, Varadarajan Mudaliar. Or he is cut down in his prime. Or a once-successful gangster wants to reform or legalise, but finds that the past is too full of tangled knots for him to untie.

Internationally, the gangster genre is a clearly identifiable subset of the crime film (which includes noir and suspense). Mostly it deals with organized crime in urban settings where inequality and opportunity exist in equal measure. In American cinema, the initial wave of films, made around the Great Depression and the Prohibition era, were tied to the social phenomenon of large-scale migration to cities in the early 20th century, the consequent grappling with poverty and injustice, and the formation of criminal gangs. The cult of real-life figures such as Al Capone helped shape the DNA of movies like Little Caesar, Scarface and Angels with Dirty Faces, and even in these early years there were many intriguing meeting points between reality and fiction: for instance, the real-life gangster John Dillinger was killed shortly after leaving a theatre where he had watched Manhattan Melodrama – a film in which Clark Gable played a charming crook who goes to the electric chair. Many decades later, movies like Barry Levinson’s Bugsy (1991) and Michael Mann’s Public Enemies (2009) would attempt to provide a distant, historical view of this period, its many colourful personalities, and its cinema.

While some gangster movies are loose biographies of real-life figures, and some simply content themselves with telling intimate fictional stories, there are also big-canvas films about the building of a society atop the twin pillars of law and lawlessness. You can often identify such films by their titles, as with Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America (1984) or Martin Scorsese’s 2002 Gangs of New York (the title of the U2 song in its soundtrack, “The Hands That Built America”, tells its own story).


In the Indian context, the genre’s boundaries are harder to locate. In the early years we had hardly any films with a gangster as protagonist – such characters were more often the shadowy figures who served as nemeses or mentors (or both) for the hero: the sinister KN Singh leading the innocent Dev Anand towards nightclubs and gambling dens in Baazi (1951); or the more benevolent Motilal in Anari (1959), a “respectable” businessman who isn’t above letting an accidentally adulterated bottle of medicine stay in the market.

It was mainly with the growth of the dacoit film, and the outlaws played by Dilip Kumar in Gunga Jumna (1961) or Sunil Dutt in Mujhe Jeene Do (1963), that the leading man took on the mantle of being a “gangster-like” figure. But this raises the question: can a rural daku film be granted honorary membership in the “gangster film” category? Could Indian cinema have given the genre one of its few major female protagonists, via Shekhar Kapur’s hugely influential Bandit Queen, about the journey of Phoolan Devi from victimhood to power?

In 50 Indian Film Classics, the writer MK Raghavendra proposes that in Hindi cinema a daku film that moves to the city becomes a gangster film. That seems reasonable enough, but the lines here are more blurred than in Hollywood, where the Western (with bandits operating in rural landscapes) and the city-based gangster film are clearly separate categories. Mainstream Hindi cinema, on the other hand, famously mixes and mashes genres, and some of our dramatic stories straddle both rural and urban settings.

There was a time when an idealistic binary was drawn between the village (or small town) as a site of innocence and communal living, versus the big city – usually Bombay – as the impersonal, opportunity-and-corruption-laden place where you might find new definitions of family and friendship, but where you might also lose your soul if you aren’t careful. However, in more recent years, films like Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur have depicted a form of organized, parallel-economy crime in the hinterland, where gangsters don’t have to live as gun-toting outlaws amidst barren rocks, but can be firmly entrenched in the community. And from an earlier time, there is at least one important film I can think of which suggests that a capacity for violence can flow very easily from one milieu to another.

This film is JP Dutta’s 1989 Hathyar, which has a small cult following today despite never having been officially released on DVD – and despite having been overshadowed in its own time by the other major gangster film of that year, Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Parinda. Looked at together, these two films offer a fascinating design. Both are commercial movies, featuring big stars, song sequences and doses of high emotion, but they are unusually sophisticated and carefully crafted for their period, and both subvert some mainstream conventions: Parinda, for instance, has a startling burst of climactic violence where the romantic leads played by Anil Kapoor and Madhuri Dixit are murdered in bed on their wedding night, as well as a stylized, over-the-top performance by Nana Patekar as the main villain, a sort of proto-Keyser Soze who, it is indicated, burnt his own wife and child alive (and, unlike Soze, is haunted by the memory; but that’s a relatively minor detail).

An important difference is that while Parinda is exclusively a Bombay movie – drawing partly on Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954), about one brother who has become morally compromised and another who is tainted by association – Hathyar moves between the city and the more feudal setting where the protagonist Avinash (Sanjay Dutt), scion of a Thakur clan, first learnt to wield guns as a child. Once in the city, his appetite for destruction finds new avenues and makes him a natural weapon for established gangsters.

Taken together, these films point the way forward to Ram Gopal Varma’s hard-hitting Satya (1998), a gangster-movie landmark that brought together a number of talents – notably screenplay writer Anurag Kashyap, music director Vishal Bhardwaj and the actor Manoj Bajpayee – who would have significant careers in the multiplex era to come, and would also do important work in the genre. Kashyap, for instance, made the colourful, multi-generational saga Gangs of Wasseypur as well as the more sober Black Friday – not a “gangster film” exactly, but one that offered a plausible depiction of the real-life underworld don Tiger Memon (played by Pavan Malhotra). Meanwhile, Varma himself went on to make other underworld films with varying degrees of success, notably Company and Sarkar.

Melodrama, style and the moral question

We usually take it for granted that commercial Hindi cinema reshapes established international genres to make them more melodramatic, or masaledaar. To a degree, this is true of the gangster genre: consider such films as the Godfather-inspired Zulm ki Hukumat (1992), which sugar-coated the patriarch (Pitamber, played by Dharmendra), clearly spelling out that he wouldn’t ruin the lives of innocent youngsters by trading in drugs; the story thereby enabled his two brothers, the opportunistic Shakti Kapoor and the noble Govinda, to fit into a bad guy-good guy classification in a way that Sonny and Michael Corleone never could.

But as should be clear to anyone who knows the form, even outside India the gangster film has always lent itself naturally to being dramatic, larger than life, full of panache. (As the critic David Thomson noted, “The gangster can do and say things that are over the top.”) This is true not only of the wonderful films of the early 1930s, a time when sound cinema was in its infancy and the recording equipment as undeveloped as the patois of some of those street rowdies – it is also true of the second great movement which began in the more “naturalistic” late 1960s with films like Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde and Scorsese’s Mean Streets.

Even The Godfather, which looks stately and subdued from a distance – two of its defining characteristics being cinematographer Gordon Willis’s use of low-light photography, and the mumbling “understatement” of the Method Acting school – has plenty of showy things in it: look at the languorous camera movement, sadistically stretching the moment out for the viewer, when the horse’s bloody head in the bed is revealed; look at nearly everything James Caan’s Sonny Corleone does, including his assault on his brother-in-law, and the death scene he gets at a gas station. And – at risk of putting you off, dear reader – one of my favourite moments in Coppola’s trilogy is the magnificently melodramatic ending of The Godfather Part III, the scene on the opera-house steps (such an apt setting) where the death of Michael’s daughter is followed by his silent scream, set to Pietro Mascagni’s lush Cavalleria rusticana score (as well as the wailing of a large and vocal Italian clan).

It can be very stimulating when the sensibility of a filmmaker who isn’t afraid to use style for style’s sake is married with a story and a protagonist that demands flair: think of the two films Brian DePalma made with Pacino – the 1983 Scarface remake (about a gloriously unrepentant drug-lord) and the mellower Carlito’s Way 10 years later (an ex-con wants to escape the past and start afresh but can’t). There are many other delightfully show-offish scenes: Marcellus Wallace and his verbose hitmen Jules and Vincent in Pulp Fiction (1994); the shootout on the Union Station steps in The Untouchables (1988), and the long tracking scene in the same film where the camera follows a newspaper’s journey all the way to the hotel-room bedside of Al Capone; the visceral ending of The Public Enemy, Tom Powers trussed up in a body cast, like something out of a horror film, falling forward when his family opens the door. I could go on, but you get the drift.


However, the stylishness inherent in the genre also raises what might boringly be referred to as the Ethical Question: if gangster films are fast-paced and thrilling, can they also meaningfully critique the lifestyles they depict?

Mainstream Hindi cinema has traditionally required a comeuppance for the bad guy or for the faltering anti-hero, but even in the Angry Young Man 1970s you could sense filmmakers straining to break free from the “rules” and to be unabashedly amoral. This was achieved to a degree by the dual role in Don (1978), which allowed Bachchan to play a good-guy part (the bumpkin double) for most of the film, but also gave us a glimpse, in the original Don who dies 40 minutes into the story, of a ruthless man who doesn’t have the trappings of a tragic back-story or a suffering, Nirupa Roy-like mother.

But even a film that does explicitly state a moral position can take on a life of its own and veer away from that stated position towards nihilism or the celebration of crime. I’m thinking again of the opening of Hathyar, where a little boy is gifted a gun by his Thakur uncle. The father objects and tries to take it away, but the son says “Nahin, hum kheleinge” (“No, I will play”), and the close-up of his little hand clutching this “toy” dissolves into one of the adult Avinash lovingly loading bullets into a shiny rifle to a tuneful background score. It’s a seductive scene, and there are others in this vein later; though Hathyar’s “crime and violence doesn’t pay” message is spelled out, and there is a fine role for Rishi Kapoor as the voice of reason, one can wonder if the film compromises itself by making the violence too thrilling (incidentally, Kapoor played a deliciously profane Dawood Ibrahim-like character in Nikkhil Advani’s D-Day about 25 years later, and seemed to relish it more than his goody-goody Hathyar part).

The Hollywood gangster films of the early 1930s were required by the Production Code to include a prologue and epilogue stating that the protagonists were menaces and that their activities needed to be condemned and fought. Yet, as more than one reviewer of the time pointed out, this felt like a token gesture. In both The Public Enemy, where he groans “I ain’t so tough” before collapsing in the gutter, and in Angels with Dirty Faces, where his character “turns yellow” before being executed, Cagney had to do things that would make him seem like a loser to impressionable youngsters watching the film. But given the actor’s charisma and the force of his best scenes, it probably didn’t work.

Here is the conflict: the most enthralling protagonists – the tragic anti-heroes whom we are sympathetic to, the psychopaths whose wildly over-the-top actions we are excited by, the characters who make our pulse race – are the same people whom the “ethical film” is expected to condemn in the end. Given that Shah Rukh Khan is, to put it mildly, a charming actor with a fan following, it’s likely that these questions will be raised again when Raees, and other gangster films, hit our screens. 


[A longer post about Hathyar is here]

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Rooms and private traps: on living with (and growing away from) a parent

[Did a version of this personal piece for Indian Quarterly's "Family" issue -- about my mother, and some thoughts that have been running through my mind since she was diagnosed with metastatic cancer six months ago. Needless to say, such a piece will always feel hopelessly inadequate and even pointless. I have multiple other versions of it in my head, most of them twenty times longer, which will never be written; for now, this will have to do]


Jack is five. He lives in a single, locked room with his Ma.”
(Terse summary on the back cover of Emma Donoghue’s Room)


The last film I watched with my mother in a movie hall was the 2015 Room, based on Emma Donoghue’s Booker-shortlisted novel. Two things about that sentence. First: our last film. That sounds bleak and final, and I hope there will be more to come, but at the time of writing there is more reason to be cautious than optimistic.

Second: it wasn’t just the last film we saw together in a hall, it was also the last film we saw together, period. And I can’t think of the last time we saw a whole film together in a more casual, everyday situation, just sitting in front of a TV set while chatting.

But I’ll return to these points.

Here’s how Room became that film. Years ago, before I had read the Donoghue or even known exactly what it was about, I realised that my mother had developed an attachment to it. The novel sat prominently for months on the table where she selected and stacked books that had come to me from various publishers, and whose titles or synopses -- or  jacket covers -- she  had found intriguing. The great majority of those books were abandoned after a few pages when she found they weren’t up her street, but Room she finished, over many sessions of sporadic reading: putting the book down after a few pages, returning to it between her dalliances with less demanding things such as movie magazines.

It wasn’t until I heard about the upcoming film version, and read plot details online, that I learnt what Room was about. And then, knowing that the film was going to show in Delhi and that mum might like to see it, I read the novel myself as preparation, and found myself thinking anew about what she might have found so compelling.

Room is told in the voice of a five-year-old boy who has spent his whole life with his mother in a single small room where she has been kept captive since being kidnapped as a teenager. Here are two people who have been victims of a terrible, ongoing crime -- one  of them in full possession of the facts, nurturing and guarding and making up stories for the other, who is still innocent and unaware that there is a life and a world beyond the tiny space he has known all his short life.

This is, needless to say, an extraordinary narrative situation. The broad premise, and what occurs within it, might be considered unrealistic -- or  at least, very improbable -- but  it also contains an allegory for aspects of a more “normal” mother-child relationship, especially a close one that involves a great deal of mutual interdependence. First there is the womb, a safe space from which the child must eventually be ejected to discover the outside world; and then, in that outside world, there is a still larger “room”, the sheltering one of parenthood, which this infant will stay encased in for at least a few years. Simultaneously the parent must prepare to “free” herself from the belief -- with  its attendant agonies and ecstasies -- that  she alone can walk her child through life.

Did my mother think about any of this when she became so involved with the book? I don’t know, I haven’t asked her (and I won’t), but even if she had, it would probably have been in a subconscious way; she wouldn’t have articulated these thoughts like I just did, all pedantic and reviewer-like. More than a tendency to intellectualise, she has always had what I think of as an intuitive, commonsense wisdom. (The only "literary" observation she made to me about the novel was that she had been first taken aback and disoriented, then gradually fascinated, by Jack’s fumbling first-person narrative; it took her a while to see that the reader was meant to understand more about the situation than the narrator himself did.)

Still, I wonder if she thought about my childhood.


“Jack is five. He lives in a single, locked room with his Ma.”

Jai is eight. He and his mother stay locked up in a room at the end of the house, down the hall -- not  all the time, but on days when things are especially bad at home; when the big bad wolf huffs and puffs and threatens to blow the door down.

We were always exceptionally close. How could we not be, when she was my life-raft on a sea of uncertainty, at an age when I barely knew enough to be certain or uncertain about anything; a shield not just from my father’s unpredictable, alcohol-fuelled violence but also -- and this I realised only much later -- from  the possibility of my becoming over-pampered, turned into a privileged lout, by well-off grandparents trying too hard to compensate for their son’s behaviour.

I don’t want to get too dramatic about this: our lives were never close to being as bad as those of Room’s protagonists. The terrifying memories -- of  my father hammering on a locked door, or overturning a huge, heaped dining table with unfathomable strength, or physically assaulting a Sikh priest who was reading from the Granth Sahib during an akhand paath in our house -- intersect with other memories of going to school; going (once in a while) to friends’ parties; of mum taking up a part-time job as a doctor’s receptionist when she found that her monthly pocket money wasn’t enough (and maybe that she needed to feel useful). But the bad memories are always there too, and aspects of our life certainly felt horror film-ish -- the  many times we had to sneak out when it got dark, for instance, and spend a scared night at a neighbour’s place, or in the maid’s quarters behind the house.

And yes, ultimately, there is no undramatic way of putting this, we did "escape". Aided by the confidence we had in our relationship, and the rock-solid support of my mother’s widowed mother, who -- her own troubles notwithstanding -- took  us in hand when she realised that things had gone out of control. After a mercifully brief custody battle, we ended up living together in a then-very-green-and-quiet south Delhi colony called Saket, which means “heaven”. (But I won’t underline that. Mustn’t get too dramatic.)


A few years after this, my interest in cinema as something one could think about, read in depth about, perhaps even write professionally about one day, began with Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, and the reservoirs of film literature it led me to. By this point my mother and I were leading secure enough lives that it was possible to smile at the film’s macabre Oedipal theme. Mum (or Amma as I have always called her for some reason, late as it is in this piece to reveal such a central piece of information) told me how, in the early 1960s when the film released in Bombay, her brother came home and solemnly informed their mother that he would like to have her “mummified” after she had passed on.

(“Needles, sawdust… the chemicals are the only things that cost anything,” Norman Bates says, explaining the practicalities of taxidermy; a horror-movie monster, yes, but also someone who knows what it is like to be so close to and so dependent on a parent that you want to keep their physical presence with you “forever”.)

Despite the emotional security that had come with leaving my father’s house, I was cripplingly shy, prone to melancholia and loneliness. And watching it when I did, Psycho touched something deep in me. I found sadness in it, in scenes like the one where Norman responds to the insinuation that he and his mother might have been looking for money to leave their motel and start a new life elsewhere. “This place happens to be my only world,” he says, “I grew up in that house up there. I had a very happy childhood.” He sounds defiant. “My mother and I were more than happy.”

Perhaps on some level, without being able to express it this way at age 14, I was instinctively realising how close I had come to leading the trapped, circumscribed life that Norman and his dead mother do. But then, as he says in the film’s most moving sequence, a long conversation with a conflicted young woman who has “gotten off the main road”, we are all clamped in our private traps anyway -- even  when we seem free. “We scratch and we claw, but only at the air, only at each other.”


Imprisonment, Dependence, Liberation, Self-discovery, Stagnation… those are some big themes, and despite my professed reluctance to get dramatic, I can’t help returning to them. And it isn’t just by chance that I have been talking about two films that involve very intense mother-son relationships and the very unusual situations in which those relationships grow, ossify or decay. I have in recent years become aware of a glitch in my relationship with my mother. Put briefly: it seems that our closeness has almost always been founded on big things -- the Important and the Dramatic -- and not enough on the minutiae of life; the Casual, the Mundane.

From the beginning we always shared the really important stuff, and I never thought this was unusual until I heard stories about all the things my friends -- even  the ones from the seemingly open-minded, cosmopolitan families -- routinely  hid from their parents: about girlfriends, or bunking college, or their first cigarette. When I took my girlfriend -- a young woman in an unhappy marriage, on the brink of separation -- across to meet my mother for the first time, I felt none of the nervousness that most other young people I knew would feel in that situation. It was the most natural thing to do.

And this flowed from how things had always been between us, from my mother’s own openness. When I couldn’t have been more than 12 or 13, she told me about the marriage proposal she had got from an uncle, a childhood friend who had always held a torch for her, and how she had been very tempted but didn’t take it up because it would mean relocating to Lagos, too large a bridge for us to cross at that point in our lives. On another occasion, when the husband of one of her neighbourhood friends made a sexual overture -- figuring that a divorced woman was easy pickings -- I was the first to hear of it, and to be privy to her shock as well as her fear that she may have brought it upon herself by bantering with him at social gatherings.

Taking as much pride as I did in this candour, it took me a long time to discover that I may be undervaluing other sorts of conversations and interactions: the small talk that keeps people going day by day; the sort of behaviour that introverts sometimes dismiss as flippant or inconsequential, but which in its own way brings nourishment and meaning to a relationship over time. Casual chatter and gossip are ways of ventilating the heart, an old grandmother says in Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel Embroideries. In Yasujiro Ozu’s 1959 film Good Morning, when a little boy tells his parents that he’s fed up of their polite, vacuous conversation -- the  repeated “good mornings” and “how are yous”, which seem vacuous or hypocritical -- one  of them responds that such talk is essential: “It's a lubricant for the world.”

My mother and I never quite learnt these lessons -- or perhaps we knew them once and gradually became careless about them. Partly this was a personality matter -- both  of us being, to different degrees, very private people -- and partly a result of circumstances; for many years while growing up I was intimidated by my nani’s boisterous personality and kept to my room while she was around. But it also reflects the growing-away-from-a-parent process that everyone (except, maybe, a Norman Bates) goes through.

The second half of Donoghue’s Room is made sharply poignant by the mother’s realisation that her son will never again be as dependent on her as he was during their years of incarceration. I have never really lived away from my mother -- even after getting married and shifting to another flat in the same colony, I continued spending my working day as a freelance writer in my old room, my comfort zone, in her house. But like most children do, I moved away in other ways: into new worlds populated by new friends, into a job and the circles it introduced me to, but also into my own inner spaces.

There was a time, long ago, when we played Scrabble together, or watched TV shows together, in the first years after satellite TV came to India. This gradually stopped. As I became embarrassed by the tackiness of some of the Hindi films we rented and watched on videocassette every Friday, I started lingering about outside the room where mum and nani were watching the film -- and shortly afterwards, I moved away from Hindi cinema altogether, and into new realms that excluded my mother. One thing followed another, and casual conversation became increasingly hard; we rarely even sat down and had meals together. Despite living in the same house, we became… not estranged, but something else -- something I don’t know the word for.

Can a relationship that is really, really close in essence also be distant and awkward in some important contexts? And when a new sort of special situation comes around -- one  that demands an everyday intimacy -- what then?


I have had to think about these things ever since the day last July when I sat down to talk with mum about what I thought would be a relatively mundane medical issue -- her  lingering discomfort and back pain, which I’d assumed was an offshoot of an old kidney condition, worsened by many years of self-medicating -- and she told me, all matter of fact, “No, it isn’t the kidney. It’s breast cancer. I have had it for a while, so it’s probably quite advanced by now.”

World-altering though that moment was, it’s almost funny when I think of it now. The fan whirring above us. A reality show playing on low volume in the background. Me, having come into her room, knowing her aversion to doctors and hospitals, with a speech carefully prepared to put her at ease (“We’ll go once, it’ll take just 10 minutes, you can tell them what medicines you’ve been taking, they’ll tell us if there’s something else you should be doing, and that’s it... you don’t have to agree to any intrusive procedures or examinations if you aren’t comfortable”), the deadpan look on her face as I recited the first two or three sentences of that speech -- as casually as I could, looking around as I said the words, at the dog, at the TV, so she wouldn’t think I was arm-twisting her -- and then her interrupting me with her grand revelation: oh no, this is the start of something much bigger than you think.

Another case of what should have been a quotidian exchange turning into something larger than life, like old Hindi movies about terminally ill patients. Another demonstration that the ‘Casual’ switch is jammed when it comes to the two of us.

In the weeks that followed -- a fortnight-long hospital stint precipitated by a worried-looking oncologist saying “Can we admit her right now? It’s important”; the realization that my mother, with her ridiculously high pain threshold, had a cancer-caused crack in her spine, which had to be mended before anything else could be done; the days and nights divided between handling things in the hospital and looking after our high-strung canine child Lara, who had been completely dependent on mum; watching the deterioration and immobilization of a woman who, to my eyes at least, had seemed in decent shape for her 63 years just a few weeks earlier, certainly capable of living alone -- through  all this and more, I had plenty of time to wonder how it had come to this: how a mother whom I saw every day had been diagnosed so late that the disease was almost certainly incurable; why it had to be her closest friend, an aunt who lived downstairs, who alerted me with a couple of phone calls to say that mum was in so much pain late at night that she had -- and  this was the biggest red light of all -- been unable to feed Lara.

And, naturally, I couldn’t help thinking that if I had spent more “casual” time with her in the previous few months -- even sitting around in the evenings in her room for 15-20 minutes each day while she watched TV or listened to music -- I would have been more alert to the little signs, the displays of pain that she had kept hidden.


One side-effect of mum’s chemotherapy is that it has made her sentimental about little things, and at unexpected times. One day, apropos of nothing, she asked if I would massage her aching shoulder for a bit -- and then, smiling, squeezing my hand, told her nurse that I had “the healing touch”. And I winced. Only momentarily, but I couldn’t help it; this overt display of closeness and affection was discomfiting.

Visiting the toy store Hamleys with a friend and his little daughter the next day, I idly glanced at art-and-craft games that I thought might be useful for mum -- not so much to pass the time but to keep her mind active, since people with lesions in the brain, and risk of seizures or mental atrophy, need to do this. Soon I realised that I was looking mainly at the one-person activities. Given that I had flexible working hours, which I mostly spent in her house, shouldn’t I have made an effort to find something we could share, if only for a few minutes each day? Was I nervous about the small talk that would inevitably accompany such a joint endeavour? Or was I afraid that such proximity would make me privy to the involuntary groans of pain that came from her when she moved her shoulder or back at an awkward angle? And in either case, what did that say about me -- “such a good, dutiful son”, as I am often called by visitors to the house?

But even with the knowledge that time may be running out and every day is precious, how do you suddenly begin doing the things you haven’t been accustomed to doing for years? How do you force yourself to sit down and chat about “trivial” or “inconsequential” things, or just play Scrabble, with a parent-patient who might need a psychological boost, when the two of you have long fallen out of that habit and become locked in your own little boxes?

Inevitably, given the situation, the bulk of our interactions are about urgent and important things: I walk into her room at fixed intervals to check on her medicine intake and her meals, to confirm a blood-sample appointment, to discuss contacting a new nursing agency when the current one raises its fees. But I’m also making efforts now -- small, self-conscious, not very successful ones -- to turns things around: to chat with her about the currency situation, or banter about whether her post-cancer wig is more convincing than Donald Trump’s real hair, or show her a joke someone had shared on Facebook.

Still confined to our own rooms. Stuck in private traps. But trying.


[An earlier post about caregiving is here. And here is my long essay about Hindi-movie mothers for a Zubaan anthology]