Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Andar ka shaitan: an essay on Prakash Jha's Raajneeti

[Did a version of this essay for Caravan magazine. I wrote it two days after Raajneeti was released - having watched a first-day-first-show - but it's only in print now, and that can be a bit frustrating because literally hundreds of reviews have appeared in the meantime. No matter: it's very satisfying to have a nearly 2000-word space to discuss a film]

The elaborate pre-release publicity for Prakash Jha’s Raajneeti was misleading on at least one front. It stressed Katrina Kaif’s centrality to the story as a Sonia Gandhi-like figure – a politician’s widow who steps up to re-ignite her Party’s dying embers – but it turned out that Kaif’s role was relatively insubstantial and her sober sari get-up merely a late twist in a long narrative. In any case, despite the film’s title, its focus isn’t so much on raajneeti per se as on a dysfunctional family that happens to be in a position to play out its private games of ego and one-upmanship on the stage of state politics.

In that sense, it’s appropriate that Raajneeti uses the Mahabharata as its palimpsest. More than once, the ancient epic tells us that after exiling his Pandava cousins to the forest, the Kaurava prince Duryodhana – ostensibly the villain of the show – was a just ruler, mindful of the welfare of his subjects. A cynic could suggest, then, that the Mahabharata war – with the Pandavas cast as heroes cleansing the world of sin – was more about settling personal scores than about grand ideas of duty and righteousness, or improving the commoner's lot. After all, the average soldier has little to do other than serve as vulture carrion strewn across the battlefield at the end.

More seriously, the Mahabharata is a complex, morally ambiguous work of literature. Read well, it allows us to empathise – to a degree – with every character; to understand how little actions, not always malicious to begin with, can assemble a cataclysmic tragedy. Jha’s film stretches the amorality to a point where it’s impossible to root for anyone – with the exception of a revolutionary leader who makes a five-minute appearance during the opening credits, delivers an impassioned speech about politicians’ apathy towards the common man, and is never seen or heard again. Bhaskar Sanyal’s microphone sound is cut off mid-rant, but in a way the rest of the film is a demonstration of the truth of his words.

Raajneeti’s canvas of characters and interrelationships is so big that a 10-minute voiceover is required to get the story in place. Once that’s done, we learn that friction is building between the tight-lipped Veerendra Pratap (Manoj Bajpai), who considers himself the rightful heir to a political legacy, and his charismatic but equally power-hungry cousin Prithvi (Arjun Rampal). As the struggle escalates, Prithvi’s US-based kid brother Samar (Ranbir Kapoor) - so naïve about political privileges that he rebukes his father for coming to the airport (“Papa, all this security! You’re holding up the traffic!”) – is drawn into the fold. Watching him with lovelorn eyes is his childhood friend Indu (Kaif), who dreams of being driven around in a “laal batti” car someday. Meanwhile, a modern-day Karna shows up in the form of the lower-class Sooraj (Ajay Devgan) who, like his mythical predecessor, wears earrings/kundalas and glowers a great deal. The illegitimate half-brother of Prithvi and Samar, he has been brought up by the family driver but fiercely refuses to chauffeur anyone around, opting to become a warrior instead; Dalit politics is his battleground, and when he is shunned by Prithvi’s camp he aligns himself with Veerendra.

For most of its running time, this film has a certain vitality. An incisive script, assured editing and a few snappy performances keep things humming along, even during the many wordy confrontational scenes where individual hubris is shown to trump good governance. But as it draws on, it loses interest in character motivation or growth and becomes a guessing game: how (and in what order) will these players get their comeuppance?

In the process, the Mahabharata template is used in a lazy, muddle-headed way. The scene where Sooraj’s real mother Bharati goes to meet her firstborn is an obvious riff on the Kunti-Karna meeting before the war, and it underlines the point with incongruous use of archaic language (“Tum mere jeshth putra ho,” says Bharati, temporarily lapsing into Sanskritised Hindi), but the scene carries hardly any dramatic force or thematic relevance, because these people have no interiority. When Sooraj speaks emotionally (or as emotionally as Ajay Devgan, in his familiar, brooding anti-hero avatar, can get) about his kinship with Veerendra, it’s unconvincing because we have been given no real sense of a relationship between the two men. Further, when he rejects his mother’s claim on him by declaring himself a Dalit representative, it rings false; he may think of himself as a “son of the soil”, but the film isn’t interested in showing us how he’s using his newfound position to help his constituency. The scene exists purely as a reference to a familiar text, a “connect the dots” moment.

And there are many such moments, drawing not only on the Mahabharata but also Coppola’s The Godfather, as well as real-life incidents in Indian politics. A shot of a mangled body after a car-bomb explosion is reminiscent of the infamous on-site photographs following Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination. Even “Bharati” can be seen as a Mother India figure: she has a short dalliance with a Left-wing revolutionary (in the film’s first scene, set in the 1970s), produces a bastard child – an underprivileged Dalit – but then ends up plighting her troth to a political dynasty that considers itself entitled to power for all time.

These references and symbols are intriguing in their way, but on a more basic level the film can be read as a boy’s video game, an elaborate playing out of male fantasies about control and vengeance. For most of the men here, political power and brute force are more arousing than sex. Women are marginal figures in their world:
Prithvi and Samar manipulate Indu for their own ends, while Veerendra and Sooraj appear to have no romantic attachments at all. Prithvi’s decision to sleep separately from his new wife reminded me of the impotent patriarch in Jha’s 1997 film Mrityudand abandoning his wife and becoming the local temple’s head priest so he can wield power through religious authority (and his perceived “moral superiority” as a celibate).

That film, and Jha’s other movies like Gangajal and Apaharan, dealt with morally slippery situations but stayed rooted in a general sense of right and wrong. One might even accuse them of being too idealistic about the possibility of positive change: in Mrityudand, Ketaki (Madhuri Dixit), a resourceful young housewife who takes on the dirty power games in grass-roots politics, is less a believable character in her own right and more a symbol of what could be possible; she comes up trumps nearly every time and seems a little naïve when she instructs another young woman, trapped in a hopeless situation, to rise above her lot.

There is no such romanticism in Raajneeti. It embodies the self-absorption of people in power, people whose actions write the book of history. Consider Indu’s words at her first rally: “Kaise bardaasht kar rahe hain aap jo hamaare saath ho raha hai?” (“How can you people tolerate the injustice that is happening with us?”) You think perhaps she’s talking about the problems facing her state? Ha, think again: she’s really just complaining to this large crowd about the bad things that have been happening to her and her family of goons. It’s a brilliant exercise in unselfconscious narcissism, and naturally her listeners (all of whom no doubt have personal tragedies of their own, minus large mansions to fret about them in) lap up every word. Such is the eternal relationship between the wide-eyed public and its netas on the podium.

Raajneeti ke khel mein andar ka shaitan nikalta hai – issi se main darta tha” (“Politics brings out the Devil in a person – that’s why I was afraid of getting involved in it”) says Samar with surprising introspection at the end; but as he flies back to the US (where he’s just completed a thesis about “the subtextual violence in 19th century Victorian poetry”!) one gets no sense that he regrets the carnage, or that he will ever be held to account for his part in it. In any case, he gets the final word – or the final gunshot – not because he is ethically in the right, but because he happens to be the one holding the gun at the right time. Isn’t that what power is all about?


Shyam Benegal’s 1981 film Kalyug situated the Mahabharata in the cold and ruthless machine age – an age where there are no good guys, only degrees of badness. In Kalyug, a benevolent-looking Amrish Puri played a character named Kishan, a well-wisher to the film’s equivalent of the Pandava brothers, but the notable thing was how sidelined and inconsequential he was – as if the film were acknowledging that there was no place in its world for a God-figure showing the protagonists the “right path”.

In this context, Raajneeti’s most interesting character is the family advisor Brij Gopal, played with assurance and knowing humour by Nana Patekar. It’s possible to view Brij as a Krishna of sorts, but it’s more revealing to see him as a blend of the two most irreconciliable figures in the epic: the wise Vidura (the closest the Mahabharata has to an unblemished character) and the manipulative Shakuni. Brij Gopal straddles both roles with nonchalant ease – he can be kindly, caring and judicious, but he can also be like a mafia don, ordering and supervising assassinations when he deems fit – and this schizophrenia is the film’s key statement on a world where it's nice to be good but only so long as it doesn't result in the loss of privilege. (Another manifestation of this is Arjun Rampal’s Prithvi, who combines the noble Yudhisthira with the bloodthirsty, hectoring Bheema, never so alive as when he’s taking a baseball bat to his enemies.)

Raajneeti mein jeet ko maan milta hai,” (“In politics, you get respect if you win”) says Brij Gopal at a pivotal moment that is intended to evoke Krishna’s counsel to Arjuna. It’s a variation on the Gita’s message that the end justifies the means, but with one crucial difference: the end in this case is not universal welfare or the triumph of righteousness, it’s individual benefit. Or as someone else puts it, “Raajneeti mein faisle ache ya burre nahin hote, sirf maqsad milne ke liye hote hain.” (“In politics, decisions aren’t right or wrong – they exist only to lead us to our goal.”)

All of which means that Raajneeti could well be mainstream Hindi cinema’s closest brush with genuine, unalloyed nihilism. For all its flaws, that makes it (perhaps unintentionally) one of the most honest political films we've seen.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Of upwardly mobile men and descending microbes

Manu Joseph’s debut novel Serious Men contains so many dryly funny moments that it’s difficult to hold up a single one as representative of the book’s tone. But take the scene where the veteran cosmologist Arvind Acharya is walking down a corridor in the Institute of Theory and Research with a young astrobiologist, Oparna. She’s in awe of the famous scientist and tries to make small talk with him.

“This corridor is endless,” she says – a safe enough ice-breaker, you’d think.

“That’s not true,” Acharya says tersely, and they continue walking in silence.

The joke isn’t underlined, it’s quietly slipped in, and it’s typical of the book’s matter-of-fact contemplation of people (in this case, a man of science who is too literal-minded to engage in casual chatter). Elsewhere we are told that once, when Acharya’s little daughter brought him a poem she had written titled “Infinite Stars in the Sky”, he ruined the moment for her by patiently explaining why the number of stars is not immeasurable, and introducing her to the much less poetic word “finite”.

In other words, Arvind Acharya is a serious man. He’s preoccupied with his work, with his firm ideas about the direction that scientific research should take, and impatient with colleagues who in his view are trying to make science glamorous for the lay-person – by sending out radio signals to contact anthropomorphic aliens, for instance. But Acharya has a magnificent obsession of his own: convinced that the real extraterrestrials are microbes that enter the Earth’s atmosphere on meteorites, he wants to send sterilised containers to a height of 41 km to catch them. (“If we find, say, a bacterium at that height, it will mean that he was coming down, not going up.”)

However, the science in this book is a pretext for other explorations. We see Acharya and the other scientists mostly through the eyes of Ayyan Mani, a lower-class, low-caste man, and as Ayyan himself puts it, “If you stare long enough at serious people they will begin to appear comical”. Ayyan works as Acharya’s personal assistant at the prestigious institute, but he lives in a single room in a giant chawl with his wife Oja and their 10-year-old son Aditya, and he has high ambitions. Sensing that the differences between the scientists will soon lead to a power struggle (he thinks of it as the “war of the Brahmins”) and that he might use this to his advantage, he spins an elaborate story about Aditya being a child prodigy. Further complications develop when the besotted Oparna starts making advances on Acharya.

What I liked about Serious Men is that though it has some obvious talking points – the class and caste struggle, social aspiration, the role of science in today’s world, the many ways in which human beings go about keeping themselves busy and rationalising their lives and ambitions – I never felt pressured to classify the book or to define what it’s “about”. It’s enough to enjoy Joseph’s sharp prose, to follow the characters around and to let themes and ideas gently float around your mind, like the descending microbes of Acharya’s fantasies.

Humour and perceptiveness are the twin strengths of this novel. Its knack for detached observation is visible right from the first page where Ayyan, strolling near the Worli seaface, contemplates a sea of humanity, and it never loses its drollness – though it comes close at times, when we are made privy to Ayyan’s bitterness about the peculiar injustices of the world: when he watches a shampoo commercial and sneers about privileged people who think hairfall is a big problem, or sees elite scientists deferring to foreigners (“the whites are the Brahmins of the Brahmins”), or wonders about the lives of rich men “who were nothing without their inheritances, yet dedicated to themselves a song called ‘My Way’ ”.

There is plenty of darkness in these passages when one steps back to consider it, but it doesn’t become too polemical because Joseph repeatedly finds a way to lighten the tone, and to do it in such a way that the original thought isn’t drowned out. A description of Ayyan’s black thoughts about the “moronic pride” of Indians who boast about the country’s glorious past is immediately leavened by a surreal speech where a scientist explains that the cries of slaughtered cows “go down to the core of the Earth through Einsteinian pain waves and cause seismic activity, especially after Muslim festivals”. Unexpected deadpan sentences (we are told of Oja that “the fear of raising a strange genius was eating her for some time”) are interspersed with moving passages such as the one where Ayyan and Oja, attending a quiz at their son’s school, stand on the periphery of a group of upper-class parents, knowing that they don’t quite fit in but reticently participating in the conversation, and acquiring validation when one of the other men recognises Ayyan as “the father of the genius”.

Much of the frisson derives from the gaping contrasts between the lives led by its protagonists. At one point Ayyan gets a call from the weeping Oja telling him that her cousin was burnt alive by her husband (and we are given a sense of how commonplace this sort of thing is in their immediate circle: she did not want to know how a woman looked after she was burnt. It was something every girl she knew had nightmares about when they were growing up), but Ayyan is simultaneously listening to two scientists discussing “correction terms” and “space-time geometry” as if it were the only thing that mattered in the world.
He wondered if there was a way he could tell Oja Mani how absurd were the occupations of these men and women who so easily frightened her. An old man wanted to search the atmosphere for microbes that were coming down from space. A young woman would soon study two bottles of air. This was what people did. This was their job. In the real world that lay outside the institute, it was even more weird. Majestic men went in cars, in the isolation of the back seat, studying laptops on their way to work where they would think of ways to fool people into buying cola, or a type of insurance, or a condom that had dots on it...
I thought the juggling of the stories of the three central characters was skilfully done. The Acharya-Oparna liaison could have been nothing more than a convenient plot-mover, but it gives us insights into their personal histories, notably when Acharya, in the newfound, liberating intimacy of this relationship, recalls a childhood incident – a brush with the idea of predestination – that forever changed his life. On one grand, absurdist level, all the people in this book (including Ayyan, the puppet-master) can be seen as comic figures, as all of us ultimately are – self-importantly serious about the things that personally matter to them, willing to scoff at the things that don’t. But they are also believable people, it’s possible to care about them, and that eventually is what makes Serious Men such a winning novel.

(Did a version of this review for Business Standard Weekend)

P.S. Here's an old post about a book that Serious Men reminded me of in a couple of small ways -
Paul Torday's Salmon in the Yemen.

P. P.S. The story about Acharya, his little daughter and the “infiniteness” of stars made me think of this anecdote related by Richard Dawkins in Unweaving the Rainbow:
I remember once trying gently to amuse a six-year-old child at Christmas time by reckoning with her how long it would take Father Christmas to go down all the chimneys in the world. If the average chimney is 20 feet long and there are, say, 100 million houses with children, how fast, I wondered aloud, would he have to whiz down each chimney in order to finish the job by dawn on Christmas Day? He’d hardly have time to tiptoe noiselessly into each child’s bedroom, would he, since he’d necessarily be breaking the sound barrier? She saw the point and realized there was a problem, but it didn’t worry her in the least. The obvious possibility that her parents had been telling falsehoods never seemed to cross her mind. She wouldn’t have put it in these words, but the implication was that if the laws of physics rendered Father Christmas’s feat impossible, so much the worse for the laws of physics.
I don’t want to give the wrong impression: it would be a mistake to read this story as Dawkins the cold-blooded rationalist bullying a little child into submission. In the chapter from which this anecdote is taken, he readily concedes that trusting credulity (including the belief in Santa Claus) is normal, healthy and desirable in a child; what he’s concerned about are the effects when the non-questioning spirit carries over into adulthood (as it does with an alarming majority of people). Unweaving the Rainbow, like most of Dawkins’ other popular-science books, is a wonderful exposition of the wonders of the natural world, and it makes science stimulating and fascinating.

But even so, I amuse myself by imagining the expression on the face of that little girl as Uncle Richard shares his calculations with her. What fun.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Night of the bloodthirsty ace-machines

Much newsprint will be used to describe this bizarre match (59 all in the final set so far, 10 hours and counting) being played at Wimbledon between Nicolas Mahut and big John Isner. The endurance of the two players has been beyond imagining (though one can also mutter a few dark things about their terrible return-of-service games, which are responsible for this whole mess) but my sympathies are firmly with the Guardian live-blogger Xan Brooks who had to sit through this mind-numbing, nerve-cauterizing serve-fest for a full day. One of the few things you can do to retain sanity in such a situation is to have some fun with words. Brooks’ commentary is here – the funny bits begin around the 4.05 pm mark, where he observes:
The Isner-Mahut battle is a bizarre mix of the gripping and the deadly dull. It's tennis's equivalent of Waiting For Godot, in which two lowly journeymen comedians are forced to remain on an outside court until hell freezes over and the sun falls from the sky.
Other highlights:

"The score stands at 34-34. In order to stay upright and keep their strength, John Isner and Nicolas Mahut have now started eating members of the audience. They trudge back to the baseline, gnawing on thigh-bones and sucking intestines. They have decided that they will stay on Court 18 until every spectator is eaten."

"Nicolas Mahut recently knocked the sensor of the net and that this is why the umpire climbed down off his chair and started slapping the cord with his hand, with his mouth hanging open and vomit all down the front of his shirt."

"Under the feet of John Isner and Nicolas Mahut, the grass is growing. Before long they will be playing in a jungle and when they sit down at the change of ends a crocodile will come to menace them."

"But come night-fall the world is their oyster. They will play on, play on, right through until dawn. Perhaps they will even leave the court during the change-overs to munch on other people. Has Roger Federer left the grounds? Perhaps they will munch on him, hounding him down as he runs for his car, disembowelling him in the parking lot and leaving Wimbledon without its reigning champion. Maybe they will even eat the trophy too."

Read the full thing. And don't be surprised if Wimbledon finishes in September this year (and the 2010 tennis season extends into 2011) just because of these guys.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

He coulda been a bad-ass: on Raavan's Beera

In his review of Con Air – a film about dangerous criminals staging an escape while in transit from one prison to another – Anthony Lane observed:
You always know a movie is in trouble when half the dramatis personae are required to waste their time beefing up the reputations of the other half ... What the screenwriter and the director fail to understand is that the more blatantly they broadcast such wickedness, the less we believe in it: everyone talks with such awe about Garland Greene, about his extravagant appetite for homicide, that you can't help laughing when his restraining mask is finally unstrapped to reveal the endearing bozo features of Steve Buscemi - a man who could, if he was feeling especially mean, kill a couple of cold beers.
I felt the same way about Abhishek Bachchan’s Beera in Raavan. The film mythologises the character continuously, a sure sign that it can't trust the actor to convey the necessary menace and complexity. At one point we get a montage of people talking about Beera: he’s a kavi, says one; women go crazy over him, exults another. “Vidhwan hai.” “Dhol bajaate hain.” “Bahut khatarnaak hai.” Going purely by the awe-struck expressions on the faces of these people, Beera would be the most enigmatic and layered anti-hero you could imagine.

But come face to face with the person himself and this is what you get: Bachchan throwing his facial muscles out of gear by curling his lips and snarling as fiercely as he can (which is not very fiercely), or making grunting noises that suggest he has a truckload of phlegm stuck in his throat, or shaking his head wildly and mumbling “Chika Chika Chika” (yes, like in that song in Race) or “Bak Bak Bak” while the camera jump-cuts all over the place. This last gesture is presumably meant to convey Beera’s tortured state of mind, but in the scenes where he glares and babbles at the captive Ragini (Aishwarya Rai), the impression I got was of a 10-year-old boy trying really, really hard to be psychotic… while his slightly bored girlfriend watches from the sidelines, trying really, really hard to be impressed.

In other words, here are Abhishek and Aishwarya playing a childhood game of daku and hasina. For all the New Bollywood sophistication of Raavan, Meenakshi Seshadri and Jackie Shroff did this sort of thing with equal conviction in Hero three decades ago…and they sang “Ding Dong, O Baby Sing a Song” to boot.

Raavan (the Hindi version anyway - I'm told the Tamil version is better cast) is another ego project – it’s all about a star couple doing something “different”. Watch Abhishek play an intense “villain” who has to put mud-packs on his face to show us what a bad-ass he is. Watch Aishwarya fall into the water in slo-mo and get muddy and bloody and claw at dirt with her beautiful fingernails. Watch this glamorous duo willingly debase themselves in the name of their Art, even though they remain eminently photogenic through it all. That in itself isn’t such a surprise - one has come to expect it from mainstream Bollywood, especially where star families are involved - but it's really amusing how the pre-publicity made such a big deal about the "psychological complexity" of the Beera character. In a series of interviews featuring Abhishek, Mani Ratnam and others, it was carefully explained that Beera was a “Ravana” figure in the sense of having ten different personalities or voices, which regularly speak to each other. This is nonsense (or "bak bak bak"), and it’s dishonest nonsense, carefully calculated to give the film faux-respectability in the eyes of the casual viewer.

Abhishek’s best work in the past has been in light, laidback roles (and light comedy requires a lot of skill): in Bluffmaster, Jhoom Barabar Jhoom, bits of Dostana, even Dhoom 2. He does goofy exceptionally well; his performances in some of the Motorola and Idea commercials were better conceived and executed than his entire part in Raavan, and his most convincing scenes in this film are the ones where Beera is fooling around in dance sequences, or at pre-wedding festivities. Personally I think it's high time he and Aishwarya were cast together in a really well-written romantic comedy. But I get the impression that people are trying much too hard to manufacture an intense, brooding persona for him, as if you need to be able to glower at the camera in order to be a “respectable” actor. Pity.

(And no, I’m not reviewing the film, except to say: what a tragic waste of Govinda.)

Monday, June 21, 2010

Coming Soon, the end of good writing

In recent years Indian television has given us exploitative reality shows, tacky and regressive soaps, sensationalist news coverage and, for a brief period, Ekta Kapoor's Kahaani Hamaaray Mahabharat Ki. I’m sure there are many insightful behind-the-scenes books waiting to be written about the TV industry and what it tells us about the voyeurism and exhibitionism in our society. Unfortunately, Omkar Sane’s Coming Soon. The End is not one of those books.

Sane’s allegorical premise has four friends, each of whom works for a different TV channel: Bass is the girl from the music channel, Crass is the guy in general entertainment...you get the drift. They meet in a bar to catch up and a stranger named Mass (a stand-in for the average viewer) joins them to learn about how the industry functions. He’s so naïve that his jaw drops when he learns that Kareena Kapoor says things in an Airtel ad because Airtel pays her to say them. In other words he has a lot to learn, and it’s going to be a long night.

Simple-minded though this set-up is, it could still have been executed better than it is here. Reading Coming Soon. The End, one senses a deep-rooted bitterness, an anger, that might have been very effective if it were filtered through wit or dark satire. Instead, Sane expresses his contempt for the dumbing down of TV through dumbed-down writing: a never-ending parade of poor jokes, bad puns and non sequiturs. Here’s the sort of banal exchange you might find by simply opening a page at random:
“Oh, you guys work in television?” the fat man interrupted, waiting for his bill.
“No, we’re whores,” Bass replied.
“Oh, I thought I heard you say Television,” the fat man said apologetically.
“It’s the same thing.”
Or this:
“This is the story of the West?”
“You know that almost rhymes with the West – Yes.”
“I didn’t mean to rhyme.”
“It’s no crime.”
“Now that rhymes.”
“Let’s not waste our time.”
And so on. On the few occasions that the PJs dry up, we get pedantic explanations of technical terms and processes, interspersed with mini-chapters that exist for little reason other than to make up the book’s word-count. Like the random two-page chapter “Anchors Aren’t Anchors”, comprising a list of phrases commonly used by TV-news anchors. (This material would have seemed trite even in an email forward doing the rounds in 1997.) Or the pseudo-philosophising in “Cool. Or Uncool. TV’s Like That”:
In a nutshell, cool is what is not cool according to the uncool.
But who decides who is cool and uncool?
The uncool call the cool uncool, the cool call the uncool, uncool.
The thing is, uncool isn’t even a real word. Just like cool isn’t a real state of being.
For some time now, Indian publishers have been increasing their lists of accessible, fast-paced books for the “metro” reader, which in itself is no bad thing. But if the writing on display in Coming Soon. The End (a book that will take you no more than 40 excruciating minutes to finish) is in any way representative of the future of publishing, we’re all better off watching bad television.

Friday, June 18, 2010

PoV 4: lights, camera, animal

From Jackie Shroff's weeping Labrador in Teri Meherbaniyan to Jacques Tati's joyful Parisian strays in Mon Oncle ... here's the latest instalment of my Yahoo! India column.

Update: the complete piece:

If you were a child watching Chitrahaar in the mid-1980s, the title song of a film called Teri Meherbaniyan undoubtedly lies buried in the dark crannies of your mind. Its refrain was almost too soulful to bear - prolonged and lugubrious ("Teri Meherbaaaniyannn, Teri Qadardaaaniyaaann"), it mimicked the yowling of the movie's protagonist, a black Labrador named Moti. Listen to the complete song once and you're ready to bay at the moon.

We'll never know if Moti did his own playback singing in a human voice, but it must be conceded that he was an intelligent animal, well-versed in such rituals as the garlanding of a dead body and the lighting of a funeral pyre after carrying a matka around it a few times. (You don't call that intelligent? Don't complain to me about it.) When his beloved master Ram, played by Jackie Shroff, was murdered by thugs, Moti performed the last rites himself and then scampered off to take badla (which, in 1980s Hindi cinema, was a post-death ritual as important as any other). In between, he had flashbacks to his puppy days when Jackie took him to the vet. No dog gets misty-eyed thinking about his first vaccination, but Moti did; that shows you what a special dog he was.

Perhaps, if you were an eight-year-old animal lover, the scene where Moti wept for the slain Ram brought a tear to your own eyes. Then perhaps your mother - an animal-lover herself - smacked you on the side of your head, telling you that the people who made the movie didn't care about the dog's feelings; they were tormenting the poor thing with glycerine, knowing full well that animals didn't express their grief by shedding tears. Heaven knows how badly Moti had been treated on the set, she perhaps said. Now stop sniffling and finish your lamb curry.

Even so, Teri Meherbaniyan was the first film I can recall that choked me up. The song, like everything else from the 1980s, is now on YouTube, and before watching it I look sneakily over my shoulder - it's the sort of childhood memory you're supposed to be embarrassed about. But on another level, I'm grateful for the existence of any Hindi movie that gave a non-human creature an interior life, no matter how cheesily or manipulatively it was done. (Besides, any dog that allowed Jackie Shroff to bestow multiple smooches on him must have been heavily sedated before the shoot, so Moti couldn't have been in much pain.)

One understands the practical problems in having an animal play an important role in a film. Earlier this year in Vagamon, Kerala, I saw some of the shooting of Anup Kurian's forthcoming The Hunt, starring Naseeruddin Shah. In the film, Shah's character Colonel has a steadfast companion, a German Shepherd named Kuttapan, and Kurian's script repeatedly comments on the dog's reactions when Colonel says anything to him. Getting those little expressions on camera was another matter, though. Kuttapan was played by a handsome young chap named Tipu, who had worked in around 50 Malayalam films before this one. But he was principally an action star - in his earlier movies he specialised in playing police dogs running after criminals - and all this acting and reacting lay beyond his skill-set. (Imagine Jean-Claude Van Damme suddenly thrown into the part of Horatio.) Under the blazing afternoon sun, many retakes were needed, and the crew was further inconvenienced by an ill-tempered cow that kept fluffing its lines. "Actors are cattle," Hitchcock said once, but this shouldn't be taken to mean that cattle are actors.

It's a pity, because I wish more movies had animals as part of their canvas, even if they aren't doing anything too attention-grabbing. As the writer Vandana Singh points out in her fine piece "The Creatures We Don't See", much of our art testifies to the self-absorption of our species and the banishing of other life-forms from our consciousness. "Pick up any regular piece of fiction," she writes, "and you'd be guaranteed to find in it not one animal that would play any role other than backdrop ... In almost every TV science-fiction show, the ship that travels across space is a sterile, hospital-like environment where you rarely see a plant or animal."

The dog sequences in Jacques Tati's Mon Oncle are my favourite examples of organic yet unobtrusive use of animals in a film. Tati was a great practitioner of slice-of-life comedy, chronicling the whimsical little moments that we rarely notice, and Mon Oncle is a film of two parts. Around half of it is set in a sterile, gizmo-packed house inhabited by a bored little boy and his control-freak parents. But the other half is set in the warm, cheery world where the boy's uncle Monsieur Hulot (played by Tati) lives - a world of little street markets, war-ravaged brick buildings and ramshackle jhuggi-like flats - and central to the vivacity of this landscape are the stray dogs who have the run of the neighborhood. The film begins with them: we see them sniffing around garbage cans, opening their lids to peer inside, bounding after a horse-driven cart, peeing on the kerb. We discover that one of them lives in the remote-controlled house and has temporarily escaped to play with its mates in a friendlier environment. They beautifully offset the ordered, mechanised lives elsewhere in the story.

A lot of care must have been put into the filming of these scenes, and the moments that seem most spontaneous are probably the ones that were most meticulously planned: don't miss the shot near the end, outside an airport, where one of the dogs looks upward and cocks its head just as we hear the sound of a passing plane. But the scene that would make it to my all-time list of favourite movie vignettes is the one where Hulot is talking to a vegetable-seller. Sticking out of Hulot's shopping bag is a large head of fish, eyes intact, mouth open in a threatening expression; tied under the cart is the vendor's pet dog. As the bag waves about beneath the cart, dog and fish lock eyes and the unnerved mutt starts snarling at the fish-head. It's a magical little moment, stunning in the simplicity of its concept, so well-executed that it seems artless.

"The fact that about forty technicians have to wait patiently while a dog condescends to relieve himself on a lamp-post gives me great financial responsibilities," Tati once said wryly. But it was more than worth it. As his animals run back and forth across the invisible border that separates a charming old city from its growing concrete suburbs, they add depth to the film (without actually participating in its plot the way Moti did in Teri Meherbaniyan). I think of them whenever I see a pack of stray dogs playing on cement-powder mounds near a construction site, and I wish there were movie roles for more of them.


(Earlier PoV columns: 1, 2, 3)

P.S. The RSS feed for Persistence of Vision is here

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Little Krishna and the hummingbirds: notes on The Mythologist

“What is a valley?” the teacher asks her students. “Vali is brother of Sugreeva!” shouts Parashuram, the narrator-protagonist of Vamsee Juluri’s The Mythologist. And small wonder, for the boy’s favourite myths and legends buttress him from the banalities of the real world. When he first comes to boarding school, his grandfather helps him settle into the unfamiliar surroundings by layering them with familiar stories. This tree is the home of a kindly asura who will give you shade; these steps are from Lord Krishna’s palace. The library is the magical cave where Krishna fought the bear Jambavanta to recover a precious gem.

For those of us who became avid readers at an early age (discovering our own precious gems in libraries, so to speak), there’s nothing unusual about any of this; we know what it’s like to live in multiple universes at once. But Juluri’s novel is about a person who is often incapable of distinguishing between fantasy and reality, with troubling consequences.

Much like his mythical namesake, this Parashuram has an axe to grind...with the real world. He never quite succeeds in shrugging off his childhood’s great tragedy: he had dreamt of playing a little God in a film made by his director-grandfather – and co-starring the Telugu superstar SLM – but the movie never got off the floors and he resigned himself to a life of obscurity. His subsequent story – most notably his acquaintance with a mysterious woman named AK, a wheeler-dealer who takes him under her wing and arranges for his transit to America – is set against real-life political events ranging from the 1970s (the Emergency in India) to the 2000s (the World Trade Centre attack in New York).

There’s promise in this narrative and the passages about Parashuram’s childhood are fairly engaging, with their glimpses into the world of theatrical politicians, deal-making, myth-making and child-stars who grow up too soon or never grow up at all. One gets a sense here of the various ways in which myths can become controlling (even petrifying) symbols for contemporary lives and issues: Big Grandfather, we are told, was a patriot who once screened a film about the churning of the ocean to drum up support for Mahatma Gandhi’s Salt March, and a former child star named Kumari is forced into the role of political nemesis for SLM, based purely on the roles they had once played in a mythological drama.

But as Parashuram grows into an adult and becomes a copywriter for a San Francisco-based marriage bureau, it feels like Juluri is taking on more than his canvas can accommodate. This culminates in a forty-page chapter, late in the book, where the paranoid Parashuram – convinced that he has become a fall guy in a huge terrorist plot – writes a mythical story of his own, involving a Great Goddess, a Lake of Hearts, Medusa, hummingbirds and assorted other creatures. This section is full of mumbo-jumbo about the complicated relationship between Truth and Power, and figuring out exactly what it means and how it relates to Parashuram’s real-life circumstances is more trouble than it’s worth.

Equally problematic is the book’s erratic pacing, and its occasionally tiresome style. Parashuram has a fondness for self-consciously staccato sentences (“Which Krishna? Did you ask? LORD Krishna. God. My childhood friend. Him only. None other”) and his frequent referring to himself as “I, Parashuram” becomes grating after a while, even though it might be thematically justified on the grounds that it echoes the bombastic language used in most Indian mythological movies. Ultimately, The Mythologist is undone by over-ambition coupled with a lack of focus. At its best, it shows the promise of becoming a Walter Mitty-like tale about a rich interior life, but it never quite gets there.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

From a Rafa fanboy

[Did a version of this Nadal tribute piece for Business Standard]

Watching Rafael Nadal lift the French Open trophy at Roland Garros for the fifth time, I thought about the little ways in which the Spaniard’s extraordinary clay-court performances in the past five seasons have intersected with – and injected a dose of stress into – my summer outings. In April 2007, on a cruise in Southampton, I managed to besiege the ship’s slow Internet connection for long enough to confirm that Rafa (for such is how most fans refer to him) had won his home tournament in Barcelona. In Kandy, Sri Lanka the following year I briefly eluded my vigilant wife to get online and check the just-released draw for the French Open … and then fretted for the next two hours about the dangerous David Nalbandian being in Rafa’s quarter. (I needn’t have worried. Rafa would win the tournament without dropping a set, beating his great rival Roger Federer by the unthinkable score of 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 in the final.)

Memories of the marathon four-hour semi-final Rafa played against Novak Djokovic at the Madrid Masters on May 16, 2009 still make me shiver: I had a flight to Germany the next morning and needed to sleep early; instead I stayed glued to my computer screen, scoreboard-watching (there being no TV coverage) until midnight, feeling nearly as physically and mentally drained as the two buccaneers assaulting the red dirt from every unthinkable angle. Checking scores in Frankfurt the next day, I wasn’t surprised to learn that Rafa had lost the final to Federer. (This year, mercifully, my trip to Bhutan began the day after the Madrid final where he reversed that result. It was a very relaxed flight!)

Most casual tennis fans tune in exactly four times a year, during the second week of each of the Grand Slam tournaments. But the incurable tennis nutcase, like yours truly, follows his favourite players throughout the season, in every Masters 1000, 500-level and 250-level tournament, watching matches on TV or on the Net while simultaneously participating in fevered discussions with other nutcases on websites like Tennis World. I’ve been a Nadal obsessive since late 2005, the year he brought such energy to the men’s game. By forging a winning head-to-head against the otherwise all-conquering Federer, he kept some interest alive in the tour – you might say he was the Spaniard in the works – but I loved his game for other reasons. The famous mental strength, of course, but also (and this is something that often gets lost in pat, polarising narratives about Federer’s “natural talent” vs Nadal’s “gritty determination”) the tennis skill: the matchless court coverage; the ability to turn a seemingly hopeless defensive position into an attacking one in the blink of an eye; the absurd passing shots from behind the baseline; the delicate lobs and drop-shots when required; the small but important alterations he makes to his game for the grass-court season.

It’s been a difficult fandom, because Rafa’s matches – even when he’s in top form – tend to be long and tiring to watch. Outside of clay, he isn’t a fluid, efficient match-winner the way Federer is: he scrambles for every point, takes hours to win against tough opponents. If you’re invested in watching him, you need strong nerves and a good supply of eye-drops.

As any fan knows, storm clouds gathered around this time last year. Rafa won three big tournaments in consecutive weeks (and I manipulated my appointment schedule during a work-trip to Mumbai so I could see the Rome Masters final) but already he was looking distracted and weary; whispers were spreading in media circles that knee tendonitis, a recurring injury, was starting to plague him again, and that he had been affected by the divorce of his parents. There was something inevitable about his first-ever loss – to Sweden’s Robin Soderling – at Roland Garros, a tournament he had owned since he was eighteen. He then missed a couple of months because of injury and didn’t win another title for 11 months. My eye-drop expenditure decreased.

Much of the frisson in sports-watching comes from seeing a fallen champion reclaim his domain, slaying his private demons along the way, and the 2010 clay season couldn't have supplied a better script. Nadal's titles at Monte Carlo, Rome and Madrid marked a unique sweep of the three clay Masters, and then, most importantly, he reclaimed Roland Garros without dropping a set. His opponent in the final: Soderling, who had beaten him last year. I usually scoff at the human tendency to look for patterns in everything – to search for meaning and order in a purposeless world – but the way the cards aligned at Roland Garros gave me brief pause for thought. The circle had been completed in the most fitting way possible. It was the stuff of a good fairytale about fall and redemption.

Not that I’m taking this as a portent of great things to come. Rafa’s strenuous playing style isn’t conducive to career longevity and there’s no telling how long he stays at his peak. Some observers are already murmuring about his good chances at Wimbledon this year, and then at the US Open, the one Slam he hasn’t yet won, but the one thing Nadal fans know all about is being pragmatic and taking it one match at a time. (As he often says in his press conferences, “We gonna see, no?”) At least he’ll always have Paris.

[Some older tennis posts: the human Federer, mixed singles, in praise of Rafa, how to make men's tennis less predictable, perceptions]

Friday, June 04, 2010

PoV 3: Norman's stuffed toys

The third of my Persistence of Vision columns is about my relationship with a movie that, more than any other, got me interested in cinematic form and structure. (It also happens to turn 50 this month.) Here's the piece.

The full post:

We all go a little mad sometimes

How did Psycho come to infect my life?

I clearly remember my first viewing of Hitchcock’s great film – even the exact date, May 12, 1991. (It helps that I kept a diary at the time, but I would have remembered it anyway.) A day earlier, May 11, I had flipped through a movie guide at the Sehgal Bros bookstore in South Extension and read with a thrill the first sentence of the Psycho entry: “The Master’s most notorious film, a jet-black comedy set in the desolate Bates Motel, run by a nervous young man and his crotchety old ‘mother’.” I turned the sentence over in my mind for days afterward, it had such a rhythmic appeal.

Conventional wisdom had it that Psycho was a horror film, but it didn’t scare me in an immediate way, because I knew most of its secrets beforehand. Long before I first saw it (and long before I read that movie-guide entry), I had heard jokes about “mummification” from my own mummy – apparently, in the early 60s, her school-going brother had returned from a movie-hall and informed their startled mother that he wished to preserve her body and set it in the living room after she passed on. A learned classmate completed my education by giving me a shot-by-shot description of the final revelation of the embalmed corpse of “Mrs Bates” in the fruit cellar. (Sorry if I’ve spoilt the plot for you, but you really ought to know this; it’s primary-level stuff. Anyway, plot is the least important thing about this film.) Alas, my earliest ideas about the famous shower murder came from a perpetually inebriated male relative who recalled that it was a “hot” scene, and also insistently misremembered that it was the very first scene in the film. (But then, he also thought the four-hour Cleopatra starring Elizabeth Taylor ended with the assassination of Caesar. Which, perhaps, it should have.)

On that first viewing, the surprise for me lay in other things: in the meticulous structuring, and how the first forty-five minutes weren’t about the sinister Bates Motel or knife-wielding cross-dressers but about a regular young woman, Marion (Janet Leigh), impulsively stealing money from her office to escape her drab life and join her boyfriend in another city. This superb segment was all about the little moments that highlighted Marion’s paranoia, and the entrancing, violin-based music score that accompanied her through her long car drive – a drive that ends when she accidentally “gets off the main road” late at night and arrives at the Bates Motel, where the friendly, eager-to-please Norman (Anthony Perkins) checks her into a cabin. He offers her sandwiches and conversation in the parlour, they talk, get to know each other.

My favourite sequence – then, as now – is this quiet, intimate conversation between Marion and Norman, just minutes before the violence of the shower killing. Later, after I had seen Hitchcock’s other films, I came to view this scene as a classic example of his knack for using sardonic black humour as a smokescreen, even a defence mechanism. The dialogue sometimes reaches a high pitch of intensity but the tension is immediately dispelled by a clever one-liner or a wry observation (“A boy’s best friend is his mother” / “Mother isn’t quite herself today”). Norman’s little monologue about his mother being left alone in the Gothic house if he were to abandon her (“the fire would go out, it would be cold and damp like a grave – if you love someone you can’t do that to them even if you hate them”) can, like most of the film’s dialogues, be read on at least two levels. Taken at face value, it’s poignant, but once you know what the actual condition of “Mrs Bates” is, the words “like a grave” become a dark joke – one of the many instances of this film’s ironic detachment. Instead of explicitly holding themes and ideas up (as many “serious” directors do) for discussion, Hitchcock incorporates them into the narrative framework of what is, first and foremost, a great genre work.

How do life experience and personality combine to make an individual respond in a particular way to a particular film? We’ll never know, but that won't keep us from psychoanalysing. I could mention that when I first saw Psycho I was an only child living with a single mother (an impeccably well-balanced woman, I should quickly add); or that I was unsocial, cripplingly shy, prone to loneliness and phases of mild depression; or that I already had a proclivity for morbid humour. Perhaps some of this explains something, perhaps it doesn’t. (Perhaps it helps account for the huge crush I developed on Anthony Perkins and my fascination with the way he stuttered over words like “falsity”, the momentary furrow on his brow suggesting that he’s grasping for another word just out of reach.)

Whatever the case, watching it when I did, Psycho touched something deep inside me. I found a sadness in it, in the words as well as in the images. I even found a warped romanticism in Norman’s response to the insinuation that he and his mother might have been looking for money to leave the Bates Motel and start a new life elsewhere. “I think if you saw the chance to get out you would unload this place,” says his accuser. “This place?” says Norman, his voice rising to a shrill pitch, “This place happens to be my only world. I grew up in that house up there. I had a very happy childhood.” He sounds defiant, desperate to convince. “My mother and I were more than happy.”

A little unsettled by my reaction to this “slasher” film, I sought out literature on it and discovered essays by writers like Danny Peary, George Toles and V F Perkins (no relation to Anthony!) who treated it not as a clever popcorn thriller but as a serious work of art that deserved careful examination. It was as if some of the thoughts that had been buzzing around in my head (like the fly that Norman’s “mother” can’t bring herself to kill), struggling to find expression, had been articulated by people whose analyses counted for something. Their writings encouraged me to take films, including popular films, seriously; to see that even a seemingly sensationalistic “genre” work could contain multitudes.

I’ve probably over-emphasised the film’s dialogue, but some of its most effective stretches are wordless, and I’ve seen it more than once with the sound turned off. (I wish the technology available to me would allow me to see it with only the background music on – that’s something I’d love to do.) Doing this, it’s easier to appreciate the many little visual links between one scene and another, or one character and another, or the use of gestures as motifs: how, for example, Norman’s holding up a hand and spreading its fingers out when he says he’d like to “curse” his mother is echoed in the shot of the dying Marion feebly reaching out for the shower curtain. Or the perfect matching of surreptitious expressions when they first meet. Fibbing about her name and place of residence, Marion casts a sidelong look at her bag with the stolen money in it; meanwhile, reaching for the key-holder, Norman makes an identical head movement as he selects the key to Cabin 1 – closest to the office, so he can spy on Marion through a hole in the wall. The film is full of these fascinating designs.

I hesitated to write about Psycho here because it’s one of the most discussed movies ever, and anything I said would be less than a drop in an ocean of analysis. But I couldn’t in good conscience leave it out of a column that’s about my road-trip as a movie-lover. Besides (and this struck me only when I was halfway through this piece), it turns 50 this month, which is a good pretext for homage. In many superficial ways – especially if you watch it purely as a thriller – it’s a creaky, dated film today. But to my eyes it has an ageless beauty, and many of its scenes and methods have become personal reference points, helping me think about some of the movies I watch, and even some of the books I read. I know that sounds like an unhealthy obsession, but well, we all go a little mad sometimes. Haven't you?

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Thoughts on Blaft’s Tamil pulp fiction

Blaft’s second pulp-fiction anthology is out and it’s every bit as enjoyable as its predecessor. Thicker too. It doesn’t quite have the variety of the first book, which included many short, short pieces – this one has just seven stories (including a pictorial thriller starring “Karate Kavitha”) spread out over 500 pages, which means most of them are novella-length. But Pritham K Chakravarthy’s translations are excellent, and there are more of the eye-popping jacket images and smatterings of trivia that held many of us in thrall when the first anthology came out.

The things you can learn from these books. Did you know, for instance, that the Coimbatore-based writer Rajesh Kumar is trying to dethrone L Ron Hubbard as the world’s most published writer in the Guinness Book of Records? Apparently Kumar has written nearly 1,500 pulp novels – crime stories, science fiction, romance – since the 1960s. I thought his detective story “Hello, Dead Morning!” was one of the highlights of the new anthology. You wouldn’t expect a prolific, mass-market writer who produces at least 10 pages every day to concern himself too much with form and structure, but this is a genuinely well-crafted tale, interspersing a murder/suicide investigation with other events whose chronology (or connection to the main plot) is not made clear until the end. I thought it was a more than satisfying miniature whodunit (or, more accurately, whadhappened).

In the best tradition of racy, populist writing, some of these stories inhabit a puritanical moral universe of their own. There are traces of sexism, even misogyny, in a couple of them: in Kumar’s story, for instance, a young woman’s interest in “blue films” leads to a thorough degeneration in her character, and an eventual punishment that’s grossly disproportionate to her “sin”. This ties in with the orthodox notion that women must be upholders of familial and societal morality, and that they will face severe consequences if they stray from the course appointed for them. (A very telling short story by Kumar in the first anthology had a female astronaut sabotaging an experiment meant to determine whether she and her husband could conceive in outer space. “I do not want my child to be born like some guinea pig in a laboratory, without my family around me,” she said. In her Translator’s Note, Chakravarthy mentioned that the first of these novels dating back to the 19th century were ultra-moralistic tales about “the dangers of a hedonistic lifestyle”.)

The domineering male gaze is important too. Titillation can take the form of sexual threats to women, even when the woman in question is a strong character; in the Karate Kavitha story, the resourceful heroine escapes the clutches of a would-be rapist, but not before a gratuitous depiction of him tearing open her shirt.

This is not to say that most of these stories are regressive or exploitative, they aren’t. See, for example, Vidya Subramaniam’s short but powerful “Me” in Volume I. Or Kumar’s portrayal of a self-sufficient young girl whose older brother is a wastrel in “The Rainbow”. In Volume II, M K Narayanan’s “The Bungalow by the River” begins with a woman escaping her violent lout of a husband and moving to another country with her young son, while Resakee’s “Sacrilege to Love” centres on a girl with a firm mind of her own when it comes to romantic matters. All these feature women trying to loosen tradition’s straitjacket and assert their independence.

I think it's interesting that Chakravarthy’s translations and Blaft’s attractive packaging have been making these stories accessible to (and even fashionable for) a cosmopolitan readership whose social conditioning is different from the readers for whom they were originally written. This gap will probably cause a few ambivalent reactions, but the best of these stories open windows to worlds where new and progressive ideas are slowly being assimilated and where minor triumphs are hard-won. And of course, most of them are supremely entertaining too.

(An earlier post on Blaft’s Where are You Going, You Monkeys? here)