Friday, March 30, 2012

An essay on Indian comics

Away for a few days, but here’s a link before I go: an essay I did for Caravan magazine on the indigenous comics scene, with Comic Con 2 as a peg. I like the way they have alternated the piece with four pages of illustrations by the very talented Harsho Mohan Chattoraj, who has worked on The Hyderabad Graphic Novel, The Rabhas Incident and Widhwa Ma Andhi Behen, among other projects (and whom I met at Comic Con).

Long though the piece is, it isn’t meant to be comprehensive – more like an experiential account by an outsider who knows very little about this world and is trying to understand how it works and the many issues facing it. There is so much happening in the field of Indian comics (though much of it hasn’t made it to mainstream publishing yet) that one feels quite overwhelmed – very exciting times ahead, I’m sure. There are many artists, writers and publishers whom I haven’t been able to cover here, but I hope to remedy that in the future.

Here's the link again. (Single-page version here. Next week I might put up a version of the full piece on the blog, with images from some of the comics mentioned in it. Many of them are easy to find online.)

[A few earlier posts on Indian comics and graphic novels: Kashmir Pending, Amruta Patil’s Kari, Ambedkar’s life in Gond art, Gautam Bhatia’s Lies, A Gardener in the Wasteland. Also this column I did two weeks ago]

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Ending a column (and a Sunday Guardian plug)

As many of you know, I’ve been doing a weekly books column for the Sunday Guardian for over two years now – ever since the paper’s launch in January 2010. It’s been very fulfilling; the column began at a time when I had been writing much more about cinema (including the two books) and it gave me a pretext to stay in touch with the literary world. So it’s with some sadness that I’ve decided to end it, mainly because I need to make small alterations to my weekly routine. Too much column-writing can become a grind: it eats at the time and energy I have for one-off projects (reportage, essays, reviews etc), creating a situation where I find myself saying no to assignments far more often than I say yes.

This definitely isn’t the end of my association with the SG though – it’s a dynamic young publication run by one of the most generous editors I’ve known, Prayaag Akbar, and I’ll continue to do occasional pieces for them. (Coming up in the April 1 issue: a piece about a little-known Hrishikesh Mukherjee film starring Rajesh Khanna as a zombie.) Though initially slow to get its website started, the paper now has a neat and efficient online version - on this page you’ll find a part-archive of my columns and other pieces. (I have put up longer versions of many of these on the blog over the months, but it’s nice to have them accessible like this on a single link.) The side-bar also has links to other terrific SG columns, including Left of Cool (written alternately by Aishwarya Subramanian and Aadisht Khanna), Culture Mulcher (Deepanjana Pal), Techno Babel (Krish Ashok), Perfect on Paper (Isha Singh Sawhney) and Video Drome (Abhimanyu Das). Plenty of good stuff there – if you don’t get the print edition of the paper, do subscribe to the website feed.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Literary heroes, fathers and ghosts: Pico Iyer on Graham Greene

[Did a version of this for my Sunday Guardian column]
We run and run from who we are – this was Greene’s theme from the beginning – only to discover that this is precisely what we can never put behind us.
The title of Pico Iyer’s The Man Within My Head seems straightforward if you know beforehand that this book is about Iyer’s longtime obsession with the English writer Graham Greene. Almost from the first page, we learn that Iyer feels constantly haunted by the author – not just because of the themes of self-discovery and foreignness in Greene's work but also the little coincidences that seem to link their lives together: watching a fire burn his house down, just as Greene had done decades earlier; discovering that Greene’s son had gone to the same elementary school as he, Iyer, did. “I began to feel I was just a compound ghost that someone else had dreamed up,” he writes.

But continue reading and it becomes clear that the man Iyer is searching for – the man within his head – isn’t just Greene. This book, written by one of the major travel writers of our time, is in many ways a voyage of self-discovery.

At one point Iyer quotes from Edward Thomas’s poem “The Other”, about a man following someone like himself. The lines go: “I pursued / To prove the likeness, and, if true / To watch until myself I knew.” This seems an obvious reference to Iyer as a Greene-stalker, but there’s a deeper layer: the poem was a favourite of Greene’s himself, and in the epilogue to his ambiguous memoir Ways of Escape he described a mysterious doppelganger – someone he never met – who passed himself off to people as “Graham Greene the writer”.

If all this sounds a little complicated, it is. Real life and fiction continually inform each other in Iyer’s book, and the narrative contains many sets of doubles. (Early on, we learn that Greene’s maternal uncle was Robert Louis Stevenson, who created Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.) One remarkable passage is an account of an “Englishman always on the move”, who is referred to from one sentence to the next only as “he”. (“His travels seemed to awaken in him an ineradicable sense of mystery ... Hollywood continues to make films out of even his lesser works, and suspicion attaches to him because of all the work he did for British Inelligence; he wrote spy novels as well as exotic entertainments.”) The natural assumption is that it is Greene being discussed; only after two pages does one realise that the passage is about Somerset Maugham, whose life was uncannily similar to Greene’s in many ways.

But this isn’t just a playful connecting of dots. Iyer uses the similarity to comment on Greene’s own stated disavowal of Maugham’s influence, “the way some of us stress how different – how very different – we are from our fathers, the ones we’ve spent our lifetimes defining ourselves in opposition to.” The relationship between fathers and sons (real and notional, biological and literary) soon emerges as another major theme, with Iyer’s reflections on his “adopted father” (Greene) moving alongside his attempts to understand his own real father.
Real parents have lives to attend to, lives beyond our understanding, and they commit, most of all, the sin of being real; they’re human and distractible and fallible ... But the parents we construct in our minds – the ones we enlist for our purposes – are more like the people we want to be ... Someone says you look like your father and you wince, or recoil; the great project of self-creation has clearly failed. Someone says you sound like that eminent novelist, and you’re flattered. You’ve followed intuition, or yourself.
Mesmerising in parts but also, by its very nature, uneven, self-indulgent and meandering, The Man Within My Head is many books in one. It is a tribute to (even a part-biography of) an enigmatic writer. It is an affectionate work of literary criticism, full of observations like this: “What makes one weep and what makes one break out laughing are identical twins in Greene’s work, and it sometimes seems almost a freak of fate, pure randomness, whether a character picks one or the other.” It is a travelogue – as all Iyer’s earlier books have, to some degree or other, been – as well as a contemplation of the relationship between readers and their cherished writers, and between writers and the world. [“The man who bares a part of his soul on the page soon finds that his friends are treating him as strangers, bewildered by this other self they’ve met in his book. Meanwhile, many a stranger is considering him a friend, convinced he knows this man he’s read, even if he’s never met him. The paradox of reading is that you draw closer to some other creature’s voice within you than to the people who surround you (with their surfaces) every day.”]

But it is also, alongside all these, a sort of autobiography written by a man who can only approach the subject of himself tangentially. “I’d never had much time for memoir,” Iyer writes in a telling passage, “It was too easy to make yourself the centre – even the hero – of your story and to use recollection to forgive yourself for everything.” By making someone else the ostensible hero of his story, he has written one of the most unusual memoirs you’ll read.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Age-fudging, revisited

My dad is older than he claims, reveals Sonam Kapoor in today's HT City. I liked this excerpt from the story:
So, what is his real age? "I am not going to tell that. He is 1956 born."
How vividly I remember a time when it was possible to (gasp!) compute a person's age if you knew their birth-year. How much we've lost as a species. But that isn't what I'm leading up to. My point is, I feel vindicated. This post was clearly years ahead of its time.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Murder by criticism

Okay, this is completely random and inconsequential, but it’s been interfering with my sleep for over a week now – so I thought I’d put it up here and get it over with.

Exhibit 1: Bob Biswas, the cuddly hitman from Kahaani

Exhibit 2: the young Roger Ebert

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Goddess, prisoner – on Satyajit Ray’s Devi

In interviews about Kahaani, director Sujoy Ghosh has spoken with much affection about his love for Satyajit Ray’s cinema, and about the little ways in which he was influenced by Aranyer Dinratri and other Ray films. Coincidentally I saw Kahaani just a few days after watching Ray’s 1960 film Devi, with the barely 15-year-old Sharmila Tagore as a young bride who is thought to be a reincarnation of the Mother Goddess. There is a strikingly similar shot in the two films, a close-up of the immersion of the goddess’s statue, her head sinking into the water. In Kahaani it’s the very last shot, one that parallels the heroine Vidya disappearing from our sight, her work completed; the film’s climax has already made a statement about feminine power by linking Vidya (who, for much of the story, was seen as vulnerable and manipulated) with Shakti, the vanquisher of evil.

There is similar deification in Devi – in fact, the plot centres on it – but the repercussions here are very different; a young woman (girl, really) named Dayamoyee is suffocated by an image she is unable – and eventually unwilling – to break out of, resulting in tragedy for her family.

This film was made just a year or so after Ray’s Apur Sansar, which ended the Apu Trilogy, and I felt an echo of Apur Sansar in the first glimpse of Dayamoyee and her husband Umaprasad: Soumitro Chatterjee (who played the adult Apu) and Sharmila Tagore (who was Apu’s child-bride) are reunited in this scene, and their nephew is perched on Umaprasad’s shoulder, much as little Kajal sat on Apu’s shoulder at the end of Apur Sansar. It’s almost as if the family that had been left incomplete in the earlier film is here made whole.

That picture is deceptive though, and the happiness short-lived. While Umaprasad is away in the city, his pious father (played by the wonderful Chhabi Biswas who was so good as the zamindar in Jalsaghar), already deeply fond of and dependent on his daughter-in-law, has a dream that she is Kali incarnate. In no time at all Dayamoyee goes from being a girl playing with her little nephew to a distant figure closeted off from the rest of the house, an object of veneration to be brought out for public display only when devotees come asking for blessings and miracles.

Devi’s simple but mesmerising opening-credits
sequence begins with the titles over a shot of a blank, unadorned, pale-white statue. As the sequence proceeds and Ustad Ali Akbar Khan’s music becomes lusher, faster, more devotional – its tempo suggesting the frenzy of worship – this tabula rasa of a face will be transformed into a familiar goddess idol through the accoutrements of makeup, jewellery and hair. This transformation pre-echoes Dayamoyee’s progression from being a relatively anonymous member of her household to something of a tourist attraction.

What follows is a depiction of prayer and rituals that I thought disturbing on more than one count (as some readers of this blog will know, I find prayers and rituals disturbing at the best of times). Most of the worshippers we see are men, and throughout this film one senses the dominance of the male gaze, a gaze that determines how a woman is to be categorised – goddess or demoness, mother, wife or servant. (“I don’t appreciate these modern young people, do you?” the father-in-law tells Dayamoyee early in the film. It’s a lighthearted remark, but even before he has his dream, one feels that the old man has fixated on this 17-year-old child as a mother figure.) The story is a constant reminder of how women in conservative societies can simultaneously be the repositories of a house’s honour and prisoners within it; reverence and subjugation run hand in hand.

(Incidentally this aspect of Devi reminded me of another favourite film, Carl Dreyer’s Day of Wrath, in which a young woman in 17th century Denmark is accused of being a witch and eventually comes to believe it herself. In both stories, the control exercised by religious authority becomes indistinguishable from the control exercised by elderly men in patriarchal societies.)

Devi isn't a consistently engaging work - my attention drifted during a couple of the pedantic scenes involving Soumitro, who has to play one of the most thankless of all roles, the Voice of Reason. Some of the speechifying in the second half is superfluous: so much is conveyed more effectively through the simple unfolding of the narrative, and through the delicately shifting expressions on Sharmila Tagore’s face. The adolescent Sharmila in this film is miles removed from the confident movie star who would, later in the decade, play such varied parts as the condescending magazine editor in Ray’s Nayak, the shy flower-seller in Kashmir ki Kali and the modish rich girl in An Evening in Paris. There is an artlessness in her performance here that could arguably have been achieved only at this point in her career, and only with such a director – and it works especially well for the part of a childlike girl who is defined by what other people think of her.

Thanks to the brilliant Criterion Collection print of Jalsaghar, I now find it irksome to watch Ray’s films on Indian DVDs, but even in a mediocre print one can appreciate the many delicate touches in Subrata Mitra’s cinematography. Particular noteworthy are some of the dimly lit indoor compositions, with the many shots of beds covered with mosquito nets. This creates an otherworldly, shroud-like effect, almost a visual representation of the idea of a girl wrapped in a cocoon. In some scenes, Dayamoyee’s bedroom resembles a pupa from which a grotesque, mutant butterfly will emerge.

But the single image that stays with me is a much more simply staged shot. It’s the image of Dayamoyee sobbing quietly, her face turned towards the wall, traumatised by the behaviour of her father-in-law who has just done something unthinkable in the context of the norms of their society – he has placed his head on her feet. The shot recalls the words sung by an old beggar elsewhere in the film: “I’ll never call you Mother again / You gave me too much sorrow /I called You but You turned away.” Here, sorrow will be the lot of both the worshipper and the worshipped.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

On Kahaani and the dhokebaaz flashback

I’ve written a few times about the trickiness of book-to-film adaptations, including problems that arise from basic differences in the mediums – the written word vs the visual representation. One example is Ira Levin’s superb thriller A Kiss Before Dying (see this post) where the method of the suspense hinges on the fact that Levin’s medium does not require him to show us his murderer’s face (whereas a conventional narrative film doesn’t have this luxury). Another is Gautam Malkani’s novel Londonstani, which overturns all the reader’s assumptions by making a key revelation about its narrator-protagonist on the very last page (it’s hard to see how this book could be faithfully filmed).

Sujoy Ghosh’s Kahaani isn’t an adaptation of a book, but watching the film it struck me that one of its major plot-holes derives from a limitation of visual suspense – and that the effect would have been very different if presented in the form of a written story.

(Spoiler Alert – avoid reading on if you haven’t seen the film and are planning to go for it)

In general, I thought Kahaani was a gripping, skilfully constructed movie with many strong points – good pacing, attention to detail, an eye for character. It makes excellent use of Kolkata as a setting (one that has clearly been underutilised by Hindi cinema) and contains good performances, not just by Vidya Balan (whose role is trickier than it might at first appear) but also by Parambrata Chatterjee and Nawazuddin Siddiqui, who play two very different sorts of men who become involved with the central character’s quest. The relationship between Balan’s character Vidya Bagchi and her “saarthi”, the bashful policeman Rana (played by Chatterjee), includes some very charming, not-quite-romantic-but-who-knows interplay. And no one who sees the film will ever forget Bob Biswas, a pudgy, unfit hitman who is a tangle of contradictions: a life-insurance agent moonlighting as a killer; a sweet-looking Bengali babu who sometimes resembles a creepy bogeyman from a Hollywood slasher series (looked at up close, his face appears almost to be crumbling; when he isn’t busy making house visits, one imagines he lives alone with his long-dead, stuffed mother in some forgotten cranny of this old city).

There is little to fault in the creation of mood, but as the narrative builds towards an increasingly complicated climax with revelations and counter-revelations, plot-holes emerge – the sorts of things a compliant viewer is presumably expected to gloss over (or perhaps not notice in all the confusion). Midway through, there is an instance of visual cheating in the railway-platform scene that heralds the Intermission (anyone who watched the trailers will have seen it beforehand) – not only is this scene misleading, it’s also inconsistent with Kahaani’s overall tone. (As the wife pointed out, it belongs more in a Dabangg action sequence.) But the biggest glitch - in a movie that makes recurring use of the phrase “system error” - involves dishonest flashbacks.

When Vidya arrives in Kolkata from London in search of her husband Arnab, she goes to the police station and passes around a photo of the two of them together, taken on their wedding day; as she talks and reminisces, short flashbacks show her memory of him. In one, we see the photo being clicked; a later one shows her persuading him to go to Kolkata for his assignment. The flashbacks are presented in such a way – they are bookended by close-ups of Vidya looking contemplative and misty-eyed – that it’s reasonable to see them as genuine recollections. (If these scenes had been framed differently, it may have been possible to think these weren’t her memories but the mental images of the people who are hearing her story.)

Late in the film, we discover that though the broad outline of Vidya’s story was true (at some point in the past, she was married and pregnant, and her husband did leave London for Kolkata, never to return), the photograph she has been passing around is a doctored one – the man in it (let’s call him M) isn’t her husband but another man whom she is now on the trail of (and whom she doesn’t exactly harbour positive feelings for). This disclosure raises an obvious question: when we are shown Vidya’s memories, why is M playing the role of her husband in them? And the obvious answer is: to blindside the viewer at the cost of the film’s internal credibility.

More than 60 years ago Alfred Hitchcock’s Stage Fright got some flak for a flashback scene that turned out to be a complete lie. Defenders of the film argued that the device was a legitimate one in the given context – being a visual representation of a murderer’s version of events – but the scene continued to make some viewers uncomfortable even decades later when narrative experimentation in cinema had become more common; it felt like a forced way of creating a barrier between the viewer and the story.

The lying flashbacks in Kahaani are even more problematic because they aren’t just a visualisation of a lie being told by one person to another – they are expressions of a character’s interiority. The only way they can be justified is by assuming that Vidya Bagchi is delusional (or that she has so thoroughly internalised her made-up story that she can no longer distinguish it from her reality) – but nothing else in the film supports this reading.

One can argue that, given the premise, there wasn't much else that could have been done. Much of the tension in Kahaani comes from the viewer’s ambivalence about Vidya; as seasoned viewers of suspense films, we are constantly aware that her version of events might only be a kahaani, a made-up story. (In discussions before the film released, I heard all sorts of theories, including the one that she is really a terrorist carrying around bombs for a huge attack during Durga Puja week.) But much of the film's emotional effectiveness comes from the way in which it makes us empathise with the character. As the narrative develops, as we get to know her better and appreciate her resourcefulness, persistence and the gentleness of her relationship with Rana (and with Bishnu, the kid who provides “running hot water”), we start rooting for her.

Not showing those flashbacks would have been a barrier to this empathy – it would have had the effect of making her a remote figure, giving us little sense of her inner world and her past. And showing them in such a way that we don’t get to see the husband’s face would have given the game away immediately.

For anyone who has seen the film, I’d be interested in knowing what you think about these scenes. Did you see them as deal-breakers or as minor flaws that you were happy not to dwell on? (I didn’t think they were deal-breakers myself, but they made Kahaani a less-than-convincing thriller for me – I thought its strengths lay elsewhere.) Also: was there any way these scenes could have been done differently without radically affecting the viewer’s connect with Vidya? Inputs welcome.

Penguin Spring Fever 2012

The programme schedule for the 2012 edition of Penguin's always-enjoyable Spring Fever is out, with the usual mix of panel discussions, music performances and quizzes. This year's participants include Vikram Seth, Anjum Hasan, Gulzar, Rahul Bhattacharya and other fine writers; here's the schedule (click to enlarge).

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Loneliness of a long-distance baaghi: thoughts on Paan Singh Tomar

Watching Tigmanshu Dhulia’s excellent Paan Singh Tomar – based on the real-life story of an Army cadet-turned-steeplechase runner-turned-Chambal dacoit – I was more than once reminded of Peter Carey’s great novel True History of the Kelly Gang, told (mostly) in the voice of the 19th century Australian outlaw Ned Kelly.

It isn’t so much a question of the superficial similarities between the two stories: the social milieu (a place where modernity cautiously brushes against the law of the jungle) that becomes a springboard for crime; the encounters with apathetic policemen and other authority figures who are unwilling (or unable) to provide even-handed justice. Nor is it particularly relevant whether either work is a strictly factual account of its subject’s life. The real achievement is the creation of a believable voice: just as Carey’s book was written in a breathless, unpunctuated, colloquial style to suggest how the barely literate Kelly might have told his story, Dhulia’s nuanced screenplay (with its pitch-perfect use of the dialects of rural Madhya Pradesh) does something comparable for a man who, at the end of his life, has no one left to speak for him. 

In both cases, we get a portrait so internally authentic – of a person, the times he lives in, the world he comes from, the rituals and inner workings of that world and how they shape his character – that everything in the narrative seems organic and natural. Paan Singh Tomar doesn’t heavy-handedly create sympathy for a wronged hero (in the tradition of the larger-than-life mainstream Hindi film) – but then it doesn’t need to. Getting to know the man this well is enough.


When we first meet Paan Singh (Irrfan Khan), it is 1980 and he is a middle-aged dacoit leader (though he calls himself a baaghi or rebel). A small-time reporter has secured an interview with him and the visual grammar of their first moments together makes the hierarchy clear: Paan Singh is shown in extreme close-up, the reporter in conventional medium shot; there stands the stammering supplicant looking for a story and here sits the fearsome bandit who might deign to give him one (and even allow him to live to tell it). At this point it seems probable that Paan Singh Tomar will become an exercise in myth-making, but that isn’t how it turns out. Flashbacking to 1950 – when Paan Singh is a young army recruit – the film quickly demythologises him (and it becomes clear that those unsettling close-ups only represented the reporter’s fevered view of the brigand he has come to interview – we aren’t meant to see Paan Singh as an intimidating figure). What now unfolds is a story about a man led on a strange journey by the currents of personality and circumstance.

Pehli baar dekha koi sazaa ka mazaa le raha hai,” (“It’s the first time I’ve seen someone enjoying his punishment”) observes a Major as he watches Paan Singh doing the rounds at training time. The young man’s decision to take up sports is presented as being driven simply by hunger (sportspeople get more generous servings of food), but soon deeper layers to his character are revealed. The first time he sets a national record, there is a suggestion that he was fuelled more by anger than by ambition – because his garrulous coach casually used a maa ki gaali while spurring him on from the sidelines. When the race is over, Paan Singh hugs his coach, but not before delivering a quick, quiet admonition: “Hamaare yahaan maa ki gaali ka jawaab goli se dete hain” (“Where I come from, when someone insults our mother, we reply with bullets.”) In a scene that is on the face of it about a sportsman doing something inspirational, we fleetingly get a sense of a man with a capacity for violence, even if it comes from righteous indignation.

Much later, these emotions resurface when he goes to the police to get justice during a land dispute, and finds his track accomplishments counting for nothing. “Desh ke liye faltu bhaage hum?” he asks the officer who has disrespectfully flung his medals away. This might ring a little false, since Paan Singh’s decision to start running wasn’t – initially at least – a patriotic one. But we come to see him as a man who learns something about his own motives and capabilities as he goes along. He is individualistic but has strong ties to family and land; proud and opinionated, but capable of following his intuition in a given situation. A momentarily surprising – but ultimately believable – scene is his reaction when his running coach pleads with him to leave the 5000m race because another competitor (into whose family the coach’s daughter is married) must be allowed to win. You might expect a man like Paan Singh not to accede to such a base, cringing request, but he thinks about it for a second, cocks his head and replies with a simple “Guru ke beti ke liye angaar pe bhi chalega.” (“For my teacher’s daughter, I’ll even walk on burning coals.”) It’s a small but significant moment where you can almost see the wheels turning in his head: two principles are in opposition here, he chooses the one that has greater emotional resonance for him at that moment.

You need a mighty performer to pull such scenes off with conviction, and Irrfan Khan is (along with Dhulia’s script) one of the two pillars of this film. Irrfan’s repertoire includes a deadpan mode that I find very compelling. It can be drolly effective in comedy (see Life in a Metro or even Billu) but terrifying in intense dramatic scenes where he seems at times to be in communion only with himself, cut off from the hurly-burly around him. A couple of moments in this film reminded me of the fatalistic grandeur of that wonderful scene in Maqbool where Irrfan’s Macbeth keeps asking the policemen-witches “Main doobunga ke bachoonga?” (“Will I drown or survive?”), the haunted, faraway expression in those bulbous eyes suggesting he has already moved into another realm, seeing things no one else can see, aware of his final destiny.


But if Paan Singh Tomar has the timbre of a Shakespearean tragedy, it doesn’t strain self-consciously to be one. Though based on a remarkable, "stranger than fiction" true story that spanned decades, it consistently stays in the moment – it doesn’t reach for grand epiphanies (except, arguably, in its final scene, which brings together the strands of its protagonist’s colourful past in a too-literal depiction of “his life flashed before his eyes”, and also includes a brief-Hamlet-Horatio moment). There is a well-thought-out understatement in scenes that could easily have been overplayed for dramatic effect, such as when Paan Singh tosses off bon mots (apart from the Army everyone in this country is a thief, he says, and on another occasion “Kitaab kum, aadmi padha hai”). The running sequences too mostly avoid the clichés associated with the Inspirational Sports Film – and that’s particularly apt for this story, set at a time where athletic achievements get hardly any glamorous media coverage or long-term respect. (This is also why the scene where a young Japanese fan gushes to our bashful hero that she “loves him” is strangely moving.)

Of course, a “bigger” narrative does exist for someone who chooses to look for it: consider Paan Singh’s journey from being the idealistic youngster of 1950, serving his newly independent nation, to the hunted baaghi of 1980 who feels let down by his country – musing sarcastically that he got little recognition when he was running for India in international sports events, but his name plays over the radio now that injustice has forced him into a life of crime. (Semi-serious subtextual analysis alert: in the film’s final stretch, as Paan Singh nears the finish line
of his life’s race, we hear a news item – on a radio – about the death of the actress Nargis. I wondered if this might have been a sly reference to the end of the Mother India ideal for our embittered protagonist.)

Late in the film, when a group of policemen led by Inspector Rathore (the always-excellent Zakir Hussain) rescue a terrified kidnap victim, the line “Dar mat beta, yeh police ke vardi mein police hee hain” (“These really are cops in police uniforms”) is said for humorous effect. But Paan Singh Tomar is about a world where dacoits and armymen, rebels and cops, are forged from the same human materials and life experiences – and where only very minor variances in temperament and personal circumstance can make all the difference. Though the point isn’t thickly underlined, a few visual links are made between these sets of people. One striking scene near the end has Paan Singh and his doomed men walking upright in single formation, their reflections in the lake below; we could easily be looking at army cadets on the march, and not just because they are wearing khaki. (In any case, their “operations” have to be as disciplined and as strongly built on trust as any in the Army – when things fall apart, it is inevitably caused by a betrayal from within.) The last meeting between the fugitive and his son – who has joined the Army – is another subtle reminder of what the former’s life might have been like if only a few chips had fallen differently.

And yet, the chasm in this world between those who represent authority (and who therefore have the weight of the law on their side, even if they are crooked or cowardly) and those who live outside the law (because they see no other way of surviving) is so vast as to be unbridgeable. Even Paan Singh Tomar, champion steeplechaser, can cross that divide only once; he can’t repeat the feat in the opposite direction.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Squirrel trap: on writing and letting go

[From a new column I’m doing for GQ magazine, built around reflections from the writing – and reviewing – life]

“How did you know it was time to stop?”

The question came from Jonathan Shainin, editor of The Caravan; it was directed at writer-journalist Naresh Fernandes. The immediate context was a panel discussion about Fernandes’s book Taj Mahal Foxtrot: The Story of Bombay’s Jazz Age, which took nearly 10 years from inception to publication – leading many of his acquaintances to wonder if it would ever see the light of day
but Shainin’s question is relevant to nearly anyone who has ever worked on a research-driven book. It hints at the difficulty a writer can face in knowing when to say “I’m done. This thing is ready to go out into the world.”

Taj Mahal Foxtrot began life as an essay and gradually expanded as Fernandes’s interest in the material and its possibilities grew. At one point he thought he would do a picture book about jazz musicians in 1930s and 40s Bombay, but what was intended as a short Introduction turned into a 10,000-word dissertation - and meanwhile other stories and anecdotes were building up. “I’m a squirrel, constantly collecting and hoarding things,” he joked during the discussion.

But imagine a squirrel so attached to its rations – so enthralled by the shape and smoothness of the nuts – that it can’t bear to eat them, even when the winter chill sets in. Many writers know this feeling. It’s possible to get so emotionally involved with a subject – with the pleasure of researching it, writing about it in bits and pieces, researching further, reassessing what you've learnt, agonising over the implications of new information – that the journey becomes much more important than the destination.

Of course, the nature of the material does make a difference: narrative borders are more clearly defined in topical, reportage-oriented books such as Meenal Baghel’s Death in Mumbai (about the 2008 Neeraj Grover murder case) or S Hussain Zaidi’s Black Friday (about the 1993 Mumbai bomb blasts). A writer’s personal circumstances matter too. Samanth Subramanian, author of the outstanding Following Fish – a journalistic account of fishing communities and fish-eating along coastal India – had to fund his own travels on weekends while holding down a day job. This meant that beyond a point he didn’t have the
luxury of being the dreamy-eyed writer; he needed a brisk, no-nonsense approach. As Subramanian tells me on email, an author also has to trust his gut. “As an experienced reader of the sort of material you write, you can pick up on when a subject is under-researched or over-researched. So you apply that same instinct to the book you're working on.”

But writerly instinct can collide with the gnawing sense that more discoveries lie just around the corner. I have some firsthand experience of this, having written a book on the 1983 film Jaane bhi do Yaaro. The book was a mix of reportage and analysis: I watched the movie multiple times and made notes, placing it in the context of the Hindi cinema of its time and drawing on my own childhood memories; I interviewed writer-director Kundan Shah and other members of the unit. After submitting the final draft, I sat back and felt the many colliding emotions an author feels at this stage of a project: relief, insecurity, exhilaration, dread.

Naturally, it was a thrill when I held the first copy in my hands. But even today I feel a tinge of regret when I stumble on something that gives me a fresh insight into the film and the people behind it. Not information about the shooting (I already had enough, and it’s pointless to expect to ever be “done” with that sort of trivia) but things that might have added to the analytical value of the writing. For example, it was only after completing the book that I properly watched the 1969 film Satyakam, a great favourite of Jaane bhi do Yaaro’s dialogue writer Ranjit Kapoor. Superficially the two movies have little in common – one is a sombre realist drama, the other an absurdist black comedy – but in different ways they are concerned with the death of idealism in an injustice-steeped world. The subtle but strong link between them is a reminder of how one work of art might inform and illuminate another, and a whole new chapter might have come out of it – but the book was long done.

At worst, this sort of thing can be very dispiriting. It can make you question the value of the project you have worked so hard on. At the same time, one has to be pragmatic.
(Assuming, of course, that you intend to get the book finished at all. There's a whole other column to be written about artists - call them impractical or incredibly committed and self-content - who are happy nurturing a project indefinitely, unconcerned with whether it ever reaches an audience or a readership.) Getting really obsessive, I might have convinced myself that I not only needed to meet everyone associated with the film but also meet everyone who ever had close ties with them, to get a range of perspectives on each life. Or that I had to read every book and watch every film that influenced their personalities. Beyond a point, this can get downright silly and provide a permanent excuse for procrastination.

There’s something else that complicated my book-writing experience. For years now, I’ve maintained a blog – it’s mostly a storehouse of my columns and reviews, but every now and again it becomes a forum for random scribbling, a place to accumulate trivia and whimsy. A permanent work-in-progress where pieces can continually be updated and conversations had with readers, it affords a writer much more flexibility than a book that is submitted, proofed and then made available on the stands in a “finished” form. Consequently, blogging can make one highly possessive about one’s writing.

But depending on how you use it, such a website can also be a forum for sharing new discoveries and keeping your officially published work "alive". It’s fascinating to see how much extra material – like DVD supplements – Fernandes has made available on his Taj Mahal Foxtrot site. As he continues to receive inputs from unexpected sources about jazz in Old Bombay, this online space has grown into a dynamic extension of his book – a treasure trove for readers who want more information about the world chronicled in Taj Mahal Foxtrot (as well as a potential starting point for another book). Think of it as a squirrel’s warehouse, and a reminder that in the Internet age it’s possible to publish and hoard at the same time.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

The limits of perception: on Temple Grandin’s Animals in Translation

[A version of my latest Sunday Guardian books column]

Like nearly everyone else who saw The Artist, I loved Uggie the performing dog who plays Jack, the lead character’s most reliable companion. I enjoyed the scenes where Jack mimics human reactions to various situations – falling over dramatically when a gun is fired, making a pleading gesture when someone has to be mollified. It’s cute and it works because within the narrative Jack is a movie star who has been trained to do these things: his “hamming” has a context (and anyway, even the human acting in this film is a deliberately stylised take on silent-movie performances). But generally speaking, I’m not a fan of the anthropomorphising of animals in live-action films – the scenes calculated to make viewers go “Aww” as they feel the warm glow that comes with knowing that a creature from another species can be Just Like Us (because that’s the standard all living things should aspire to, no?).

Anyone who has ever been close to an animal - or more accurately, a non-human animal - knows how nonsensical and insulting it is to claim (as some people continue to do) that they don’t have feelings. But at the other end of the spectrum is the potentially dangerous belief that animals, especially domesticated ones, respond to the world in exactly the same ways as humans do. It’s natural enough to project our own thoughts and emotional responses on them: at various times I’ve been guilty of anthropomorphising my canine child – telling myself, for example, “She’s mumbling to herself” when she opens and closes her mouth in surprise at the sight of a vagrant peacock in the neighborhood park. (Of course, it’s possible that she is doing something roughly comparable to a human talking to himself in wonder when he sees something unusual – but the point is that a casual assumption of this sort can become a barrier to understanding animal behaviour.)

Temple Grandin’s Animals in Translation: The Woman Who Thinks Like a Cow is a book I strongly recommend to anyone who seeks an understanding of what the inner lives of animals might really be like, and the small but crucial ways in which their intelligence and perception differs from that of human beings. Grandin, who was in Time magazine’s 2010 list of the world’s 100 most influential people, was well-placed to write this book – diagnosed with autism as a child, she underwent a long struggle to deal with her condition and to comprehend how it made her different from most other people. Along the way, she realised that her autism was “a kind of way station on the road from animals to humans, which puts people like me in a perfect position to translate ‘animal talk’ into English”.
Animals are like autistic savants. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that animals might actually be autistic savants. Animals have special talents normal people don't, the same way autistic people have special talents normal people don't; and at least some animals have special forms of genius normal people don't.
As an adult, Grandin has worked in the fields of animal behaviour and welfare, playing a big role in revolutionizing techniques used in the US livestock industry. Her empathy has allowed her to immediately notice things that “normal” humans don’t: how cattle can be made nervous by abrupt changes in light (while moving from a well-lit enclosure into a dark alley) or by a yellow cloth flapping on a fence. It also gives her special insight into various manifestations of animal intelligence: from bird migration to dogs who can predict seizures in humans to a squirrel’s memory for different types of nuts and burial spots.

“It’s ironic that we always say autistic children are in their own little worlds,” she writes, “Autistic people are experiencing the actual world much more directly and accurately than normal people, with all their inattentional blindness.” This is because while autistic people (and animals) tend to be visual thinkers who process details, most “normal” people’s brains convert details into words and abstractions. A persistent theme in this book is that the perceptual systems most of us are so proud of give us a limited, highly selective view of the world, leaving us exposed in many ways – hence the startling results of visual experiments such as “Gorilla in the Midst”, where 50 percent of the “normal” people watching a short video failed to see a man in a gorilla suit even though he was right in front of them. Or the alarming flight simulation test where a significant percentage of pilots didn’t even notice a large aircraft parked on the runway they were landing on – mainly because their brains didn’t expect to see such an anomaly.

All of which makes Animals in Translation a humbling read on more than one count. It makes for excellent complementary reading to the work of Peter Singer and other ethical philosophers who have written about the perils of “speciesism”. (More about that in this post.) But even for readers who aren’t specifically interested in animals, Grandin’s book is valuable for its many observations about things we take for granted - such as the ways in which we use language and other modes of communication - and things we aren’t properly attuned to, such as the workings of our imperfect little homosapien brains.

[A few excerpts from Animals in Translation are here]

Thursday, March 01, 2012

On Bollywood's Top 20: a collection of oddly impersonal essays

[Did this review of Bollywood’s Top 20: Superstars of Indian Cinema (edited by Bhaichand Patel) for Business Standard. It’s another example of a book I would prefer not to have written about - and the exasperation and lack of interest probably comes through in the piece]

To begin with a small quibble, the “Indian” in this book’s sub-title is slightly misleading: this is a collection of essays – by different writers – on iconic Hindi-movie performers. But there are larger problems with this anthology. Given that its subjects are screen legends who have had an immeasurably complex influence (for better and for worse) on the lives of countless fans over decades, it would have been reasonable to expect some personal, passionate writing. Instead, much of it lacks warmth and has a mechanically journalistic tone.

Some of the pieces do begin in a way that suggests they will be firsthand accounts of a writer’s interest in a movie-star. (“When I was invited to write about Madhubala, I was delighted,” says Urmila Lanba, “Madhubala is one of my favourite actresses; my sister and I were only allowed to watch one movie a month and I recall we never missed her films...”) What usually follows, though, is a mix of gossip, second-hand reporting (with long quotes taken from various sources) and throwaway remarks on films that deserve to be written about with much more enthusiasm. Here, from S Theodore Baskaran’s essay on Nargis, is one example of what I mean:
In the Middle East [Awaara] played to packed houses. T J S George, Nargis’s biographer, points out that the duet in the boat scene was one of the best love scenes of her career. Her appearance in a bathing costume was pointed out as one of the highlights of the film. Apart from Prithviraj Kapoor, other cast members included Leela Chitnis and Shashi Kapoor. Helen, then an unknown junior artiste, made an uncredited appearance.
The paragraph is stilted and dull in ways that are too obvious to mention, but as a reader I would also have been interested in knowing what Baskaran himself thought of Nargis in those two scenes rather than learn what other people have “pointed out”.

It’s possible that I’m falling into the old trap of reviewing the book I wish had been written instead of the one that actually was. But my main objection is unevenness of tone: many of these essays veer between being chatty and casual and also trying to be comprehensive in a by-the-numbers, encyclopaedic way. In the Wikipedia age, I’m unsure what value there is in listing most of a performer’s movies with two or three trite sentences about each of them. And when you do commit yourself to providing such information, the fact-checking should be exemplary. Instead there are many careless errors. To mention just two, we are told that by 1954 “a whole new generation of actresses like Asha Parekh, Sadhana and Saira Banu had appeared on the scene and the era of colour films was also ushered in” (this is off by roughly a decade) and that Prithviraj Kapoor was over 30 years senior to Suraiya (22, actually).

That might sound like nitpicking, but when many similar instances of indifferent writing and editing pile up in a book, it’s a reminder that film literature in India is often treated flippantly even by those who engage deeply with cinema. I sometimes hear the defence that essays about mainstream Hindi films should be as accessible and egalitarian as the films themselves are. But in the same way as there are good Manmohan Desai films and bad Manmohan Desai films (how many movie buffs would put Ganga Jamuna Saraswati in the same league as Amar Akbar Anthony?), there are good and bad ways of writing accessibly about popular movies and movie-stars. (For a sample of intelligent, engaged writing in this vein, see Mukul Kesavan’s essay on Dharmendra.)

Of course, it would be silly to claim that there are no high points in such a varied collection. The pieces on K L Saigal and Devika Rani (by Vikram Sampath and Cary Rajinder Sawhney respectively) read smoothly because they make at least a perfunctory effort at a narrative structure. Jerry Pinto’s Waheeda Rehman essay characteristically combines thoughtful analysis with lightness of touch. Shefalee Vasudev’s piece on Madhuri Dixit, though overwritten in places (“Madhubala was mesmerising, Waheeda Rehman engrossingly attractive, Hema Malini the ultimate dream girl and Rekha sensational, but Madhuri – oh, she was something else. An incidental sum total of desirable parts of moh [allure] and maya [illusion]”), does take the trouble to examine the evolution of a star persona against the background of a changing movie-going culture.

The writers whose subjects had relatively short careers are at an advantage, since their pieces lend themselves to more focused analysis (in writing about Meena Kumari, for example, Pavan Varma can devote a generous amount of space to her key role as Chhoti Bahu in Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam), but I didn’t envy the task of those saddled with a really big superstar whose career has played out – wholly or partly – during the media explosion of the past two decades: what more is there to say about Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan, for instance? Still, Sidharth Bhatia and Namrata Joshi manage a decent, professional job on these two subjects. Bhatia covers well-trodden ground (including Bachchan’s much-analysed shift from the Angry Young Man battling the system to “the settled establishment man” over the past decade), but his observation that the young Amitabh “was an angular personality”, easily cast in edgy or villainous roles, led me to contemplate an alternate universe where the actor might have made an adequate career playing intense second leads like he did in the early films Gehri Chaal and Parwana. And Joshi’s piece on Shah Rukh includes some intriguing thoughts on the private persona versus the public one, and on the cracks that have been appearing in a once-secure image (the essay was written before SRK’s much-publicised brawl with Shirish Kunder).

Also enjoyable is Avijit Ghosh’s wry dissection of Hindi cinema’s headiest, most enigmatic superstar phase – Rajesh Khanna’s dominance in the early 1970s. At one point, Ghosh writes of Khanna’s decline: “With half Rajesh’s acting ability, one-third his waistline and four times the discipline, Jeetendra comfortably ensconced himself as the director’s favourite for weepy socials or mindless entertainers made down South. Rajesh could only watch the water flow.”

This is a sample of the irreverence that comes with being a fan (the attitude that goes “these stars belong to us, we can say what we like about them”). One also sees it in the cheeky ending to Bhaichand Patel’s own (otherwise unremarkable) essay on Ashok Kumar – a reference to Kumar’s affair with Nalini Jaywant and the speculation that they “might have bumped into each other on their evening walks” in their old age.

More of this sort of thing could have made Bollywood’s Top 20 a better, more intimate book. More typical, alas, is the last paragraph of the Madhubala piece – of all things, a quote from Manoj Kumar in 2008, when the long-deceased actress had a stamp issued in her honour. “There can only be one Madhubala in one century,” Kumar said, “Every time I would see her, my heart would start singing ghazals.” This would be a moderately acceptable way to end the essay, but the quote continues thus: “I am happy and want to thank the department for their initiative.”

Yes, THAT is the closing sentence of a piece about one of Hindi cinema’s loveliest performers. Manoj Kumar is happy! He congratulates the postal department! It says something about the peculiarly distant tone of this collection and the sloppiness of its editing.

P.S. the accompanying CD of songs helps make up for some of the uninspired writing, but given this book’s cover price I thought it was naughty of Patel to describe it as “a free disc” in his Introduction.