The Shape-Shifting Cinematic Charms of Sriram’s ‘Andhadhun’

In Sriram Raghavan’s immoral universe, there are clearly defined good people and even more clearly defined bad people. Bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people. Sometimes, good people do bad things, suggesting they aren’t so good after all and at other times, bad people do good things, only to pay for it with their lives. Sometimes, they pay even when they haven’t done anything. Karma here is all topsy turvy and especially delicious for that.

Sriram Raghavan’s latest thriller, Andhadhun is inspired by a French short film, l’Accordeur (The Piano Tuner) directed by Olivier Treiner and influenced by Francois Truffaut’s iconic, Shoot the Piano Player; the latter happened to be the working title of the film as well. Raghavan takes events from one and language from the other and mixes them with his whimsical and imaginative cheekiness to give us a film uniquely distinct in content, tone, style and after-effects.

Play of Contrasts

According to David Ehrenstein, ‘What makes Shoot the Piano Player so successful is… its masterful mixture of different dramatic tones.’ The same is true of Andhadhun. The film turns the corner of different dramatic tones so rapidly that it becomes a vibrant exercise to follow through its dark hilarity, hilarious darkness and some romantic tenderness. The film is silly and smart at the same time, sweet and sour at the same, warm and cold at the same time while constantly obfuscating the truth through innocuous innuendos that draw out these amusing contrasts, tumbling out in rapid succession like the dark secrets of the film itself.

The mock serious tone of the film pitches its cold-blooded, decisive and soul-less femme fatale Simi against the mushy, indecisive Hamlet (passing mention), against the guilt-ridden Lady Macbeth (pointed mention) and even the innocent, heartbroken Nurse Radha (presumably a reference drawn from Waheeda Rahman’s character in Khamoshi), who in Simi’s imagination runs away from the nursing home, all with a chuckle. It takes a classic, Teri Galiyon Mein and merrily turns it into a hundred things it is not.

It takes Beethoven’s 5th symphony and puts it into a Bollywood crime thriller, packing a powerful punch in an already punchy scene. It takes its convoluted plot and turns it into a tragi-comic mime scene complete with a grand piano piece, a scene that seems right out of a Keaton or Chaplin film. It is endless, the things the film turns on its head and comes out grinning from ear-to-ear, chuckling at its own temerity.

Solid, Fluid Performances

It doesn’t let you sit still, but it’s not a mere joyride, it’s more like white water rafting – up and down, down and up. This shape-shifting tone of the film, its unique charm, perhaps would have been less than itself without the pitch-perfect performances of the entire cast, from the primary to the tertiary.

Ayushman Khurana’s confident blind man turns into a frantic one ever-so smoothly even as we witness Radhika Apte’s naive Sophie losing her innocence but not her gullibility. The notes Tabu strikes with her cold, mercurial yet likeable Simi suggests the joy she may have got in sinking her teeth into a role fulfilling her giant mettle.

Manav Vij’s bulky, hulky policeman, so easily bullied by his women and the excellent Ashwini Kalsekar as his wife, deserve a separate film on their own. The trio of Zakir Hussain’s Dr Swamy, Chhaya Kadam’s Manushi and the actor playing Murli complete the madness with their own brand of sweet mayhem. But perhaps, the most charming is Anil Dhawan as a good-hearted, has-been Bollywood star and the heart with which he delivers his role.

Love For the Medium

Kent Jones, said about Shoot The Piano Player, ‘The film offers powerful evidence of his (Truffaut’s) love of American cinema and literature’. If life depends on the liver, Andhadhun’s liver is its love for the medium. It shows in the carefully constructed plot that threatens to go haywire but just about does not, operatic crescendos petering into mundane silliness, constant shifting of lens, base, mood and tone, and the generous use of music, both Hindi and Western.

It states its allegiance to Chhayageet/Chitrahaar personified as people now no more, and soon enough rushes into noir territory, only to keep jumping back and forth, straddling both worlds with perfection.

Kent Jones goes on to add, ‘Shoot the Piano Player is never grim. It may show us the dark underside of city life, but it is somehow quite unsordid. Daring to make us laugh at people in decidedly unfunny circumstances, the film manages to catch that laughter in mid-air and overlay it with a sense of sadness—without killing the joke.’ It’s almost as though he is speaking of Andhadhun.

(first published on Quint)

Anand Patwardhan’s ‘Reason (Vivek)’ – The Discovery of New India

It is brutal watch. Yeah, that’s the actual statutory warning, but we are all old enough for it, right? The reason I am writing about Reason is because there is every reason for all of us to be talking about the exact same things as the film.

First off, this is not a review – cute things like ‘reviews’ don’t matter to films like these. Anyways, it isn’t the film that needs a review, the country does – the truths it challenges are so stark. It lays bare in no uncertain terms the clear divide between (religious) rhyme and (democratic) reason, literally and figuratively.

If this film is shown in the beginning of every movie instead of the national anthem, people may not start feeling more patriotic about the country, but at least they will be sensibly patriotic. Since, it has 16 chapters of almost 15 min each and you may not have so much time so here is an abridged summary and highlights, with some personal commentary to keep the truth going. You tell someone else about it, and it will spread. Hopefully, we will come back from the brink of the abyss staring at us, in time. (Also, watch the entire thing first.)

Chapter 1 – Dabholkar & Chapter 2 – Pansare

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IX2ZeG3szQ4
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=osrfRS364yg

The film doesn’t waste time coming to the point, it starts from the centre, from the Dabholkar, Pansare & Kalburgi murders and the entire film is interspersed through with their thoughts. Who killed them is a moot point here (also coz everyone knows), more important is the question – Why were they killed? They were killed because they empowered the marginalised classes through reason and reason, as we all know, does not rhyme. Reason sings no one’s tunes.

Chapter 3 – Shivaji

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YlSQe8XNT64

From the killing of rationalists, the film moves to investigating the killing of rationality. It throws spotlight on the fractured as well as manufactured history surrounding the Maratha King Shivaji, while taking pains to separate fact from fiction. It also throws a spotlight on the hard-core elements manufacturing this history for their own benefit, and widely poisoning the Hindu-Muslim and ‘nationalist’ narrative.

Chapter 4 – Virasat

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=StYIx1rEL6o

After setting the stage, the film quickly comes back to talking of the legacy left behind by Dabholkar and Pansare; it takes us right inside the minds and hearts of people these men have touched, classes that are the bedrock of our society, traditional as well as modern. It instils hope. The film also touches upon how society is being influenced artificially and pressured directly by those who demand a Hindu rashtra.

Chapter 5 – Sanatan

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WgGcE3EYXQ4

Chapter five takes us directly into the womb of the problem, Sanatan Sanstha located in Goa. Founded by Jayant Balaji Athavle, the organisation diligently works towards achieving its dream of converting India into a Hindu rashtra, through planned terror activities. There is strong opposition to their activities and existence right in the village of Ramnath, where it is located, from the local Goan people. The local people want to live peacefully in their diversity without the Sanatan Sanstha.

(Caution: The parts with the kids in Sanatan Sanstha fooatge is very creepy. Watch at your own risk.)

Chapter 6 – Ganpati

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hLccwS7WWBs

The film then goes to uncover the politics behind religious festivals and how they are used for spreading propaganda by political parties and religious groups. Dabholkar and Pansare both had questioned the environmental impact of the unchecked Ganpati celebrations in Maharashtra. The film keeps questioning their murders. Maybe, we must too.

(Watch out for – The part where the lawyer chap defending the accused in Malegaon blasts telling Patwardhan, on camera, ‘Why did the police allow Anand Patwardhan to protest? Why didn’t they break his bones? When that happens, one feels angry.’ Waah re, democracy.)

Chapter 7 – Shital

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9y3u_Xv-UbM

After zooming out, the film zooms into the microcosm of the Sanatan Sanstha, and its efforts to divide India not only along communal lines, but also casteist lines. Dabholkar, Pansare, Kalburgi’s words keep stitching the narrative forward and the section ends with a beautiful tribute song to the three men.

(Must think about – The Haji Ali protests section where Hindu and Muslim suddenly become one against a single enemy, the woman. Think, think hard. Or laugh.)

Chapter 8 – Dadri

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7N-OCBEwzVY

This is the toughest to watch and that’s why the most necessary. The Dadri beef lynching episode is like a wound on the nation’s conscience we can neither heal from, nor move on from. But the quiet assurance in Akhlaq’s young, very old son is a balm. If he can still see a better India and work for it, so can we.

(Keep calm – At the end when the father of one of the lynchers justifies the lynching and when challenged that the Govt investigation found no beef ends with a ringing and profound, ‘How can we believe?’ Breathe. Think of how Dadri was and still wants to live in peace and brotherhood.)

Chapter 9 – Cow Dalit

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PGsdXSeDaW8

The spotlight travels to Una, where gau-rakshak terrorism reached new lows in July 2016. The section begins with the actual footage of dalits being flogged and it’s cruel (and if that doesn’t make you angry, just stop. And retire, from life). But the film captures very nicely the heartening spirit of the Una ‘uprising’. The marginalised must rise up and claim their space. Also Modiji has ensured Muslims join the Dalits in Gujarat, and there is hope. There is always hope.

(Check out New India – The last five minutes – the four injured dalits in the hospital saying none of them is scared anymore, it is a fight for justice. And Akhlaq’s son.)

Chapter 10 – RSS

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Oe2JPn354Qw

And now we come to the point of the whole matter, RSS. The organisation that killed Gandhi. The film takes us through its diligent training camps and takes head-on some of its rather brainwashed foot soldiers. It is a whether-to-laugh-or-cry moment. (But there is a one-liner gem there to deal with a bhakt, just ask him, ‘Who killed Gandhi?‘ and watch him disintegrate.)

(Must note – The Ram Mandir station maybe an imposition but there is still a Mahim a few stations down and a ‘Masjid’, on the other line. Let it come, in Bombay rush hour Hindutva won’t be able to survive beyond Andheri.)

Chapter 11 – Rohith

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KgCwRchxaMc

Rohith Vemula is not the wound of the nation, he is the test of the nation. And we cannot afford to fail that test, period. Through Vemula’s story, the film lets the dalits tell their story and follows it wherever it goes. About time, our nation began to do that as well.

(Must do – The last bit is an oral rendition of Rohith’s last letter. If you haven’t read it please listen to it.)

Chapter 12 – JNU A

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VyKU86Yerz8

Enter Kanhaiyya Kumar and although I cannot fault his politics or intentions, must say, his emergence and rise has always seemed more manufactured than organic. But the truths about our society and especially politics that his emergence lays bare are naked. The fake narrative of nationalism is fooling no one, especially not the youth.

(Check out New India part II – The two ex ABVP leaders who left the organisation on grounds of its regressive stands and political ideologies. They were thinking for themselves.)

Chapter 13 – JNU B

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KV7NGzyMo9o

Extended interviews with Kanhaiyya Kumar follow with a deeper look into the Hindutva menace. And perhaps significantly, it ends with a conversion ceremony of dalits into Buddhism, rejecting Hinduism saying, ‘I believe, I am being reborn.’ If Hindusim will reject them, what are they supposed to do?

Chapter 14 – Mush A

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G-YjfBj32Eo

This is when the ocean comes to the doorstep. The question, ‘Who Killed Gandhi‘ has now become, ‘Who Killed Karkare?’ and it hurts even more. Or rather it should. The film exposes the loopholes in ATS chief Hemant Karkare’s death and links to the Malegaon blast investigations and asks questions that have never been more urgent. Let’s ask them before Sadhvi Pragya becomes our Prime Sadhvi of 100% Pure Brahmin Hindu Ram Rajya. (It sounds like the name of some ghee, doesn’t it?)

Chapter 15 – Mush B

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ntfGxfn0Svw

The plot thickens and thickens and one just keeps swallowing the hopelessness of the same 80’s masala story of aam junta as well as upright officers victimised and exploited by powerful political forces. It’s like a potboiler seriously, a good old Sunny Deol film. We are back to the 80’s in 2019, some development for sure. Pansare had publicly claimed Karkare’s death was an organised conspiracy and the conspirators would be unmasked soon. He was killed too. The connections are ridiculously clear in this ‘we-all-know-who-dunnit-but-won’t-say-it’ not-thrilling-anymore, thriller that is more of a joke, our nation.

Chapter 16 – The end

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RUcM_B0m77U

The series comes to an end with a deeper look into the amazing amalgamation the establishment and hindu terror outfits have become and keeps raising that one seminal question to chest-thumping nationalists, ‘Who Killed Gandhi?’ The answer to that may lie in the question, ‘Do we want a Hindu Rashtra or do we want Freedom?’

There, there is a discovery of a New India in front of us. It is upto us what we do with it, take it or leave it. Its upto us, really. After all, it stands to reason.

– Fatema Kagalwala

(first published on moifightclub)

Andhadhun – Liver says thank you sir!

(WARNING: Watch the movie first. May spoil it for you if you don’t.)

It feels a little strange to call a film titled ‘Andhadhun’ pointedly self-aware. But then if a Sriram Raghavan film won’t kill and resurrect irony a thousand times, then what will?

Just when the Nanas, Bahls and Kavanaughs of the world had you ready to throw yourself in the nearest gutter and die, there comes something so innocuous – a thriller film that ends up giving you hope about life. There is still some goodness left in the world and it’s all stuffed inside Sriram Raghavan’s film.

Wait, hope did you say? In a film full of darkness, little innocence and no redemption? What hope did I find in this universe of dystopia that is so dystopic it doesn’t even take its own dangers seriously? Enough so that I don’t get pimples due to all the invisible tension, you know!

Andhadhun is good for health
It is like anaar juice. You know, rich and full of texture and body wala juice that is actually just clear liquid. You drink and feel you are in heaven but the minute its over it is over. But you still relish it for a long time, that richness and the memory of the texture of the richness. It’s local but exotic at the same time, sweet and sour at the same time and dry and wet at the same time. Anaar juice is also very good for the liver, no?

And apparently, so are rabbits, full of vitamins and minerals. The vitamins and minerals of this film go far beyond the sharply written plot spiralling out of control every five minutes. Or so it seems because it never goes out of hand. The film merely teeters on the edge; as mercurial as Tabu’s performance, as lucid as Radhika’s and as fluid as Ayushmann’s.

What keeps it from teetering off the edge is the phenomenal love for the medium on display, the self-assured craft and the Raghavan moral universe that plays hand in glove with immorality as smoothly as the images, sound, music, words, places, people and performances play with each other; all the worlds he seems to understand equally well.

Such ingenuity cannot come without a distinct love and understanding of the medium and it cannot come without the accompanying genius of your team. Without K.U. Mohanan’s intriguing camera work, Madhu Apsara’s equally trippy and cheeky sound design and Pooja Ladha Surti’s shrewd editing, the film would not have been half of what it is eventually, a sheer treat of music and magic.

Such ingenuity also cannot come without a stronghold on the moral core of the story. Raghavan’s films may all be stories steeped in an immoral universe with equally susceptible heroes, where goodness doesn’t necessarily always get rewarded and evil isn’t always punished. Yet, they operate within a very clear and basic framework of right and wrong that never loses its focus, even when gutted and laughing at its own self.

A completely plot-driven narrative from start to finish, one then almost imagines Raghavan playing similarly with his film. Turning his hero from blind to not blind to blind to we-don’t-even-know-anymore, with a tongue firmly tucked in the cheek. Chuckling away at the absolutely delicious conundrum a murder-gone-wrong can become. Shoot the piano player! Shoot! No, not yet! Shoot! Missed! Run! Hit! Fall! Gotcha! No? Wait…What?! I want a time plus brain machine that can go inside SR’s head and tell me how it was working when he was writing this whacko piece of sheer art.

When the hat tipped and tipped
The film saves its tribute card for Chhayageet and Chitrahaar, very aptly personified as fondly remembered, dearly loved people now no more, with dates et al. (Oh yes, sir, yes!) All the love for Bollywood then flows freely as the thriller merrily turns itself into a musical tribute to Hindi films and films in general; noir in particular – SR’s pet territory. And here comes in Truffaut’s delectable, ‘Shoot The Piano Player’, a film whose language SR borrows from so gracefully and meticulously that he outdoes Truffaut at his own game in creating a unique piece of cinema at once tragic and comic, classical and unconventional, silly and smart but with the distinct impression of a directorial sleight of hand that is playing with his material as consciously as the film seems un-self-conscious while having a lot of fun himself. This is the real tribute, and it is delectable.

The film almost starts similarly, taking the noir trope of a gun chase set-up happening in some other universe and immediately cutting to the universe of the film. The chased in Truffaut’s film is the protagonist’s brother, a semi-central character that turns the film on its head, the chased in Raghavan’s film is a rabbit, a non-character that turns the film on its head. That’s how whimsical is his craft. And delicious!

Kent Jones in his piece on Truffaut’s film says it is a film, “in which all of his assorted gifts and preoccupations are in play and meshed into a uniquely idiosyncratic whole. The film offers powerful evidence of his love of American cinema and literature… There is that wonderful speed, a pleasure in and of itself, that amounts to a kind of worldview—actions, objects, places, and sensations glimpsed and seized on, almost spontaneously forming a vivid afterimage in the mind’s eye. And his high-velocity storytelling is intimately tied to the feeling of impending mortality, the sense of every given moment in time coming and going, never to return. As for surprise, Shoot the Piano Player is about as unpredictable from one moment to the next as any film I know.” Was he speaking of Andhadhun and Sriram Raghavan?!

Perhaps, it is the play of contrasts in the film that lends it its unpredictability and richness. Yoking seriousness with hilarity at every turn, the tonal quality of the film becomes a universally mocking one and freely so. This delicious mockery is directed at everyone, everyone is in on the joke, except the characters. That’s why as Simi’s character unfolds we revel in the knowledge she can never be Nurse Radha – part 2. I am assuming it is a play on Waheeda Rehman’s character in ‘Khamoshi’ (1970), that genteel, heartbroken woman yearning to love again. Lady Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, we say (not only coz it’s the perfect Tabu, the original Lady Maqbool) but until Dr Swamy calls her so we realise she is far away from that too; Simi is absolutely guilt-free, completely soul-less. But then, with the exception of Sophie and Akash, this entire universe is completely soulless. Even Bandu, that see-it-all brat, who quickly enough becomes the audience’s ally in getting to the bottom of this mystery-within-mystery. Until the film takes another crazy spin at interval.

Whose lens is it anyway?
The blind hero who was not blind has now officially turned blind. What is this seeing and unseeing business? It’s a smooth trick of genius-giri. We, as audience begin the film watching Akash’s story first through the innocent, naïve eyes of Sophie, then as we are wisening up to the antics of the film-maker he shifts our POV to a smarter lens, that of a precocious, oversmart Bandu. Just when we think we have caught up with him here too, the proverbial rug is off from under our feet and we are in the deep, dank, dark. Just like our hero. From then on and just like him, we are fumbling in the dark too, with all the secrets hanging around for us to grasp and unravel. Till we are back to being the gullible Sophie again left to put the pieces together. And we do, until a crushed coke can hits a rabbit handled stick and knocks that part of our brain that tells us when we have been played. Check-mated sir, and glad to lose! And that is why I disagree with every review that says the second half is weaker and loses steam. The second half in fact, is as perfect as the first, maybe even better, puncturing perfectly, all the balls of contrast constantly in air.

These contrasts play out on all levels, much like all the cinematic elements in the film, sometimes simultaneously, sometimes one after the other in rapid succession, moulding and remoulding the film as it goes. The permanent warm tone sets up an idyllic, small-town Pune only to open up into the brutality at its borders. Dramatic, operatic music punctuates dramatic scenes as well as turns them comic, and in the scene where Simi and Manu clean the traces of their crime as Akash plays away – tragi-comic (and brilliant!). The sound cuts, diegetic yet full of imminent danger, keep the excitement tingling as the film keeps playing with our senses and feelings. After a point, the musical bit in this ‘musical-thriller’ transcends from the world of Akash’s piano and starts creeping under our skin as it starts underlining the unfolding darkness, tragedy and comedy. I don’t think Beethoven himself could have thought of a better cinematic use for his 5th symphony. Very cheeky, but the classic ‘Teri galiyon mein‘ is now redefined for generations to come. And since we are talking about music, welcome back Amit Trivedi and Jaideep Sahni, it had been a while.

As the film draws to an end, you suddenly become aware of the smile on your face, pasted there with Fevicol for the past 2.20 hrs. You realise you are feeling happy and hopeful. You also realise you wanted the film to go on and on. Especially, since the ending is still open, still incomplete. But then as Sophie says, ‘Kuchh cheezein adhoori honese hi toh poori hoti hain.’

You get up, humming aapse milkar accha laga, bahut accha laga. And walk out giving out a silent, invisible bow. Ekdum liver se.

– Fatema Kagalwala

(first published on moifghtclub)

Let’s have more films like Veere di Wedding

Watching Veere di Wedding constantly had me ask two questions – What is so wrong with the film that we had to decry it louder than some of us decry Modi? Second, do our brains reside in our heels for us to collectively brand a film every single thing it is not?

I am not a fan of chick flicks in general, Bollywood toh bilkul not. But watching Veere di wedding I couldn’t help wonder if Bollywood is growing up? I mean the film is such a tricky territory, yes our wonderful critiques have shown that enormously. Yet, the film smoothly bypasses all pitfalls, cinematic and ideological while just striking the right notes throughout, again both cinematic and ideological. On top of it, it is easygoing fun without being flaky, tall order that.

All throughout I was waiting to be disappointed, almost anxiously since I was having so much fun, slightly unnerving it was. I was willing to forgive the film its sins against feminism if it managed to avoid the sins of film-making. I kept looking but I found nothing so bad I could hang it for. In fact, I actually liked the tone of the film with regards its genders and its gaze on both. But more on that later, the film is better seen as a good film first.

The first thing that struck me was that the film does not aspire to be anything; that was refreshing. I used to watch Sex and the City at one point but never have I felt any sort of empathy for any of the characters or going-ons. I mean I felt so much more for Mulder and Scully and their ghosts. I went to Veere for the same reason I used to watch S&C, for the fashion, glamour and the beauty. Aankhon ka sukoon it is, sort of window shopping plus fashion show types. Veere toh managed to add some proper theatre to it as well.

And that theatre could have turned into a circus but it does not. To begin with, none of the four women were a ‘type’, something even an uber cool, megacity glamshow like Sex and the City couldn’t/wouldn’t escape. If Avni (Sonam) is a firebrand lawyer, she is also a young woman superconfused about love. Kalindi (Kareena) comes from a broken home but is far more together than her own parents. Meera (Shikha) is a dedicated mother and wife who is happy to let her inner young girl free when she can. And Sakshi (Swara) is the ultrasensitive gundi, the best of the lot, the easiest to brand, toughest to describe. None of these women are types, or stereotypes because I know all of them, each one of them through one experience or the other, including their silliness.

The silliness, I think that’s what got me. Silly that is not superficial, there was a genuine chemistry between the four which made the on-screen camaraderie appealing. The giggles plus the fights plus the heavier moments everything seemed like I’ve done it. Or I could do it too, you know. Not in those Gucci heels and Armani suits of course, but in bits and pieces, here and there. Every emotion was in its place but not dwelled upon for an instant longer lest we stop and start thinking about it or begin indulging. Just feel it and go, move on, quick. And the moving on was fun, the unexpected humour mingled with unexpected seriousness, the sharp, quick cutting never allowing to really take it all in what if we get all (judge)mental about it all, not a good idea for a light film at all. Especially when one is watching a film sitting inside a cake.

I mean seriously, how good looking was the film! The lavish wallpapers and pastel shaded Delhi aunties apart, the four women were dressed so swankily always and changed so rapidly that the effect was slightly mesmerising. I couldn’t keep track of the swirling earrings, or sauve shoes or that sassy locket or smooth scarf and I so wanted to, it was all a little overwhelming. Maybe I will watch it once again only for their looks and styling. I don’t do that for a KJo film either even though I go there also for the same reasons.

While talking of styling I kept looking out for Meera’s styling and the brouhaha made about the ‘mandatory overweight friend’ actually made me decide, yes our brains do reside in our heels. As a teen she is clearly not overweight, it is the result of her motherhood and she makes no bones about it nor a fuss. During the Phuket sequence, the in-passing touching upon of body shaming as Sakshi is ribbing her was so authentic as was Avni chiding Sakshi. Out with it went all notions of another stereotype, nicely done. That also brought in the delicate ground the film smoothly treads without making a fuss about it yet making it clear the makers know their minds, they needn’t have included it, you know. Meera’s character had as many individualistic shades as the other three women and an individual place in the foursome, which did not stand out screaming for attention nor did it fill a hole of a stereotype. Chapter closed.

Sakshi’s rebellion girl is as loyal as she is careless, as sensitive as she is impulsive and as naïve as she seems worldly wise. She drops her cigarette everytime Meera’s Bade Papa or another elder is in sight, like most Indian girls of any class would do. But she takes a sip of alcohol from a coke bottle after sunaoing Delhi type aunties. The girl is making a statement, and is not a rebel without a cause.

What I didn’t understand was that whole masturbation being reason for break-up angle in Sakshi’s story. Only a one to one, personal explanation from the writer will help me understand, so let’s leave that absurdity aside, I found it forgiveable given the rest of the deal was sweet enough.

Enough, I liked that most about the film, it is not too much of anything, its just enough of this and enough of that, light touch comic, lightly serious, slightly real, slightly unreal, a little sweet, a little sour but loads of glamour. That dedicated consistency to glamour also I liked. It’s not a film to go to town raving about but it’s not a film to demolish by any measure.

And now to the men of the film. More often than not, a female-oriented film tends to be unfair to its male as much as a male oriented film stereotypes its female. But barring Swara’s ex, there isn’t any male who isn’t either likeable or understandable. Bhandary’s creepy character may seem one note but he redeems himself when he cheers Meera’s fiery take-down of the police, secretly, standing right behind her. If behind every successful woman there would be a proud man I’d be ok with his creepiness. Rishabh starts off dangerously vanilla, especially the imbalance in the star power of the leads but he too redeems himself, part by being the remote voice of reason in mostly mayhem and part by also the trust he inspires in Kalindi, and in the glimpse of their friendship we have. The fact that he is the calmer, sensible one doesn’t necessarily make Kalindi seem childish either because she is an independent entity in herself. He is the more stable one and is prone to his vulnerabilities as well which are viewed as everyone’s are viewed, in passing but with empathy.

Cookie chacha and his live-in boyfriend he cannot marry expand that empathy from female troubles with love and marriage to similar male problems but of the ‘minority’ male, sort of urging us to redraw our male and female boundaries or refocus those gendered lens through which we see love and marriage. The same empathy it lavishes on its female protagonists and their stories it gifts its male protagonists too, and for me that was refreshing, in a Hindi film at least. That was the win.

I also noticed there were no shots of these women running around on the beach, playing in water etc. – a treat meant for the male gaze. At the beach they walk in a self-assured Kaante style walk but back to camera, away from the world. I liked that even more.

Baaki, the dialogues were so damn kickass and the sass queen Swara getting the best of the deal definitely wasn’t accidental given the way she breezed through the role. I want an entire film on her. The gaalibaazi seemed ok only to me, nothing seemed forced at all, and trust me I was looking, I had read allllll the reviews, you see. I mean it sometimes looks more forced in a Kashyap film even though it’s setting and performance is authentic. I can understand difference in taste but forced it didn’t seem to me.

All said, watching a film with or without an expectation is not the point, watching it with a particular lens and knowing its focal length is the point.

Veere di Wedding takes its terminology from male friendship, (Veere=bro) but speaks the language of female friendship so well that it left me super glad it is “not” the female DCH because that is the whole point isn’t it?

Bandini – The Liberated (Or the Bimal Roy tutorial on how to tell your story through your songs)

bandini

Bimal Roy’s ‘Bandini’ (1963) is in its songs. The entire film, its essence, its soul and journey is in its music. The various themes of the film, the emotional journeys its characters take, the state of their inner world and its transformation, they are all spoken of through the songs and songs alone. So when I felt compelled to write about the film (as it held me by the collar) I could think of no better way to write about the film than through its songs. I think Bimal da may like it this way too.

O Panchhi Pyaare

This is the first song of the film and it sings of seeking liberation. The claustrophobic, dark environs of the jail we have just been introduced to suddenly lighten up with this song of hope. Asha Bhonsle’s voice rings out like sunshine with the ‘O’ and we immediately feel the innocent, child-like yearning of the inmates for life outside bars. There is despair in the song too, in fact the lyrics are only about despair and thus we come close to the inner turmoil of Kalyani (Nutan). Yet, the song is so full of hope and cheer. Maybe it is Bimal da’s intuitive mis-en-scene, maybe it is Burman da’s ability to stir the soul, Shailendra’s lyrical ease with words, or maybe it is Ashatai’s irrepressible joi-di-vivre, the song becomes a story in itself, taking us deeper into the character’s inner world, yet giving us a peek into the despair of her outer world as well.

It is very telling that soon after, the Head Superintendent arrives for inspection and orders no songs to be sung in jail and more hard labour as penalty thus recognising the song as a medium and soul letter . The seekers are not allowed seeking as well. It creates the necessary pathos in us for the inmates; we have just been through their inner world intimately and with compassion.

The insistent claustrophobia of the framing through window bars, through bed posts, frames that are clean yet blocked, and the stories told in the foregrounding and backgrounding turn this little, seemingly ‘filler’ ditty into a significant moment of emotional emphasis for the film to unfold.

Abke Baras Bhej 

Seekers won’t stop seeking. How can one be stopped from singing then? The same inmate is singing again, the song is still of longing but this longing is fraught with loss. Kalyani is in a deeper turmoil, of the loss she has suffered, the loss we have no clue about except we can read its depths in her eyes (Nutan was born for this role. Salutes Ma’m) as well as a new dilemma. Her turmoil is of love, a love she can neither accept nor reject easily. We know so little of her past she carries with so much heaviness yet we want her to accept the love coming her way, it feels right. It could be the liberation we want for her, we feel. But something is stopping her and we do not know what. The searing song, again Ashatai working her magic, sings of a lost childhood and estranged family. A lonely sister longs for the visit of her brother to her husband’s house. He will bring her childhood with her and she longs for that freedom right now. Kalyani’s inner turmoil receives a beautiful set-up with this song.

Right in the next scene Kalyani reveals her unhealed wound of the death of her brother. We begin to understand but do not know enough of what she is seeking. Or if she has given up, as she says, then why? However, we know she hasn’t given up otherwise her heart would not have lit up when it received new love. Then why does she want to remain a bandini? What is she looking for?

Yet, it is not only Kalyani’s story the song is telling. Kalyani is one among the many abandoned women leading cheerless lives in the jail and longing to belong. Women of all ages and experiences, their silent desires and pain slowly start becoming the fulcrum of the film through the picturisation of the song as silent, still women lost in thought, listen to the song; the stripes on their sarees resembling the bars of the jail and reflecting the lines on their foreheads.

Mat Ro Mata

Sab theek hainnnn’. It regularly rings out from the parapets of the jail even as we know nothing is alright. It is 1934 pre-independence India with a presence of revolutionaries in the jail in the backdrop. Suddenly, they take foreground. Bimal da pays tribute to the revolutionary spirit seeking liberation by appropriately giving the revolutionary the mike and the stage. A certain freedom fighter is about to be hanged to death, his presence so far has not been connected to the story. But the presence of the independence struggle has loomed large in the inner conflicts of the jail. The song turns the blood of revolution into the sweet wine of love. A weeping mother waits at the gates of the jail as her son is taken to his death for fighting for the freedom of his country. ‘Hans kar mujhko aaj vidaa kar janam safal ho mera’ her son smilingly sings. A weeping mother earth also waits to enfold that son in her arms. ‘Dhool meri jis jagah teri mitti se mil jaayegi’, he is proud of his coming to her, he tells her. A weeping bharat mata also waits for her son to be reborn. ‘Phir janamungaa us din jab azaad bahegi ganga’, he promises to return to his beloved motherland someday.

(On the last bit, do you think any of our freedom fighters have felt like reincarnating yet, or are they still waiting?)

From a woman’s present story, we went to her childhood and expanded into the story of the country, its women and with this song the very idea of womanhood. Manna da’s deep and delicate rendition and Shailendra’s pen soaked in empathy for freedom and motherhood makes it impossible not to tear up. Bimal da’s simple yet evocative picturisation tell the story of an entire nation as his camera pans across the faces of the inmates, brings us close and then tracks out of the mother’s tears and holds the freedom fighter in high esteem, always positioning the camera in low angle.

Even when climbing up, twice the top-angled camera swiftly goes back to its low angle position, as though Bimal da is saying this is our position that must be, of respect and esteem, as we look at these men who sought freedom. But this gaze is not in response to martyrdom, it is looking in awe at the devotion behind it, the bhakti that fuels it. Bhakti – the one, and sometimes, only road to liberation. The pureblood devotion to motherland is just another form of its expression, after all.

The song ends with the execution and the distraught mother fainting. It is not coincidental that ‘Sab theek hain’ rings out again soon after the song ends completing the story of the song, one chapter of the film and Kalyani’s life. We move to her past story immediately.

Jogi Jabse Tu Aaya

First love; its first brush, first flush, first flutter and first blush, everything blooms out of this song like spring! We are now in Kalyani’s past at the time when first love touched her heart. The cleanness in Lata di’s voice and Nutan’s persona, and then the inimitable Gulzarsaab – the freshness, the bubbling joy of it all captures a certain era of innocence that is beyond the first love of Kalyani, herself a spring-footed young girl. Set against the harsh backdrop of her present reality of jail, as well as the pre-independence struggle, the song puts us in touch with the simplicity in her past life. She has endured herself to us with her stoic resilience so far, she charms us with her youthful energy and child-like curiosities now. She was attracted by something unique in her man; she has fallen in love with something she saw strong in him. A reflection of herself. Gulzar understands her quest very well and chooses to call her lover a ‘jogi’, a seeker himself. That her lover is a freedom fighter is but an extension of their mutual search.

Mora Gora Ang

With her backstory opening up, she yet again gives us a glimpse of her self-respecting nature, telling us it is the backbone of her character. Before deciding to give his heart to the man that has caught her attention, she first vetts him. She appraises his ideas and ideologies because she seeks equality. It becomes very important that she is as liberal as she is when her father is not, as she tests this man’s ideas against her own father’s. She is educated but not necessarily brought up empowered as a woman, she has empowered herself. And when she finds that expansiveness of thought and honesty of feeling in a man, she is glad to reciprocate. Bikash becomes a spokesperson for Bimal da with his eye on the strength and support of women in the freedom struggle, (he carefully inserts other such small instances throughout the film). Bikash’s recognition of female power and natural equality of the sexes leaves Kalyani overjoyed. She is happy to give herself up to this jogi now, let him make her his bandini. Chhup jaaoongi raat hi mein, mohe pi ka sang dai de. Isn’t end of a search also liberation? And at the end of that search, don’t we all want to simply lose ourselves into whatever we are seeking?

The song appears right after she learns from him their love is mutual and she gracefully accepts it. Suddenly, she feels she is no longer a girl; she has turned into a woman. Bimal da starts the song with the prettiest bindi on her forehead that she has just applied. She is taking joy in her beauty suddenly, noticing it maybe for the first time. (And oh god, Nutan is so sublime!) The girliness of ‘jogi jabse tu aaya’ has metamorphosed into the full bloom of womanhood and we rejoice in her love and youth as much as she does. What could have been just another romantic song becomes a journey of transformation and self awareness. ‘Kuchh kho diya hain paaike, kuchh paa liya gavaike’, she sings. Trust Gulzarsaab to bring out the taste of ever bitter-sweet love.

O Jaanewaale

The song marks a point of no return in Kalyani’s life. The rapidity with which the events unfold makes the song seem a little unnatural, yet it signals a dark and haunting inevitability which comes to light only later. O jaanewale ho sake toh laut ke aana… a plea that already knows it won’t be fulfilled. Kalyani, on her part senses it too, but she cannot choose differently. Circumstances and her own sense of strident self respect won’t allow her.

Without the song, the moment would have passed as information. With its presence, it becomes a sign of trouble and despair imminent on the horizon. Perhaps, Bimal da realised the trickiness of its dramatic presence and thus retains only a part of it in the film, starting from the middle, as though latching onto a cry to someone long lost. He turns the song into the voice of all those left behind even as it deeply feels for all those seekers who leave their homes never knowing if they will ever be able to return. Hain bhed yeh kaisa koi kuchh toh batana

As much as the song underscores the dramatic plot, it also imbues a certain sense of loss in the surroundings. There is a certain permanence to that loss which will change Kalyani’s life forever. Her inner world is transforming once again and we are being made aware of it through the song. What it also underlines, yet again, is Kalyani’s agency. She is a woman who chooses her destiny no matter what fate throws at her.

O Re Majhi

It rings out like a folk song, giving it the nature of well-worn wisdom being passed down through generations by a fakir punctuating the final moment of reckoning. No one could have done justice to O Re Majhi the way Burman da does. The gravelly wisdom in his voice is same as the fluid wisdom of his music. There is experience, pain, loss and a stoic understanding of it all in them as he expresses Kalyani and Bikash in all their stark suffering. Man ki kitaab se tu mera naam hi mita dena, gun toh na tha koi bhi avgun mere bhula dena…forgiveness is all I seek, I am sorry I could do no better. Mujhe aajki vida ka marke bhi rehta intezaar. I have been waiting for this moment to seek your forgiveness, it will liberate me. We have seen very little of Bikash, the object of Kalyani’s love and reason for her downfall, yet the glimpse we get into him with these lines is enough to tell us about his blamelessness and feelings of guilt as well. It redeems us in his eyes without him saying anything. It brings us right into the well of his pained heart and almost failed life and we forgive him immediately.

And Kalyani desperately wants to as well. Mat khel jal jaayegi, kehti hain aag mere man ki. The self-aware woman knows what she wants to do, what is the right thing to do. It is not an easy path and she has just made a decision that could take life onto a very different path, she cannot go back now. Phir jaaye jo us paar kabhi laut ke na aaye, she was already warned of it once before and suffered a heavy loss.  Main Bandini piya ki, main sangini hoon sajan ki, her heart calls out though because this seems right, forgiveness seems right, going back seems right.. Mera kheechti hain aanchal manmeet teri har pukar… her turmoil is drowned in the horn of the ship about to sail away and Kalyani is at yet another point of no return. She is at a strange turn where she knows her destiny yet she also knows she is the master of it. She chooses to go away with the very ill Bikash, keeping aside all the promises of prosperity, acceptance and abundance that await her because herein lies the liberation she was seeking. Complete submission to what one holds as most honourable. Giving oneself up to something bigger and better than the self. To a rare love that embodies strength, sacrifice, silence and solidarity.

Suddenly we know, she wanted to remain a bandini because she was seeking this liberation. And even after she is liberated she wants to remain in bondage. Even after she remains in bondage she remains liberated. Our martyrs, so in love with the motherland, weren’t they looking for the same too? Our poets, in love with art and our philosophers so in love with the magic of the mind? And our saints, so in love with the mere presence of god. Their love binds them and liberates them and what is the most pristine form of love if not worship? Bhakti.

The song ends and we find her running frantically towards Bikash’s boat. At first sight, she falls at his feet, it is not subservience but devotion that compels her. Her own sense of loss and need for forgiveness, without which their re-union is not complete. They hold each other in love and the film ends there. There is nothing more left to say, maybe that’s why Bimal da chooses to end it with Burman da singing main bandini piya ki, main sangini hoon saajan ki…she is liberated now, her love has received its final assertion.

Perhaps, it is only fitting for a film about bhakti to depend on music for liberation. I think Bimal da and Burman da both realised it could not be any other way and hence chose to paint a vivid emotional landscape with the lens and a larger universe through the lyre. It is in this larger universe that Bandini lives and continues to live.

Dear Ashatai, you saved my soul again.

And I felt this time you have to know hence decided to write to you. The last time I had my soul saved was six months back, by Pancham da. You were a big part of it too, but he was the healer then. This time, it was you, only you.

I remember the moment in my childhood when I realised I loved you as my most favourite singer artist. I grew up in a Hindi music crazy family believing there were only four gods of singing in films – yourself, Latadi, Kishore da and Rafisaab. There were several other greats too but they were kings while you four were the emperors. There would often be guessing games at home to name the playback singer of songs that were forever playing on radio or TV. My mother and elder sister fought, won, lost and thus sailed through many a musical battles on a daily basis. As a child I would sit and listen carefully to the voices singing those songs, always amazed at how my sister could differentiate between you and Lata di, while I would just get drowned in all the clean beauty both your voices hold so selflessly.

As I began to zone in to develop the skill too, I noticed I really responded very enthusiastically to your voice even if I did not particularly like the song. I also realised, amongst the entire galaxy of equally bright stars around you I had been faithfully listening to, I responded that way only to your voice. I could and even do so now, listen to a song I don’t particularly enjoy just to listen to you. That lilt in your voice, reflected by the sparkle in your eyes, the life they signify, brings an instant smile to my face and leap in the heart. Sometimes when it has to, that lilt also turns into itself, becoming a deep sore and bringing up feelings I can no longer deny to myself I feel. It was that carefree lilt you command at will that helped me see your voice in childhood, it gave me so much joy I decided to give my heart to you. Please keep it forever, Ashatai.

When I sit back and try to trace my first memory of you I don’t remember anything, you seem to go back to a time in my life even before I was born. And over time, become a presence that is much larger than time. I wrote the same thing for Pancham da too, I now realise (here). It feels the same way for you, like you have been a constant, much-needed, ever-present presence all throughout life. A nourishing presence.

It is very recently I realised the ever-nourishing nature of your presence.

I happened to watch ‘Bandini’ in a theatre at the film school I study in. I have been brought up on the film and its songs as both my parents are huge fans of everyone involved in the film, in front and behind the camera. Lately, I have been besotted by ‘Mora gora ang lai le’. Let me diverge here a bit.

I am sort of prone to musical attacks, where I become passionately engaged with a particular song or artist’s music for a certain period of time. Within that period I like to listen, soak in, immerse and express only through that song or person’s music. It is some sort of a medium for an internal dialogue (with self) to happen, the music becoming a facilitator. And it offers itself freely; all I have to do is rely on its wisdom. Lata di’s ‘Mora gora ang lai le’ and ‘Jogi jabse tu aaya’ have been two such constant companions that have helped me make sense of the world within myself, since a while now.

I was keenly waiting to hear the songs in the theatre. I was particularly waiting for that balm I have found in Lata di’s voice in those songs, to ring out through the hall and envelope me. Before they got a chance though, ‘O panchhi pyare’ began. I had blissfully forgotten this song was in Bandini too. It is my mother’s favourite song, I see her eyes light up, and her smile has a rare playfulness as she sings along. It had never registered in my head this was your doing.

As the song suddenly rang through a quiet hall in all its glory, the lilt in your voice hit a long-lost note home. The recognition of your voice made my heart go in glee, ‘Oh Ashatai!’ It reminded me of the time I learnt to distinguish your voice amongst all others through the joy it gave me. I felt that childhood joy again, in all its naturalness, as I listened to ‘O Panchhi pyaare’ and your voice springing its old, new-found wonders on me. I couldn’t stop smiling, I couldn’t stop singing along. I had to cover my mouth and mutter the song along lest I disturb those around me.

At the same time, I also understood why my mother used to be so happy singing this as she went along her household chores; it reminded her of her childhood as it reminded me of mine. You connected it for us by expressing its honest beauty, holding it and keeping it safe for us. Thank you for that.

Obviously, ever since the film screening, Bandini songs are on loop and lips. Especially ‘O Panchhi pyaare’ and ‘Abke baras bhej’. I was in no mood to shift but I chanced upon ‘Chehra kya dekhte ho’ from Salaami (1994). And suddenly the urge to listen to your voice took over. I have always liked the song, it is a 90’s kitsch lilting melody. But hadn’t it been for you I would not have turned to it. And stayed with it till the end. What I felt listening to you in ‘Chehra kya’ was no different than what ‘O panchhi pyare’ had done to me four days back. I must confess, that made me tear up, the seamlessness and hence the boundlessness of joy, so to speak, embodied in music, your music.

In fact, it was this moment of tearing up while listening to a pop love song of a 90’s flop film that made me realise the impact you have always had on me. I felt you really must know the joy you have brought to my life, all my life.

We don’t celebrate our artists enough. Nor do we care to thank them for keeping our childhoods, memories, histories and stories together. Or for helping us make sense of it all. Most importantly, we don’t thank them enough for saving our souls when they didn’t have to.

So I just wanted to give my gratitude to you, Ashatai. Please, keep it forever.

 

Yours lovingly

Fatema

 

R.D. Burman – Hoga tumse pyaara kaun

Before you read this, let’s set the mood! 🙂 Just go and listen to the first 10 seconds of this song. And then the next 10. And then the entire song, the verses as well.  And the interludes, especially the one at 3.08 sec.

It does something to you, right? Not at one place, but at thousand different places. Not one thing, a thousand different things. All those things carefully placed side by side or on top of each other or front and behind, all resonating against one another, the instruments and the senses they evoke, all combined into one rich, wild forest of music.

The first time I heard it, I went whoa, this is crazy! So carefree, so unique, so much banjarapan, so much more than Mehbooba mehbooba. I loved it! It was in cable TV times, CVO, I think. Had little clue who this R.D.Burman chap was, but knew he was somewhat special because Dad spoke highly of him and sister’s eyes began to shine when his songs played. Slowly, mine began too.

Manzil khoyi, dil bhi khoya milke aapse

That’s the thing with his music, it’s not about his prolificacy it’s about the richness that stays with you long after the song is over. Yet, on repeat listening, seems as fresh. So it feels it’s always been around yet it gives some new joy next time. Yes, it’s true, I must admit, of Chura liya hain tumne too, a song so ghisaoed that even Asha can’t make me listen to it anymore. But then sometimes, R.D. does, even today. I give in helplessly when the glasses start clinking mischievously. Ting ti-ding, ting ti-ding. R. D. is a sly musician, you know. Oh, did I say musician? I meant magician.

Years went by in the safe familiarity of his presence, never really actively sought though. The news of his passing had hit a dull spot, he wasn’t a potent memory, wasn’t attached to his music in my heart and mind yet. And then 1942, A Love Story happened. It rekindled all that sheer amazement I had when I heard Kaho kaise for the first time. Just that now I knew who this Burman chap was and promptly proceeded to fall in love with him; after his death and also much after I had fallen in love with his music.

Kaho kaise rasta bhool pade

It wasn’t until Jhankar Beats happened in 2003 that I actually realized this man is a cult in himself. And that he is still alive. Fourteen years later, watching that very fine documentary, Pancham Unmixed, reaffirmed this fact.

Just like R.D., this film seems to have been around me for the longest time. I happened to first know of it in 2009. I couldn’t watch it then, and it has crossed my path many times since and finally, like lost opportunities that are actually hidden boons, it fell in my lap the other day.

I’ve always wanted to understand the man and his music better but I didn’t go to know the technicalities of his music or the history of his life. I already knew what those who were closest to him thought and felt about him. So much is spoken of him everywhere you keep coming across these things all the time even if you are not looking. They are important of course, but yesterday I just wanted to feel the joy of knowing R.D., better, again. I wanted to feel that joy of familiarity and the joy of rediscovering him, again and again, just like I do with his music. Also watching old, favorite, Hindi films and film songs in NFAI gives an especially delicious, romantic kick. I went in smiling and came out crying.

Bahut door hoke bahut paas ho tum

I am a sucker for documentaries loaded with great artists and experts, especially Hindi film legends. Where else do you get to listen to so many great minds at the same time? There is a certain precision in their articulation and incisiveness in their observations that lends another dimension to the subject. The film is a huge knowledge base for R.D. Burman historiography but that is not the main reason it is important. There is something that binds the experts, friends, colleagues, and fans in the film and it is above the man or his music. It is the nature of their love for him; reverence, admiration, adoration, protectiveness, affection and a strange kind of happy-sad nostalgia of still feeling a man long-gone around them. It fills the film to the brim and I think it is this effusive romance of R.D. that makes the film far more valuable and memorable. It is this that I wanted to soak in and soak in I did, fully. It is this that told me that the man is still alive, and will remain alive now.

Actually, not exactly this. I had an inkling in June. A random FB post led to one song and that to another and for three whole days, I listened to these three songs non-stop, only three songs on loop, amazed yet again at the genius of this man. It made me so happy to listen to them I thought I will keep listening till I get bored. But it didn’t happen and I didn’t want it to happen either. There was this mad joy surrounding me and I was content to exult in it, the only thing I wanted to know, as always, was if the man knew how much happiness his music was still capable of spreading. Teer kya patthar bhi nahi haath mein dikhlane ko, kis ada se maare hain aapne deewane ko…And it all happened around his birthday and that was so maddeningly filmy I loved it even more. It was like he was around, taking me through the intricate, delicate joys of his music.

Koi mera…tujhsa kaha…

Pancham is a shared joy but a personal love, a very intimate bond, an individual connect each fan has with him, very similar but never the same. It’s like you will share your love story only with him, only he will get it. And get it he does, and how. And if you go to him when you have none he will give you one to dream about. A little like Shahrukh.

Those three to five days, as I was soaring up and down, in and out, this way and that on the tunes of O Meri Jaan, sharing love stories with RD, I kept thinking about the man who could do this. I got to know him much better through the film than the image I had created in my mind, it wasn’t different but it had holes. I had safely obscured his low phase from my mind. I had conveniently forgotten he may not have been as happy and happy-go-lucky as I like to imagine him. All of us want to remember him that way and the documentary affirms it loud and clear. My favourite image is him in his white shirt, white shoes, red muffler, red cap and sauve shades, sharing smiles of ever-lasting happiness with Asha Bhonsle, with just a hint of naughtiness as Katra katra plays in the background. That’s how I want to imagine he spent his entire life and is somewhere, even now.

Ek din bik jaayega maati ke mol

The image of the fallen R.D. still remains with me. A lot of the interviewees agreed he was ‘naïve’, and in his own words his ‘mind wasn’t understood well enough by those around him’. It was surprising but by the end of the film I knew he wasn’t naïve as associates think, nor a mad genius as fans want to believe, he was the most self-aware artist we will see.

And it is this self-awareness, more than his phoenix-like rebirth or a pied piper image, R.D. must have wanted to be known for, I think. Because only when your art is this self-aware can it flow so free, so fluid, so rich, so mysterious. Because only when your art is self-aware will you take great pains to stay with your melody and nurture it and nourish it, as Gulzaarsaab reminisces he liked to do, in Gulzar Remembers Pancham. Only when your art is self-aware will you blow bottles and trumpets with the same flair and only then will it be infused with that undying spirit of life, wriggling to be set free, that underlines every song of his.

The film introduced me to this R.D., scientist as much as an artist, maverick as much as disciplined, hero as much as human. I think it is possible that this very self-awareness told him that maybe he was too ahead of his times, and someday he would be understood better through his music. I think he let go early because he knew his music will live.

Tumne mujhe dekha hoke meherbaan

Almost 3/4th of the film is an effusive celebration of both the man and his music, detailed, descriptive, articulate and incisive – both in the observations and the weave of the film, the text and context, thematic relationship everything; bringing alive his persona and the palpable love for him. But when it comes to this part no one wants to acknowledge it, not even the film, it looks like. Suddenly no one has words; all that effusive articulation has evaporated. It is like even the film doesn’t know what to do…it lingers shortly, respectfully, on the wordless and graceful emotional moments, and leaves it in silence. As though gently laying a flower on R.D.’s memories in the same way Shammi Kapoor did on the memories of his beloved wife Geeta Bali, in that beautiful debut of R.D.’s … ruk gayi yeh zameen, tham gaya aasman…There was silence and stillness in the hall too.

It’s been three months and I still haven’t gotten bored of those three songs, life takes over from time to time but so does R.D., sometimes insistently, and I am happy to let him do so. After all, aisa sama na hota, kuchh bhi yaha na hota, mere humrahi jo tum na hote.

 Thank you for the music Panchamda 🙂

First published here

Beyond the Burqa: The Muslim Woman You Can’t See

Everyone knows the Muslim man, he may or may not be in a skull cap and beard but he is visible, and familiar. The Muslim woman, on the other hand, seems to be a distant object, hidden behind this strange black curtain meant to hide all That Must Not Be Seen. The Muslim woman that is seen is not Muslim, not according to her own community nor to the ‘other’. She really belongs nowhere; most of the times not knowing herself with whom must she assimilate. And why.

The Muslim Woman You Can’t See

The significance of my identity as a woman and a Muslim woman dawned upon me, or rather was thrust upon me, at puberty, on the occasion of my Misaaq, a baptism-like ritual of the Dawoodi Bohra community (to which I belong). It involves taking a vow of allegiance to your faith and a promise to follow all community strictures. From then on, age 14 roughly, boys are ritualistically meant to wear the traditional cap and beard, and girls the rida. The rida is the Bohri equivalent of the burqa; without veil, decorative and colourful.

This leaves her torn between having to stand up for her community and against it, while all she really wants to do is emerge from behind the burqa and tell people she exists. And that she can very well save herself.

The Binaries of the Burqa

When I rejected the rida I was not only rejecting a directive but an entire worldview that sees woman as dispensable. This brought problems I had not bargained for. In trying to remove the tag of an object I had to now bear the tag of progressive, brave and on the ‘right’ side (pun unintended). In rejecting one binary I found myself caught in another.

I was no different. It wasn’t an act of abandonment, but an effort to free myself from the unhealthy popular perception of a Muslim so that I could carve an independent identity for myself. I did that by stepping out and by assimilating in the larger ‘whole’ while clinging to the same binaries.

From outside, I saw the binaries much better. A rebellious Muslim, a non-‘Muslim’ Muslim and a progressive Muslim woman is seen as something of a celebration, one more who has joined ‘our’ side, wherever that is. She is also seen as someone who has gone over to ‘their’ side, wherever that is. No longer was I really a ‘part’ of anything, this side or that, even though I was perceived to be and I wasn’t sure if I had left or I had been left.

People around me struggled to put me in categories to understand me better. ‘Rebel’, ‘tomboy’, ‘westernised’, ‘open-minded’, ‘amoral’, ‘not a typical Muslim’, some of the labels whispered, from inside and outside. At the same time, I met burqa-wearing, very progressive and liberal Muslim women (some of them became my role models) automatically tagged as ‘traditional’ or ‘conservative’. The outside world I was hankering after, I was in it and I felt as alienated as I did in my community, measuring the distance between ‘not Muslim enough’ and ‘a Muslim, after all’.

Over time, I began to understand how rejecting the burqa could be as much a compulsion as choosing it could be a choice. Then I knew why the Muslim woman, even though very visible, is not seen. She stays with us but lives in the no-man’s lands between alienation and assimilation because our society cannot find the right tag for her.

First published here

Raj Kapoor, the inimitable showman

“Imitation, as opposed to copying, consists either in the interfusion of the same throughout the radically different, or the different throughout a base radically the same.” – Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his ‘Theory of Imagination’, (Biographia Literaria)

 This seminal distinction Coleridge made, between copying and imitation, provides a significant starting point to view the work of the showman Raj Kapoor and his influences. In simple terms, the distinction is between capturing the essence vs capturing the details of ‘reality’ or ‘truth’ in artistic expression (specifically poetry).

Having started life as a clapper boy at 11 and going on to work at Bombay Talkies and Prithvi Theatres, Raj Kapoor was schooled in the aesthetic traditions of theatre and cinema. A tryst with contemporary international cinema in 1952 left a deep impact on the restless 3-film old director and producer (Aag, Barsaat and Awaara). Just like noir films shaped the cinema of Guru Dutt, the films of Orson Welles, Frank Capra alongwith the neo-realists –Rossellini’s Rome, Open City, De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, Shoeshine and Miracle in Milan gave shape and colour to Raj Kapoor’s films.

Welles expanded his stagy compositions and defined his lighting. Capra gave him his merry, optimistic lens and the neo-realists provided the perfect base to express his humanist ideology, closely linking his Nehruvian idealism to the condition of the common man and his present. While Chaplin, Welles and Capra gave him his trademark style, neo-realism gave his films relevance.

Of all his films that bear the influence of Italian neo-realism, Bootpolish (1954) produced and apparently ghost-directed by him veers strikingly apart in choice of protagonists (children), lack of a love angle (Jaagtey Raho being the only other exception) and its complete submergence in socio-political realities.

A story of two poor, shoeshine children, Boot Polish, set in contemporary India came eight years after De Sica’s Shoeshine (Sciuscia), the story of two poor shoeshine children set in contemporary Italy. The neo-realists’ slice of realism had struck a deep chord with Raj Kapoor. In his own words, ‘De Sica and Zavattini brought to the screen what they saw and felt. Something real. Slices of life…however, the most effective part of the whole movement was the allegory that was part of the film. That was very important.’ It is interesting to examine the several similarities and differences in both the films.

Socio-political outlook – Both the films arose as a response to the socio-political realities of their respective countries. A newly-defeated Italy and a newly-independent India, both left bereft by bloodshed, strife and poverty inform the tone of each film; one is despondent and the other hopeful in the face of dire adversity. Both arising from a need for change, Shoeshine is still assessing the war-torn mess, while Boot Polish is looking at it with a clear optimism fuelled by Nehru’s forward-looking and liberal outlook.

Narrative arc – Driven by this difference in outlook, the narrative arc of Boot Polish goes from hopelessness to hope and that of Shoeshine vice-versa. Shoeshine begins with a dreamy opening sequence of two young boys enjoying the sight of a freely galloping horse in rolling fields and ends with the bloody death of one at the hands of the other with the horse as a central symbol of broken dreams. Boot Polish, on the other hand, begins with two little destitute children left at the mercy of a mean aunt, forced to beg and ends with them being wholeheartedly adopted by a loving, rich couple. The film evocatively ends with both the beggar children in school uniform, education being the brightest tool for socio-political and personal progress in the Nehruvian times.

Class conflicts – Perhaps, it is due to these predilections that although both films speak about the economically backward, Boot Polish makes a lighter comment on class conflict while Shoeshine constructs its entire film around it. They are clearly defined, right down to the jail hierarchies and the final verdict of the court. While Boot Polish aims at the integration of classes through humanitarianism (a rich couple adopting beggar children without judgement), Shoeshine defines how class structures further persecutes the already persecuted.

Treatment of children – The two sets of children in both the films are deeply bonded, one an orphaned brother-sister and the other brother-like friends. Both films make their children victims of society, chance and circumstance; while the agency of their separation in Boot Polish is chance, in Shoeshine it is human manipulation, neither their doing.

The children become a symbol rather than entities with independent moral choices. The moral choice of Bhola choosing the dignity of labour over the indignity of begging is a symbolic act, a message of ‘how to be’ in these trying times. The moral choice of Pasquale to spill the beans first and later kill Giuseppe and those of Giuseppe, of setting up Pasquale and stealing the horse is a reflection of the reduced state of Italian children. The undying loyalty of Bhola and Belu and fragile faith between Pasquale and Giuseppe is the allegory of visions behind the films; of hope in Raj Kapoor and dejection in De Sica, the visions themselves an allegory of their times.

The humanitarianism – True to Raj Kapoor’s self-effacing idealism Boot Polish ends on the note of self-respect rescued from the most bereft of situations. More than a social document it becomes a beacon of hope, a clarion call to a torn nation to rebuild through love, a philosophy embodied in his immortal ‘kisi ki muskurahaton pe ho nisaar’. (Awaara, 1951). In his own words, “What is it, after all, that a man wants? Money, position and success – all are secondary. The basic thing is tomorrow: the knowledge and promise that tomorrow will be better than today. Nothing else matters.” – Raj Kapoor Speaks by Ritu Nanda

Shoeshine, rooted in the despair of its times gives it a stark voice with an innate compassion. As Ronald Bowers puts it, “Sciuscia emphasized the creators’ commitment to showing, through actual incidents, ‘the indifference of humanity to the needs of others’.” Post-war Italy is a world, it is clearly saying, where might makes right and the bigger wins. What do we want to do about the smaller ones? Italy took note of the question according to a 1947, NY Times review of the film; it was ‘instrumental in bringing about reforms in the treatment of juvenile delinquents in Italian institutions’.

Coming back to Coleridge, while the neo-realists infused the same in the different, Raj Kapoor chose to infuse the different in the same. They imitated rather than copied. Obsessed with capturing the essence of the world around them the neo-realists changed the base of film-making with non-actors, real life settings, and common man stories. They told us what we saw around us in a different form, a radically different form. Raj Kapoor, on his part, took his influences, each different from the other, his nationalist ideology and humanist world-view and put them in mainstream cinema, hence infusing the different in the same. Both chose to bring the essence of their truth rather than get entangled in details.

Perhaps, it is this insistence on the essence of reality infused in the dream-like that makes the showman inimitable, even today.

First published here

 

 

Imtiaz Ali and the journey of love

Exactly ten years after a behemoth called ‘DDLJ’ (1995), came a small film called ‘Socha Na Tha’ (2005), deliciously subverting the film that created SRK. Just like DDLJ it had traditional, authoritative families and estranged lovers too. What it didn’t have was the lovers’ confidence in their own love and their confidence in the system. Love had changed.

Imtiaz Ali’s film’s follow a known trajectory of boy meets girl, separates and reunites, with the falling in love part either happening between meeting and separating or separating and reuniting, not to forget the resultant coming-of-age. While it is said all stories have only seven versions and all romantic stories are essentially the same, there is something uniquely Imtiaz Ali that is repetitive in his films.

An evolving loop of repetitions emerge, in his repertoire of six films (as director) over a decade, from his debut Socha Na Tha, 2005, a breath of fresh air but also quite a cheeky subversion of the grand old romance (DDLJ for eg) to Tamasha 2015. Every film borrows something from the previous film and brings something new for the next.

Love is a social act but oh so much fun!

(Socha Na Tha (2005) & (Jab We Met (2007))

It is 2005 and the millennium has brought in a clear shift in the way we view the world. Old world values however, still stick and but unlike DDLJ of yore, running away is the only option. Two years later, with ‘Jab We Met’ (2007) love became even more fun. It was still social and old values still strong; running away still the only option.

Both Aditi (Socha Na Tha) and Geet (Jab We Met) are struggling to break free from their families and the repression they represent, (a thematic strain we see resurfacing two films and a few years later, in the lives of Veera (Highway, 2014) and Ved (Tamasha, 2015) but with far more darker undertones, about that a little later).

Viren (Socha Na Tha), however, is new-age, confused and critical of love a-la Akash (Dil Chahta Hain, 2001) or even Jai (Love, Aaj Kal). Yet, the obstacle to their love remains social norms and familial honour. The highly incompatible Geet and Aditya are similarly paired, both choosing to defy family for love. Love is still social, still emotional but a lot of fun!

Love is a personal choice

(Love, Aaj Kal (2009))

In 2007, Geet and Aditya travelled long distances together, much like Raj and Simran did 12 years earlier. In Love, Aaj Kal (2009), long-distance becomes the very conflict that drives the lovers apart.

An almost literal thesis on old world vs new age love, in Love, Aaj Kal, the world is no longer the problem, it is the people themselves. Love is no longer social, it is personal yet practical. It is Jay’s story of transformation, and the journey he makes is to a ‘whole new world’, just like Jordan, Veera and Ved. There are no families or an external obstacle involved and love is more personal. It is almost like film after film Imtiaz Ali is trying to arrive at a distilled version of love itself.

Love as a spiritual act

(Rockstar (2011))

This search for a distilled version of love seems to be the force behind the rawness of Rockstar (2011), an unlikely film from Imtiaz Ali, till then only known for cushy, feel-good romance. All the tropes – coming-of-age, long distance, confusion, other partners, familial repression find their way into an uncharacteristically dystopic landscape torn apart and redeemed by love at the same time.

The world and its ways are back as the villain, but this time as a monolith of oppression and primary subject of Jordan (and later, Veera and Ved’s) angst. The capitalist superstructure of the new millennium has eaten away into the familial structure and now holds sway on the lives of Jordan (and Veera and Ved) while love sets them free. Love now, is passionate and spiritual too, so timeless it no longer needs a ‘happy’ ending as a proof.

Love as an existential act

(Highway (2014) & Tamasha (2015))

The dystopia of Rockstar was a far-cry from the innocence of Socha Na Tha or exuberance of Jab We Met and the darkness looms large in Highway and Tamasha as well. Jordan’s borderline personality takes a more definite turn in Veera’s self-aware bewilderment at her transformation and accentuates a year later, with Ved’s schizophrenic outbursts.

If Viren, Geet and Jay merely wished to explore life as an adventure, with Jordan, Veera and Ved it is a more urgent exploration – of their inner identity. It is this quest Veera responds to when she sees Mahabeer perplexed, ‘par main tumhein jaanti hoon’, she says insistently. As insistently as Tara says the same lines to Ved in Tamasha. From spiritual (Rockstar), the struggle of love has taken an existential form (Tamasha and Highway).

Ved’s eccentricities are indubitable because he is not only a free spirit like Geet but also repressed like Veera and also an artist like Jordan, a stifled one at that. His relationship with his mercenary boss (Vivek Mushran) is as volatile as Jordan’s was with Dhingra (Piyush Mishra) both bosses themselves being prototypes of each other.

While the world Jordan was battling was faceless, Veera and Ved’s worlds are specific – the family is back into the picture, this time with its personal and not social sides overcome by brave confrontation. In Veera and Ved, the meek and unsure Aditi and Viren seem to have matured into more self-reliant individuals and the carefree Geet and Aditya seem to have found a deeper contentment.

Tamasha is predictably lending the exotica of its fancy-free-romance-in-a-foreign-tour exposition to Imtiaz’s next film Harry Met Sejal where a tourist guide shows the girl a new world in a foreign setting. There will be another question love is answering over long distance but hopefully with that throbbing, raw nerve Imtiaz Ali is known for infusing, very alive, very sensitive to touch, much like love itself.

Similarity trajectory

There are many many, the folk/carnival song for instance. Putting some of them broadly here –

Repressed Free Spirit dreaming to be ‘themselves’

Aditi (Socha Na Tha) – ‘shaadi ke baad yeh sab kaha kar paaongi’

Geet & Aditya (Jab We Met) – ‘main wahi karti hoon jo mera dil kehta hain’,

Jordan & Heer (Rockstar) – ‘neat and clean’ / Junglee Jawaani

Veera (Highway) – ‘pahadon mein mera ghar hoga’

Ved (Tamasha) – ‘yeh sab kyon kar raha hoon main?’

 

Coming of age through the experience of love

Viren (Socha Na Tha) – learns responsibility

Geet (JWM) – wisdom of experience

Aditya (JWM) – return to innocence

Jay (Love, Aaj Kal) – learns vulnerability

Jordan (Rockstar) – touches his own depths / darkness

Veera (Highway) – delves into her depths and confronts her darkness

Ved (Tamsha) – overcomes his darkness

 

Breaking free

Aditi (Socha Na Tha) – by going away

Aditya (JWM) – by coming back

Jay (Love, Aaj Kal) & Jordan (Rockstar) – through violence

Veera (Highway) & Ved (Tamasha) – by family confrontation

 

Travelling long distances

Jab We Met – (Bombay, Punjab, Simla)

Love, Aaj Kal – (Delhi, San Francisco)

Rockstar – (Delhi, Prague)

Highway – (northern hinterlands)

Tamasha – (Corsica, Delhi, Kolkatta)

 

Family / world as a problem

Socha Na Tha & Jab We Met – There is no overcoming, love conquers all.

Love, Aaj Kal & Rockstar – overcome by succumbing

Highway & Tamasha – overcome by confronting

 

An edited version was first published here

Unshackling Sultana – A critique on the female gaze of Kali Salwar

“Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at… The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object — and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.” – John Berger, ‘Ways of Seeing’, Episode 2

This gaze, the internal and external, of both the man and woman, informs our daily interactions and defines the narratives we build our lives, societies and identities upon. It shapes the work we do and art we make. Sometimes, the art we make throws a new light on the narratives we have built for ourselves, forcing us to shift our perspective by tilting the camera angle, hoping in the process, we all end up making more sense of the world.

Saadat Hassan Manto made sense of the world through a sharp observation of social interactions. He examined power structures from the perspective of the marginalised, especially the prostitute. He humanised her and empowered her in his stories by giving her agency. He drew out more than what lay beneath her perceived victimhood, courage and golden-hearted-ness, favourite tropes of her portrayal in most popular art forms.

Fareeda Mehta, in ‘Kali Salwar’ (2002), her adaptation of Manto’s short story of the same name, takes this compassion and adds a poetic lyricism to the ironic pathos of more than one Manto’s stories, sculpting and lensing her characters such that imperceptible shifts open up a completely new stratum of exploring, of looking.

What are the various ways we are accustomed to seeing a prostitute and a courtesan? Firstly, she is an object and is presented as such to the male viewer. Secondly, she is a sexual object who uses her guile and coquetry to survive the male dominated world. Thirdly, she is a victim, of circumstances, of society, of birth, fate or herself. Our most memorable cinematic impressions germinate from or culminate into these broad classifications. Be it Chanda, Pakeezah, Anarkali, Umrao Jaan or Begum Jaan we objectify her as we watch her being objectified, we victimise her as we watch her being victimised. We think we are cheering her courage under fire and gold-hearted purity but by viewing her in this very light, we empathise with her victimhood, not her, further romanticising her and thus managing to maintain a safe distance.

But we watch Sultana with the same empathy and warmth with which we watch Charulata. The compassionate gaze of Ray on a mere housewife finds a strikingly similar note in a mere prostitute’s world as the film opens with Sultana at her window, just like Charulata, looking out into the urban landscape seemingly caught between the chaos of the criss-crossing railway lines in the background and the unseemly noises filling up the foreground.

We see so much more of her in her home life when we see her alone. Her aloneness is intimate, silence and speech both signalling an interiority she herself doesn’t feel accustomed to. Or ready for in this strange, urban land (she has migrated from Muzaffarpur to Bombay). Suddenly, she transforms from a coquettish sex worker looking for her next ‘passenger’ (as she calls them) to any one of the vulnerable, small town person displaced in Bombay. Her interactions with the men and women of the neighbourhood bring her plight into focus. Suddenly, she realises with dimming hope, that in this city of dreams she is but one in a million.

This particular shift is unique to the film. Sultana, in the original story moves to Delhi and she remains as a symbol of the condition of women as the centre-point only. ‘Kali Salwar’ broadens this compass first by setting it in Mumbai, a landscape of complexity, and by incorporating more than one Manto’s stories (Hatak, Mohammad Bhai, Babu Gopinath) in the film thereby giving it a broader canvas and comprehensive vision which examines the woman condition within the human condition in the urban environment.

As this egalitarian nature of the city is setting its cast on Sultana, it universalises her condition, appropriately positioning her displacement as a bigger dilemma than the shame of her profession or wretched existence. From the criss-crossing lines of the cityscape and the character’s own life emerges a larger, more real problem, unshackling Sultana from carrying the narrative burden of having to redeem herself from a prostitute to woman, for a fitting end. By shifting focus to the macro we now see her as one among many she lives with, who have come from similar places and harbour similar dreams. It stops being a prostitute’s story and becomes everyone’s, she is suddenly a part of a group than an individual standing alone to be examined.

We see and understand Sultana’s world through her interactions with the men and women around her. Her disappointments with her lover and pimp Khudabaksh, her friendship with the self-possessed Anwari (Surekha Sikri brilliant as always) and the wise but withering Sugandhi (from another of Manto’s striking works ‘Hatak’) point to the multiple people she is behind the facade of a prostitute. The ease with which Sugandhi says she agreed to ‘keep’ her lover letting him believe he keeps her and the knowing smile on Sultana’s face is a silent acknowledgement in both of who really calls the shots. It is not often we see disempowered women so quietly aware of their own victimisation but with enough gumption to run their own life anyway.

Perhaps, it is this respect accorded to the portrayal of the prostitute that makes its lyrical sensuality a unique aesthetic pleasure, easy to divest from the squalor of its setting and relish for its own sake. In popular imagination, the sensualised portrayal has well-suited the courtesan and nautch girl (Umrao Jaan, Devdas) with the prostitute receiving the raw end of the stick, literally and figuratively. While Umrao and Paro must play the role of the sensuous tease, Kajli in Mausam and Rekha in Salaam Bombay must be abuse-spitting and edgy. Their passions and expressions must have an abandon of having gone over the edge, never of enjoying herself playing this game.

Not Sultana though. She does not question her work or her authority over her own self. Her archaic, layered clothing of rich texture and vibrant colours not only makes her look like the object of desire she wishes to portray herself as but also declares her spirited and abundant sensuality without sexualising her, letting her speak for herself. She is lit as a character and captured like a human not an object. It is poverty that distresses her not her profession; she almost seems to have made peace with it, now just enjoying the abundance it brings her.

Sultana, is moulded as much as a character as she is captured as an image of herself. She is pictured at work, beguiling her clients with danceuse-like skittishness, playing every bit the menaka to her potential vishwamitras: as Berger says, ‘men act and women appear’. Having portrayed her in the image she is popularly seen in, the image is then thrown open to more layers as we see Sultana switch clinically from her professional to personal self, and at times merge both seamlessly. The personally intimate sequences with her alone in her room with her things merge the person and the image and separate the image and the woman.

The film ends in as much ambivalence as Charulata did and with as much compassion. When Sultana meets Mukhtar in the end their empowerment has dissolved and all they can do is partake in a moment of silent piety together because their loss is shared too. We don’t know if they choose the silence as a balm or the piety as a refuge, but there is dignity in it, the same dignity Hamlet regrettably acknowledged he would allow his father if he killed him in prayer.

The prostitute may have been shorn of her ‘izzat’ in popular terms; here her dignity is restored, simply by giving back her agency while taking back our own gaze.

In his time, Manto was largely vilified for his choice of subject, the prostitute whom he portrayed with her integrity intact. Since then, in what seems like a certain self-absolution of the male gaze, popular art forms continue to be drawn to her, trying to redefine her but with the same chauvinism that created her. Fareeda, just like Manto does not redefine her but simply shifts the gaze with which we see her, redefining the older narratives instead, with an artful play of exaggeration and abbreviation, forcing us to question what we look at in a prostitute and how. And through it maybe, understand where we all exist on this great gender giant wheel.

An edited version first published here

The Begum Jaans of Cinema: Between Punishment and Redemption

Prostitution is patriarchy’s favourite child. Like Jai’s coin (from Sholay) that ensures his victory by default, prostitution is a handy tool for patriarchy to survive, update and attempt to redeem itself from time to time, in a self-absolution of sorts.

Begum Jaan, the central protagonist of the film, is the madam of a brothel full of women, abandoned because they were sexually abused. They are ‘tainted’ and prostitution is their only rightful place.

From this position of morality arises the popular portrayal of the prostitute in our social reality and Hindi cinema; as women who are the poorest of victims, receiving maximum scorn and deserving only pity.

The patriarchal model of prostitution works on the ‘Goddess/Whore’ binary. The Goddess is to be respected and worshipped, and the whore vilified and damned. Or redeemed, depending on how generous one felt. In any case, it was Man as the saviour of the fallen woman (both the terms and positions self-appointed), while acknowledging the role of the Man as the villain. From V Shantaram’s Aadmi (1939) to Basu Bhattacharya’s Teesri Kasam (1966), from Gulzar’s Mausam (1975) to Raj Kapor’s Ram Teri Ganga Maili (1985) and finally Mahesh Manjrekar’s Vaastav (1999), this manner of portrayal is evident till date.

The prostitute as the victim, hence, becomes a necessary starting point for the narrative. She is an object already punished, hopeless of redemption. She is weak and helpless against this utterly horrendous fate. She is self-aware enough to know she is a player and a plaything. And she condones her own helplessness endlessly because it is a man’s world and what can she, a mere woman do?

The women in Begum Jaan, Muzaffar Ali’s Umrao Jaan, Shyam Benegal’s Mandi, Sagar Sarhadi’s Bazaar, Vaastav and so on, appear rough and tough, but their toughness is brittle. They are regularly shown to bemoan their fate because it is the worst one. They must also ensure that they redeem themselves through some sterling quality, by the end of the film. Barring a few, this is the primary narrative of most prostitute stories we tell in our films, seeing the prostitute from the outside, as the ‘other’.

If the ‘other’ then has to be assimilated, she has to be seen in the ‘human/woman’ light, above and beyond the stigma of her profession. If she is in the dark regarding her feminine virtues, then she must be brought to that awareness, for her to ultimately transcend to her goddess-hood. Because without that she would remain a human, and so would the man. The inherent dichotomy within the entire act of saving the prostitute seems to escape us regularly.

The morality coded in the sexual act by patriarchy places honour at the centre. Honour being the woman’s primary virtue and full-time job, it places the onus of redemption squarely on her shoulder. Going from whore to wife then becomes the primary objective. But who will marry her? The ideal man, of course. And men have abounded in films like Aadmi, Pyaasa, Sadak, Agneepath, Ram Teri Ganga Maili, Vaastav, Chandni Bar, and so on.

But when no one will marry her, (which is most of the time) she will have to fight it out herself. Now she is a foul-mouthed, large-hearted lioness, but no, not a Durga yet, that will have to wait. If she is not the sweet and coy Umrao Jaan, then she must be an abusive and aggressive Kajli from Mausam, Rukmini bai from Mandi, or Begum Jaan. She is the fighter spirit behind the stigma and thus to be admired, yet she must be a ‘certain’ way – foul-mouthed, loudly dressed, bold and lewd as a roughened-at-the-edges prototype.

Her only redemption then lies in sacrifice – the overarching symbol of all things great in the Indian culture. She has had to redeem herself time and again by giving herself up in films like Aadmi, B.R.Chopra’s Sadhna, B. R Ishara’s Chetna, Kamal Amrohi’s Pakeezah, Shakti Samanta’s Amar Prem, Prakash Mehra’s Mukaddar ka Sikandar, Chander Vohra’s Khilona, Bazaar, all versions of Devdas except Dev D, Umrao Jaan and now Begum Jaan.

Sacrifice not only redeems her physically but also morally and ethically. She can be suitably shifted to the ‘Goddess’ category now. Sita could not escape the agni pariskha, does a prostitute count? One may be a Goddess but both are women, after all.

Originally published here

Dear Shah Rukh, We Don’t Have Much Time, You and I…

hah Rukh, we don’t have much time, you and I. Five years, at best. You would have become an honorary star and my days of swooning over stars would be over too. What we began years ago will vanish, just like that. Do you want it to end like this?

You came into my life just at the right time. I was stepping into my teens and you were cute and likeable, perhaps the most likeable on TV in those days. Then films happened and your likeability became a force to reckon with.

He took me by surprise, to be honest, this new Shah Rukh that had burst on the big screen with a delectable freshness; chocolate but so not, dark chocolate, no? I kept a distance, I liked that homegrown, boyish version better. And that’s why I will always belong to that section of your fans who love you best not for Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jaayenge but Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa and Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman. There is a slight but huge difference in both fan bases.

For eg, my favourite film of yours is Baadshah (after Chamatkar), as much for the film (it is hilarious) but more so because of the other you in it, the goofy, silly, self-deprecating you, which is where your charm comes from, and your charm, as you know very well, is the main ingredient of your star power. That is also why you are the only Bollywood star who is widely loved across all sections of ages, genders, classes and countries; that charm speaks to everyone equally.

Maybe that is why, for me you are forgettable in Baazigar, Darr, Karan Arjun and the likes, and dismissible in the DDLJs, KKHHs and RNBDJs. Anyone else can do that. I think you have raised your eyebrows too high by now, at my temerity. Allow me to explain.

You are who you are today because no one else could do any of that then. But that was back then. Today you are so much more than a Rahul, Raj, Arjun and I am sorry to say, Raees. If back then, the images of your roles created your superstardom for you, today your superstardom is creating your roles for you. It is something to worry about, not for you, but for people like me who have not much time.

No, I don’t have cancer nor am I dying soon. Maybe, it will make sense if I say here that the film that made me fall in love with you was Om Shanti Om, quite late in life. For full twelve years, since DDLJ, I rejected you, maybe because I was rejecting love and you were such a huge, eye-popping symbol of it. My best friend was a huge fan of yours and DDLJ and the only thing we’d draw a blank to talk about was when it came to you. I couldn’t understand the brouhaha about you. I liked you best in all your flops (Dil Se…, for eg) and hated you in most of your hits (Mohabattein tops the list) and I couldn’t understand what the hell was wrong and where, with me, you, or the world. Then, 12 years later OSO happened.

My room-mate was a huge SRK fan who would watch IPL and support KKR not because she liked cricket but coz SRK. I wanted to feel ‘in’ with this crowd who sighed over someone collectively and the OSO trailers and music was extremely promising. I came out of the cinema hall, all converted. Wide smile, relishing the Khan-Khan combo once again after Main Hoon Na, there was such a modern Manmohan Desai cinematic gaze there. Both of you have the same idea of the hero in your head and somehow she helps bring that out in you so much more better than for eg, a Karan Johar or Aditya Chopra who impose their version of a hero on you to play.

It is the flair and professional conviction that you play those heroes with that wins, not the belief behind it. You don’t believe in the heroes you play with them and it shows. You believe in the more, different, varied, and also slightly unacceptable; an opening that can help you pour yourself out of the limits you have placed yourself in. And this streak of edginess is what works wonders in otherwise miserable films like Anjaam, Darr, Don (1 & 2), Fan, and now Raees. But it’s like you want to keep the edginess reigned in, keep its leash in your hands alone. You shine without effort, but your surroundings don’t shine with you. I keep wondering what it would be like if you could once again hand over your inner leash to your director.

I think you tried that in My Name Is Khan, but the vision of the film failed you once again. And you jumped back to wooing audiences with your dimpled smiles and producer-star power. Watching Ra.One was a professional hazard but I refused to watch Chennai Express, Dilwale and Happy New Year despite the Khan square (All 3 have been dumped on me on bus rides). Something was rotten in the state of Denmark.

From MNIK, I stuck to SRK the person and ignored the star. I stopped watching your films but would seek out your interviews, talk shows, celebrity appearances. Your real-life personality was offering me so much more than your films. You had so much to give, so ready to share. Your hunger and unfailing dynamism were inspiring and despite not waiting, a part would always be looking out for what SRK does next.

I began to understand why your fans love you the way they do. Your controversies, both real and fictitious, did not bother me because despite all that arrogance or maybe because of it, your honesty shows, and that is enough. But I was looking for more, more of you in a world that is you, and with every film announcement, I’d wonder if it will be this time.

With Raees, I thought it may be so. I was hopeful but unsure. You dazzled and how, but that’s it. Neither did your dazzle light up your surroundings nor did the surroundings edge your rays. It was a star vehicle, not a film. Yet again. I came back dreaming about how lovely you and Mahira Khan look onscreen and how sparkling the chemistry between you and Nawazuddin was, I don’t remember anything else and I saw it yesterday. But I remember a lot from Chamatkar, I saw it last ten years back.

I am not here to tell you to return to that because there is no returning to anything ever. I am just here to tell you that I want to see more of you in your films, as keenly as you seem to want to show him, or maybe more. And I am worried that if it does not happen in the next few years, it may never happen again. And I won’t have any Shah Rukh to swoon over because as you say there can be only one King, no? And only one Baazigar, you know what I mean.

First published here

Ae Dil Hai Mushkil – Flying solo in love or why I loved it so much

SPOILER ALERT

First let me make it clear, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (ADHM) is about love not unrequited love. But I don’t want to talk about ADHM the film, as much as I want to talk about love. Not relationships, just love.

Just like Karan Johar (and many of us), defining love has been a pet preoccupation most of my life too. Having seen around me disastrous outcomes of the passionate / possessive kind of love and its long-term damage, I grew up wanting to avoid those kind of experiences. Passionate romantic relationships would leave you wrecked and changed for life – was the message etched in my head. Until I turned 21 and dutifully took charge, to define love once and for all.

Just like our man Karan Johar, I quipped in an epiphany, ‘Love is friendship!’

You see, I had just met the love of my life, the man I wanted to have children with and grow old with but neither our bond nor relationship fitted into the YRF model (any other model was either too outdated or too modern) and it was important to me that I define. Imtiaz Ali had not debuted then, otherwise he may have helped. Left to my own wits, I decided that the best and most enduring expression of love is friendship. And that is the best form for your romantic relationship to take, keeps the politics of love from infecting its beauty. Because the butterflies-in-the-stomach, sleepless nights, restless ardour and passionate sex kind of romance is mere gender role-play, political, skin-deep and temporary while long-lasting relationships are made of soul connect, on the basis of an equal companionship. My understanding of the emotional complexity of relationships and love then was limited to these polarities. The many faces of love were mere ‘types’ for me.

There was a gap of a good 15 years between me naming my chapter of love and watching Ae Dil Hain Mushkil. My Mughl-e-Azam level romance was behind me for good and whereas it did leave me wrecked and changed for life while I was at it, it wasn’t the passion or possession of love that did it. Rather, as I came to see, to some extent, it was a lack of it. Love as friendship was the culprit. That left me flummoxed. But not surprised.

There was something very familiar in the story I was not telling myself. The story behind the story of why I had forced love into the mould of friendship when I wanted more and different. I had faced it but with Alizeh I faced it again. I was Alizeh, without the experience, but with the knowledge of how deeply love can scar, hence friendship was the safest and best form of love. I was Alizeh who has fully filmy dreams but didn’t really believe they would ever come true while she really wanted them to. I was Alizeh who has felt so vulnerable in love that putting on a don’t-care-a-damn attitude is the best defense, the best way to protect herself from it again. I was Alizeh who believes only friendship lasts because she has seen love crumble in front of her eyes. Her helplessness at the altar of love, at once scared and wise was mine. So in fear, I scrambled to firmly place love in the safe universe of friendship. The only difference was, she did it after her first heartbreak, I did it before, to avoid one. She found her home and I was lost. But the fear of pain that spawned it was the same.

And it this very fear of pain Alizeh overcomes when she lets her last dream be fulfilled. She allows love back into her life but with the wisdom of experience. ‘I friend you’ she says to Ayan’s helpless ‘I love you’, telling him she accepts his love and wants to love him back just that her favourite form of expression is different. And Ayan accepts, not because she is dying and he is desperate, but out of a largesse that naturally comes out of deep passion. Suddenly, love becomes formless even though both remain adamant on its form. Because it is within Alizeh’s choice to return and Ayan’s acceptance of her as is, that lies the real expression of love, formless and boundless. It no longer matters what they say, their actions have spoken.

That is why, even though she is dying in the film, for me, she wins. And so does Ayan, even though he doesn’t seem to get what he wanted. Because love wins. They may not have had their love fulfilled in the way they wanted but they had their love returned. To be requited, love just needs love, itself, not form. It’s when we get lost in the form we miss seeing the love that is happy being outside. To me, the film’s end signified a fresh start to Ayan and Alizeh’s quest for exploring a different form of love, this time together and with more wisdom. Time would tell if they would find a meeting ground or conclusions, but in their acceptance of each other’s love was the acknowledgment of its formlessness. To my mind, her “I friend you’ didn’t seem like a stubborn quibble but simply a reiteration of not having to define love at all. Let’s keep it as undefined as a friendship is, and let it blossom. And take it from there, she seems to be saying.

But what had turned Alizeh off in the first place? It was the neediness of love, the soul-scorching neediness of love and not its heady passion that she had experienced. She had seen its destructive face, not its procreative desire. Maybe she mistook both but love wasn’t a happy place for her to be in anymore. And so for Saba. But for Ayan, this very attachment is the Holy Grail he was seeking. His heart has passed the flower pot test. And so has Tahir Khan’s. But Ayan is still struggling under the weight while Tahir wears it with pride, not as a badge of honour, but as something life-affirming because it keeps him connected to the one he loves even without her presence in his life. I have my love, if not her…he says, and we are back to the formlessness of love, one that doesn’t seek possession, one that doesn’t need validation by the others’, it is valid in itself by its own presence.

Among the four, we are left feeling that it is only Saba who remains unfulfilled. Is it because that she unknowingly craved again for the same form of love she had left behind? The small interaction with her ex-husband shows she has not forgiven or forgotten yet. That is why she is steering clear of love, it can only be no strings attached especially emotional ones coz the earlier form did not quite work. Just like Alizeh, she too is still yearning and it is this that draws her to Ayan but she doesn’t know that until later. And when she does, she sees she has been seduced by love in the same form again. She wants to give in but cannot see the same light in his eyes. Letting Ayan go seems the rightest thing to do to her. If Ayan has already given away his love to someone else does she have a right to ask for it? She moves away with dignity. Despite clinging to a particular form of love she unfetters her love from its demands without knowing. No longer possessive, her love protects them both as much as it hurts. She goes back to her home, poetry. A more sublime form of the expression of love? Does she really remain unfulfilled? Is love letting go?

I wish Saba’s character had been given more attention and screen-time for very selfish reasons. If the girl in me related to the awkward young girl in Alizeh, the woman in me empathised with the poised middle-aged woman in Saba. I was Saba, too fearful to give love a chance again. I was Saba, fooling herself she is strong when it was just a façade. I was Saba, with wounds still raw, inviting more wounds pretending she is trying to heal them, almost as a punishment. I was Saba whose pain had a certain stillness about it, it did not roar and burn. I was Saba who has now found letting go is as easy as getting attached used to be.

Her meeting with Alizeh in Ayan’s presence was one of the sequences in the film that seemed to be dealt with quite an intuitive hand, in writing, performance, and direction. There is a hierarchy, ever-so-subtle, where age and looks play a significant part but no politics. The girl in Saba (which Ayan’s attentions has stirred, him being younger) recognises the girl in Alizeh and the older and wiser woman inside her responds, she is not only graceful she is gracious too. Alizeh’s awe and awkwardness in front of Saba’s self-assured poise is not only a reflection of her own discomfort with her femininity (and hence love too, to an extent) but also the girl yet to acquire the wisdom of womanhood, looking at what she would like to grow up to be after a couple of years. Or something so unattainable she never hoped to attain it anyways. The scene lays bare everyone’s insecurities and strengths without needing to politicise them.

If the girl inside Saba hurts to see Ayan loving someone else the way she wants him to love her, the woman in her knows letting go is the wisest thing to do. Love will find a way, KJo said in one of his earlier (and lesser) films.

As is inherent in the human condition, there is a constant tussle between the possessive and transcendental aspects of love, aspects most films aspire to portray but fail at evoking. ADHM does not pretend to, caught as it is, despite its best efforts, in the limitations of its emotional language and landscape. But it does pit these aspects against each other fairly well. If love as passion (junoon) is transcendental for Tahir, for Saba it is possessive. If love as friendship is transcendental for Alizeh, for Ayan it is immaterial. He craves transcendence through possession.

Yet, in the end, it is Ayan who takes the biggest leap of faith in the film, out of sheer love; he simply cannot help it. In doing so, he opens a window within to a love that does not seek to possess, love that liberates. It is not difficult to imagine him, few years down the line, wearing it with pride, this new-found joy in the junoon of love, like Tahir does. It’s like he amalgamates everyone’s journeys, even though it is they who spur him on to his. His emotional journey is Alizeh, Saba and Tahir’s catharsis, bringing together four people happy to fly solo in love. I loved him for being helplessly passionate showing me its ok to believe in the junoon of love, that’s a form of expression too. But I loved him more for being the very vulnerable boy he was, almost saying is there any other way to love really?

What seems so brave in the film is the atypicality of the portrayal of love. It does not pretend to be grandiose, or lofty (like KANK) it’s rather earnest, the unabashed love for Bollywood adding an almost unconscious subtext of Bollywood romantic models to the film. It’s like we know what these kids have grown up on, setting the context of their influences, behaviour and beliefs, in a certain sense too. And in a wider sense encompassing all those film lovers and filmy lovers who brought up on Bollywood too, make films and love what it is – friendship, passion, commitment, relationship or plain confusion.

And probably that is why, inspite of myself, I was Alizeh, Saba, Ayan and Tahir, separately and all at once. I didn’t understand them, I just recognised them in me, struggling between having love and being it. And like all of them beginning to realise love is not a goal to be met, it is a state of mind and if Rumi were asked, ‘state of the soul’. And isn’t there something about non-separation there?

Love is coming home, whichever route you choose to take.

Fatema Kagalwala

The Separate Cinemas of Hrishikesh Mukherjee & Basu Bhattacharya

The emergence of directors, Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Basu Bhattacharya in the 70s is from a singular source – Bimal Roy. Roy’s pathbreaking realism and a keen eye for exploring nuances of emotion and relationships in a time of high drama and tragedy bear its stamp in the cinema of his protégés. Both Hrishida and Basuda worked as assistant directors with him, and in the case of the former also as a writer and editor. This formative experience shaped their shared and unique perspectives of reality in their cinema.

Themes

Relationships are largely the pet theme of both the directors, however, their initial years as filmmakers saw more of a neo-realist De Sican thrust than an intimate and personal one.

Although Hrishida’s first film Musafir and Basuda’s second, the classic Teesri Kasam had a strong interpersonal relationship theme, its interplay with the social context is self-evident; an ethos that later with films like Anuradha, Anupama,Anubhav, and Avishkar matured into a more personal cinema that spoke about the independent individual than as a part of a whole for both.

But here diverge the range of their themes and their explorations. While Mukherjee’s stories, treatments, and themes varied from film to film with a stunning variety, Bhattacharya’s cinema seems to have stayed in one area but gone deeper. While one seems to have an enviable variety of styles, the other’s genius seems to lie in his wisdom of characters, human relationships and psychology.

World and World-View

A penchant for humour, an inherent belief in the goodness of man and a perceptively tender expression of human relationships has always been the hallmark that has made Mukherjee an auteur in his own right. His world, as quirky as real, had an extremely interesting play of incidents and the human emotions they triggered. This is seen as early as Anari and Mem Didi, where strangers laugh together and guardian angels abide galore, right up to Anand, Mili and Namak Haram.

In the classic comedies Chupke Chupke, Golmaal,Khoobsoorat, Bawarchi where the goofball plot unfolds with a tongue firmly in the cheek, there is always a hint of a message too, giving a certain meaning to the apparent meaninglessness.

In contrast, Bhattacharya’s world inhabited more sense than sensibility and at times a heightened sensitivity in the fearlessly close look he took into exploring marital discord. His trilogy on the theme –Anubhav, Avishkar and Grihapravesh delves into understanding the complexity of the warp relationships taken on over time.

With Anubhav he explores the life of a 6-year-old estranged couple coming close and overcoming misunderstandings for sustenance while with Avishkar he surveyed the entire journey from love, courtship, marriage and later years. WithGrihapravesh he starts off with a jaded couple and introduces further estrangement only to chart the journey back to reconciliation, in a way coming full circle.

If the shadows of a past relationship fell on a present relationship in Anubhav, in Grihapravesh adultery is dealt with head-on. He revisited the idea and impact of adultery in his later film Aastha (1997).

Together, Mukherjee and Bhattacharya not only reflected the reality of their times, of a budding urban India but also gave shape to the idea of a better world shaped by ideas of communication, understanding, joy, mirth, goodness, sense, and sensibility.

Even today, the spring-time world of Hrishida and comfortingly solid world of Basuda continues to show a reality of hope and sensitivity in the world and cinema around bringing us ‘nirmal anand’ and in the words of the eponymous character, ‘anand kabhi marte nahi’. On their death anniversary, I’d like to translate it as ‘the joy of watching their films never dies.’ Long live.
Originally published here

Gulzar, A Poet and Thinker Always in Search Of The Right Word

Humne dekhi hain in aankhon ki mehekti khushboo
Haath se chhoo ke issein rishton ka ilzaam na do
Sirf ehsaas hain yeh rooh se mehsoos karo
Pyaar ko pyaar hi rehne do koi naam do…

I was in class 10 and on a lark I gave my mother my slam book to fill. You know those little books with sections of ‘your favourite this and your favourite that’ that we’d give our friends to fill as a memoir? In the section ‘What is love’ my mother wrote these lines. They weren’t unfamiliar, this song is a family favourite, but reading them written by mother somehow made an indelible impact on my vulnerable 16 yr old mind. I have held them close ever since. I didn’t know who had written them back then, but over time that man would give me more such definitions, or rather undo existing definitions of love through his words, and continue to expand my world.

Indian cinema perhaps, is yet to see another example of intensity, intellect, diligence and temerity in one writer like Sampooran Singh Kalra, or Gulzar as we know him.

A consummate poet in a family of businessmen, Gulzar not only infused a new life into the language of love in Hindi cinema, but also changed the language of Hindi songs while moving with the times.By his own confession he is always in quest of the right word because not only does the rhythm and metre matter, but language holds an entire world within them. In his very first directorial debut Mere Apne, we have a village bred Meena Kumari reprimanding city bred youngsters for abusing, saying zubaan aadmi ki pehchaan hain. We have the young huckster Vinod Khanna advising the philistine politician to speak in Urdu for more dramatic impact. We have another pretentious politician in Mehmood, who barely knows his English, but does understand the weight certain words carry.

In Mausam a shopkeeper relates the profession of Kajli (Sharmila Tagore) as a prostitute with her language- “vaishya hai sahib, zubaan nahi suni aapne?” he says. In Khushboo, little Charan (Master Raju) constantly berates his father for using abusive language, while the dialect switch among villagers informs a whole world of class differences.

This eye for language is not limited to the physicality of words; its value of communication almost always underscores his characters, especially in his earlier works. In Ijaazat and Namkeen they take a poetic form of expressing the inexpressible. If Maya expresses her keen desires through written words where we understand the free spirited vagabond she is, in Namkeen they become a vehicle of sheer communication as well for the mute Mitthi who is also a poet. In Aandhi they form the very bedrock of breakdown of communication and in Koshish they transcend themselves by accepting communication does not require words.

However, it is really in his songs that he truly manages to impress upon us the value of language and the word.

If there is the audacity of aankhon ki mehekti khushboo, woh raat bujha do, umr kabki baraske sufed ho gayi and personal se sawaal karti hain, there is the sheer lyricism of taaveez banaake pehnoon usey, aayat ki tarah mil jaaye kahin and paon ke tale kabhi, dil pada mile agar, choom kar uthaiye, khoob dekh bhaalkar, words drenched in the passion of undying love yet able to take themselves lightly enough.

Perhaps, it is due to his penchant for the right word that he makes a dazzling poet of children’s songs. The turn of phrase in Saa re ke saa re ga ma (Parichay), Chupdi chupdi Chachi (Chachi 420), Lakdi ki kaathi (Masoom) and the famous chaddi pehenke phool khila hain (Jungle Book) are ever-so-much fun without being flippant, a combination few have been able to manage with such seriousness.

Gulzar’s paeans of love, loss, nostalgia and connections have lasted through time because they speak an intimate and a very personal language of love, that makes us recognise aspects within that we haven’t met yet, but know all too very well. At 82, he continues to work tirelessly, always on the lookout for the next project to delve into with his heart and soul. But when he puts pen to paper it is the audience who really gets lucky.

May Gulzar keep dazzling us with his words and thoughts forever.

Originally published here

S for Sex, S for Sunny, S for Sita

The word ‘Sita’ is probably more loaded with meaning than ‘Ram’, the word that promises to launch a thousand ships any minute now. In this piece I intend to compare Sunny Leone with Sita, both prototypes rather than people in our minds, not to legitmise the already-several-times-legitmised-but-just-not-enough-Sunny but try and draw a parallel in the women as women.

If I tread on any feet or offend someone please kill the comment section with your ire and leave it at that, don’t we have way better things to spend offence time on?

So back in Treta Yug during Ram Rajya all was hunky dory in the world with men doing the hunting and women cooking and both happy in their places (well, that’s what we are told). Until Sita decided that her self respect as a person was more important than her role as a woman.

She left her husband who doubted her and this after she had passed a trial by fire ignoring the aspersion the demand cast on her. All her life she refused to go back, raising her two sons single-handedly and in the end choosing her own death. Sita was empowered because she understood choice and made hers on her own and this was back in Treta Yuga.

Back in Kalyug during Har Har Modi times nothing is hunky dory with the world because we have a Sunny who chooses to become a porn star and remains unapologetic about it even as we feverishly invoke Ram Rajya back so that we don’t have to deal with the Sunnys of this world.

We crave for Sita, who is a Sita we want to know – meek, humble, choiceless, sacrificing and ‘pure’ whatever that means. (But if she is then why is the husband who doubted her seen as equally pure? I mean, if he was pure he would have recognised her purity, no? There is a contradiction there we don’t seem to want to see.) So we push a Sunny into a corner because through her choices she has defied ouridea of Sita on every level. And she remains unapologetic.

When Sunny first hit the Indian scene with Bigg Boss, middle class homes all over India didn’t quite know how to deal with a porn star in their living rooms. There was a great tingle of excitement simmering under the surface and with it a patronising acceptance, to hide one’s own unwarranted enthusiasm. The image building exercise seemed to be ‘gain the approval of the great Indian middle class and you have arrived.’ It worked but Bollywood being the fossil it is, it decided middle class audiences wouldn’t want to see Sunny in anything except lewd and poorly directed films. And Bollywood being Bollywood, not seemed to have recovered from Mallika Sherawat yet, failed to do anything bold or brave enough to fit Sunny. And soon she was a B grade actress doing ‘those’ kind of films (which usually earned a lot of money because it got a lot of audience.)

Sunny was accepted in the exploitative circle of glamour but was yet to gain respectability. Oh, the Indian middle class may have ‘allowed her in’, but the upper middle class were yet to approve of her or her choices, past and present both. And fair though it may seem, underneath that there seemed to be a need to present approval. As if without that Sunny could never really blossom or have a right to.

Patronise; that’s how we treat anyone tainted with that sex thing, na? Eve-teasing, sexual harassment, child abuse, rape, sex workers, porn stars. As if sex is one big dirty thing and not the politics of patriarchy that creates a dirty world while using sex as its excuse.

Ram rejected Sita because he thought she could have had sex outside marriage. We rejected Sunny because she had sex for money. And today when we can no longer ignore her independence we rush in with support, as though to anoint her of having finally cleared heragnipariksha that somehow cleansing her of her earlier ‘evils’. That the fallen woman could be resurrected now. Assuming she needs this approval, permission almost. She doesn’t and we must know that. Because she is as fallen as you or I are, not any more.

Sita needed no one’s permission to live or die. Sunny didn’t need anyone’s permission for sex, she doesn’t need it to become Sita. Because she already is. Just not the way we want her to be, but maybe that too soon. After all, even an Aamir Khan felt the need to contribute with his regular patronising take. Her next could be – Karanjit Kaur as Sita in Ekta Kapoor’s ‘Ekkkk aur Ramayan’. And then the legitimacy will be complete.

It is we who are oscillating in our ideas of a Sunny and a Sita, both of them moved on long ago.

S for silence.

First published here

Remembering Nirupa Roy and the Most Iconic Mothers of Bollywood

Recently we’ve had Tabu’s spectacular turn as a vengeance-seeking mother inDrishyam, and not to forget Aishwarya Rai playing an advocate mommy on a dangerous mission to save her daughter in Jazbaa. Apart from rare instances such as Durga Khote as Jodhabai in Mughl-e-Azam, and later Nargis as Radha in Mother India, who made the role of the ‘mother’ a powerful symbol, with their lasting performances, we’ve hardly seen the mother as anything more than an object or stereotype.

Over the ages, the ‘mother’, just like the ‘hero’ has been an archetype, the nature of her image does not change, what does is her stature in front of the ‘hero’ and the star. Hence, it didn’t matter if it is Achala Sachdev, Dulaari or Sulochana pampering a Rajesh Khanna in the 70s. His stories were ‘hero centric’, with the mother characters having little stake in the film except being the tertiary character that creates the hero’s world. Hence, the actors who played his mother could be inter-changeable.

But with the next generation superstar Amitabh Bachchan, we had the singular image of suffering motherhood in Nirupa Roy. Big B’s heroines could change but his mother couldn’t, it was the generation of lost and found stories’ where the mother played an equally pivotal role in the progression of the film and climax. She was an important stakeholder, even if not equal. As family dramas spawned in the 80s and early 90s, actresses like Rakhee (Shakti to Ram Lakhan to Karan Arjun) and Nutan (Meri Jung, Karma, Yudh, Naam) once stars in their own right added their weight to author-backed mother roles. This was the time of the strong mother, one who suffered but was valiant too and not only in her suffering.

The nineties ushered in the dramatic age of the Barjatya brand of glossy, pristine and puritan family dramas. The role of the mother took mythological overtones in his dramas as did the roles of hero and we had the non-negotiable mother-son pairing of Salman Khan and Reema Lagoo (Maine Pyaar Kiya, Hum Aapke Hain Kaun, Hum Saath Saath Hain), reminiscent of the unshakeable mother-son image of Amitabh Bachchan and Nirupa Roy. The role of the mother remained the same, caring, and ever-giving, who loved her son to a fault and the mythological proportions of the films and characters had by then, impacted the national psyche deeply enough to see the mother-son duo casting as inseparable.

The 90s were also the age of the Yashraj and Karan Johar style of family dramas but with a lot more pizzazz and glamour. The likes of Farida Jalal and Kirron Kher stepped in to embody the archetype that changed as much as their personas allowed, with mostly Farida Jalal playing a more home-grown version of Reema Lagoo sans the jewellery and Kirron Kher mostly caricaturising Nirupa Roy’s ‘mother’ stereotype albeit louder. As family dramas grew in popularity and stature, secondary family characters required ‘faces’ an audience could identify with, there was little more she was supposed to do.

As with the 80s, when the 2000s looked for slightly more layered maternal characters, yester-year actresses like Jaya Bachchan (Fiza, Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, Kal Ho Na Ho), Dimple Kapadia (Luck By Chance, Dabangg, Cocktail) and Supriya Pathak (Sarkar, Wake Up Sid, Ram Leela) informed the roles with a studied impulse. With the times transitioning towards greyer stories, the mother character evolved into a human being from an archetype, something a Jodhabai or Radha couldn’t fully bloom into.

The best example of this is Ghazala, Tabu’s Gertrude in Haider. One is hard-pressed to find a mother character as complex and grey as hers. Ghazala’s dilemma as a female in a war-torn world is in conflict with her motherhood, one that calls out attention to her as a woman first and mother later, even if it is to question both. The delicately handled Oedipal overtones of her relationship with her son perhaps makes her Ghazala starkly unconventional, brutally real and rarely explored.

Yet, the ‘mother’ in our films continues to dilly dally between iconic and stereotype, never arriving, yet never stopping, always emerging. Where it will head from here on? Probably where the hero does.

First published here

Salman Khan at 50: The Brat We Love to Love

When Dabangg happened, Salman and I were an estranged couple. It was teenage love, you see, first crush and all. Maine Pyar Kiya had just released and my newly-born teen self couldn’t help but give away its heart to this handsome, vulnerable looking brat with dopey eyes and a melty smile. Who was this guy?

News of his affairs gave him a romantic image early on, but they refused to stick, the affairs. Something was intriguing about this fellow, never quite got it coz he kept sticking to me.

The affair continued for a few years, and then fell prey to the eleven year itch. The time when Salman was doing stuff like Hello Brother, revamping his ‘nice’ romantic image for a raunchy comic one and going ever so wrong with it. The dark time in every Salman Khan fan’s life.

This was also the time when the reel-life Prem became a real-life bad boy. The black buck case, the hit-and-run case, the entire Aishwarya Rai episode, nothing was in his favour. It was easy to dislike him, or forget him rather.

Until, he won me back with a hud hud. In an instant, all was forgiven.

That’s pretty much the trajectory of any average Salman fan too I guess, and going by the post-Wanted resurrected Khan-following, even if one is not a fan of Salman’s films, one always liked him now, if one had liked him in the past. Somewhat like Narnia. Hint of magic.

The post Dabangg, Salman Khan was a contemporised and far more confident version of his Hello Brotherdays. In films and in life he seemed to have synthesised both the earlier phases of his life, and landed upon a riper version of what he is capable of on-screen. He merged his romantic hero, action hero, comic hero and bad boy selves in one sweep and that synthesis seemed to have spilled onto real-life displayed in his growing candidness and thoughtfulness in interviews.

Age seemed to have sobered him a wee bit, but hadn’t dulled the edge of his wickedness, just made it more loveable. We lapped him up in reality shows, entertained by the way he engaged us in our living rooms. What had happened suddenly? Who was this guy?

An addition to his personality was the image of a systematic philanthropist. Stories of his charities had always been rife in the industry, but seen by most as an apology for his bad behaviour. Until Salman Khan consolidated his commitment to philanthropy with the Being Human foundation.

Needless to say, it upped his market value far more than his brattiness had done damage. Yet, his demons kept haunting him, always fresh in public memory. Despite this, the fans who had once loyally sported ‘COOL’, the Tere Naam haircut, the six-pack, the blonde streaks in adoration kept doing so. It was Sallu bhai, it didn’t matter what he did, ‘dil ke bahut hi acche hain’. There was something about this guy.

Is it a certain tenderness in the eyes and a certain softness in the smile that has remained unchanged, despite the wrinkles? At 50, he is still single and very eligible. Still a stud, still a bhai. Still Prem. Still trying to shake his past off.

But there is a certain resilience in all that beefy toughness now, its not all bravado anymore. And maybe that’s what we like, we’ll never know. Maybe behind all that seeming simplicity, lies a man we could never imagine exists. Or maybe, there is no man behind there, it’s just what is in front of us and it’s that simple?

Post-script: My relationship with Salman today stands at indulgent affection yet detached coolness, middle-aged, somewhat. Would I mind growing old with him? Of course, not! Here’s to many more, Salman!

First published here

The ‘Urban Cool’ Dev Anand: Our Very First Metrosexual Hero

It was the fifties. It was the time of a newly independent, newly integrated, newly awakened India; an India no longer only of farms and villages, but of industries and cities too. Where a distinct urban identity was forming and fast catching national fancy.

It was a time when stars like Prithiviraj Kapoor, Ashok Kumar and KL Saigal, between themselves, had established an earthy, virtuous and home-grown celluloid ‘hero’. It was the time when showman Raj Kapoor, was winning national and international critical acclaim for his neo-realism influenced films fore-fronting the underdog common man. In this scenario erupted a lanky, rakish lad; suave, cheerful and full of urban cool, whose ‘hero’ won hearts immediately even if not as virtuous as his predecessors or contemporaries.

This hero was city-bred, confident, immoral, sometimes even unscrupulous and all with an impeccable chic style. He smoked, befriended bar-girls and criminals and was pretty much footloose and fancy-free.

It was in the carefully puffed up hair that became his trademark. It was in the shirts worn with flair both blithe and unrestrained. It was in his floppiness he flaunted with a charm, as though to say rejecting the plaid and staid on purpose. It was in his filmic setting marked by urban crime and immorality, one he was a product of not the saviour. It was in the treatment of ‘desire’ and what it meant in his films. It was a far more modern interpretation of love and romance than Bollywood of the 50s was used to.

And the audience loved it all, they loved him. Dharam Dev Anand, a gangly handsome lad from Lahore, used to adulation; he was already reputed for being a heartthrob back in college before he joined the industry to similar response, was the new poster boy of cinema and understandably so. The popularity of his much-aped hair-style symbolized an urban chic fashion trend a la Aamir Khan’s mohawk in Dil Chahta Hai, and was proudly worn like one.

The hero with grey shades in an urban world full of crime, intrigue and danger was a well-used trope by the time Guru Dutt and Dev Anand blazed the screens with a super-hit Baazi. Himanshu Rai and Devika Rani’s Bombay Talkies had already set a strong precedent of showing darker, more modern conventions in their films likeKismet.

Dev Anand’s break-out film Ziddi with Bombay Talkies centred around the modern, cigarette smoking, loose-tie image of the ‘hero’ paving way for more. With Baazi, Indian cinema made its crime caper groove thanks to Guru Dutt and got an unconventionally unscrupulous hero in Dev Anand. He hob-knobbed with criminals and frequented bars (Baazi and Jaal), he was an on-the-run small-time crook (Nau Do Gyarah), he was the train travelling rich kid coolly comfortable with the underbelly of the city (Solva Saal), he was the competitive business man not averse to game playing in Tere Ghar ke Saamne and the less than scrupulous Raju Guide, a role he is most fondly remembered for.

This trend continued in the sixties with films like Jewel Thief, Johnny Mera Naam,and Gambler successfully re-inventing the urban rake into the urban man but with the loveable swag, always that limp lovable swag.

Dev Anand is probably the most celebrated octogenarian of Indian cinema, working, making and acting in films from the age of 23 till his death at 88. Celebrated as the classic romantic hero with classically good looks, Dev Anand’s biggest contribution perhaps was transmuting the urban identity on celluloid, reflecting and impressing the national consciousness at once. Not surprisingly the films he made post the 70s till his death continued banking on this image of the urban hero and so did the fascination with crime and romance.

The re-invented Dev Anand disappointed, audiences still too enamoured by the charm of the younger Dev, and that is how he is preferred to be remembered by fans. And the fact that Dev Anand was our first truly metrosexual hero. He will always be remembered for that. And for sure, he would love it that way.

First published here

Film Recco : Kaul – A calling to

Bring me a dish to satiate my mind and I am happy.’

No, no one great said that, I just made it up coz I wanted to begin with a bang. But that doesn’t mean it is untrue. Kaul, a feature length indie film has had me quite, quite excited since a few days now.

It’s rare a film excites me so much, makes me think so much. So exploring, enquiring, digging, labelling, un-defining…it goes.

Kaulin several cultures, means a call to the divine. It also means higher order or social class. It also means a man of high breed. It also means a purpose or profession. It also means a promise.

How simple is simple?

We live in a world where everything is codified perfectly into two neat brackets, cause and effect, black and white, this or that. Human existence today, is an argument of versus. But simple is a unifying agent, it is a unifying philosophy and has no place for duality. Then?

The task of our times then is to deconstruct. And integrate. To arrive at the core that is simple. Kaul is something like that.

A young man in a small town in Konkan murders a woman and moves to a smaller village. He takes up a job as a teacher, marries and is living a seemingly uneventful life when he undergoes an experience he cannot accept or reject. It is something he cannot define; it is surreal and drives him to the edge of sanity (as defined by common majoritarian understanding). He sets out seeking answers, peeling layers until he arrives at the core.

Mystical? Maybe, but this is not a saintly story of a man’s enlightenment and struggles with it. It is the story of Nietzsche’s ‘Ubermensch’, Camus’ ‘Outsider’, and the 21st century common man experiencing the dark night of his soul fraught with anxiety.

If he kills like Camus’ Stranger and goes off like a being in search of his super-hood, then like our 21st century man he veers towards the confines of psychiatric classifications, depending on the only rules he seems to be made of. ‘Shut me up if I become a threat to the society’, he pleads earnestly, believing himself to have gone bonkers; his classification of insane and normal as binary as the debate between the physical and the metaphysical. In this honesty lies the thread of his search, the honesty that compels him to ensure his road must not end in annihilation of others also leading him to explore the power that lies in that very thought of violence. Is that where ultimate freedom lies?

What if you could just snap your fingers and the world would come to an end?

And what if your redemption lay in it? Through it?

That kind of power is threatening. Life-threatening. Two moves and the torture would end. And it would be a good deed. Or would it be? We are back to polarising.

But it is touch and go, this playing with polarisation, because as is essential, one must quickly leap to integration, from linear to the cyclical, from separation to unification, if one has to arrive at the meaning of existence. In the womb of birth is the seed of death and in the heart of death the first call for creation. Something cannot be destroyed until completely built and cannot be created until it is not completely annihilated. The pendulum has to swing to both extremes to arrive at its true balance. Let me drop the ‘true’ and just say balance. It is simple.

To peel off the layers of our consciousness and definitions of art then, the film throws off layers after layers of myths and faux-labels, crystallising the knowledge, the visual and sound (literally and metaphorically!) in an attempt to integrate sensory experience with emotional resonance in the audience. As the protagonist starts his journey in search of answers we are taken into another world where the physical echoes the metaphysical. The play of day and night, darkness and light, sounds and silences create a universe that is tactile and immersive, daylight exposing the extreme dullness of the regular and darkness the mysteries of the obvious. With this, Kaul gently plays on our senses as it tantalises us to follow the protagonist to find out what is this bat-shit craziness that has descended upon him suddenly.

Do we need the Master?

Needless to say, he finds a guru; the film evoking a Campbell-like mono-myth pattern of a hero’s journey, from afar a simplistic narrative principle, from close quarters simple. As he tries to seek the tutelage of one seemingly mysterious old man another layer of polarity opens up. Along with several other myths the old man also rejects the myth of the ‘guru’, hinting at the infiniteness of the self to find its own way out of this ultra-real world. The role of the seeker as a primary school teacher suddenly gains credence. ‘This whole Guru-Disciple thing is bogus’, roars the old man in defiance, decrying the tradition of looking outward, and by that pushing the protagonist to look within.

He urges him to listen to birds for messages decoding his path.

And what will I find?’ the seeker asks in anticipation.

‘Nothing. You will find nothing. But only after knowing that will you be able to accept it. There is nothing to find.’

A group of philosophers, writers and artists were once asked, ‘Why are we here?’ John Cage famously replied, ‘No why, just here’. Let’s pause here a bit.

Integration is not mathematics, but then maybe it is.

From a distance, there is a danger of viewing and interpreting Kaul as a fable, it is anything but that. Rather it could almost be interpreted as a pataphysical take on the business of spirituality. With a firm belief in the power of self, the film almost cocks-a-snook at the common dialectical understanding of experiential truth and the mysterious secret of man as super-being

Even though interpreting Kaul as a fable would be reductive, there is a certain temptation to do so, given the structure and form it chooses to take. It’s magic realism is Kafkaesque, dark, mysterious and anxious, very anxious. It is mystical and formless, evolving as we go, but it is in enquiry that our existence and the film lies, as embodied by the seeker and that which is being sought. That is the spirit of the film hence its fable-like veneer dismantles before it is fully built as the Kafkaesque intensity deepens, unshackling the viewer from the fluff of fantasy immersing him in the surreality of reality instead. Enquire don’t accept, seek don’t give up, trust your power do not let go of it; some of the ideas the film seems to be urging us to follow with little cushioning.

While merging the hero’s mono-mythical external journey with his internal one, the film adapts and adopts from several theisms and philosophies. Rooted in ancient Hindu philosophy is our mysterious old man, who suggests neti neti is the only path for the insane. In a caustic sweep he derides the modern-day formalist man steeped in illusory materialism and its limited definitions. Neti is a yogic path to enlightenment, propounded in Gnana Yoga and Advaita Vedanta, which emphasises on the rejection of all that is not the Soul and thus coming in touch with it. It is a path of deconstruction, one that nudges the shedding of layers of illusion and belief that we are mere mortals, to reach that germ of immortal within us.

Do what you feel like’ is the only answer the old man has for our angst-ridden protagonist. Hear the calling of honesty. From songs of experience the return to innocence.

It is believed that knowledge or ‘gnana’ was handed down through the alleys of memory, both physical (smriti) and divine (sruti). The Vedas, believed to be central canon of Hindu philosophy, are said to have been written through the assistance of divine memory. The oral tradition of India, (where sagely as well as worldly wisdom was disseminated through stories), and the guru-shishya codification of the same task, then seem to be derivatives of a deeper tradition born of the belief in sruti and smriti.

It is from these traditions that director Aadish Keluskar draws his narrative, borrowing a phrase T S Eliot used to describe the style of metaphysical poets, ‘yoking together’ the content with form in a meta-fictive universe. True to the oral tradition the old man hands down ancient knowledge to the protagonist. Is it from sruti or smriti? The film, like the old man, (its spokesperson almost), gives no ready answers. But there are answers embedded within, for which enquiry is required.

Kaul, bases its world-view, or rather other-world view on prominent philosophies and beliefs, collecting them together to make a base, a context. It then plays within this context of beliefs, pitting one against another to find a middle way. It’s almost like an examination, or experiment rather, of mating the best DNA of Nietzsche’s nihilism, Camus’ absurdism and Hindu spiritualism to free their core and it’s own. What emerges is the distilled idea of the Self. And the absoluteness of its power. From a dot we emerge and into the dot we dissolve, ending where we begin. Again and again, we just need to know it.

The atmosphere of darkness lies like a heavy pall on the film. It is full of bated breaths, the frames holding still in limbo, as anxious and paralysed as its protagonist who doesn’t know where to go from here. Just like neti neti, the structure of the film to arrive at its point is not this, not that. A constant negative reaffirmation. In an admirable example of metafiction, the physical form the film takes is to reflect the essence of its content. In many ways it subverts what we popularly know of the relationship between form and content and how it is practiced. In other ways it is the distilled approach of marrying both, the essence of simple. The old man refuses to provide easy answers to the protagonist pushing him on the path of neti neti and the film does the same to the audience. It is exciting to say the least, to catch clues and link up a path to the centre of the film.

When I reached there, the deepest I could, I found something interesting at the centre of the film. It pretends to be dystopian while it is very utopian and optimistic. Behind the obfuscating mystique, behind the nihilistic violence, behind the weariness of regular life, the film thrusts forth a strong belief in personal power, almost urging us to claim ours. Using violence, it liberates it from the baggage of destruction, leaving only the creative force behind.

Perhaps, the richness of the form and content is what I find so exciting in Kaul. The boldness of night photography allowing darkness to rule, the image crystallising as though in response to the call of plot, the soundscape reverberating with enigma, hinting at larger mysteries while guiding through them. It is with a certain intensity that the soundscape plays on the subconscious, informing the world of the film through vibrations, through variations, through space and vacuum, through noise and silence and through the gross and fine. This intensity and vastness of variation melts in with the world of the film, creating a supra-natural, almost physical experience of the protagonist’s journey for the audience.

‘Truth is rarely pure and never simple’ proclaimed Oscar Wilde. Neither is Kaul. It isn’t pure, it isn’t perfect and it isn’t simple. But it wins in nudging us to ask, in our lives and in films, what is simple?

First published here

Amitabh Bachchan at 73: More than Angry, Stay Hungry

Forty-five years in the industry, the well-deserved tag of the biggest star in Hindi cinema and an eventful career, which has been sharp in its highs and lows, is enough to be in a bit of awe of Amitabh Bachchan. Take into account his presence, charm, baritone and most-imitated inimitable style and he becomes a monolithic personality, who has earned every inch of his stardom and wears it with élan even today.

From the time he was rejected by All India Radio, to the time where he has now a temple in his name, the trajectory of a big life has usually been reduced to the ‘Angry Young Man’ superstar phase and the post-comeback superstar age. The much-told story of his rise, fall and resurrection is so exceptional that it is almost impossible to see the man behind.

Amitabh Bachchan at the peak of his stardom was a lion, huge on screen, huge off screen. The presence of his stardom was palpable in the love audiences showered on his performances as well as the clout his star power wielded in the industry. He was a one-man show that simply couldn’t fail. He was the common man and the superhero all at once.

At the height of his ‘angry young man’ phase when it seemed like he could do no wrong, one sees a spate of film choices all identical and clonish. The Bachchan before the 80s was far more of a performer, an actor, until he turned into a star caught in his own image. He stopped experimenting, relying on blockbuster formulaic material. It could have been a sign of changing times and survival instinct, but the man remained a lion in his personal power while surrendering to massy instincts in his professional sphere.

There is a story, an urban legend maybe but nevertheless worth telling. This was during the time ABCL went bankrupt and Amitabh Bachchcan was under crores of debt. He was travelling abroad and browsing at an airport store when he fancied a watch costing more than a few lakhs. Given his circumstances it was too lavish a spend. And then he made up his mind, if he was going down he would go down in style. He bought the watch.

This, to me is not a sign of arrogance, it is the sign of immense self-confidence of a down on luck superstar evolved enough to see the larger picture. And he did come back with a bang, the same accolades, the same love but the man was different this time. He was still immensely watchable on screen, owning anything he did, however ridiculous. But this was a redefined superstar. Whether this redefinition was conscious or not, no one can presume but he was using his star power differently, to carve a different niche. He began experimenting, in a way he never had before.

At the peak of his career, Amitabh Bachchan was a non-conformist in real life, played non-conformist characters but stayed conformist as an actor. After the comeback, he wore an older and wiser image of himself, letting go of the earlier baggage of lead hero stardom. He played his age (Baghban, Sarkar, Bunty aur Babli), played secondary characters (Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham), played the villain (RGV ki Aag), played controversial and experimental characters (Nishabd and Paa) even played a ghost twice! (Bhoothnath 1 & 2). Yet, in his personal life he becomes a conformist, it could be stemming from the disillusionment of a failed attempt at a political career, or the enormity of a hard-earned, hard-lost stardom earned back, but the brand Bachchan became a brand, playing safe at all times. Almost anxious of disturbing the status quo anymore.

Having said that, the fact that he continues to experiment at 73, every time giving us a different experience of him, overshadows all else, because irrespective of his failures, there is a certain joy and admiration in watching a man constantly engaged in re-inventing himself when he doesn’t really need to. May that hunger remain alive.

First published here

Why Real Life is Dry Without Bollywood Drama

Nahiiiiiiii, tum aisa nahi kar sakte!’

This wasn’t Hema Malini moaning from the telly, but an eight year old me responding to my mother’s call to help her out in the kitchen. This was me decrying the very injustice and unfairness of it all with the same passion and outrage that Hema Malini reserved for her vilest of villains. It was wonderfully handy, all this drama available at the right time.

Is it only the drama of cinema that indelibly binds it with our lives or more? Or its communal nature? It’s an activity we do with friends and family, one that we share with hundreds of strangers in theatres solely bound by the love of dreams coming true on the big screen. Why else do villagers flock to that single house with a TV? And why else is travelling cinema a cause for celebration in these parts? The sense of community that comes from sharing a vicarious dream-fulfilling experience is commanded only by cinema in our nation. It binds us together, somehow even more than cricket.

Every corner you turn, you find something ‘filmi’. Be it in a woman’s hairstyle, or a man’s swagger, in a street urchin’s china-made ware for sale, or in giant-sized posters of Bollywood celebrities endorsing brands, irrespective of themselves. The times of my 40s born father fashioning his hairstyle after Dev Anand is no different from young boys in our times fashioning theirs after Salman Khan in Tere Naam, or sporting six packs like their favourite Khans. It is aspiration that urges a girl to do her eyebrows like Shilpa Shetty or lips like Aishwarya Rai; an aspiration to be as loved and famed as their favourite stars and characters. As much as this aspiration is unhealthy, wouldn’t life be a tad bit lesser without it?

Aspiration, the offspring of desire, makes cinema lead us where it goes, easily making us believe the myths it sells. How else does one explain the allegedlyBaazigar inspired murders, alleged suicides at Rajesh Khanna’s marriage and mothers refusing to name their children ‘Pran’? Why else is their a need for censorship and appropriate audience guidelines? Consciously or subconsciously, whether we accept it or not, cinema is a big part of our psyche.

In every city, in the heart of every film buff, is that special cinema hall, the city’s icon, where he allows his favourite stars to woo him. Amidst scores of mindless flicks is that one film that has touched you beyond words, shifted something inside; moved entertainment into art and relaxation into thought. From chilling to killing, to seeing the world in newer ways that are beyond our imagination, pieced together for us by imaginative and innovative minds, cinema constantly reforms our lives into an organic whole, telling us a bit more about ourselves through reflections we find onscreen.

This attribute of cinema, to reflect us back to ourselves, glossed up or not, comforting or shattering, piercing our reality with illusions and vice versa, is probably why it continues to morph but survive through time. Because cinema influences us in more ways than we can imagine. Re-piecing another version of reality, far-removed from our psyches and showing us a perspective we wouldn’t have known otherwise, in less than 3 hours.

I suppose, the most important aspect of cinema’s agelessness is its act of preserving our history and showing us a glimpse of the future, by documenting where we come from, showcasing where we are at and hinting at where we are headed. As long as this is alive, “Aal izz well’.

First published here

Will ‘The Visit’ Help M Night Shyamalan Regain His Past Glory?

M Night Shyamalan’s set to pay us a ‘visit’ in theatres. If the trailers are anything to go by, The Visit looks far more promising than his last few films that made us all wonder – what happened to the man who gave us The Sixth Sense? It’s a question whose answer is best known to the one who churns the creative wheel up there but if he is indeed back in form, it is good news for all. Psychological thrillers with strong stories, character-centric plots and an aversion to gore and cheap scares are rare and Shyamalan, at one point, was quite a flag-bearer of the middle-range horror films that worked on their narrative strength.

M Night Shyamalan’s set to pay us a ‘visit’ in theatres. If the trailers are anything to go by, The Visit looks far more promising than his last few films that made us all wonder – what happened to the man who gave us The Sixth Sense? It’s a question whose answer is best known to the one who churns the creative wheel up there but if he is indeed back in form, it is good news for all. Psychological thrillers with strong stories, character-centric plots and an aversion to gore and cheap scares are rare and Shyamalan, at one point, was quite a flag-bearer of the middle-range horror films that worked on their narrative strength.

Shyamalan’s early life and debut is a prototype of a passionate and innately gifted film-maker. His interest in cinema rose when he was given a Super 8 camera at a very young age. The prolific kid had, by the age of 17 made close to 50 home movies and by the age of 29 debuted with The Sixth Sense, a film much loved by the audience and critics alike. This Bruce Willis starrer went onto grab 6 Oscar nominations instantly putting a young Shyamalan on the marquee for directors to watch out for.

Shyamalan’s strength has always been telling character-driven stories of flawed people confronted with supernatural phenomena. His stories look at the paranormal from a spiritual angle rather than the religious lens prevalent through the ages. It almost seems like he is trying to understand the other world through this one, through his characters and their destines, their problems, that sometimes seem trivial and simulated. In Signs, he has a troubled father, a Reverend struggling with loss of faith after the death of his wife. In The Village, inter-personal relationships are tested again. Unbreakable, perhaps is one of those few super-hero films that see the common man’s journey to super-heroism with more compassion and less bravado.

Within the paranormal activity bracket, Shyamalan has explored his craft dabbling with different genres from supernatural horror (Sixth Sense), to psychological thriller (Village) to fantasy thriller (Lady in the Water) to sci-fi adventure (Signsand After Earth). With the ‘The Visit’ he returns to tested territory of the horror film.

For all the careful characterisations and motivations, a Shyamalan film is nothing if not for the ‘surprise’- the big bang which is more like a hair-pin bend than a blast.The Visit’s twist in the plot is laid out, something is fishy with Nana and Pop Pop and we don’t know what. Young children’s lives are at stake and for their sake the mystery of mysterious grandparents has got to be solved.

Unlike most Shyamalan films, this one seems to have straight-up, scream-out-loud scares, the studied silences, the breathless suspense and the tense play of anxiety and unease seems to have been replaced by a more action-packed narrative suggesting more and sharper turns than we are used to in his films. And as some reviews suggest, it seems to be working.

Is the Manoj Night Shyamalan we used to know, back? For the sake of our ready-to-spill popcorn and Cokes, let’s hope yes.

First published here

Hamari Amrita: Poet of the Soul

Her story is a dream of the bitter-sweet passion of unrequited love, a soul-searing portrait of yearning and loss. It is also the stuff that legends are made of – everlasting love, above and beyond the humdrum of social rules. But look deeper and one finds a woman that was much much more. Born in pre-independence India to a couple who found love in a fairy tale fashion she carved her own love story into, Amrita Pritam was a woman who lived by her own rules.

Her work, drenched in her longing for love is soaked in the pain of loss that marked her journey throughout life, connecting the loss of love in Sahir and chronicling the loss of life and self-respect in Partition.

Having lost her mother at the age of nine, Amrita was brought up by her father, a fakir by nature but who remained a householder for her sake. An independent minded Amrita rejected God when he refused to answer her prayers on her mother’s death. She was growing into a wilful woman who refused to accept differential treatment of lower castes in her home. A dreamer who listened to her own drummer when she chose to accept the partnership of Imroz for 45 long years, without marriage, in a society that saw red at the prospect. And an honest and intense writer whose works evoke beauty and pain through the sheer lyricism and transparency of her soul that reflects in her words.

Born and brought up in Punjab and having seen Partition very closely, impacted her writing and sense of imminent sadness that made her write the poignant Aaj Aakhan Waris Shah Nu, a poem dedicated to Waaris Shah, the writer of the legend of Heer-Ranjha, pleading him to arise from his grave and infuse the world with love again.

Pinjar, a heart-rending rendition of a woman’s anguish, is perhaps one of the most touching and real accounts of Partition and the little spoken of collateral damage that was the female. Progressive values continued to inform her work as we see in the legitimacy she imbues in Puro’s search for freedom even as she casts a humane eye on the men, the Muslim Rashid and Puro’s estranged fiancé Ramchand.

Maybe, it was this innate understanding of love and its undefined quality that gave an impetus to her long, unrequited romance with Sahir Ludhianvi and 45 years of soul companionship with Imroz. Maybe, it was this honest acceptance of love as it is, without a need to define it, or restrict it in roles that gave her the prolificacy that saw her being feted with much-deserved national and international honours.

Sunehade (messages), her magnum opus poem, of messages she had written for Sahir won her the Sahitya Akademi Award, something she valued little because it was meant for Sahir and not the world. She details her life and love for Sahir with a frank simplicity in her autobiography Raseedi Ticket, brimming with sadness but no self-pity. She won the Bhartaiya Jnanpith Award, India’s highest literary award, for her anthology Kagaz Te Canvas (The Paper and the Canvas) in 1982 and went on to become a Rajya Sabha member in 1986. All throughout, she continued writing of love and life with an insistence, as though she couldn’t survive otherwise.

Amrita Pritam survives today in all her works as alive as her language; simple and lyrical, sad yet uplifting, honest and unpretentious, leaving us hoping the words she wrote for Imroz come true. When she writes, Main tujhe phir miloongi, suggesting the everlasting nature of soul connections, we just about nod in agreement. We would love to meet her again too, someday.

First published here

Bajrangi Bhaijaan: Subverting The Micro Narrative But What About The Macro?

I was not planning to watch Bajrangi Bhaijaan because things like, ‘Ready’, ‘Wanted’, ‘Bodyguard’ had once happened to me long back. It isn’t easy to recover from such life-changing trauma, it leaves permanent scars. But one fated day, when a group of us intellectual masturbators were sitting together late into the night, in one of our dingy hostel rooms, burning the proverbial midnight oil in massaging our brains (egos rather) discussing modern trends in (poor) Bollywood that we realised we must watch Bajrangi Bhaijaan to know more. You see, it had already been two weeks since we had been assaulted by the BB love from all quarters and it intrigued our imaginations. Next logical step was to watch it, and boy! What a show!

Within the first twenty minutes we knew this is one of the bravest films to come out of recent Bollywood. Soon we knew it was one of the cleverest. And safest too, sigh. Because what Bajrangi Bhaijaan does is subvert the micro-narrative very smartly while keeping the macro narrative untouched. Tricky but the crafty film pulls it off, combining Sallu’s star power, need for PR and the red-hot topic of religious intolerance into a cornucopia of one smartly dressed salad with hand-picked ingredients.

Let’s put this in perspective. In Bajrangi Bhaijaan, I saw an allegory of the India-Pakistan story as never told before and hence I interpret Pawan as India and Munni / Shahida as Pakistan. This is the macro story. The micro story makes Pawan the representation of the average Hindu Indian standing for all the biases we have and Shahida as the other face of Pakistan, the face we don’t acknowledge. Both these stories are of course helped immensely by key characters like Rasika, her father, Chaand Nawab, Maulviji in Pakistan and Shahida’s mother, through telling characterisations.

So a yet-to-be-born Shahida is introduced in response to nationalistic fervour. She kicks when Afridi hits a six which sets her character in context. Pakistan was born out of a nationalistic fervour too and if this fervour was then centred around religion only, now it has also cricket for company. This immediately juxtaposed with her separation from her mother, taking a leap of six years, then becomes a metaphor for the Partition; of how Pakistan went its own way and India her own; of how people of the same family / nation were separated. In this light, the fact that Shahida lives in PoK and Maulviji’s merry jests about ‘having a bit’ of Kashmir becomes a prominent motif reminding us that once, Pakistanis were our people and 60 years hence, it still isn’t easy to draw boundaries and declare them as the ‘other’.

Once this context is set, modern-day India takes over. This India isn’t bad either, nor is it the ‘other’. It is warm-hearted but close-minded. It is simple but slightly rigid, upright but caught in its own orthodoxies as presented by Pawan, the clean-hearted, straight-forward, simpleton Hanuman devotee whose religious ideas are compartmentalised. He is the ‘saviour’ Shahida’s family is wishing for her. Hindu and nationalist mythology takes over and Pawan becomes the pawan-putra, bringing Sita back home safe. Pawan also becomes the benevolent, stronger male protecting the vulnerable female. Pawan is just far more graceful and sweeter than his Gaddar counterpart once you see how the Pakistani female (and it has to be a female) has to be saved and only the Indian ‘mard’ can do so. Kabir Khan’s idea of the Indian male is, thankfully far more sensitive and temperate than Anil Sharma’s, but the patriarchal tropes of saving female honour and life linger. In a sweep, a majority of a population is satisfied because even though the film is pointing out at their flaws their religious biases, it does not attempt to shake their sense of superiority in connection with their neighbours or the second sex. It does not question the patronising, in fact it endorses it, seeming to be saying, since we are the bigger ones, let us be larger too. I am not too sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing yet because he does it so convincingly, we almost buy his humanist messages, and it really wouldn’t harm us if we put a few of them in practice, larger narrative notwithstanding.

Within the the micro narrative, however, a wonderful subversive game is played out. Pawan’s romantic partner is a broad-minded, practical Hindu. She is a believer but she is also honest enough to cut through the crap. She is more head than heart, she does not automatically become Munni’s ‘mother’ as expected but remains as Pawan’s wise advisor and strategician. This makes her secondary in importance but by attributing the virtue of reason with a woman also empowers her, something few films do. That her character is a woman may also be a certain indication of, just like the female gender, how low on power voice of sense is too.

The subversion then continues with using landscapes of both countries in a way that it is not possible to tell which is which, both are two similar, too familiar, re-emphasizing the perceived difference of the ‘us’ vs ‘them’ narrative. Hence, each one of the local Pakistani populace is moderate, humanist and reasonable. We are all humans after all, is the shout-out-loud message.

Many ‘message-driven’ films become obsessed with that single, one-line moral without bothering much with a larger philosophy, vision or means. But BB invokes mythology once again, the nation’s new-found obsession and says that the answer lies in integration. Beat Kalyug by integrating Ramayana’s morals with Mahabharata’s methods it seems to be saying and one cannot deny the merits of the proposal.

BB gets brave when it puts its hero in alien land, in the land of the ‘other’ and sees him through the eyes of the ‘other’. Pawan, a much-integrated man back home, is suddenly an odd man out in Pakistan, yet Pakistanis do not treat him differently or with suspicion (except the state machinery of course, but then that’s their job, but one that a section of the machinery even performs with integrity and without bias). Its almost like the film takes its viewer to Pakistan, puts them there with all their biases and illusions and says, ‘look, this is the real Pakistan, not the one in your head’. After all, one is one’s own self at home. In India Shahida is Munni and hence a foreigner. But in Pakistan she is Shahida, a real person and a native. We can know her only if we see her at her home and this shifting of focus from the story of the ‘self’ to the picture of the ‘other’ and using it to reference ‘self’ is a trope that turns the traditional narrative and politics on its head.

In this context then, the climax chant of Pakistanis shouting ‘Jai Sri Raam’ seems extremely out of place and especially so because there is no reciprocal gesture from the Indian side. Is it pride, insecurity or just playing safe? Irrespective of the answer, unfortunately, this smears the edges of the artfully drawn subtext, and validates the idea of the inclusive Indian Muslim ‘proving’ his loyalty to the nation despite his religion, as is asked of him often, and as several are feeling forced to abide by. In this one instance, the entire case built for respect for each others religions falls through and one just feels had this crafty film been less safer and more brave, it could have said something much important than spread the populist messages. It could have introduced a bigger idea of integration into the national psyche instead of planting benevolent solutions. Yet, there is something that tells me that the audience did not love it because it is populist, but because it is smarter than most films we get. The craftiness of the craft which recognises the hegemony and politics of the larger framework but leaves its aside and chooses to delve into its subtext to create a new one deserves respect. Just for that, populism (and Salman Khan) can be forgiven for being in the film too. 😉

An edited version first published here

English Vinglish vs Queen: The question of gaze

Sridevi couldn’t have had a better comeback film than English Vinglish. It is a much better image-reinvention film than Queen, featuring the talented Kangana Ranaut. Both these films have a woman as the protagonist and the lead actresses perform to the best of their best potential. But if you look a little closely, English Vinglish comes up a notch higher in exploring the emotional alleys of its protagonist’s journey, more empathetically than Queen. The difference lies in the films’ gaze.

In English Vinglish, Sridevi’s character is portrayed with a certain empathy, she wears a certain gravitas of self-respect despite her general diminutiveness, that encourages us to take her seriously from the very beginning. Her grace commands our attention to look beyond the surface into where there is disquiet.

Queen, on the other hand casts its protagonist into a persona rather than a person. We know and understand little of Rani, except what we can glean from her social context. We take her lightly enough for most part of the film, with more affection than admiration, playing along merrily with the misplaced antics of this lost little girl. We always see her journey through this image, never meeting her inner world. But in EV, Gauri casts a thoughtful eye on what it means to be a woman and through that we understand Shashi’s outer and inner journey. She strikes us as a real person, an individual. Rani, on other hand amuses us as a prototype.

Rani’s challenge of overcoming heartbreak is a typically universal crisis, unlike Shashi’s, whose situation is very individualistic. The pain of loss and rejection unfortunately stays an archetype in Rani, as we never really know what it means to her to have had her heart broken. On the other hand, we understand very well what lack of English language skills mean to Shashi. This perspective informs our relationship with their journey and while we cheer for both with equal enthusiasm, we are able to appreciate Shashi’s victories better than Rani’s triumphs. How can we not, when the first time we see Rani break down in the face of her trauma is through a mock-treatment, whereas Shashi’s weakest moment is a searing portrait of the woman’s pain.

Both women are struggling to attain self-assurance against the male, the hegemonic ‘other’. Both suffer from lack of respect from their partners. Their journeys cannot be fully understood without the male and in EV, as much as Shashi’s character is layered, so is her husband’s. But in Queen, Vijay is as opaque as Rani. They do not become people in our eyes and hence their relationship doesn’t resonate with vibrance. It appears to though, because it strikes the right notes, but those notes are too derived from a type.

Both women are breaking free of societal impositions and self imposed limitations. While the triumphs of both are equally heart-warming, Shashi’s victory has a largesse of spiritual growth about it, reflected in her contentment. While Rani’s is limited to the emotional growth reflected in her confidence. For one, it is about closure, for the other, it’s about new beginnings. Maybe, that’s why Shashi’s journey unravels like an emotional roller-coaster while Rani’s story unfolds like an adventure trip. It’s all about the gaze.
Which is more appealing is a rather subjective matter, but what remains with us is the gaze. Maybe that needs a little shifting, perhaps.

First published here

Movie Recco : Avinash Arun’s Killa – Taking the plunge

Five boys in their pre-teens, hailing from a small-town in Maharashtra, each knowing the loss of a dear one, jump into a lake from a height in the total abandon of childhood’s innocence. The protagonist is the last to jump; he hesitates and then takes the plunge. For me, that was the defining moment of Avinash Arun’s debut film Killa.

Cinema world-over, is moving towards telling big stories of small people. While we continue to have (and be mesmerised) by our Interstellars and Mad Max’, we are also rejoicing in looking deeper into the souls of the commoner through the canvas of everyday life. Iranian cinema, arguably, showed the world the way, and in India, it is Marathi cinema, among other language films, which has moved the cinematic zeitgeist inwards. Little people, little moments and large stories. Not larger-than-life; very common, very grounded, very real and because of this, large. Especially gratifying is the fact that the child as the protagonist is finally here. Our lenses have finally found his story worth telling. His world is being looked into, explored, understood and loved, a practice that has always been at the periphery in our cinema. Vihir, Shwaas, Tingya, Shala, Fandry…the list keeps increasing. And now Killa.

In Killa, Avinash delves into small-town life and his own personal memories of childhood, and paints a moving and heart-warming picture of learning to fight one’s battles with life. It is the journey of a boy still grappling with the death of his father that happened two years back, and the constant change of environment that has followed. It is the story of his mother, a single woman, gritty and upright, determined to ensure she is now the father and mother to her only son. It is the story of courage to break away from the past and it is a story of love, loyalty and trust. But most importantly, and which is why it is more beautiful, it is the story of taking the plunge. And thus, finding the light at the end of the tunnel. In Killa’s case, the cave.

“I think we have forgotten the life, the buildings, and the streets we used to have not so long ago.” Miyazaki said this about Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi. Killa, in more ways then one way, pays homage to a kind of childhood fast disappearing and one many of us have never even known. Yet, its emotional tone resonates universally, drawing in even those unfamiliar with the social landscape of the film. An intensely personal film, it is life experienced through the eyes of a sensitive, lonely, fatherless, pre-teen boy. Moving from town to town due to his mother’s transferable job, he pines for putting down roots, for friends he can grow up with and for his dead father. His mother is trying her best to be both the parents for him, stretching to breaking point to ensure him his due upbringing. It is with a humane eye that Avinash sees the single woman’s struggle, also reflected in the elderly neighbour. Both women develop a bond of mutual respect, an intuitive sign of recognition when one kind, strong soul meets another. The women are lonely too and they are fighting it. Loneliness is the vast canvas Avinash paints his story on because little Chinmay has to break free of this very loneliness and find hope.

Killa, the central motif of the film then becomes the symbol of Chinu’s inner one, the fort of loneliness and mistrust he is caught in. His search for the exit from the fort becomes a beautiful metaphor of his efforts to get rid of the loneliness. And when he emerges into the sunshine he finds hope and trust, literally and figuratively. On the face of it, it is a simple film with a linear narrative, a well-used form. Couched within is a multi-layered narrative of an inner struggle, the experience of which is evoked rather than told. A complete freedom from the need of dramatic tension yet letting the story find its own resolution is evident in the way it unfolds and in certain ways, it is a liberating experience; to co-opt a 3 Act structure and do away with dramatic turning points yet end with confidence, is in my eyes, quite an achievement.

The visual imagery of the film and its soundscape resonates with the simplicity of verdant, small-town life and a child’s inner tenderness. The spaces Avinash uses make up Chinnu’s external and internal world which we experience through the different locales, his home, school, bridge, fort, cave…The visuals are beautiful without being imposing or picture postcard perfect and the staging is natural, keeping the film moving with a steady rhythm of life instead of depending on the artifice of drama. Avinash also handles the small class-room dramas, especially the weaves of inter-personal relationships between children as peers with a certain tenderness and an understanding of the fragility of their world. The performances extracted out of the children are warmly naturalistic endearing each one of us with their quirks and innocence. We see them as children are, vulnerable and stubborn, inexperienced and wise. Perhaps, the biggest victory of the film is bringing to us the ‘cleanness’ of children…something that permeates into the entire experience of it.

Ingmar Bergman said ‘No art passes our conscience in the way film does, and goes directly to our feelings, deep down into the dark rooms of our souls.’ Killa does that in its own unassuming way, going directly to our feelings and deep down into the dark room of our souls and lighting it up a bit.

First published in the Lensight Feb 2015 issue.

Also published at here

Bombay Velvet Music – Let the trumpets and trombones lull me to sleep

Disclaimer – This is not a music review. Just rambles. Just my experience of it.

Back in 2009 when Dev D music hit the market it hit me (and many of us) like a thunderbolt. I drew everyone around mad by listening to it like my life (and theirs) depended on it. The things it did to me, the things it evoked, the things it made me want to do – it was these unexplainable things that make the album unforgettable to me even today. And now it’s Bombay Velvet songs that are doing unthinkable things to me. Maybe its just me, but I thought it warranted an un-review, its too good for anything else.

I’ve been listening to Bombay Velvet songs, on loop since it came out. At first, I couldn’t differentiate one song from another except maybe Sylvia and Darbaan and the remaining 12 merged into one another like milk and water. Give it all to my complete ignorance of the jazz music harmony but I’ve never been the one to listen to music with anything but my heart. I connected to hard rock the same way, till date I don’t know anything about yet I love it because it speaks to me in ways nothing else does and I respond like I never knew I could. Bombay Velvet’s retro-jazz does something similar to me.

Is it the haunting darkness of it? The style, the retro-style which is very modern at the same time. Or the upbeatness of the track covering up the darkness? Every song reminds me of a lot of things, songs, references but when I try to pick one I can’t. The song suddenly gains a credential, an identity of its own. Which is when I realise how homogenous is Trivedi’s mixing of a multitude of elements, moods, strains into something with its own uniqueness.

It’s an album that is a visceral experience of ethos of the 60’s Mumbai, steeped in its still predominant Anglo-Indian culture that continued to give shape to the idiom of modernity in society and our films of those times. We may also call it neo-colonialism. And there are three things that when combined have created magic in the past as well. The resident Kashyap quirk, dystopia and desperation. The typical Trivedi touch of using prevalent sounds in new ways and hence fucking up mainstream music once again. And the staple Bhattacharya habit of taking us to newer worlds within amidst the commonest of commonalities.

Darbaan – Papon’s honey-soaked voice over uncluttered, single or two instruments only music track. Love the way the words melt into each other.

Baadshah sadko ka tu, sadke hi teri taqdeer hain,

daakhila oonche makaanon mein kuchh thekedaaron ki jaageer hain.

Somehow, this refuses to leave me. It touches a little more, just a little than how much it is meant to and I am wondering if it’s the Papon-effect or the words or the sweeping, swaying nature of the tune. It’s got the ‘Hain apna dil toh awara’ abandon, the gypsy-fakir tone but with a disheartened voice. Also, it seems like it’s a 3rd person pov, commenting on the protagonist or the Everyman as we may want to see it, and that gives it one of those singing fakir kinda moods, which is what I love.

In the seductive and tempting mode, a male version of this is super interesting, such moral kind of songs are generally sung by women in films – the upholder of all things virtuous.

The Bombay Velvet Theme – Rarely do I listen to themes, I enjoy them while watching the film but hardly ever take them back home. Except the BV theme. I’ve been imagining Amitabh type swashbuckling fights over it, Humphrey Bogart-Cary Grant type chase sequences, Baz Luhrman type grand bars and ballrooms with a sweep of darkness, intrigue and debauchery. It’s what film theme music used to be back in the 60’s thrillers. Grand, sweeping, moody, dark. It literally takes me back to the 60’s, without any help of visuals. And I am already loving what it is making me expect from the film which I shouldn’t be doing. Let’s stop here.

P.S.: Take a bike ride while listening to it, Especially ghats. You won’t regret it.

Aam Hindustani – I was tickled no end when I first heard this –

Roothi hain mehbooba, roothi roothi sharab hain,

Aam Hindustani teri kismet kharaab hain!”

*insert rolling on the floor and laughing my ass off smiley here*

Oh but it doesn’t end there!

‘Pyaar mein thenga, bar mein thenga,

Inki botal bhi goronki gulaam hain’.

Whoa! And I love the slightly scathing tone Shefali Alvares has sung it in. Of course, what else would do justice to this! But I’m thinking about the very idea of having a scathing song at all to mock the guy. Back in the 50’s and 60’s our filmy women, even in bars, only sang encouraging songs (Tadbeer se bigdi hui) or teasing ones (Babuji Dheere Chalna) to the man. Interesting subversion I really wanna know more about from the film.

Circus music! I laughed when I read this description of the unconventionally long prelude. Coz by then I had already started tripping on the soundtrack ‘like crazy’. The waltzy-jive feel is too good to ignore, feet begin tapping on their own. And then follows a sweet la la la and bang! There is that Trivedi whiplash – it is followed with a curt, snide ‘Dhobi ka kutta kaisa ghaat na gharka!’ in Shefali Alvares’ boisterous and refreshingly uninhibited vocals and you’re like ‘whaaaaa…’? . This is Bhattacharya in ‘paan mein pudhina’ zone 😛 full on quirk!

Lalach ne tujhko aisi patti padhayi

Khwahish huyi hain degchi, khadai

Taqdeer teri abhi bhi chamach hain!”

In lesser hands this would have become ‘tujhko mirchi lagi toh main kya karoon’.

There are so many turns of the tune, dramatic ones that I wonder how the song has been used / picturised. Hide-n-seek, chase, robbery, in bits, in parts, in whole? Phew!

Behroopia – Of shadows, of doubts, of lies and half-hidden truths, mysteries and the subtle threat of it all…This is the wine of the album for me. Classy, seductive, romantic, moody, dark, a slow high. The fabulous trumpet giving way to almost minimalist vocals and that giving way to a full-blown orchestra is a transition I can’t get over right now. Between this, Darbaan and Sylvia what would I choose as the best? I’m still trying to figure out. And after Rockstar, in my imagination, Mohit Chauhan is to Ranbeer what Balasubraniam was to Salman at one point 😛

Dhadaam Dhadaam – This one is ‘Duniya’ level good. The operatic touch gives it that grandness of lost passions, a passion critical and deadly at the same time. Throughout the album Bhattacharya uses words we used to use in cinema back in time, but don’t anymore like ‘malaal’, ‘sehra’, ‘gila’, ‘daga’, (the Urdu influence fast disappearing from our films and lives today but immersive back then). This infuses a refreshing old-world-ness to the song only to be taken down with a dhadaam, literally! Someone, once said, everything that had to be discovered has been discovered, now we just create newer meanings and expressions by playing around with those discoveries. And AB puts a very quirky and unpoetic ‘Dhadaam’ bang in the middle of light and beautiful Urdu. The effect.

Ka Kha Ga – The fabulous trumpet makes an appearance again, with a band taking over. And then a seductive, drunk ‘Ay’. Geeta Dutt would have been so happy! This one I love singing! And I do, chilla chillake. (The corridors at Girls Hostel echo, all the more joy :P)

Naak Pe Gussa – Here’s my ‘Tadbeerse Bigdi Hui’ but as modern as it could get! Bhattacharya’s choice of words is so mellifluous, it’s a delicious thing to keep listening to. Teasing, warm, naughty, and one of those rare happy songs in the album. And it sounds like it has been literally sung with a smile on! (Like one feels about Ashatai’s songs!)

Sylvia – This is the true-blue retro song of the album, lovingly and truthfully recreating the O.P Nayyar-verse.

“Bhavra tha sayana, mukar hi gaya na,

Rusvayi reh gayi, (Oh ‘rusvayi’!)

Ghosla suhana, ujad hi gaya na,

Tanhai reh gayi

Tanhai…

Aankh ke surme ko daag banaya,

Kaanch ke aashiyan ko phook jalaya

Fitrat mein hi thi bewafai

Tu pyaar pe tohmat chhod gayi

Yeh kya kiya Sylvia !”

Rusvayi, aashiyaan, fitrat, tohmat haye!

Mohabbat Buri Beemaari – I’m not much of a fan of this, something is very laboured about it…something isn’t right and I can’t put my finger on it yet. I’ve simply stopped listening to it.

(Sylvia is playing right now. And yet again I am giving myself up to it. My first favourite of the album, its retro-ness calling out to those long-lost childhood memories. Growing up on O.P.Nayyar in a family that hailed him as a path-breaking musician when he was somewhat of an outcast in the mainstream more Indian-classical-is-music-alone world, the quality of his songs and sounds make me smile even today.(really wanna know if it’s a conscious hat-tip). There is something searing in the rendition and the use of march rhythmic chorus to underline that entire effect wanting to overpower…well, succeeded there!)

Shut Up – Drum rolls!!! Drum beats now, foot-tapping, jubilant trumpets and others follow. All upbeat and celebratory. And when things are about to settle down, Trivedi throws a spanner in the works. And then the song starts. Then you realise the effect this juxtaposition has on the expectation of the opening and the surprise in what follows.

Aisi kya, aisi kya, aisi kya bhookh hain…The first time I heard this I tripped on how the use of repetition fits in so beautifully! And lately I’ve been noticing how ‘harqatein’ almost sounds like ‘harqutein’ and suddenly it gains more quirk. Remember ‘sufed’?

And the merging of light, lilting, Urdu words with a crude ‘Shut Up!’ Why isn’t this today’s ‘Emotional Atyachaar’ of the youth yet?

Conspiracy – ‘Conspiracy’ is so well-named! And Trivedi plays with extremes once again, kabhi silent, kabhi ceiling-crashing, extremes – tempo mein, scale mein, aur emotion mein. Leaves me a little breathless every time I listen to it. And I love that feeling of anticipation as the music keeps picking up scale only to peter out, without any fulfilment, without any answers…letting a dullness set in that’s ‘safer’.

Out of 15 tracks, 12 are with vocals. Out of the 12, 11 are romantic songs. Only one is about the overarching ambitions of the protagonist, the central conceit of the film. Let’s see how the film treats the music and vice-versa.

For now, let the trumpets and trombones lull me to sleep, like they are used to by now. I wonder which one of these I will wake up singing tomorrow morning! Will let you know 🙂

First published here

Film Review – Njan Steve Lopez

The crucial thing is to find a truth which is truth for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die” Søren Kierkegaard

I begin with Kierkegaard because Rajeev Ravi begins with Camus. “Every act of rebellion expresses a nostalgia for innocence”, his title slate declares. But before that we get a hint about the road the film might take from the title, ‘Njan Steve Lopez.’ I am Steve Lopez.

Steve Lopez is your regular, middle-class, Malayali college-going youngster of Trivandrum, used to singing songs of innocence. Angst and truth do not bother him, he not escaping nor seeking either. His angst limits itself to communicating his love for his childhood crush Anjali (Ahaana Krishna) and displaying mild abrasiveness to his aged grandfather. Anjali returns his affections and the grandfather isn’t a much of a threat yet Steve finds life boring, a mark of a mind seeking something more, finding it in temporary erotic pleasure by peeping at neighbourhood women from his bathroom window and then, well, moving on. As Camus said in The Plague, “The truth is that everyone is bored, and devotes himself to cultivating habits.” Back to boredeom.

Minutes into the film we realise Steve is an onlooker, a spectator of life as it passes by. He doesn’t seem too keen on engaging with it but he does seem to be nursing a placid wish to understand it, even if it is from the fringes. Farhaan Faasil’s big clear eyes and soft looks reflect a certain innocence as did Fahaad Faasil in Rajeev’s debut, ‘Annayum Rasoolum’, help him incredibly in this task. Son of a DYSP who is also a protective father, Steve, by the looks of it seems to fall in that category of dreamy youth who, wasting away, remain lost in their own self-doubts. Hanging onto the fringes of life they keep drifting, out of touch within and without.

But Steve springs to life one day, when a random accident involving a daylight murder leaves a man bleeding to death in front of him. He rushes the man to the hospital only to be admonished by his father later. Clearly, there is a gangwar on and he doesn’t wish his son to be involved in it. Steve doesn’t see the logic but takes his father’s reprimands silently. As though he is trying to understand this part of life as well.

However, Steve decides to punctuate his silences with uncomfortable questions revolving around the culprit Hari. Questions his father and his subordinate do not wish to entertain. Questions that won’t let Steve be in peace. Gnawed by the need to know, he sets out on his own search for tenuous truth. He could just as well have been Sisyphus. Intuitively then, Ravi weaves the web of humanism across all the characters of the film, binding Steve and Hari together with one simple device, both their lady-loves are called Anjali. Hari is nothing like Steve but to Steve, Hari and he don’t seem much different. With this leit motif of the name, it’s almost like Ravi is nudging us to look closer at our own selves, and around; at others whose essence we share…

Njan Steve Lopez must probably be the simplest and least dramatic tale of existential angst ever told. Of course, it is sentimental using music, slow-motion, poetry at is evocative best. But in the sum of it, it is the internal world of Steve that it urges us to explore, a world that isn’t dramatised by form or style, simply reflected in his persona. A world built for us through a linear narrative, one that is as simple and straightforward as the milieu it belongs to, a mileu Ravi knows as well as he does his protagonist. Steve is quite a template character for the theme – sober, moody, innocent, aloof, reserved and prone to pathos. Yet, Rajeev Ravi paints him intuitively, almost seeming to know the next flick of his hair or twitch of an eye before it will happen. And because Ravi seems to know him so well Farhaan portrays him with more sincerity than sheer talent. And this sincerity is spread across the canvas, across the various actors fresh and experienced. Performances are given to a certain amateurishness and direction seems to be a little raw, something that one did not see a glimpse of in Ravi’s refreshing debut, ‘Annayum Rasoolum’, a Mani Rathnam-ish love story of common people busy loving each other the very common way, who find themselves caught in the web of ganglords and crime. However, Njan Steve Lopez is a more personal story, individuated by the search of this young man for truth and his inevitable coming-of-age. It’s a loaded theme, told subtly, even ponderously, something like Udaan what did, and that precisely draws us in, the deceptive simplicity. There is less deftness of skill but more depth of thought, there is less brilliance of craft but more heart and that is heartening for those whom linearity doesn’t appear as simple-minded. Unfortunately, the sensitivity of Steve’s search and the gentle, even motherly manner with which the film looks at him isn’t nurtured into a fully-formed film to give us something we may call satisfying cinema because of a certain hesitation in direction and performances that tags along throughout. There are times when the sincerity and good intentions alone aren’t enough.

Yet, the film appeals due to its personal nature and maybe that is due to the authenticity of the milieu Ravi creates. The middle class Malayalis of Trivandrum that the film is populated with, with their earthy ambitions and homely habits, cloistered morals and systemic conformation. People who have the ringtone of their phone set to the song in which their beloved’s name appears. People who admonish but take care of each other. People who seem very very real. (However, some of my Malayali friends from the region have bemoaned the fact of unripe accents of the actors mar the authenticity of the film.) Going by his two films, Rajeev Ravi, the film-maker, seems to be drawn to small, individual stories that is punctuated by an ethos and operate in a specific socio-politico-economic environment. Like in ‘Annayum Rasoolum’, he is happy speaking of and to a niche audience one that he knows very well. And maybe, because of this very choice Steve’s dilemmas are more palpable to us than they would have been in a universalised, sterile, lowest common denominator type of palette we are used to. Small town stories, regional stories, stories of India’s very common people, if we won’t tell them who will?

How one acts is, from the ethical perspective, more important than any matter of fact, truth is to be found in subjectivity rather than objectivity.” Kierkegaard’s subjective truth becomes Steve’s and in a metafictive universe seems like it is Rajeev’s own aim too.

First published here