Wednesday, March 25, 2015

In praise of Gulzar

[This is the last of my fortnightly columns for Business Standard Weekend. Have written that column for over 10 years and I will miss it, but it was time to move on. Will continue to do the occasional standalone piece for BSW though] 
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I am not easily star-struck, or daunted by the physical proximity of a great achiever, even when it’s someone I admire – yet there I was at the India Habitat Centre last week, moderating an event for the Penguin Spring Fever festival, when a part of me froze. Like a beam of light shooting through mist, this thought had leapt into my head: “The man sitting next to me has worked closely with Bimal Royand with Anurag Kashyap. He composed a gentle, meditative song for a classic like Bandini more than 50 years ago, but also won an Oscar for an exuberant number in a 2009 film.”

For an amateur film historian, it’s a staggering thought. The period mentioned above covers close to 75 percent of the history of sound cinema in this country, and Gulzar saab has not just been there through it, he has shaped a great deal of it with his own sensibility. As songwriter and occasionally dialogue-writer, he has made vital contributions to the work of Roy and Kashyap and dozens of directors in between, informing the mood of so many key films…and this in addition to helming many fine movies of his own.

Most remarkably, he has reinvented himself along the way. If Gulzar had retired from films at the end of the 1980s – the decade that marked the twilight of the beloved “middle cinema” epitomised by him, Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Basu Chatterji – his legacy would still have been a solid, secure one. Instead, as Hindi cinema began to shift towards the edgier, more globalised forms of expression that would mark the multiplex era, he found fresh inspiration through his collaborations with Vishal Bhardwaj (who went from composing for Gulzar’s film Maachis to becoming a celebrated director in his own right) and AR Rahman. Despite having himself been weaned on relatively straightforward narrative-driven cinema, he has relished the chance to work on formally unusual movies such as No Smoking, Matru ki Bijli ka Mandola and Jhoom Barabar Jhoom, inspiring a new generation of fans along the way.

The IHC amphitheatre last week seemed overrun by these young fans (the average age of the large audience couldn’t have been more than 30-35 years), but the man in the spotlight may have been the most young-at-heart person in attendance. It’s worth remembering that Gulzar has always had a naughty streak that belies the image of the venerable poet unvaryingly dressed in white kurta-pyjama. One of his notable qualities – a rare one for a man who, by his own admission, came to cinema from the world of serious literature – has been his ability to switch, seamlessly and often within the same stanza, between the soulful and the flippant. When he was a young man, his use of unusual metaphors often confounded purists: what is this aankhon ki mahekti khushboo, Rahi Masoom Raza once asked him, referring to a lyric from the film Khamoshi. “How can an eye have fragrance?”

As early as the mid-1960s, he was using apparently discordant English words to fine effect in Hindi songs: in a musical scene in the lovely 1965 comedy Biwi aur Makaan, Keshto Mukherjee and Biswajit – pretending to be women and slowly becoming sensitive to the travails of their adopted sex – lament while washing clothes, “Roz yeh naatak, roz yeh makeup […] Pehle pant-coat dhota tha, ab petticoat dhoti hoon.” Forty years later, as my friend Uday Bhatia writes in this excellent piece, young fans were still finding it counter-intuitive that a poet of Gulzar’s pedigree would use the line “personal se sawaal karte hain” in “Kajara Re”.


But then the legend himself is not conservative in the way that some of his fans are. Unlike them, he has little time for the rose-tinted notion that the past was always a better place than the present, that the films and music of today represent a degradation. Kashyap’s very abstract No Smoking, which he worked on in 2007, was the high watermark of his achievement as a poet-lyricist, he told me before his session – even though he originally had a hard time understanding the concept of the film. And he spoke approvingly of the high standards of professionalism in today’s film industry – it being a time of bound scripts (usually unheard of in the 1970s) and more attention to detail in areas such as production design and research.

With the nature of the musical sequence in Hindi cinema having undergone changes, lyric-writing has become more challenging – and invigorating – for him. In a 70s film like Aandhi, Gulzar could use exalted language for the songs, having the characters sing “Tum aa gaye ho, noor aa gaya hai / Nahin toh chiraagon se lau jaa rahi thi” – lines that the same characters would certainly not have used in the “prose” segments of the film, where their dialogue would be more casual and everyday. It was understood at the time that a song marked a break in narrative space and logic.

In contemporary cinema though, there is more self-consciousness about the need to “realistically” integrate songs with narrative: they are either used as an accompaniment to the soundtrack, with the actors not lip-synching to the words, or when they are sung on screen, the idea is to be authentic. So when a gangster sings in Satya, the words – “Goli maar bheje mein” – should match his speech elsewhere in the film. The item song “Beedi Jalayele” (Omkara) is raunchy and suggestive, but that’s because the priority is to be truthful to the rustic setting. How would these people express themselves in this situation? What Gulzar saab has been doing in his recent work is to catch such truths and still make lasting poetry out of them. I hope he continues for many more years.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Reflections on cinephilia

“I am no longer so hung up on the idea that a film should be consistently excellent from beginning to end; I have more time now for brilliant scenes or 'moments' within a generally uneven or even mediocre film. And I am unashamed to admit that quite often, instead of watching a favourite old film from start to finish, I watch just a few favourite scenes that I find stimulating. (Perhaps this is natural as one grows older and becomes more conscious of how short life is.)”

The online journal Projectorhead asked me to participate in a survey that “tries to construct a cohesive response to global cinema and cinephilia during the year”. With the disclaimer that I don’t watch as much of contemporary international cinema as I should, here are my responses to their questions.


(Note: the films listed in answer b include some I had watched years ago but only had a dim memory of.)

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Yuppies and cavemen: NH10 as a thriller about contrasts

[Did this piece for the Daily O]

“So close to civilization is the cave,” Roger Ebert wrote in his passionate review of Luis Bunuel’s film The Exterminating Angel. (He was describing the scene where three sheep – having strayed into a room full of agitated socialites – are cooked on a fire made from expensive furniture.) I loved that piece when I first read it nearly 20 years ago, and I remembered the line again while watching Navdeep Singh’s tense thriller NH10, in which two sheltered Delhi yuppies – Meera (Anushka Sharma) and Arjun (Neil Bhoopalam) – find themselves in the Haryana hinterland a few miles beyond the National Capital Region, witnesses to a brutal “honour killing”, and then stalked by a gang of rough-spoken, homicidal men.

The short walk (or drive) between civilisation and the jungle, and how easy it is to cross over in either direction, is a clear subject of this film. Yet I also felt that on some level NH10 invites us to consider what words like “civilized” and “savage”, “sophisticated” and “crude”, really mean, and how they can bleed into each other.

Singh’s long-overdue second film – which lived up to the expectations I had after his wonderful debut Manorama Six Feet Under nearly eight years ago – is, first and foremost, a tightly constructed genre movie, an exercise in suspense. The immediacy of the experience – being glued to the screen, holding your breath, forgetting to pick up your cold coffee, wondering if it was a good or a bad idea for this film to have an Intermission (the break provides a needed breather, but it also has the effect of toning down the intensity) – precedes everything else.


And only then, after exiting the hall and collecting one’s thoughts, does one reflect on the deeper issues being dealt with here: about the many faces and inner contradictions of a society heaving between old and new ways of life. Where a woman may have a high-paying job in a posh, gated office complex, but may still be encouraged to carry a weapon for her safety, and to anticipate and be “responsible” for other people’s criminal impulses (“Gurgaon badhta bachcha hai, toh gun mujhe hee lena hoga,” Meera says drily) – because the police can do only so much to help, and they would rather she didn’t travel alone anyway, it makes their job more difficult. (Besides, the idea of a woman driving by herself late at night discomfits them at a more primal level. Cops don’t emerge from thin air, as someone points out, they come from society and are very much part of it.) It's a world where elegantly dressed, well-spoken male colleagues may listen attentively to her presentation, but later rib her about the boss making special concessions for a woman.

This film is about other divides too, such as the big difference between a defiant but safe gesture (wiping off a sexist pejorative that has been scribbled on a bathroom door) and taking real action in the face of terrifying aggression. And it is, in a notable way, about the difference between being rooted, versus being adrift or cut off. NH10 bears a slight structural resemblance to Tobe Hooper’s cult classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre – which also had innocents being stalked through a forest-like setting by unspeakable evil – but there is a subtler link between the two films. In the 1974 movie, a group of teenagers, having moved far outside their comfort zone, fall afoul of what is eventually revealed to be a
family of cannibals. A key word in that description may be “family” – these are the primitive monsters, sure (just as the “honour-killers” are the clear bad guys in NH10), but they are also quaintly tradition-bound and rule-abiding; they live in a big house in the fashion of a joint family (with the repulsive Leatherface putting on an apron and playing the “woman’s” role at dinnertime). And one reason why they are so successful at the hunt is that they are united and organised, while their terrified prey is scattered to the winds. The family that slays together stays together.

In NH10, Meera and Arjun, after they get off the main highway, are alone in the wilderness, then gradually stripped of things they have taken for granted – cellphone, wallet, car. And this is especially scary because we already know that they are used to being in their private bubbles. The film’s opening-credit sequence has views of nighttime Delhi and Gurgaon, seen through the windows of their car, and we hear the murmurs of the lovebirds drifting in and out of the background music. When the credits end and we see them for the first time, it is in tight close-ups and they are now in an elevator leading to a friend’s apartment party. (The scene is a romantic one, centred on flirting and dirty talk, but there is something sinister and stifling about how it is composed.) Their inter-caste relationship is, of course, presented as a progressive contrast to the insular lives of the Haryanvi villagers – but Meera and Arjun are insular in their own ways, and seem cut off from a larger sense of family and community. (We don’t hear anything about their parents, apart from a very brief phone chat Meera has with her mother, which she hurriedly ends because the battery is low, or because she wants to have a quick smoke in the toilet).

In contrast, the bad guys of NH10 have a more sharply defined sense of family values than the heroes do – even if those “values” allow a man to murder his sister for breaking the “code”. The rustic setting that Meera and Arjun stumble into is a big, monstrous joint family in a way; a world where there can be no secrets, no privacy,
where everyone knows what everyone else is up to, and is more than willing to hold the fort against outsiders. And here are our hero and heroine, unaware even of their family caste, accustomed to booking a private villa for themselves whenever they want a getaway, and thoroughly ill-equipped to deal with such a place. The film is about what might happen when these two very different worlds collide for any length of time in a situation of extreme stress and emotion. What happens when the bubble bursts, so to speak? (A very early scene, when the window of Meera’s car – or cocoon – is smashed, comes as a shock to the system. It also prepares the ground for bigger horrors to follow.)

Just to repeat, NH10 doesn’t pedantically underline any of these things. I can already imagine ideology-driven critiques that come down on it for making a woman “win” by resorting to vicious male violence, or perhaps for encouraging a multiplex viewer to sweepingly judge “those savage Haryana types”. But the specific situation shown here involves a game of survival where anything goes, and where moralizing or philosophizing is a luxury the characters can’t afford. At the very end, where another film might have engaged in some gyaan-dispensing about the sickness in our society, this one leaves us with a single desolate line, spoken first by one person and then echoed by another. “Jo karna tha, kar liya.” No quarter is given. This has been a clash of civilizations, but the victory won at the end is a shallow, Pyrrhic one. At a time when so many movies are about affirmation – providing views of the world as it should be rather than as it is – this one uses genre tropes (from horror, suspense, even the road movie) to mask the fact that it is one of the bleakest, most nihilistic depictions of our social framework.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Step across this line: on Kiran Nagarkar’s controversial Bedtime Story

[Did a version of this piece – about Kiran Nagarkar's new book, which collects his play Bedtime Story and the screenplay “Black Tulip” – for Open magazine]
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In the opening scene of Kiran Nagarkar’s trenchant play Bedtime Story – written in Marathi in the mid-1970s, heavily censored, attacked by fundamentalist Hindu organisations, staged by small, experimental theatre groups in the 90s, and now in print for the first time in the author’s English translation – the Chorus talks about “distance” being important in theatre. “Nobody claims that the audience is either responsible for or conniving at what happens on the stage,” says this sutradhaar, apparently pleading the case for convention, and insisting that nothing “unexpected, shocking or exceptional” will happen. “We on the stage are the actors. Our business is to perform a play. You are the audience.”

Yet we can guess that all this is tongue in cheek. Stage directions have already informed us that as the Chorus speaks these anodyne words, he is sitting on a swing at the very edge of the stage; midway through his monologue, he starts swinging above the heads of the viewers in the front rows, while a group of Hell’s Angels-like interlopers stalk the aisles carrying chains and machine guns, to ensure that the play won’t be shut down by protestors. So much for distance. So much for the supposedly hallowed line between performer and audience – the line that allows viewers to temporarily bristle with indignation while watching a narrative about injustice but to feel at a safe remove from what is being shown. In this play, which subverts episodes from the great epic Mahabharata to make its angry points about discrimination, everyone will be implicated.

Apathy is a subject of Bedtime Story – written shortly after Nagarkar found his own political conscience awakened by global events in the 1960s and 70s – and as he points out in his introduction in this new book (which also includes a screenplay titled “Black Tulip”), it would become a recurring theme in his writing. “What’s the use of keeping a tongue in your head if it doesn’t do its work when required?” asks the Chorus in Bedtime Story. The play will later imply that it is possible to feel sympathy and outrage on behalf of an Anne Frank – to make her the poster girl for a cause – while still in the long run siding with the Nazis. And that those who look away from wrongs which don’t directly affect them may end up in a gas chamber of their own making.

****

With all the anecdotes about the stir created by Bedtime Story in the late 70s and early 80s, about private readings held in cultural circles, the play has acquired near-mythical status. None of its visceral power has faded, though it appears in print at a time when epic retellings of all stripes – banal, hard-hitting, predictable, revisionist – have become a subgenre of Indian English publishing. Nagarkar intersperses his retellings of Mahabharata stories – such as Dronacharya’s attempt to ensure that the tribal archer Ekalavya doesn’t surpass his prize student, the pampered prince Arjuna, or the comical misunderstanding that results in Draupadi marrying all five Pandavas – with vignettes set in contemporary times. So a modern-day Arjun, a medical student, is hunted by the incensed male members of his girlfriend’s family, but when they see a lower-caste man with him they forget all about their original quarry (much as one suspects that the Pandavas and Kauravas would temporarily have set their differences aside if confronted by Ekalavya’s tribe). A young widow in East Pakistan is raped, first by Pakistani and then by Indian soldiers. Another young widow tries to spearhead a corporate power struggle. And the Mahabharata narrative itself ends with God begging for release from the world – but not before He has been cuttingly rebuked by Draupadi, the woman he smugly attempts to “save”.

Nagarkar writes that he intended “no overt messages and no preaching. If there was anything worthwhile in what I had to say, it would come through far more potently like a slow-release drug over weeks and months”. As a reader in 2015, with no immediate experience of the climate in which the play was first written and performed, I’m not so sure about this. Bedtime Story is not heavy-handed, but I saw it as a clearly political work that wears its concerns on its sleeve, and makes sharp use of irony and sarcasm. (“We are princes,” Arjuna tells Ekalavya, “This kingdom is ours. Its people are ours. Geography is ours. History is ours. The air is ours. You are ours.”) In this, and in its repeated shattering of the Fourth Wall to discomfit the viewer, it belongs to a tradition of radical theatre and cinema movements of protest in the 1970s and 80s, which includes the work of Vijay Tendulkar, Mahesh Elkunchwar, Saeed Mirza, Mrinal Sen and Govind Nihalani among 
others.

Nihalani’s film version of Elkunchwar’s play Party closes with a murdered activist, his tongue cut out, appearing in the nightmare of a complacent poet – the ghost staggers towards the camera as blood flows from his mouth. Mirza’s Arvind Desai ki Ajeeb Dastaan, about a poor little rich boy, sensitive but too passive to take a stand against his own class, ends with exploited carpet-makers staring at us accusingly. And it’s just possible that Bedtime Story may have provided some inspiration to a cult black comedy that was, in its own way, a cry against the hegemony of the powerful. Fans of Kundan Shah’s 1983 Jaane bhi do Yaaro (which, like Party and Arvind Desai, had a final shot that broke the wall between character and viewer) will recall one of the most guffaw-inducing lines from that film’s climactic scene, a Mahabharata stage performance gone madly wrong: a villain dressed up as the Pandava Bheema says “Draupadi tere akele ki nahin hai. Hum sab shareholder hain.” (“Draupadi isn’t yours alone. We are all shareholders.”) Now look at this line from one of the sharpest scenes in Bedtime Story: “We are all partners,” say the Pandavas when the possibility of all of them wedding the beautiful princess arises, “and Draupadi is our capital.”

There are other ways in which this play keeps the audience constantly aware that they are watching a performance, not allowing them the comfort of full absorption. Like Peter Brook’s and Jean-Claude Carriere’s Mahabharata – a relatively straightforward stage adaptation that was written around the same time – Bedtime Story uses the technique of having actors playing multiple roles, even slipping from one character into another before the audience’s eyes. (In Brook/Carriere, shortly after saying “Krishna is in all of us”, the elephant-headed Ganesha slips off his mask to reveal the actor who will play Krishna; in Bedtime Story, an old grandmother removes her wig while on the stage, puts on a little makeup and becomes a young woman.) Nagarkar also makes deliberate, cheeky use of anachronisms – the scenes set in ancient times have references to airplanes, chocolate cakes, film festivals, again with the effect of blurring the line between these faraway characters and their modern viewers. (It is intriguing to speculate that what was intended as a non-realist, polemical device may now, in certain circles, be taken at face value. So what if Suyodhan mentions his daddy’s Boeing 747 or Drona talks about the fission-bomb formula, our jingoistic pseudo-scientists might say: we had all that in Vedic times!)

Unsurprisingly, given our thin skin when it comes to holy cows, Bedtime Story was shredded by a panel of literal-minded, wide-eyed censor-board scissorhands who had little understanding of artistic methods or licences, and asked Nagarkar questions like “Why are you distorting the myths?” That was then, but as the author himself observes, the play may be even more pressing and relevant today. Intolerance and fundamentalism grow apace; developed nations blithely plunder the earth’s limited resources; the powerful – politicians, corporate, religious leaders – are accountable to no one. And self-interrogation is always at a premium. The latest of many controversial bans in India, at the time of writing this review, involves the BBC documentary India’s Daughter, about the high-profile gang-rape case of 2012; the government’s response, typically, has been to tuck the film out of sight rather than face the mirror it holds up to social attitudes. When Nagarkar writes “There is something worse than callousness – an outburst of righteous rage which subsides just as easily as it had risen”, one thinks of how, in our own age, mass media and the internet have made superficial, responsibility-free displays of solidarity very easy.

****


After the intensity of Bedtime Story, the screenplay “Black Tulip” can be seen as light relief, though it takes up two-thirds of this book. (In fact, the book was originally meant to be just the screenplay; the publishers leapt at the opportunity to publish Bedtime Story alongside it when Nagarkar mentioned he had the translation ready.) This is a script for a taut, fast-paced film about two smart, savvy heroines, a con-woman named Rani Agarkar and an efficient cop named Regina Fielding, whom Rani hero-worships. (I couldn’t help seeing Rani Mukherjee and Kangana Ranaut in the roles.) Though natural antagonists, they unite for a common cause, in a story that features cutting-edge technology involving hackers and firewalls, a pungent romance with plenty of smart-alecky-bordering-on-cheesy dialogue, and a terrifically scary idea for a terror attack that could affect millions of people. Nagarkar, who has been a film buff for decades, shows a keen visual sense, not restricting himself to dialogue and story but often detailing camera movements too – one description, for instance, has “a red streak of flamingoes” flying past the sun followed by a camera pan over the bloody pool around a murdered woman’s slit throat.

“Black Tulip” may be Nagarkar Lite for most of its duration (the case can be made that this screenplay better fits his stated intention of not underlining points for readers and instead letting a well-told story do its work subtly), but at its end he engages in formal experimentation, offering us two possible endings. The first is tense and dramatic but eventually upbeat, and more in keeping with the general tone of this type of movie: the future of a metropolis is at stake, a bomb is defused just in time, the protagonists come away unscathed. The other ending isn’t exactly negative but it is more low-key, less “filmi”, and a little more disturbing – with a suggestion that heroes don’t win unconditionally, that both Rani and Regina are small fry in a world where strings are pulled by powerful people in high places, that the privileged get away with much bigger crimes than a small-time thief could ever dream of.

In this light, what Nagarkar says in his afterword is a sardonic return to the concerns that were addressed in Bedtime Story. “Let us common folk be grateful for heist movies which allow us to lead proxy lives through Rani and others who outsmart cops and the system […] but, unlike the shameless CEO-cum-stupendous con artists, are ultimately corralled by the law.” Are these words (a coda to a screenplay for a breezy mainstream movie) just as dark and cynical as the relentless verbal barbs of the Chorus in Bedtime Story (a subversive non-mainstream play)? Read this double bill – which represents two faces of the same writer – and decide for yourselves.

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P.S. There is an amusing sidenote in Nagarkar’s account of the censoring of Bedtime Story in the late 70s. He mentions that, during the arguments that ensued, the censor members slowly began to relent, only because most of them had come for the fees and free lunch and didn’t want to spend much time thrashing over the subject. Here, then, is another form of apathy, indicating that even these “guardians of culture” weren’t all that invested in their roles, or passionate about their stated values – and a suggestion that the default human position could be to not care too much, to want to quickly move on.

[An old interview with Nagarkar is here. A post about another wonderful Mahabharata retelling here. And here is the text of Nagarkar's introduction to the published Bedtime Story]

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Satanic shirts and lasting values: remembering the 80s classic Naseeb Apna Apna

(A history lesson for all you little teenagers and 21-year-olds. You’re welcome)

For people of my generation, it can be unsettling to find that new movies set in the 1980s or even the 1990s are now officially “period films”. Take Sharat Katariya’s charming (and surprisingly low-profile, given its many fine qualities) Dum Lagaa ke Haisha. Set in the mid-90s in Haridwar, with a callow young protagonist who idolises Kumar Sanu(!) and manages an audio-cassette store for his father (the CD era is about to knock forcefully on their door), this film has obvious nostalgia value for anyone above a certain age
and obvious knock-their-eyes-out-of-their-sockets value for anyone below that age. All the usual signifiers are here. Rotary phones, red Ambassadors, rickety grey scooters, a reference to Vinod Khanna as the epitome of male hotness.

The tiny moment that left me nearly moist-eyed though was when Prem (Ayushmann Khurana) struggles to remove a videocassette from its tight cover – he has to yank the thing out – and then does something that people of my generation so unconsciously did hundreds of times in the old days. He flips open the little lid at the rear of the cassette and blows at the visible strip of film to clear away dust particles and other lethal, real-or-imaginary microscopic things. (This keeps the player’s “head” safe, we would tell ourselves.) Then he puts the cassette in. If he is anything like I was, he is holding his breath for the few seconds until the TV screen lights up. (Please, please let it not be covered by “snow”, which could mean the VCR has packed up again and needs to be serviced.)

The scene lasts barely a few seconds but I felt sentimental because I wondered if any of the young people in the hall would even know what it meant. Or would they dismiss Prem’s gesture as a character quirk? (“Hey, there’s a guy who likes to whisper randomly at rectangular plastic objects. It’s probably a religious thing.”)

However, there’s another reason why Dum Lagaa ke Haisha took me disappearing down the foggy ruins of time. Its story about a self-absorbed man who is pushed into an arranged marriage and is then indifferent to his wife because she is an overweight “saand” (at least, that is what the plot seems to be about at first – it takes a right turn in the second half and becomes much more about the insecurities of Prem, intimidated by a woman who is smarter and more poised than him) reminded me of another film that haunted my younger self.

I have spoken, oh gawping teen readers, about the character-building ritual of blowing into a videotape’s rear end. Let me now introduce you to a thing called Chitrahaar that we used to watch on Wednesday and Friday nights. It provided the soundtrack of my childhood, pre-dating the Kumar Sanu-Sadhna Sargam one you hear so much of in Dum Lagaa ke Haisha. In the mid-80s this soundtrack included the yowling number “Teri Meherbaniyan”, sung by a dog to Jackie Shroff (or vice versa), which I wrote about here, as well as Anil Kapoor screeching “Zindagi Har Kadam Ek Nayi Jung Hai” to himself. And it included a hypnotic, droning song called “Bhala Hai Bura Hai”, which was telecast so often that its lyrics nestled into the minds of every little Indian boy and girl and gave us moral conditioning and good value system for decades to come. They began:

Bhala Hai, Bura Hai, Jaisa bhi Hai
Mera Pati Mera Devtaa Hai

(Good, Bad, Whatever,
My husband is my flying spaghetti monster and I will worship It and feed It samosas and beer)”



Thus spake Naseeb Apna Apna.


It wasn’t just the song, but the power of the accompanying visuals. Displaying acres of wifely stoicism was a dark-complexioned woman who didn’t fit the Hindi-cinema ideal of beauty (not even the one established by south Indian heroines like Rekha and Sridevi). The film did everything it could to make her look ludicrous anyway. She sticks her tongue out (when she isn’t singing) and makes other strange expressions for no clear reason.
Most important of all, trailing her head at a distance of several metres is an astonishing upright chhoti that ends in a ribbon; the sort of accessory that would have made Hanuman very envious as he set about using his tail as a wick to set Lanka afire.

Also visible in the scene (though he tries his best to stay out of sight)
is Rishi Kapoor, doing his famous double-takes and managing somehow to look mortified, cocky, sheepish, contented, despairing, self-important, despicable and helpless all at the same time, all in the same frame.

In fact, Kapoor tweeted a few days ago that Dum Lagaa ke Haisha was like an updated version of his 1980s film. (You only have my word for it, but I made the connection before he did.) He would have good reason to remember Naseeb Apna Apna – it was possibly the hardest thing he ever had to do, a role that would have any actor yearning for a more lightweight assignment, such as playing Hamlet and Falstaff on the same night. Because apart from anything else, this film is highly confused about its own characters: it feels for them while simultaneously making fun of them (or passing judgement on them). And Kapoor’s Kishen is often on the receiving end of this double-headed treatment. 


Take the early scenes where he is being bullied by his authoritarian father. Kishen should be the sympathetic underdog here, since he is saying nothing more unreasonable than: what, you want me to marry a girl I haven’t even seen? And yet, and yet... look at the shirt they made poor Rishi wear:


(Talk about subliminal messages. Beware, India's sons and daughters, the film is saying here. If you argue with your Mogambo-like dad or wag your finger at your poor long-suffering mother over something as trivial as your choice of life-partner, even your clothes will publicly denounce you.)


Ten years before Amrish Puri played the patriarch whose permission must be sought in DDLJ, here he is as a fiercer, more rustic version of that patriarch, the boy’s father this time, who threatens to break his son’s legs if he tries to leave home. “I’ll staple you to that horse’s back if I have to,” he growls (or words to that effect), so the next scene has Kishen in bridegroom’s garb riding along sulkily on his way to wed the “plain-looking” Chandu (Radhika). At this point you think Naseeb Apna Apna has set itself up so that one of two things will happen: 1) The parents eventually see the error of their ways, recognise that times are changing, or 2) Tradition is upheld and glorified; young man finds love with papa-certified girl, starts wearing placid white shirts with "सुन्दर सुशील बेटा" printed on them. 

But no, the film mixes and mashes both these ideas while sticking to its larger agenda: to gratuitously make fun of Chandu and her Hanuman-ji chotti. At the same time it introduces another, fairer-skinned heroine – Farha – who gets to be not just Kishen’s wife of choice, but the film’s Christ figure too. Summary of what follows: Wife 1 is happy to abase herself by playing maid to Wife 2 if this means she can get to live in the same house as her (their) husband. And Wife 2 is happy to sacrifice her very life if it means that husband and Wife 1 may find happiness with each other. (Meanwhile Kishen continues to look miserable – look at the rough hand fate has dealt him!)

This also means that the similarities between Naseeb Apna Apna and Dum Lagaa ke Haisha are only skin-deep. In the new film everyone is likable, and the big message of the present day – that Indian men need the right sort of education – is in plain sight. Prem’s father meekly accepts his culpability when his daughter-in-law Sandhya gives him a lecture about not having taught his son to respect women. (Her wisdom, and the father’s sensitivity, are tellingly set against the values of the khaki-shorts-wearing brigade Prem is involved with, bent on producing a species of men who have no need for a female presence in their lives.) Back at Sandhya’s home, when her mother tries to feed her the usual line about a woman’s place being with her husband, aurat ki destiny etc, the educated girl coolly shuts the door in the mother’s face and that’s that. Not much room here for real social conflict.

Prem himself
– before he makes a serious effort to improve his attitude comes close to being a worm in some scenes, but never in the way that the forever-entitled Kishen is. Basically: Dum Lagaa ke Haisha is steeped in political correctness and social progressiveness and general feel-goodness; Naseeb Apna Apna wouldn’t know what any of those things were if they were brought to it on a large silver tray carried by a gharelu, pallu-covered bahu with eyes cast downward. 

Well, apart from the very special, tearful sort of feel-goodness that comes from watching a Noble Soul make the Ultimate Sacrifice in the Last Scene – we loved that sort of thing in the 80s. And with that observation, this post comes to...

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Shared madness: thoughts on Whiplash as a brilliant non-inspirational film

As longtime readers will know, I often make shrieky noises about the tendency to watch films in conditions that are not optimal for film-watching: on small laptops or cellphone screens – and worse, in lighted settings with distractions all around. Of course, some types of viewing experiences are more easily ruined than others. As the long, hypnotic final sequence of Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash (a concert performance that begins with deep-rooted antagonism between two men but then turns into a manic collaboration, even a jugalbandi) unfolded, I was thinking: the ONLY way to watch this scene is in a darkened hall, with eyes and ears fixed on the screen from start to finish.

Okay, I’ll amend that a bit: it doesn’t have to be in a theatre, on a very large screen; it can be on a good-sized TV at home. But the room should be dark, cellphone off, no idiot whispering into your ear or tossing popcorn at your head from the seat behind, etc. Failing this, you lose most of the scene’s power, and all of the film’s point. **

“Keep quiet and pay attention,” this movie seems to be telling its viewers anyway, from the very opening scene where a young jazz student practicing on drums alone at night has his first encounter with an overbearing conductor-teacher. Whiplash’s most intense scenes – set in music rooms where training sessions turn into a battle for the soul, with the abusive Fletcher as a version of Mephistopheles, offering 19-year-old Andrew a glimpse of immortality (defined here as the opportunity to be an all-time great like Charlie Parker) – are claustrophobia-inducing in ways that make even Birdman seem like it was shot in a sunny lawn.

But this is what I thought most intriguing about Chazelle’s film: though its story and narrative arc resembles that of the inspirational, will-to-win, triumph-of-the-underdog tale (a category that is crowded with sports movies as well as other subgenres, such as stories about people overcoming physical disabilities – even the Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything could fit here), I don’t think Whiplash is essentially any of those things. I didn’t see this as a film that offers generalised lessons about life or art or talent or hard work. I saw it as a razor-focused story about two very specific people in a very specific situation, one of whom serves as a sort of distorting mirror for the other (and eventually pulls him across to the mirror’s other side); a one-point study of obsession, with no larger “message” about whether such obsession is Good or Bad.

So I was surprised to hear that there has been criticism based on the idea that the film endorses violent, cruel teaching as a way of getting students to realise their potential. I didn’t see it that way (and I think I’m in a fair position to judge: I wouldn’t myself have lasted more than an hour in any sort of class with a Fletcher-like teacher, and I would be hyper-sensitive to any film that appeared to
be celebrating his methods. My fingers ached so much just from watching Andrew’s labours that I thought I wouldn’t be able to type for a week. Ringo Starr’s “Ah gaat blisters ahn mah fingers!” sounds like a toddler’s wail compared to some of the stuff this young man goes through).

Yes, there is some seemingly inspirational-philosophical dialogue about Charlie Parker’s transformation into “Bird” – with Parker being used as a symbol of someone who was pushed into legend terrain by a teacher who could smell the real potential in him. But the person telling that story is a man with a ferocious need to be a legend-maker himself. And the argument that the film approves of Fletcher’s methods falls through pretty quickly if you consider the key plot point that one of his earlier students (someone whom he himself tearfully describes as a real achiever) killed himself because of the strain, and that Fletcher – quite reasonably – ends up losing his job because of the physical and emotional violence he directs at students. (When the film was over, I joked that this might well hasten the demise of classical jazz – how many youngsters would voluntarily pursue it as a career after watching this?)


So what is this film really? Maybe it's just a love-hate-love story between two people who are surprisingly alike in many ways, despite the power equations that encourage us to see one as the bully and the other as the victim. The camera, often standing in for Andrew and the other students, regards Fletcher with dread from the start. Physically distinctive to begin with, and photographed to seem even more imposing, he is so often its centre of awed attention, easily picked out even when he is doing nothing more than gently playing the piano in a corner of a dimly lit nightclub. The comparisons with Svengali are obvious, and more than once I was reminded of the Powell-Pressburger classic The Red Shoes (the scene where Fletcher apparently shows a vulnerable side while talking about his recently deceased student reminded me of the barely controlled hysteria of Lermontov while making his announcement at the end of The Red Shoes). That Fletcher is the one in control, a puppetmaster, is also emphasised by his conducting gestures; you can almost see the strings reaching from his hands to the arms and fingers of his students.

Given the overwhelming personality of this man, it’s easy to miss that Andrew himself is much more than just a victim or a foil. Sure, he’s a likably awkward and vulnerable young man in some obvious ways (at age 19 he still watches films with his dad, he finds it hard to sustain eye contact with people, he has chosen an artistic calling), but he also has a hard edge that we see glimpses of quite early in the film; in the smug little smiles that briefly spread across his face when someone else’s misfortune allows things to go his way, or the swiftness with which he converts defence into offence during a dinnertime altercation with acquaintances who are doing well in more glamorous, “macho” fields like football. As the story progresses, his almost frightening competitive streak comes into clearer relief. And maybe this is being presented as something to admire; but the context also makes it clear that there are very, very few people like that – which in turn means that this film can hardly serve as an inspiration-manual for most people.


Inspirational movies aren’t usually this dark and soaked in despair anyway; they don’t make triumph seem SO hard and ugly that you can’t be sure whether it counts as any sort of triumph at all. And even when they unflinchingly chronicle a very tough struggle, they tend to finish on a clear-cut note of affirmation, with cheering audiences and friends, and a sense that having negotiated the worst of Mordor, the story can now return to where it began, to the warmth of the Shire. They don’t close with a shot where a man who has been a sadistic villain through most of the film smiles approvingly at the hero, and the hero smiles back, and we see that he has found self-worth and affirmation in that moment, and that the two men are now of one mind and one heart, united by a shared obsession. (A Frodo does temporarily become a Sauron, but the moment passes and he is saved. Not here.)

In other words, that last sequence is one of the most exhilarating things I have seen in a movie hall in a long time – but it is not exhilarating in the particular way that a cheerier movie in this genre would be. Instead it is spellbinding because we see a world and everything in it being reduced to an echo chamber; everything else has been stripped away, and in the end there are only these two people performing this madman’s duet for themselves. (We don’t even get any reaction shots of the audience applauding – a standard trope of this kind of scene – or the other musicians giving so much as an approving nod. There is a passage near the end where the camera swish-pans back and forth between Andrew and Fletcher with such speed that what lies between them – the rest of the orchestra – is completely blurred out.)


Basically, this is a magnificent Folie à deux. At the end Andrew finally matches Fletcher’s “tempo”, but the effect is a little similar to that of the Grim Reaper’s followers falling in line behind him for the Dance of Death in the last shot of The Seventh Seal. I wouldn’t be surprised if both Fletcher and Andrew, having reached this grand culmination, went and stuck sharpened drumsticks through their throats in their respective homes later that night. Where else is there to go?

--------------------------------------

** Speaking of distractions: DT Cinemas in Saket really must do something about their acoustics. For a while – a short while, mercifully – during the early scenes in Whiplash, we could hear a song sequence from Badlapur, playing in a nearby hall. This sort of thing has happened before at the same venue

Sunday, March 01, 2015

"That’s why they call it an Intro” (things you learn at a Book Fair, contd)

[This is also up on the website Anti Serious]

An alarming thing happened at the World Book Fair in Pragati Maidan last week. Outside the HarperCollins stall I met someone who was halfway through my Jaane bhi do Yaaro book and had apparently been enjoying it. (I haven't got to the alarming bit yet.) He said a few nice things, I mumbled self-effacingly, the afternoon sun beamed down at us, having ended the Delhi winter a month before schedule, but it wasn’t too hot and all was well. Then he made an observation about Jaane bhi do Yaaro (the film) and I said “Yes I mentioned that in the book’s Intro”, and he replied “Oh I didn’t know that. I haven’t read the Intro yet. I will read it after I finish the book.”

* Dramatic double-take followed by a series of heavy blinks in slow motion. Visions of concentric circles and iris wipes leap into my head. I hear those ululating sounds which indicate, in slapstick comedies of yore, that a character is day-dreaming, followed by Alfred Hitchcock’s recorded message at the initial screenings of Psycho, meant to dissuade viewers from walking in after the film had begun: “Psycho is most enjoyable when viewed beginning at the beginning and proceeding to the end. I realize this is a revolutionary concept, but we have discovered that Psycho is unlike most motion pictures and does not improve when run backwards.” *

I spluttered, remonstrated. My reader looked sheepish, admitted that he was in the habit of tackling Introductions last, having been advised to do so by an English Literature teacher or some such animal. To fortify his case he mentioned a classic he had read recently, where he went straight to the main body of the book and only later read the Intro for context. The name Virginia Woolf came up. At which point I saw the lighthouse, so to speak, and realised he was talking about the sort of Intro where someone other than the author writes an analysis or tribute, usually for a new edition of a book that was first published decades or centuries ago. 


“But I’m alive! I wrote this Intro myself! It was part of the narrative!”

In a calmer mood later, and flipping through my poor misunderstood book, it struck me that the word “Introduction” on the contents page – seemingly demarcated from the other chapters by a visual break and Roman-numeral pagination – can indeed be misleading. But it is still worrying to think this may have happened to a large number of readers. People tend not to be very rigorous when reading film literature anyway, and I’m sure it’s possible to treat the JBDY book as an anecdote-trove – to open it at a random page to read about something of specific interest. But when I wrote the thing I intended it to be a flowing narrative that would ideally be experienced in sequence; not a patchwork. And that opening section was important to the continuity. It provided background information for what was to come: what the film had meant to me over the years, what the Hindi cinema of its time was like. Skip it and you’re just as adrift – for a while at least – as the people who made the film in 1982 were, fumbling about, not quite sure what they were doing.

One lives and learns, though. My next book has an intro too, a long one, but I’ll keep all bases covered this time by using that ever-reliable tool, the subhead. The title will say

Introduction (Or: READ THIS FIRST, BLOCKHEADS)

Monday, February 16, 2015

Tale tweakers - books that twist and shout

[From my Forbes Life column – this one about books with surprise endings]

One barrier to discussing a good twist-in-the-tale narrative is that you can’t properly describe its effect without spoiling it for the reader. I anticipate that difficulty arising in this column, so let me first indulge myself by mentioning one of my favourite such stories, which you won’t easily find in print nowadays.


Stanley Ellin’s “The Question My Son Asked”, published in the mid-1960s, is narrated by a state executioner, a man who initially seems defensive about his profession but is really quite proud of himself. Unimpressed by anti-capital punishment arguments, he believes that anyone who commits a heinous crime no longer qualifies as human and must be destroyed the way a rabid animal would be. And of course, someone has to do the dirty work – to pull the switch for the electric chair. But the executioner now finds that his own son doesn’t want to continue in the family line. They talk about ethics, the son asks a provocative question, and the narrator, after hedging for a while, admits that it isn’t just a matter of social consciousness – he enjoys the power that comes with holding someone’s life in his hands and watching the electric current jerk a still-living body around.

What is impressive here is how the story initially seems to be about one thing and then becomes something else; how our view of the protagonist changes; how the tone goes from sombre, almost melancholy, to dark and macabre, and does this without undermining the more philosophical elements in the narrative.

The tweak in the tale is a tricky thing to do well – it can often be a gimmick, aimed at giving the reader a quick shiver at the expense of inner logic. But there have been many books and stories where surprise endings (or mid-narrative surprises) are central to the story’s purpose. Serious literary fiction has sometimes hinged on major revelations: in William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice, the young,
lovelorn narrator Nathan learns relatively late in the story about the terrible choice offered to Sophie, a Holocaust survivor, when she was in the concentration camp, and our feelings about the characters’ inner struggles and destinies are affected by this disclosure. And Gautam Malkani’s Londonstani, about the lives of a group of second-generation Asian “rudeboys” in London, ends with a surprise that overturns all our assumptions about the narrator’s identity.

Some of the best sources of good twists are anthologies in the noir and science-fiction genres. The many gems in the collection The Best American Noir of the Century (edited by James Ellroy) include Harlan Ellison’s riveting, novella-length “Mefisto in Onyx”, about a man blessed (or cursed) with the ability to “jaunt” into the minds of other people. To his dismay, an old friend asks him to scan the mental “landscape” of a convicted serial killer, whom she believes to be innocent, and the story climaxes with a fascinating game of one-upmanship and one surprise following on the heels of another. Another personal favourite is The Other Side of the Sky, an Arthur C Clarke collection that includes the celebrated “The Nine Billion Names of God” (one of the subtlest end-of-the-world stories ever written) and “The Star” (about the end of another world, not ours, with a shiver-inducing final sentence). Or for a wider range of sci-fi authors, try the Brian Aldiss-edited A Science Fiction Omnibus, which includes Bertram Chandler’s “The Cage”, a sobering tale that provides a sharp, cynical answer to the question “How do you know a species is capable of rational thought?”, and Ted Chiang’s beautiful “Story of Your Life”, about a woman who experiences the past, present and future simultaneously.

Roald Dahl is one of the acknowledged masters of the story-ending frisson, and The Collected Short Stories of Roald Dahl is the best primer to his work. My favourites here include “Pig” (young boy raised by his great-aunt to be strictly vegetarian must go out into the
big bad world after her death), “The Great Automatic Grammatizator” (a frightening cautionary tale about mass-production in literature, which seems even more relevant today!) and “The Wish”, a tense story about a little boy inventing a game to be played on a colourful carpet in his house: he has to cross to the other side by avoiding the reds (which represent fiery coals) and the blacks (which are poisonous serpents). Dahl’s achievement here is that by the end, the carpet’s dangers are as real to the reader as they are to the boy.

Ira Levin was not as prolific as Dahl, but he was described as “the Swiss watchmaker of suspense novels” by none less than Stephen King. It’s a good analogy, for Levin’s novels are masterpieces of construction. Since they are thrillers which can be read in a couple of hours, highbrow critics don’t think of them as “serious literature” – but it’s only when you try putting yourself in the author’s position that you realize the rigour and ingenuity involved. Most of his books accumulate little details and surround one major surprise with a few minor ones.

Consider the structure of Levin’s brilliant A Kiss Before Dying. The first section of the book is about the carrying out of a murderous scheme, and throughout we are privy to the ticking of the killer’s mind, his paranoid inner state. Yet here’s the rub: we never learn his name, and the implications of this emerge in the next segment of the narrative, where the focus shifts to another character who starts a private investigation into the murder. She encounters a few suspects, but the reader is now flummoxed: it is possible that the killer is one of the men she meets, but we have no way of knowing who it is. So ingenious is the change in perspective that a character whom we knew intimately in the first section of the book is now a stranger to us. This is the set-up for the novel’s major disclosure, which occurs mid-narrative.

I’ll finish by mentioning an iconic murder mystery and a book about that mystery. Agatha Christie is often downgraded today as a writer whose work centered too much on neatly packaged solutions, but she was an expert plotter, a quality that is too often
underestimated. In The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, her best-known novel, the revelation of the murderer was a shock to the system for first-time readers. But perhaps a tribute to that book’s influence is that, decades later, a psychoanalyst was inspired to write a book-length study claiming that the real murderer was not the person named by Christie. In Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?, Pierre Bayard revisits the text of Christie’s book and discovers hidden currents that suggest an alternate solution. In the process, he deconstructs many aspects of the suspense genre itself, implying that the reader, not the author, is the final arbiter of a novel’s “meaning”. That may be the biggest twist of all.

[Some earlier Forbes Life columns: time travellers, doubles, parents, satire, popular science, writers on writing, translations, houses]

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Continued thoughts on Birdman (and Gravity)

(a follow-up to this post)

More than once while watching Birdman, I felt that Gravity might have been an equally apt title for it. Two meanings of that word fit this film: the lead character Riggan is preoccupied with subject matter that has gravitas and is “grounded” (as opposed to the “lightweight” superheroes-with-wings blockbusters made for summer audiences), hence his staging of a Raymond Carver story that he associates with respectability. And visually and thematically, the film is concerned with the divide between being tethered and feeling liberated. (Is it possible to be both things at once?)


So the opening scene of the main narrative has Riggan in a state of levitation; but after this he spends most of his time in the theatre’s confining backstage spaces, with the camera tracking him at close quarters as if to make sure he won’t suddenly take wing again (and also possibly to keep Riggan’s Icarus-like alter ego away from him!). And the film’s last shot has Sam searching for her dad in his hospital room, seeing the open window, rushing to it in panic…and then doing what any of us would instinctively do in her place: she looks down. (Everyone knows the law of gravity: things/people that fall/jump from high places go only in one direction.) It is only after that, when she doesn’t see what she had feared, that she looks up…and a smile lights up her face.

This is an enigmatic, possibly pretentious, ending, open to interpretation: the way I saw it was that Riggan, having achieved the success he wanted in a sombre medium, has freed himself. He can be a superhero again (if he chooses - Birdman 4 is waiting for him), or he can do whatever else he feels like doing without worrying about expectations. And okay, if you want to be literal-minded and “realist” about it (though I don’t think the film invites us to do this – I’m a little surprised by how many reviewers seem so sure that all the supernatural stuff is happening only in Riggan’s mind), maybe he is dead – because after having achieved creative fulfillment, there’s nowhere else to go. But the basic principle about being liberated still applies.


Incidentally, I was thinking of the connections between Birdman and Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity before I knew that cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki had supervised and executed the spectacular long takes in both films. The films are polar opposites in a way, even though both feature a dizzying series of circular movements and narrative twists that lead up to a moment of truth for the main character. If Birdman’s backstage set creates a mood of claustrophobia – and Riggan is in danger of being hemmed in, of being swallowed up by his own insecurities and the need for other people’s approval – Gravity is about the opposite but equally potent fear, agoraphobia: being adrift in the vast nothingness of space, being bound to, or responsible to, nothing. Both have allegorical endings: but in Birdman, Riggan attains a very agreeable lightness of being and is free to glide away into the ether, while in Gravity Sandra Bullock’s Ryan Stone falls out of space into the water and then staggers back to terra firma. Two characters, two different epiphanies. 

(And am I over-reaching by pointing out that both Riggan and Ryan are in their underwear during their Big Moment? Possibly. But well, as DH Lawrence said, trust the tale.)

Monday, February 09, 2015

Strutting and fretting his hour upon the stage – on Michael Keaton and Birdman

There was a time in the early 1990s when I would have called myself a Michael Keaton fan, but looking back now I realise what scant foundation there was for such fandom; Keaton did so few memorable movies. I was very taken by his roles – and his talent for being quirky, enigmatic and an everyman at almost the same time – in Tim Burton's Beetlejuice and the Batman films.*** And there were a few other good parts in movies I barely remember now – Pacific Heights, Clean and Sober. He was solid and dependable and non-self-aggrandising in the Jeff Bridges way, though even Bridges, one of the most inconspicuous of lead actors, wound up with a much higher profile and a larger, more varied body of work.

I also remember really enjoying Keaton’s small part as Dogberry in Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado about Nothing, partly because it seemed so cool that a guy who had been Batman could also do Shakespeare (imagine the reverse, Branagh fighting super-villains in a cape and mask. Doesn’t work, unless you create a hallucinogen-driven genre-bender by throwing in Emma Thompson as Catwoman and Woody Allen as the Riddler). Besides, I was in a phase of fascination with how a certain sort of American actor could perform Shakespeare with raw effectiveness, and Keaton’s Dogberry was a bit like watching Edmond O’Brien’s superb Casca in the 1953 Julius Caesar, or Victor Mature in that beautiful scene in My Darling Clementine where the sharp-shooting Doc Holliday briefly becomes a poet and finishes a Hamlet soliloquy for an old actor.


This has been a long-drawn way of saying that, having possibly not even thought about Michael Keaton for years, I was firmly in his corner, cheering away during every minute of his performance in Alejandro González Iñárritu's Birdman. He plays Riggan, an actor pushing 60, best known for a superhero role in a blockbuster film years ago; yet we learn later that as a boy, Riggan’s creative aspirations took flight when (a possibly drunk) Raymond Carver scribbled a note on a cocktail napkin for him. And now, all these decades later, he is trying to “atone”, to do something literary and Important by adapting a Carver story for the stage. But is he up to it? Is “relevance” a trap for the unwary? Will the production – with all the backstage insecurities, the addition to the cast of the volatile Mike (Ed Norton), and Riggan’s own personal feathered demon squawking in his ear – explode in his face?

In the year that marks the 25th anniversary of the Tim Burton Batman, there’s an obvious temptation to look at Keaton’s casting here as semi-autobiographical, even as a sort of tribute (though at surface level Birdman seems to be expressing disdain for the big-budget superhero film). But it's also possible to over-stress the connection: I don’t think Keaton was ever caught in the superhero mould the way Christopher Reeve was after the Superman films. Partly because the scenery-chewer in the 1989 Batman was Jack Nicholson’s Joker, and partly because the iconic Batman representation is that of the masked hero with much of his face covered (and usually in nighttime scenes).

Even so, the casting makes Birdman more urgent and poignant, while also giving it a sly sense of humour that it might otherwise have lacked. This is a darkly good Broadway film, oppressive and crepuscular in a way that Alexander Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success was (though it isn’t quite as nasty as that 1957 classic). And on another level it is a super behind-the-curtains theatre film too, an All About Eve-like study of the many complicated interrelationships between actors and understudies, directors and critics, those who are reaching for success and those who have been drained by too much of it.

And it is about constant movement – and about going around in circles – in a way that neither of those films was. Emmanuel Lubezki's camera moves with all these characters – following them,  swerving past them to get ahead and then looking back at them cheekily, or just contemplating a corridor for a few seconds before heading down it – through the labyrinths of the green room, the dressing rooms, the other momentary respites of Backstage, and the tunnel-like paths that lead to and from them. And these dizzying long takes are very effective for a claustrophobic, air-deprived setting where people can quickly get old and jaded and tunnel-visioned (Mike tells
Riggan’s daughter Sam he wants to take out her eyes and put them into his own head, so he can look at this world through young, relatively uncorrupted eyes). This main setting is so restrictive, little wonder that a game of “truth or dare” can only be played on an open rooftop, where the sounds of the street temporarily drown out the hypnotic drumbeats that make up much of the film’s “inner space” soundtrack. Or that Riggan’s big moment, the moment of his rebirth, so to speak, comes when he is walking around in the outdoors, in the hurly-burly of Times Square, dressed like a newborn baby. Or that there is such a feeling of liberation in the film’s final shot, which presents the possibility that being a birdman – or a batman – isn’t a fate to be ashamed of, even for a Serious Actor.

P.S. I didn’t study the mechanics of Birdman’s lengthy takes as closely as I would have liked to, but I’m fairly sure that the film has at least one scene where a small shift in time is covered in a continuous, unbroken camera movement, rather than by the conventional cinematic language of a dissolve or cut. (I’m thinking of the sequence where we see Mike making out with Riggan’s daughter behind the scenes, and then the camera glides away from her and down near the stage where Mike is playing a scene with the other actors.) Oddly, the only other such scene I can think of just now is the 360-degree camera movement that bridges 20 years in Yaadon ki Baaraat, with the shot beginning at the feet of a little boy and ending with the man he has grown up into!



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*** It’s intriguing to think of Keaton as a sort of proto-Johnny Depp, in terms of being a kindred soul for Tim Burton, a vessel for that director’s off-kilter views of the world: if Beetlejuice had been made 10 years later, there is little doubt who would have played the part. And I don’t find it difficult to imagine Keaton in the lead in Ed Wood.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Road House blues (and other warm or creepy homes in literature)

[From my theme-driven books column in Forbes Life]

One of my earliest, most cherished literary memories doesn’t involve the written word at all: it involves a couple of drawings from a Ladybird Children’s Classics edition of Johann Wyss’s 1812 novel Swiss Family Robinson. The story (which I probably thought at the time was a companion piece to the similarly titled Robinson Crusoe) had a family shipwrecked on an island where they proceed to use available resources as best as they can, and the pictures that most enchanted me were of a cave-house dug into a cliff, to spend the winter in. The interior was cosy, warm and well-lit, the doors and windows were rounded, there were little bookshelves, and the rooms in which the children lounged on bunks seemed to belong to a particularly luxurious boarding-school hostel. Even the stalactites hanging from the cave’s roof looked friendly.


The image of the cave-house changed the tone of the book. Even on a strange island, you can find your personal castle, it seemed to say. By this point in the story, the Family Robinson are well-settled in their new surroundings – in control, with much of the danger having passed.

There are many other comforting houses in children’s literature, of course; another personal favourite is Moon-Face’s little "flat"
in Enid Blyton’s Enchanted Wood series located near the top of the tree, complete with a slide that takes you back to the bottom – which becomes a meeting point for the characters before their faraway-land adventures begin. Elsewhere, there are reminders that outward appearances can be deceptive: in Hansel and Gretal, the children are lured into a witch’s captivity because they are mesmerised by her cake-and-chocolate house – a cautionary lesson about excessive sweet consumption for young readers to this day – and in CS Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, four children living together in an old country house discover, in the wardrobe, a portal to the magical land of Narnia. (Given that the story is set during the Second World War, the escapist implications are obvious. Yet there is also the knowledge that the real-world house is a place that must in the end be returned to: you can’t stay in fantasy-land forever.)

Anglophone literature of an earlier vintage was often set in a world of ancestral estates or mansions that a family might have stayed in for centuries. Hence the many novels that are named for residences – such as Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey – or otherwise feature houses that are inseparable from the story and the characters: Pemberley in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, where the relationship between Elizabeth and Darcy – dislike slowly turning to love – deepens; or Mrs Havisham’s frozen-in-time mansion Satis House in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, mouldy and in disuse, its
appearance echoing the heartbreak and festering bitterness of its owner. And try imagining PG Wodehouse’s delightful Blandings Castle stories without the setting: an English country estate where imposters hop in and out, stern aunts get their comeuppance, lovers are reunited – and all the while, the absent-minded Lord Emsworth, king of this particular castle, thinks only of his beloved pig the Empress. When Evelyn Waugh called Blandings a Garden of Eden, it was a recognition that such a setting was more like a state of mind than an actual, physical space.

Much less welcoming houses may be found in the mystery and horror genres. “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderlay again” is the famous opening sentence of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, told in the voice of an unnamed young woman who marries a wealthy man named Maxim de Winter, goes to live in his estate as a happy young bride…but then finds herself in the shadow of Maxim’s deceased first wife, with every corner of Manderlay haunted by Rebecca’s memory. More recent haunted-house novels include Stephen King’s The Shining (in which a writer named Jack Torrance takes up a position as the off-season caretaker of the Overlook Hotel one chilly winter, and finds the hotel exerting a strange spell on him) and Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, about
experiments in fear conducted by a Dr Montague and his subjects in the spooky Hill House. The accent in these books is on psychological horror the house becoming a channel for the demons in the characters’ minds – rather than in the sort of supernatural terror you find lurking in the vampire’s castle in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (with one of its creepiest images – Jonathan Harker held captive in the ancient house and watching from a window as Count Dracula crawls, spider-like, down a wall and disappears from sight).

Other “house” books supply commentary on class relations and how they affect human transactions. Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher is an account of a real-life crime – the murder of an infant boy in an English country house in 1860 – but one of its subtexts is the complex set of relationships between the “masters” and the “servants” living in Road Hill House (a maid moves up the ranks when she becomes the second wife of the house’s owner, leading to resentment among other members of his family, and complicating the question “who did it?”). A famous novel written a decade before the Road Hill murder, Charlotte Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, is about the upward mobility of the wild child Heathcliff, and what the farmhouse of the title represents to him – a place of aspiration but also deep loss.


Sarah Waters’s The Little Stranger, combines two of the themes listed above, being an atmospheric haunted-house story but also being about the blurring of class lines in post-WWII Britain, and the effect this has – materially and psychologically – on the old rich and their one-time servants. The setting for this cultural clash is a once-grand mansion called Hundreds Hall whose inhabitants, the Ayres family, used to be landed gentry but are now casualties of a changing order: the vastness of their house is scarcely representative of their actual financial standing and lifestyle. Into this world comes the book’s narrator, Dr Faraday, who had seen Hundreds Hall as a child, because his mother once worked there as a nursemaid. Faraday becomes the Ayres’s friend, but he can’t understand why the family is so terrified of the house. Surely there’s a commonsense explanation for all those strange noises and sightings. Or could it be that his changed status is making the house uncomfortable? 

The most moving aspect of this story though is the theme of people clinging to the past, afraid to let go, and tied almost as if by a magic charm to the place they spent their entire lives in. “I expect you think that we’re absolutely mad to go on living in Hundreds, trying to keep it the way it was,” a member of of the family tells Faraday, “but we have to sort of keep the place in order, keep up our side of the bargain."

[Some earlier Forbes Life columns: time travellers, parents, satire, popular science, translations]