Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Thoughts on Talvar: Holmes in the heart of darkness

[Did a version of this piece for my Mint Lounge column]

In an early scene in Meghna Gulzar’s Talvar, CDI officer Ashwin (Irrfan Khan) jokingly calls a colleague Sherlock Holmes, in response to an inference made by the other man. Ashwin then hums a thriller-style tune to stress the gap between the exploits of Conan Doyle’s super-detective and the humdrum procedures followed by this team as it tries to crack a double-murder case. The scene, with its gentle dig at the sort of cliffhanger-filled mystery that Talvar itself is not going to be, is akin in some ways to the moment during the chase sequence in Black Friday where we hear florid filmi dialogue from an old Bachchan movie about cops and robbers, even as we see unfit policemen and their exhausted quarry fumbling through a slum.

And yet, there was a point during Talvar when I was thinking of Irrfan’s character as a Super-Detective Lite, if that makes any sense – not a Holmes, but something comparable if you factor in the nature of this film. In a narrative that is often documentary-like, Ashwin, initially at least, is a bit of an outlier. Though based on a real person (CBI officer Arun Kumar) he feels like a fictional character introduced to help us make sense of a messy case and untangle knots created by incompetent policemen and self-serving bureaucrats. Ashwin drily comments on the many investigative goof-ups and almost literally takes a policeman’s pants off in one scene; his mission is to clean up the rust that has gathered on Justice’s sword. To a degree, he is a movie archetype: the crusader who untiringly pursues the truth, even while battling personal crisis (an impending separation from his wife, played by Tabu; there’s something self-indulgent but also witty about this Vishal Bhardwaj-produced film using Bhardwaj’s Macbeth and Lady Macbeth as a domestic sideshow to a story about blood and betrayal, servants and masters, and overvaulting ambition!). Irrfan brings deadpan humour and, yes, style to the film, telling a cop “Next time you’re at a murder scene where the killer has considerately left behind a big bloody handprint as a clue, try to preserve it.” Who expects a government-employed Indian detective to show commitment and comic timing? And who better than one of our best, most wryly charismatic actors to play the part?

So there is a touch of wish-fulfilment in the way Ashwin is written and performed, and fantasy-as-nourishment has always been one of cinema’s functions. When done well, it can, temporarily at least, make the real world a more bearable, even a more comprehensible place (which is one reason why I’m bemused by the snobbery directed at “escapism”, or by the idea that watching such a film or reading such a book entails leaving your brain elsewhere. No, it doesn’t – you need to engage, just as you do for the overtly serious stuff).

The ploy of introducing a fictional figure to tackle a real-life problem has been around for a while. It has been used even in the context of such great evils as Nazism (as in Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be, Chaplin’s The Great Dictator or Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds), but let’s stick with the personal-crime context for now, and return to Sherlock Holmes. Two films – the 1965 A Study in Terror and the 1979 Christopher Plummer-James Mason-starrer Murder by Decree – pitted Holmes against the notorious Whitechapel killer known as Jack the Ripper. Both ended with the super-detective unmasking the murderer, even if he had to stare down a royal conspiracy, and the soundtrack was appropriately stirring (Ashwin would have enjoyed humming it). You can be immersed in, even moved by, those films without forgetting that in the prosaic real world the Ripper is still the unidentified subject of debate, speculation and even mythologizing – while Sherlock Holmes exists only on the printed page (or the Kindle).

The wish-fulfilment elements in Talvar are much more muted though; the film is ultimately grounded by the politics and blemishes of the Aarushi Talwar saga. Near the end, there is a long, discomfiting sequence where a number of mostly middle-aged men, divided into two groups with opposing views about the case, sit together at a table and argue, trade accusations, banter, joke…all at the same time. Every now and again, when the mood becomes too frivolous, one of them admonishes the others – come on guys, let’s remember what this is about – but the levity never leaves the table; how can it, when you have a group of oversized boys given the chance to play with the words “dharm-pracharak asana” (a grand-sounding term for the missionary position)? In any case this is a club made up of people who are pragmatic about the workings of the world, aware that they will have to deal with each other in other situations in the years ahead, and that bridges must never be completely burnt no matter how fierce a disagreement gets.

Shortly after that sequence, Talvar ends by returning to the person whom everyone seems to have lost sight of in their spin-doctoring games and recriminations: the victim. But a case can be made that the film is too subtle or even perfunctory in doing this – the closing scene felt like a token, half-hearted exercise in sentimentality, included to belatedly give an audience something to get a little moist-eyed about as they shuffle out. Ultimately, for all of Irrfan’s super-detective-like panache in the early scenes, Talvar's real tone resides in its cold, cynical understanding that in a case like this the victims quickly become abstractions, a circus of voyeurism and self-interest takes over…and even a Holmes might turn in despair to his morphine, the same way Ashwin keeps turning to his own addiction, the video games on his phone.

P.S. The interviews I have read about Talvar being a “Rashomon-like” film, showing two or three different scenarios without taking a position on guilt or innocence, are a little misleading: this film definitely does take a position, almost to the degree that Avirook Sen’s recent book does. And it makes clever use of humour to present some of the farcical aspects of the case made against the Talwars. One of the biggest laughs – when Ashwin is sarcastically relating what needed to have happened, in limited time, on the morning after the murder for the prosecution’s version to be true, and we see the dead girl’s mother telling her husband “Come, hurry, we have to start the rona-dhona now” – reminded me of the hilarious “magic bullet” scene in Oliver Stone’s JFK.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Many goodies at the Chandigarh Literature Festival

A shout-out about this year’s edition of the Chandigarh Literature Festival, being held from November 5-8. I have been helping the organisers put the fest together, and as with previous editions, CLF has a razor-sharp focus, being primarily made up of sessions where a critic is in conversation with an author about a specific book (nominated beforehand by the critic). This year, though, the traditional format has been tweaked just a bit to facilitate a celebration of the journal Biblio: A Review of Books, which turns 20 this year. We asked the Biblio editorial team to nominate a few of their favourite books across categories and we then scheduled sessions where those books would be discussed. The inaugural session on the 5th evening, moderated by Sagarika Ghose, will be about Biblio’s journey and the changing landscape of literary criticism over the past two decades.

The programme is not in its absolute final form yet, but here are some of the books that will be discussed at the festival:

Ananya Vajpeyi’s Righteous Republic (Vajpeyi in conversation with Dilip Padgaonkar)

Shashi Tharoor’s India Shastra (Tharoor in conversation with Mihir Sharma)

Jeet Thayil's 60 Indian Poets (Thayil in conversation with Jennifer Robertson)

Sampurna Chattarji’s Space Gulliver: Chronicles of an Alien (Chattarji in conversation with Arundhathi Subramaniam)

Veena Venugopal’s Would You Like Some Bread with that Book? (Venugopal in conversation with Poorva Rajaram)

Rahul Bhattacharya’s The Sly Company of People Who Care (Bhattacharya in conversation with Rukmini Bhaya Nair)

Sudeep Sen’s Fractals (Sen in conversation with Shashi Tharoor)

Parvati Sharma’s The Dead Camel and Other Stories (Sharma in conversation with Aditya Mani Jha)

Kiran Nagarkar’s Bedtime Story (Nagarkar in conversation with yours truly)

Other highlights include: a special session where Kiran Nagarkar speaks with Nayantara Sahgal about her large body of work; a short-fiction-writing workshop conducted by Indira Chandrasekhar, the editor of Out of Print magazine; and a couple of “specials” that will be revealed closer to the festival date.

Finally, four film sessions featuring directors, screenwriters and some of our finest critics. Baradwaj Rangan will discuss Badlapur with director Sriram Raghavan, Trisha Gupta will discuss NH10 with director Navdeep Singh and writer Sudip Sharma, Mihir Pandya will discuss the Marathi film Killa with director Avinash Arun, and Uday Bhatia will discuss Masaan with director Neeraj Ghaywan and writer Varun Grover.

Anyone who is based in Chandigarh, or plans to be there in November, or is enthusiastic enough to make a short trip for the festival, please do note and spread the word. More details to follow.

(The CLF website is here. Watch for updates)

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Stars - big ones and little ones - descending

[From my Mint Lounge column; this is also a continuation of thoughts about Nawazuddin Siddiqui from this post]

Vienna, late at night, filmed in the distinctive shades of 1940s noir. A cat rubbing against someone’s legs in a dark doorway. A drunken monologue, an overhead window opening, a doorway suddenly lit up to reveal a man framed in it, a naughty smile spreading across his face as the camera glides in and a memorable zither score begins.

Speaking about his famous entrance scene in The Third Man – as the charismatic black-marketer Harry Lime – Orson Welles noted that for more than half the film, Harry was nowhere to be seen but everyone talked about him. This was in keeping with the spirit of the theatre he had grown up watching, Welles said: in plays such as “Mister Wu”, the star didn’t come on until the end of the first act… and when he did, the build-up ensured the audience was on its feet.

The zither isn’t much used in Hindi-film soundtracks, but anyone who watched movies of a certain vintage will remember the plink-plonking of piano keys when a star made his or her first appearance onscreen. It is the sort of cue – underlining things for the viewer, telling us what we must feel – that can make some of us shift uneasily even while watching a favourite old film. It is the very essence of melodrama (and remember the etymology of that much-maligned word: melos, or music, plus drame, drama), but you’ll find it even in some low-key films. In Gulzar’s 1975 Aandhi, when we first see Sanjeev Kumar he is grey-haired, tending his garden, looking unstarry. Yet there is a brief swell of music so at odds with the overall mood of this film (about an estranged middle-aged couple recalling the twisted paths or mod that led them to where they now are), it sounds like it was belatedly inserted by a distributor. And in the same director’s Khushboo, made around the same time, there is a similar elbow-nudge when Hema Malini appears. The scene is meant to be melancholy – dressed in a simple, creased sari, she is walking into a room where a doctor is attending to an elderly patient – but the Star Heralding Jukebox has no compunctions about disrupting the tone. “Sit up!” it yells at the viewer, “Dream Girl is here.”

I have been thinking about various types of star entrances after watching Bajrangi Bhaijaan, which has two such scenes – though you might think it only has one. The obvious, larger-than-life one naturally belongs to Salman Khan and occurs 20 minutes into the film, after the prelude about a little Pakistani girl becoming separated from her mother, alone and lost in Kurukshetra. At this point the narrative segues from measured quietness into the boisterous “Selfie Le Le Re” song sequence, centred on Salman as Hanuman bhakt Bajrangi. An apt entrance for a superstar of the masses, the scene also has a clear function within the narrative: it “introduces” India as a place that is colourful, noisy, even terrifyingly pagan at times (what must all those dancers with monkey masks and ten heads look like to a child from a country where there are no pictorial depictions of God and Prophet?), but warm and helpful at heart. And who but Salman to stand in for all these qualities? He will become Shahida’s protector, carrying her safely back to her home (some of their scenes together will mimic the classic Hanuman-Sita iconography, much as their clinch in the freeze-frame that ends the film – Bajrangi holding Shahida up above his head – will resemble the positions of India and Pakistan on a map, the former an indulgent big-brother figure, the latter a child balanced on a shoulder).

But much later comes another, different (and definitely non-musical) entrance scene that is very aware of the special appeal and standing of the actor concerned. In his first scene as a TV journalist, Nawazuddin Siddiqui is seen through a handheld camera, trying to report a mundane bit of news but repeatedly frustrated by passersby photo-bombing the footage. This scene has a utilitarian function too – establishing the professional life of a character who will later use a camera to record the major goings on in the narrative – and yet it felt a tiny bit contrived to me. It’s as if the director and writer had said: Nawaz needs an actorly moment that fits his personality, one that will let him amuse and impress the viewer at the same time – so let’s insert some Dogme-style footage here, complete with stops and starts and double-takes.

In fact, Siddiqui’s status as a “serious”, “non-starry” performer has been creating fresh subtexts for the films he appears in and making him something of a “pahaar-katva” (to cite a description of his role in Manjhi) staring down the mountains of the mainstream star system, undercutting them with his own special little moments. There is more to say on that subject, but for now it’s enough to note that his entrance scene in Bajrangi Bhaijaan is nearly as much of a “Mister Wu” moment as Salman’s is.

P.S. In 1984, another famous “actor’s actor” with the same initials, Naseeruddin Shah, had perhaps Indian cinema’s most vivid “Mister Wu” scene ever, his character Amrit appearing only in an unforgettable nightmare scene in the final seconds of Govind Nihalani’s Party, after 120 minutes of being discussed by the other characters. But that was a “parallel” film and it could be argued that on some level it played off the fact that Naseer’s status in that circuit was comparable to Bachchan's in the mainstream. At any rate, Nihalani did something similar with him in Aghaat too.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Farida Jalal, Tarun Bose, Usha Kiran - and other underrated actors in Hrishikesh Mukherjee's cinema

From Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor and Meena Kumari to Dharmendra, Sharmila Tagore and Rajesh Khanna to Amitabh Bachchan and Rekha, Hrishikesh Mukherjee directed most of Hindi cinema’s major stars between the 1950s and 1980s. Yet he had a particular knack for bringing alive the supporting character – and in casting the right people in those roles.
To read about five of my favourite underappreciated performances in Hrishi-da's films, see this piece I did for Scroll. And do add to the list, please.

P.S. for anyone who missed it, the Kindle version of The World of Hrishikesh Mukherjee is now available - the link is here. (It currently says Rs 539, but it was Rs 299 just a day ago, and the price may change again soon.)

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Belated thoughts on Manjhi, mountains, Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Ketan Mehta

How absurd the Dashrath Manjhi tale is, and how overwrought it would seem if it had been thought up by a writer of fiction. Think about it. A novelist goes to a publisher (or a scriptwriter to a film producer) with this original idea he has about a poor, oppressed man who, singlehanded and in the face of derision, chips away at a mountain for decades, eventually creating a path that will connect his neglected village with the outside world and bring in a few stray glimmers of progress along with the extra sunlight.

The publisher/producer chuckles, then calls in his 200-kg bouncers to give this writer the treatment Dorothy Parker once prescribed for an unworthy book (don’t toss him aside lightly, throw him with great force). Or, if he is kind-hearted and not too pressed for time, he sighs, offers conditional encouragement. “Yes yes, I get it,” he tells the writer, “It’s symbolic and has a good message – man can move mountains if he has the will. The little person can triumph over unreal odds.”

“But you do realize this story is not just completely unbelievable on its own terms, it doesn’t even meet the terms of a good allegory? Even allegories and metaphors should require the reader to use his brain to figure out what stands for what. Why does Grigor Samsa become an enormous insect? What does it mean? But in your yarn, there is no scope for interpretation. We have one man and one mountain, and that’s it. Too obvious.”

“Well, the mountain does stand for the implacable cruelty of tradition,” mumbles the writer, no longer feeling very confident, “the old, constraining ways of life looming over this prejudice-ridden village, keeping the winds of change out when everyone else in the country is talking about equality. Seen that way, Dashrath is the Gandhi-like liberator who…”

“No, still too heavy-handed,” says the publisher/producer, casting a quick look at Yokozuna awaiting orders by the door, “It's a big block of bombast. Make a few changes – chip away at it with hammer and axe, let’s see if we end up with a less ponderous hillock of a tale.”


All this is if the Manjhi story had been fiction. But we know it really happened, so a filmmaker taking it on has this advantage: the material is dramatic, but he won’t have to face the criticism that it is too implausible or over-the-top (a “Based on a True Story” before the credits impresses everyone). And so, assuming he isn’t setting out to make a documentary or a hyper-realistic film, he has a lot of freedom. He can embellish the details, bring in some of the more dramatic tropes from a Hindi cinema of a pre-multiplex time, or even stage scenes where the artifice is obvious, where we are in a partly Brechtian space. In the opening shot of Ketan Mehta’s Manjhi: The Mountain Man, where Dashrath sets fire to his rocky nemesis, the blaze on the mountain is presented not realistically but like a computer-generated depiction of lava in an adventure epic. And the film’s last scene, complete with a soaring Hollywood epic-style score and Vaseline on the lens, is a bit like the end of James Cameron’s Titanic – Dashrath and his long-dead wife Phalguni reunited in fantasy, like Jack and Rose (the mountain/iceberg couldn’t defeat them, the ship of their love has been made whole again, social boundaries have ceased to matter).

Mehta knows all about Brechtian distance, of course. His 1980 film Bhavni Bhavai (one of the best debut features made by an Indian director in my view, a member of an elite club that includes Ray’s Pather Panchali) was in that mould, a folk tale with characters seemingly aware of their symbolic function, actors in double roles, a court jester speaking truth to power while at the audience. Its story was set in a kingdom where the palace “smells like hell” – ostensibly because the toilet-cleaners have gone missing, but also a metaphor for the creeping stink of casteism. The Manjhi sub-plot of a village beset by drought and dramatically saved through one man’s labours (Dashrath finds water under the mountain, and then the skies burst open as if to complement his efforts) reminded me of Mehta’s much more pessimistic debut film: the bhavai, or well, in the unjust kingdom is always dry, and when water does explode forth in the end, it washes the kingdom and everything in it – bad and good – away. (As in the Manjhi scene where a labourer falls to his death in a kiln, there is a clear link between what is nourishing and what is destructive.)

Manjhi has stimulating things in it, but it is no Bhavni Bhavai: it has too many balls in the air at the same time; it doesn’t commit itself to a particular storytelling mode the way the earlier film did; it shifts a little uncomfortably between realism and hyper-drama, or poetic exaggeration. In that sense I felt it was more like Mehta’s 1985 Mirch Masala, which played at times like a minimalist narrative
typical of the art cinema of the time (with a cast that was the art-film equivalent of the multi-starrer), but also contained many archetypes and symbols and apparently simple-minded dialogue. (Every time I saw the shots of the mountain in Manjhi, I thought of the seemingly endless mounds of chillies – bright red, much too bright – in Mirch Masala.)

It is easy to envision the Manjhi story as done by a different sort of director, say someone with a greater interest in documentary-like authenticity: this would involve steering away from such “filmi” scenes as the one where leering upper-caste men abduct a woman right before her family’s eyes because her husband has talked back to them (never mind that such things probably happen often enough in the real world, but many of us "sophisticated" viewers have been conditioned to associate them with the excesses of popular Hindi cinema and hence feel embarrassed about their depiction onscreen). In that hypothetical film, the Dashrath-Phalguni relationship wouldn’t be turned into something eternal and larger than life, her death wouldn’t be so dramatic, and Manjhi’s private battle wouldn’t intersect with Indira Gandhi and the Politics of the Nation.

But we have the film we have, and so, to return to an earlier question: what does the mountain stand for? The deadwood of tradition, which can only be chipped away one tiny bit at a time? Okay. A version of the terrifying force of nature that drove ill-fated lovers apart in Titanic? Sure. The Paramount Pictures logo? Maybe. But here’s another thought, based on the fact that Mehta’s film often chooses to operate on a level outside its own narrative, with a few little references – in casting and in dialogue – to Gangs of Wasseypur (which itself was a film that constantly referenced cinema). Consider how apt it is, in today’s climate, for Nawazuddin Siddiqui to be cast as a “pahaar-katva”, as someone who opens a film by growling “Bahut bada hai?” at a mountain and finishes by cutting it down to size.

It almost felt like an inside joke, a comment on Siddiqui’s function in so many films in the past few years: a short, dark-complexioned man who is no one’s idea of a Hindi-film leading man, and yet has stood up to – and sometimes stolen scenes from – bigger, more viable stars from Aamir Khan (Talaash) to Vidya Balan (Kahaani) to Salman Khan (Kick, Bajrangi Bhaijaan). He has been paired opposite tall, glamorous heroines like Huma Qureshi and Bipasha Basu, and this casting has brought subtexts to a film that the filmmakers themselves may not have consciously intended (see this old post about Aatma). In a witty scene in Bajrangi Bhaijaan, he even played husband to Salman Khan, who is disguised beneath a burkha. It now feels like Gangs of Wasseypur unwittingly anticipated Siddiqui’s arc in the film industry by positioning him as the overlooked child who becomes the centre of attention.

I’m not here to restate what you have already read (or thought) a hundred times before – that Siddiqui is one of our best actors – or to adopt the smug disdain of those who dislike mainstream cinema and star-personalities. I think discussions about actors and stars and star-actors need to be more layered than that. (One might need to recognize, for instance, that if a Nawazuddin can do things that a Shah Rukh or Salman cannot do, the opposite is also true – the same way that Naseeruddin Shah has expressed envy of the things that actors like Shammi Kapoor could convincingly pull off.) What I find more interesting is how Nawazuddin’s very presence in some mainstream or semi-mainstream films has facilitated minor tectonic shifts in our understanding of performers, showing that even “serious” or “character-driven” actors can become codes or signifiers in film culture.

So maybe (and I’m not saying this is what Manjhi intended, just that a critic is entitled to such flights of fancy at a time when our cinema is always so self-referential) the mountain in Manjhi is… Salman Khan. I’ll leave you to chew on that for the moment, though I’ll return to Bajrangi Bhaijaan and related thoughts soon.

[A post about Ketan Mehta's Bhavni Bhavai is here]

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Too much order in the court

[This is the first entry in my new fortnightly film column, "Above the Line", for Mint Lounge]

In conversations about the New Hindi Cinema – you know, the one that is breaking away from hyper-dramatic traditions and sometimes replacing them with an equally simplistic hyper-realism – the courtroom scene becomes a benchmark for how far we have come from the supposed sins of the past. Those sins included the wails of “Milord!”, the sonorous pronouncements of “Taazi-raat-e-Hind” and “Sazaaye Maut”, the grandstanding, the ornate dialogue that no real-world judge, lawyer or defendant would be heard chanting even in their bathrooms. Or the canted-angle zoom shots, as quaint as rotary-dial telephones, of Justice with her scales.

It is a very long way indeed from Sunny Deol’s snarling “taareekh pe taareekh pe taareekh” in the 1993 Damini to the deliberately static, held shot of a lawyer reading out a lengthy statement about a case in Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court, her voice as inexpressive and bored as the voices of Deol or Amrish Puri were emotion-drenched; here are two immensely different cinematic ways of making a similar point about how soul-sapping – and detrimental to a plaintiff’s interests – a long-drawn-out case can be. In other contemporary films like Hansal Mehta’s Shahid, the shots of lawyers bickering in court and fumbling over documents have the spare, naturalistic feel of Cinéma Vérité – on view here is not the stylized courtroom where lies and truth are in timeless conflict but a more mundane setting where hassled, sweat-soaked people speak legalese almost mechanically. Meanwhile films like Jolly LLB and OMG exist in a medium space, not using handheld-camera shots but not venturing towards the excesses of an earlier age either.

While thinking very highly of these films, I bristle at the implication that the “understated” courtroom scene is inherently superior to the other sort. Judge not the mode, judge its execution. Like anything else, the florid scene can be done well or poorly. When done well, it
always reminds me of the grand climax of Michael Powell’s 1946 A Matter of Life and Death, where the fate of a British airman (he has accidentally been left alive because the “conductor” who was supposed to escort him to the after-world messed up; now what to do?) becomes the pretext for a celestial trial and the examining of lofty ideas such as the meaning of love and the nature of civilization.

In the Hindi-film context, I love old-style courtroom scenes when they are done with verve, and when they fit a given situation – a classic example being in Waqt, where Balraj Sahni’s Lala Kedarnath is reunited with his family against the backdrop of a murder trial, and the kacheri scenes serve a clear dramatic function in a story that is already much larger than life. Look at everything at stake here: the freedom of an innocent accused, the happiness of a large family that has been through so much since they were sundered by an earthquake decades earlier. Milord ki kasam, with such a scenario, why would you want things to be presented in drily realistic terms!

So, to a degree, the difference in form is dictated by the type of case. But it isn’t always that straightforward either. Consider the 1984 Mohan Joshi Haazir Ho!, in which Balraj Sahni’s brother Bhisham plays a poor man trying only to get his crumbling chawl home fixed. Since the scale has been pared down from the Grand Court of mainstream Hindi cinema to the Small Cause Court of the cinema of struggle, those who haven’t actually seen this film might think it is “quiet” and “subdued”. Actually, it is about as subdued as Jaane bhi do Yaaro, whose manic, college-skit mode it closely mimics at times (and which had involved many of the same cast and crew members). To depict the numbing passage of time during a trial, it employs an absurdist mode that is at a remove from both the straight-faced realism of a Court and the straight-faced melodrama of a Damini: scenes are presented as speeded-up vignettes, the courtroom bell clangs – to announce a recess – in the middle of an intense argument, and everyone instantly relaxes; the Naseeruddin Shah character sighs “Teen saal guzar gaye”, and we see that he now has a moustache. Such moments are played for laughs, but then we see old, feeble Mohan Joshi in the background and the laugh sticks in the throat.

In any case, quick judgements about courtroom scenes tend to over-simplify the issue of “realism” in cinema. Fact: even in the real world, even when voices are lowered and there is no overt dialogue-baazi, a courtroom can be very similar to a rangmanch, and there is usually a degree of performance involved. Lawyers, the plaintiff, the accused, even witnesses present a carefully thought out version of themselves for maximum impact; the history of famous real-world trials teaches us that, fair or not, life-changing
judgements are sometimes based on first impressions. Writing about the 1959 Anatomy of a Murder, one of the finest courtroom dramas ever made (and I emphasise “drama”), Kim Newman observed that James Stewart and George C Scott played their parts with a real understanding of how lawyers “have to be not only great actors but stars, assuming personalities that exaggerate their inner selves and weighing every outburst and objection for the effect it has on the poor saps in the jury box”.

This is not, of course, to imply that lawyers are always that way, in every situation – the sad-faced lady in Court, circles under her eyes, clearly weighed down by her routine in a drab courtroom (and after working hours, at home), looks like she is barely interested in being herself, much less acting out an exaggerated version of herself. But give her an exciting case, a better-lit and ventilated courtroom and an opponent willing to challenge her with a few flourishes, and who knows, even she might be temporarily transformed.


[Here's an old post about the 1960 film Inherit the Wind, in which two acting titans, Fredric March and Spencer Tracy, play lawyers who are constantly performing, in court and outside]

Thursday, September 10, 2015

The voices of hunted lions: a conversation with Karthika Nair about her Mahabharata in poetry

[Did a version of this Q&A for Scroll]

Intro: Karthika Nair’s new book Until the Lions is a powerful retelling of the Mahabharata that uses various poetic forms – and the voices of many marginalised characters – to offer a tangential look at the great epic, specifically at the hegemony of the powerful, the helplessness of the weak, and the perils that may lie hidden in conventional interpretations.

When and how did your interest in the Mahabharata begin? At what point did it become the sort of obsession that led to such an intense book?

I couldn’t quite pinpoint one instant of awareness or active interest. I mean, I imbibed it in so many ways: as bedtime stories from the extended family, then through Amar Chitra Katha comics—a staple when I learnt to read… and simultaneously through intricate kathakali performances (many of which I dozed through, they began late and went on till wee hours of dawn), or thunderous fantasy films.

As a teen, two experiences that stood out were the Mahabharata episodes in Shyam Benegal’s Bharat Ek Khoj (though I’d enjoyed the more opulent B.R. Chopra television series too), and Mani Ratnam’s Thalapathi, which focussed on one particular – endlessly fascinating – equation from the Mahabharata (the bond between Duryodhana and Karna), and transposed it brilliantly into small-town, 20th century India. His delineation of characters and
their emotional arcs was a master-class in storytelling. And Bharat Ek Khoj struck me with its attention to the social and political environments in which the epic could have unfolded: suddenly, the human became much more gripping than the divine.

But the immediate trigger came only in early 2010. I’d just read a contemporary retelling of the Mahabharata and been intensely annoyed by its reductive approach to two layered, heroic yet wilful protagonists whom the author painted in shades of gold and roseate. And that got me thinking about all the others, especially the ones who feature as ‘supporting cast’. Around the same time, I read the late Arun Kolatkar’s Sarpa Satra: it pretty much rewired my synapses. I am still at a loss for words when it comes to this book and how it galvanised the imagination—here was the other end of the spectrum, and how iridescent an end that was! 

The obsession, though, grew after the decision to attempt this retelling in multiple voices. It was sown during these last years of reading/watching everything I could: translations, retellings, analyses, film and theatre and dance adaptations… and as I began writing, these characters just developed bone and sinew, nerves and pretty raucous tongues, and took to challenging my own notions of structure and narrative. There were times when it felt like an unending visitation. 

Speaking very broadly, there are two types of Mahabharata tellings: the supernatural one, which centres on Krishna as a God, and which also tends to have a sentimental view of the characters and a reasonably defined sense of good and evil; and the gritty, cynical, earthy one (probably very close to what the epic in its core form, Jaya, was thousands of years ago) that questions everything. As a reader, do you have a preference for one over the other? Or do you feel they serve different functions?

I do believe they serve different functions, and I can be just as engrossed in both types: it depends on the levels of inventiveness and writing. Though I am invigorated by the recurrent reminder that there was always room for cynicism, for doubt, for picturing alternative scenarios! The playwright Bhasa’s oeuvre, for instance,
includes so many plays questioning the righteousness of the gods, of the victors; imagining a next generation (that of Abhimanyu) refusing their fathers’ war. And his plays were written roughly two thousand years ago: it injects some hope to our Age of Offence where the near-omnipotent right-wing revisionists are primed to scream bloody murder over any act of imaginative freedom. I wonder which Foreign Hand they could blame for Bhasa’s writing!

Your book takes its title from the African proverb “Until the lions get their own historians, tales of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” As it happens, recent news has given that line an oddly literal resonance! But you apply it to the Mahabharata in an intriguing way – specifically to the little people of history, including the ordinary soldiers who sacrifice their lives for the hubris of princes, and the marginal characters who exist only to serve the main characters. This isn’t something as simple as a history-is-written-by-the-victors narrative, is it? One point you seem to be making is that even within every “winning team” and “losing team”, there are people who are oppressed.

Yes, Cecil the lion provides a tragic and urgent coda. You are right: the proverb, to me, implied more than the prerogative winners have on history. It underpinned the problem with dominant narratives—any dominant narrative (victor or recognized victim). In the context of this retelling, I felt strongly there is – okay, this is a truism but important enough to be repeated – seldom a single history, especially with a juggernaut like war. Mahasweta Devi
underscored this with casual brilliance in After Kurukshetra, where she told the tale of the widows of Kurukshetra, of Yuyutsu’s mother Sauvali, and of the relatives of the Nishada family burnt alive in Varanavrata in place of the Pandavas—a reminder that even victims leave behind other victims, ones we do not perceive. It was the intersection of narratives, the refracted, echoed voices, so to say, that intrigued me.

And that also resonated with something my father, an army officer, told me when I was a child: he said there were no altruistic victories in war and few noble heroes—that heroism exacts a moral price.  It taught me too that we are almost all, in some ways, complicit in conflict, in injustice, in battle, which, for instance, considerably shaped my reading of Krishna. There are tales of ‘winners’ too, in this book. But you are right again, I was not trying to switch binaries: the aim was not to make the bad guys the good ones and vice-versa. So there are poems where Duryodhana’s malevolence is clearly indicated (by his own mother, among others), and others where his loyalty to and love for Karna are highlighted. We can often be hero to one person, villain to another, and something in between to lots of others.

Speaking of Krishna, I loved the Mohini jeremiad, in the voice of Krishna’s female side: this sense of a split personality, a God berating himself and all of his Creation, is fascinating. Throughout the book, you focus on the underprivileged, nameless "pawns", yet this lacerating segment comes from the mouth of the most empowered and central character of all (or from a part of his personality). That is a superb conception.

I must confess Mohini (along with Amba/Shikhandi and Poorna) is a personal favourite, both the story and – if one is allowed to have preferences within one’s own work – the response it elicited from me. Also, because this regional variant was a discovery, one made during the research on Until the Lions.

Earlier, I hadn’t known of Aravan’s story, which has fascinating spin-offs in performing and visual art representations in Tamil Nadu, particularly among the Koothandavar community who follow Peruntevanar’s version of the Mahabharata. In this 9th century epic poem, the Pandavas ask Aravan – Arjuna’s son from Ulupi – to offer himself as human sacrifice to Kali to ensure their victory at Kurukshetra. Aravan agrees but on condition he be wedded before his mutilation and death: he wants to be mourned by a wife. When no woman agrees to marry a man about to die, Krishna steps in and offers to marry Aravan as Mohini, his female form.

Jeremiad for the Debris of Stars imagines Mohini’s enraged, uncontrollable grief after Aravan’s end. I was fascinated by the possibility of guilt, the internal conflict within the supreme being – now reduced to a bereaved human (the choice of Aravan as sacrifice having been very much Krishna’s idea) – and how it could charge Mohini the widow’s molten fury, her burning sorrow. As you said, it suddenly incites god himself to deliver the ultimate indictment of war, a war he has shaped; and his indictment of himself, “god that creates god that destroys god that forgets as gods so easily do”.

A question about the feminist aspects of the book. Nearly all the voices here are those of women – certainly all the ones that are established Mahabharata characters. Including very peripheral figures such as King Drupada’s nameless wife, known only in terms of her relationship to other characters; or Vidura’s mother, the maid Poorna; or Yuyutsu’s mother Sauvali, raped by Dhritarashtra (though as she says, “When the King decides to rape me or my kind, we must not use the word rape”) in his quest for an heir. Is it your feeling that such women – treated as child-bearing machines and then discarded or ignored – best represent the downtrodden of history?

Nearly all the voices with the exception of two soldiers – a father and son (with radically different outlooks on war) – and Krishna (as man-avatar, but later also as Mohini). The men are Padavit, among the lowest rank of soldiers, who also represent the downtrodden of history.

In the Mahabharata – as seen in most other epics (except perhaps Gilgamesh?), and through history – women are generally among the first casualties of war and conflict (Amba, Ambika, Ambalika, Gandhari in certain regional accounts, Draupadi, the Yadava women after the destruction of their clan…). Their bodies become territories, then detritus: conquered, ravaged, ploughed for produce, cast aside. But, unlike in the case of land, the humiliation of ‘conquest’ is attached to their person; there is a puzzling (and expedient) transfer of defeat and dishonour that Rushdie wrote about most memorably in Shame: from the men who’ve experienced defeat to the women who suffer the consequences of that defeat. I was interested in the women’s own responses to that notion of dishonour, as well as their (occasional) refusal of it. Amba spends two lifetimes seeking retribution, but in quieter ways, Poorna’s and Sauvali’s reaction to the use or possession of their bodies is just as radical, as subversive. Sauvali sums up the societal order with, “When the king decides to rape me or my kind, no one will use the word rape.  The word does not exist in the king’s world. This body is just another province he owns, from navel to nipple to eyelid, insole to clitoris.” And her response is that, nonetheless, even he cannot own her thoughts, nor her conscience: that conviction is the legacy she leaves her son. 

Also, I wanted to explore the thought that Vyaasa expresses in Until the Lions, horrified, that “war is sometimes not the worst event… it just magnifies the evil men commit at other times.” So most of these women – on the epic’s margins, as you put it so aptly – suffer as many humiliations during peace. The total disregard for their desires, their fates—that was a trait exhibited not by the ‘enemy’ alone, but also by the men in their lives. And perhaps almost as much by other women (Kunti’s commandment on Draupadi’s marital status, and Satyavati’s decision to have her widowed daughters-in-law impregnated to perpetuate her dynasty are flagrant examples): I was not interested in male bashing any more than I was in “victor bashing”! It was more of an inquiry into power, its sources, its proprietors and tenants and what that power permits/spurs them to do. Unsurprisingly, those who wield it most often are men, but I also wanted to explore the actions of women in the epic who hold the sceptre (Satyavati, Ulupi, Hidimbi, Kunti in many ways). And through the years of reading and writing, I saw them as much more than archetypes of virtue and vice.

Another reason to focus on the female voice was perhaps because many of them are survivors, witnesses but not disinterested ones. Over and above the loss and grief, some emanate a sense of inevitability. And many have a narrative that goes beyond victory and defeat. You mentioned Dhrupada’s wife. Vyaasa’s epic recounts that Dhrupada raises Draupadi as an enticement for Arjuna, that it is all part of his plan to destroy Drona. In fact, all his children are created to rout an enemy rather than to bring him joy or propagate his name. And I found the perspective of a mother who must watch her children be forged into weapons compelling. Someone who lives in a greenhouse of hatred and vengeance, who feels alienated from her closest kin but cannot (or does not) actively intervene to change the course of events.

The first half of the book has multiple poems in the voice of the matriarch Satyavati, great-grandmother to the warring Kuru princes, as she reflects on everything that went wrong, and the part that she played in it – while also providing the reader the basic Mahabharata back-story. In the original epic, Satyavati exits the stage quite early. Were there any complications in using her as a recurring, anchoring voice?

Is there a keyboard shortcut for “big burst of laughter”? Oh yes, it was hell to get rid of Satyavati; her voice had become the thread around which all the others were strung. Both Anita Roy and Marilyn Hacker, while reading the initial voices, had strongly urged me to use a diegetic device to explain the story, like a foreword or a plot summary: they pointed out that most people (even Mahabharata obsessed souls like us) tend to forget the minor characters, the convolutions of plot, and that it would really help to get a clearer picture while reading Until the Lions (instead of having to keep a set of reference books by the bedside). Somehow, I wanted to avoid an explanation outside the story, and slowly Satyavati came into being (she was the voice whose devising took the most thought and time). And once she took the stage, she elbowed out any other aspirant to that role. She became increasingly more central, as the only character with a larger vision of cause and effect. Most of the other voices, self-aware though they are, are concerned with their immediate lives and environment or interests. Satyavati is both passionately devoted to building her dynasty and painfully aware of the cost of that goal.

Nonetheless, I had decided not to deviate much from the chronology of the epic, so I had to get rid of her around midway. That did cause more burnt axons and overheated grey cells, juggling with options: should I have her reading letters from Bheeshma in her hermitage apprising her of doings in Hastinapura, or hand over her functions to someone else (Poorna was tempting as replacement)? I didn’t discard the unreal either: could her ghost walk through the palace, noting the colour of Subhadra’s wedding robe? No, I am joking!  I did finally find a solution that felt right, one that allowed her to have the last narrative word.

Some of the voices here complement or contrast with each other, serving as “double bills” in some sense: e.g. Poorna (maid, mother of Vidura) and Sauvali (maid, mother of Yuyutsu); or Hidimbi and Ulupi, both of whom are marginalised wives of Pandava princes. Even as a long-time Mahabharata buff, I saw new parallels and similarities between certain characters and situations. Was this part of your original design, or did it emerge in the writing?

Not really! I mean, some of the specific twin-ship/mirror patterns emerged as my vision of the characters became clearer. I had an original long-list of about 23-25 characters whose stories and personalities had always beguiled, and then I cut that down to 18 (with Satyavati, of course, later becoming the 19th – or 1st, actually – voice that acted as Ariadne’s thread) that I would write on/as. Karna’s adoptive mother Radha, Subhadra, Chitrangada, Ambika-Ambalika etc were some of those who didn’t make the shortlist, so to say.

There are characters that double bill themselves, so to say: Amba and Shikhandi (within the same poem), Krishna and Mohini (across two separate poems). Some that were meant to provide contrasting voices from the beginning: the Padavits, for instance. I knew father and son would have radically different views on war and heroism—they now bookend the narrative. Also, Kunti and Gandhari: it was clear they would be poles apart as mothers, as queens. But there are others, like Hidimbi and Ulupi (as lovers and mothers) whose similarities and divergences grew more pointed as I conceptualised the poems, or even while I wrote them. The casteist/ species-ist conventions kick in too, with Hidimbi’s and Ulupi’s stories: Ghatotkacha never gets his due as the eldest Pandava grandchild because he is half-rakshasa, a reviled race. While the Nagas, who see themselves superior to earthlings, give Ulupi’s son Aravan a hard time, as he is blemished by the human taint of his father.

Poorna’s and Sauvali’s accounts are offset by a sharp distinction: volition. Poorna’s coupling with Vyaasa is volitional: she chooses to go in Ambika’s place, to spare her ward/mistress a repeat of the violation she dreads—and I hope her choice permeates the writing. Dhritarashtra, however, rapes Sauvali, over and over again: it is a rape authorised and sanctified by court and priests and all the powers-that-be, and all the more horrific for that. That’s somehow not very different from the State refusing to recognise marital rape as a crime, is it?

You have made some very bold decisions, such as the one to not just name all 100 of the Kauravas (in Dushala’s voice when she remembers her brothers) but to also have a line or two of description about each of them. For me this is one of the most striking and impressive sections in the book: even Vyasa’s Mahabharata, which we are told contains “everything”, can barely be bothered with the personalities of more than three or four of the brothers; Duryodhana and Duhshasana are always the visible “frontmen” for a nebulous mass of Kauravas. But you bring those nameless, featureless siblings alive, awaken the reader to the multiple possibilities in them: how one of them may have been a special friend to one of the Pandavas, how another may have been gay, another agnostic. How hard was this poem to pull off, in terms of both structure and content?

I am so glad you noticed that poem: it is one of the quietest ones, there are no pyrotechnics here of emotion or event. Like you, I have always seen and heard the Kauravas described as a nameless, faceless collective (except for one or two, like Vikarna who remonstrates with Duhshasana at the vastraharan).

I could have followed the very probable theory that hundred was a later addition made specifically to underscore the greatness of their adversaries, the five Pandavas, and that the Kauravas were also just a handful in number. However, from a theatrical perspective, a hundred has such heft and scope! Nonetheless, a hundred people should not, as Dusshala says, be

“Reduced to a number, a clan name.
That cannot be. They must be remembered. Mourned. Reclaimed.”

The hardest part of that poem was finding their names—in almost all the reference material I read, there were discrepancies, and repetitions in all. Finally, I retained the names as I found them, and one of the couplets even refers to the repetition. The choice of form came naturally—I’ve used the landay, a Pashtun form of oral poetry whose roots seem to reach back across millennia. It is a form used for mourning, persiflage, erotic banter; highly versatile, I find. It consists of couplets (often rhyming) contained within 22 syllables, 9 in the first line and 13 in the second.

It seemed important to evoke qualities and characteristics familiar to a sibling; someone who loved them but would have been less sentimental about their desires and whims, their annoying as well as endearing traits; someone also who would remember specific events in their lives. By the time they died, they could not have remained ciphers: they must have been lovers, husbands, fathers, practised a craft or vocation, travelled… if not as prolifically as the Pandavas, at least a good deal. Conjuring these up was not difficult; I was intent not to eulogise, nor to demonise, on portraying them as a motley bunch.

And with all 107 (Pandu’s sons and Dhritarashtra’s children) growing up together through much of their childhood, it was tough to believe they would all be enemies since day one. That is how the section about individual relationships with Kunti and some of her sons came about.

One of my favourite narrators in the book isn't human at all. Tell us about Shunaka the sardonic dog and what purpose she served for you as a writer.

Each time I saw or read the Mahabharata - or one of its numberless retellings - the casual, almost unthinking cruelty to animals struck me with renewed vigour. I mean, there is the burning of the Khandava forest, of course, where Krishna encourages Arjuna to kill every living being, whether Naga or suckling fawn or nestling. Then Janamejaya's attempt to wipe out the entire serpent species to avenge his father's murder by Takshaka. There is the dog whose mouth is gagged with arrows by Ekalavya. There are all sorts of animals merrily killed in pursuit of fun and ritual. Apart from Yuddhishtira's loyalty to dharma-disguised-as-dog in the Mahaprasthanika Parva, the outlook is pretty bleak for animals on the whole.

I wanted a rather dispassionate inventory of all this damage by a non-human narrator. And having grown up around dogs all through childhood and early adulthood, it was more natural to channel into a canine voice. My parents have two dogs— Shwanan and Shuni, one generally quite superior and distrustful of most humans and the other, effusive enough to knock you off your feet. So I imagined a conversation between the two, but called the narrator Shunaka and the naïve 'sister', Shyama (which is the name of one of Sarama's children). But the direct literary ancestor of Shunaka is Ugh, have you met him? He's got to be my all-time favourite narrator: the utterly unflappable and majestic canine protagonist of the opening poem of Arun Kolatkar's The Kala Ghoda Poems. He puts most human heroes to shame with his assurance and debonairness.

Questions about form. You use many different poetic traditions in this book, and I’d like you to elucidate on a few. The canzone, for example, which you use for Kunti’s voice – was that the most complicated form you have dealt with? (As an outsider, it seems like complicated mathematics to me when I read about the structure! I don’t know how easy or difficult it is to actually employ it.) And any particular reason why it goes with this character?

The book is in nineteen voices, Satyavati and eighteen others. And form can be a handy tool to transform tone and cadence, and consequently, tenor; and I needed to persuasively inhabit several voices in rapid succession. I do believe, firmly, that content defines form, so the forms were chosen based on the emotional/narrative trajectory of the voice in question, and how the given form could carry that voice. A sestina does not convey the same mood or personality as a haiku, or a sonnet. I’ve used forms from all over, so there isn’t much geographic fidelity—there are pankti and padam, rub’ai and pantoum, acrostics and villanelle and triolet, haibun and tanka, concrete poems and some others.

For instance, with Amba/Shikhandi – where there is occupation of two bodies, two voices, by one soul – I’ve alternated between forms (within the same poem) to suggest the shifts from past to present, from one incarnation to another. Shikhandi speaks only in si harfi, a form used in Sufi and Punjabi mystic poetry to convey piety, developed in the same sequence as the alphabet. But Shikhandi’s devotion is to his purpose, not to any god, and his sections of the poem unfold as a war manual: there is merely deliberate, unflinching action here, no thought nor doubt. Amba while recalling her past begins and ends in Petrarchan sonnets whereas in the middle section, the trauma of abduction is relived first through blank verse, then it veers into free verse, broken, repeated lines with no punctuation, no pauses before swerving back into a calmer space.

While for Vrishali, I employed rimas dissolutas, quite an obscure French form built in sestets that rhyme not within each stanza but across them (abcdef abcdef). It seemed apt for the endless spiral of her grief, which grows through the length of each sestet, then returns to the same starting point. As if grief renders her thought trapped in a circle, although it is gaining momentum, deepening as she speaks until her chosen end. I wanted it to resemble a solenoid, a tightly wound coil, that my engineer friends kept referencing when we were young.

You asked about the canzone. Someone, perhaps Jeet Thayil or Gorge Szirtes, called it a sestina on Speed. In fact, doesn’t Jeet Thayil have a character in Narcopolis declare that every poet should write at least one canzone in his/her lifetime? It’s a bloody high-wire act, sustained across 65 lines, clamouring both extreme precision and acrobatics. Because once you begin working on one, there is an insane adrenaline rush. There is so little space for free movement if you don’t use the set end-words to direct thought—it feels like highly calibrated choreography. So, 5 stanzas of 12 lines and a envoi of 5 lines, with only 5 end words allowed across those 65 lines, words that repeat in a strict, unchangeable order:

To me, the canzone seemed best equipped to reflect the obsessions around which Kunti’s life revolves, five words on which every thought is hinged. It hints at her resolve, her ruthlessness, her momentum, if you will.

While on Kunti: as she talks of her firstborn son Karna, whom she had had to abandon, you portray her not as so many Mahabharata tellings do – as the anguished mother – but as a fiercely practical woman who knows realpolitik and the necessity for sacrifices. “Sons, like pleasure, should serve a purpose,” she says chillingly. Your other narrators are mostly clear-sighted and direct too. What do you find useful or stimulating about this approach to the characters?

Well, several – Satyavati, Kunti, Hidimbi, Ulupi – are rulers, directly or indirectly (queens, regents, dowager and king-maker in Kunti’s case). Many I saw like policy-makers of the corporate world: naturally result-oriented and pragmatic, some ruthless and manipulative, like the Yadavas, or detached and purposeful, like Ulupi. Hidimbi, for example, despite her love for Bhima, realises that it is best for her land and her son that the Pandavas leave at the earliest, they bear too much potential for carnage and are indifferent to everything but their prophesied destinies. But that does not preclude her ample capacity for emotion: her letters to Bhima and Kunti are meant to suggest the depth of her love and apprehension, even as we see the shrewd queen in her longer missives to Kirmira.

As for Kunti, given her rather estranged, lonely childhood, then her late husband’s obsession with kingship and dynasties, and the challenges of surviving in a hostile palace environment, I thought she’d be rather contemptuous of emotional frailty, careful to anchor her life around tangible goals. Both Irawati Karve and Pradip Bhattacharya have praised her resourcefulness and far-sightedness, I just spelt out what that must have meant during intensely emotional moments, whether it be the mistake of Karna’s birth or his arrival in Hastinapur.

And with Poorna and Sauvali, surrounded as they are by the machinations of court and palace intrigues, with their wellbeing and even survival contingent on so many factors external to themselves, how could they not be both disabused by power and wary of its tentacles? There is ancestral distrust here, and with good reason!

There’s always the risk of alienating readers who would prefer a more admiring portrayal of a “Mother Courage” like Kunti, or of Krishna, but this is my attempt to be faithful to these characters, many of whom Vyaasa sketched in variegated shades of grey.

One poem has as its epigraph a verse from the Gulzar-penned lyric “Naam Ada Likhna” (from the film Yahaan), and after providing your translation of the lyrics, you then use the glosa form for your own poem (where the lines of an existing text – in this case, the Gulzar song – are incorporated as the 10th line of each successive stanza in your own poem, often with delicate shifts in meaning). You do something similar with Niranjan Iyer’s “Ek Ghadi” song from the film D-Day. I find it fascinating, this juxtaposition of relatively less-known poetic forms (which many people would consider “elitist”) with popular songs from Hindi cinema. What have your major influences been as a reader, writer and consumer of culture?

I am the proverbial magpie, or like the crow in Arun Kolatkar’s Kala Ghoda Poems: I pick up threads and twigs, strands of silver and fallen hair, beads and mothballs indiscriminately to line my poetic nests. Some influences endure; others shift and sink and rise. A lot of them come from performance art, especially dance. So, it’s a higgledy-piggledy list, here are just a few:

Terry Pratchett, oh for so much! For the endless inventiveness, for making fantasy/ science fiction so hugely entertaining and so mordantly, precisely satiric: about politics, about society, racism and sexism and corporate greed and and and. For his depiction of Death, close at hand…

Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, for what dance critic Sanjoy Roy calls her “exacting pursuit of compositional principles.” Structurally, I keep referencing one of her earliest works (Fase): Constancy VI in Until the Lions draws from its compositional framework, so do my earlier poems like Ya’aburnee.

Rachid Ouramdane and Gregory Maqoma, both choreographers, I admire for their fearlessness and skill in making the political intensely personal, essential, and therefore universal. They remind me that political engagement in art – often a bad word – need not be boring or obvious, that it can transcend pamphleteering and didacticism. That it can refract deep and complex realities stunningly, imaginatively.

Marilyn Hacker for her deep interest in form, for her effortless, innovative use of traditional forms of poetry – from all over the world – and her abiding engagement to this flawed world we live in, especially the corners that are so easy to forget. David Shulman for his work on medieval South Indian poetry, for his scholarship into – and efforts to sustain – endangered theatre forms like Koodiyattom, and again, his peaceful activism for Palestine, his resistance to the Israeli Occupation.

Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie – their work from the 80s, really – who made stand-up comedy so topical, so utterly irreverent. Hrishikesh Mukherjee too – whom we have discussed so often – for a gentler brand of humour, for opening my eyes to the inner lives of marginal characters, when I was seven or so.

Sahir Ludhianvi and Gulzar—two poet-lyricists whose work was my introduction to the might, the wingspan, the omnipresence of poetry, and their readiness to break all the idiotic perceptions of demotic or elitist art. I mean, they could gracefully spring from an addictive nonsense rhyme to a haunting anthem in the space of the same film. They drew poetry out of a school syllabus and into the head, the blood. And Kunchan Nambiar, the Malayalam poet, did the same, with the sheer musicality, the rhythm in his writing.

Patrice Chéreau, for many reasons, mostly for his ability to spin magic, his pursuit of truth, through theatre and cinema. I abide by his belief that theatre – but also art in general – can, unapologetically, enchant. Enchantment need not mean escape from brutality or depth, quite the contrary: it can be bloody and iridescent, strange and real, all at once. Also, as I’ve said before, he had an exceptional talent for highlighting the body – whether the sexual or solitary body (Intimacy), the body as a ‘meditation on mortality’ (His Brother) or as a mirror to the elements (I Am the Wind) – and for making it the locus of his work. There were times when I literally could not move, after watching his work. The body throbbed too much.

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, with whom I worked for nine years: more as a beautiful reaffirmation, reassurance in a world where high-art and low-art tend to be separated behind spiked iron fences. Larbi, more than almost any other artist I see – except Salman Rushdie, perhaps – is genuinely indifferent to divides and definitions about art. He traverses modern and traditional, dives into medieval music and Cirque du Soleil, manga and conceptual art, Bollywood and opera; works with disabled actors, ballerinas and street dancers, Benedict Cumberbatch and warrior monks from the Shaolin Temple, without hierarchy, a rare and wonderful trait. There’s some form of alchemy at work when he is at his most inspired and focussed.

The choreographer and dancer Akram Khan – with whom you have worked closely in your other avatar as a dance producer/curator – has a production of Until the Lions out soon, centred on your “Amba” poem. Tell us something about that, and the part you played in it.
And related to this: while reading the poems I often felt like I had to read them out loud to really feel their full power; it wasn’t enough to encounter them on the page. And even when read out, some of the more intense voices feel like they have to be performed, dramatically, for full effect. Is that how you would intend some of them to be read? And any plans for further productions – part from the Amba one – that would help achieve this?

That's a really perceptive reading of those poems: yes, a lot of them are very performative, and draw from dance or theatre environments (Constancy VI which I'd mentioned; the entire Amba/Shikhandi poem which is in two parallel voices interwoven; Sauvali; and it transpires the Mohini Jeremiad has an ostinato-like structure—to mention a few). I had gooseflesh when I heard Kathryn Hunt read Manual for Revenge and Remembrance (excerpts of which appear in the AKC Until the Lions trailer)

Just around the time I'd begun, Leesa Gazi, the wonderful Banglaeshi-British actress - with whom I had worked on DESH - expressed interest in having some of the voices staged (she was, in particular, curious about Draupadi). Unfortunately, the theatre director whom she approached was more interested in Abhimanyu and the angle of young martyrdom—which is a stirring prospect, just not one I was absorbed by. So we never moved further on that but now that the book is ready, I will send Leesa the rest of the voices (though Draupadi does not form one of them...)

And an actress friend from the oldest theatre in France is also very keen on staged readings, and she has put together a proposal to her management. I’d be delighted if that happens because her portrayal of Antigone two years ago was hugely inspirational while writing Until the Lions, and it will be rewarding to see her take on some of these characters.

As for Akram Khan, funnily enough, each time I have worked with him, it has been as a writer, never as a dance producer. First, I co-wrote DESH, his 2011 piece (for which I’d also written the story that became the book The Honey Hunter), then I scripted its adaptation into a show for young audiences this year, Chotto Desh.

With Until the Lions, I had shown Akram Khan Company’s producer, Farooq Chaudhry – someone whose opinion I value much – the initial poems in early 2013, and he was convinced Akram should read them, that it might be challenging to do something with them. And when Akram heard Amba’s story, he chose to stage it.

Typically, a dance staging – in the UK, unlike in Europe which has a rich practice of tanztheater where theatre and dance meld quite naturally – tends to be a totally distinct beast from its ‘literary’ source: text is primarily used as raw material, as ossature over which the tissues, blood and skin of movement, music, sets are laid. I don’t expect to see any text in an oral form unless it is strictly functional, thankfully.

Specifically, for AKC’s production, I wrote detailed ‘chapters’ detailing the action and atmosphere in those sequences (self-contained ones, so they need not follow a linear narrative), then equally detailed character sketches, so that they could feed into the movement and the dramaturgy. I also culled certain portions of the Amba and Mohini poems that might be useful as a refrain, or as part of the soundtrack. 

Since then, I’ve attended rehearsals from time to time, where I am probably a giant thorn in the dramaturge’s skin. You know, it must be terrible for dramaturges to have to deal with a living, breathing (worse, speaking!) writer! I mean, there's the poor dramaturge, used to being the compass for the process, when wham! someone pops up like a jack in the box, reminding him or her of intent and character arcs and emotional impetus and plot axes; questioning structure and the random use of lines. What a nightmare. Dead writers are so much more malleable! For a serene creative process, I'd recommend Shakespeare and Yeats and other buried brethren.

Saturday, September 05, 2015

V Shantaram, the man who saw it all: a book about a pioneering filmmaker

[Did this book review for Mint Lounge]

Madhura Pandit Jasraj’s book about her father V Shantaram contains a story that sounds apocryphal at first. Researching for the film that will be made as Aadmi in Hindi, and as Manoos in Marathi, Shantaram goes to a brothel incognito – this is sometime in 1938 – and has a conversation with a prostitute. Which was the last movie you saw, he asks. “Duniya na Maane,” she replies, citing his own recent release, “That bugger Shantaram makes bloody good films.”

It is the sort of slick, anecdotal detail one might take with a pinch of salt. And yet, it could easily be true: if a casual viewer watching a Hindi movie in the 1930s knew the name of its director, that name would very likely be V Shantaram. Twenty years before the international “auteur” debates focused attention on a director as principal creative talent, Shantaram occupied a rare, top-of-marquee position among Indian filmmakers, comparable to that of Frank Capra and Ernst Lubitsch in the Hollywood of the same period. I have heard grandparents and their friends (all born in the 1910s or 1920s, a youthful audience for such celebrated films as Ayodhya ka Raja and Amrit Manthan) reminiscing about the special excitement of “a Shantaram movie”.

This can be a little hard to believe now, because V Shantaram is not exactly a fashionable name these days. Young movie buffs – those who watch the edgy “multiplex films” made by Anurag Kashyap, Dibakar Banerjee and their protégés – rarely speak of him, even when they discuss old cinema. By the 1950s and 1960s, when directors like Raj Kapoor, Bimal Roy and Guru Dutt had become the leading names in their field, Shantaram was still highly respected within the industry, but was best known for flamboyant musicals like Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje, Navrang (one of my all-time favourite Hindi films) and Geet Gaaya Patharon Ne. Much of his other work, including the devotional films he and his production company Prabhat were associated with, is perceived as being a little quaint, and falls within a tradition of homegrown social drama that many sophisticated viewers are now uncomfortable about. Films like Padosi (about two close friends, a Hindu and a Muslim, who fall out) and Dahej (about the evils of dowry) wear their good intentions on their sleeves, while Do Aankhen Barah Haath – though celebrated for its prison-reform theme – is allegorical and sometimes pedantic, hence vulnerable to being derided by those who champion narrow definitions of realism.

None of this can undermine Shantaram’s importance in Indian film history. He was a pioneer in so many ways: in his childlike enthusiasm for the formal possibilities of cinema (stories I have heard about him remind me of Orson Welles’s remark about being like a boy with a giant toy-train set when he was making Citizen Kane), the degree of holistic control he exercised over his productions, his ability to extract the best from traditional Indian storytelling, the intensely personal qualities he often brought to his work (Navrang, for instance, came in the aftermath of his temporary blindness and his new awakening to the wonders of colour when he recovered).

And so to The Man Who Changed Indian Cinema, which is the second recent instance – after the Rinki Roy Bhattacharya-edited anthology Bimal Roy: The Man Who Spoke in Pictures – of a book about a major Indian filmmaker being helmed by his daughter. This points to a shortfall in analytical writing about our cinema (in most countries with big film industries, there would be a few books about each major director, including some by non-family members!), but possible biases notwithstanding, Jasraj does a fine job of telling her father’s story, from his early dalliances with theatre and cinema, through the growing confidence that saw him become a leading director, and even reach a point where he could offer employment to a former mentor. She treads the line between the personal, affectionate tone and the detached, descriptive one: the book has a dual personality, often reading like an encyclopaedia entry but also containing a few interjections that could be from a note in a family album (the author usually refers to Shantaram by his name, in the manner of a conventional biographer, but occasionally she includes a personal memory of “Papa”).

For me, the most compelling passages were the ones that dealt with the country’s nascent film industry and the role Shantaram played in it. This was a primitive time in filmmaking, when editing might have to be done by the light of a petromax lamp, and film pieces joined together with acetone; when a director might bargain with film-stock companies by telling the less established one (in this case, Agfa) that providing stock for a blockbuster Prabhat production would raise its profile and help it compete with the market leader (Kodak); when socially conscious directors tried to integrate the swaraj message in medieval stories, without rousing the suspicions of the British censors; and when even some canny filmmakers believed that “talking pictures” were a momentary fad, they would never last. And through it all, there were Shantaram’s many innovations, such as the use of bold advertising (“Love Scene Between Tukaram and Jijau Under a Banyan Tree”) to build a buzz for the 1936 Sant Tukaram, the impromptu decision to shoot a short film that would be screened before a main feature, and the creation of a cartoon fox named Jambu Kaka for an animation film. In 1933 he travelled to Germany for the processing of India’s first colour film Sairandhri; his use of trolley shots and extreme close-ups became famous, as did the hints of show-offish Expressionism in scenes such as the one of an old man’s reflection laughing at him in shards of a mirror in Duniya na Maane.

This is a tidily written, well-produced book with no major flaws, though Jasraj does get overenthusiastic at times – as in her claim that a lengthy single-take scene in the 1946 Dr Kotnis ki Amar Kahani “was the first time something like this had ever been achieved in national and international cinema” (similar things had been done in Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons and Preston Sturges’s The Miracle of Morgan Creek, among other films). Black-and-white images – screen grabs as well as private photographs – are very effectively used alongside the text: I was particularly moved by the picture of Shantaram’s guru Baburao Painter, which appears exactly at the point in the text where we are told of the young Shantaram’s first glimpse of this venerable-looking, bearded man.

Most of all, this is a fairly comprehensive record of a prolific and fertile career that began in the silent era (for perspective, consider that Shantaram was acting in and assisting on films before Raj Kapoor and Guru Dutt were born!) and stretched right till the 1980s. And in his own mind, he wasn’t close to being done even then: Jasraj mentions that her father proclaimed his intention to live till the age of 150, so he could complete a 50-film project about Indian society from the time of the Mahabharata till today, and even projecting into the future. With most other people, this would seem like pure whimsy, an old man’s distracted ramblings. But with V Shantaram, who played Lord Vishnu in a film but also insisted on singlehandedly carrying a bulky camera to a location some distance from the studio, because “no work should be considered too low” – in other words, someone so invested in filmmaking processes that he could be God and coolie at the same time – you can believe he meant it.