Thursday, August 27, 2015

An interview about the Hrishi-da book

[Today is Hrishikesh Mukherjee's death anniversary. On the occasion, I answered a few questions sent across by the website The Quint, about the book. Not a very indepth interview, but an opportunity to say a few things about the book and about Hrishi-da. So here goes]

What makes Hrishikesh Mukherjee special for you - as in why the decision to study him and his films, and write a book on him?

Watching Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s work and feeling drawn to it, emotionally immersed in it, has been part of a personal journey for me as a movie watcher over the past decade. This was a period when I returned to watching Hindi cinema (old and new), after having stayed away for a long time, and as I began discovering or rediscovering Hrishi-da’s films, I found that his better work had a fluidity, an economy of storytelling, a directness, that I found very appealing. It reminded me in some ways of the Hollywood films of the 1930s and 40s that I loved so much: the work of Leo McCarey and Ernst Lubitsch, Howard Hawks and William Wyler among others. And as I watched enough of the films and saw little connections between them, a particular sensibility – a repetition of certain themes and motifs, such as the relationship between life and fantasy – began to reveal itself.

In a way, then, the book also became a journey of self-discovery. I sometimes found myself conflicted as a viewer – troubled by patches of shoddiness in some of Hrishi-da’s work, and also thinking about the criticism that some of his films have received from Left-liberal commentators: that though they stayed outside the mainstream, they sometimes didn’t go far enough; that there is a conservative, even regressive worldview on display in some of them. I wanted to examine these charges and, where I disagreed with them, to provide responses. And to use the book not just to understand Hrishi-da’s cinema but by extension to examine the workings of popular cinema.

While a lot is in circulation about his films, very little is known about the man himself. If asked, how will you introduce Hrishikesh Mukherjee to the world? Some interesting stories, famed encounters, anecdotes.

I should point out here that this is not a trivia-driven or anecdote-driven book full of behind-the-scenes stories (though there are sprinklings of those things in it). In fact, when I began working on the book, it was meant to be ONLY between his films and my mind, though that initial vision didn’t work out. (Just as well!)

But based on everything I learnt about Hrishi-da (whom I never personally met): he was a widely loved man, very avuncular, almost a personification of the gentleness and conviviality one finds in his best films. He loved people and dogs. He was a wonderful father and grandfather by all accounts, but there remains a question mark about his relationship with his wife, whom he left behind in Calcutta in 1950 when he moved to Bombay with Bimal Roy, and never lived with again. He also seems a complicated man in some ways if you look at his interviews, because here is someone who is constantly berating himself for having made “compromises” over his career and having been “mediocre”, while at other times he gets defensive about his work. He says things like “If I had my way, I wouldn’t have songs in my films”, which is a bizarre thing to hear because there are so many wonderful, vitalizing song sequences throughout his work (not just music, but the way it is used on screen and in the film’s context). He seems embarrassed about not having been an artist at the level of, say, a Satyajit Ray, but at the same time he could be snippy and condescending towards mainstream cinema of the sort that made Amitabh Bachchan a superstar in the 1970s.

At times he says that he always kept his producers’ interests in mind; at other times he asserts that most of his films were a reflection of his own concerns. The truth, as is usually the case with any creative person working within a commercial film industry, probably lies somewhere in between.

It may also be revealing that the film of his he loved best was the 1969 Satyakam, an uncompromising film about a man who never compromises. Or maybe I’m just indulging in pop-psychology!

As part of your book's promotion, you had posted on FB asking if people can name two of his films where he had made  a guest appearance. Can you share a few more such factoids - incidents, instances which speak of his idiosyncrasies. Happenings on sets, during shoots.

He played chess a lot during his shoots: everyone I spoke to who worked with him seemed to have a memory of him looking intently at his chessboard while simultaneously giving instructions to his cameraman or actors. He was also a stickler for punctuality – which I suppose can be considered an idiosyncrasy for anyone working in Hindi cinema in the 70s! Actors like Sanjeev Kumar and Rajesh Khanna were very often late, and Hrishi-da had zero tolerance for that – it was the one thing that could turn him into a martinet.

He suffered from arthritis and gout, which became pretty bad by the 70s or so – consequently most of his later films were house-bound stories, and many of them were shot in his own house with rooms redone for the purpose.

How was he as a director with his actors and technicians? What was work process like?

Laidback in temperament, but also firm when dealing with such things as star tantrums, is what I have heard. Biswajit and Deepti Naval both told me that if an actor asked for a retake and Hrishi-da didn’t feel it was required, he would sternly tell them “Okay, but then you sign the voucher and pay for the extra film” – he worked mostly on modest budgets and was proud of the fact that he could get a film made in 30 days, even if it had a big star in it.

I am also told that unlike some other directors of that time, he supervised the filming of song sequences himself, and closely watched over these scenes – which should be no surprise if you see the wonderfully filmed musical sequences in films like Biwi aur Makaan, Anupama and Aashirwad.

What is commonly spoken about is the changing middle-class ethos of the '60s and the '70s that Mukherjee's films are evocative of. Would you call his films middle-class cinema then? Why?

Labels can be problematic, but yes, it’s safe to say they were mostly films about the middle-class and about a particular milieu. (Exceptions would include something like Do Dil – a costume drama complete with evil princes and tribesmen– or Asli Naqli, where the characters are either very rich or very poor.)

I think one of the things he did really well in his better work is to show how little transgressions can occur even within spaces and settings that we typically think of as “simple” or “safe” or “genteel” – and how, even when a film ends on a status quo-affirming note (as most commercial films are expected to), it can along the way show us glimpses of the cracks that may occur in a cosy, middle-class setting. Chupke Chupke is a good example.

[Earlier posts about the Hrishikesh Mukherjee book: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5]

Saturday, August 08, 2015

Bawarchi, meet dusht raakshas: four original artworks for the book

And now, a look at four paintings all done by the wonderful Gunjan Ahlawat, for the Hrishikesh Mukherjee book.

Scenes from Bawarchi...

Chupke Chupke...


and Guddi...

I’m not always a great one for taking initiatives, but I have been patting myself on the back for this decision I made a few months ago. Since I was getting tense about the official cover design being delayed, I decided to independently commission paintings from Ahlawat, whose work I had recently been impressed by. Even if the publisher decided not to use these artworks (or used them and didn’t compensate me for them), I figured they would have promotional and sentimental value – I could use them on social media, on the blog, maybe get a few posters made down the line.

The Ahlawat work that first caught my eye, incidentally, was his design for Anees Salim’s novel The Blind Lady’s Descendants, especially the little watercolour he did for the author’s profile pic. When I first met him to discuss illustrations for the Hrishi-da book, my head was full of complicated ideas that, I now see, could not have been worked out on short notice (and would also have exceeded my budget). One of them was a drawing of Hrishikesh Mukherjee looking down at his chessboard – he often played chess while a scene was being set up, and I had a photograph of just such
a moment – and on the board, in place of pawns, would be tiny but instantly recognizable figures from his cinema: Kusum in her distinctive school uniform in Guddi, Parimal Tripathi in chauffeur’s uniform, Anand on the beach with the balloons. 

Another design idea, which I had discussed with Penguin months earlier and been told wouldn’t work, was the façade of a house (the “makaan” of Hrishi-da’s cinema is a running theme in the book) with different characters and scenes viewed in a few of the windows facing us (and possibly Hrishi-da himself sitting on the roof, alongside the Amitabh character in Mili, looking through his telescope).

Anyway, Gunjan and I toned down these thoughts and streamlined them into four character-oriented artworks that would capture vignettes from the Mukherjee world. The results, which you saw above, have been very pleasing (not least because these were scenes that I had selected as being both iconic and lending themselves to artistic treatment of this sort).

This should be obvious, but I’ll point it out anyway: the paintings were intended to be impressionistic rather than realistic representations of the characters’ faces – the whole idea of using very familiar clothes/elements was that anyone who knows Hrishi-da’s cinema would immediately “get” it. In fact, one reason why the Chupke Chupke image is (very marginally) my least favourite of these four is that the two faces come very close to looking like Dharmendra and Sharmila Tagore. (Or Bobby Deol and Saif Ali Khan in drag, if you view it from a certain angle.)

I also enjoy placing the Bawarchi and Mili drawings next to each other, because there is something oddly symmetrical about the tanpura and the telescope. Seen one way, it is almost like a faceoff between the two superstars who worked so often with Hrishi-da: dusht raakshas Bachchan pointing a rifle at the gentle, music-loving Rajesh Khanna; the Angry Young Man vs the Dreamy Romantic Hero. Anyway, the design amuses me (and also makes me feel that something subconscious may have been going on when I selected these two scenes, because I certainly wasn’t thinking of a connection between them at the time).

P.S. we are using these paintings in the book, on a frontispiece page – am looking forward to seeing them in print.

[More of Gunjan Ahlawat's work, especially his book designs, can be seen here]

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

The muddy doors of perception – thoughts on the Aarushi Talwar and Jeff MacDonald cases

[A shorter version of this piece appeared on The Daily O]

Savage crimes of passion lie beyond the pale of regular human experience – each such case tends to be singular, containing many little details that are morbidly peculiar to it and found nowhere else. But some crimes do strongly evoke earlier, unrelated crimes. While reading Avirook Sen’s book about the Aarushi Talwar murder case (which takes the position – as did Gaurav Jain’s long Tehelka story and Patrick French’s piece published in Open – that there has been a major miscarriage of justice), I thought about the little similarities between the Aarushi case and the Jeffrey MacDonald murder trial of the 1970s.

I first encountered the MacDonald case as a child, deeply disturbed by Fatal Vision, the 1984 TV movie about the murders (a US-returned aunt had brought the videocassette with her, and my mother and I saw it during a sleepover at her place – probably not ideal viewing for an eight-year-old). Then, last year, I found myself reading about the case at some length. The immediate catalyst was this Washington Post article by the Pulitzer Prize-winner Gene Weingarten, which reacquainted me with the basic facts: the February 1970 murders of Green Beret officer Jeff MacDonald’s wife and two little daughters in their home, and the eventual trial and conviction of MacDonald, who claims to this day that a group of intruders were responsible.

In both the MacDonald and Talwar cases, a parent (or parents) was convicted of brutally killing a child (or children). In both situations, the Occam’s Razor principle came into play: if a murder has been committed in a house, and there are no signs of outsiders having broken in or being on the premises, the surviving member of the household quickly becomes the main suspect. But another similarity – one that can be seen as a counter to the above point – is that in both cases the crime scene was badly compromised at the outset.

In the MacDonald case, over a dozen military policemen – confused, spooked, untrained – traipsed through the house in the early hours of the morning, bringing in mud and debris from outside (it had been raining). Farcically, MacDonald’s wallet was stolen before he was taken to hospital, and his pajama bottoms – which could have provided evidence – accidentally disposed of; it was also alleged that some fingerprints had been erased. Even now, 45 years after the tragedy, those who believe in MacDonald’s innocence use that travesty to buttress their case.

Similarly, the Aarushi case was marked by a level of bungling that we in India tend to associate with police and investigative procedures. People walking randomly in and out of the house, touching things that shouldn’t have been touched; the bizarre failure to discover another dead body lying just a few yards away on the terrace until 24 hours later (and meanwhile, the pronouncing of that “absconding” servant as the main suspect); a ham-fisted approach to sleuthing that included making much of the fact that Aarushi had been reading a book with a “suspicious” title (Chetan Bhagat’s The 3 Mistakes of my Life).

(Another common point: the implication that someone else – a drug-addled young woman in the MacDonald case, three servants who underwent narco-tests in the Talwar case – had all but confessed to participating in the murders, or at least being on the premises at the right time, but that their evidence was suppressed by the authorities, who had their own agenda.)

No two cases are exactly alike though. Unlike the Talwars, Jeff MacDonald was incriminated by a pileup of damning physical evidence that strongly contradicted his version of events. One key factor was that each of the four members of the MacDonald family had a different blood group, which enabled investigators to exactly determine whose blood had been in what room in the house. Another factor was that while his wife and daughters had been violently bludgeoned and stabbed – “over-killed” almost, as a term used at the time had it – the physically fit army doctor, having supposedly been in a life-and-death struggle with four assailants, got away with relatively superficial wounds, the most serious being an incision that could have been self-inflicted by someone with medical knowledge.

My own feelings about the truth behind these cases aren’t really relevant to this post, but just for the record: based on everything I have read about the evidence – or “evidence” in quote-marks – and how the investigations were conducted, my view is that Jeffrey MacDonald is almost certainly guilty while the Talwars are quite possibly victims of a botched, prejudiced investigation and the initial impressions spread by salacious policemen and a sex-scandal-hungry media.

Which raises another point: looking again at both cases, close together, is to be reminded of how easily everyone plays detective when a case comes into the public domain, and how seductive and misleading “gut instincts” and notions about human behaviour can be.

For instance, though Jeffrey MacDonald was convicted on the basis of solid evidence, a lot of the initial public feeling about MacDonald came from subjective perceptions about how a grieving husband and father must behave – and how long he should nurture his grief – as if human reactions in such a grotesquely unusual situation can ever follow a neat template. Even today, online commenters on videos of MacDonald’s TV appearance on the Dick Cavett show in 1970 (where he played to the gallery, smiled at the audience, focused more on the injustices done to him by the Army than on his personal loss) pronounce things like “he’s so creepy – looking at this I have no doubt he’s guilty” and “that’s not how anyone whose children have been murdered would talk”.

But how can they be so sure? How pompous do you have to be to think you know for certain how a particular person – possibly a person very different from you – would behave, simply by imagining your own reaction to a frankly unimaginable situation, and then convincing yourself that your imagination and empathy are both infallible?

In the social-media age, where opinions are cheap and plentiful, we are all judges and have forums on which to express our views – and media is happy to showcase the most extreme of those views. As Sen and others have pointed out, in the early weeks of the Talwar case, many people smugly watched Nupur Talwar on TV and decided she didn’t fit their pre-set image of a devastated mother. (Here’s Shobhaa De, one of many public figures who should have been more circumspect: “The conduct displayed by Mr and Mrs Talwar appears a bit too calculated, even cold blooded … For a mother of a dead girl to project such steely determination during what must have been the most harrowing time of her life, seems a bit unnatural… Their faces are stony, their eyes, strangely devoid of any emotion.”) Enough such opinions can easily drown out other assessments, and fix a narrative in the public mind.


The history of detective work and psychological profiling has, as with any other science, had many missteps and detours. There was a time when physiognomy – the study of a person’s facial features to draw conclusions about character – was considered a reliable aid to detecting criminals. Back when photography was in its infancy, it was thought for a time that photographing a murder victim’s eyeballs would reveal the final image seen by the dead person (which would hopefully be the killer’s face). We have moved beyond those ideas (and many of them seem like such gaffes to our 21st century eyes, we marvel at how intelligent people of an earlier time could have taken them seriously), but our very human tendency to judge by first impressions – or to filter everything through the prisms of our own reactions, fears and certitudes – won’t fade anytime soon.

Anyone who has studied true crime knows many such examples of trial by armchair detection. Lawyers, judges, casual observers, jury members, all have their prisms. So do writers, who might be expected to study a case over a period of time and with a degree of detachment and caution; some high-profile books have arisen from the “intuitive” method. The novelist Patricia Cornwell, for instance, went to Scotland Yard, took a look at a dark and disturbing painting by Walter Sickert, and just knew that the painter was not only a violent misogynist but Jack the Ripper to boot. She went on to write a book centred on dubious hypotheses and flawed research, announcing that she had unmasked the world’s most famous undiscovered murderer, pompously sub-titled it “Case Closed” … and rightly became a laughing stock for anyone who is acquainted with the actual facts of the Ripper case. But among gullible general readers, and fans of Cornwell’s fiction, much of this must have seemed legit.

One of the most brilliant comics I have read, “Dance of the Gull-Catchers”, is the 24-page coda to the immense Alan Moore-Eddie Campbell graphic novel From Hell. Having taken the reader through 500 pages where he rigorously works out a premise based on a widely debunked theory about Jack the Ripper (a theory that he himself doesn’t believe in), Moore now turns meta and casts a caustic, and very funny, gaze on the long, convoluted history of “Ripperology”– a pursuit that usually reveals more about the people obsessed with the case than it does about the murderer himself. “Jack mirrors our hysterias. Faceless, he is the receptacle for each new social panic.” 

That crime can become a distorting mirror for people reading about it or watching it on a news channel is wholly understandable; that’s human nature. But when impressions gained from looking through a glass darkly start to determine the official course of justice, it’s time to worry.

P.S. Not doing a review of Avirook Sen’s Aarushi, but I have to point out something about the beginning of the book that ran contrary to all my ideas about how good true-crime books (including those where the author makes his own position clear) should be written.

Sen opens the narrative in a lucid, journalistic way, with an objective recounting of the morning the murder was discovered – specifically, with the maid Bharti Mandal ringing the Talwars’ doorbell. Bharti is the reader’s point of entry into the story; the perspective here is that of a person who is wholly an outsider to the situation, someone who will never be under suspicion herself, but whose arrival at the crime scene sets events rolling. We learn that Nupur Talwar appeared at the inner door of the flat and told Bharti that the servant Hemraj had probably gone to get milk and locked the door from the outside; that Bharti suggested Nupur threw down the keys to her from the balcony so she could let herself in.

So far, so good. But now, barely two full pages into the book, Sen abruptly shifts perspective and tells us about Rajesh Talwar waking up, seeing a bottle of whisky on the dining table, becoming alarmed, rushing into his daughter’s room with his wife, and discovering the dead Aarushi – things that we know only from the testimony of the Talwars (who were definitely not outsiders in this situation; as we all know, they became suspects and were eventually convicted). We read, in matter-of-fact prose, about him walking in and out of her room in numbed shock, banging his head violently against the wall in grief.

As an avid reader of true-crime books of exactly the sort that Sen set out to write, I found these two or three paragraphs very problematic. (And again, I’m saying this as someone who thinks there is a real possibility that the Talwars are innocent and have been railroaded. But that is beside the point.) This sort of book – an investigative narrative about a contentious, high-profile case – should record all the clearly known facts first, and only then venture into the murkier terrain that has contradictory versions of events: at which point the author can start gathering evidence, analyzing testimonies and inconsistencies, and gradually making his own case about what really happened.

Aarushi is very much the result of Sen’s personal interest in the case, and a desire for justice; as he followed the Talwars’ trials over the months, he became convinced that they were innocent and he set out to articulate why. Fair enough
I have no trouble accepting that the book was written honestly, and with no prior “agenda” (something that the Talwars’ supporters are too often accused of). But to present the parents’ version of their actions that morning as objective fact on just page two of the book – before the reader has even been acquainted with the basic details of the case and had a chance to sift through them – is both manipulative and counter-productive.

And other true-crime authors have been condemned for less. Joe McGinniss’s massive 1983 book Fatal Vision – about the Jeffrey MacDonald murder trial – was described as dishonest by many (because McGinniss supposedly “exploited” his relationship with MacDonald), and became the centre of a storm about journalistic ethics in the late 1980s. I don’t agree with much of the criticism of Fatal Vision – I think it’s a more balanced book than it is sometimes given credit for being. But without getting into all that just now, look at how McGinniss begins the book, with a detached account of the known facts on the night of the murder (the phone call by an apparently weak, barely conscious MacDonald, the arrival of military police at the house and what they discovered there) and only then, over the course of many chapters, begins revealing all the things he learnt over his long association with the case; how his own feelings about Jeff MacDonald underwent a shift. For all the other merits in his book, I wish Sen had taken a similar approach in the opening pages of Aarushi.

An update, after a conversation with Avirook Sen (who has also left a comment on this post): in the postscript, I wasn't implying that Sen had presented a version of events told to him by the Talwars. As he points out, Talwar's version of events is part of the official record, and gleaned through a narco test. (And of course, given that the Talwars claimed their innocence from hour one, obviously their version of the morning's events would include something like "I saw the whisky bottle on the table, became alarmed, then saw Aarushi's door was ajar..." and so on as opposed to, say, "I washed the blood off my hands, finished drinking the whisky and then my wife and I again rehearsed the story we would tell the policemen, to convince them we hadn't killed Aarushi.") 

But that doesn't affect the basic point I was trying to make. Maybe I need to take some time out and make it at greater length, possibly through comparisons with other true-crime narratives. Will try.


[An earlier piece about true-crime books is here]

Sunday, August 02, 2015

Three Indians and a World War: on Raghu Karnad's Farthest Field

[Did this review for Scroll]

“Time to get moving.” These words close the first chapter of Raghu Karnad’s Farthest Field. They also begin the next chapter, and can ultimately be seen as a sort of punchline as well a poignant motif for this book. The restlessness they describe is that of a young man named Bobby, who is the thread winding through this account of Indian participation in World War II, and who always feels like he is late to the war, running to catch up with his close friends. Never mind that he has been priming himself by waging smaller battles beforehand: an early scene amusingly uses the line “this is where it got dangerous” in the context of Bobby’s attempt to get away with eating for free at a Parsi restaurant!

That should give you an idea of this book’s oblique approach to a Big Subject. Browse the contents pages of most WWII non-fiction – such as Anthony Beevor’s massive The Second World War – and you see expected chapter titles: “The Fall of France”, “Hitler’s Balkan War”, “Pearl Harbor”; everything the casual reader knows, or thinks he knows, about the signposts of that conflict. Farthest Field, on the other hand, begins in Calicut and Madras in the 1930s as a personal story about the lives of young Parsis, and later tarries for a while in Calcutta and Imphal, even while expanding outward to view the theatre of WWII through the activities of Indian troops in Afghanistan and Egypt, Burma and Iraq.

Appealingly, Karnad himself begins from a self-confessed position of ignorance: “Indians never figured in my idea of the war, or the war in my idea of India […] I hadn’t thought Madras could be even mentioned in the same book as Pearl Harbor.” Before he became interested in this subject, he wouldn’t have known about George Orwell’s 1942 remark that if Singapore were lost to the Japanese, India would become “for the time being the centre of the war, one might say the centre of the world”. Or that Winston Churchill had pronounced the possibility of Japanese landing in Ceylon and south India as “the most dangerous moment in the war”.

The journey to this book began when Karnad started wondering about the three men whose black-and-white portraits adorned his maternal grandmother’s house. One of them, Bobby, turned out to be her younger brother; another, Ganny, was her husband, Karnad’s grandfather; the third, Manek, was her brother-in-law. They had all died, much too young, while fighting for the Allies, a species of soldier destined to be overlooked by history because they were in the service of India’s colonizers during the headiest days of the freedom struggle (and because they never afterwards had the opportunity to fight for independent India). And Karnad knew nothing about them, had never even got the chance to speak with his grandmother about them. “I still can’t believe I was so late,” he writes in his Prologue, pre-echoing the impatience of the Bobby he will create for this narrative.

I say “create” because there had to be some writerly licence involved. Even as he meticulously researched the journeys of his long-dead kin, delving into units’ diaries and other records, Karnad knew there were some things – their thoughts as they moved across frontiers, their feelings about what they were doing – that he could never have access to. And what are “facts” anyway? Even the interviews he conducted with Army veterans now in their nineties included unreliable memories and glib narrative-constructions; as John Still observed centuries ago, the memories of men are too frail a thread to hang history from.

And so Karnad made the decision to write this book as “forensic non-fiction” (“I started out with three unknown, dead men on my hands. Who were they? How did they die, and where, and what took them there?”), making it clear that his descriptions of inner lives are to a degree extrapolations. When we read about Bobby, “his young eyes primed for slights”, noticing that his grandfather’s obituary didn’t name his father, we know that Karnad himself, two generations later, has seen the obituary during his research, and imagined his youthful grand-uncle frowning at it. There are also novelistic descriptions and details that are obviously made up, from the little moments (a bottle of soda falling over and fizzing in someone’s rice during an argument) to the big ones (Manek and his wingman signaling to each other while flying).

If you have a rigid view of what non-fiction should be, or think that all good biographies or autobiographies capture clear, quantifiable truths about their subjects, or that fiction is just a lot of “made-up” stuff meant mainly for “entertainment”, this approach might not work for you. But after reading Karnad’s prologue, I was perfectly happy to accept this book on its own terms.

While using his three protagonists as starting points and chronicling their lives (including his grandparents’ struggle to be together in the face of family disapproval), he examines the side-stories, the larger contexts that surrounded Indian participation in the war. How the urgencies of the time muddied class and race lines, creating situations where British soldiers could no longer afford to see Indians as servants, not to be socialized with (even though there was continued resistance to empowering Indians with the most modern weapons). How the Indian Air Force, modern in sensibility unlike its counterparts on terra firma and in the water, reflected new expectations for the country by refusing to segregate faiths and castes. The continuing sense of responsibility felt by many Indians to the Empire, the distrust of the Subhas Chandra Bose approach – and how these feelings could coexist with a nascent form of nationalism.

Many of the descriptions are vivid, even poetic. “The strange agriculture of the desert,” Karnad writes, describing a troop’s attempts to clear and nullify a minefield, “One side planted steel seeds, and the other side harvested them. Only some lived out their natural design, to rise suddenly as a plumed palm of shocked air and sand.” Two warplanes flying haphazardly over a Burmese forest are “deranged eyeballs […] glaring round at the earth, the sky, the sun, the towering cumulonimbus, at each other, and their own instruments”. Some of this sounds surreal, but no more than what some of the actual fighting must have been like. Soldiers are often inexperienced (bumbling recruits “cut open their lips from the kick of the .303 rifles, and wore their gas masks upside down”) and fearfully mythologise the enemy – the German field marshal Rommel is seen as a magician whose Panzers seemed to rise up out of the desert’s nothingness, there are whispers about “Japs” being unbeatable in the jungle because, like yellow-skinned apes, they leap through the treetops.

Through all this, even when Bobby is inactive, he becomes a medium for the telling of other people’s stories, for tales about the heroics of jemadars and lieutenants on various fronts. He regards his own life as an anti-suspense novel, we are told. (“How will our hero escape his monotonous safety, and find his way to danger?”) Even when he sees what he thinks is an “awful spectacle”, he finds others around him chuckling and relating tales of much greater horrors. But eventually, he does find himself a participant in a crucial confrontation in Kohima, which Karnad describes as the greatest defeat in the history of the Japanese land army; a fight that helped preserve not a foreign empire but India itself, and a fight too quickly forgotten, its significance overlooked in the euphoria about the Allied landings in Normandy and elsewhere in mid-1944.


For me Farthest Field’s best bits were the personal ones: when Karnad is describing his own maternal grandparents in bed together – using love as an antidote to the uncertainty around them – or describing Bobby imagining a pier that extends westward, “its timbers multiplying and flying out over the water, building him a bridge to the war”. Or later, when he laments the self-serving First World narratives that tell us (for instance) that Britain was a brave little island withstanding the evil of fascism, when really the policies of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan were part of a continuum that included the policies of British imperialism.

Some of the passages that dealt with the actual fighting felt a little distant, not as compelling. This may in part be because I am not a seasoned reader of war books, and can get easily daunted by military terminology, descriptions of manouevres, throwaway references to this or that division. But even speaking “objectively”, I felt that the book shifted just a little too fast from being tentative and searching and focusing on intimate stories to becoming a full-fledged war narrative, comfortably immersed in the minutiae of fighting.

Yet through it all there is our restless hero, anchoring the narrative, retaining our emotional investment. In a remarkable passage late in the book, the disoriented Bobby, surrounded by gunshots in the Naga village Jotsoma, “watched the battle, and then he could see himself watching the battle, and then for a moment he saw someone else, far away and in the future, watching him watch himself, at this moment”. While this time-travelling meta-reference might seem at first to be self-indulgence on the author’s part, I saw it as an honest breaking of the fourth wall to remind the reader about what the terms of this book are: how it aims not for documentary-like veracity but to reveal deeper, poetic truths about people, their private and public battles and about the histories that are in danger of slipping away from us.


P.S. Something I left out of the review, but was thinking about again this morning, in the context of my grandmother's continued struggles following her angioplasty last year, and the likelihood that the end is very near. Karnad’s regret about “being late” to these stories struck a chord, speaking as someone who constantly feels rueful about not having spent enough time listening to and recording the personal histories of my grandparents. And particularly since there seems such a disconnect between the frail old people they have been in the past decade or so and what they once were. My dadaji (who retired as a brigadier) and my dadi were posted in England for three-and-a-half years in the early 50s, arriving there in the year of Elizabeth II’s coronation. I have seen many photos from that time, including of their leisure trips in continental Europe; heard stories about how my dadi briefly baby-sat the infant Vikram Seth; and yet, for my whole life, I have only known my grandparents as having been Delhi-bound for one reason or the other, rarely ever having travelled further than Punjab, and not having travelled at all in the past decade and a half. It is enormously difficult to reconcile these people with the blithe young couple I see in those photos; or with the idea that during those three years they saw more of the world than I am likely to in my entire life.

There must be so many stories, only a few of which I bothered to take notes about when I was listening to them. And now, time is running out.

Saturday, August 01, 2015

Age cannot wither them (or can it?) - thoughts on actors "playing" old

[Did a version of this piece for The Hindu]

I was at a literature festival in December 2011 when the news came in about Dev Anand’s passing. It felt especially poignant and immediate because I was speaking about the film adaptation of Guide at a session that evening. But I was also struck by how shocked (as opposed to just sad) some of the people around me were – by the many exclamations of “What! But he was so fit” – qualified only in one or two cases by “…for his age”.

Still, it’s all in those three words, right? I don’t see why anyone should be astonished to hear about the winding up – without adequate prior notice – of an 87-year-old body, no matter how sturdy it may have seemed to the outside eye. It’s like that scene in Shoojit Sircar’s lovely film Piku where the septuagenarian Bhaskor (Amitabh Bachchan) reads a newspaper item about a 99-year-old Japanese man who was riding a bicycle daily right until the end. “But HOW did he die?” the illness-obsessed Bhaskor mumbles, scanning the paper for details of cancer or cardiac arrest. The question remains unanswered, because, well, the answer could be as simple as: “Ninety-nine”. It’s always inspiring to see an old person who is healthy, curious about the world, wanting to learn new things – but one can admire those qualities without forgetting that the clock is ticking fast.

Delightful as Piku was, it was also an affecting experience for a boy who had grown up with the giant shadow of Amitabh Bachchan and once fantasized about being the leather-jacketed stud on the motorbike singing the title song of Muqaddar ka Sikandar (or the soulful romantic singing the beautiful “O Saathi Re” in the same film). Now here I was 30 years later, more aware of both mortality and the pitfalls of hero-worship, watching Bachchan as an old man complaining about his constipation problems; a vulnerable old man whose expression as his eyes dart reflexively towards his daughter during moments of (real or imagined) crisis reminded me of how the faces of my grandparents – my nani, who died in 2009 and my dadaji, who had gone the year before – had been rendered similarly childlike when they struggled with illness.

Some of us undervalue the role that our familiarity with actors plays in our movie-watching. This goes with the conservative notion that an actor who can “submerge” himself into any sort of part – disappearing until you forget about the real-life person – is inherently more valuable than a star who builds a career on a personality connect with a mass audience. I find that idea very problematic, not least because I am the sort of viewer who is always on some level aware of and thinking about an actor’s history (even with “chameleon-like” performers like Nawazuddin Siddiqui); and because the distinction is unfair to the many great star-actors that cinema has given us from Chaplin downwards, people who achieved immense things as performers even while largely working within the confines of a specific image.

With Piku, and with other films I have recently watched, the actor-character line went in and out of focus in odd ways. Of course, Bachchan here is playing a character, written by someone else. When we see Bhaskor in his final sleep near the film’s end, on one level it is no more “real” than watching Vijay dying in the temple in Deewaar, or Jai dying in Sholay. And yet, at another level, it hit closer home. It felt realer, more uncomfortable – and not only because of the lack of drama (there is no “death scene”) or because Piku is a lower-key film than Deewaar or Sholay, but also because… Mr Bachchan himself is now seventy-three. Watching him play Piku’s dad is a very different matter from watching him pretend to be old in 1980s films like Mahaan or Aakhree Raasta.

Around the same time that I saw Piku, I watched another great actor of Bachchan’s vintage in the Hollywood film Danny Collins. But my attention soon shifted from Al Pacino in the title role – as an aging rock star – to another actor in the film, someone who is a decade older than even Pacino.

Christopher Plummer! I was scared of Plummer as a child, when I saw him as Captain Von Trapp in The Sound of Music. You would be if you’re eight years old and watching the tight-lipped disciplinarian in his stiff suit, the killjoy in Maria’s efforts to bring music and whimsy into the children’s lives. Now, watching him in a supporting part in Danny Collins, even though he looked spry and
energetic for his age, I felt protective; during a wonderfully performed scene where Plummer's character Frank relates an anecdote about his friendship with Danny, I wondered if it was a strain for him to learn all those lines and say them in a long monologue. Take it easy, old guy. Pause for breath. It was a long way from watching Captain Von Trapp and wishing he would keep quiet for other reasons.

In this context I also think about Michael Haneke’s Amour, in which the legendary French actors Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant play an old couple whose lives are altered when Anne (Riva) suffers a paralyzing stroke. Whether Amour is a tender, empathetic portrayal of old age or a cold, almost nihilistic film made by a director famous for his unblinking use of the camera is up for debate (personally I lean towards the latter view) – but either way a big factor in the viewing experience is watching two screen icons together in their eighties, nearly as vulnerable as their characters. Their remarkable performances as well as their presence (and our knowledge of their history) provide so much to relate to or sympathise with, and arguably transcend the film itself.

I know people who were so disturbed by Amour that they called it “old-age porn”. The term is revealing. When a “respectable” mainstream performer does a hard-core sex scene, the line between performance and reality seems to almost completely break down; they are really doing it. Of course, the lines were never that simple anyway: when Method actors draw on their own memories during dramatic scenes and really break down in front of the camera, they are doing “it” too. But it feels more visceral and direct –more beyond an actor’s conscious control – in a sexual context. And perhaps the same is true of old age, when your body is in the process of letting you down. Looking at the wrinkled faces of Riva or Plummer in these films, we are no longer in that safe zone where we can be sure the performer is always in control. Beyond a point, there is no faking. Even if it happens only at the level of a little moment where the person on the screen rises from a chair and pauses to shift the weight off a delicate ankle, and you catch yourself wondering “Was that Bhaskor, or was that Amitabh?"

[It was only after I had finished writing this that I remembered this piece I did a few years ago. It had completely slipped out of my mind. Maybe I'm getting old too.]

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Presenting the book cover (and a scuffle over titles)

Okay, time to reveal the book cover.

The front…

…and the back:

Some notes:

Yes, I know the front-cover is bright and bold – and, as Godard said in another context, “It’s RED”. A part of me would have preferred something more subdued, but I accepted Penguin’s assertion that we need something populist and “massy”, which would help sell the book. I am hoping though that we can do the final cover in matte rather than in glossy.

Besides, there’s an advantage to having that nice black-and-white photo from the Satyakam shoot on the back: if the front-cover dazzles the eyes too much, one can always place the book upside down and ogle Dharmendra.

The book’s title also had to be no-frills and to the point. Earlier my editor Udayan and I had an abstract-sounding title (no mention of film or cinema or the director's name) followed by the subhead “The Cinema of Hrishikesh Mukherjee”. But after thinking it over, Udayan realised this wasn’t a good plan. Apparently subheads – even if they appear prominently on a book’s cover – get very easily lost at the trade/distribution level (where the book is likely to be referred to or catalogued only by its main title). So we had to keep the title straightforward and descriptive. Arguably even the decision to shift from “The Cinema of Hrishikesh Mukherjee” to “The World of Hrishikesh Mukherjee” was a brave one (and meant that we then had to ensure a subhead with the word “film” in it).

It took me a while to learn just how basic everything had to be. For example, I knew I was transgressing when Udayan, an unfailingly genial person who loves and is loved by large cuddly dogs (and sometimes resembles one himself), began growling at me during an SMS exchange.

Jai: Any chance we could make the title The House of Hrishikesh Mukherjee and subhead it “Inside a Filmmaker’s World”? Or stick with the current title and make the subhead “A House Made of Film” or “A House Made of Celluloid”?

Udayan: These are too long and complicated for our purpose You’re veering towards academic-sounding subtitles: we need to stay trade please. The subtitle needs to tantalize prospective buyers, “a house made of film” doesn’t do that.

J: “Scenes from the Middle Cinema”? Or even “Scenes from a Middle Cinema”.

U: Jai, I’m sorry but that sounds like a Seagull subtitle! How is “scenes from a middle cinema” something that says “must-buy”? You keep toning it down, while I’m trying to hardsell the book.

J: Did you at any point notice how toned down the book itself is? Misleading readers about the content – making them think it’s full of trivia and tidbits about popular films like Gol Maal, Chupke Chupke etc – might lead to a spate of negative reviews on Flipkart, Amazon etc, saying the book is too serious and dull. How will that help future sales?
But okay, I get the point – just didn’t think the subhead would be SO crucial for buying decisions.

And so it went. It got so that when poor SMS-beleaguered Udayan finally suggested “The Filmmaker Everyone Loves”, I replied that it was brilliant, only could we please please please make it “Loveth”?

(Feedback about the cover welcome. Please write in.)

P.S. Aparajita Ninan did the cover design (the illustrations are by Amitai Sandy) and there was something very pleasing about this - back in 2001, Aparajita's dad, the wonderful cartoonist Ajit Ninan, took all of five minutes to do a caricature of me when I visited him in the India Today office. Here it is (it depicts me using Today newspaper - the India Today afternoon tabloid I was working for at the time - as a springboard for my journalistic career.)

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Clowns, MBAs, dragonflies: about a few dark allegories

[From my theme-based ForbesLife books column]

Hear the term “fantasy writing” and the images that leap to your mind may be from the Tolkien universe – The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, the mythological back-stories collected as The Silmarillion – or from CS Lewis’s Narnia, or one of the countless series inspired by them. These are settings that have been created from the ground up. Even when the things that happen in the story comment on aspects of our own world (Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials are often-quoted examples in recent literature), the reader knows that the place itself is invented.

But fantasy is a broad word. Another form is that of the allegorical narrative which is located in a mostly familiar setting but has things happening in it that don’t fit the straitjacket of “realism”. George Orwell’s Animal Farm is a famous example: as far as we know, pigs don’t use human speech or organize themselves into dictatorships; yet this novella is set in our world, and most people with knowledge of the political events of the time would recognise it as a story about the Russian Revolution.

Such writing sometimes takes the form of speculative fiction set in the future, as was recently done by Shovon Chowdhury in the splendidly imaginative The Competent Authority. The India of this dystopian novel, having been comprehensively nuked by China, is run by a mad bureaucrat, and the only hope for the future may lie in going back to the past – so a group of people with special time-travelling powers set off to see what can be done to alter history. “Fantastic” as all this may sound, there are instantly identifiable figures here, such as an unnamed prime minister who comes from a long political dynasty (she is the granddaughter of a much-feared woman PM of the 1970s, if that helps) and a crude, bullying policeman.

A slimmer, less ambitious but often-potent satire is Sowmya Rajendran’s The Lesson, which takes the unsavoury facts of gender discrimination in real-world India and only mildly exaggerates them to create a picture of a society where state-sanctioned rapists coolly make phone appointments with their next victims – the women who are “asking for it” – and Dupatta-Regulators ensure prescribed standards of morality (while having fevered nightmares about an anarchic world where everyone roams around naked). The icy detachment of Rajendran’s writing is sometimes very effective – as in a scene where a woman who is to be raped on a live TV reality show is briefed about the “hot” actress who will play her in the buildup episodes – though I felt a little more could have been done with the premise, and the satire could have been more cutting.

“He feels empty. Hollow. Unreal. He feels he has no business being alive.” These words could describe some of the people in Rajendran’s book, but they are the opening lines of Altaf Tyrewala’s long story “MmYum’s”, included in the collection Engglishhh: Fictional Dispatches from a Hyperreal Nation. And they refer not to a flesh-and-blood person but to a mascot clown named Arnold, made of plastic and sitting on a bench outside a chain store. Fed up of being someone else’s puppet, he decides to get up and wander the streets.

The misadventures that follow comment on the workings of capitalism and those who become slaves to it – including conscientious objectors who end up being fence-sitters because they can’t resist an occasional dose of junk food and gassy cola – but they also comment slyly on this type of narrative. “You must be dumbfounded to see me,” Arnold tells a writer named Unnati in one scene. She shrugs her shoulders. “It’s an allegory, all sorts of things can happen in allegories. I don’t mind playing along.” As she knows, one of the characteristics of this form is that it spells ideas out for the reader – in an often simplified, pared down way – while simultaneously making inside jokes and self-referencing. 

If lazily done, this can become tedious very fast. But that isn't a word I would ever use to describe Ramiah Ariya’s funny, fast-paced novel The Exorcism of Sathish Kumar, MBA. While Tyrewala’s Arnold is, almost literally, tied down to his job (in fact, the poor mascot clown that replaces him has screws driven through his hands and feet to keep him from bolting), the protagonist of Ariya’s book isn’t much better off: as the narrative opens, Arjun is summoned by the upper echelons of management in his tech company and deputed to the mysterious “EXM” team, with a very strange list of tasks to perform – procuring gaanja, for example. The depiction of the corporate world here may remind you of the more surreal Dilbert strips, such as the ones where the geeky engineer goes to the dreaded Accounts department and meets trolls who feed him unicorn horns. Ariya's book becomes increasingly weird and fable-like as it goes along, culminating in encounters with a sorcerer who communes with the dead, a strange otherworld named Ahi, and the revelation that the true meaning of life is shareholder profit (something that most corporate slaves learn over time without ever having to go to strange otherworlds).

Franz Kafka was one of the major practitioners of a different sort of fable – the claustrophobic, nightmarish sort – and Kafkaesque was the word that leapt to mind as I read Aditya Sudarshan’s intense The Persecution of Madhav Tripathi. (An early chapter is titled “The Castle”, as if in tribute to the master of paranoia’s famous story about alienation.) Sudarshan’s novel is about a privileged man who at first seems to have the future nicely laid out before him –
but after loses his bearings (literally and otherwise) while coasting down a city road, Madhav Tripathi finds himself caught in an escalating series of strange events. This story about liberals – or people who think they are liberal and sophisticated – being beset by the forces of darkness, and exposed to their own pretentiousness in the process, may be too dense for some tastes. But it is full of arresting imagery, such as an early scene, a party set at a wildlife sanctuary, where guests float about like butterflies (or perhaps like the dragonfly pictured on the book’s cover, which also makes an appearance later in the narrative). “Civilization” meets the cave in these passages, as it does in most of the other books mentioned here – and by the time you finish reading them you may no longer be sure which is which.

[Some other Forbes columns: names and markers in Anees Salim's novels; Sita's Sister and other myth-retellings; books with twists; time-travellers; parents; writers on writing; satire; popular science; translations; doubles. And a more detailed review of The Lesson is here]

Saturday, July 25, 2015

There and back again – the loneliness of the long-distance dog

Something wonderful happened today, a very welcome and unexpected end to a matter that had caused us a lot of distress over the past week.

The back-story: for the past four or five years (at least), an unspayed bitch – an excessively fertile street dog who lives in our colony without being regularly fed by anyone – has been delivering one or two litters of pups annually, in large numbers, near our back-lane. The vast majority of them die, of course, succumbing to starvation or weather or being run over by callous or careless drivers; a few survive, growing into skinny dogs, scavenging for food, very rarely getting lucky and fed by one of the approximately 0.005 percent of neighborhood houses that are animal-friendly.

Most of these pups are born and grow up in the same place where Foxie and her siblings were born in mid-2008, and the sound of their mewling often gives me sleepless nights and keeps old wounds fresh. For reasons that have to do with emotional self-preservation, I have kept my distance from this situation in the past few years. But this time Abhilasha and I decided to be a little more pro-active: we took two of the surviving pups to Pratima Devi, assumed financial responsibility for their upkeep, and then set about getting the mother sterilized with the help of Ravi, an autorickshaw-driver who assists Pratima Devi and takes dogs to Friendicoes for operations.

After somehow managing to lure this scared, people-wary girl into our driveway, we kept her locked up there and then got her into Ravi’s vehicle with some difficulty (and this on a mad, mad, mad day where I had to rush back home for an hour or two shortly after getting my dadi admitted to hospital, yet again). The dog reached Friendicoes okay, the operation went off fine, she spent two days recuperating…and then, on the 21st evening, just as Ravi was going to bring her back, she bolted from a momentarily unlocked cage and vanished into some distant nook of Jangpura or Defence Colony.

The search that followed spanned days – with Ravi and his assistants travelling from Def Col to South Ex to Andrews Ganj in pursuit, catching sight of her and then losing sight again – and was always doomed to failure; even if she had been within catchable range, the sound of Ravi’s vehicle would be enough to send her into hiding. It was very upsetting. Here we had been congratulating ourselves for pulling off something important and hard to do, and now it seemed that we had not only separated a dog from her home permanently but also condemned her to being hunted by other dogs in unfamiliar territory. In between my hospital rounds, I kept calling a guilt-stricken Ravi for updates, or arranging for our car to be made available for another search. People who were trying to help would call up, asking me what the dog’s name was, because that might make it easier, and I didn’t know what to tell them: no one has ever given her a name, I had never interacted with her at any length myself; it was becoming hard to explain why I felt so responsible for her welfare.

And then, this morning, I got a call from the guard who sits at the end of the lane and occasionally looks out for the pups. She was back.

This scrawny, aging, mangy creature – weakened and unsettled by the surgery, bearing a very visible scar – had somehow, over a period of three or four days, found her way back to Saket, a good 8 or 9 km from where she ran away. And that’s only as the crow flies: the actual journey must have been a much more complicated one, with many stops and detours. Through the unfathomable traffic of two ring roads and numerous other thoroughfares, through other dogs’ territory, in a city that can be very hostile to strays. And at the end of it, she was reunited with her remaining pup, whom we have been fostering.

It’s one of those animal tales you sometimes hear about but don’t expect to see firsthand. I was looking at Google Maps earlier today, wondering which route she took, and marveling at the many potential hazards along even the easiest of them. What a heroine.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

A rude, gritty Mahabharata - on Aditya Iyengar's The Thirteenth Day

[Did this for Scroll]

What need for another Mahabharata-inspired novel, you ask? Our bookstores are spilling over with them, and that’s if you include only the re-imaginings and perspective tellings published in the past few years. One way of looking at this is that “epic lit” has become a profitable little cottage industry for mediocre writers and lazy publishers. But when depth of knowledge aligns with imagination, the story’s many possibilities can still be given fresh life – as in Aditya Iyengar’s sharp new book, which uses for its canvas a brief mid-war period where mind-games are lost and won.

Any Mahabharata buff knows that the 18 days of the Kurukshetra war don’t carry equal heft. Far from it. The fighting in the first dozen days is relatively low-intensity (but don’t tell that to the thousands of “ordinary” soldiers who have their heads lopped off), with only one major dramatic occurrence, the fall of the grand-patriarch Bheeshma on the tenth day. It is from day 13, with young Abhimanyu leading the charge into the Kauravas’ Chakravyuha formation, that things really heat up. Iyengar’s The Thirteenth Day spans the period – three nights, three days – between these two events.

Three is in fact is the book’s talismanic number, since that’s how many interweaving voices tell the story. There is the Pandava prince Yudhisthira, for whose claim to the throne the war is being fought; his voice has the introspective timbre of a man aware that he is one of history’s foils, never quite a hero in the sense that the people around him would want him to be, always in the shadow of – and dependent on – his brothers Bhima and Arjuna. The second narrator is the Kauravas’ lynchpin Radheya – better known as Karna in the epic’s mainstream renderings – who was brought up by a low-caste family but has lately learnt that he is the Pandavas’ elder brother. Cynical, often rough-edged and rude, this is the voice of someone who was raised in horse-stables and continues to be jeered at as a “suta”, even after being admitted into the warrior class.

While staying mostly faithful to the events described in the original, Iyengar reinterprets the Kaurava attempt to capture Yudhisthira as a stratagem that will allow Radheya to take the throne for himself by revealing his real status and overseeing a truce. But it is Abhimanyu – the book’s third narrator, full of teenage bluster and impatience, and obsessed with posterity – whose actions will determine the result of that game.

A notable thing about this book is that “dharma” goes unmentioned. There is no moralizing about good and evil, or suggesting that the Pandavas represent the former and the Kauravas the latter. At the same time, unlike many revisionist tellings, The Thirteenth Day doesn’t try to highlight the Pandavas’ flaws or the good qualities of Duryodhana (known here as Suyodhana); it simply doesn’t bother with the moral angle. Realpolitik is the meat of this story – its characters are hardened warriors concerned with winning a war, that’s all. Most of the action takes place either on the battlefield or in the army camps at the end of each day. And most of it is fuelled by masculine ego and swagger. The women in these protagonists’ lives – Draupadi, Subhadra, Uttaraa – are on the fringes, only sometimes alluded to. (“I wrote some rubbish to Mother and went to bed,” Abhimanyu says in the manner of the college kid who has more important things on his mind than parents.) The most pronounced female presence is that of the melancholy Shikhandi, who was used on the battlefield as the pawn to bring Bheeshma down; her unenthusiastic attitude to the war serves as an effective counterpoint to Abhimanyu’s.

There is no sentimentalizing either, which is intriguing given that two of these narrators are among the Mahabharata’s most hero-worshipped characters, with a large dewy-eyed fan following built up among listeners and readers over the yugas. In scores of other books, Karna’s battles against misfortune and Abhimanyu’s gallantry have been milked for every drop of emotion (and I don’t mean that as a putdown; there have been superb sentimental-humanist renditions of the Mahabharata, such as the ones by Kamala Subramanian and Ramesh Menon). In Iyengar’s novel though, there is a detachment even in the accounts of Radheya meeting his real mother Kunti, or the wounded Abhimanyu having his head smashed in. Sentiment is trumped by cool self-analysis: when he thinks Bhima has been killed, Radheya wonders if he should be feeling sad about the death of a younger brother. The book’s most tender moment involves the death of an elephant.

In other words, The Thirteenth Day belongs to a tradition that tells us the Mahabharata in its core form – called “Jaya” – was grittier and sparer than the version most of us know today. And godless too, the original epic’s Yadava chief Krishna not having yet been conflated with the Vishnu-avatar of the Bhakti Tradition. (In The Thirteenth Day, Krishna performs some splendid chariot-manouevering in one scene and is respected as a strategist, but otherwise stays mostly in the background.) This tradition includes Iravati Karve’s critical analysis Yuganta, MT Vasudevan Nair’s Randaamoozham, told in Bhima’s voice, and Shivaji Sawant’s Mrityunjay, all of which – to varying degrees – treat the epic in realist terms.

Explored here are the practical workings of a world where titles such as “Maharathi” can be bought or transferred (much like examinations being given by proxy in our own present day); the settling of personal scores, even among people fighting the same side; the necessity of being tactful once in a while (even if you have had a good day, you mustn’t show much celebratory emotion in the presence of a colleague who lost a kin); the impossibility of properly disposing of hundreds of decomposing bodies each day. That Iyengar knows the Mahabharata well is obvious in his treatment of peripheral figures such as the old King Bhagadatta. There is attention to detail – especially in the descriptions of combat – and a ring of truth in many of the character portraits, such as the suggestion that Suyodhana’s skill as a mace-fighter is linked to his pride about his looks. And there is humour: in one passage, after hearing that the soldiers consider Bhima the army’s heart and Arjuna its brain, Yudhisthira makes the mistake of asking which part of the human anatomy he is deemed to be in this analogy. Soldiers are a crude lot, comes the reply, so let’s not go there.

And crude they are. Most of the voices we hear in conversation are not those of genteel nobles, but the bawdy ones of men in war, inured to wine-drinking sessions even as the stench of carcasses drifts across to them. (“Don’t say I didn’t warn you when Radheya is riding our boys like a bull in heat,” someone says.) Which leads me to a minor quibble: given that Iyengar’s descriptive prose is assured and elegant (this is one of the two best-written Mahabharata novels I have read recently, the other being Sharath Komarraju’s The Winds of Hastinapura), some of the slang in the actual dialogues – or the way “putra” and “my boy” are both used at different times – feels a little incongruous.

But since demythologizing is the buzzword here, with characters and incidents constantly having the sheen of epic romance removed from them (Bheeshma on his famed bed of arrows is likened to a cockroach on its back), perhaps slang is an acceptable mode. As the author observes in an introductory note, in our own “Selfie Yuga” we have all become our own bards and myth-creators through social media. Perhaps it was ever so. The book ends with a minstrel’s lament where we see that the process of legend-creation has already begun, with hundreds of thousands of deaths ascribed to the slain Abhimanyu; there will no doubt be further exaggeration in other ornate verses to come. But an earlier description is more in keeping with this narrative’s earthy, matter-of-fact tone: “The boy had balls. Great, big ones."


[This blog is of course littered with Mahabharata posts, most of which you'll find here. Some pieces about recent novelisations: Sandipan Deb's The Last War; Karna's Wife/Draupadi in High Heels]

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Hrishi-da in a house full of bitches

From the Hrishikesh Mukherjee files: screen grabs of two pages from a nice magazine piece about the director (this is from the September 1977 Cine Blitz), written from the perspective of a nervous journalist visiting Hrishi-da’s Carter Road house and being introduced to all his dogs and given their back-stories.

A Hrishi-da quote from the story: “They have lesbian tendencies,” he says of two girls who are inordinately fond of each other. And here’s an excerpt from another page:
The pup had a very filmi story attached to her. This owner (a lady) had a 14-year-old daughter who had a tremendous crush on Rajesh Khanna. Having got the pup on the day that Rajesh married Dimple, she named the bitch Dimple and would give vent to her anger by calling to the pup and then mercilessly kicking it away. The mother of the girl, unable to bear this, handed the pup into Hrishida’s care and he changed her name to Sweetie.
Interesting thing about this anecdote no indication is given that the girl’s mother was an acquaintance of Hrishi-da; she is simply presented as “a strange visitor” who walked into his house one day and asked him to take the pup. Maybe it was generally felt that Rajesh Khanna’s favourite directors should get to atone for the consequences of all his actions.

[Earlier posts about the HM book: a photo from the Satyakam set; Biswajit and a five-year-old movie star]

Saturday, July 11, 2015

“It's alright, Ma, if I can't please them” – Bob Dylan and the extremes of fandom

[Did this piece for The Daily O]

In the opening chapter of Stephen King’s new novel Finders Keepers, an old author is jeered at, rebuked, and finally shot dead, by a “fan” who can’t come to grips with what the writer did to his most famous character in his third book.
Here’s what I want to know – why in God’s name couldn’t you leave Jimmy Gold alone? Why did you have to push his face down in the dirt? […] Advertising? I mean, advertising? House in the suburbs? Ford car in the driveway? Wife and two little kiddies? Everybody sells out, is that what you were trying to say? Everybody eats the poison?
What the unhinged fan doesn’t know is that the author, Rothstein, has two further Jimmy Gold novels written out in his private notebooks – two books in which the character “becomes himself again”, turning his back on the conformity he had briefly embraced. But it might not have made a difference anyway. This reader is too far gone. His identification with Gold ran so deep that the change in arc amounted to a personal betrayal. And the only possible response is to confront and silence the treacherous artist.

I thought of this scene while reading David Kinney’s The Dylanologists: Adventures in the Land of Bob, especially a passage about an obsessive Bob Dylan fan named Peter playing a record in his therapist’s office, and telling the shrink by way of self-analysis: “This is how I feel. Everything I’m trying to tell you is on this record. It’s all there.”

The song he plays is “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” – you know, that collection of angry-sad aphorisms, some of which have now become platitudes through repetition and overuse. A song packed with lines like “He not busy being born is busy dying”, and “Money doesn’t talk, it swears”, and “Even the president of the United States / sometimes must have to stand naked”, all of them much less effective on paper than in the young Dylan’s sneering-yet-weary voice.

There is this stanza too – “Advertising signs that con you / Into thinking you’re the one / That can do what’s never been done / That can win what’s never been won.” Which begs the question: what would Peter think, decades later, watching the older version of Bob Dylan appear in ads for soft drinks, cars and lingerie? Is there material here for a new Stephen King short story?

Maybe, but for now we have The Dylanologists, which is about the long history of Dylan-obsession, and, by extension, about the complicated relationship between an artist and his audience. Including that age-old debate: does the former have some sort of responsibility to the latter?

For Dylan, the answer has been a clear no. (“I never asked for your crutch, now don’t ask for mine,” he sang in “Fourth Time Around” – to a lover, to John Lennon, or to a needy fan?) Kinney’s book has for its epigraph this amusing exchange: “You don’t know who I am, but I know who you are,” a fan says. “Let’s keep it that way,” the legendary songwriter replies. As Kinney observes, “Dylan created personas and then demolished them, denied they had ever existed, and scorned the people who still clung to them. Almost as soon as any one image was lodged in the public’s mind, he began to resist.”

This is not a new thought, of course: apart from being discussed in earlier books, it was a subtext of Martin Scorsese’s documentary No Direction Home,which includes scenes from Dylan’s famously uncooperative press conferences (Question: “What about the recurring motorcycle imagery in your songs?” Answer: “Um, I think we all like motorcycles to some degree”) – and directly addressed in the film I’m Not There, which was constructed entirely around the enigma of Bob, how he could be many things and many people at different times.

But what Kinney does is to shift the focus to those who became caught in obsession’s web, with results varying from the very scary to the very poignant: the Dylanologists, sniffing out and collecting memorabilia for years, sifting through hundreds of hours of audio footage in hope of finding a previously unknown 10-minute outtake, hiding recording gear in a loaf of bread and sneaking it into a concert. This book is about how these manias came into being, and what they led to; about how personality, life experience and chance can mingle in strange ways so that one person becomes deeply, even fatally affected by another’s work.

The chilling Eminem song “Stan” has a fan deciding that he and his idol are just alike, and that his hero consequently owes him his time and attention; eventually he drives himself and his girlfriend off a bridge just to get “even”. But that’s a dramatic ending, a clean break. The stories in The Dylanologists are about people who survive and lead an outwardly normal existence, even as they give over decades of their lives to Dylanology (and its many subsets, such as “garbology” – going through the singer’s trash bin to find scraps of paper that would unlock a hidden meaning).

In its pages you’ll meet people like the woman who was so mesmerized when she first saw Bob on stage that it ended her long-time love for opera – “they are trained animals compared to what Dylan does”. But there are other, more intense fandoms, revealed in an ever-broadening spiral of madness. One person writes a 536-page Dylan to English Dictionary to decode the layers of meaning behind lyrics – and then, after half a lifetime of Dylanologising, “realises” that “Blowing in the Wind” was really a veiled racist rant, and that he had wasted all these decades worshipping a bigot. Someone else asks for a single screw from a piano – owned by another collector – that Dylan used. (“What would the man do with it? Wear it on a necklace like a totem?”) There are those who don the accoutrements of a regular life – marriage, secure job, mortgage – but feel like charlatans (like Jimmy Gold in Stephen King’s novel?), never quite part of the world they have settled for. A high-schooler who thinks about killing himself, and when he racks his brain for reasons not to do it, this one makes the most sense: he doesn’t want to miss the next Dylan album when it comes out.

Through all this, Kinney keeps himself mostly in the background, though he claims, in his Introduction, to being an “unreformed obsessive” himself. Writing about his early encounters with Dylan’s work, he says: “There were songs about girls, and war, and politics. I didn’t know who all of the characters were: Johanna, Ma Rainey, Cecil B DeMille, Gypsy Davy. I couldn’t honestly say I knew what Dylan was saying half the time. But the lines were riveting.”

A personal aside: I can relate to some of this. In the mid-1990s I went through a phase when the lyrics of every song in Highway 61 Revisited, Bringing it all Back Home and Blonde on Blonde – the three great albums of Dylan’s controversial 1965-66 electric phase – were firmly implanted in my head, through months of listening to them on my player at home and on my car deck (and always in Dylan’s own voice – it was only later that I came to enjoy some of the cover versions, such as Eddie Vedder’s “Masters of War” and “Lou Reed’s “Foot of Pride”). And though it has been years since I heard those albums in full, I still sometimes find myself silently mouthing lines from “Tombstone Blues” or “Desolation Row” or “Stuck Inside of Memphis” (even when some of these numbers are musically repetitive or boring, the words just trip off your tongue).

In the internet’s early years, I read fan sites, pored over analyses of the more surreal, stream-of-consciousness lyrics; I particularly remember the interpretation of the “sword-swallower” stanza in “Ballad of a Thin Man” as a conservative homophobic being caught unawares in a homosexual experience (and the “one-eyed midget” in the same song being a euphemism for a penis). Other lines worked best when you didn’t try to pin down their exact meaning, when the associations and imagery they created in your mind – the vaguer the better – was what mattered. (Does “the ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face” become more vivid when you see it as a description of Joan of Arc being burnt at the stake? Doubtful.)

It didn’t seem like a phase at the time; it felt like obsession. But now, reading The Dylanologists, I know better. For a short while in my teens, I probably convinced myself that I could write a long, line-by-line analysis of “Visions of Johanna”. But a man named John Stokes
– one of the many Dylanologists mentioned here – actually went ahead and did it, and did it on an epic scale, producing 65,000 words about that song: a labour of love, creativity and grand folly that might be said to exist almost independently of the verses that inspired it. One of the achievements of Kinney’s book is that it almost convinces you that Bob Dylan’s greatest legacy might be as a cipher, a pretext for the playing out of other people’s life-stories, forever disappearing through the smoke rings of their minds.

[An earlier Dylan post, about No Direction Home, is here]