Thursday, May 21, 2015

Catchers in the rye - about a boy named Manan and a girl named Ela

[Did this piece – a composite review of two fine Young Adult novels – for Open magazine]

“He closes his eyes and finds today’s date floating towards him. Shimmering in the darkness, swiveling – like the text on the Windows 95 screensaver. […] All his life’s problems are in the past.”

“The day I turned thirteen was the day I wanted to die. The day the blackness fell on me so sharp and exact it took the shape of a monster bird that dug its claws in my shoulder and never left.”

The first of those quotes is from the opening paragraph of Mohit Parikh’s Manan; the second begins Sampurna Chattarji’s Ela: The Girl Who Entered the Unknown. If you tried to identify the general mood of the books from these lines, you’d think the former would be affirmative, the latter dark. In fact, it turns out to be almost the reverse – but rather than use limiting descriptors, perhaps it is better just to say that here are two very sensitive and engaging Young Adult publications, part of a growing landscape of such titles in Indian English writing. Both these books – broadly aimed at readers in the 13-to-18 age bracket – employ stream-of-consciousness to express the turmoil in a youngster’s mind: the conversations with oneself, the tendency to flit from one thought to the next. They are similar also in that each begins with an incident that leads to renewed self-awareness, or a rethinking of one’s place in the world.

Ela’s situation is the more dramatic of the two: at her own birthday party she learns, in the worst possible way – a nasty little boy and his gloating mother being the catalysts – that she was adopted. Her parents, who now suddenly feel like strangers, had never told her; they were going to, they plead, they didn’t mean for it to happen like this – but a large hole has opened beneath Ela’s feet. Her voice is that of a poised, eloquent teenager, mature beyond her years, but she was clearly unprepared to deal with this, and emotional trauma gives way to physical illness.

The 15-year-old protagonist of Manan isn’t so poised or self-confident to begin with, but that could be about to change. The big event in Manan’s life, the thing that will leave “April 23, 1998” seared on his mind, is that a hair has sprouted on his balls: puberty, too long delayed, may finally be rapping at his door. Surely this means he will catch up with his taller, better-built, more hirsute classmates, and adults will no longer look disbelieving when they learn he is in the 10th grade?

Manan. The name has “a man” in it, and much of this story is about a boy’s preoccupation with achieving that desired but also scary state of being, with all the things it implies. (“He is a man. A man, a male, masculine. […] He has seen Shrey and Kshitij make comments about girls from Girl’s Polytechnic College and he has not scolded them […] He has even uttered an expletive – a phrase for a non-existent male body part – and it has felt good.”) But the name also suggests a life of the mind, and the book places us firmly inside his head, where contrary feelings jostle hotly with each other for space. Unlike Ela, this narrative is in the third person, but it is very much the subjective third person, closely allied to Manan’s consciousness. In one passage he imagines his brain as a gooey, florescent lump that can be extracted from his skull – by untangling the threads that comprise it – then dry-cleaned and put back inside.

Place and period are important in Parikh’s novel. There are little details that many people who grew up in 1990s middle-class India will recognise, such as the Mario Bros video games (the ones I played were on an unwieldy, jukebox-shaped thing in a corner of a nearby video parlour), or the advent of this mysterious new creature called the internet, delicate and precious in those days because even just “logging on” could be such an adventure: the dial-up, the clanging bells, the knowledge that the whole thing would disconnect if someone happened to call on the landline you were using (or if there was a cross-connection – which happened often to the phone in my room).

But I could also relate to Manan in terms that are independent of time and setting, such as the theme of an introverted boy grappling with this coming-of-age business. What happens when you already feel so mature inside – wiser, more evolved than many of the adults around you – that growing up seems redundant in some ways; and yet you also know there are nebulous things still to be negotiated: physical changes, sexual awareness. And throughout, the fear that growing up might mean becoming preoccupied with “boring” stuff like electricity bills and bank accounts and office ledgers. It may mean the end of the particular forms of romanticizing that are youth’s privilege, as when Manan thinks about the girl he loves (or thinks he loves). What if he spoils her life by entering it, he wonders.

If he marries her they might fight. They might become ordinary. They might have to talk about festivals and constipation and plumbing. Instead, he can be at a distance, like a line that is parallel. Going along with her, looking out for her forever, but never intersecting. Like how sages are. In that poem, Upagupta does not accept the invitation of a dancing girl who is young and beautiful and whose house would be comfortable in the rough night. Instead he chooses to sleep in dust and promises to come to her when the time is ripe. A year later, when the dancing girl suffers from smallpox and is abandoned by the villagers, the young man offers her water to drink and balms her wounds with sandal paste. Aren’t such men the greatest?
This idealising also goes hand in hand with his suspicion that sex is inherently dirty, that people who have experienced it are “fallen” in some way. As the internet leads him from abstracted, detached awareness to full-blooded understanding of the graphicness of the act, a repulsed fascination arises: how to trust or respect the grown-ups he sees around him, with the knowledge that that is what they do in private? These thoughts are further complicated by his having to serve as go-between (I was reminded of LP Hartley’s coming-of-age novel of that title) for his sister and her boyfriend.

Manan is part of a generation of young people who suddenly had to deal with the outside world coming at them through a computer screen, assailing them with more information than their minds were ready to process. For Ela, on the other hand, born and raised in a time when cyber-space is taken for granted, it becomes a way of returning to normal life. “And then the whole wide world I’d stayed away from came rushing back in and I remembered that miracle called the internet, I remembered there was a way to get in touch, privately, they called it email, the medicines had made me a moron, how could I have forgotten…” 

Here and elsewhere, Ela speaks in a breathless rush, some sentences flowing on for up to two pages; so skilful is Chattarji’s writing that even everyday incidents are given an edge, and we are always aware of how precarious this girl’s state of mind is. The marketing machinery may peg this as a story about How to Deal with Finding Out You were Adopted, but as with any really good book Ela is not restricted by its ostensible subject. It is as much about discovering the possibilities of the world – and yourself – beyond the certainties you have been raised with. 

Though Ela’s reactions seem over the top at first, gradually we see why she feels hard done by. At one point she mentions that her school had taught its students to be respectful and sympathetic towards less fortunate children; that they had visited schools for the poor, donated clothes and books. Even in doing these “noble” things, Ela intuitively realised that they, the privileged lot, would never truly think of these poor children as equals. And now she knows that she might easily have been in those straits herself, if her adoptive parents hadn’t “rescued” her. How does a 13-year-old deal with such a seismic shift in her sense of being?

One way of doing this is to turn to the world of the imagination. (“Reading is like dancing for the brain!”) Ela starts to heal herself through story-telling followed by story-sharing, and the help of a classmate with whom she has an unknowable, almost telepathic bond. And here one can note that while both Manan and Ela have rich inner lives, they are put to different ends and have different effects. The make-belief world Ela immerses herself into has its dangers (and the peril of complete submersion) but in the end it saves her. For Manan, on the other hand, the life of the mind becomes stifling. Fantasy can be liberating, or it can become a cul-de-sac, depending on the sort of young person – or young reader – you are.

It is hard to do interior monologue well even in short doses, much less sustain it over the course of a whole book, yet there are few missteps in these two narratives. Chattarji is the more assured and fluent writer, but there is something very appealing about the occasional rawness of Parikh’s prose. Some passages in Manan feel clumsy (“He freezes. The world freezes too, ceases to exist; present only: an onlooker looking on. Then the world resumes, as a blur, as a noise, as a something that has happened to enable the happening of this: she crossing the road, him watching her, she unaware of him”), but on the whole this tremulous vulnerability works very well for the story. A visual equivalent for it may be found in one of the drawings (by Urmila Shastry) in the book, Manan’s body depicted as an assortment of giant ice-cubes slithering off a bicycle. Though come to think of it, that image could represent any young person at the crossroads, trying to find the balance between fitting neatly into an icebox – becoming “square” – and melting in a puddle on the road.


[Here is a review of another YA book, Musharraf Ali Farooqi's Tik-Tik, the Master of Time]

Saturday, May 09, 2015

Father and daughter go to alimentary school - on Shoojit Sircar's Piku

[Did this for The Daily O]

Shoojit Sircar’s Piku (subtitled “Motion se hi Emotion”) is about Bhaskar Banerji (Amitabh Bachchan), an old man with a bowel disorder, and his daughter Piku (Deepika Padukone) who has spent too much of her young life attending to him and having conversations about constipation (which infiltrate other aspects of her world, freaking out co-workers and potential boyfriends). It is about how father and daughter, in different ways, find catharsis through a Delhi-to-Kolkata road trip in the company of cab-agency owner Rana (Irrfan Khan).

And of course, once you use a word like “catharsis” – and think about other dual-meaning terms like “anal-retentive” or even “tight-arsed” – the metaphorical possibilities of this story should be obvious. Crabby old Bhaskar needs to purge himself, not just of the stuff choking his intestines, but of something else – something that can perhaps be freed only when he returns to the city of his childhood and re-experiences a little of his past: cycling about near Kolkata’s crumbling havelis, dodging trams, bringing home a greasy bag of street food. A Delhi-hater might even say that on some level this film is about a provincial Bengali disinfecting himself after years of inhaling the capital’s shit. (Living in Delhi’s Bangla colony and setting up shrines to Rabindranath Tagore and Satyajit Ray inside your house isn’t enough. You need the real air and kaalchar.)

More likely, Bhaskar and Piku just need something, anything new. “Kuch naya karne ko mila,” he says happily after Rana advises him to try Indian-style squatting in the toilet (this doesn’t solve the old man’s problems, but it makes him feel a little more alive), and the words apply just as well to their unusual car journey. The first time we see Bhaskar stepping outside his cluttered, self-contained CR Park house, he is cycling very tentatively in a lane, with two people running alongside to keep him steady. This short and uncertain exercise is a dress rehearsal for the road trip, and by the end we will see that the road trip itself was the prelude to a final liberating ride. The two cycling scenes and the car journey sandwiched between them can be viewed as stand-ins for three life-stages: childhood, the long middle stretch, and childhood revisited in old age.

Yet it would be a mistake to confine Piku to this sort of symbolism. After their 2012 sleeper hit Vicky Donor, Sircar and writer Juhi Chaturvedi have again imbued a film with so much verve, attention to detail and such a sense of lived-in-ness that you don’t have to dwell on Deeper Meanings if you don’t want to; it works so well as slice-of-life storytelling. Chaturvedi’s naturalistic dialogue is unafraid to use ellipses and to not spell everything out
it leaves us free to observe these people and conjecture things about their personal histories. And though the story follows a rite-of-passage formula and is always headed for a specific sort of resolution, the characters have many dimensions. When Bhaskar does the seemingly “cool”, non-fatherly thing of telling a young man that Piku has had physical relationships (“Bhirgin nahin hai”), it is really because he is scared she might get married and leave his house. What a tragedy it is that women are restricted to wifely roles when we have the example of great heroines like Sarojini Naidu and Vijaylakshmi Pandit, he says magnanimously, but later a casual exchange suggests that he wasn’t so progressive within his own marriage: his wife had to leave her teaching career after marrying him; as so often, there is a gap between stated ideals and lived experience.

Similarly, the Irrfan character Rana could easily have just been the outsider who watches, comments and supplies wisdom, the Krishna-like saarthi who literally and otherwise chauffeurs Piku and Bhaskar to the place they need to reach – but it is subtly indicated that Rana has his own demons, that this is a therapeutic journey for him too. A fine scene near the end puts him on the receiving end of a lecture and implies that he feels guilt for not having been attentive enough towards his cancer-stricken father. If Piku represents one extreme – the young woman whose life is flying by at the service of a parent’s ailments – Rana could be near the other extreme; the child who never even knew enough about a parent’s condition to be able to talk about it. (How easy it is for him to up and leave early one morning without even informing his mother and sister back home.) We are also allowed to wonder what effect his experiences in a menial job in Dubai have had on his present-day class consciousness, his insistence on being not a “mere” driver but an owner. Such little touches are not vital to the story we are being told, but they give us a sense of the characters’ inner lives.


When art sets out to remind us of the unglamorous rudiments of the human condition – that beneath our posturing we are just bags of mince and shit with very limited sell-by dates – the mode is usually bleak or surreal or self-consciously depressing. This has not (to say the least) been the case with Sircar and Chaturvedi’s work together. In Vicky Donor, Dr Chaddha compartmentalized people into “sperrrm types” but also affectionately oversaw the transformation of squiggly raw materials into flesh-and-blood human beings with personalities and feelings. In Piku there are little moments that steer close to detached, Bunuel-esque nihilism (the scenes where potty talk happens at dining tables, even as the camera offers us loving close-ups of Bengali dishes, or in a sophisticated restaurant with romantic music playing in the background, reminded me of the famous reversal of roles in Bunuel’s The Phantom of Liberty, where defecation is a public act – people do it while making polite conversation together at a table – and eating a clandestine one) – and yet this manages to be an essentially warm, life-affirming film.

With a couple of exceptions such as a slack scene involving a knife (which seemed to me to exist mainly to set up the sort of dramatic intermission that our multiplex movies require these days), the storytelling is crisp and focused, and the performances by the three leads as well as the supporting players are super. (In her first scene as Bhaskar’s perky, much-married sister-in-law, Moushumi Chatterjee’s opening words to Bachchan are “How are you? Motion
toh hua na?” As Dorothy never said, “We’re not in Rim Jhim Gire Saawan Land anymore, Toto.”) Padukone and Irrfan – an unlikely couple in many ways – find surprising chemistry together, the sort of chemistry that facilitates an ending where romantic loose ends don’t have to be neatly tied up. (Watch the final shot – no spoiler here – where a game of badminton is being played in a driveway, with one player inside the gated area and the other outside.)

And there is Bachchan, of course. In the past couple of decades there has been much talk about AB’s passage from the anti-authority hero of the 1970s, champion of the downtrodden (onscreen), to a symbol of benevolent authoritarianism himself (on and off screen). But who knew, back in the day when we were kids imagining ourselves as leather-jacketed Sikandar on the motorbike singing “Rote huay aate hain sab…”, that one day we would see the 70-year-old version of that fate-conqueror complaining that his bowel is dispensing “one small piece at a time” – and that we would STILL cheer for him. Well, fans grow older – and wiser – too.

[A post about Vicky Donor here. And a very short profile of Juhi Chaturvedi in this post.]

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

“In the end, he gets nothing” (from Orson Welles on his 100th)

It’s Orson Welles’s birth centenary today. From Peter Bogdanovich’s superb book-length collection of conversations with Welles, here are some quotes from the big man. First, on two of his greatest movie roles.

On Shakespeare’s Falstaff, a character with whom I think Welles may have identified:

Bogdanovich: You called him “the one good man”.

Welles: I think he’s one of the only great characters in all dramatic literature who is essentially good. He’s good in the sense that the hippies are good. The comedy is all about the gross faults in the man, but those faults are so trivial: his famous cowardice is a joke – a joke Falstaff seems to be telling himself against himself; a strong case could be made for his courage. But his goodness is basic – like bread, like wine. He’s just shining with love; he asks for so little, and in the end, of course, he gets nothing.

Even if the good old days never existed, the fact that we can conceive of such a world is, in fact, an affirmation of the human spirit. That the imagination of man is capable of creating the myth of a more open, more generous time is not a sign of our folly. Every country has its “Merrie England”, a season of innocence, a dew-bright morning of the world. Shakespeare sings of that lost Maytime in many of his plays, and Falstaff – that pot-ridden old rogue – is its perfect embodiment. All the roguery and the tavern wit and the liar and the bluff is simply a turn of his – it’s a little song he sings for his supper. It isn’t really what he’s about.

And this about Harry Lime, his small but enormously memorable role in The Third Man:

Bogdanovich: You have the smallest part but it dominates one's whole memory of the film.

Welles: That's the part, you know. Every sentence in the whole script is about Harry Lime – nobody talks about anything else for ten reels. And there's that shot in the doorway – what a star entrance that was! In theatre, you know, the old star actors never liked to come on until the end of the first act. Mister Wu is a classic example. I've played it once myself. All the other actors boil around the stage for about an hour, shrieking, "What will happen when Mister Wu arrives?" "What is he like, this Mister Wu?," and so on. Finally a great gong is beaten, and slowly over a Chinese bridge comes Mister Wu himself in full mandarin robes. Peach Blossom (or whatever her name is) falls on her face and a lot of coolies yell, "Mister Wu!!!" The curtain comes down, the audience goes wild, and everybody says, "Isn't that guy playing Mister Wu a great actor!" 
That's a star part for you! What matters in that kind of role is not how many lines you have, but how few. What counts is how much the other characters talk about you. Such a star vehicle really is a vehicle. All you have to do is ride.

And this in response to Bogdanovich asking him what to teach a group of people who wanted to be directors:

"The movie director must always remain a slightly ambiguous figure, because so much of what he signs his name to came from elsewhere, so many of his best things are merely accidents over which he presides. Or the good fortune he receives. Or the grace [...]

Hold a mirror up to nature – that’s Shakespeare’s message to the actor. How much more does that apply, and how much more is it true, to the creator of a film? If you don’t know something about the nature to which you’re holding up your mirror, how limited your work must be! The more film people pay homage to each other, and to films rather than to life, the more they are approximating the last scene of The Lady From Shanghai – a series of mirrors reflecting each other. 

A movie is a reflection of the entire culture of the man who makes it – his education, human knowledge, his breadth of understanding – all this is what informs a picture [...] and the degree to which that can be done depends on what he has of himself by way of raw materials [...] the angle at which you hold that mirror, which is determined by moral, aesthetic and ideological orientation. Everything depends upon that angle. A mirror is just what it is."

And here's another great quote, from an earlier post: "Let filmmakers beware of films..."

(Oh heck, just read the whole book. It’s packed with gems. And go watch or re-watch Chimes at Midnight, Touch of Evil and F for Fake.)

Saturday, May 02, 2015

Notes from a judging process – on the pitfalls and pleasures of the Crossword Awards

[Did a version of this for the Daily O]

This will sound strange, even hypocritical, coming from someone who has accepted invitations to judge literary prizes a few times, but the idea of competitive awards for the arts makes me uneasy. I don't like the thought of creative works being thrown into a horse race, assessed by supposed gatekeepers of culture, and awarded marks and ranks so a single "winner" can emerge, just to satisfy our need for patterns and clean narratives.**

At the same time, there are good justifications for the existence of such prizes. The Raymond Crossword Award – in which I
participated as a judge for the fiction category this year – culminated in a pretty good show at the NCPA Mumbai this week, one that brought glamour, music and humour to a field that doesn’t often get a showcase of this sort. The award itself encourages and rewards writers, and brings high-quality books to the attention of readers who might not otherwise find out about them. And I emphasize “books”, in the plural, because the dreamer in me wishes each literary award committee would simply announce a shortlist of five titles (or 10 or 20 titles, depending on the overall size of the field) and leave it at that, taking the proceedings no further. So that readers can then explore the many riches on offer.

Silly fantasy, I know.

But even while congratulating Anees Salim on his win for The Blind Lady’s Descendants, I would encourage you to look as closely at the other shortlisted books, which represent a marvelous variety of styles and subjects. Just one example: Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar's The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey and Amitabha Bagchi's This Place are utterly different novels in terms of form, use of language and character types, yet both beautifully capture a sense of a setting (a Santhal village in Jharkhand and a Baltimore community respectively), the people in it, and the particular shapes that communal life can take. Ranking one of these books over the other is not something I, at any rate, could do with confidence. And yet, for our final discussions, we judges HAD to rank, and convince ourselves that the rankings had an internal logic.


Given these subjectivities inherent in “jury duty”, it helps if the actual process is made as efficient and clear as possible. Unfortunately this wasn’t the case here. The three of us – author/editor Anjum Hasan and author/academic Devika J were the other judges for the fiction prize – were disappointed by the apparent lack of organisation, and our initial impression was that the awards this year were more a brand-building exercise (or a “we have the brand, so let’s just keep it going” exercise) than a sincere, properly thought out celebration of literature.

Things would have been better, we felt, if R Sriram, a man of integrity and taste, who co-founded the Crossword Awards nearly two decades ago and still works as a consultant for the prize, had had a more direct role to play. Sriram has been candid about the shortcomings, among them the bizarreness of the 1.5-year period. Most awards operate on a 12-month cycle – preferably a calendar year, for obvious reasons – but the rule for this edition was that eligible books had to have been published between March 2013 and September 2014. I suspect this was as confusing for the participating publishers and writers as it was for us. (All books have a publication year listed, of course, but not many authors would be able to say, with certainty, that theirs was a “March 2013 book” rather than a “February 2013 book”.)

A reason for this timeframe oddness, apparently, is the uncertainty about sponsorships for the prize. As one of my fellow judges put it during an early email discussion, “I think the main problem is no one seems to want to take ownership of the prize. Crossword don’t put down the money themselves [...] This year the sponsor is Raymond, the other year it was Economist, before that it was Vodafone. How can any self-respecting award have this kind of musical chairs sponsorship?”

The silver lining is that things are set to improve in the next couple of years: Sriram tells me that Raymond has committed for the next two years as well, and that in the near future they will revert to a saner, calendar-year format.

In any case this wouldn’t have mattered much if the other things had been done well. If, say, the lists had been properly drawn up and the books we were to read had arrived in good time.

For clarity, here’s an outline of the process for the fiction prize. Publishers were asked to send Crossword a specified number of titles each for award consideration. Once this “longlist” was ready, the three judges came into the picture. We were to divide the books – there would be around 80, we were told – amongst ourselves. After an initial reading marathon, each of us would identify the five or six books from our respective quotas that we regarded mostly highly. At this point, with a total of 15 to 18 books in the fray, all the judges would be required to read everything and arrive, through discussion, at the final shortlist – and thence the winner.

Early on we learnt that the “around 80” was really 90-plus books – but that was okay since we had plenty of time on our hands. Except…we didn’t, since there were mix-ups and delays. The lists we were sent were far from finalised. The first list didn’t represent a couple of major publishers at all (it was subsequently updated). There were some titles listed that later turned out not to be eligible, because the author didn’t have Indian citizenship, or because a book had first been published years earlier, or belonged in the “translation” category. It became clear that Crossword didn’t have a basic filtering process in place before dumping 90-odd books on us.

As for the books themselves, it took forever for some of them to reach, even though it should not – in theory – have been a very thorny business to collect three copies of each of the longlisted titles, arrange them into sets, and send them out to three addresses in three different cities. Instead they came piecemeal, one couriered box at a time, weeks apart. With some duplications, many missing titles, some books that hadn’t even been mentioned in the longlist. Nervously aware that each of us would have to read around 30 books in a couple of months just to get through the first step of the process, we sent increasingly shrill reminder emails, and rarely got coherent responses. Samples of email chatter:

Judge: only three eligible books from Penguin in one-and-a-half years? That seems hard to believe. Also, nothing from Bloomsbury and Roli who both do fiction.

Terse response: They haven’t sent anything. Will still check with them.

Judge: were the publishers originally told to send 4 books per imprint or 6? I think we should be careful about this. We don’t want publishers comparing notes later and finding they were given different criteria.

[No response]

I wouldn’t let the publishers off the hook either. This is conjecture, of course, but looking through some of the titles submitted, it felt like the decisions were being made by marketing teams, based on which author was putting the most pressure on them, rather than by editors. When the first longlists (including updates) were ready, Anjum – who, as The Caravan’s literary editor, has been following recent publishing developments more closely than either Devika or me – noted that many acclaimed books published over the given period were not on the list at all. Accordingly she made a list of around 18-20 titles and asked Crossword to have those sent across as well. (The judges had been given leeway to do this.) We diligently revised our schedules to accommodate 110 titles rather than the original ninety.

One of those specifically-requested titles was The Blind Lady’s Descendants. That’s right – the book that ended up winning the fiction prize was not even submitted by its own publisher (Tranquebar) for the initial 90-book longlist.

That list also didn’t include another eventual shortlistee, Amit Chaudhuri’s Odysseus Abroad, which was one of the most acclaimed titles of the past year. Altaf Tyrewala’s Engglishhh and Kaveri Nambisan’s A Town Like Ours, both of which made it to our “pre-shortlist”, hadn’t been submitted either, and had to be asked for.

I could give you an idea of how surreal it was to not see books of the quality of Chaudhuri’s or Salim’s on the longlist, simply by quoting passages from some of the titles that WERE on it, but this website will run out of bandwidth. (Hint: if, in a bookstore you find yourselves within arm’s reach of a “medical thriller” titled Coffin Her Back – with a front-cover blurb that says nothing more effusive than “A decent first-time effort” – take a minute to open a page at random and read a few sentences. But only if you haven’t recently been operated on. This book will open your stitches like a freshly sharpened knife.) Also taking up a lot of space on the longlist was an over-generous sprinkling of barely written, not-at-all-edited books by Srishti, Leadstart and other publishers who operate in a grey zone located just on the outskirts of Self-Publishing.

And no, I am not being snobbish about popular or mass-market fiction. One of the things that makes me uncomfortable about such awards is the unspoken (and vague) distinctions that get made between “literary” and “popular” – distinctions that can be unfair to the really good writers of genre or fast-paced fiction like Anuja Chauhan or Samit Basu or Krishna Shastri Devapulalli (to name just three whose work I am reasonably familiar with), who tend to get sidelined in the “fiction” category while also getting dwarfed by the Ravi Subramanians and Ravinder Singhs in the “by popular vote” category.

Which is a good time to mention this observation Devika J made about our eventual winner: “Anees Salim breaks down the barrier between the high-brow and the popular quite spectacularly […] There is a way in which his writing communicates at different registers to different people, and that's no mean achievement.”


The choice of The Blind Lady’s Descendants was unanimous – in the sense that the book topped the final, “order of preference” list submitted by all three judges. More specifically, on each of those three lists there was another book that was joint first with Salim’s – except that it was a different book in each case, so we had our clear winner.

And a little admission: one book that all the judges loved (and which featured in the top 2 in two of the judges’ final lists) was not included in our final shortlist.

How does that work? The book in question was Anees Salim’s Vanity Bagh, which was one of three Salim novels eligible in the (1.5-year) period under consideration. After a bit of back and forth over email, we decided that there were so many good books to pick from this year that we should restrict the shortlist to one novel per author, rather than have two Salims on it and take away a spot from another writer.

Speaking for myself, I loved The Blind Lady’s Descendants (having read it twice now, I find myself mesmerized by how it manages to be so funny and light while also dealing with one of the saddest of subjects – the fear of obscurity and irrelevance, and the temporary comforts that writing can bring). And yet, in a way I saw Salim’s win as a win not just for this novel but for the sum of his achievements over the period: for Vanity Bagh as well as the delightful Tales from a Vending Machine, which is the fastest paced of his books, seemingly written for younger readers (and therefore perhaps most prone to snobberies about not being “literary” enough for a prize) – but which I think is in its own way as good as either of the others.

Which is a long-winded way of saying that for all the shortfalls in organization, for all the inherent flaws in such a competitive process, at the end of several months we had a very satisfying winner. Along with a solid list of other nominees. 


** More on competitive prizes
what I’m more interested in are the processes involved. When I became obsessed with the Oscars as an adolescent, I spent a lot of time making lists of potential nominees, conjecturing why this or that film or performance would be favoured. But even back then I never thought the results would represent an objective “best” – the inherent subjectivity of the process was a given, as was the fact that actual merit might be just one among a multitude of intersecting factors behind a vote. (Among those factors, well-chronicled in Oscar history: the perceived topicality of a film’s subject matter, or the “holdover award” given to a respected performer who had never won for his or her best work in the past.) In any case the period leading up to the announcement of the nominations was the most exciting for me; after that it became predictable, and awards night itself didn’t interest me much unless there was a thoroughly unexpected winner.

Monday, April 13, 2015

The invisibility and nudity ring: vanishing Vinod in a 1971 film called Elaan

[Did a version of this for the Daily O]

With India’s newest Invisible Man film – the Emraan Hashmi-starrer Mr X – about to release, there has been much talk about computer-generated effects, and even more talk about the fondly remembered Mr India. But forget all that. It is time to rescue from film vaults another, older movie that features an invisibility device.

Historically, the 1971 Elaan has minor importance for being the first ever pairing of Rekha and Vinod Mehra, who were an under-appreciated screen couple. Be warned though: the Rekha and Vinod Mehra in this film are a species or two removed from the same actors in, say, Ghar, which was made years later.

I’ll skip the preliminaries, such as the grisly courtship scenes between their characters Naresh and Mala (which include him being molested by a tribe of her sahelis at a picnic), and get to the main plot. Naresh – an upwardly mobile journalist
runs afoul of one of those “international” crime syndicates that use high-tech gadgets (blue rotary phones! walkie-talkies! flower pots that can be twisted about to make a door open!) and do unspeakably evil things such as printing literally dozens of fake one-rupee notes and hanging them on a clothes-line to dry. (“Ek din India ki currency fail ho jaayegi aur hum log maalamaal ho jaayenge! Ha. Ha. Ha.”)

"Well, Mrs Gandhi is saying Garibi Hatao."

This shot of white-skinned masseuses in floral bikinis, a VAT 69 bottle and a topless Madan Puri, all in the same frame, will reveal their satanic depths.

When you learn that the villains’ main den (“Phase 1”) is on a distant island, that one of the head villains (the ever-reliable Shetty) is bald and that the other head villain is played by Amrish Puri’s brother, dots will start to connect in your head. There is already a pre-echo here of Mr India. Then the invisibility theme makes its appearance. Pay attention now.

Naresh finds himself locked in a cellar with a seemingly crazy old man who claims to have invented an “atomic ring” that can make you disappear. Where is this ring, you ask. It turns out
he has kept it safely buried in his thigh for years, waiting for a goodhearted person he can bequeath it to. When Naresh respectfully addresses him as “Baba”, the old savant realises his Bilbo Baggins is here at last; so he tears open his own leg, extricates the ring from its gory hiding place, and tells Naresh:

“Put this in your mouth, then take off all your clothes, and see what happens.”

(Or words to that effect.) I should mention that there is no disinfectant in this cellar.

Remember this excellent Christopher Walken monologue from Pulp Fiction?
This watch. This watch was on your daddy’s wrist when he was shot down over Hanoi. He was captured, put in a Vietnamese prison camp. The way your dad looked at it, that watch was your birthright. So he hid it in the one place he knew he could hide something. His ass. Five long years, he wore this watch up his ass. Then he died of dysentery, he gave me the watch. I hid this uncomfortable hunk of metal up my ass two years. Then, after seven years, I was sent home to my family. And now, little man, I give the watch to you.
At least the Walken character didn’t ask little Butch to put the watch in his mouth. No such luck for Naresh.

In most invisibility stories, either the device-user disappears fully, along with the clothes he is wearing (Mr India, The Lord of the Rings), or the body disappears but the clothes can still be seen (the 1933 Invisible Man with Claude Rains, the Kevin Bacon-starrer Hollow Man). The science of Elaan is a little more complicated: you have to take off all your clothes if you want to turn invisible – otherwise it won’t work at all.

And it must be done in a pre-specified order.

1) First remove your shirt.

2) Carefully place the atomic ring in your mouth – not like you’re Rajinikanth flicking a cigarette, but like you’re Vinod Mehra ingesting a Hajmola for a TV ad. 

3) After this, remove your trousers. (No one ever needs underwear.)

It is only the magical combination of ring-in-mouth PLUS trousers-off that leads to invisibility. Omit one of these important steps and you’re either standing there half-dressed and visible with a ring in your mouth, or naked and visible with a ring in your hand.

Also, the moment your body comes in contact with any sort of cloth – if someone throws a towel over you, for example – all of you becomes visible again.

This is where I present my carefully worked out thesis that Elaan isn’t so much a film about invisibility as a film about the liberating joys of nudity.

No one is too impressed with the invisibility idea to begin with. It is treated as a plot detail, easily jettisoned when other details – such as sleek orange cars – come along. Unlike Mr India and (presumably) Mr X, where so much hinges on this marvelous superpower – and the writers know they can build an adventure around it – Elaan looks at its own script and goes: “Invisibility? Uh-huh. What else you got?”

Consider a scene where Naresh meets Mala, who has joined the CBI after her father is murdered. (It’s that easy. You just join, and get a special number and your own wristwatch-like gizmo, on which CBI boss Iftekhar can call you anytime – and he does, usually at the precise moment when you’re undercover in the villains’ den with bad guys all around you.) She yearns to avenge her daddy; we know this because she is throwing darts at a board with an expression of annoyance, like a picnic has just been cancelled due to rain.

So Naresh gives her the good news straight.

“Mere paas atomic ring hai!”

“Atomic ring? Woh kis kaam ka hai?”

“Usse mooh mein rakhne se aadmi gaayab ho jaata hai. Iss se hamara mission aur bhi aasaan ho jaayega.”
(Mala titters, like she has heard that the weather will improve in the evening. The background music is soft and romantic and not at all conducive to conversations about atoms and protons. So they talk about things more exciting than invisibility, such as where to go for dinner.)

The nakedness, on the other hand, is what really drives this film. Often, when Naresh is being pursued by the bad guys (say, during a breakneck car chase), he has to dump his clothes and vanish. Which means that whenever he wishes to become visible again, he must:

1) find a clothes store, 
2) find a shoe store, 
3) sneak into each of them by turn, 
4) pilfer things in his invisible state without the salesmen noticing anything amiss, 
5) wait for a changing room to be unoccupied, 
6) enter the changing room,
7) check for CCTV cameras...

See how this sort of thing might slow down the pace of what was intended to be an action movie?

By the film's climax, the dominant mode is low comedy, and people are falling over themselves to get hold of the ring mainly because it gives them an excuse to take off their clothes. After all, what is the point of having both Rajendranath (as Naresh’s buffoonish friend Shyam) and an invisibility-nudity ring in the same film if you can’t use lines like these?

Naresh (having been cornered by the bad guys): “Shyam, apne mooh se ring nikaalo.”

Invisible Shyam: “Par main toh nangaa hoon!”

So Naresh takes off his own coat and puts it around Shyam’s lower half (wisely), and voila, the buffoon reappears.


Elaan’s casting was prescient, I feel. After early stints as a hero in B-movies, Vinod Mehra would go on to become one of the invisible men of mainstream Hindi cinema – not so much a second or third lead as a noble foil who always had a brave, rueful smile on his face as if mindful of his place in the pecking order; making up the numbers in multi-hero films like The Burning Train and Jaani Dushman; or appearing as a martyred policeman in the “Pre-Credits Backstory Compression” (to use Rajorshi Chakraborti’s delightful phrase in the piece he wrote for The Popcorn Essayists) segments of 1980s movies; or stumbling about in a shawl while a bizarre series of opening titles played out.

In Elaan, having got a chance to play hero, he shows terrific screen absence in scenes like these:

Vinod Mehra in an intense romantic moment with Rekha:

Vinod Mehra looking heroic as he rides a motorbike, with Shyam sitting behind him and holding on for dear life. 

(Please remember, while looking at the above image, that Naresh is nude. Thank you.)

And here is the closest thing this film has to a special effect:

Twinkle twinkle, fading star

No wonder Elaan has remained largely unseen for decades. But you could say that's a pretty good achievement for an invisibility film.

P.S. Among the high points of Elaan is one of those actors who would overshadow Vinod Mehra in the decade to come – the dashing young Vinod Khanna, still in his villain phase. 

Managing somehow to look cool even when sitting at a contraption with blinking neon lights and speaking long-distance with his island bosses, Khanna seems to have sky-dropped in from another, classier film. And he gets to be sutradhaar at one point too, with a dialogue that sums up the film’s generally disdainful attitude to invisibility. “Chaalis saal se atomic research ki hai. Ek angoothi banaayi hai jiss se aadmi gaayab ho jaata hai. Wah re, Aladdin ki aulad!” Then he chuckles for a bit and goes back to sleep. As you should too.

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Todd Stadtman and the 'funky' Indian films of the 1970s

[Did this review for Open magazine]

When I heard an American had written a book about the “funky” Hindi cinema of the 70s, my first reaction was a proprietary sense of unease. Something like the emotion that (I am told) my Bengali friends experience when I, a mere north Indian, have the temerity to discuss Satyajit Ray’s or Ritwik Ghatak’s cinema even though some of the cultural and lingual nuances are beyond my grasp (and the DVD subtitling is often terrible anyway).

Which is to say that even before opening Todd Stadtman’s Funky Bollywood: The Wild World of 1970s Indian Action Cinema, I was readying to roll my eyes at a bit of analysis that “didn’t get it”, condescension directed towards movies I thought highly of – or, just as bad, an undiscerning celebration of mediocrity just because of its perceived kitsch value. If these movies have to be celebrated or trashed, it’s people like me who should do it, I muttered to myself – not someone who didn’t grow up with them and has never even lived in India. I pictured Stadtman as Bob Christo in the climactic fight scene of Disco Dancer, and myself as Mithun laying a bit of the old dhishoom-dhishoom on this firangi noggin while Helen, escorted by dancers in black-face, cavorted about us in a peacock-feather outfit, and we all dodged around a pool containing smoky pink acid and plastic sharks.

However, this defensive nervousness about Stadtman’s book faded once I began reading it. It’s true that he was drawn to 1970s Hindi cinema by its colourful over-the-topness, and that his publishers have had fun with glitzy photos and trivia boxes (e.g. the sequence of images showing a mini-skirted Jeetendra transforming into a snake in Nagin while Sunil Dutt, rifle in hand, stands by stoically) – but this is not in essence a frivolous book hurriedly thrown together
to capitalize on a market for corn and cheese. Stadtman has put thought into it. He writes with affection, and with the ambivalence that often makes this sort of writing so compelling – where one gets the sense that the author is struggling with his own responses to a film. Fans of pop culture that tends to get labeled “trash” (or “great trash”, to use Pauline Kael’s simplistic formulation for movies she loved but couldn’t think of as having artistic merit) will know the feeling.

Stadtman is hardly the first non-Indian writer to have developed a strong kinship with Hindi cinema. Other such fans – such as the bloggers Beth Watkins,
Greta Kaemmer, Mike Enright and Carla Miriam Levy – all have their own stories about how they became interested in these films. In his introduction Stadtman explains that as a longtime cult-movie enthusiast, he came to 1970s Bollywood after having been through the Mexican lucha libre filmography as well as Turkish superhero mash-ups: he was seeking “speed, violence and garish style […] but cloaked in a cultural context that makes it all seem somehow fresh and new again”. Given this brief, and the glut of eye-popping material that mainstream Hindi films provided him, he might easily have constructed the whole book around tongue-in-cheek descriptions of costumes, props and villains’ lairs – such as this one from his account of the 1978 Azaad:
The Machine of Death includes dozens of swinging spiked balls arrayed around a lava pit like a deadly game of Skittle Bowl, a tunnel lined with spinning buzz-saw blades on sticks leading to a giant industrial fan with saw-toothed blades, and a cavernous hall that shakes, dislodging hundreds of empty glass bottles to shatter down on whoever passes through. This […] strikes me as potentially being extremely troublesome to set up again once sprung.
But he also tries to understand the workings of the Indian film industry, the sort of viewer it was reaching out to, the nature of the star system, even the sociological underpinnings such as the discontentment in the country around Emergency time. He identifies the many foreign influences on these movies – from the spaghetti western to James Bond – but is aware of the Indian storytelling traditions that allowed a film to change its tone as rapidly as the hero and heroine change clothes in musical sequences, so that even a Dirty Harry or Godfather copy (Khoon Khoon and Dharmatma respectively) might have songs and slapstick comedy. And he understands that this cinema was designed to be a dream factory, “with dazzling fantasies of escape”, but also had to ensure that prescribed standards of morality were upheld (a paradox that helps explain why all those spectacular villains’ dens – and the vamps dancing in them – needed to be marveled at but destroyed in the end).

Stadtman casts his net wide, writing about those cornerstones of the Bachchan era, Zanjeer, Deewaar and Amar Akbar Anthony, as well as a much less seen Amitabh film, the Deven Varma-directed Besharam; stylish, big-budget epics such as BR Chopra’s The Burning Train and Feroz Khan’s Qurbani, as well as films with more modest ambitions such as the Shashi Kapoor-starrers Chor Machaye Shor and Fakira. Some of the inclusions can readily be identified as cult B-movies – Gunmaster G9: Surakksha, or the oeuvre of the Telugu director KSR Doss – but on the whole he stays close to the mainstream: you won’t find the obscure C-movies that many fans are now digging up and writing about online, or even something by the Ramsay Brothers.

Plenty of tough love emerges in the process. Through watching dozens of films, he seems to have developed a genuine interest in such personalities as Zeenat Aman, Amjad Khan, even Jeevan and Dara Singh. I thoroughly approve of his Dharmendra-love, by the way: he shows an appreciation for the star’s combination of “physicality and fitful soulfulness” in films like Seeta aur Geeta and Yaadon ki Baaraat, and there is evidence that he may have
been able to appreciate the quieter, more introspective side of Dharmendra as seen in films like Anupama or Satyakam (which could never have been included in this book). And take this observation about Shatrughan Sinha: “He doesn’t swing between comedy and drama as other contemporary stars might. During his most bellicose moments there is instead the subtlest hint of a wink, making him a joy to watch without sacrificing the intensity of the moment. And seeing that intensity, his famed rivalry with Bachchan becomes all the more understandable.”

Nor does he hold back about the things that don’t work for him. Here is a description of Randhir Kapoor’s character in Ram Bharose (or possibly a description of Kapoor himself): “He comes across as a freakishly, creepily desexualized man-child, basically Baby Huey without the diaper.” Dev Anand, pawing women young enough to be his daughters, affects Stadtman’s ability to fully enjoy films such as Warrant and Kalabaaz. And of Manoj Kumar’s exhausting righteousness, he says: “It’s difficult to criticize Roti Kapda aur Makaan for fear of seeming insensitive to its subject matter. But the truth is that one is aware enough of the gravity of that subject without Kumar’s onslaught of flag overlays and on-the-nose monologizing – to the extent that criticizing it almost seems like a form of self-defence.”

Passages like these (or the one where he describes the Asrani and Jagdeep comic interludes in Sholay as a superfluous waste of time) are gladdening, because they indicate that Stadtman isn’t patronising all these films as anything-goes exotica. Instead he is according them – the bulk of them, at least – the dignity of analysis, identifying areas where they work and where they don’t. He is applying standards of criticism to works that many people (including many Indians) sometimes dismiss as being criticism- and analysis-resistant.

I had a gripe about some of the inclusions. The musical Hum Kisi se Kam Nahin, the pleasant thriller Victoria No 203, the family social Dil aur Deewaar and the cross-dressing comedy Rafoo Chakkar in a book about “Indian Action Cinema”? (Stadtman does clarify that “Rafoo Chakkar is not an example of a great Indian action film, but instead a great example of how, in the Bollywood of the 1970s, the elements of the Indian action film were irrepressible. Were audience expectations such by 1974 that not even a remake of a madcap American romantic comedy could be free of a sadistic villain in a Nehru jacket with a cat in his lap?” But the American film in question, Billy Wilder’s Some Like it Hot, was hardly shorn of breakneck action scenes and sinister villains itself, its plot-mover being a Prohibition Era gangland massacre.)

There are a few typos and minor errors too. The Sholay entry tells us its success ensured “not only that Amjad Khan would always be bad, but that Hema Malini would always be garrulous”. Neither assertion is true: Khan, despite Gabbar’s long shadow, convincingly played sympathetic roles not just in Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj ke Khiladi but also in mainstream films like Yaarana and Pyaara Dushman – he was certainly never typecast to the degree that less personable “specialist villains” like Ranjeet or Shakti Kapoor were. And Malini rarely played someone as chatty as Basanti again; instead she settled deeper into dignified, imperial-beauty parts as she headed towards matrimony.

Also, it may be a bit much to refer to Abhishek Bachchan as a “superstar”. Or to call Dharmendra’s son Sonny (sic) “an aspiring action hero” when he has been in films for 30 years. But these little things can be forgiven.

As an outsider, Stadtman had to make his peace with the episodic form of mainstream Hindi cinema, and it almost feels like some of those tonal shifts made their way into his own writing. In a piece about Manmohan Desai’s Parvarish, he goggles at the “action scene” in where a bathtub toy pretends to be an actual submarine (complete with a bobbing plastic doll pretending to be Tom Alter, if my memory serves me right) – but also makes a serious observation about how this film, by coming down on the nurture side of the nature-nurture debate, is a bit of an outlier in a Hindi-film universe where family ties have a mystical quality. Stadtman should know about that last bit – he is part of the Bollywood family now. This book is the locket fragment that helps him prove he is a lost-and-found sibling to us homegrown fans.

[Some old, related posts: on The Burning Train; Dharam-Veer; Parvarish;
Bob Christo; ensemble classics; and above all, Jeetendra. And on a more serious note, some thoughts on cultural distance in this long piece about Satyajit Ray]

Friday, April 03, 2015

On Breaking the Bow, Sita's Sister and other myth-remakers

[Did this for my Forbes Life column. Possibly my 30th or 40th piece in the last few years about epic/mythology retellings, but one never runs out of things to say]

Anyone who closely follows Indian publishing would have noted a few years ago that retellings of mythological tales were becoming a sub-genre of contemporary fiction. Well, things have progressed since then and it is now observed, particularly in more sceptical quarters, that such books are a cottage industry unto themselves. The last time I went to a bookstore (you know, the physical kind that some of us still trudge to like museum-goers), I saw an entire shelf packed with titles that read “The Mahabharata Quest” and “The Ramayana Code” and “Draupadi in High Heels” and such. And that was only the “new popular fiction” section – it didn’t include older titles such as the multi-volume, fantasy-style renderings by Ashok Banker, beginning with Prince of Ayodhya, or the English translations of acclaimed regional-language books such as SL Bhyrappa’s Parva, Pratibha Ray’s Yagnaseni or MT Vasudevan Nair’s Randaamoozham.

No doubt many of the new books are attempts to cash in on the popularity of pre-existing stories by making a few superficial changes and repackaging them – or even creating hybrids that hope to replicate the success of Western thrillers like The Da Vinci Code. Yet amidst the dross there are also a few genuine efforts to
reexamine conventional perspectives and deal with less well-known subplots. Sharath Komarraju’s The Winds of Hastinapur, for instance, doesn’t try to capitalise on the Mahabharata’s most popular episodes; instead, the author directs his imagination and empathy at the epic’s early passages, which many casual readers aren’t familiar with – the childhood of Ganga and Shantanu’s son Prince Devavrata (later to be known as Bheeshma), the tangle of succession issues that results from his oath of celibacy, and his stepmother Satyavati’s desperate efforts to keep the throne of Hastinapura secure.

Another notable entry in the category is the anthology Breaking the Bow, which collects speculative fiction inspired by the Ramayana. Editors Vandana Singh and Anil Menon were clear about their brief for the collection: they didn’t want wholesale retellings but tales that elaborated on the known elements of the mythological universe. For this reason, they even politely rejected a story by Manjula Padmanabhan, set in the future with all the characters gender-reversed: Rama as Rashmi, Lakshman as Lakshmi, Sita as Sidhangshu. (Padmanabhan subsequently did another story for the collection, centred on Ravana’s wife Mandodari; both stories can be found in her own collection Three Virgins.) As often with anthologies, the result is a little uneven, but includes many fine pieces such as Aishwarya Subramanian’s “Making”. Here, the main Ramayana story is told in short vignettes and always from a slightly unsettling, off-kilter viewpoint, with creation and destruction (or making and unmaking) being running themes throughout. The characters are addressed by their more obscure names – Mythili for Sita, Meenakshi for Surpanakha – and Rama’s divinity, though accepted, is not celebrated as something warm or affirmative; this is a moody, megalomaniacal God. (“He must act out these petty human performances, as if he could not merely think different circumstances into existence. So he performs rage, and standing on the edge of a sea he could part with a mere flick of his hand sends mortal creatures to do his work instead.”)

If many retellings search for nuance by lending a sympathetic ear to the nominal “bad guys” – to overturn the “history as written by the victors” narrative – Anand Neelakantan’s patchy but often provocative Ajaya: Epic of the Kaurava Clan goes to the extreme of turning the envious Kaurava Duryodhana into a thoughtful, sympathetic hero (who has the support and friendship of many high-minded characters such as Balarama and Ashwatthama) and the Pandavas into the antagonists – not villains exactly, but buffoons who don’t deserve all the sympathy they get, and who are too easily made puppets by their cousin Krishna “who believes he has come to this world to save it from evil”. (Note what a difference that “believes” makes to the sentence! Such little touches are vital to these storytelling departures.)

Other books fulfill a vicarious need for readers who are a little tired of the versions they first heard from grandparents decades earlier. “I have always been so curious about Urmila’s story,” my wife once told me, expressing sympathy for one of the Ramayana’s more peripheral characters, Lakshmana’s wife who stays behind in the palace while her husband goes (voluntarily) into exile with his elder brother Rama. Now Kavita Kane’s Sita’s Sister fills this gap. Kane’s earlier book The Outcast’s Queen drew on the perspective of a marginal character in the Mahabharata (and was somewhat derivative of Shivaji Sawant’s great Marathi novel Mrityunjaya), but the demands on Sita’s Sister are a little trickier since Urmila is so removed from the main action of the epic involving Rama, Lakshmana and Sita’s adventures in the forest. Kane gets around this by mostly dwelling on what happens before the exile begins – from Sita’s swayamvara to Urmila’s finding out about the plot against Rama, and her sorrow that her husband has chosen to play bodyguard rather than stay by her side. In the process, the Urmila she creates is a strikingly (and perhaps anachronistically) modern woman with a mind of her own, frequently set up in opposition to her sister Sita who comes off looking rather submissive in comparison.

For another tale, from another culture, about a woman sitting at home hearing stories about her hero-husband’s exploits, there is Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, which was published as part of Canongate’s myth series. Atwood tells The Odyssey in the voice of Odysseus’s wife Penelope, waiting for him to return from his adventures across the sea, and this involves much tongue-in-cheek demythologizing, as in the conflicting reports about Odysseus’s battle with a giant one-eyed Cyclops (it was only a one-eyed tavern-keeper, someone says, and they were squabbling over the bill). Meanwhile Penelope's 12 maids, destined to be hanged, pop up with Gilbert & Sullivan-like ditties in between the narrative (“We are the maids / The ones you killed / The ones you failed / We danced in air / Our bare feet twitched/ It was not fair”), which means that opposing tones – high drama, slapstick comedy – are mixed together in a way that does justice to the idiom of ancient literature.

A quieter, more psychologically realist style is employed by the Irish writer Colm Tóibín in The Testament of Mary, which revisits another distant, mist-shrouded story. Jesus Christ’s mother, the Virgin Mary, is the narrator here, and we first see her as a confused old woman in need of care, being visited by apostles who want to greedily hoard all the information they can about her dead son, to begin the process of deifying him. But Mary resists this. She doesn’t care about the big picture and she doesn’t see herself as being divinely ordained to produce the Messiah – her plaintive voice is of a woman who yearns for a return to the days when she and her child and husband were happy together, untouched by such lofty responsibilities. Like most of the other books mentioned here, this intense narrative – marked by the urgent need to remember as well as the pain of remembering – places the human element before the grand, mythic one.

[Earlier, related pieces here: pop goes the epic; the Rashomon-like world of the Mahabharata]

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Why so cautious? A response to a piece about film literature

[Wrote this for the Daily O]

In this piece published by the Daily O yesterday, literary agent Kanishka Gupta makes hard but pragmatic observations about the Indian publishing industry and about aspiring writers. Some of these observations are general ones, but since the piece is specifically about film books, he mentions that these don’t sell in large numbers; the benchmarks for bestseller status in this category are very low.

That sounds puzzling, given the passion for cinema in this country, but it may have to do with the fact that we don’t have a particularly evolved attitude to good popular cinema, or to good writing about cinema. Many professional film reviewers either endorse movies in the most superficial terms, in cliché-ridden 300-word pieces (“it’s good entertainment if you leave your brains at home”, “four stars for the acting, three stars for direction”), or sit on a pedestal sneering at everything mainstream, making little effort to engage with what they are watching – and then winning brownie points for their “sharp” and “clever” writing. And what is true at the level of reviews holds at the book level too. On the one hand there are academic books meant for a very particular, circumscribed market; on the other, flippant little things that are hurriedly written and published to capitalise on something that’s in the news. (A few years ago a couple of big-name publishers were falling over themselves trying to quickly “produce” a book about AR Rahman when his Oscar nomination for Slumdog Millionnaire was announced; of course, the idea was that the book would be ready for publication by the time the awards were announced!) Accessible yet intelligent writing about cinema is still in short supply – though that has been changing to a degree, with the top publishers now showing a little more discernment in their choice of writers and approaches.

Gupta mentions the big market for tell-all star biographies. That makes intuitive sense – of course a book with Salman Khan’s or Deepika Padukone’s face on the cover, with the promise of juicy, previously unpublished tidbits inside, has greater sale potential than a sombre-looking biography of a less glamorous figure. I would add a caveat, though. My experience, having done two cinema books with big publishers, and also having spoken with other authors of film books, is that marketing is often muddled or indifferent to begin with. Two years after my book about the 1983 comedy Jaane bhi do Yaaro came out, a restored print of the film was released by the National Film Development Corporation. This was after a longish period when this well-loved film had been very difficult to find in stores, so there was naturally lots of publicity and much celebrating. One would think it would be in a publisher’s interests to contact stores such as Crossword and Landmark, and get them to do something as basic as display the DVD and the book together (assuming it was too much trouble to tie up with the NFDC for a DVD-plus-book package).

It didn’t happen, of course. And I confess to my own indolence in not trying hard enough to make it happen (after sending out a couple of emails making the suggestion). I was happy with the feedback I had initially got for the book; I didn’t spent time worrying about sales; everything good that happened – the reviews, the royalty cheques for tiny amounts that still drift in once or twice a year – came as a pleasant, unlooked-for bonus. And it was only with hindsight that I realised that more could have been done: that the marketing people who arranged 4 pm meetings with me at Café Coffee Day (that’s a good time, 4 pm – it lets you leave office early “for an official meeting with an author” and go straight home afterwards) and made impressive sounds about “leveraging social media” and “looking at new avenues such as film festivals” didn’t bother to follow up on most of their claims.

Anyone who has worked in publishing knows that such missteps are part of the grand dance. However, I also had a problem with a couple of Gupta’s points. He is upfront about not knowing much about cinema, but this raises a question that is important to me as someone who does care about films and film writing: how much value can a literary agent dealing with all sorts of books bring to a field that he isn’t personally invested in? Wouldn’t this inevitably result in pandering to a conservative view of what the readership is like, what a “worthy” book might look like, what will sell and what won’t? And we see signs of this near the end of Gupta’s piece, where he says:

“I was reduced to tears when a journalist of S's stature started suggesting names such as Joydeep Mukherjee, Mithun Chakraborty […] And horror of horrors, even Bappi Lahiri!”

I was taken aback by that paragraph, because here is a bit of sneering about people who are presumably too slight or not “important” enough as subject matters for a (good/successful) book. But as the critic Victor Perkins wrote once, “The treatment may or may not have been successful: there is no such thing as an unsuccessful subject.” A great book can be written on any topic, the same way that a terrible book can be written about an "important" personality like Satyajit Ray. The execution is what matters.

For example, the 1960s actor Joydeep (Joy) Mukherjee is the least well-known, certainly the least fashionable, of the three names that Gupta mentions, but I could easily imagine a book about him – by a hardworking writer – that would not just be about Mukherjee in a narrow sense but would also provide a fascinating window on the Hindi film industry of the 1960s, as well as an examination of that elusive thing called stardom: why did this affable leading man never make it to the heights that, say, Manoj Kumar or Jeetendra did? What does that say about our film-going culture of that specific period, about our expectations of star personalities, about us as viewers?

Again, what is so "horror of horrors" about a book on Bappi Lahiri? There are a dozen different ways in which an insightful – or just plain funny – book could be written about this most flamboyant of music directors. But the biggest surprise on that list is Mithun Chakraborty, because here is a hugely interesting subject to begin with: someone who could be convincing in a Mrinal Sen film AND in Disco Dancer (how many other actors could you say that about?), and was seen as a genuine contender for Amitabh Bachchan's throne for a couple of years in the mid-80s, before he took the route that led to Kanti Shah and to a very profitable and shrewd career in C-movies. A book about Mithun, well done, could be a microcosmic study of Indian cinema; it could tell us much about the workings of, and the interplay between, the various grades of cinema in this country.

More alarm bells at the very end of the piece, when Gupta scoffs at the idea of doing a book about a mere “technician” (who, given the little hints in the piece, might well have been someone as notable as Satyajit Ray’s cinematographer). All I can say to this is: it's a pity if film writing in India hasn't reached the stage where a literary agent would feel comfortable midwiving a book of that sort. In other countries with large moviemaking cultures, there are dozens of accessible books on every aspect of the filmmaking process, not just on the most instantly recognizable actors.

Possibly I’m getting idealistic now, and possibly Gupta’s intention was only to discuss what is likely to become a bestseller. But his piece also left me with the nagging sense that an agent, even while ruing the many (undeniable) problems in the publishing industry, can become part of the problem. By falling in too easily with the assumptions of a system that has fixed expectations of writers and the market, and needs books to be clearly classified.