10 September 2017

Disenchanted Nights

1957’s second-highest Hindi grosser is much watched but little understood. Pyaasa may have been filled with poets and poetry, but it’s true, bitter subject was money.

Pyaasa started life as a story idea called ‘Kashmakash’ (‘Dilemma’), which Guru Dutt first put to paper in 1947 or ’48, when he was just 22. It was nine years later, once he had established a name with films like Baazi and Mr & Mrs 55, that Dutt returned to his tale of a struggling poet. By then he had his team in place: writer Abrar Alvi (clearly responsible for a great deal of Pyaasa’s script, although he is credited only for dialogue), lyricist Sahir Ludhianvi, and cinematographer VK Murthy — all of whom reached deep into themselves to transform Dutt’s germ of an idea into one of Indian cinema’s abiding gems.

Casting our eyes back sixty years, it seems remarkable that this melancholy piece of filmmaking, with a hero afflicted not just by romantic or familial tragedy but by a near-total disenchantment with the world, could become the second-highest Hindi grosser at the box office. We clearly had a greater appetite for tragedy then – and greater empathy for a hero who dreamt of escaping the material condition.

The film opens with the young poet Vijay (Guru Dutt) lying serenely in a garden, composing beautiful verse as he looks at the flowers and bees around him. Suddenly he rises anxiously, and we see him dwarfed by the dark shadows of trees. In the next scene, he must rescue his folder of nazms from a smalltime magazine office: his responses to the poverty and exploitation around him have found their way into the dustbin. “Aapki bakwaas koi shaayari hai? Pad gaye bhookh aur berozgaari ke peechhe latth leke! (Is this rubbish of yours poetry? You’ve taken a stick and gone after hunger and unemployment!),” mocks the smarmy old sherwani-clad editor, before waxing lyrical on what ‘proper’ poetry should be: “Gul-o-bulbul pe sh’er kahiye, jaam-o-suraahi pe sh’er kahiye... (Write a couplet on the flower and the nightingale, write one on the goblet and the wine flask...)”

Vijay scorns this unctuous injunction and walks out with his poems. But preserving this independence of mind, the film suggests, is not easy – especially if the body needs to be preserved first. A penniless Vijay tries his hand at manual labour, placing a dhoti-clad gentleman’s purchases in his car and earning a coin for his services. But when he presents the coin as payment for a meal, it turns out to be fake. Later, hopeful of having his poems published, he accepts ajob as an assistant in a publishing house, which sometimes requires him to serve in the home of the boss, Mr Ghosh (Rehman). It is worth noting here that Dutt and Alvi display an unreconstructed middle class horror at the idea of the educated young man performing menial labour – a horror amplified in women’s eyes, whether the ex-lover watching Vijay serve drinks, or Vijay’s mother imagining him having to take care of himself.

Poetry may lie at the centre of the plot, but Pyaasa’s driving theme is money. Whether it’s a poet or a sex worker, the world seems intent upon making them sell themselves. While suggesting this analogy, the film thankfully also recognises how deeply one’s freedom is inflected by class. At one end of the scale are those whose survival depends on finding clients, for which they might have to resort to deception: the streetwalker Gulabo (Waheeda Rehman) sings a seemingly romantic song only to lure Vijay, whom she assumes is a potential customer; the maalishwala Abdus Sattar (Johnny Walker) is often seen tricking people into a head massage. These are people on the margins, and the film does not judge them – in fact it offers what might be among the most acute depictions of a streetwalker’s life in the scene where Gulabo is thrown out of a moving car, and when she demands her money, thrown into the jaws of ‘the law’: a beat havaldar.

It is much harsher on the middle class woman – Meena (Mala Sinha), who has left Vijay for the security of marriage to a richer man (Rehman). Vijay pronounces her shallow and greedy; only VK Murthy’s remarkable camerawork that allows us to see her position with any degree of empathy. In the scene where she talks to Vijay in the lift, she ends by saying agitatedly, “Arrey, main toh bhool hi gayi, mujhe toh upar jaana hai” — and we watch the elevator doors close over her made-up, bejewelled visage: the rise to the top for a woman like her involves giving up her freedom. In another scene, Murthy takes an almost operatic pleasure in showing us Meena as the memsahib in the white limousine, emerging hurriedly from this lap of luxury when she sees Vijay in the distance. But in Murthy’s framing, the liveried Sikh chauffeur who opens the car door also bars the memsahib’s path to her old love.

The film adopts a properly romantic stance, with the hero picking obscurity and freedom over worldly fame and wealth. In a society where the only good poet is a dead poet, Vijay literally chooses social death.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 10 Sep 2017.

5 September 2017

New lamps for old

Watching BR Chopra’s Naya Daur in Narendra Modi’s New India can produce a strange resonance — even as we look at it across the gulf of sixty years.

Dilip Kumar as the labouring Shankar in Naya Daur (1955)
1957's third biggest Hindi hit might never have got made if BR Chopra had listened to Mehboob Khan. As actor Dilip Kumar tells the tale in his 2014 autobiography: "Mehboob Sahab read the story and found no meat in it for entertainment. He told Chopra Sahab it could be made into a fine documentary on the doomsday awaiting the labour force in the country once machines replaced them but, as a feature film, it was not a great idea."

The younger man listened carefully — he had, after all, gone to solicit the senior filmmaker's opinion —but made up his mind to go ahead with the film if Dilip Kumar agreed to come on board. Yash Chopra, BR's younger brother and then working as his assistant, remembered how that almost didn't happen, because Dilip Kumar was committed to working on a film by Gyan Mukherjee. But when that film fell through, Dilip Kumar said yes promptly — and then spent a month doing story sittings in his shack in Juhu with producer-director BR Chopra and the film's writer Akhtar Mirza.

Most people remember Naya Daur for staging the confrontation between man and machine in a climactic race between a bus and a horse-drawn tonga. But how was such a battle to be made believable? Dilip Kumar writes that he was himself unconvinced by the original idea that the bus was to be beaten "by some kind of manipulation". As Yash Chopra remembered it, it was the thespian who first gave writer Akhtar Mirza the idea of the horse-cart taking a short-cut to get to its destination — "something that was logical and convincing".

There is something charming about how the universe of popular Hindi cinema perceives and produces its own internal logic — and when it abandons it. In Naya Daur, for instance, the village, while standing in for the country, has no farmers. The on-screen populace is divided between tonga-drivers and karkhana-walas, men who work as woodcutters and carpenters in the wood-production unit owned by the kindly local landlord (Nazir Hussain).

Hussain's departure on a pilgrimage to Banaras leaves the village open to the heartless machinations of his city-returned son Kundan (Jeevan), who brings in first a wood-cutting machine that robs the sawmill workers of their jobs, and then a bus that takes away the business of the tonga-drivers. In the era of demonetisation and Digital India, sixty years after Naya Daur first released, there is something distinctly sinister about watching the thin-lipped Jeevan pronounce his decisions the sole route to progress and development, even as the technology he brings in rides roughshod over the lives of the labouring poor.

Dilip Kumar's delightful portrayal of the film's protagonist Shankar, too, shares this on again-off again approach to logic. Shankar is somehow both shy and flirtatious, hot-blooded and calm. He seems wonderfully logical in his arguments with the crooked Kundan, or his sister's father-in-law-to-be, but becomes totally beholden to fate when it comes to resolving the love triangle in which he, his friend Krishna (the future popular villain Ajit in an important early role) and his sweetheart Rajni (Vyjayanthimala) find themselves.

Since it is obviously not an option to simply ask the girl which of the men she would prefer to marry, the two friends arrange instead to gamble on fate — if Rajni places white flowers in the Shiva temple the next morning, she is Shankar's, and if the flowers in her pooja thali are yellow marigolds, she is Krishna's. Naya Daur may come off as a sort of socialist musical (its iconic song is the infectiously choreographed 'Saathi Haath Badhana', with lines of villagers digging the earth in unison). But it is embedded in a deeply religious milieu —the temple atop a hill, with its massive statue of Shiva, is the locale for both intense romantic moments and the sort of monologue between the hero and God that later became a fixture of Hindi cinema.

And yet, this faith — the powerful sense of a superior being who can be appealed to for the things that really matter — does not blind the film or its hero to how religion can be used for cynical purposes. The most remarkable instance of this in the film is when Kundan and his devious accomplice, the greedy village Brahmin, secretly conceal a statue of a goddess along the road that Shankar and the villagers are constructing for the race. When the trusting villagers stop digging to fold their hands in prayer, we hear the villains intone, "Yahan mandir avashya banega", it is hard not to feel a chill go down one's spine. Naya Daur had heroes capable of circumventing the cynical appropriation of religion and of technology. The ordinary people of New India might not be so lucky.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 3 Sep 2017.

1 September 2017

Blood on our hands

My Mirror column: the fourth column in my series on the Hindi hits of 1957

V Shantaram's Do Aankhen Barah Haath (1957) used a prison reform experiment to think about freedom - and that message still bears repeating.

The titling of V Shantaram’s Do Aankhen Barah Haath involves a series of hand-prints being made. Each time a hand is lifted off the screen, it leaves adark impression – and a printed title appears at its centre. The hand-prints obviously make a reference to the film’s name – literally ‘Two Eyes, Twelve Hands’. But whose hands are we speaking of, and why do they matter?

Shantaram lets the mystery linger for a little while, even as he takes us directly into his milieu, opening with a sequence of theatrical excess that involves a jailer kicking prisoners. The symbolic humiliation of placing bootclad feet violently on the back of another human being is particularly great in an Indian context where the feet are believed to be the most impure part of the body – you are brought up to apologise if your feet touch someone by mistake, and you only touch another’s feet voluntarily as a way of emphasising your social inferiority in relation to the other person.

After this temporary focus on feet, Shantaram slowly and deliberately returns us to hands. Hands are, by their very nature, a stand-in for action – and in the case of the criminal offenders whom Shantaram places at the centre of his film, those actions are violent ones. When the junior prison official Adinath (played by Shantaram himself) gets permission to launch an experiment in prison reform, he chooses six men convicted of particularly grisly crimes. He uses the cinematic medium to great effect as they are introduced, overlaying the almost comical excess of these gruff, hefty men with their own memories – memories in which they used their hands to take lives. Now those same powerful hands, Adinath decides, are to be put to honest labour. The man who once lifted a boulder to murder his wife is told to build a dam with enormous stones; another who had committed his crime with an axe is told to clear the shrubs with one.

Hand-prints, of course, are also tied to personal identification, in a context of assumed illiteracy as well as one of modern policing. By the mid-20th century, fingerprinting had been around as a technique of criminal forensics for at least fifty years, and Shantaram plays with the way that humans had internalised that knowledge. When Adinath, trying to establish a rapport with the men, asks their names, they respond by silently making hand impressions on a piece of paper. “If we run away, it is our handprints that you will find useful to trace us – not our names,” says one. It is as if we were to introduce ourselves with our Aadhaar numbers.

Shantaram in 1957 was already a veteran, with the founding of Prabhat Film Company and pioneering films like Manoos, Kunku and Shevari behind him. For Do Aankhen, he chose to depart from the technicolour seductiveness of Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baje (a dance-heavy drama which had been the third biggest Hindi hit of 1955) for an almost Expressionist black and white. Do Aankhen unfolds at a deliberate pace, with dramatically staged set pieces and several weepy moments.

But alongside the high drama is a goofy brand of humour, exemplified for instance in the scene where the six men, all hulking moustachioed brutes, prop up a dismantled barbed wire fence so as to view an attractive woman safely from behind it. It is as if the charms of Champa, a toy-seller played by Shantaram’s third wife Sandhya, are such that they prefer to lock themselves up.

The scene may be comic, but it is in fact of a piece with the film’s view of masculinity, of violence – and of freedom itself. The large patch of barren land where the convicts settle is named Azaad Nagar – Freedom Town. On their very first night there, they find themselves so discomfited by the prospect of sleeping in an unlocked room that they chain their feet together, weighing the chains down with their agricultural implements.

Months later, in what is the final test of their reformation, they promise Adinath that they are capable of selling their fresh-grown vegetables in the local sabzi mandi without being roused to violence. When they get there, however, the low prices they are selling at make them the target of the local middleman and his goons, who attack them in full public view.

Shantaram pegs his climax on the men’s transformation from brutish hulks – who had been quick to snatch another’s food when hungry, or react to perceived injustice with the threat of violence – to mute sufferers even in the face of one-sided beatings. This is a film made ten years after Indian independence, and it sends out a message about ahimsa that is strongly in synch with the Gandhian position on non-violence. The true exercise of collective freedom involves curtailing our baser instincts – not setting our worst selves free to roam. It is a lesson we could all do with in Modi’s India.

Homing in, zooming out

Among 1957’s biggest Hindi hits was Musafir, a triptych of tales about a house and its succession of tenants, which inaugurated the career of Hrishikesh Mukherjee.

"Laakh laakh makaan, aur inmein rehne wale karoron insaan. In karoron insaanon ke sukh-dukh, hansne-rone ke maun-darshak -- yehi makaan (Lakh of houses, and crores of people who live in them. And the mute witnesses to these people's joys and sorrows –these very houses),” runs Balraj Sahni's voiceover as the camera pans across a cityscape, finally settling on one such makaan as the setting of this particular story.

What I just described is the opening sequence of Musafir, a triptych of tales about three different families, connected only by the house they rent in succession. The third film in my series of columns on the top Hindi hits of 1957, Musafir was the tenth highest box office grosser that year, and has several points of interest about it. For one, it was the directorial debut of Hrishikesh Mukherjee, who had come to Bombay from Calcutta with Bimal Roy in 1950. Mukherjee had worked as Roy’s editor at New Theatres for five years, and in making the journey to Bombay at 27, he joined a group of young Bengali men with various kinds of cinematic ambitions. These included the actor Nazir Husain, writer Nabendu Ghosh, assistant director Asit Sen and dialogue writer Pal Mahendra. The second bit of trivia that makes Musafir interesting also relates to a young Bengali man — Mukherjee shares writing credits on the film’s script with the filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak.

From where we stand now, the raw, powerful Ghatak of Subarnarekha or Titash Ekti Nadir Naam and the warm, gentle Mukherjee of situational comedies like Chupke Chupke may seem to represent two unbridgeable poles of the Indian cinematic universe. But in the late 50s the world was young, the lines between the artistic worlds of Calcutta and Bombay, and those of 'art' and 'entertainment' were still permeable. Thus the man who would become one of the cinematic trinity of grandly ambitious Bangla high art wasn't so distant from the man who would come to stand for the mild-mannered, middle class Hindi comedy of manners. The year after Musafir, 1958, two films released – one was Bimal Roy's marvellous Nehruvian-era ghost story, Madhumati, which was written by Ghatak, and the other was Ghatak's own directorial venture, Ajantrik, in which it is another inanimate object – a car rather than a house – that is at the centre of the human stories Ghatak chooses to tell.

Musafir itself combines Mukherjee's lightness of touch and prodigious talent for characterisation with Ghatak's flair for the melancholy and for the recurring motif. Most of the film unfolds, as was Mukherjee's wont, within the four walls of a house. But Musafir also contains the sense of a streetscape – we view the house first from the chai shop window, and the chatty tea-delivery-boy (Mohan Choti) appears in each narrative. In fact it is he, along with the genially repetitive landlord (David), the gossipy Munni ki Ma, and the friendly neighbourhood drunk Pagla Babu, who stitches the film's three parts into a sociological urban whole.

Like Subodh Mukherjee's Paying Guest, which I wrote about two weeks ago, Mukherjee's first film deals with what was then a relatively new urban world, increasingly unmoored from feudal certitudes. The tenants who are anonymous until they aren't, family units whose legitimacy cannot be vouched for by foreknowledge, village elders or caste networks; nosy neighbours (like Munni ki Ma) who make it their business to establish the traditional 'rightness' of those who have moved into the area. In the first segment here, for instance, Suchitra Sen plays a new bride who yearns to be accepted by her in-laws despite her runaway marriage. The possibility of a nuclear family unit is one she rejects instinctively as inferior to the real thing.

Mukherjee's interest in these new populations, free-floating in space but not quite ready to give up on their connections to community, family, tradition – remained a persistent theme in his films in later years. Tenants, landlords and the negotiation of neighbourhood rules are central to his comedy Biwi Aur Makaaan (1965), and also to the Jaya Bhaduri-Amitabh Bachchan starrer Mili (1975). Both Mili and Bawarchi also begin by visually laying out the neighbourhood, and then using a voiceover to zero in on the one home whose internal dynamics we are to have the privilege of witnessing.

In Musafir, these dynamics seem to involve older men who, despite their 'good' intentions towards their families, are such sticklers for discipline/
rationality/tradition that they end up tyrannising wives and daughters, as well as any non-conformist younger men – the young man who marries without parental permission in the first story; the jobless Bhanu (a very youthful Kishore Kumar) in the middle segment, who can't stop playing the fool; or the heart-stopping Dilip Kumar as the violin-playing tragic alcoholic of the last segment (clearly inspired by O'Henry's 'The Last Leaf'). The lawyer brother of Usha Kiron, or Nazir Hussain as the irascible father with money trouble, and Suchitra Sen's father-in-law in the first segment are all men determined to to be merciless, grown-up patriarchs who must be humoured like children – and one can see in their caricaturish excess the roots of Utpal Dutt's character in Golmaal, or Om Prakash's Jijaji in Chupke Chupke

Musafir has some rough edges, and its tonal shifts from tragic to comic are not always successful. But it is an interesting film, if only for the many ways in which it foreshadows Mukherjee's future filmmaking career.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 20 Aug 2017

15 August 2017

Tricks and Treats

My Mirror column:

Carrying on our examination of 1957’s biggest Hindi hits, a look at a film which gave us a new kind of exuberant, prankster hero.

1957 was a remarkable year for Hindi cinema. Last week, I wrote about one of the top ten hits of that year, Paying Guest, directed by Subodh Mukherjee. 1957 was also the year in which Paying Guest’s talented screenplay and dialogue writer, then employed by Filmistan Studio, managed to branch out into film direction.

The writer-turned-director was Nasir Husain, and the film was Tumsa Nahin Dekha, which also found its way into the top ten hits of the year. Husain never looked back, going on to a gloriously successful innings in the film industry, as the maker of hugely successful entertainers like Dil Deke Dekho (1959),Caravan( 1971), Yaadon ki Baaraat (1973) and Zamane Ko Dikhana Hai (1981), as well as the founder of a film family that includes Mansoor Khan (who directed the epoch-marking Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak and Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar) and the actor Aamir Khan.

The story of how Tumsa Nahin Dekha(TND) got made is enjoyably filmi. Tolaram Jalan, primary financier of Filmistan, agreed to fund Husain’s directorial venture, but gave the novice director a shoestring budget — and insisted on him hiring a young heroine called Ameeta, who was Jalan’s protege. Husain, having crafted such a fun new persona for Dev Anand with his scripts for Paying Guest andMunimji, had assumed that the star would be part of his directorial debut. But Anand decided that a starlet like Ameeta didn’t match his stature, and bowed out of the film. That left Husain scrambling for a male hero.

But when his mentor at Filmistan, the legendary S Mukherjee, recommended Raj Kapoor’s younger brother Shammi, Husain wasn’t at all convinced. Shammi had already acted in some nineteen films without finding his feet as a hero. Already suffering the consequences of comparison to his hugely popular elder brother and even more legendary father Prithviraj, Shammi had also made that cardinal error in a patriarchal society: he had married a woman more successful than himself. Even Husain, when persuaded to approach Shammi, decided that if he was going to meet the actor couple, he’d try for the star first. It was only when Geeta Bali turned him down, saying that the heroine’s role wasn’t strong, that Shammi Kapoor got the part. And Hindi film fans got Shammi Kapoor.

Watching Shammi in his ‘introduction song’ in TND, one would be forgiven for imagining that he had always been this way — the ridiculous excess of gesture, the arch glance thrown over his shoulder, the floppy hair, the floppy gait, and the floppy wave of the hand with which he waves away a potential sea of admiring women. But one would be wrong. That Shammi Kapoor persona we know so well came into being with this film. Shammi acquired a new clean-shaven look and a shorter haircut, and an air of exaggerated exuberance that then became his signature style. Nasir Husain wrote two more films which gave Shammi’s new persona full play — Dil Deke Dekho (1959) and Teesri Manzil (1966), the latter directed by Vijay Anand. And Shammi Kapoor became the hero who seemed always drunk on life.

Once you pay attention to Sahir Ludhianvi’s lyrics for the film’s title song — “Raaste khamosh hain, dhadkanein madhosh hain; Piye bin aaj humein chadha hai nasha” — it becomes slowly clear that that idea — of being ‘mast’ without needing to have consumed intoxicants of any sort — lay at the core of this new heroic persona. This was a masculinity that didn’t take the world —or itself — too seriously. The usual terrible things could and often did befall the Nasir Husain hero — a sad childhood, separation from a parent, poverty or unemployment, being unfairly suspected of a crime, or simply being treated badly because his true worth (often implying parentage) had not yet been recognised — but he kept the weight of the world at bay with a combination of silliness and wit. And of course, music. Many Husain protagonists were musicians, and even when they weren’t, as in Paying Guest or TND, he made a point of having them be highly competent amateurs, often setting up scenes in which the hero and the heroine matched their wits — and musical skills — in a performative display of virtuosity.

While this competitive nonk-jhonk was constitutive of the highly enjoyable Nasir Husain model of romance, it is undeniable that his heroes belong to a long tradition of falling ‘in love’ at first glance and then flirting incessantly with the heroine, who rejected his overtures. Such a line as “Nafrat mohabbat ki pehli seedhi hai” (which Husain managed to insert into both Paying Guest and TND), or worse, having a side character like the comical thief in TND say to Shankar “Woh mard hi kya jo biwi ko neecha na dikhaye” are part of an unfortunate cinematic legacy in which the woman cannot be the initiator of romance. She is assumed to be a reluctant participant, all the way until a (usually staged, sometimes real) turn of events proves to her that the maskhara hero is actually 1) ethical, 2) brave and 3) truly invested in her honour.

This persona of the light-hearted prankster was perhaps also meant to upend our expectations of who a hero is. In TND, for instance, Pran — the villainous imposter — sits around looking serious and reading books, while Shammi — the real heir — constantly plays the fool. Nasir Husain had given us the hero as joker. Wholly serious men, henceforth, were going to be a little suspect.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 13 Aug 2017.

The Life Poetic

My Mirror column:

The 1957 classic Paying Guest still feels young as it turns 60. But there are things in its frothy shairana universe that now seem almost worthy.

There's a delicious little scene in Paying Guest when the penurious tenant Ramesh (Dev Anand) has returned home to pursue his newly-minted courtship with Shanti (Nutan), who also happens to be the daughter of his landlord. For several seconds, they look deep into each other's eyes, each uttering the other's name in typically soulful lover-ly fashion. "Shanti." "Ramesh." "Shanti?" "Ramesh?" But Ramesh wants more than sweet nothings. "Bolo?" he urges. At which Shanti flutters her eyelashes and says — in the same dulcet tones as before — "Kiraye ke paise laaye? [Did you bring the rent money?]" "Kaisi gair-shairaana baatein karti ho! [What unpoetic things you speak of!]" responds Ramesh, pretending to go off in a huff.
The scene doesn't do very much by way of plot, but it is typical of the sort of bantering courtship, of romance between witty equals, that makes the film such fun. Very little that is gair-shairana -or gair-shararati - is allowed in the Paying Guest universe. The delightful 1957 film was directed by Subodh Mukerji, but its spirit was the product of Nasir Hussain's penmanship. Hussain, for whom this was the second collaboration with good friend Mukerji (the first being Munimji, 1955) - produced with the script and dialogue here a perfect balance between banter and poetry, between sharpness and sweetness. It was this lightness of register would go on to characterise his films as director, starting with Tumsa Nahin Dekha, his directorial debut, which also released in 1957.

Akshay Manwani, in his detailed and thoughtful book on Nasir Hussain's cinema, suggests that it was Husain's writing that allowed Dev Anand to metamorphose into the witty, flirtatious, charming trickster figure that became almost his signature in the latter part of his career. Some of Anand's earlier 1950s films - the noirish ones like Baazi, Jaal, Taxi Driver and House No. 44 -had lent him "a certain brazenness", but as "a man of the streets, a survivor who is at home in the urban underbelly." It was Hussain - with his scripts for Munimji and Paying Guest and later Jab Pyaar Kisise Hota Hai (1961), which he directed as well - who set him free to play the fun-loving young man, dashing and quick-witted and happy to turn his energies to romancing the heroine with an enviable lightness. Manwani goes further, citing the writer and lyricist Javed Akhtar to argue that Husain was responsible for Hindi cinema's departure from the melancholy or dramatic protagonist to the carefree, urbane, contemporary hero (embodied first by Dev Anand and then by Shammi Kapoor from Tumsa Nahi Dekha onwards).

The marvellous silliness of Dev Anand in disguise as an old man - something Husain and Mukerji had had him do with great success in the more intricately plotted Munimji a couple of years before - is one of the harmless pleasures of Paying Guest. Ramesh is a lawyer, with not very much work on his hands but with the gift of the gab, and Anand proves surprisingly good at delivering Husain's witty repartee and make-believe tales, both as the youthful Ramesh and in the doddering Mirza Wajahat avatar which enables him to successfully rent a room from Shanti's watchful father. In the context of Lipstick Under My Burkha's marshalling of our squeamish response to an older woman romancing a young man, one must note that Paying Guest is probably one of the earliest Hindi films to establish the trope of the hero, ostensibly desexualised by age, flirting with the young heroine; here for instance Anand-as-Mirza-Sahab constantly calls Nutan "Aziza" [dear], telling her father that the house feels like his sasural, and pretending to rescue her from the attentions of his own younger avatar.

Watching Paying Guest in 2017, exactly sixty years after it was made, one notes many other things with a sense of wonder and not a little sorrow. There is, first and foremost, the fact that a young professional with a Hindu name thinks nothing of first renting a room in the house of an old Muslim gentleman (where a Hindu father and daughter have been tenants for decades). And when, for the purposes of romantic plot, he needs to dress up as an old man, his first recourse is to conjure up another old Muslim gent. To take a room in the house of Babu Digambarnath, his most innocuous disguise is as Mirza Wajahat.

The second setpiece I enjoyed thoroughly was a public 'debate' between Shanti and her college classmate Chanchal (Shubha Khote), on the subject of whether love or money is more essential to the success of a marriage. Conducted in a combination of prose, recitation and sung couplets, the linguistic pleasures of the debate are really those of baitbaazi - a traditional form of poetic competition that was part of Urdu literary life.

This is, it should be noted, a film set in Lucknow, where Mukerji and Husain had both studied. Perhaps the particular history of that city was responsible for some of the ease of these characterisations - a world of lawyers and students who whether they were Hindu or Muslim, shareef tenants or shareef landlords, men or women, could partake of Urdu repartee. But the film was a hit, and not only in the shairana world of Lucknow. In the India of 1957, it seems, there was nothing here to remark on.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 7 Aug 2017.

9 August 2017

Thin Grey Line

An essay I wrote for the Taj Magazine.

Is photography a science or an art? And how does a photo change if it is posed or embellished? Is image manipulation part of a larger artistic progression? Trisha Gupta maps the long history of the Indian photograph. 

Waswo X. Waswo, Night Prowl, 2008, Black and white pigment print hand-coloured by Rajesh Soni. Courtesy: Tasveer
Photography is a strange art. After the camera was developed in the mid-19th century, photographs began to replace paintings, especially in portraiture. But unlike the other visual arts (drawing, painting, engraving ), the photograph has always been understood as giving us direct access to the real. As Susan Sontag wrote in her classic book On Photography: “A photograph is not only an image (as a painting is an image ), an interpretation of the real; it is also a trace, something directly stencilled off the real, like a footprint or a death mask”.

The strangeness of photography as an art, then, stems from its parallel status as a science: the idea that the camera is a transparent medium, and that photographs actually capture experience –rather than producing an artistic response to it. The history of Indian photography, as the Bangalore-based gallery Tasveer’s recently concluded exhibition in New York showed, is particularly shaped by this split identity–suspended between artifice and reality, embellishment and documentation, theatre and truth.

Photography arrived in India in 1840, only a few months after its European beginnings, and was “taken up with alacrity by amateurs, aspirant professionals, individuals with ‘scientific’ agendas and within two decades, by the apparatus of the colonial state,” writes the anthropologist Christopher Pinney in his 1997 book Camera Indica. The Indian context was particularly ripe for photography’s arrival, as Pinney’s archival sources reveal. British colonisers, confronted with India’s insurmountable otherness and near-infinite anthropological variety, had long been anxious about the accuracy of native reproductions – whether written or drawn or engraved – as a way of transmitting knowledge. Photographs – with the ‘stern fidelity’ evoked by the Reverend Joseph Mullins in his 1857 address to the Photographic Society of Bengal – seemed just the solution. Mid-19th century manuals of medical jurisprudence and criminal investigation alike had already begun to recommend photography as an evidentiary tool that was, like fingerprinting and cranial measurements, “almost absolutely free from the personal equation of the observer”. Photography for identificatory purposes was already understood as a measure of control: “No measure would... impress more vividly, even upon the minds of the ignorant and superstitious common people, a conviction of the difficulty of eluding our vigilance,” wrote Dr. Norman Chevers, Principal of the Calcutta Medical College, in 1856. A century and a half later, by imposing Aadhaar’s non-voluntary photographic and biometric identification upon its citizens, the Indian government is bringing that surveillance state to final fruition.

Yet alongside this history, in which the photograph was held up as the very embodiment of truth, ran another Indian history of photography as art – and this was, more so than in the rest of the world, a history of photographic manipulation. The hundreds of photo studios that had come into being across India by the 1880s often advertised themselves as “Artists and Photographers” – some of them actually put images of paintbrushes and palette on their cabinet cards, like the EOS Photographic Company, or the Vanguard Studio, Bombay. The artistry of these Indian images involved not just studio backdrops and carefully arranged props, but also the application of paint. European photographers also used paint to retouch negatives and enhance colour on the final print, writes Pinney, but painted photographs in India were a whole different order of business. Studios produced numerous images in which paint overlaid and obscured the photograph – rather than merely supplementing it. Given the tremendous popularity of the painted photograph it comes as no surprise that Judith Gutman’s study, Through Indian Eyes, documents some studios as having up to twenty-nine painters “to do outlining, background scenery, retouching and oil painting”. The Indian photographic studio was a successor to the miniature painter’s karkhana.

The new show put on display many such painted photographs – mostly Indian princes and princelings posing for what Andrew Wilton has appropriately called the “swagger portrait”: a style that “puts public display before the values of personality and domesticity.” Dressed in their finest clothes and richest jewels, the princes in these images allowed studio artists to glory in their skilled reproduction of detail – whether it be the carpet under their subject’s feet, the patterned curtain behind him, or the feathered, bejewelled headdresses that propelled their attire from being merely clothes to costume. A princeling in a posed studio photograph had already been inserted into a coded fiction of rulership – the embellishment provided by the painter made that fiction even more elaborate.

D. Nusserwanji Studio Bombay, Rajasthani merchant with his son, 1940, Overpainted silver gelatin print. Courtesy: Tasveer

WaswoXWaswo. Zakir and Tarif Smoking. (2008), Black and white pigment print, hand-coloured by Rajesh Soni, 20 × 13 in. Courtesy: Tasveer

But those images, embellished though they were, involved rulers (or rulers-to-be) posing in finery they actually owned, signalling the social and political status they wished to lay claim to. The painted photograph was theatre in whose truth we were meant to believe. In WaswoXWaswo’s playful reimagining of the painted studio portrait, his subjects appear much more clearly to have ‘dressed up’. Whether it is the archly half-turning Chandra “with a Shell Headdress”, or the bearded ascetic in ‘Another Follower of Shiva’ who holds up a trident – painted in tiger stripes, presumably after the photograph was taken – and a bunch of peacock feathers, we are now clearly in a conscious realm of make-believe.

WaswoXWaswo’s images are a homage to the painted photographs of the 19th century Indian studio, and in fact they are the product of collaboration with Rajesh Soni, an artist who handpaints digital photographs. He is the grandson of Prabhu Lal Soni (Verma). who was also a renowned hand colourist of photographs - once court photographer to the Maharana Bhopal Singh of Mewar. Soni and WaswoXWaswo’s images are fantastic in the proper etymological sense of that word: dreamlike, phantasms that take in all possible Orientalist signifiers of Indianness: tigers, peacocks, jungles, tribals, ascetics, maharajas, rural belles. But part of the effectiveness of these images as dreams derives from containing within themselves a pinprick that brings you back to reality. So the peacock feathers which seem to vie with the backdrop for tropical lushness are held aloft by a suspicious looking travelling salesman with a cycle and a Vimal shopping bag – signs of unposh urbanity that quickly unravel the forested dream the image has partially built up. In ‘Zakir and Tarif Smoking’, the subversion is much more in-your-face – the two sombre young men framed against a red velvet curtain and a richly patterned carpet could have played at being princelings, but instead they sit there in plain white kurta-pyjamas, a cigarette dangling from each of their mouths with careful casualness. ‘Tribal Dreams’ and ‘Night Prowl’ escort us into the jungle more mysteriously. In the first image, the subject’s face is hidden – we see only his body, illuminated with golden dots. In the second, too, the body is painted, this time with yellow stripes, to evoke a tiger. The figure is on all fours, staring out at the viewer through the eyeholes of a tiger mask. Masks, of course, are metaphors for many things – most commonly, theatre. The Tasveer show contained another young boy with a mask – in the memorable image shot by the Ahmedabad-based photographer Jyoti Bhatt, the young tribal boy seems dwarfed by the huge earthen mask he holds. The 1934-born Bhatt spent several decades from the mid-1960s onwards photographing folk and indigenous art forms in rural India, and his work is a marvellous glimpse of that archive.

Jyoti Bhatt. 'Three Oriya women in front of their house with a wall painted.' Courtesy: Tasveer
Bhatt’s photographs are the opposite of theatrical. But as he places his shy, mostly reluctant subjects – women and children half-covering their faces, or looking studiously away from the camera, a cow that seems to be trying to curl itself into nothingness – against walls of the homes and barns in which they live, one’s attention is drawn constantly to the traditional artistic practices of embellishment that turn those walls into such arresting backdrops for everyday life.

The work of Dutch artist Bas Meeuws invokes a different Indian artistic history – Mughal floral motifs as they appear in inlay work on monuments, and in the borders of paintings and manuscripts. Meeuws’ digitally manipulated ‘still lifes’ of these individually photographed flowers – poppies, carnations, cornflowers, canna lilies – have a strangely hypnotic quality: petals rich and glossy against a pitch black backdrop, leaves glowing a preturnatural green. The Tasveer show gestures to complex Indian histories of embellishment: either carried out before the picture was taken, or involving the manipulation of the photographic image. The images here declare their created-ness, but we live in a world in which fake images proliferate. Every photographic documentation must compete against the manipulated fictions floating up as fact in the nebulous sea of WhatsApp forwards.

© Bas Meeuws, Mughal Botanical (#03),2015, C-print on dibond behind acrylic. Courtesy: Tasveer
In this post-factual world, the line between fact and fiction can sometime seem a blurred matter of artistic license. Recently, an award-winning photojournalist called Souvid Datta admitted to Time magazine that he had “foolishly doctored images” in 2013-15, infringing on the work of well-known photographers including Mary Ellen Mark. Asked why he had done it, the 1999-born Datta replied: “In part, I was also discovering the technology of Photoshop... and the creation of something new excited me. It felt like a very basic artistic achievement. There are other images... not intended as journalistic work, which have also been altered using post-production techniques... I didn’t understand what a photojournalist was for a long time, let alone the weight of trying to assume that title.” Photography is indeed a strange art. Because it is so often also called upon to be a science -- and the burden of being both is too much to bear.

Published in the Taj Magazine, June 2017 issue.

5 August 2017

Speaking of Sex

My Mirror column:

For the women in Lipstick Under My Burkha, words are a necessary weapon on the quest for desire – but they can also wound.

Sometimes a film can start a conversation. Lipstick Under My Burkha, about which I wrote in these pages last week, definitely has. I suggested in the previous column that what makes Lipstick stand out in the long history of Hindi cinema is that it allows us to see women as erotic beings, with their eroticism shorn of the necessary veneer of long-term romantic love. Certainly writer-director Alankrita Shrivastava and her co-writers Gazal Dhaliwal and Suhani Kanwar have crafted a film in which women have more of a relationship with sex than our female characters have ever been allowed to.

But thankfully, unlike a particular sort of feminist girl-gang movie recently emerging from India with English titles – think of Pan Nalin’s infuriatingly flimsy Angry Indian Goddesses (2015), or Leena Yadav’s overly-choreographed rural drama Parched (2016) – the women in Lipstick experience sex in a variety of registers. Repression and bawdiness, set up as polar opposites, are not the only modes of being sexual.

Yes, the film uses the unabashed excesses of Hindi erotica to unbutton our tightly-laced selves, as well as casually dropping references to husbands getting excited by a ‘Brazilian’. But there is a tendency to imagine that women who speak freely – of sex, or anything else – are necessarily empowered. Lipstick, I was overjoyed to find, recognizes the range of possibilities that exist in the gulf between silence and staging.

The woman whom we see suffering through the worst sort of sex with her husband, Konkona Sensharma’s Shirin, is also the one who most needs to produce the pretense that all is well. The brave front she puts up is a recurring theme in the film. Early on, a woman to whom Shirin is selling a pest-control gun turns it towards her husband’s portrait, asking if it will work on this sort of pest. Shirin smiles a secret smile and says her ‘pest’ stays in control – even without a gun. We have not yet met her husband, so we – like the customer – are taken in.

Later, after the film has let us view the humiliations of her marital bed, we hear her produce another bit of light-hearted repartee, this time to explain to her gynaecologist why she keeps getting pregnant. “We get so caught up in the moment that it’s hard to stop and make him wear a condom...,” she says, looking at us rather than the doctor. This time, neither the doctor nor we are fooled.

That depiction of her husband as being swayed by desire offers, in fact, a sinister contrast to the brutally mechanical way in which we see him use her body. It is cold comfort that Shirin is also the only character who speaks – if only once, and fearfully – of sex as pain. “Jalan ho rahi hai,” she says as her husband enters her without the slightest kiss or caress, or even an affectionate word. And yet to hear her say those words is shocking, because it brings into a Hindi film soundscape a female body’s response to forced sex – not couched in the dramatically over-determined register of rape, violation, or even fear, but as physical pain made ordinary.

The emotional impact of that recurring physical hurt, on the other hand, is not something even Shirin can summon up words for. We see her, in the aftermath of the worst such scene, stuffing her mouth in silent anger – a cake she baked hoping to sweet-talk her husband into giving her ‘permission’ to work is now merely something to help her swallow her own tears.

The film’s feistiest character, Leela, is someone to whom words come easily, whether it is in wooing potential clients for a new business idea, or seducing her photographer lover. She is the opposite of years of Hindi-movie coyness when she appears in her lover’s room and says with beguiling candour: “Sex toh kar le.” And yet all the power of that openness is easily turned against her, as soon as the man decides to demean the woman’s desire by calling it ‘merely’ physical.

The Rehana segment, otherwise weakened by its excessive cool-girl stereotypes and its overly obvious dialoguebaazi (“jeans ka haq, jeene ka haq”), has one wonderful scene in which sexual tension is created with words. She is drinking with a flirtatious senior (Shashank Tiwari) when he gestures casually in her direction and asks, “Virgin?” Rehana freezes – and only relaxes when he indicates it is only her alcoholic virginity he was inquiring about.

Perhaps the film’s most challenging narrative is that of Usha, who uses two kinds of verbal covers – the words of a fictional character called Rosie, and the anonymity provided by the telephone – to carry on an increasingly torrid affair with a younger man. Words are what enable the 55-year-old widow to articulate a long-dormant, long-frustrated erotic self – but the man seduced by her “sexnuma awaaz” is quick to turn against her when he realizes who she ‘really’ is.

But all this talk of the body is a way of exposing the innermost corners of our minds – and that can make us incredibly vulnerable.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 30 July 2017.

26 July 2017

Those Who Dream In Daylight

Under the easy symbolism of burkhas, lipsticks and cigarettes, Lipstick Under My Burkha is a film that’s urgently needed, astutely told and deeply felt.

If you ask anyone who's grown up watching popular Hindi cinema, they would probably agree that its most important preoccupation is love. No matter what other themes a film might take up -- the decline of Indian family values or the reiteration of their longevity, urban crime, the crisis of corruption, relations between communities, war, sports, patriotism -- there is invariably a romantic relationship at the centre of the plot. Often more than one.

In a country in which arranged marriages remain very much the norm, romantic love is the fantasy for which real people go to the cinema. Love is our grand narrative of choice, even when the romance is not epic but everyday. And yet, these depictions of love -- invariably heterosexual, almost always battling social obstacles to get to the end-point of marriage -- are too coy to speak of physical desire. If the sexual self is allowed to exist, it must be folded into the romantic, and ideally subsumed by it. You can want love, but to want sex is taboo. This is true even for male protagonists, but it is most certainly true for women, who must remain objects of desire rather than desiring subjects.

Of course, things are changing, slowly but surely: in recent years, we have glimpsed desiring women on screen in the most male-centric narratives, like Anurag Kashyap’s DevD; in films seeking to radically alter our perspective on sex, like Margarita With a Straw or Haraamkhor or Anarkali of Aarah; or character-driven dramas with other social concerns, like Masaan. But Alankrita Shrivastava’s Lipstick Under My Burkha still feels astonishing.

Perhaps it is the fact that her women characters are, none of them, aiming for marriage as the happy-ever-after. If one is pre-marriage, another is post-marriage; one has a marriage that offers her only humiliation, and the last doesn't want the right marriage. The 55-year-old Usha (Ratna Pathak Shah) has long been husband-less and has no desire to be controlled by a man again. The teenage Rehana (Plabita Borthakur) wants a hundred things that she feels life behind a burkha can't give her -- and marriage isn't yet one of them. 
Shirin (Konkona Sensharma) already has a marriage, complete with three children and a sexually exploitative husband who refuses even to use contraception -- it is one she would quite happily do without. Even Leela (Aahana Kumra), on the verge of a marriage that would secure her family’s future, cannot make herself see in it the shape of her present.

Perhaps it is that these women do not circumscribe their desires by what is expected of them; they do not want what they are supposed to want. Or perhaps it is just the frankness with which Shrivastava's characters experience sex and sexuality -- even when they are not speaking of it. One of the useful devices Lipstick's script uses in this regard is to bookend the tales of these 'real’ women with the voice of a properly fictional one called Rosie, who lends her purple prose to each narrative in turn. While she remains trapped between the covers of a steamy Hindi paperback, the unexpurgated quality of Rosie's desires forces us to contend with our squeamishness.

We are so unused to women speaking of sex (or even being acknowledged as wanting it) that sexlessness is the norm -- except within the approved bounds of
grihasthashram, when it is duty rather than pleasure. And so whether it is Leela’s ravenous lust for her scruffy photographer boyfriend (the gorgeous Vikrant Massey, last seen in A Death in the Gunj), or the long-celibate Usha's fierce attraction to a man much younger than herself, these are not just unsuitable boys but unsuitable desires. I found particularly moving Shrivastava's telling of Usha's tale: how the physical proximity of a physically fit male body mingles with the giddy excitement of being reminded that she needn't be Buaji to everyone -- the evocative power of merely using her name makes one realise how women are boxed into their relationships, literally losing themselves.

But as the film makes clear, in a country where a widowed old man is generous when he 'considers’ a 40-year-old as a second wife -- and where we have been brought up to giggle at the merest thought of a spinsterish Lalita Pawar believing herself wooed, even by a man of her own age -- what hope can we hold out for Buaji?

Rehana and Shirin's desires are less obviously couched as sexual -- freedom to dress as they please, drink, smoke, work, wander the world, and be treated as an equal. But the sex scenes between Shirin and her husband (Sushant Singh) are the film's most horrifying -- because that stifling experience, of being reduced to being a forced provider of sexual services, is likely the norm for more Indian wives than not.

Given the depressing realities with which Lipstick deals, I am glad to be able to report that it is not itself depressing. The right to pleasure is serious business --but what is serious can also be pleasurable. The film ends with one final nod to romantic fantasy, which I loved. We might have picked the wrong man to be our sapnon ka raajkumar, suggests Shrivastava, but isn't the dreaming what keeps us alive?

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 23 July 2017.

Revenge, Served Cold

Sridevi's return to the screen as an avenging mother offers us a chance to think about the female vigilante film in Hindi cinema.

The 1970s in Hollywood inaugurated the era of the female vigilante film, in which the rape-revenge narrative was the most powerfully recurring one. Films like Abel Ferrara's Ms 45 (1981), the Sondra Lock-Clint Eastwood film Sudden Impact (1983), the Farrah Fawcett starrer Extremities (1986), among many others, were about a woman protagonist avenging a sexual crime whose perpetrators both society and the law had failed to punish.
A particular subset of this genre centres on an older woman who steps in to mete out vigilante justice on behalf of a younger or defenceless victim. An early Hollywood film in this genre, involving an elder sister and a teenaged younger sister -- Lipstick (1976) -- inspired BR Chopra's Insaaf ka Taraazu (1980), which cast Zeenat Aman and a childlike Padmini Kolhapure as a pair of stereotypically 'modern' sisters who find the world ranged against them -- and on the side of Raj Babbar's skin-crawlingly creepy admirer-rapist. Ravi Udyawar's Mom is the latest film in this sub-genre.

The last few years have seen Bollywood return to the avenging woman protagonist. In the wake of the widespread protests after the rape and murder of Jyoti Singh in December 2012, mainstream film producers seem to have finally decided this was a theme whose resonance they could monetise. Industry writers also clearly find the female vigilante slot useful, especially when tossing up comeback vehicles for heroines whose formidable acting chops aren't enough to keep them in male-dominated Bollywood.

So in August 2014, we got Pradip Sarkar's Mardaani, marking the return of Rani Mukherjee as a cop named Shivani Shivaji Roy who is provoked to violence by the abduction of an orphaned girl she has semi-adopted. In April 2017, we got Ashtar Syed's Maatr, with Raveena Tandon turning bloodthirsty avenger after her daughter is sexually assaulted and dies. And now, in July, we have Mom, in which Sridevi returns to the Hindi screen for the first time since English Vinglish (2012), again with a plot driven by an ungrateful daughter.

In a non-coincidence of the Bollywood kind, Sridevi's Devaki Sabarwal is an ethical schoolteacher pitted against Delhi's 'Pata hai mera baap kaun hai' louts - just like Raveena's Vidya in Maatr. Given the ubiquitousness of sexual violence in India across class, caste and region, it is remarkable how limited the Hindi film imagination of it is (barring notable exceptions like the superb Anaarkali of Aarah, or the more uneven Parched). One fixed node in that imagination is the youthful upper middle class victim; another is Delhi. Within Delhi, too, there are two points upon which Bollywood scriptwriters seem to converge: the farmhouse and the car.

The first imagined location for male predators in Mom is a farmhouse, as it was in Maatr and in another recent film about sexual assault in Delhi: Shoojit Sarkar's Pink (2016). But it is the car with windows rolled up, circling the streets of the capital, that offers a bone-chilling depiction of how sexual violence takes place, in plain sight. In Pink, as well as in Nicholas Kharkongor's Delhi-set drama Mantra (2016), we are allowed into the car; in Mom, we are kept terrifyingly out. Of course the car is not just a site of violence but also a mode of escape and an instrument of revenge: think of Navdeep Singh's NH10, in which the car amplifies Anushka Sharma's sense of siege - but can also conquer it.

ticks off a host of other predictable Delhi types: men with no redeeming qualities like the spoilt schoolboy rapist, his drug-taking playboy cousin, a security guard who's a Bihari or Eastern UP migrant (the talented Pitobash Tripath, wasted here). Sridevi's husband Anand (Adnan Siddiqui) and daughter Arya (a Kareena Kapoor-lookalike called Sajal Ali) are pretty but merely decorative. The only pleasurable character is a Daryaganj detective, and this is because Nawazuddin Siddiqui sinks his teeth into a slim role to prove he can still surprise us with unheroicness. Udyawar tries with his locations, filming on the Delhi Metro, in a Mehrauli stepwell and a suitably upscale art gallery, but the Sabarwals' home has an unlived servantless poshness that simply doesn't cut it, especially for a family in which the woman works and is a hands-on mother of two.

Motherhood is the film's titular theme. As with Maatr and Mardaani (and Drishyam, in which Tabu is the cop-mother engineering violence), it is maternal protective instinct that is churned into cold-blooded revenge. Here all the strict biology teacher wants is to have her brattish stepdaughter call her 'Mom' rather than Ma'am. Of course we know of Sridevi's personal status as real-life stepmother to Boney Kapoor's children. And Udyawar doesn't spare the mythic references: naming her Devaki after Krishna's loving mother, or citing Draupadi as the original Indian avenger.

Mom does offer glimpses of fun on the femininity front: a criminal who makes her own poison from something ostensibly healthful; men obsessing over other men while a woman drives off under their noses. But the film is weighed down by a trite, obvious sense of righteousness.

Vigilante politics aside, it left me longing for a little of the legendary Sridevi lightness.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 16 July 2017.

10 July 2017

Bombay Confidential

In a murder mystery set in the film industry 40 years ago, the crime writer HRF Keating tapped into our preoccupation with tinsel town.

Fiction writers are strange creatures. The British crime writer HRF Keating famously did not visit India until he had written nine books featuring the Maharashtrian policeman Ganesh Ghote. Keating didn’t originally intend to stay with Ghote longer than a a couple of books. His first Ghote mystery, The Perfect Murder (1964), won him a gold dagger for fiction from the Crime Writers' Association and commercial success (especially in America). In response to readers’ demands, he obliged, writing nine Ghote novels by 1974, becoming anointed India expert of sorts. 

In 1976, with his tenth book featuring the Bombay-based detective, Keating finally took the plunge into what might be the city's most obvious real-life locale for intrigue – the film industry. Forty years down, Filmi, Filmi, Inspector Ghote's take on Bombay's commercial cinema in the 1970s is perhaps more interesting for Indian readers than it was then. Especially if we treat it not as some sort of documentary evidence of what the industry was like, but of what about this world -- and our relationship with it – seems to have struck a Western outsider.

Keating won points from me with his very first paragraph: “The Deputy Commissioner was reading a filmi magazine. There was no mistaking it. Inspector Ghote had come hurrying into his big airy office in response to a crisp summons on the intercom and he had caught him in the act.”

The scene is set consummately, establishing Ghote's position in the Crime Branch bureaucracy – as well as Hindi cinema's position in the Indian cultural universe. I gesture to the crucial fact that Hindi cinema was, for the ’70s Indian elite, still very much a guilty pleasure — a low-brow taste that many partook of, but that anyone in any position of seriousness preferred not to be seen indulging in publicly. (For years, even filmmakers working on the edges of commercial Hindi cinema made such tongue-in-cheek references to its popularity – Hrishikesh Mukherjee's Guddi, which cast Jaya Bhaduri as a teenager besotted with the iconic Dharmendra (playing himself), was a dissection of the Indian public's besottedness with popular cinema. A film like Sai Paranjpye's Chashme Buddoor parodied Hindi movie romance both in letter and spirit. Guddi, if I remember right, also actually begins by gently mocking a figure of authority – a school teacher – for being immersed in a film magazine.)

The book's plot has Ghote called in to investigate the mysterious death of an ace actor during the shooting of a Hindi film adaptation of Macbeth (something that took another thirty years to happen in reality: Vishal Bhardwaj's Maqbool). Ghote's character may be a bit off sociologically, but in his disavowal of any knowledge of Hindi cinema and his simultaneous desire to claim familiarity with Macbeth, I think Keating cottons onto something about the split cultural self of the Indian elite. Popular Bombay cinema in the '70s – and its most famous denizens – had a great deal of money and influence and a hold on millions of people, but our Anglophone elite only thirty years after independence was reluctant to grant it any cultural capital.

The book is also interesting as a portrait of a pre-liberalisation economy, in which of course the film world is a shaping influence and participant. We hear of the parallel black money economy in which everyone receives shadow payments, we hear familiar terms like Dearness Allowance and Vigilance and we also hear of how the secret desires of a pre-liberalisation elite are catered to — the importing of cosmetics, “foreign television sets and watches with digital face”, the making of blue films on the sly in Bombay, the smuggling out of the films and the smuggling in of the girls in them.

Keating gets many details right – some extras are described as Ghati women, there is a “tall Pathan chowkidar”. Still he falters often when it comes to words and names. The murdered actor is called Dhartiraj, a rendition of Prithviraj that feels terribly unidiomatic; the Macbeth film, in a rather obvious inspiration from
Akira Kurosawa's Throne of Blood, is titled ‘Khoon ka Gaddi’ when it should grammatically be ‘Khoon ki Gaddi’; his use of phrases like “Choop chaap” and “Ek dum” can seem colonial and bizarrely dated. But Keating is clearly interested in linguistic specificity – from the very first paragraph he refers often and without annotation to the “filmi duniya”; he revels in using Indian words like raddiwallah and crorepati; he devotes a section to explaining “chumchas”. And all through, he renders dialogue in an excessive but heartfelt Indian English: “Wining and dining, booted and suited,” “Madam, if you are wanting to see me, I am altogether at your...”, or “But, excuse me, to make a film in bits and pieces only, is that truly possible?”

But to return, in conclusion, to Ghote: whether he is meeting Seth Chagan Lal, the beady-eyed moneybags with threats as cold as his cash, the swaggering Ravi Kumar or the almond-eyed screen goddess Nilima, Ghote finds himself unable to behave authoritatively. It is as if, in his unbidden transformation from stern law enforcer to obliging supplicant, he embodies our relationship to the filmi duniya. However much we might scorn the silver screen, it taps into some part of us that's secretly helpless.