Adieu, Roger Ebert

April 5, 2013

“He never came off as pretentious or snobby, he had an equal enjoyment for highbrow “art” as campy “trash.” With unwavering disregard for convention, he called ‘em as he saw ‘em, honoring talented filmmakers across the spectrums of style, taste, budget, and notoriety.”

Yep, that about sums it up.

R.I.P Roger Ebert, my inspiration and guide as a film critic :( And critic is probably not even the appropriate term, for unlike many others, he never seemed to be talking down to his readers, making them feel like he was oh-so-much-smarter than them. He was just one of us, having a chat with us about the movie as we stepped out of the cinema together. Shall miss his words terribly.

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Taking in Kolkata: The Apeejay Kolkata Lit Fest 2013

March 9, 2013

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Ami chini go chini tomare o go videshini
Tumi thaako shindhu paare o go videshini

(I know you, I do, oh stranger from distant lands
You belong to the place beyond the Indus river, o stranger from distant lands)

These are the opening lines of a rather lovely example of Rabindra Sangeet, immortalized by Satyajit Ray in his 1964 classic Charulata, sung therein by Kishore Kumar, and picturised on the boyishly charming Soumitra Chatterjee – and I must confess the words rang in my ears in all their foreign sweetness as I stepped out of the confines of the airport and into the city of Kolkata nee Calcutta, capital of West Bengal, and witness to the birth and bloom of countless historical figures, ideas, and movements. From Swami Vivekananda and Ram Mohan Roy, Rabindranath Tagore and Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, to Ray and Ritwik Ghatak, Bimal Roy and Hemant Kumar, and the Messrs. Burman Sr. and Jr. – Kolkata has been the nucleus of the Bengali Renaissance of the past two centuries. And the city wears that crown with little trace of the unease Shakespeare assigned to royal noggins. Indeed, despite the grimy appearance, the pollution, the confusing, typically South Asian politics, and the alarming ways of the traffic, there is a nonchalant grace about the place; here meet worlds old and new in a warm embrace, and together they upstage India Shining, like a suave, roguish, strong silent type scoffing amusedly at the clumsy, attention-seeking antics of a brat with his slip on display.

The Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival, of which I was an invitee, is not your typical sexy gathering of trendy pen-pushers and Instagram hounds. Instituted by the highly respected Apeejay Surrendra Group, whose myriad ventures include the popular Oxford Bookstore on Kolkata’s historic Park Street, the AKLF is a respite from the other somewhat cynically motivated cattle-calls, with genuinely interesting and challenging panel discussions and, perhaps most welcome of all, the gumption to acknowledge that writers do not exist in a vacuum, that their work is shaped and informed by the world around them, and hence the Festival’s choice to include other elements of India’s socio-cultural landscape in the fray, such as cinema, theatre, music, photography, food, and political satire.

It was a hundred years ago, in 1913, when Dadasaheb Phalke directed Raja Harishchandra, the first indigenously produced Indian film, thereby laying the foundations of a national cinema of the sub-continent, and the opening sessions of the AKLF paid homage to the centenary year of Indian cinema, including a brilliant keynote address by legendary filmmaker Shyam Benegal, delivered against the dramatic backdrop of the Victoria Memorial building. It was an unusually chilly evening but a spellbound audience braved it without complaint as Mr. Benegal spoke about the depiction of Muslims and Muslim culture in Hindi films. The celluloid theme was carried further in the form of Maya Mahal, an enchanting exhibition of old film posters, on display for the first time, from the private collection of Priya Paul, a senior member of the Apeejay Group.

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At some point in the middle of it all I found myself in a fairly daunting position, seated alongside Mr. Benegal, acclaimed new filmmaker Onir(My Brother Nikhil, Bas Ek Pal), and revered actor Dhritiman Chatterjee, on a panel discussion on alternate discourses in Indian cinema. The session was moderated by author and journalist Jai Arjun Singh (whose wonderful book about the cult film Jaane Bhi D Yaaro sits in a dog-eared state on my bookshelf) and went by in a flash, with a very receptive audience unafraid to ask questions and express their appreciation at the replies.

At venues ranging from the snazzy Park Hotel, the elegant National Library, and the famous Max Mueller Bhavan, to the historic Lascar Monument, one was treated to some truly engrossing sessions with people from all parts of the world. Some were already well-known – William Dalrymple launched his latest, The Return of the King – while others bound to be so in days to come. Yasmin Premji’s readings from her maiden novel, Days of Gold and Spices, indicated a work of quietly dazzling power. Elsewhere, writer s Farah Ghaznavi, Kenize Mourad, and Jael Silliman discussed issues of image and identity in literature vis-à-vis women in Asia.

Amidst the dire rumblings along the LOC, the Festival carried on valiantly, even as it came time to showcase a performance by Karachi’s very own National Academy of Performing Arts Repertory. Titled When Ghalib Met Manto – Ek Guftagu, the experimental piece was accompanied by live renditions of Ghalib’s poetry by NAPA alumni, and was well-received by the large crowd gathered in the grounds of the magnificent St. John’s Church. NAPA’s performance was preceded by dramatized readings in English and Bengali by renowned actors Tom Alter and Barun Chanda, respectively, from Rabishankar Bal’s Dozakhnama (and its English translation by Arunava Sinha) – which has been described as a biography of Manto and Ghalib and a history of Indian culture rolled into one.

The proceedings of the festival aside, Kolkata is also a city with ample character, its narrow roads and wide pavements home to quaint structures seemingly preserved from a time long ago. Sitting atDSC00991 Flury’s, the city’s oldest café, I eavesdropped on conversations being carried on in the impossibly sweet-sounding Bengali language. Just as delectable are the region’s famous desserts, sandesh and mishti dhoi chief among them, which I sampled with relish at the insistence of R.D. Burman biographer Anirudha Bhattacharjee, who was also kind enough to sign my copy of his book, and then helped fulfill one of my fan-girl dreams by leading me and fellow Burman enthusiast Faiza on a ‘pilgrimage’ to the Burman home in South End Park. We clicked away with our cameras in hushed awe, while Mr. Bhattacharjee got us cups of tea from the khoka next to the gate to help us calm down. He then revealed some details about his forthcoming Bollywood related book, but swore us to secrecy, on pain of death.

As I said ‘pore dakhaa hobe’ to Kolkata and got on the flight to Delhi, I felt foolishly sentimental, for the city had satisfied to a great extent my penchant for old-world nostalgia. Having arrived there with Kishore echoing in my head, it was only fitting that I also departed with him singing on my ipod:

Shehron mein se shehr suna

Shehr Kalkutta

Gali gali bhool bhulaiyyan

Bhool gaya rasta

Hum kho gaye

Des mein pardesi ho gaye!

(A city among cities
I’d heard
is the city Calcutta
where every lane is a labyrinth
it’s easy to lose your way
And now I’m lost
an outsider in my own land!)

Motley Musings: Ismat Apa, Naseerudin Shah, and Reading Feminism in Lahore

January 21, 2013

 “I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat, or a prostitute.” Rebecca West, English author, journalist and literary critic

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Some years ago, a friend was teaching a course on feminism to university students in Lahore. The class comprised mostly English-speaking pretty young things, the kind Monty Python good-naturedly referred to as upper-class twits. At one point, one of the young women turned up her nose and declared in a bored voice that she didn’t believe in feminism. Said friend, who had been speaking of feminism as a tool to be employed rather than as an ideology per se, was perhaps understandably puzzled and felt compelled to enquire why that was so. The student said that ‘the implementation’ (!) of feminism would in fact result in women losing out on a lot of privileges. My friend, now truly intrigued, asked her to name one. Well, the young woman replied, for example we wouldn’t be able to get in front of the line at the bank, we’d actually have to wait our turn like everyone else.

 

Which would be, like, SO not cool.

 

I was reminded of these pearls of wisdom about the dangers of feminism as I watched Mumbai theatre troupe Motley’s production of Ismat Apa Ke Naam and Kambakht Bilkul Aurat, six performance pieces based on short stories by Ismat Khanum Chughtai, directed by legendary actor Naseerudin Shah and performed by Heeba Shah, Ratna Pathak Shah, Lovleen Mishra, Seema and Manoj Pahwa, and Shah himself. In Lahore at the invitation of the Faiz Foundation Trust, over the course of two nights Motley thoroughly mesmerised the crowds with their recitation/solo enactments of Ismat Apa’s powerful, inimitable prose. All six stories were directly related to the feminine experience in the Indian sub-continent, and indeed Chughtai has often been referred to as a ‘feminist’ author, ironic though that is since she produced much of work in an era when feminism was not yet a formalized social, political and intellectual movement. She wrote with alarming honesty and fearlessness about how women (and men) grappled with the vagaries of a patriarchal (and stubbornly hypocritical) society, and was often vilified by a people who saw her acid pen as a threat to the status quo. But the author was hardly one to be bullied easily, standing up with fierce resolve in the face of all sorts of harsh criticism, including a legal writ charging her with obscenity upon publication of perhaps her most notorious story, Lihaaf (The Quilt).

 

“Feminism is a socialist, anti-family, political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.”

Pat Robertson, Conservative American Chairman of the Christian Broadcasting Network

 

At a small gathering  at the HRCP auditorium one day after the performances, Naseerudin Shah spoke of how Motley had been known largely for their English language productions before delving into Ismat Apa Ke Naam, one of the first of their more recent work in Urdu/Hindi. “The six stories you saw performed here were the first six I read by Ismat Apa,” said Shah, who acted alongside Chughtai in Shyam Benegal’s 1979 film Junoon. Greatly affected by the power of her writing, he knew nevertheless that he didn’t want to do a traditional theatrical adaptation of the stories. Rather he and his team wanted to present the stories as is in their entirety, which is what brought them to employ the storytelling method wherein the actor takes on the role of both narrator, and interpreter of character and conversations.

Answering a question from the audience on whether the choice of Ismat Chughtai as the inspiration for this very successful production indicates his own feminist beliefs, Shah smiled and said simply that, like Chughtai, his view is that feminism is humanism, and women’s rights are human rights.

 

“Feminism has fought no wars. It has killed no opponents. It has set up no concentration camps, starved no enemies, practiced no cruelties. Its battles have been for education, for the vote, for better working conditions.. for safety on the streets… for child care, for social welfare… for rape crisis centers, women’s refuges, reforms in the law. If someone says ‘Oh, I’m not a feminist,’ I ask ‘Why? What’s your problem?’”

Dale Spender, Australian feminist scholar, teacher and writer

 

 

The Mirror Has Two Faces: Pakistan’s Saas-Bahu Relationship With Hindi Cinema

November 24, 2012

This article was originally published on http://www.thebigindianpicture.com

The Big B endorses Modern Tailors, in Model Town, Lahore

Her name was Sardar Bibi on her identity card but, in the great Punjabi tradition of conjugating proper nouns, everyone called her Sardaran. She was a widow in her sixties and her daughter Meena was my nanny. Sardaran did odd-jobs around the house, cooked the chapaatis, and at night taught me old Punjabi folk songs and narrated fables about wayward monkeys and ticks that exploded in rivers of blood after having a tad too much to drink. This was the early 80s and the VCR had only just entered our collective consciousness, and with Indian films banned from Pakistani cinemas since 1965, pirated videos of Bollywood fare, though not available in great abundance, were the newest guilty pleasure, one more in a long line of declared cultural taboos in the wake of General Zia’s bid for ‘Islamisation’. (This split between official line and ground reality often gave rise to absurdities of farcical proportions, such as the state television channel being instructed to never mention India by name, resulting in Dilip Kumar’s return to Mumbai after a trip to Lahore, in 1988, being covered in news bulletins with the sentence ‘humsaya mulk ke adaakar, jo humsaya mulk se chand roz ke dauray par aaye the, aaj shaam waapis humsaya mulk ke liye ravaana ho gaye.’ And I shall also never forget the night I heard the moulvi at our neighbourhood mosque reciting a naat (devotional verses) set to the tune of ‘Roop suhana lagta hai, chaand purana lagta hai’).

When word got around that the Hashmi household had acquired a National VCR (but nothing to watch on it), a kind family friend lent us two films from his Dubai shopping: Naseeb and Suhaag – both Amitabh Bachchan starrers. For about a month, all the kids plus the household help would sit huddled together in front of the TV after lunch and religiously watch either of the two films every single day. It was sometime during this ongoing exercise that Sardaran declared that Bachchan was her long-lost son. Our kitchen, which was her domain, became a shrine to the star, with posters and pictures adorning all the cupboards. Over the next few years, she only managed to see one or two more of The Angry Young Man’s films, but her mantra remained unchanged, unshakeable: Bachchan was her son. She managed to convince the local electrician of the veracity of her claim but the rest of us would only giggle and smirk in response and treat it as the joke that we felt it was. It was only many years later, after she had passed away, that we learned from her family that as a young woman during the upheaval of Partition, Sardaran had been separated from her infant son, whom she never saw again. She prayed that the lost child had been found by a good family who raised him as their own and, somewhere in her heart, she hoped that he had grown up to be a handsome, successful, famous and adored man – someone exactly like Mr. Bachchan.

On a warm, humid Lahore evening three days after Rajesh Khanna’s death on July 18th, a group of friends and I sat together in his memory, singing ‘Bheegi bheegi raaton mein’ and watching him woo Zeenat Aman on the projector in my cozy living room. We were plunged into darkness every now and then with the constant power ‘load-shedding’ that has been a staple of our daily lives for the past five years, but our spirits were  not to be dampened. With strings of motia wrapped around our wrists, we munched on pita bread and hummus and sang and reminisced about our movie memories of Kakaji, and amidst this I was suddenly reminded of Sardaran, and the deep, almost inexplicable connection that innumerable Pakistanis have with Hindi cinema. After all, politically, we have always been ‘enemy countries’, having fought three official wars and countless unofficial ones, and with much suspicion of the other to be had on either side of the divide. There is intelligence surveillance, political one-upmanship, media ‘tu tu-main main’, police-reporting visas, and visa application processes that’ll make you wish you’d never been born – and yet, there is also a strange kind of affinity, an underlying, seductive fascination that at once repels and attracts us to the Other – sort of like the Hollywood films in the 80s where both the villain and the love interest would be those darned Russkies. In official forums, there is resistance and denial (even as Hindi films were allowed back onto Pakistani screens some five years ago), but on the ground, the unembellished reality is that today Bollywood informs our cultural landscape more than our own local cinema. Lollywood, as our film industry, based primarily in Lahore, is referred to, was supposed to benefit from the ban on Hindi films because it would, in theory at least, allow home-grown cinema to flourish unhindered by rival product. That theory was, of course, inherently flawed and in the face of zero competition, not to mention Zia’s destructive cultural policies, Lollywood eventually (and inevitably) floundered. Today, there is reverence and nostalgia for our legends, like Madam Noorjahan, Santosh Kumar, and Waheed Murad, but Lollywood, for all effects and purposes, and due to our own acute myopia, has become irrelevant to the larger picture. Our radio stations now play Indian filmi sangeet, our up-market movie houses show The Dirty Picture and Ra-One, our weddings see the young ‘uns performing choreographed dances to ‘Oo la la’ and ‘Chammak challo’, we cry with Aamir Khan during every episode of Satyamev Jayate, we know the inner and outer worlds of Shahrukh Khan inside and out, Katrina Kaif and Shilpa Shetty smile benignly at us from billboards, and we hang on to every bit of Bollywood gossip about Saifeena that floods the internet.  (We also laugh ourselves silly when Hindi TV channels spell it ‘Abhi na jao chod kar ke dil abhi bhara nahi’, but I’ll save that for another day).

The internet has obviously made it that much easier to have the world, including that of Hindi ‘fillums’, at our fingertips, but even in the years way back when Gates and Jobs were just pimply-faced geeks getting copies of Asimov kicked in their faces at the beach, Hindi cinema managed to very much be a part of our lives in an oddly organic fashion. Apart from the trickle-turned-surge of Hindi movies on VHS that led to a mushrooming of video rental outfits all over the country, local book stores started stocking smuggled issues of Filmfare, Stardust and (now long defunct) Star & Style. Only a few precious (and terribly expensive) copies of each would make it across and then would be passed from fan to rabid fan, dog-eared and creased, each article and interview and photograph pored over and dissected and discussed incessantly. It was through this network that we came to keep ourselves updated with Amitabh Bachchan’s recovery after his infamous accident on the set of Coolie. (My cousins had made a pact that they would watch the new VHS of Laawaris only if/when the star succumbed to his injury; I arrived home from school one day to, horror of horrors, see them viewing the film. “Is he…?” I asked in a trembling voice. “Nah, we just got tired of waiting and thought, what the hell?”). This was also how it got around like wildfire among Pakistan’s female population that the frizzy-haired girl in red in the song ‘Papa kehte hain’ from Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak was hero Aamir Khan’s wife, thereby shattering a million teenage dreams, in unison with those in India I imagine.

And then there was, of course, Chitrahaar! It is nigh impossible to explain to the YouTube generation just what an esteemed place this film song show held in our hearts. Twice a week, we would await it eagerly, singing along to the ads for Nirma Washing Powder and Vicco Turmeric Ayuvedic Cream that signaled the imminent arrival of Chitrahaar, our beloved window into Bollywood’s past, present and future. Perhaps it’s nostalgia speaking, but the instant gratification that the 24-hour Bollywood content TV channels offer today, simply doesn’t compare to the sense of heightened anticipation that Doordarshan used to elicit back in the day with their banner programme.

There are hazy memories of a screening of the 1967 Meena Kumari starrer Noorjehan, which, for reasons now consigned to the planes of bureaucratic amnesia, was allowed to have a limited release in Pakistan sometime in the late seventies, but I remember very clearly the thrill of watching a Hindi film in the cinema for what I consider the first ‘real’ time, when I visited Delhi and was whisked off to see Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, in 1984. Many years after that, I was in Mumbai making a documentary on Madam Noorjahan and got to meet my cinematic idols, Gulzar, Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand among them, and though I tried to appear unfazed, the truth is that I could barely contain myself. The monumental sense of awe I had felt in the presence of the subject of the film I was working on, was duplicated during interviews with Lata Mangeshkar and Naushad, and I was acutely aware of my ridiculously good fortune. Perhaps dearest to my heart was the meeting with the late Manorama, who spoke with great fondness of her old friend ‘Noori’, whom she hadn’t met since the latter left Mumbai after Partition. At the end of our chat, she couldn’t hold back the tears and neither could I. It was my first conscious and overwhelming realization of the one peoples we once were, and also of what a strong emotional presence Indian cinema had had in my life, as well as those of many other Pakistanis.

The question though, that I certainly had never really asked myself, or anyone else for that matter, was why, why do we have this deep and abiding love for Hindi cinema? “’Why ever not?’ is my answer,” says Faiza Sultan Khan, editor of the Life’s Too Short literary review and fellow Bollywood enthusiast. “When I was living in England no one asked, why do you watch American films? It was just the dominant cultural presence, as Hindi cinema is in the sub-continent.” So, because, like Everest, it is there?

“Well yes, but it’s also about the music,” posits Ali Dayan Hasan, human rights activist and HRW’s envoy to Pakistan. “We were hearing this music in our homes from the day we were born really. It was only natural that the connection extended to the films themselves as we grew older. I saw Roti, Kapra Aur Makaan when I was about five, which really my parents ought not to have let me see at that age! But I remember hearing the songs and thinking, hang on, I know this music. So yes, the music aspect is a very strong one, it’s in our genes, practically!”

The three of us, along with Samar Ata-ullah – television producer – and Yasser Hashmi – psychology professor – are, as it happens, listening to some filmi music yet again a few days after our Rajesh Khanna memorial evening, and trying, for a lark, to place our collective fandom in some sort of context. Among the first things we figure is that from the vast history of Hindi film music, it is the music of R.D. Burman that, like I’m certain is the case across the border, elicits the strongest devotion.

“My parents were not actually into film music at all,” Faiza clarifies, “their tastes were the kind of high-brow that, let’s be honest, aren’t that appealing to a six year-old – qawwali and non-vocal classical. So when one heard ‘Mera naam hai Shabnam’ [from Kati Patang] for the first time, well, let’s say life picked up considerably!” Indeed, the Pancham appreciation society in Pakistan is as vibrant and maniacal as anywhere else and it recruits younger and younger people everyday. Among them is Ali Aftab Saeed, a twentysomething musician who gained notoriety as well as tremendous following and critical acclaim last year when he and his band, Beyghairat Brigade, released the politically charged song ‘Aaloo Anday’. Saeed is a die-hard Burman fanatic and I asked him recently what the legendary composer’s work means to him. “Speaking for myself, I simply cannot think beyond R.D.,” he gushes unabashedly. “What’s interesting though is that an overwhelming majority of Pakistani musicians today are exhibiting the R.D. influence on their music; and the virus, so to speak, is spreading wider yet. This is true regardless of the inclination of the musician, be it eastern or western. Even those who officially despise Indian music and claim they have absolutely nothing to do with it, have in their commercially successful work the sensibility of music that R.D. introduced. It could be unconscious in some cases but it is unmistakable all the same. Just as the west is considered to have set the standard of cinematic aesthetics and consequently filmmakers all over the world are following more or less the same principles; it seems that Pancham has done the same to music of the subcontinent. It would be interesting to study R.D.’s influence on Pakistani musicians, and if I can get some funding, I would love to make a documentary on the subject.”

Apart from the music, Ali has another theory on Pakistan’s love affair with Bollywood: ““The Hindi film is actually in our language, the language of the Pakistanis; the language of Bollywood for the longest time was just Urdu. More importantly, the sensibility has been an Urdu-speaking, North Indian, Hindustani Muslim sensibility. Therefore, in reality, these films are for us, they are ‘ours’. They made them for us!” Amidst our giggles and smirks, Faiza concurs. “The dialogue and more to the point, the poetry, the lyrics were pre-dominantly in Urdu, the language of poetry and symbol of sophistication, prestige, romance. I mean I think back to the picturisation of ‘Kahin door jab din dhal jaaye’, when Anand (Rajesh Khanna) looks down at the book in his hand which has a rose pressed in it, and it’s a book of Urdu poetry. It’s a lovely moment, and also poignant because that flower pressed in it has a million other meanings to it now.” Yasser adds another angle to this admittedly under-considered aspect: “Interestingly enough, that’s the point on which the Punjabi film industry in Lahore was opposed to the local Urdu films; they said, ‘we are making ‘Pakistani films, this Urdu cinema is actually Indian’.” He also points out that preceding generations of Pakistanis, like many of their Indian counterparts, had a melancholic, romantic longing to revisit the shared past of the two countries, “like the scores of people who still come and go across to seek out ancestral homes. I remember from my childhood that the shopkeeper in the market near our house always used to have Gurdaspur Radio playing, because that’s where he and his family had migrated from, and you’d often hear him declare, ‘Gurdaspur zindabad!’”

Perhaps fittingly then, the new Indian cinema that has started to evolve in the last decade or so doesn’t appear to hold the same kind of appeal that old Bollywood does. Says Faiza, “I don’t know how much longer I’ll be watching Hindi films because now the new ones are very much the Indian urban experience, and they’re now very specific to the location where they’re set or made. The older films always worked with a particular set of symbols and you as a viewer knew what you were negotiating. Now it’s become very insular and self-indulgent; it has ceased to be a universal experience, and truthfully it doesn’t resonate with me like it used to.”

“It’s become like one big in-joke,” agrees Samar, “For example, even in something like Delhi Belly, there were all these references which probably only Delhi walas would really get. I have cousins who live in Delhi, so for instance they told me about the ‘Nakad waale disco, udhaar waale khisko’ reference, which is apparently written at every paan shop. We can of course still enjoy the film on a very basic level, if it’s a well-made film, but that richness, that density of subtext gets lost in translation, which was not the case before.”

It would be convenient to pretend here that there are no anti-Bollywood segments in Pakistani society but that would not be true – of course there are, and they are roughly of two kinds: those who are indifferent towards cinema in general and/or snobbish about indigenous cinema in particular, and there are those who are generally anti-everything Indian, well and truly indoctrinated in the ‘nationalistic’ belief system espoused on official levels through school text books and other propagandist avenues, and handed down from one generation to the next (sound familiar?). As a teacher of Film Studies, I do a lecture on song picturisation in Hindi cinema and I remember this one time when after the class was over, a student came to me and apologised. When I asked him what he was apologizing for, he said that he had kept his eyes averted from the screen throughout the class because in his household, India, in all and any of its manifestations, is the enemy, and that notion extends to the country’s movies. We proceeded to have an intriguing discussion on the matter with me giving him the usual spiel about art being beyond boundaries etc., and which concluded with him ceding that he’d “think about it.” But the kind of reasoning I was employing to try to give him another perspective on the issue becomes harder to propound when Bollywood sometimes seems to lose the plot and produces neighbor-bashing fare like Gadar – Ek Prem Katha, or does it?”

I put the question before my gathering: do ‘anti-Pakistan’ films like Gadar etc. have any complex implications for us as ‘patriotic’ Pakistanis? “No, don’t be absurd!” Ali guffaws, “It’s just a movie, made expressly to make a quick buck by exploiting niche jingoistic sentiments, and I think most people are smart enough to know the difference, to know that art is above this kind of nationalist baiting, that it’s separate from traditional modes of animosity, and so no, we don’t really care. We choose not to watch it, or even if we do, we kind of just make fun of the whole exercise. All national cinemas resort to this sort of nonsense at one time or another.”

“My reaction is one of amusement, largely,” adds Faiza, “which is what it ought to be in the face of simple-minded propaganda.” Samar brings up a related point which I too had written about earlier on my blog, “What I find far more annoying are the Indo-Pak love fests like Veer Zara,” she says, “which actually are only interested in reinforcing the stereotypes that most Indians who have no exposure to Pakistan tend to believe about us, the same ones that were employed by the ‘Muslim Social’ genre earlier. In that film, which did really well in India but was pretty much laughed at here, they wanted it to be about the Other, so it could not look the same, it could not look ‘Indian’. So they resorted to clichés about the Other, which from the Indian perspective is chiefly that these people are ‘Musalmaan’ with a capital ‘M’, which actually doesn’t say anything about how an upper-middle-class girl in Lahore lives. They did a lot of research but in the end they couldn’t resist the clichés when it came to characterization, ergo the ridiculous sight of everyone wearing achkans and doing ‘aadab’; they had to be conspicuously different from the Indians. But I guess the kind of film it was and the audience that it was aimed at, the makers of Veer Zara decided that they didn’t require any kind of nuance or sophistication. Without that pronounced Otherness, it would’ve been just a girl and a boy who are pretty much the same and just happen to belong to two different but basically very similar countries. That is, of course, ironically enough, the mundane reality.”

That gap of Otherness may finally start to narrow with Pakistani artists like Ali Zafar making inroads into Mumbai. Unlike some other false starts like that of Meera, Zafar seems set (and determined) for a pretty steady career over yonder, and there is an unspoken sense of hope that his brand of cool, urban ‘modernity’ will help to lift the veil off of the decidedly outdated notions of ‘Pakistaniyat’ that a lot of Indians still believe in despite increased people-to-people contact through social media.

As a parting shot, Faiza has a great suggestion for how Bollywood can reciprocate our continued loyalty and affection: “Bollywood’s biggest treasure to date have been the great Peshawaris, the Kapoors, and for Pakistani women of all ages, whether yesterday or today, Rishi Kapoor has been the Kapoor of our dreams and fantasies. So I believe the way to halt all extremism in Pakistan is for him to be sent over by Bollywood, to come back and sing ‘Parda nasheen ko be-parda na kardoon’, because I think that would do it, and all of Peshawar would resonate with the sound of burqas ripping spontaneously!”

Indeed. And as Rafi saaheb once sang:

Jaan pehchaan ho, jeena aasan ho!

 

 

An Actor Prepares – Naseeruddin Shah in Lahore

May 5, 2012

‘Standing Behind Dead Doctor’. That is the rather inauspicious-sounding credit listed as the first ever onscreen appearance of one of the world’s (yes, the world’s) greatest living actors – Naseeruddin Shah. The year was 1967 and the film was Rajendra Kumar-Saira Banu starrer, Aman.  “I had just finished school, I was 16 years old and I’d decided to come to Bombay to make my fortune, so I embarked on this adventure,” he recalls. “At first I stayed with some friends but they grew quite tired of me, so I moved here and there, had a pretty rough time, and ended up acting in two films as an extra. I used to hang around a lot at this place with other unemployed actors and one day this chap came along and said that I need twenty of you as extras, at 7 rupees per day. So that was my first appearance on screen, that probably also saved my life!”

Not that he is terribly fond of looking back at his salad days; on the contrary, Shah isn’t really prone to nostalgia of that fashion. “I don’t believe in holding on to the past, you have to let it go, so I don’t really treasure those years or anything, though I know that I was very fortunate to have got the kind of opportunities that I did. A lot of young people were starting out then and it just so happened that they needed an actor who looked real, that why I was lucky enough to get all those opportunities.” In the years since, of course, he has received all manner of acclaim, critical and popular, in the shape of awards and accolades, hailing and endowing him with a whole gamut of superlatives. One has to wonder if he ever gets jaded about all that.

The actor mulls it over and answers with care. “I can’t say that I don’t like it but one doesn’t really know how to respond when things like that are said. In fact it tends to create quite a gulf between other actors and myself, younger actors particularly. When I’m working with them they confess to getting an attack of the nerves and I hate that. I meet very few young actors who just take me in their stride. I think actors also like to make a fuss about the fact that they respect somebody, to make a big show of it. What does feel good though is that I’ve survived this long and three generations of people are familiar with my work, that’s what I have a sense of accomplishment about.”

Having visited Pakistan before, most notably with a splendid production of Ismat Chughtai’s short stories told through the age-old art of dastaan-goi, Shah was in town again recently, working on a film being made by the enterprising trio of Mazhar Zaidi, Meenu Gaur, and Farjad Nabi. Titled Zinda Bhaag, the project is the second one in Pakistan for the actor after Shoaib Mansoor’s Khuda Ke Liye. “They got in touch with me and asked me to act in it. I liked the script. It has three young men who’ve never acted before, they’re from Samanabad, from the kind of background that the characters themselves are, kind of disaffected, uneducated kids who dream of streets lined with gold, that sort of thing. So first I needed to come here and work with the kids, to prepare them for the experience of working in cinema, and also to work on my Punjabi, so it was as much for my own good as for them.”

If one looks back at Shah’s body of work, the kind of adventurous spirit that one imagines would compel him to work with this motley crew of young filmmakers, is very much in evidence in his choices as an actor, particularly in recent years, when he has worked with a number of directors in the nascent stages of their careers, very often first-time helmers. One would think an actor of his stature might be wary of the trappings that come with an inexperienced figure at the head of the table, but the actor has no such hang-ups. “I’ve never regretted working with a first-timer; I’ve regretted working with the masters many times. (Chuckles). I don’t go by whether someone is making a film for the first time, it’s a throw of the dice in any case. I go by whether I feel like doing the project, the script, the reasons for the film to be made, the circumstances it’s being made in, and the kind of people who’re making it. I’ve has as many good experiences as bad ones, working with first-time filmmakers. No, in fact, never a bad experience. Some films may not have turned out as I’d hoped, but there were never any regrets at having done them.”

I’m meeting Shah on a typical, sleepy Lahore afternoon. The weather has turned mildly hot and the electricity is playing its usual game of hide-and-seek. He has just risen from a siesta, and as we chat over tea and biscuits, he sounds groggy but in good spirits. His crinkly hair, usually salt n’ pepper (with the emphasis on salt, of late) is dyed a henna-orange for his role in the film, accompanied by a matching pencil moustache. He truly looks the part of the dubious ‘immigration agent’ he is playing, reminding me yet again of his uncanny ability to immerse himself into the myriad characters he has played over the years, also lacing them with certain physical details that leave such an indelible impression. Like the way his character Pirojshah blinks in Pestonjee, or, as I mention to him, his small but memorable part as Bhaisaab in Omkara, wherein he captures the gangster-politician’s idiosyncracies with a twiddle of his toes encased in white socks, and a cell-phone held to his ear in the oddest, most subtly hilarious of fashions. Where does this sort of inspiration come from? Is there an element of the divine in it?

Aate hain ghaib se ye mazameen khayal mein…” he says with a playful smile. “I can’t explain, but you’ll get some idea by listening to this story: when I was playing Gandhi on stage, one of my mother’s old friends came to see it in Delhi. After the show, she came to see me and she was very happy, and she said, ‘tum bilkul apni Ammi ki tarha lag rahe the’. I was puzzled and said, ‘but I wasn’t playing her, I was playing Gandhi’. She said, ‘haan, woh to bohat achcha kaam kiya tum ne, per tum jab bhi utth-te the, baitth-te the, bilkul Apa Bi ki tarha lag rahe the’. (Laughs) So you don’t know where these influences come from. It’s osmosis. I’ve definitely seen people like that, the men who wear dhotis with dress shoes and socks. And somewhere it must’ve stayed with me, because when I went into that posture something told me that it was right. Also, gradually one’s understanding of body language increases over the years. Then when you’re confident enough to let your body make the decisions, that’s the stage one is looking for. Your body knows the answer, it’s our minds that get in the way.”

The mention of Gandhi brings to mind the hoary rumour that the national leader was one of the actor’s dream roles, but Shah dismisses it to an extent, as just something he thought would be interesting to do. He did play Gandhi on stage in theatre director Feroz Khan’s play Mahatma Vs. Gandhi in 1998, but recalls with some amusement his earlier tryst with the part when Richard Attenborough was casting for his celebrated film version of the leader’s life in the early 80s. “I just wanted to see if I could do it. When Mr. Attenborough came around, it occurred to me out of the blue that I would be a very good candidate for the part. I mean he wasn’t making Samson and Delilah or Hercules, he was making Gandhi! Where the hell was he going to get an English or American actor who could look like Gandhi? (Laughs) It came like a brainwave. So I got through to the man, and told him that I think I’m the guy you’re looking for!  So he took me to England and auditioned me. And in the meantime, for some reason, it began to matter hugely, not only to me but to the public in India, apparently. The press started printing stories about how I’d been selected already. But then I went to England and as soon as I set eyes on Ben Kingsley, I realized, hell, he’s the one. So I felt a sense of disappointment, but to tell you the truth, Attenborough was right. I don’t think I could’ve pulled off the role at that age. I didn’t have enough of a grasp over my craft either, and old Ben, I think, was pretty good.”

A part that he did play around the same time is now an iconic one, that of D.K. Malhotra, in Shekhar Kapur’s directorial debut, the hauntingly crafted Masoom. Based on a maudlin bestseller by Erich Segal, called ‘Man, Woman and Child’, the film defied its mediocre tear-jerker roots and became a wonderfully nuanced and well-loved classic about a man whose idyllic family life is fractured by the arrival of an illegitimate son. Shah professes this quiet little film to be one of his personal favourites. “It’s so simple; it deals with a subject which could seem slightly lightweight but the way that those characters were represented… it’s the same reason why Monsoon Wedding is so effective – the filmmaker knows that milieu. Shekar Kapur knows this milieu of upper-middle class Delhi really well. Mira Nair knows the farmhouse dwelling Punjabis of Delhi extremely well.  Like Shyam Benegal knows the Hyderabadis so well, which is why Nishaant and Ankur were such wonderful films. And Shekhar, in my opinion is one of the finest filmmakers in the world. But big budgets have been bad for his creativity. His two best films are to this day Masoom and Bandit Queen, both made on small budgets.”

Talking about big budget films, the actor doesn’t mince words as to how money and the clamour for it, in his view, have the potential for sounding the death knell for Bollywood, if they haven’t already, that is. “What are we making these days?” he posits with distaste evident in his tone. “The confectionery kind of quality of Bollywood, how can anyone take it seriously? Younger filmmakers, who should know better, and from whom one expected a modern sensibility, are also concentrating on making pure fluff, at the cost of everything else. The level of storytelling, writing, acting, music, is appalling. It’s just that we now have better trained cameramen so the frame looks great and the editing looks good. But that’s not all that a film is about.”

And if someone does want to do something ‘different’, it seems the industry won’t exactly bend over backwards for anyone, not even for one of its own most celebrated thespians. “When I wanted to make a film some years ago, and I knew that I didn’t want to cast any stars in it, there was no one willing to give any money to make it. The one and only question they’d ask is ‘hero kaun hai?’ If you give them a satisfactory answer, you get the money, no matter what the script might be. I had a ready script, a pretty decent story, a fantastic cast, but no stars, no hero. ‘Yeh kya baat hui?’ they’d say, ‘heroine koi bhi ho, hero to koi hona chahiye’. Which also shows you what a chauvinistic place it is. The business of it is preposterous, the figures have become mind-boggling, but like old Hollywood it is bound to implode, which would not be a good thing. It’s not the stars who’ll be badly affected but the poor guys who work in the film units.”

The film, titled Yun Hota To Kya Hota, did get made and was released in 2006 but the experience was not a pleasant one for Shah and he has all but sworn off directing for the cinema in the future, preferring to reserve his directorial energies for the theatre. “I was put off,” he says with the slightest hint of disgust, “I had a very bad time with everybody except my actors. I, as a filmmaker, made a terrible blunder by thinking that all I needed to do was to get the actors to behave well. I was unable to think visually and to make the right decisions quickly. And I realized I prefer to direct in the theatre where I can look at what I’ve done, ponder over it, chew on it, digest it, change it, shorten it, lengthen it. Which is why even plays we’ve been performing for twenty years, each performance is a new experience. I can’t do that in film. I’m not cut out for it. I cringe when I look at it (YHTKH). I was rushed into it, with no writer, no consultant, I wrote the script myself. I was given a deadline after which I’d have no money. I was eager to try my hand at it, that’s why I did it. Parts of it were good, but other parts just didn’t work.”

An earlier film he also had a nightmarish time making but with much happier results was Kundan Shah’s screamingly funny satire Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron (1983). His pairing with the late Ravi Baswani, as a couple of bumbling amateur investigators out to expose political and big-business corruption in Bombay, was just one of the highlights of this cult classic. When I mention it to him as the first Hindi film I ever saw in a cinema in India, his face immediately lights up and the memories come flooding. “Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron is another one of those films that has endured,” he says proudly, “Though none of us had the faintest notion it would be so memorable for people. We made it from our gut and our heart, in very difficult conditions. I didn’t find anything funny in it while we were shooting it. None of us were concerned with whether we ourselves were funny, rather we were concerned about pulling off all those zany scenes, which were conceived in such a way it seemed they could only be achieved in animation. That whole Draupadi theatre sequence was actually stolen from the Marx Bros’ A Night At The Opera! We were shooting on the streets of Bombay in summer in the scorching heat, trying to be funny. It was tough, sheer hell in fact. There were flare-ups and disagreements, I had many with Kundan, because I was at that time in my career when I was very interested in bringing logic and truth to my character, even if it was slapstick comedy. I think I nearly drove Kundan up the wall, poor fellow! He would put up with these rants of mine. One of the biggest quarrels we had was over that telephone scene; I was concerned about how I could possibly bring credibility to it, and he kept saying, ‘I don’t want credibility, I want the whole thing to be stupid!’ And of course it turned out to be one of the funniest scenes in the film. So it was pretty traumatic making it. But it all seems worth it. When people mention Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, I feel a warm glow in my heart. All the hell we went through shooting it, is forgotten.”

Naseeruddin Shah may have denied having a sense of nostalgia about his work at the beginning of our conversation, but the wide smile I leave him with after his reminisces about Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron hint otherwise. Not that it matters really. As long as he keeps giving in to filmmakers with intriguing offers, despite his disgust with the business of movies, his legion of admirers will have plenty to look forward to in the times ahead, and the past can be another country.

Lights! Camera! Magic!

March 4, 2012

“People say movies should be more like life; I think life should be more like the movies” – Myrna Loy

 

In what is most certainly nothing but a happy and delightful coincidence, 2011 saw the release of two films that took a nostalgia-filled look at the early days of cinema: Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist, and Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, a rose-tinted valentine to the art of moviemaking.

Asa Butterfield & Chloe Grace Moretz behold the magic of cinema, in Hugo

Let me say this right off the bat, so as to leave ambiguity wanting: if you were not utterly charmed by Hugo, you are devoid of a sense of and love for nostalgia, history and cinema itself, for movies like this are the reason movies were invented in the first place! For phase one of their history, films were not about telling gritty stories ruminating upon the inherent tragedy of the human condition, but about capturing moments of everyday life at their simplest, magnified manifold on to a screen, which, even when played in silence, magically transformed into fantastical, larger-than-life images. These images were almost unfathomable to enraptured audiences, who, when presented with the Lumiere Brothers’ ‘Arrival of a Train’, in 1895, shrank back in disbelief as the titular contraption chugged towards the camera, seemingly ready to leap off the screen into their midst. This particular moment is paid homage to in Hugo, a film that is as much an ode to cinema as it is a fond remembrance of that child’s sense of wonder and amazement at the world around us, that seems to gradually abandon each of us as we enter the world of adulthood – a world which practically requires us to be jaded and cynical, leaving childish things behind. If it weren’t, we would perhaps stop and notice the minute miracles that we are surrounded by everyday – from our ipads and ipods to the colour spectrum captured in the puddle of oil leaking from our car engines.

Scorsese makes an appearance as a photographer, in Hugo

Scorsese is by no means the only or even the first one to turn his camera onto the world of filmmaking itself; he is, however, one of the few whose perspective is unabashedly affectionate. More often then not, when filmmakers have reflected on themselves, the resulting portrait has been less than flattering. Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), Martin Ritt’s The Front (1976), Robert Altman’s The Player (1992), and James L. Brooks’ I’ll Do Anything (1994), all depicted a cutthroat, dog-eat-dog business where friendships are routinely sacrificed at the altar of the bottom-line. Federico Fellini’s semi-autobiographical 8 ½ (1963) saw its auteur-protagonist retreat into a world of memories and fantasies, driven to near-madness by the demands of the business and the obstacles posed by his own artistic vision. In our part of the world, Guru Dutt’s lyrical Kaaghaz Ke Phool (1959) also presented an indictment of the vagaries of the film world which creates stars but destroys people. All in all, cinema may occasionally romance itself, but it’s hardly a healthy relationship, if the makers are to be believed.

 

So it’s certainly fitting that Scorsese is the one bringing the adaptation of Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret to the screen. For a director who has been known primarily for his gritty dramas about men of violence, this gentle fable-esque story might at first seem like an odd choice, but for anyone familiar with Scorsese’s all-consuming love affair with cinema, it is in fact a no-brainer; you only wonder what took him so long to express his love so explicitly. In Hugo, he not only shows off his own mastery over the cinematic medium, but also simultaneously shares with the audience his passion for the art form as well as the tremendous affinity he has for one of its greatest heroes – movie pioneer Georges Méliès.

 

Until now practically unknown to modern film audiences, Méliès has been called, variously, the father of special effects, the first

Georges Melies, circa 1930

wizard of the cinema, and the first master of the technique of mise-en-scene. What he was, was a magician, first of the card-tricks variety, but later of the screen. Méliès wanted to communicate and transfer to the audiences the sense of joyous wonder he himself had felt at the Lumiere screenings, when he knew he was witnessing nothing less than a modern miracle. Of course he couldn’t have known at the time that he would go much further than even the two Frenchmen could’ve imagined. Accidentally discovering the endless possibilities of the technique of montage due to a faulty camera, Méliès realized that film could be used for much more than just showing workers leaving a factory (another Lumiere blockbuster): it could be used to weave tales of both enchantment and macabre mystery, to imagine and depict whole new worlds and sights unseen.  When he made A Trip To The Moon in 1902, it was the first real fantasy and science fiction film rolled into one, with the iconic image of a rocket hitting the man in the moon in the eye being just one of many examples of creative use of camera and painted backdrops to force perspective, unprecedented on film before Méliès explored the idea. He would go on to make 500 more films – one more mind-boggling than the other – before mounting expenses and then the First World War put him out of business. His years spent in obscurity selling toys out of Montparnasse Station in Paris are shown in Hugo, but also lovingly depicted is his heyday, his finest cinematic moments painstakingly recreated, which, astonishingly enough, are still rather awe-inspiring to behold.

 

Over the years there have been a plethora of nasty movies on movies, warts-and-all exposés and the like; what film fans want – nay, need – more of are the Hugo-esque paeans, which can help bring into the limelight once again the medium’s unsung and forgotten heroes. There are plenty more where Méliès came from.

No joy please, we’re Pakistani

February 27, 2012

It didn’t take long. Within moments of Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy bagging Pakistan’s first ever Oscar for her documentary short Saving Face, the internet trolls emerged in droves from under their bitter-pill bridges and started the inevitable gnashing of teeth and jiggling their whatsits in her general direction. ‘Bringing shame to the country!’ ‘Pandering to stereotypical Western notions of the East!’ ‘Western cultural imperialism!’ ‘Selling out!’ ‘Oscar ain’t all that!’ were some of the choice phrases being bandied about, but pretty much all of them had the same essential whiff about them: I’m unlikely to achieve something comparable in my sorry lifetime so I’ll just try and piss this into the ground. Well, sorry to rain on your urinary parade, trolls, but I think it’s safe to say that Ms Chinoy couldn’t give a fuck about you and neither does the universe – Twitter or otherwise – at large, so why don’t you crawl back to the sour milk teat that you suckle at when you’re not spewing its contents on the majority of us who don’t share your peculiar lactic predilections.

Updated!!

February 8, 2012

ALL NEW REVIEWS N’ STUFF UPLOADED!! CHECK LIST ON YONDER (TO THE RIGHT, THAT IS)

Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara: A Review

September 14, 2011

Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara – Dir: Zoya Akhtar; *ing: Hrithik Roshan, Farhan Akhtar, Abhay Deol, Katrina Kaif, Kalki Koechlin, Naseeruddin Shah

If you grew up in Pakistan in the 80s, you must surely remember this ad for a lemon-flavoured clear carbonated drink in which a cowboy encrusted with dirt staggers into an Old West-style tavern on a blazing hot day, and in a tortured voice asks the proprietor to give him a pack of potato chips. Then, as the proprietor looks on in amazement and horror, the cowboy starts chomping on those razor-like chips, his face screwed up in torment as the voice-over man tells him to “go ahead… build up that thirst until you can’t stand it anymore…” Finally, the cowboy whips open his leather bag, filled to the brim with chunks of ice and two bottles of the beverage in question, and proceeds to blow his thirst away.

Now imagine that those chips are the current circumstances in Pakistan, as well as all the depressing films you might’ve been watching lately, and that refreshing beverage which blows it all away is Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara. It’s pretty simple really: if you want to exit the cinema wanting to plunge a dull knife into your skull, watch Bol or the like; if you want to come out humming ‘Take the world and paint it red’ and ready to book a flight to Spain (or Google Earth it, at least), go for ZNMD. For in these decidedly unpleasant times, the film is panacea, an unapologetically cheerful, optimistic, and, yes, uplifting diversion that, despite some well-spaced weighty moments, never takes itself seriously enough to become a bore.

The narrative structure is a familiar one, as is the story of three friends with unresolved issues in their lives taking a road trip together. As in Zoya Akhtar’s first directorial venture, the brilliant Luck By Chance, the characters are fairly broad ‘types’ – Arjun (Roshan) the ambitious workaholic, Imran (Akhtar) the jokester with hidden depth, and Kabir (Deol) the slightly geeky everyguy who also plays referee in any and all conflict – but somehow, yet again, she makes them work, as believable individuals to be identified with, instead of mere caricatures. And of course their journey (both the physical and the figurative one) offers up life-changing episodes. For Arjun it’s finding out that money isn’t everything when he meets diving instructor Laila (Kaif, finally relaxed and unselfconscious in a relatively brief but well-sketched role), while for Kabir it’s coming to the realization that in being the nice guy always trying to please everyone else but himself, he has perhaps painted himself into a corner with pixie-ish but compulsively jealous Natasha (Koechlin – superbly on-the-outer-edges-of-reason). And Imran has to decide whether he wants to risk putting his own sense of self into jeopardy by seeking out his long-absent father (Shah). Along the way, you can feast your eyes on some jaw-droppingly handsome Spanish landscapes.

But all the geographical eye-candy in the world would have come to naught if it had come accompanied by a trite script. Thankfully, that is far from the case here. The Akhtar siblings along with co-writer Reema Kagti keep it snappy with dialogue that is smart, fresh and engaging. It also helps that the three lead actors are so comfortable in their parts; Roshan mixes it up for himself by playing against type – Arjun is not an immediately likeable character. Deol and Akhtar are a delight, together and apart, whether going for laughs or tenderness.

Comparisons with Dil Chahta Hai are inevitable of course, and perhaps not unfairly so, both are essentially bromances, but ZNMD has actually added something to the narrative. If DCH was a coming of age story, then ZNMD takes a peek at what comes after, so don’t be surprised to see that becoming an adult doesn’t necessarily mean growing up.

Saat Khoon Maaf – A Review

September 14, 2011

Saat Khoon Maaf – Dir: Vishaal Bhardwaj; *ing: Priyanka Chopra, Vivaan Shah, John Abraham, Irrfan Khan, Neil Nitin Mukesh, Annu Kapoor, Aleksandr Dyachenko, & Naseeruddin Shah

Oh how the mighty have fallen! Actually, scratch that, it was a terrible way to begin. For that particular phrase carries in it more than a whiff of glee, a triumphal giggle-snort at witnessing a stumble from a heretofore infallible entity, like a pompous vicar passing wind during his fiery sermon on social etiquette. Let’s face it, we enjoy the air of embarrassment when a world renowned chef inexplicably serves up a turd frittata on live TV. But there is none of that vengeful mirth in one’s reception of Saat Khoon Maaf, the latest entry from Bollywoodwünderkind Vishaal Bhardwaj. After the director’s triple-whammy of MaqboolOmkara, and Kaminey, we the audience probably got a bit too fat-headed for our own good and superimposed on Bhardwaj a mantle of invincibility – he is film’s über mensch and he can do no wrong! And being so invested in his awesomeness, the feeling one is left with at the end, and indeed through much of SKM, is one of disappointment and helplessness – our hero let us down? How can that be? Does he not love us anymore? But perhaps we should be thinking of our own culpability in the scenario, maybe the guy was under too much darn pressure to keep beating himself at his own game; just how long can we keep flogging that prized horse to indefinitely maintain its maximum speed? At some point it WILL either a) drop from exhaustion, or b) kick us in the mouth – in this case, both. After all, pretty much every great artist in history has at one point or more, laid an egg that no mother could love.

Based on Ruskin Bond’s short story ‘Susanna’s Seven Husbands’, the film lays out its central premise pretty plainly: Susanna (Chopra) marries, and marries often, for love, duty, convenience, pity, but she is let down every time by her grooms who turn out to be psycho (Mukesh), junkie (Abraham), sado-masochist (Khan), bigamist (Dyachenko), annoyance (Kapoor), and gold digger (Shah Senior). Through her endless and fruitless quest to find amour parfait, Susanna is loved from afar by Arun (Shah Junior), a servant’s much younger son (who also tells the story through flashbacks), and aided in her romantic and murderous endeavours by a trio of domestics who presumably constitute a kind of Greek chorus to the proceedings, except they keep rather quiet for a chorus.

It’s not difficult to spell out what some of the problems with SKM are. It’s too episodic and, surprisingly enough, despite the subject matter, lacks that seductive, dark intensity that marked Bhardwaj’s earlier films. It has neither the haunting quality or characters of Maqbool, nor the discomforting menace of Omkara, and certainly not the frenetic allure of Kaminey. Where Susanna’s story could have been used to explore a subtext not only on questions of prescribed feminine roles but also notions of family, marriage and honour within a patriarchal construct, the film merely meanders on the surface, seemingly content to relate anecdotes that, beyond the initial appeal of the macabre, have little substance, and become less and less interesting as the film progresses. The final nail in the coffin is Susanna herself, a character so sketchy and ill-defined as to be rendered utterly implausible. In traditional grand guignol and théâtre macabre, improbable characters are still plausible because of the heightened stylization of their entire milieu. In SKM, that is not the case, and as a result, Susanna and her predicaments and her actions come off forced and lacking in both logic and cohesion.

Still, this is our man Bhardwaj we’re talking about, so let’s consider this cinematic hiccough a momentary lapse in judgement – as batting averages go, his is still near impeccable. It’s alright man, we still love ya. If nothing else, we’ll always have ‘Beedi’.


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