26 March 2008

A Yankee In The Court of Omkara

Fantasies of A Bollywood Love Thief:
Inside the World of Indian Moviemaking

By Stephen Alter
HarperCollins India
Pages 280
Rs 295

Stephen Alter, the travel, writer, academic (resident-writer at MIT, a Guggenheim and Fulbright scholar) has written an account of Bollywood that is, in stark contrast to its subject, restrained and interested, and surprises the reader with a picture of Bollywood as a place of intense creativity, much more freedom to experiment within the parameters than even Hollywood studios would ever allow, a place where material-centric filmmaking and auteurs can hold sway. And it incidentally reveals how the most inscrutable of industries operates. Alter was an intimate observer to the making of Vishal Bharadwaj’s Omkara, an intuitive appropriation of the Bard’s Othelo. Talking to Hemant Sareen, Stephen Alter discussed the unique take on Bollywood of someone who holds an American passport but has lived most of his life in India.

Hemant Sareen: Fantasies of A Bollywood Love Thief is a wonderful piece of documentary writing that accepts Bollywood for what it is. The writer’s prejudices and judgements almost hidden till the last paragraph. Was this neutrality hiding amusement or appreciation? What do you really think about Bollywood?

Stephen Alter: I don’t think I was totally neutral. Being a part of, or at least being a close observer of the making of the film, I admit I was totally biased in favour of Omkara.

When it comes to Bollywood, in general, I have always enjoyed Hindi cinema. It’s something I have watched for 25 to 30 years, though I won’t admit that. But its always a mixed bag. While writing this book I watched many films some which were terrible. Then there were some which were terrific. These were the ones that redeem the genre.

HS: There is a suggestion of irony in the way you look at Bollywood, but most of it is in the wider forays you make into Bollywood the interlude interviews with Dev Anand, Shekhar Kapur et al interspersed in the account of the making of Omkara. Was it hard to keep a straight face at times?

SA: I don’t think even the people in the industry keep a straight face. I think there’s always a certain amount of irony [in the making of Bollywood films]. In most parts that’s a healthy thing. I think there are people who take themselves too seriously -- and there are some film makers mostly the ones I didn’t meet, who take take themselves far too seriously, but for the most of the people that I did meet, they understand that entertainment is in large part a business and so you want people to pick up on some of those ironies, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you make a bad film. There is a certain amount of tongue in cheek in making a film. Otherwise nobody will make a film like Bunty Aur Bubli or Black. When you make a film like Black then of course you set aside some of the ironies. For my part, I enjoyed a film like Bunty Aur Bubli enormously because it doesn’t take itself too seriously.

HS: What kind of cinema did you watch growing up? Did you watch Hollywood or Bollywood?

SA: I watched both, films from America as well as films from Japan and Europe. But I avoided those sorts of comparisons in the book. And this may go back to your first question also. The publishers who first commissioned the book -- Harcourt [in the USA]-- obviously commissioned it for an audience in the United States. An audience there wouldn’t know the difference between Hollywood and Bollywood or Hindi cinema. So I did have to suggest some of those, especially in one particular chapter -- the second chapter -- I had to a certain extent try to make it intelligible to an American audience.

But for myself, obviously, if I was watching Bourne Identity one day and the next day I was watching Dus, you know you approach it with a different kind of mind because. [Not only] the language of the film [Dus], [but] also the visual language is different. And you accept it for what it is. In the book, for instance, I would have never wanted to make a comparison between Bourne Identity and Dus, because it is a pointless exercise. [They are] very, very different films.

HS: Do you think Vishal Bharadwaj’s Maqbool and Omkara are defining films in Hindi cinema for breaking the mould, the formula, while remaining very much mainstream?

SA: I think they certainly are important films. But to say they are a defining moment you have to wait for 10 years at least. You have to see what happens next. In a sense they are defining, Vishal Bharadwaj is now on the scene as a filmmaker propelled by those [two] films. It would be interesting to see what Vishal does next. It would be interesting to see what effect his films have on other film makers.

HS: Do you think Hindi cinema’s lack of originality could be a big hindrance in it taking the next step in its evolution?

SA: The problem with cinema -- and I don’t pretend to be a scholar of cinema -- but the one thing I can say about cinema is that it is imitative by nature. Not just Hindi cinema but all the cinemas. The cinematographers are looking at other films and saying, ‘I can do that,’ or ‘I can do that better.’ The scriptwriters are saying, ‘I know that story can be told in a different way.’ And here I am not talking about ‘imitation’ in the ‘rip off’ sense. That is completely dishonest. I mean imitative in the sense of [borrowing] style, story, imagery and indeed being able to take it that one step farther. A film like Maqbool owes a great deal to The Godfather, just as Sarkar does, and as do a score of other films. But that doesn’t necessarily mean, that is anyway plagiarising it. Basically what it is, the film director is taking it [Cappola’s The Godfather] one step farther. The number of people who have tried to copy a Kurosawa’s Roshomon, there is probably one in every language. And yet the successful ones are the ones that are able to pay homage to it and move beyond. That, I think, is the magic of cinema.

And I think this is less so in writing. In fiction writing, you can only be imitative to a point.

HS: Reading your book about a film like Omkara which is an exception rather than the rule, the side effect could be an outsider or someone not clued into Bollywood rushing to watch Omkara or some other Bollywood film, or just tempted to think that Bollywood has become a very progressive industry?

SA: I didn’t write specifically for that reason, but if its a side effect, there is no harm in it. I had one thing in mind [writing this book], that is, there is tendency to dismiss Hindi cinema as being cheap, not worth watching, intellectually inferior. All of those who think themselves intellectually superior use these adjectives [for Bollywood]. I do have an argument with that. There is this judgement being passed on those films that to my mind is a bit unfair because they are expecting the genre to be something other than what it is. For instance, they groan whenever a song comes on. Obviously, there are films that don’t need as many songs as they have. But a song is such an important part of Hindi cinema or even Indian cinema that if you appreciate it for what it is -- which is something that amplifies emotions, builds character, does all those things in the best of situations, not all songs do that -- you [would] watch [the song] as part of the film rather than as something that’s tagged on to the film, which I think is the wrong interpretation. I would argue against those who dismiss Hindi cinema totally, those who think its not worth their time. I think if they watch the right film [they will realise that they were unfairly dismissive of Hindi cinema].

HS: So you think to regard Bollywood in an uncritical, unexamined way is a more valid approach?

SA: There are some modern scholars who try to deconstruct the film and do all kinds of wonderful academic things to it. But most of that is nonsense. I don’t think you can be objective...it’s very difficult to be objective about a film in the sense that I can’t be clinical [writing or talking about films]. When I switch on the DVD [player], I either get hooked or I don’t get hooked. I either enjoy it, laugh, cry, [feel] whatever emotions are there [in the film]. If I was simply there as a surgeon or an academic dissecting or deconstructing [the film], that would be a waste of my time.

HS: Yes, I think the book succeeds in that you have managed to show Bollywood in a new light. Bollywood comes across as self-aware, canny, and a natural product of the broader Indian culture within which it flourishes. You have maintained a very skilfully distance from either lampooning or glorifying the industry that is easy to do both.

SA: I am glad to hear that. People have said that I was more positive about Bollywood then they might have expected. But I have written about the films that I enjoyed rather than about the films that I didn’t enjoy. I suffered while I was doing the research for the book [watching both the above varieties of films]. Vishal Bharadwaj, Madhur Bhandharkar, these are the people whose films I have enjoyed. So I wasn’t being objective.

HS: Do you realise you were in a privileged position with access to a place notoriously beyond reach of the curious?

SA: Oh certainly. I am grateful to a lot of people and particularly to Vishal Bharadwaj who made himself accessible to me in a ay that I couldn’t have asked for someone to be more co-operative.

Even though some of the actors and actresses were a bit shy of journalists, they also knew there is this whole marketing machine that they depend on. And of course, during many of these conversations there were many other journalists present, so, I wasn’t the only person [given access]. But they were all very decent and were ready to give me lot of their time and quite a bit of confidence too.

07 March 2008

Love in the Time of Suicide Bombings

Exit Wounds
By Rutu Modan
d + q (Drawn & Quarterly)
Pages 172
Rs 690

Rutu Modan is an Israeli illustrator and comic artist whose work has appeared in the New York Times. Her frames seem to be drawn and coloured by a HergĂ© (Tintin’s creator) touched by the chic neurosis of our times. The lines are precise and unbroken, giving her frames a buttoned-down neat look; the colours are muted yet evocative.

Yet Modan’s world is seen through a wide-angle lens that is edgy with distortions. Exit Wounds, her first full-length graphic novel, is a gritty, hard-bitten love story complete with sex, as well as a novel of quest. Two young Israelis are looking for closure over the fate of an old man both of them knew. Koby Franco, a young cabbie in Tel Aviv who resists the slightest change to his humdrum life, finds himself dragged by a headstrong, klutzy young girl Numi to the site of a recent suicide bombing at Haifa to determine whether an unidentified, unclaimed body that had been recovered from there, and now interred anonymously, was of Koby's estranged father's. Koby discovers Numi was his philanderer father's 'last' love interest before he disappeared.

An angry young man harbouring deep resentment against his father, driving the old man’s squeeze in his taxi through an Israel always-but-distantly threatened by Muslim Palestinian suicide bombers, gives the story enough angles to make it bristle with complexity. Modan is not here to make you feel comfortable. Even the sex, though graphic and detailed -- Numi inelegantly removing her panties (striped) and her subsequent pilates-like coupling, complete with a flash of pubic hair, with Koby -- is little eroticised. Modan tells a lot through her uncluttered narrative, capturing the whirl of contemporary Israeli life -- including an unforced and oblique look at how Middle East politics impacts everyday life in Israel: going by Modan's account, it does so only obliquely and distantly. In an interview to the BBC, Modan expressed her irritation at people who expect her to clarify that she had not intended to give a lecture in Middle East politics. The only political statement she has made or would ever bother to make, she said, was that Israelis should stop seeking closures -- and get on with their lives.

Modan’s unhurried pace of telling the story, combined with frames and layout that do not exert to impress but honestly communicate all this clearly and efficiently, give her graphic novel the feel of cinema veritĂ©.

A good number of more literary of the graphic novels in the West seem stuck with certain themes, like father-son relationship, adolescence traumas, and romance, which make many of them read like clones of each other; they are maudlin and common, like Craig Thompson’s overrated, weepy bulk Blankets. Also, the graphic novel has yet to achieve a compression and an inwardness -- Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan could be regarded as an exception -- to emerge as a genuine literary form, not mere illustrated novels, or worse, an early 21st century trend that will whimper out soon.

Yet the jaunty, unsentimental, clear-eyed Exit Wounds is an antidote to Blankets and its clones, and hence serves this form, which is at once literature and art, well. Like a piece of art or a well produced book it is very possessable. Indian graphic novelists and publishers should respectively envy and hang their heads in shame at the thoughtful editing and slick production values that have produced this very readable, browsable, clutchable volume.

She’s Got A Ticket To Read

The Uncommon Reader
By Alan Bennett
Faber/Profile Books
Pages 124
Rs 495

The English playwright Alan Bennett, whose Tony-winning play The History Boys (2006) about two teachers coaching their pupils into faking it to get into Oxford, was turned into an equally acclaimed film, now sails forth into virgin territory. In his new delicious novella Bennett cheekily imagines the consequences, inner and outer, happy and otherwise, of the Queen falling in love with books.

In this realist fantasy, Britain’s constitutional monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, incidentally discovers a visiting mobile-library van in a Buckingham palace courtyard, alerted to its presence by the her two excited corgis. She ends up not just borrowing a book, after coming to know that she was the library’s patron, but also meeting a ginger-haired bookworm kitchen hand Norman, who would soon become her partner-in-reading and amanuensis, a commission that required of him to source books for Her Majesty, earning him the envy of other pages for being ‘on a cushy number.’ Thus begins a moving, intelligent account of a queen finding humanity in ‘the commonwealth of books.’

One of the first few books she reads is My Dog Tulip, a poignant account of his much hated Alsatian bitch by the famous homosexual J. R. Ackerley. It was Norman’s choice: ‘nancy’ is the word the Alastair Campbell-like special adviser to a Tony Blair-like Prime Minister uses for Norman, ‘whose reading tending to be determined by whether an author was gay or not.’ When she wonders aloud what a strange name ‘Tulip’ was for a dog, in deference to the ‘intensely conventional’ ‘old lady’ ‘to be humoured,’ he imagines Her Majesty to be, Norman thinks it prudent not to tell H.R.H that the dog's real name was 'Queenie.' Norman though soon wakes up ‘to how sharp she was and how much wasted,’ which also alerts the reader to the notion that Norman is Bennett’s altar ego.

‘One book led to another, doors kept opening till the days weren’t long enough for the reading she wanted to do.’ Soon the queen is reading in the bed, on the way to the parliament, at Balmoral, experiencing the initial exhilaration of discovery and adventure not different from the thrill she felt when as a girl when ‘she and her sister had slipped out of the gates and mingled unrecognised with the crowds’ on the VE night.

She approaches each book without prejudice, though even a queen has limits to what she can understand: her top-of-the-heap perspective prevents her relishing Jane Austen, unable to dig the fine social differences that fueled Austen's narratives. From a self-conscious reader who needed reasons to read (‘one has a duty to find out what people are like’) to ‘sailing through books which she would have thought beyond her,’ she reaches a point where she can’t stand ‘the twaddle she was called to deliver,’ that was meant to be her address to the nation.

Bennett soon turns what could have been an empty comic tale and no more, into into a Bildungsroman intertwined with an insightful discourse on reading. Where Shekhar Kapur tried to show his queen struggling with her humanness, seeking transcendence and ascension to become one with her divine facade, Bennett’s more real queen, more credulously and relatably, embraces her humanity when she discovers it. Avatar-like she regrets, ‘‘I have to seem like a human being all the time, but I seldom have to be one. I have people to do that for me.’’

She makes amends. Once ‘to her everyone’s name was immaterial, as indeed everything else, their clothes, their voice, their class. She was a genuine democrat, perhaps the only one in the country.’ Now thick into her obsession, she cannot help noticing people’s appearances and names. And many other transformations that mark her, she learns humility and she does away with many pretences, for one she ‘does not hide her shortcomings or her lack of cultural credentials.’ The palace establishment notices that the queen’s ‘performances’ during public engagements are suffering from her dropped appearances.

The queen’s bibliophilia is a boon to her family, glad that she now ‘chivvied them hardly.’ The palace establishment is least amused. It is suggested that she ‘harnesses her reading to some larger purpose,’ to make it appear less ‘solipsistic.’ She is soon regarded as ‘getting to be what is known as a handful.’ When she makes her Prime Minister the subject of her biblio-evangelism, offering him books on Iran to help him with the Middle East problem, her private secretary is warned by the Prime Minister’s special adviser to ask the queen ‘to knock it off.’ She realises ruefully that her ‘dawn of sensibility was mistaken for the onset of senility.’

At one point, the bildungsroman and the meditation on reading merge when the queen has an epiphanic moment, realising, ‘I have no voice,’ the writerly 'voice' which immortalises writers. Being a mere reader, she fears leaving no legacy of the momentous engagement between a queen and books. Thus begins a new chapter in the education of the queen, and her minders.

The basic assumption of course is that the real queen is obsessive about her horses, corgis, and hats, is not intellectually or spiritually rather only materially inclined. Bennett’s book written against such backdrop might have run the risk of being construed as a tactless, and written in bad taste, and as presumptuous, unsolicited advice.

But so sympathetic, even flattering, is Bennett’s portrayal of the queen, it would not be in the realm of fantasy to imagine the real queen intently reading this book, chuckling all the time, and perhaps wiping away a stray tear, or even hesitantly walking a few steps towards one of the palaces’ libraries, curious, if not to ready, to explore the world of books, but to see how she might in real life respond to their pull.

How Paradise Was Lost

A Mission In Kashmir
By Andrew Whitehead
Pages 285
Rs 495

Andrew Whitehead, the former South Asia correspondent for the BBC, combines his skills as a journalist and historian to draw attention to the human aspect of the Kashmir tangle. In this punctiliously detailed and balanced -- and for good reason too, for the points of divergence are over matters seemingly so minute that only a micro view of the events would do -- account, Whitehead seeks to answer crucial questions on the Kashmir conflict by interviewing some of the eyewitnesses, on both sides of the LOC, about the events that led to the genesis of the conflict.

It started with a flow of invaders, hill tribesmen from Pakistan, advancing towards Srinagar -- their aim being to capture the airfield there, so India could not land its troops in Srinagar in response to the incursion. However, right from the start the wild Pathans ran amok, unleashing a reign of terror with killing, looting, and sexual assault. This gave the then king Hari Singh just enough time to formally accede to India in return for armed assistance to repel the attack, which soon turned into the undeclared war that drags on to this day, as Whitehead notes.

Whitehead’s own quest began with a chance meeting with one of the survivor-witnesses at the first stop of the marauding tribesmen, the St Joseph’s mission in Baramulla. The 91-year-old Sister Emilia gave Whitehead access to “fresh and illuminating perspective on how the Kashmir crisis first erupted -- who the attackers were, how they were organised and commanded, and why they failed in their goal of capturing Kashmir for Pakistan”. It is an account that “challenges the established accounts of the various claimants to the Kashmir Valley.”

Many of the sisters were threatened with rape, yet Whitehead, especially on Sister Emilia’s evidence, surmises that there was “no conclusive evidence of the sexual assault of any of the women in the convent or hospital.” Whitehead’s emphasis on finding the truth about the convent rapes at first looks like a trivial pursuit. But as the narrative advances, it becomes clear that he is trying to consider the impact such reports in the Western press had in initially, albeit briefly, turning international opinion against Pakistan and in favour of India.

Whitehead sifts through first-hand narratives, official accounts, contemporary newspaper reports, and even fictional narratives dealing with the events to seek answers to key questions. Who sent the marauding Pathans and Pakistani tribesmen into Kashmir -- which in turn sent Raja Hari Singh, the Doabi dynatsy’s last ruler, scurrying into the arms of India? When and under what circumstances did Kashmir accede to India?

That the tribesmen “travelled upwards of 200 miles to reach Kashmir” at a time when fuel shortages were common might have sufficed, along with many such admissions of complicity from the Pakistani establishment, as an indication of the extent of Pakistan’s support. The official Pakistani line, however, still is one of denial. Jinnah is quoted reportedly saying to his army generals, “Don’t tell me anything about it”, though he couldn’t keep his conscience clear for long and soon became implicated in the deception. Whitehead concludes fairly: “The decision to involve large numbers of jihad-minded tribal fighters from Waziristan was not so much a matter of policy as an extempore initiative.”

As to when Hari Singh signed the accession document, the evidence largely supports Indian claims but is still open to differing interpretation. Margaret Parton of the New York Herald Tribune wrote home to say that “the Hindu Maharaja is determined to join the Indian Union.” But whether the maharaja signed the document before or after India began airlifting soldiers into Srinagar remains a mystery. One thing is clear, there was no pointing of a gun at Hari Singh’s temple by VP Menon (a Home Ministry secretary at the time), as is apocryphally believed.

At the end of the “liberation” of the Valley, Nehru said to a gathering in Srinagar, “You have had a taste of what Pakistan means.” An Indian reader would feel the same after reaching the end of the account. But Whitehead jump-cuts to the contemporary history, to show how sharply Nehru and his audiences' view contrasts with the present day view of those events as they became coloured later by myth-making, unpleasant political developments, and the consequent alienation.

All in all, if this is how an impartial mediator -- once Pakistan’s adamant demand -- views the Kashmir issue, India should have less to worry about. However, that also means the burden of redressing Kashmiri alienation is also ours, which, as Whitehead suggests, must begin with acknowledging Kashmir as a party to the conflict.