Saturday, November 01, 2014

Filimstaan - Why competence is sometimes not enough

I finally saw Filmistaan – two friends starred as the terrorists keeping the hostage. I was surprised that it turned to be quite watchable (the trailer did dreadful injustice to it), managing to engage me from the first scene to the last. Given the stasis inherent in the plot – a man being held in a rude brick cell almost through the length of the film, with only a few ramshackle huts and the desert beyond – I thought that the screenplay was good, the acting and direction capable. It definitely deserved a watch in the hall. But unfortunately, it never rose above this level of competence.
The issue with me was that the film set itself up so that it could never rise beyond the level it was being played at. The protagonists – Sunny Arora, a wannabe-actor from Bollywood held hostage in a border-post Pakistani village, and a Pakistani bootlegger of Indian films – are that and that alone. The fact that Sunny is Punju explains everything about him. Their inner narratives, their dialogue, almost never rises beyond the simplistic paradigms of their shared obsession, Bollywood, and since the plot does not allow for too many moments beyond these for character development, in the end, their characters and their relationship seem too easily arrived at; worse, contrived.
We never see Sunny’s isolation beyond his empty-headed optimism, nationalism and nostalgia. The thought of imminent death over many days does not change him, make him introspect deeper beyond a confession of knowing he was a bad actor all along. No relationship – friend, family – is mentioned beyond a brief brush with an old hakim where the two reminisce about the lives they left beyond the border. We never really get to know Sunny, the hero, forget the bootlegger. It seemed that Nitin (the writer-director) was just not interested in building the characters beyond the competent first-ideas.
And so you have the same clichés someone in Alaska who’s seen five-six of such stuff can write – what did Sunny remember his grandfather telling him about Lahore – Jinnne Lahore nai dekhiya... blahblah – that’s it. What do the protagonists talk about when they realise the irrationality of the border – the dreamteam with Sachin and Inzi opening. And these are two instances I remember because they ending up mediocratising some potentially very-good scenes building up. (The latter almost hurriedly stanching a potentially powerful turn when, to Sunny’s musing of what might have happened if the partition had not happened, the bootlegger darkly replies that rivers of blood would have flown then.)
And since besides these brief superficial excursions into their real lives, the fantasies they discuss are not exactly world cinema, or even stuff like Filmistaan itself, the depth of their inner worlds revealed in these fantasies remains at the level of Maine Pyaar Kiya and KKHH they watch together. No ‘Kiss of the Spider Woman’ here where the fantastic dialogic world the protagonists build to escape the reality reveals almost everything about them.
I am reading some collected stream-of-consciousness oral narratives from Rajasthani villagers these days. The stuff is so, so dense with overlapping references to their lands, their cattle, their folklore, their society, their history – the various categories and norms of their world – a world as rich as any, with its own grammar and vocabulary. If only the filmmaker had cared to dig these worlds out for his two protagonists a little deeper. If he had researched more to imagine them beyond first ideas, and brought forth what people from such two different worlds, overlapping but not quite, might really experience and share under this extreme and peculiar circumstance.
But alas. And so, as so many times before, a film in my mothertongue again settles for competency and I have to go back to the old favourites or scout elsewhere for true transcendental greatness.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Our poor rich celebrities

Disclaimer: All rights to original photographs with Indian Express.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

More Indian Express photographs

(Note: All rights on original photographs reserved by Indian Express. )

Prime Minister Narendra Modi takes charge of the office at PMO in New Delhi on Tuesday. (Source: PTI)
 Prime Minister Narendra Modi assumed office on Tuesday, a day after being sworn-in by President Pranab Mukherjee. (Source: Express photo by Neeraj Priyadarshi)
"Let us together dream of a strong, developed and inclusive India that actively engages with the global community to strengthen the cause of world peace and development," Narendra Modi added. (Source: Express photo by Neeraj Priyadarshi)
Thaawar Chand Gehlot takes over as Minister of Social Justice & Empowerment in New Delhi. (Source: PTI)

Dr Harsh Vardhan takes charge as the Health and Family Welfare minister in New Delhi on Tuesday. (Source: Express photo by Ravi Kanojia)

 However, even before assuming charge, Modi had already began his official work last night itself by holding a meeting with top officials. (Source: Express photo by Neeraj Priyadarshi)
 Ahead of his meeting, Sharif had yesterday said he was carrying a message of peace and intends to pick up the threads with India's new leader Narendra Modi from where he and then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee left off in 1999. (Source: AP)

The 63-year-old Modi, the first leader to get a landslide majority for BJP on its own, became the 15th prime minister in a virtual 'coronation' ceremony in the forecourt of the Rashtrapati Bhawan before a 3000-strong gathering, the largest audience at the swearing in a of new government. (Source: Express Photo by Neeraj Priyadarshi)

Thursday, May 22, 2014

More photographs

(Note: All rights on original photographs reserved by Indian Express. )

Eyes have it

One’s eyes are always those of someone else, the mad and desperate dwarf crouched within.

- John Banville (The Sea)

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Yet another Sachin article

Today, Sachin walked back to the pavilions for the last time and I didn’t care enough to watch it. And I know I am not alone. I am from that generation that has covered the distance with him from teenage to middle-age. Things have changed since, the world has changed. Just in cricket, it seems lightyears away now where we grew up blaming our national Hindu lack of killer instinct. A lot can be said there, but the point is that the journey of the man somewhere marked our own, across an upheaving canvas of collapsing world-orders and ditzy transformations still not fully digested and understood. For that is what adulation is, finding associating and investuring something of ourselves in the object; an identification that goes beyond admiration.
I briefly glimpsed the match yesterday as wifey watched it, and no nostalgia stirred but that wry amusement at the media overkill, where once I would be muttering prayers every time he prepared to face a delivery. I could not simply find that boy within me amid the high-pitched spectacle – and all the boys and girls that made up that world then. I could not imagine how an age I had lived and believed in was ending, despite the fact that it was, right before my eyes.
I understand the commercial interests of the media but did it have to be really so vulgar and loud? Other sporting giants retire elsewhere and generate as much media attention – but this cacophony? Did people need to be stirred to a hysteria where none was needed? I mean this is Sachin. Whatever the niggling fatuous debates of his legacy, he touched the lives of a few generations as few icons ever have. The viewership and the engagement is absolutely assured, all you have to do is plug in your content. But respect at least the man’s sensibilities, if not ours. Yesterday, as the camera panned and stayed on the man’s family despite their discomfort with it, his mother literally squirming at its unmoving gaze, I had to avert my eyes. 
Sachin, the soft-voiced hero who survived 24 years of the intensest limelight without a controversy, without a crack in that quiet cultivated armature, now finally overwhelmed by the forces, slotted clinically in the hype-ometer along with the likes of Poonam Pandey.

 For the man, for us, was more than just a light of world-class genius in an age of darkness; within that genius, he was an embodiment of an age and its values, humility and understatement being the foremost. For he assured us that one did not have to scowl and sledge and elbow to surge ahead, quiet determination was enough. We were a generation of middle-class kids, humble to various degrees, unsure, no silver-spoons in our mouths, no uncles who had glimpsed the world beyond our mufassils, not a modicum of awareness of the world that south Bombay-kids were privy to, the world that would in a few years suddenly dazzlingly open to anyone interested via the ethernet. Our only view was a tunnel vision, a looming pit we had to leap across, our only chance, and our only trick in the bag was merit honed with, well, quiet determination. Sachin was the embodiment of that attitude for us, a boy only a few years ahead of us, with more or less the same resources without, and that is why he meant more to us beyond the craze for the game. He might have been a colony bhaiyya whose example our mothers cited to us. He was not the God for us that the media quickly crowned him and we accepted, but an apotheosis of our own condition. In the days when we stole time from studies, when the world and our future seemed hung only on the marks we drudged towards, he gave us a reason to believe. Our identification with his lone-ranging defiance in the midst of collapses that made Indian batting in the 90’s was so visceral, almost commensurate with what the Argentinans must've felt for Maradona after the Falklands humiliation. He gave us hope that we had the fight in us, despite our diminutive stock. (Those who came later would be surprised to know that there was a prevalent eugenics theory then as to why we Indians always failed, such was the nadir of our national confidence; and this is the time when Sachin, and before that Kapil, walked in).
It’s been a small, contained journey for most of us; we started out desperate to land anywhere, just not fail, and have ended up better than we thought we would. Hard work has paid, despite those darkest times when we felt small and unchosen, as a people, in a manner that perhaps is now forgotten to the next generation, and thank god for that. Even here, Sachin showed a quiet way of handling success without compromising our essential selves, our most personal values, without the image-makeover the hollow-men were demanding all around us. There was always his example, steady and constant dignity despite the brief effervescent threat from the doppelganger Kambli, tempting us in the beginning but ending in a weeping heap in an Eden Gardens pitch in Indian cricket’s darkest hour. But dignity was not what Sachin’s last time at the crease was about. It was about hype, cacophony and melodrama; it might very well have been Kambli’s retirement.
Since the economy opened up, a whole system of myths – of Bollywood stars, of Chetan Bhagat, of tycoons –has been foisted on us, that feeds and grows fat on the money it sucks up from its monopolies of our sensibilities, and would have us believe that mediocrity is an essentially Indian condition. That hyperbole is the only manner in which we Indians Coca-Cola enjoy! Those who would keep you ever stimulated, ever extroverted, ever unthinking and superficial.
It was about manipulation. These myths have been out in the sun for a month now, grinning Suhel-Seth fashion around, lapping up all the accolades and eyes waiting for Sachin, the real deal. Nothing was spontaneous, not even the spontaneous tributes, not the commentators’ asides every five seconds, not the Tshirts, not the decibels, not the dedicated column-spaces running for weeks. True emotions were elbowed out by their simulacrous spectacles. In the end, Nita Ambani, India’s richest housewife, got to lord over it while Sachin’s mother quietly tucks the rosary beads under the shawl and squirmed and waited for the camera to go away.

I turned my eyes away, for whatever the man still meant to me after being left cold by that din of images and soundbytes, or perhaps a reflex of a habit of respecting elders, and others’ spaces and privacies in general – I am still not a voyeur enough. I am the sort of man who finds melodrama disconcerting, for it sweeps everything, even the genuinely heartfelt, in its tide and makes it appear as silly and excessive as the cheapest and the most superfluous. And there are many, many more like me, and will always be. We will stand with hands folded and smile but refuse to gush out our most hallowed Sachin moments because someone’s thrust a mike under our chin, refuse to scream and jostle in front of a camera trained on us. Every emotion has to find its true form to truly express it, and this is not our form. We refuse to be manipulated, we refuse to share, we refuse to participate without our inner consent.

Maybe, later, after a few years, I will visit the moment in a Youtube link, and forgetting the ugliness of this farewell party, remember the lad once who became a man, Sachin, myself, my generation. And I will remember, alone, quietly, hopefully smilingly.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Yet another campus caper

Besides the question why are so many people writing without being interested in writing as such, why are so many of them writing campus-capers? I can understand the still-hungover mid-twenties crowd, but men in their mid-thirties? A purely-humorous campus-caper is not an impossibility, but humour is a craft that has to be painfully learnt, and given that these people are in too much of a hurry to do that, one can only assume that there was something deeper in the tales told, an inner necessity propelling the writer. And when you’ve braved through that bilious prose, at best functional, you wonder if these vapid frolickings of characters who stir scant empathy really deserve a retelling, given that the market is choked with so many similar tales.
I refer particularly to a type of genre, of pseudo-jocks, even bedroom-jocks, strutting around in the cloistered and secure world of campuses ensuring 100% placements. Or at least 80%. Make it a campus in a hinterland where unemployment stares at the actors two years ahead, and there is always the looming threat of a thukai from a gang of local katta-wielding desperadoes for showing too much attitude, and then it becomes a story, stark and viscerally real. Why – because the fear lived is real. Unfortunately, very few of these men are writing that story in English. When they do, like a writer reviewed cruelly here before, the reference point is still the college he couldn’t make through, the fantasied big-dick-waving affairs of their bigger stop-the-press lives, than the humbler truth of his own.
But coming to these writers of a particular stock, whose various but not much varied types I happen to be very familiar with – surely it was not always so facile for them. Let me state an example here. The third part of Amitabh Bagchi’s ‘Above Average’ examines the friendship between the urbane anglofied middle-class protagonist and a vernacular small-town batchmate with such raw honesty, that it achieves what every book must surely aspire towards – making the reader remember, with a lump in the throat. This bit of the story is no quite as sensational as the prelude to a murder in Mayur-Vihar, not as cool as the bit on fear and loathing among drummers in IIT, but it is the bit, unsensational, small, so finely nuanced, that makes me rank it as among the best campus-capers I’ve read. Even the success of Chetan Bhagat’s Five Point Someone, that started this trend, was founded on a modicum of honesty of feelings.
Experience is a painful journey. We learn when we fail, we achieve peace when pushed to the last depth of misery, hitting the sandbed, kicking and then resurfacing in a new light. Friendships are tested when pushed to the brink, when the stakes are bigger than a common love-interest, when there is no rich parent to bail you out, when there is no citadel of the campus to keep you cushionly secure against the real cut-throat world. And I refuse to believe that none of this genuine human-condition is encountered even within those turreted walls by even the most facile.
But that is so uncool.
Of course, no story can be a story without some conflict and angst. But these are either the superficially-experienced episodes or borrowed. And like the 3-Idiot’s suicide, never personal enough to transform the facile all-is-well narrative into a deeper introspection as ‘Above Average’ achieved. The structure of the stories is rarely organic and borrowed from the tropes flooding us, Bollywood, Hollywood, MTV. The conflict is always outside and never inside, experienced in superficial sentiments and not genuine emotions.
I return to the question, why, despite the wisdom, are men writing the same stories that they could have written a decade ago? What about the collapse of certain dreams since, of encounters with starker realities, deaths, divorces, of the simple joy of fatherhood?
Because this writing is painful (even the joy has to be experienced with the acuteness of pain) and they’re afraid of pain. Fear is what they start out to avoid in these boisterous memoirs, and fear is what I encounter splashed in pages after pages. The fear of irrelevance, foremost. We were young and cool too, once. Possibilities alive once, now secretly feared dead and gone forever. The tone of these capers is emphatic –effervescent prose, generous peppering of caps and exclamations, slangs, fucks, sex they never had. There are no nuances, only episodes upon episodes. The volume is turned on for the writer as much as the reader, to drown out that faint inner voice and really believe in the constructed fiction of their pasts. The human condition needs no emphasis, only the escapist fantasies where we’re heroes of our stories, larger than life by dwarfing everything else, the side actors and other narratives, and that fear within that makes us feel small and uncertain.
The fear of their present condition.
Fiction is an attempt to understand our deepest selves. One begins thinking one will end at such and such place, but ends up at a nook he never suspected. That is the purpose of writing. I have read interviews of some such writers and listened to them gush about how this happened in bits, and that is the tragedy – they never pushed themselves harder enough from there. Abandon that first facile draft, as I did eight years ago, and chase that uncertain blink of light. Writing, like all arts, is a process which you enter as one man and emerge as a different man, a self you chase to realise within. Like genuine travel. Unfortunately, these writers are determinedly tourists, they want to return securely as the “them” they began with. They don’t want to become anything else. As said before, the stress in their writing is on emphasising their securely-held beliefs of “Kya-cool-hain-hum” and not transformation.
What they do become is this closed self-congratulating clique, insecure of any criticism, ranting about elitists and, like corrupt demagogues winning elections after jail-stints, shouting how the people have voted with their money. There they are, encountered in the new citadels of boardrooms, facebook, pubs, golf-courses and drawing-rooms, loud opinions, still flaunting, self-promotion of vapid blogposts, saying what everyone else is saying, doing what everyone else is doing, only cooler and that witty ironic tone. Ever perpetuating the myths of their lives lest the slightest drop admit a discordant note – especially from within. They are the sort who would panic if their witty takes on a headline-debate doesn't get any likes on fb, two in a row.

I was wrong. Even bad superficial writing does transform you. You return an even hollower self for the truth of the experience encountered and denied.

For those thinking of writing their own stories, I have nothing against any genre. Only bad, superficial writing. Write honestly, don’t be afraid to acknowledge a wasted draft, imagine that entire spectrum of your experiences, exorcise, transform. Disbelieve the strident myths we’re surrounded with – we humans are much more intelligent and deeper than they would have you believe. The readers have still not forgotten to discriminate between the genuine and the affected.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Thoughts on why Indians can't read abstract art

This post might read out as a little – or much – on the naive side: it is more in the nature of an inner dialogue, yet unresolved, a side of an argument.


In India, if art has to connect to the masses, even the more prosperous bunch, one has to go the figurative way.  Most Indians don’t have the wherewithal to understand abstract art.



Differences in reading an abstract vs. a figurative art

To read an abstraction, one has to complete it. Firstly, by understanding its broader CONTEXT, the tradition and time it is made under and that which it addresses. Then, the EMPATHY to the artist’s specificity – his life, artistic journey embedded in his works, motifs, the issues that bothered him specifically.
Lastly, while CONTEXT and EMPATHY prepare the gangplank, the plunge is made only when we identify our own AFFINITY to the work; this is where the abstraction really gets defined into something MEANINGFUL within us. A figurative artwork contains its own meaning within itself. Nobody can mistake what a Velazquez or Spielberg stood for. One sees and enjoys it as an observer, with only that much participation as one might want to bring. But a Rothko and a Godard have to be ENTERED, to varying degrees, to be comprehended.

Why Indians cannot read abstraction

In India, it is a fact that our knowledge of our own traditions in art and ideas, and knowledge of our great artists’ lives, is sporadic and thin. Even the “best” of our primary education skip it entirely, and the mass-media – television, cinema, newsprints – seldom methodically address it. Most educated Indians have little structured knowledge of any of the artistic traditions, its dialectics through the ages and what are the questions its present artists are essaying to address. Those who do, either studied art in the very few good arts colleges and/or generally come from those few gharanas, artists and patrons, in whose closed cloisters these traditions have managed to eke out a survival despite the mass indifference. Hence, we lack in the structured knowledge that is needed to understand the CONTEXT of an abstraction and to EMPATHIZE with what the specific artist is trying to do.
That brings it to AFFINITY. One can, in principle, be moved by an abstract piece of work, even if one has no knowledge of the CONTEXT and that which can prepare them to EMPATHIZE with the specific artist’s mind. It happens – we see something that we don’t understand but are nevertheless moved by it. We do not yet understand what moves us. This is the moment when I have heard many artists tell the beginning of their journeys, especially those who never had the privilege of being born into a gharana. They heard, saw, read something, which clicked off something in the core of their being, and thus began their journey to see the end of it. They seek to understand themselves, that core, by seeking to understand that which touched it. For these traditions, like mythologies, contain within themselves the runes to our innermost being, that which makes us so curiously, so tragically, joyously, human. Polished, and preserved over generations. We never reach the end of it, because there is none, but the closer we get to it, the more we understand that inner self whose ignorance vexes us like a pebble in a shoe. A great artist, great human-being, told me once that he sought the music that swept him away because of the meditative aura of the artist he heard that first time, the peace he had found.
Here, it is important to realise that knowledge of CONTEXT and EMPATHY, increase the AFFINITY. Which is why these artists embarked on their journeys. We can perhaps feel an affinity with a silent strange face on a bus, but a deeper affinity is established the more we understand the broader and particular context of that face; the affinity when we see a remark trigger a reaction on a close friend’s face and almost know the why of it. One might see a Guernica and be moved by it, but one’s experience of it is no doubt bettered when one understand the various bull horse and lamp motifs that haunted Picasso through his life, and knows that garret where he painted it.
That brings us to that pebble in the shoe.
We Indians, and I know this is a very controversial statement, lack the proper INNER NARRATIVEs to understand modern abstraction. What is that inner narrative? – That dialogue within us that goes beyond the slatted contexts that bind us. Our propensity is to seek closure in the things around us, closures that reaffirm that we already know. That is why even the “deeper” literature and cinema that we prefer give the same answers to those questions that beset us. We seek answers communally, by consensus, that doesn’t really challenge the set ideas around us. I am sure that those pebbles would be there in more shoes than it appears, but they’re dismissed as betukay doubts, moral failures. They never become big enough to aggravate us further. It was this slowly aggravating INNER NARRATIVE, at odds with the COMMUNAL NARRATIVE, the pebble, that pushed the few artists who I know, who came from lower middle-class income families with no serious interest in any substantial art tradition.   
This absence of the INNER NARRATIVE is another question that I struggle with. Reading Indian history through diaries and namas and travellers’ chronicles, I suspect that it might be simply because we never had the political stability to give us the space to build those inner narratives. We were too busy surviving through the shifting boundaries and whims of one despot after another. Kipling believed that “that if we didn’t hold the land in six months it would be one big cock-pit of conflicting princelets.” And I suspect he was right in his time. I read about France, that cradle of modern ideas about the self, and one cannot but contrast its political unity across the last few centuries to our own. Our Hindu genius has been for survival, and that is why we have lasted where almost all else, except the Chinese, have fallen to one form of rigid Semitic simplicity or the other.
The India that we know really began to be forged beyond an abstraction in the early years of the last century. And that is the irony that balks me in this argument here: that while our own nationhood is possibly the biggest abstraction of an idea, abstraction within us finds such little toehold of space. But that might also explain why we want to break and simplify this grand abstraction to simpler more-closed narratives, a narrative that conforms to our own closed one.    

Monday, April 22, 2013

PR ke liye kuchh bhi karega
"I flew to Delhi in the morning and I read three things in the newspaper- first about the five-year-old girl case then next page had news of rape of a four-year-old girl in Madhya Pradesh and another about rape of a mentally challenged woman in Pune. So, I think its shameful," said John [Abraham]. 

He still thinks. Doesn't believe it. For all he knows, it might turn out that there is really no shame attached to it. Just a mental barrier.

"Our country is represented in international space only by such incidents. It is a case where we as a country should hang our heads down in shame." 

Further onwhat really riles him is the international impressions projected of the country, the PR again, than just the raw fact of this borderless human tragedy.

These are the bloated gases we have crowned.  And this is the low standard that PR has hit: marketing films on the backs of rapes of infants.