Sunday, 25 April 2010

End to an era of skin-barter?

The thought of this piece came to my mind while reading a passage in Alice Albinia’s brilliant book Empires of the Indus: The Story of a River in which in her uncanny style she seamlessly stitches the history of habshishs (Africans) in Sindh and their negative perceptions in the ‘morbidly skin colour conscious’ north Indian society in which Fair & Lovely is to be found in such scarcely stocked tea shacks in the remostest areas where busses even find hard to ply.

Sitting at the Heathrow airport and surrounded by swarms of ‘white faces’ around, I pondered over the skin fascination in Bollywood songs, which Albinia also mentions in passing. The mass production of ‘fair ladies’ is enrapturing – from the advertisements of the fairness creams that sometimes go back to the Vedas to discover the ‘herbal’ (and civilisational?) remedies to probably present-day commercial (racial?) pollution, to that of Bollywod songs that hardly miss to shower praise on ‘gora rang’ (fair skin) of ‘gora badan’ (fair body) – the gora badan has been a conspicuous object of desire. One could only wonder at this stage when did ‘gori’ (fem. fair) or ‘goriya’ (fem. fair) become synonymous with ‘ladki’ (girl). While on the one hand in numerous songs the female characters displayed pride (and arrogance) in their possession of fair skin, the heroes who usually felt the pinch of skin-discrimination (is this the Krishna tradition that influences to keep our heroes relatively dark skinned?) on the other often reminded them: Gore rang par na itna gumaan kar, gora rang do din mein dhal jayega , from the movie Roti (1974) which almost reprimanded the goriya not to boast her fairness because its ephemeral, because its going to fade away, sooner rather than latter. However, the gora rang and the gori baahein have often remained the prime and first of the many (if any!) instigators that propel our heroes to fall in love. Gori Gori Gori Gori baahein teri hain, jo chori chori chori chori dekhun inhein main toh (Your arms are fair, which I gaze upon secretly, movie Fight Club (2006) is just one of the thousand and many more instances that can be plucked from our illustrious archives of Fair-wood music industry. No wonder, the heroes often pleaded the girls to give their gora rang to them (Zulfein Yeh Kaali Gaalon Ki Laali, Yeh Gora Rang De De
Maheke Gulaab Jaisa Shabaab, Pehli Bahaar De De
, the blackness of your hair and the rosyness of your cheeks give me your fairness, your (physical) beauty is like a rose, give me the first spring (of my life), movie: Ek Rishta (2001) – which allegorically could mean two things: one, the physical bonding and second the emotional surrender. Whatever the case be, it was the body and its colour that preceded the individualism of the girl. This demand and the primacy of colour was/is well understood by the girls. Therefore, in moments of romantic despair when loyalty needed to assured, the girls offered to barter away their skin – mera gora ang lei ley, mohe shaam rang dei dey, (Take my fair body and give me your dark skin) movie: Bandini (1973). The Krishna cult in India somehow justified the presence of male dark skin, and apparently emboldened our Bollywood heroes to put their claims on goriya’s gora badan.

This age-old tradition of colour bartering is however seemingly coming to an end. Krishna is dead and Shahrukh Khan is the new God. He claims to be NOT ONLY A KHAN but also a handsome who uses Men Fair & Lovely. The cream of course has been ‘scientifically tailored for men’s skin’ which works on men’s skin in contrast to women’s skin in three different ways; it is designed to address three areas of men’s skin: toughness, roughness and harshness. We can raise our toast for the final arrival of democratic principles!

Now with the mass production of ‘fair hunks’ there couldn’t be any irony in one of the intimate scenes of the hard-hitting reality movie (Fashion), (which its director Madhur Bhandarkar claims to make) where the moral and ‘fair’ awakening of Priyanka Chopra’s character is immanently dependent on a ‘black’ encounter. Now with the use of Men F & L, it would be difficult for our directors to find suitable replacements where the morals could be discovered. In another ironical twist it could also symbolise the death of moral, for which we will raise another toast. But for the moment, we can just lament on the death of soulful err… skinful melodies of Bollywood.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

More seek than hide: the simple riddles of Vihir

The guy in green played: Nachiket
The guy in white played: Samya
The small girl played: Soni
The man in black: Umesh Kulkarni (director)
The man in white churidaar: Girish Kulkarni (producer and co-script writer).

More seek than hide: the simple riddles of Vihir

Writing a review or even a critical note on Vihir is a daunting task for two reasons: one, the film has such a rich polyphonic repertoire that it is almost impossible for an untrained reviewer like me to do any justice to the film, and second, it has already been brilliantly written about by Shekhar Deshpande on The Berlinale 2010 screening has also been reported there . Therefore, rather than a standard review that recounts the basic storyline, this note tries to raise certain issues related to the thematics of the film.

In teh post-screening interaction, the first question thrown at Umesh Kulkarni, the director of the movie, was about the fate of Nachiket. The film I guess left a section of audience puzzled: did he really die or not? Kulkarni’s answer was simple; the intention, he said, was to leave the question vague, which means that although death is a form of finality, the understanding of it need not be certain. In fact it is hardly ever so. However, some do get caught up in chasing not only ‘life’ but also ‘death’, and Samya was one such character. Out of his immense affection, bonding, love and respect for his Nachchada, Samya couldn’t bear the loss of Nachiket. And here, from the point of view of Samya, I would insist on maintaining the difference between ‘death’ and ‘loss’ which at the emotional level could mean the same but at the level on which Samya was struggling to find Nachiket meant differently. Nachiket’s disappearance was preceded by a long preface: he very intimately shared his thoughts with Samya and came to the resolution that he will run away, most probably by a train. And this angered and peeved Samya who was expecting him to come to Pune for his college studies. Given his skill of putting high philosophy in the most effusive and simple manner Nachiket in his own mind might have meant something completely different (perhaps signifying to freedom and liberation through the allegory of 'running away'), but for Samya, very probably, it appeared as a worldly act of an adolescent. Thus the trope of ‘death’ and ‘loss’ worked on two different registers, at least until the time when Samya himself undertook the journey to discover Nachiket. In this regard, Kulkarni couldn’t be more correct when he said that the film is about how Samya finds Nachiket.

Nachiket’s restlessness with the world started at the spatial site of domesticity. Although in Shekhar Deshpande’s opinion the director's brilliance lies in what he has done with time (this is used just for reflecting back on the film and ought not to be construed as criticism), I think it’s the portrayal of space that marks Kulkarni's excellence. Broadly, the film revolves around four spaces: the village home, the Pune flat, the swimming pool, and the open space (both in Nachiket’s village and also during Samya’s journey). The first three in paradoxically varying ways are sites of disassociation: the closed interiors, argued Kulkarni, were deliberately used to create an effect of claustrophobic space. The camera moved between the interior dark corners of these spaces producing a synchrony with the interiorisation of the self – first of Nachiket and later of Samya. While Nachiket took recourse to open fields, haystacks and riversides, Samya’s movement, unfortunately, was restricted between two claustrophobic spaces: his home where the leaking water from the roof accumulating in a tin bowl symbolised his growing restlessness, and the swimming pool, where the water reminded him of the well (Vihir) which supposedly had the dead body of Nachiket. It is no surprise then that the director chose to liberate Samya on the day when Ganesh idols were being immersed in the water.

Samya in his diary entries often pleaded Nachiket to at least once come to him and narrate what happened to him, to tell him his present whereabouts. But as Nachiket did not come, the only recourse was that Samya seeks him out. And this is the last part of the movie which portrays an aimless journey of a lost soul in a train, lorry, and bus and so on until he meets a wise shepherd (whose character reminded me of Herman Hesse’s Sidhartha). For the first time after his flight from home, Samya in the company of the old man appeared at peace with himself and it became inevitable that he will soon find Nachiket. That moment of realisation, as was expected, has also been left vague in the movie. Amidst the melody of the Dhangar folksongs (and not providing the subtitles was a deliberate choice of the director) Samya sleeps into the lap of the old man, only to awaken with the realisation that he has found Nachiket. Sounds and not words became crucial. He went to the well and jumped into the water to feel that he is swimming with Nachiket. Conventionally, the film should have ended there, but as Kulkarni later explained, he wanted to end the movie not at this note but at the onward journey. The last frame showed the bus leaving the village. Samya’s earlier movement between the spaces now became transcendental as he was now able to carry Nachiket with him.

In this depiction, what struck me was the technique of story-telling, with which I would like to end this brief note. Nachiket’s persistent effort to attain invisibility in the realm of visible was marvellously captured by the game of hide and seek, which means that he did not defy adolescence but re-created itself for his own experimental quest. The second technique was the use of riddles that Soni (Samya’s sister) kept throwing at everyone. At every crucial junction, the narrative moved ahead with the use of the riddle but it was pleasing to see the post-screening interaction ending with a riddle thrown at the audience. She asked: There is an elephant and there are lots of sweets and bananas in front of him but he is not touching them, why? And she explained that there could be three answers: one, it’s a plastic elephant; second, the sweets and bananas are made of plastic; and third, the elephant is diabetic.

A truly pleasing note to end watching a lovely film!

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Road Movie: Enlivening cinema, critiquing modernity

Road Movie: Enlivening cinema, critiquing modernity

I was a bit disappointed when I realised that there wouldn’t be any post-screening discussion on the movie. It was so because this brilliant film made me hungry to listen to the words coming from the horse’s mouth. And partly because I also wanted to stick up my neck for asking certain questions that, more or less, are still the first-impressions (yes, its still not more than a few hours that I saw the movie).

As the name suggests, quite literally, the film is about two things: road and movie(s). The storyline is simple and elegant: Vishnu (Abhay Deol) is unhappy to support and take over his father’s business of producing and selling Atma hair oil. He got a chance to ‘do a favour to his friend’ (as he kept saying throughout the movie) to drive a truck to Samudrapur) – I guess an imaginative place situated by the sea. The journey then becomes the central focus of the film, as different events and plots unfold in the course. He is stopped at a dhabha by a kid, and then that kid becomes part of Vishnu’s onward journey. The reason was that the kid wanted to change his job. On seeing the kid mocking at the speed of the truck, Vishnu accelerates and the truck breaks down in the middle of nowhere. The kid smarts off with a guy seated on a donkey who bypassed them, only to return back with a mechanic (Satish Kaushik). The kid had made a deal with the mechanic that the latter would be dropped at a mela, and now much to the dislike of Vishnu, the journey proceeds with three people on the truck.

The actual happenings, so to say, start with the cops stopping the truck and asking for its papers. The immediate context was the presence of waterlords in the region, who smuggled water. Obviously, neither Vishnu had the right licence nor had the papers. This led to the truck’s search, and it was then realised by the travellers including Vishnu that this was a cinema truck of 1942 model (the age of the truck was known before but not its function). The cop demanded an entertaining screening as a bribe to set the three off. The film depicts humorously (and sensitively) how they prepared the screening, for instance, by illegal power-theft (which the cops also did) and by pouring a bottle of Atma hair oil to lubricate the machine.

The next turning point comes when Vishnu asks a banjarin for water. She was one of the many who were wandering around in the desert for the search of water. Apparently smitten by her beauty (Kaushik was able to see ‘passion’ in Vishnu’s eyes), and against the initial reservations of the other two, Vishnu made banjarin the part of the journey, which was now headed towards the mela (and not Samudrapur). Perched by thirst, Vishnu goes to a protected well and tried abortively to fetch some water, which the waterlord came to know later.

The recounting must take a break here to reflect on some of the larger issues portrayed through this journey. At the allegorical level, road signifies life. On the journey, an individual meets new people, exchange both pleasure and bitterness, and not least, both betrays and forms bonding with each other (and together). Contrary emotions overlap and exist mutually. This is one obvious register on which the narrative unfolds.

The second register is of depicting the crisis and critique of modernity and consumerism. It does that, however, in a subtle and not dismissive way: very early on, the film showed Vishnu accompanying his father to the 7th Annual Hair Oil Competition. The ad-line for his hair oil was unwillingly memorised by every member of the family as it was part of the dinner talk. Thus, the film is sensitive towards showing the ‘reach’ (and perhaps aspirations) created in small-town middle class families. However, intrinsic to this spread is the limitation of that consumerism which comes out brilliantly in the interstices of the encounters that take place between a city-boy (Vishnu) and his co-travellers. The kid’s mock at the speed was thus couched in terms of Vishnu not driving a ‘Toyota’. Before that, the disgust on Vishnu’s face that came up after having a sip of the tea at the dhabha was rebuked by the kid by reminding him that he was not sitting at Starbucks. The very tangible example was Vishnu’s inability to use his mobile: the terrain denied connectivity.

Kaushik reached his mela-place which turned out to be a barren rickety area. Everyone was baffled but the narrative takes recourse to the ‘magic’ of cinema as an alchemy to hold the story together. Kaushik insists that a screening will bring the crowd, and ‘create’ a mela. Obviously, the director’s agenda comes out clearly here: twice in the movie (earlier during the encounter with the police) ‘movie’ came to the rescue: both, to the actors, as screening did lead to mela and huge earning (Rs 45,000), but also to the narrative that pushed the story forward. By recounting the ‘past’ as an assemblage of footage ranging from Deewar to Charlie Chaplin, the film also made a strong statement for and in (of) the ‘present’. The smile the screening brought on the faces of the desert people affirms the entertaining value of this medium even for us.

The trickiest part came in the last. The narrative reaches its crisis once again when the waterlord seizes the truck and also insists on making the banjarin his own. However, before that there is once again a fuzziness created between the boundaries that define our modernity and civilisation in opposition to barbarity and criminality. The waterlord insists that he is fairer in his dealings than many of the corporate houses who package and give fancy brand names to the water bottles. Since he stands outside the realm of the codes of capitalism that somehow works on the basis of ‘mutual loot’, it does not make him more criminal than big corporate players.

As one would have expected that the charm of ‘cinema’ will be invoked again to fuse this crisis, the director betrays all expectations by choosing to encounter the waterlord on the terrain of market itself. Vishnu comes forward with his memorised ad-lines of his father’s oil venture to assure the waterlord that the use of oil will transform him into a 'man'. After a champi and combing, when the waterlord looks at his reflection in the bowl of water, he is indeed convinced of his transformation. At the face of it, the resolution is funny and exalts director’s maverick. At the deeper level, when Vishnu insists that the oil doesn’t come for free, and thus he strikes a deal with the waterlord to get some litres of water in exchange and also his truck back, we are reminded of the power of branding and marketing.

Now it’s the ‘cinema’ that follows the resolution. A final screening to remind of the happiness of the journey takes place with the villagers, which saw Kaushik dying with a smiling face. That serves also as a reminder to bring the narrative to a close, which takes place by parting the ways. The city-boy had to return to the city, reminded the banjarin. Their love had to end that once again symbolised the allegorical meaning of the road and the journey. It does however leave an open question: were the two worlds, of city and desert, mutually exclusive? Are transgressions only momentary and sporadic? Does the return of Vishnu symbolises the return of market, and perhaps, of 'humane' consumerism?

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

The ethics of Idiocy

It was quite refreshing to see how ‘excellence’ was given priority over ‘success’ in 3 Idiots. Until now we have been seeing a good number of movies about morality and success, of which the most recent example was Rocket Singh. In the period of recovery from economic recession, the film adds a necessary caveat on how to do business. The film moved beyond the dichotomy of good businessmen and bad businessmen by shifting the focus from the actors to the systems. It brought ethics into the core of economics in a powerful way.

However going back to the issue of excellence and success, and without challenging the core idea that excellence should precede success, I was wondering what would have happened if we could change the order of the ‘idiots’. Put Aamir Khan’s character in Sharman Joshi’s shoes without changing their class background. In other words, what is the role of material contexts in defining what success and excellence could mean? What would be the ways to achieve them? Moreover, where would the morality and ethics of success figure in the discourses of class backgrounds and how?

And this is where I feel like making a preposterous statement that although I loved watching 3 Idiots for its great entertainment value and for a meaningful message for discarding not only rote learning but also for chasing up genuine interests, I am not sure if the movie depicted poverty in its varied aspects. I am not arguing for political correctness in the depiction; I am arguing for the sensitivity towards it. Why was it necessary to depict the scenes of Aamir and Madhavan’s visit to Joshi’s house in black n white background in the backdrop of laughter-evoking musical piece? The whole scene of that encounter – between a superfluous rich-background – (Aamir) and a middle class – guy (Madhavan) on the one hand and Joshi’s gloomy house with plasters peeling off the walls evoked laughter than anything else. It represented the mimicry of poverty. Not even the irony was left, if at all poverty has any irony!

There would be many movies one could possibly think of to juxtapose this sort of representation, but I am here reminded of a Sai Paranjape’s movie called Disha. Made in the 1980s (most probably 1984) the movie has multiple thematic repertoire. While one could read urban-rural connectivity in that others could possibly turn to women issues. The thing which I liked the most in that movie was the variegated trajectories of poverty, which do not burden the viewers with their acuteness but neither caricature the differential response generation. Om Puri is the madman of the village who out of frustration of being poor (and lack of water in the village) had been digging a well for almost sixteen years. His sense of impoverishment made him enterprising because at last he succeeded in getting water. The characters of Raghubir Yadav and Nana Patekar deal with their worlds by migrating to Bombay. However they again followed different trajectories – while Yadav who was keen to migrate chose to come back once water arrived in the village (his heart lay in the rurality?) Patekar, who was coerced by his immediate needs to migrate, decided to stay there, because his wife, again because of poverty, was forced to work in the local bidi factory where she ended up having liaisons with the manager. Every character was, so to say, poor; they shared the same material conditions, but every character showed distinct traits in dealing with their immediate conditions.

This is the turf where 3 Idiots failed to score a point – the universalisation of the message of excellence over success was too monochromatic. To be fair, the narrative did try to complicate this by making Aamir’s childhood a surrogate to richness – a domestic help in a rich family. Also, he left the college empty handed without that affluence and without the worldly tag of being the topper of a prestigious college. Yet, in no way it convinces, at least me, why a character like Joshi’s should not aspire to just succeed. More importantly, and ironically the social constrictions and differential economic backgrounds were almost flattened. The chest-hair ridden belan of Joshi’s mother will at best be remembered as a good joke in the movie in the same way as the other guy will be who always put a price-tag to objects that also represented human emotions.