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Thursday, 12 January 2012

Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron & Deevar -- a review of two books

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For anyone with even a nodding acquaintance with Indian cinema, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron (1983) and Deevar (1975) evoke instant recall. If the former is the best and brightest in cinema noir, the latter is chockablock with immortal dialogues and iconic characters. Two recent books on the two films – one by an irreverent blogger and columnist and the other by a historian and academic – are a welcome addition to the growing body of work on popular culture and the role of Hindi films in shaping and defining Indian sensibility.

For the uninitiated, Jaane bhi do ... can best be described as a breathless satire of cosmopolitan India; it builds gag upon gag till the viewer finds himself atop a pyramid, one that affords a panoramic view of a malodorous society riddled with various ills. To my mind, there is nothing comparable with it in Indian cinema, certainly nothing that comes close to its off-kilter view of almost all those things that upset or anger us. The film is episodic, disjointed, even juvenile in its innocence, yet it works brilliantly and not in parts but as a whole too.  In fact, so brilliantly did it work that it makes one wonder why – in this age of de rigueur sequels -- this formula of exaggerated comic situations, heightened absurdity and shooting from the hip digs was never repeated? One would have thought that the success of Jaane bhi do … would launch a comic revolution in Indian cinema. But it didn’t. I wonder why?

Looking back at the film while reading Jai Arjun Singh’s immaculately researched book, I am struck by the sheer spontaneity of the action on screen. Yet Singh’s interviews with the film’s director, lead actors and others in the ensemble cast reveal the method behind the madness and the minute attention to the smallest detail that filled the canvas on screen. In the course of several interviews with the film-maker Kundan Shah, Singh has commented on a remarkable generosity of spirit; in the posters of films by Mani Kaul, Kumar Shahani, Tanvir Ahmad, Muzzafar Ali that have been strategically placed in various frames and in naming a park after Antonioni  because a particular scene is inspired by Michaelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up. For a film that revels in disorderliness and randomness to have these precisely placed markers, indicates order and an eye for detail apart from the generosity.

As a viewer, however, one is struck by the refreshing candour, even naiveté that comes across. There is no attempt to intellectualise the comedy; every situation, every scene seems instinctive. The humour rests on a complete suspension of disbelief; the sheer improbability of some of the more whacky scenes works to their advantage. What is also very refreshing – given the knee-jerk outrage that has become the norm rather than the exception in our part of the world – is that the film takes on several holy cows… there is a hilarious scene involving a dead body in a burqa amidst a sea of burqa-clad women; a completely OTT scene involving the body of a (Christian) policeman in a coffin and of course the Mahabharata episode which entailed a delightful spoof of the Ram Lilas we have all seen at some point in our lives. Yet I don’t remember it causing any outrage. Why was that? Surely we were not more tolerant as a nation back then? Or was it something about the film itself – its insouciance and, yes, innocence, that allowed it to take on both holy cows and ugly underbellies of cosmopolitan Indian?

But Jaane bhi do… is as much about the loss of innocence and the breaking of ideals. At the end of the day, in the film, dishonesty wins over honesty, cynicism over idealism and the system triumphs over the individual. The two main characters, played by Nasiruddin Shah and Ravi Baswani in the finest roles of their careers, set off on a bildungsroman that exposes the builder-politician-journalist mafia in all its ugliness and greed. In a landscape peopled by incompetent bunglers and willful swindlers like the smoothly menacing Tarneja, the only two good, decent, upright people – Vinod and Sudhir – end up as fall guys who end up in jail. Beneath its frothy exterior and its infra-dig humour, you begin to wonder if the movie has been hiding a black heart all along.

The movie ends with Vinod and Sudhir walking out of jail, still in their striped jail pajamas. In the backdrop the anthem, Hum honge kaamyab, hum honge kaamyab ek din, plays mournfully. Does that hint at hope rather than despair? Or, is that too a tragic-comic prop meant to raise laughs? I remember all those years ago leaving the cinema hall wondering if this was a dark film full of nihilism and despite the funny goings on? Or was the sadness filled with hope? Reading Jai Arjun Singh’s book, I find there are no easy answers.

The other book, as well as the film, Deevar, has an altogether different approach. The two books are apples and oranges in a sense. Evidently, Vinay Lal’s training as a historian governs the way he writes about cinema and popular culture in Deevar: the Footpath, the City and the Angry Young Man. Here, as in Jaane bhi do… the city of Mumbai (or Bombay as it was then called) looms large. Vinay Lal looks at the making of the film through the prism of a social historian; he has looked at issues of migration from rural areas, the problem of dockworkers and daily wage-earners, the homeless who sleep on footpaths, the smuggling dons, the rural-urban divide and the crossing-over of that divide through the upward mobility of Amitabh Bachchan’s character (called Vijay in the first of a series of films).

Lal has also used certain scenes and motifs from the film and invested them with near-mythic qualities: the tattoo on Vijay’s hand (Mera baap chor hai), the skyscraper vs. footpath image, Vijay buying the skyscraper where his mother (the inimitable Nirupa Roy) worked as a daily wager, the signature whether it is Vijay’s father’s or the one demanded by Vijay’s brother Ravi, the temple scene where an angry and atheistic Vijay confronts the deity his mother has worshipped all her life, and of course the near-mythic dialogue Mere paas maa hai in answer to Vijay’s contemptuous Mere paas gaadi, hai bangla hai, paisa hai…Tumhare paas kya hai?

Dwelling at length on the dialectic of the footpath and the skyscraper, Vinay Lal writes:
Moving as he does between the extremes, from the village to a global trade in smuggled goods, from the uniform of a mere coolie at Bombay’s docks to tailored suits, we should not be surprised that Vijay [Amitabh Bachchan] teeters between the footpath and the skyscraper.   Deewaar has justly been described as a film that gives vent to the explosive anger of discontented young urban India, as well as a film that, while exploring, partly through tacit invocations to the rich mythic material found in the Mahabharata, the inexhaustible theme of fraternal conflict, provides an allegorical treatment of the eternal struggle between good and evil within oneself.

While this makes engaging reading, it does make one wonder if occasionally serious readers and interpreters of popular cinema invest more in a film than was intended in the script? Did the scriptwriters, the duo of Salim-Javed, have any of these dichotomies in mind when they were writing what was basically an intelligent, but masala, Hindi film? I wonder.

Monday, 2 January 2012

The Best of Quest -- Book Review in The Hindu

The Best of Quest, edited by Laeeq Futehally, Achal Prabhala and Arshia Sattar, Tranquebar, 2011, pp. 660, Rs. 695.

There are some books that you want to keep. You don’t want to read them at a gallop. You don’t want to give them away after a hurried read. Instead, you want them on your bookshelf so that you can pluck them out and dip into their contents at your leisure, sometimes even again and again. The Best of Quest is one of those books. What is more, it is a repository of the best and brightest stars in our country’s literary firmament -- some of whom shone brightly and were widely known in their time, but have been sadly obscured by the mists of heedlessness in recent times.

Quest was a pioneering journal; set up by the Indian Committee for Cultural Freedom, led by Minoo Masani, it was launched from Bombay in 1954. A ‘quarterly of inquiry, criticism and ideas’ it was edited by the redoubtable poet, critic and teacher, Nissim Ezekiel. Together with its counterparts in different parts of the world, such as Transition in Africa, Encounter in the UK and USA, Quadrant in Australia and the Imprint in India, it moulded public opinion through a range of informed opinion that was eclectic, liberal and often idiosyncratic. However, with Ezekiel as its editor, it also took on the mandate of encouraging budding talent. The Best of Quest is, therefore, as much a tribute to Ezekiel as it is a compilation of the best the journal had to offer in the two decades of his editorship before the baton passed to A. S. Ayub and till the journal folded up during the Emergency.

Masani, ever the maverick Socialist, decided that Quest must suspend publication in protest of the draconian censorship; in contrast Prof A. B. Shah, who served on its Editorial Board, wanted to defy censorship laws by continuing to publish the journal without submitting its contents for review. The deadlock was broken and Quest was re-invented by Shah as New Quest in 1977. But things were never the same. New Quest continues to be published. But does it have the vim and vigour of Quest? I think not. Moreover, it never quite recovered from the mud-slinging of the 1960s when allegations of ‘foreign funding’ rocked Indian intellectual circles.  A grant from the Ford Foundation (in the words of Dilip Chitre ‘capitalist, yes, but State Department controlled, positively no’) financed the Congress for Cultural Freedom in India through A. B. Shah who was also its Director of Programmes.

In an endnote entitled ‘Looking Back’, R. Srinivasan describes Quest thus: ‘Like Stendhal’s works, it was addressed to the happy few and commanded fierce loyalties; its contributors remained the very select of the Indian intellectual world.’ Within the pages of The Best…, you will find some known names such as Nirad Chaudhuri, Rajni Kothari, P. Lal, Khushwant Singh, K. Subrahmanyam, Satyajit Ray, Ashis Nandy, Sudhir Kakar, Agha Shahid Ali, Kamala Das, Dom Moraes, Anita Desai, Keki Daruwalla, Kamleshwar, and many more. But what is more delightful is the introduction for several young readers to names that were once very well read. One such person is Dilip Chitre who features prominently throughout this collection, both under his own name and under the pseudonym ‘D’.

In the postscript called ‘I am D’, Chitre writes, ‘Pseudonyms are like beards. They conceal one’s real face.’ He then goes on to say why a journal such as Quest felt the need for a columnist and agreed to take on someone like him, someone who had a ‘comedian inside’ him. Chitre notes:
Quest was so far above popular culture and so disdainful in its indifference to the strange and bizarre events of everyday India that it needed at least one regular column that did some lampooning.’

Chitre’s identity as the writer of the column remained a closely-guarded secret and he contributed regularly on different aspects of popular culture, and in his own words:
‘I used the column to write on popular and art-house cinema, painting and artists, populist movements and politics, upcoming gurus and godmen, theatre, music, and the variously hued moral police who sought censorship of art….Now the column is dead and my pseudonym will hardly ring a bell. Few readers of the current age will care to dig through the archived coffins in the expired journal’s graveyard to find D.’

Dilip Chitre has passed on, but his writings and that of many other contributors to Quest have been retrieved from ‘archived coffins’ by this volume’s dedicated trio of editors: Laeeq Futehally, Achal Prabhala and Arshia Sattar. One can only hope, after reading The Best of Quest, that someone soon decides to bring out The Best of Dilip Chitre.

(This review appeared in The Hindu, 1 January 2012.)