Friday, December 24, 2010

'Aar Ekti Premer Golpo': Shall we say ‘a good start’?

Rituparno Ghosh’s Roop asks Indraneil Sengupta’s Basu if they are invited to appear at the Habitat together at the same time when his pregnant wife Rani (Churni Ganguly) wishes to go out for biriyani at Karim’s, who is he going to choose. Basu does not have an answer; in fact, he cannot have. For, both Roop and Rani are equally important and indispensable to him. Kaushik Ganguly captures with subtlety the tragedy of the bisexual man who oscillates and exhausts himself in maintaining the balancing act between his wife and boyfriend. While the whole world has labeled Aar Ekti Premer Golpo as the first Bengali ‘gay’ feature film, and in its review seems to tilt more towards delineating the vulnerability of the films two gay characters − Roop, the film director and Chapal Bhaduri, the veteran folk theatre actor, the vulnerability of Basu, the bisexual cinematographer is almost elided, as if he did not exist. What is remarkable is that the film does not stereotype Roop’s lover as exploitative or manipulative, but sensitively handles his character which, commendably enough, does not verge on the perverse. Basu’s tragedy is that he is caught between two relationships, one, socially approved, the other not; but the emotional quotient involved in both is equal. The last scene where Roop and Basu kiss and cry before they separate the reality of this in-between-ness and the very impossibility of finding a remedy to it becomes all the more conspicuous; and perhaps, it is here the film scores the most, notwithstanding its sensitive handling of the homosexual men as well.

So, let’s not call Aar Ekti Premer Golpo, a gay love story; let’s be a little more term-sensitive, and call it, a queer love story. However, the irony is, while the title of the film makes a laudable endeavour to dispense of with the sexual identity of its protagonists (underscored by the words aar ekti translated as ‘just another’), terms such as ‘gay’, ‘bisexual’, or ‘queer’ cannot be done away with in interpreting the film. At one point Roop is questioned by a media-person whether the focus of his film is on Chapal Bhaduri’s sexual life; he annoyingly retorts that had he been making a film on Amitabh Bachchan, would he have asked him the same question. Do we refer to say, You’ve Got Mail or say Saptapadi as a heterosexual or straight love story? We don’t. But in case of a film dealing with same-sex relationships say, Brokeback Mountain, some branding such as ‘gay’, ‘lesbian’ or ‘bisexual’ is found almost indispensable. Can we stop being queer or feminist, and just be humanist? Perhaps labeling is indeed necessary to advance an identity politics in a world which is essentially sympathetic only to heteronormativity. The debate may continue endlessly, as to whether labeling of alternative sexual inclinations is necessary or not, but I am going to leave it to that, and turn on Aar Ekti Premer Golpo as of now.

Roop, the self-proclaimed liberated gay film director from Delhi who effortlessly cross-dresses and is very assertive about it, is, in a way, the alter-ego of Chapal Rani, the yesteryear folk-theatre actor of Bengal, who impersonated female characters on stage. At one point in the film, Momo (Raima Sen) tells Basu that Roop is using the story of Chapal Rani’s life as a peg to hang his own story. Such an observation, though refuted by Basu, is, I feel, true; for, Chapal Bhaduri has all of a sudden drawn much attention from filmmakers and cultural commentators in the wake of LGBTQ studies becoming ‘fashionable’ in India. He has, almost overnight, graduated into an object of study, owing to his sexual fluidity. Then again, his story is also needed to be told, and yes, the focus is severely upon his sexual life. No matter how vehemently Roop denies (in a penchant to be politically correct) that he would not highlight the actor’s sexuality, he ends up, childishly demanding Chapal Rani to be honest with his sexual life. The ambivalence in Roop becomes most palpable if one juxtaposes two scenes:

(1) At the very beginning of the film, Roop compassionately tells Chapal to stop telling his tale if he finds it very painful.

(2) In the end, Roop flares up with anger when Chapal refuses to expose some very private details of his life.

The undercurrent of exploitation is there, no matter, how much Roop and Chapal Bhaduri connect with each other. Or shall we say, queer people do hunt out stories (and it is necessary) that reflect their own lives in order to empower the rebellion against heteronormativity?

What is interesting is that, though Roop may appear as Chapal’s alter ego in the film (an observation that is strengthened by the film-with-the-film), both are different. While Chapal feels like a woman trapped within a man’s body, Roop celebrates his sexual fluidity. Both are gay, but not in the same way. Besides, locating the characters in history is also very important. The reality of having alternative sexual inclinations is not same for an English-educated, financially liberated, urban film director of the new millennium and a closeted, uneducated, economically handicapped folk-theatre actor of rural Bengal. Momo is right when she says that although Roop doesn’t admit to himself, he is as closeted as Chapal deep within. But superficially at least, Roop is considerably liberated, although he, like Chapal, remains lonely till the end.

Some of my friends were skeptical that the film might end up leaving the wrong message that gay people are essentially effeminate and are always victimized. The suggestive gayness in Jisshu Sengupta’s Uday who gradually falls in love with Roop perhaps saves the film from reasserting the stereotype. Many queer activists might find ridiculous how a young Chapal is always inclined to emulate heterosexual marital bonds in his relationship with his lovers. He cooks, washes clothes, looks after the house and the kids, and acts passive in bed. But it should be borne in mind Chapal could not have been otherwise, given his spatio-temporal location, and his lack of ‘community’.

Rituparno Ghosh’s acting debut is just about okay; someone younger could have been better, perhaps. Indraneil Sengupta is as usual mind-blowing, especially in the film-with-the-film. Jisshu Sengupta with a characteristic nonchalance would definitely take the cake. Raima Sen with her sheer effortlessness is gradually emerging as a good actor. Churni is fantastic as paraplegic in the film-with-the-film.

Aar Ekti Premer Golpo is definitely a good start; though not iconoclastic in the true sense of the term, it does open up new avenues for future directors to experiment on the same lines.

PS: The scene where Chapal and the paraplegic Gopa dance to Pran bhoriye trisha bhoriye would stay with you forever.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

"Moner Manush": Where’s this Arshinagar?

None can deny the indispensability of Lalan Fakir today. In the wake of communal violence that is ripping and tearing our country into uncountable pieces, Lalan’s philosophy of life and his world-view seem all the more relevant. While the Bengal Renaissance was bringing about unprecedented cultural transformation in the city, Lalan with his simplistic songs had brought in a revolution in the remote villages of Bangladesh, invalidating the caste-system and calling into question communal differences, especially between Hindus and Muslims, the two religious communities operating almost as binary opposites in the cultural consciousness of Bangladesh. Born into an orthodox Hindu family, and rescued and rejuvenated by a Muslim woman, Lalan graduated into a visionary who could not differentiate between communities. His utopian village in the heart of the forest turned out to be the Arshinagar (city of mirrors) of his song, where communal and gender differences were dissolved into an Anandabazar. However, his quest for Moner Manush (the man of the soul) continued till the very end of his life. It’s a union all great poets have always craved for, but have always felt a few yards short of achieving it: Milan hobe koto dine, amar moner manusher sone? was to be soon complemented by the heart-rending melody of Dariye achho tumi amar gaaner oparey/Amar sur guli paye charan, ami pai ne tomare…

Goutam Ghosh’s choice of subject is indeed remarkable. Sunil Gangopadhyay’s novel (or shall I say biopic?) on Lalan Fakir’s life, if read and understood, can act as a remedy to the contemporary disease of communal fundamentalism and associated violence from which our country has still not found respite. Structured like a bildungsroman (it may also be read as a kuntsleroman), the film traces Lalan’s journey from a simple village boy to a cultural icon of colonial Bengal. Because films are audio-visual, a lot could be said without the use of dialogues. The biggest flaw of the film is that more is told than shown, although the director’s expertise as a cinematographer shows itself in every single frame. Sticking too close to the written narrative, at 160 minutes the film seems to be testing your patience. Had it been a good 40 minutes shorter, Moner Manush would have been a classic piece of cinema. Sometimes, the film resorts to didacticism: the ‘preachiness’ of the dialogues could have been avoided by a smarter script. For instance, when Lalan comes back to his family as a Fakir, the conservative Hindu mother and his wife face a terrible crisis. They can neither give up on him, nor give up their jaat, for he has been nurtured by a Muslim family. The scene could have been made poignant had less been said; the pathos of the scene is totally marred by the in-your-face dialogues on caste and religion.

I am not too happy with Prasenjit’s performance; but, I do admit, he has tried to give his best. The vocal intonations were quite forced, and the voice-over (the songs) did not quite match with Prasenjit’s original voice. Paoli Dam is average, and looks funny in her first song, where she appears more like a lifeless puppet who dances as some unseen string is maneuvered from somewhere to help her make the moves. Indeed, the acting department is awfully poor. The songs are good, but not always used at the right sequence. The cinematography, as I already mentioned, is brilliant…the verdure green, the blue rivers of Bangladesh are brought to life by the camera that caresses them affectionately.

On the whole, Moner Manush is not bad; good for a one-time watch. But it does not leave any indelible impression as the expectation had been. No matter, how very much the Bengali film industry is raving about it, do not trust them. Or else, you would be disappointed. For, the film has not been able to leave the aftertaste of having truly visited Arshinagar.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Varanasi Blast

I could not imagine myself ranting about a blast that apparently blew up the Ganga-aarti on Sitala Ghat in Varanasi about which I was going gaga even a week ago. Today’s newspaper headline left me practically paralyzed. Who engineered the blast is not important to me, but what plagues me is the utter intolerance that is prevailing unmitigated in our country. The papers are juxtaposing the 2006 blast in Varanasi and the 1992 Babri Masjid demolition with yesterday’s terrorist attack in order to place this blast in history. Such an attempt is a painful reminder of several unspeakable incidents of communal violence that have torned our country asunder and have left deep incurable scars on our souls. No communal violence can be treated as an isolated affair; and I am inevitably reminded of Paul R. Brass who observes: “It is not possible to develop a casual theory of ethnic riots separate from the discusses which encompass them free from the pressures of the prevailing ideologies and social scientific paradigms and the master narrative into which they are so often placed” (Riots and Pogroms, p.11).

Every time these terror attacks, these ethnic riots take innocent lives, I wonder whether we are not too far away from regressing into complete barbarism. The irony of our hi-tech society is that the more we have advanced technological, the more reactionary have we become in terms of humanitarianism. If “eye for an eye” is the philosophy which rules the worldview of several ethnic groups that constitute this nation, the very idea of the Indian nation would collapse very soon, if it practically hasn’t already. Let’s delete such terms as democracy, republic, etc. from our constitution, which barely have anything to do with our present-day reality. The grand narrative of nationalism has already seen its demise in the wake of global postmodernism…only that, we are learning it the hard way. This is, however, not to suggest that any alternative to the democratic framework of the nation is desirable; we do not want India to emulate Burma or Sri Lanka. But what lies ahead is utter darkness. I feel sorry for myself that I cannot afford to be optimistic any more. Is there anyone out there who can see a silver lining anywhere on the fringes of this dark dismal cloud that has covered us?

Friday, November 12, 2010

Varansi: What's not so holy about it!

Well…my nine-day work and play in India’s supposedly holiest city has left me craving for Dettol which would have turned into an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder had I stayed there for even a week more! My heart had already filled with misgivings the moment I had stepped on the platform which, incidentally turned out to be abnormally shorter than the length of the train, causing us to jump and tripping over our luggage which we had literally thrown down beside the track. This was followed by the usual hazards of finding the right kind of transport, and once it was eventually found, we were ushered into pandemonium as it were. Milton would have certainly found more epic similes appropriate to describe hell, had he ever experienced the Varanasi traffic. There were barely any signals, and almost no traffic police (the one we saw at a crossing was busy checking out clothes on the roadside stand), and what we witnessed on the streets was ten times less disciplined than the post-Tsunami chaos one encountered in the South Asian islands. Thankfully there were no buses; the smaller vehicles bumped into each other, rubbed against each other, shoved people (and the ubiquitous oxen) out of their way, yet, nobody complained, as if, chaos was the order! And I better not talk about the pedestrian! I found it difficult to apply even ‘downmarket’ to them; that was discovered to be a serious understatement. In fact, there are no adjectives in the English dictionary to sufficiently describe the crowd which famously or infamously resembled our Canning/Diamond Harbour counterpart. Arrrrrrrrrrrrrgh! What struck me in the midst of the chaos was that the city was terribly dirty! I doubt whether there is at all any sanitary system, or may be a different meaning of sanitation is in vogue there! By the time we reached our hotel, we were imagining dirt trickling down our bodies, which no ablution ceremony could purge.

The Dashwamedh Road, where we stayed, could even give our Chandni Chowk a run for its money, for a never-ending stream of humanity floated over it, as perennially as the Ganga herself. And this part of the city was a curious mixture of tradition and modernity! Signs of globalization existed side by side with the past which made itself heard rather stridently. Global travellers strolled on the streets taking in the chaotic oriental holiness, overwhelmed by the spirituality which was rather palpable. The Kashi Viswhanath Temple and the Annapurna Temple were only two of the several holy abodes that housed around 84 lakh gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon. Spirituality was literally in the air, but depressingly undercut by a feeling of nausea that never seemed to desert me. The only time, I felt sufficiently removed from the calamity that reigned was at the time of the Ganga-Aarti, a ritualistic performance with several props. Holy songs accompanied the dance-like movements of the priests (might not be priests, actually) who carefully performed the Aarti in remarkable harmony with each other in front of an awestruck audience. The scene appeared heavenly from the boat floating on the river.

The famous alleyways were remarkably adventurous, giving you the feel of getting lost in a maze, with old intimidating houses augmenting the feeling of claustrophobia with every step that was taken. You would be invariably reminded of Jatayu who had felt that every single house lining the alleyways was haunted. Yes, true enough! They were haunted by the past, overburdened by the histories they carried with them. In certain places, it seemed as if history was caught in a time-warp and had not been allowed to flow on. And as we took the boat-ride, we were taken back in time, for the scene on the shore appeared to belong to another era altogether. In the boatman’s narrative myth and history effortlessly slipped into each other: it was difficult to filter out myth from history. While it seemed that this journey had brought us closer to the mythological figures of Shiva, Parvati or such epic characters like Rama and Sita, we also seemed to be in dialogue with such recent historical figures like Munshi Premchand. The feeling that time had flown uninterrupted with the perennially flowing river made us feel a ripple flowing down the spine…! We too were an important part in the everlasting river of human history.

P.S: The cuisine: if you cannot do without non-veg, well, Varanasi is not a place for you. But, if you know how to spot the right eating-place, then, even veg dishes could be mouth-watering. We doted on Shree Café, behind the Dashwamedh Lodge, which we accidentally discovered for the restaurant recommended to us was closed. Punjabi, Chinese and Israeli dishes that comprised the menu were marvellous. My insatiable lust for flesh (read chicken, mutton, etc) was to a great extent appeased by the food Shree Café served. And then, there were traditional Varanasi items to taste. First, rabri and then, of course, a huge spectrum of sweets. Although, I am not too much of a sweet-person, I could not really resist the temptation of tasting a few. The rabri was awesome, and it’s a different experience to have it while it was being made. And not to forget the kauchoris and samosas! I believe Varanasi is perhaps most traditional here: the people are simply not bothered about calorie-gain! No matter how many global clothes the roadside stands that have gobbled up half the roads display, the food habit seems to have remained unchanged!

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Two recent television ads and ‘gay’ sites of sexual ambivalence

Still from the Wild Stone Ad
The Wild Stone Talc for Men ad pleads with the men: DO NOT SMELL LIKE A WOMAN…SMELL LIKE A MAN. The very constructed nature of gender becomes more than apparent in the plea. The ad begins with images of men who the hypermasculine voice-over (speaking grammatically incorrect English) points out as effeminate and therefore ‘wrong’: a man with long hair, a metrosexual man in a parlour and an overweight man who cries and expresses joy in an effeminate way. However, in the ad, the male body is offered as an object of desire; the man, so far used to using women’s talcum powder makes seductive ‘feminine’ gestures…his muscular body does not quite match with his ‘imposed’ effeminate movements (this is made clearly evident)…thereby underlining the gap between masculinity associated with a well-built body and effeminacy which is ‘other’ to the muscular body. The simple equation that is thereby generated between the muscular body and manliness in turn generates an essentialization of the structure of the body and sexual behaviouralism. This essentialization is dangerous and unfortunately enough this has entered the popular consciousness. In fact, this notion by extension misinterprets effeminacy as gayness in most cases. (Also note the man in the ad is wearing baby pink) That there is no absolute connection between homosexuality and effeminacy is barely focussed upon in popular culture. As a result, incorrect ideas about masculinity, homosexuality, etc continue to circulate and get embedded in the popular unconscious.

However, the question of gaze becomes important here. Who does the camera assume as audience? Certainly, it intends to draw a loathsome reaction from the homophobic crowd, both male and female or those who do not believe in sexual ambivalence. But, by exhibiting the male body as spectacle doesn’t it also open up space to accommodate the heterosexual female as well as gay, bisexual and transsexual audiences as well?

A still from the Pepsi Ad
The second ad I would like to draw attention to is the latest Pepsi Youngistan ad featuring Ranbir Kapoor. The situation is rather funny: a guy has come to see a girl, and Pepsi is served; a marriage negotiation is on the cards. The girl is rather reluctant to marry. Suddenly Ranbir materializes from nowhere and kisses the would-be-groom on the cheeks. The guy is flabbergasted, the parents shocked, and the girl is delighted. The guy really does not know Ranbir and he says so; immediately another guy materializes from an adjacent room and asks the would-be-groom sadly whether he would also deny knowing him. The negotiation is broken off immediately and the girl thanks the boys for the drama. But they say they are there for the Pepsi; not to help her.

The little drama that Ranbir conjures up is surprisingly without any hidden mockery at gayness per se. The theme of the ad is totally in tune with the pranks Ranbir is usually seen to play on others in these ads with a characteristic naughtiness. Somehow one is bound to feel that after all some kind of naturalness is attributed to the possibility of homosexual affairs. However, the appearance of the second guy who also claims to be in a relationship with the would-be-groom underscores the polygamous nature of homosexual people. This is a kind of essentialization, no doubt. But, in a way, it also underscores the positive possibility of being in more than one relationship at the same time. The morality associated with heterosexual marriage and monogamy is overturned very subtly. However, the interpretation of this may vary. Some may look upon the introduction of the second guy as a disapproving commentary on the promiscuous nature of gay men. However, this may be read down by drawing attention to the fact that Youngistan wants more and still more…their desires are insatiable. Such desire is not only confined to the material realm of gadgets, food or fashion, but also effortlessly extends to the emotional world. So promiscuity or multiple affairs have become the order of the day, and are not specific only to same-sex relationships.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

"Autograph": Signature of Love

The film sets in to usher you into wondering how many narrative frames are actually at work. It’s not confusing, but thrilling to note that the extra-diegetic circumstances leading to the making of Autograph itself may be at work here: I mean, a debutant director approaching a veteran actor to do his film. Is Subho (Indraneil Sengupta), Srijit Mukherjee himself? Are the initial scenes a direct one-on-one take on what happened in real life? And, then, there’s this film within the film. So, what you have is a Chinese box narrative, facilitating a complex layering that does not confuse but please with all its intricacies.

Intertextuality is a trope that is ardently adopted by postmodern artists, for no work of art can claim to be original. Either overtly or covertly, subtexts of already written texts are present in every work of art is produced, and therefore, the heavy subtext of Nayak that underlies (or overlies, perhaps) Autograph fascinate as the audience is sort of engaged almost compulsively into a mind game whereby he/she delightfully recognizes the similarities with the Ray classic and of course, the departures from them. What is praiseworthy is that despite being ambitious (the ambition being as monumental as remaking Nayak), the film is completely unpretentious and somewhat humble in its treatment of the subject. Srijit Mukherjee would never invite the kind of criticism that Sanjay Leela Bhansali had to face in his attempt to remake Devdas; for very intelligently this debutant director somehow does not leave any space for comparison. Autograph is a new film, in the true sense of the term.

The love that blossoms between Arun (Prosenjit Chatterjee) and Srinandita (Nandana Deb Sen) is something that we had desirously expected to bud between the debonair Uttam Kumar and the coy Sharmila Tagore in Nayak. The suggestion of a developing soft corner was there, but that never matured. Autograph sort of compeletes, yet leaves incomplete that seemingly infinitely postponed romance in the beautiful emotional drama that shapes up involving the veteran actor and the debutant heroine. The film does send out a moral lesson, but so subtly that if you are not to alert you may just miss out on it. Subho’s transformation is the key to the moral: juxtapose the two scenes: Subho smilingly putting a coin on the beggar-boy’s plate and Subho rolling up the cab window as the beggar-boy expectantly peers in, towards the end of the film. Nothing great apparently: but do note Indraneil Sengupta’s expressions in both scenes. Mute, but they speak volumes. Indraneil would take you by storms. He is the discovery of the millennium, as far as Bengali cinema is concerned. He has effortlessly overshadowed Prosenjit who seems a bit strained. He does not really have the charisma of Uttam Kumar and he struggles to look believable. Nonetheless, he has tried --- a far cry from what he does in other films, generally.( I would like to point out that whatever Prosenjit did after his remarkably intense performance in Dosor, seemed to lack in something. It would be difficult for him to outperform himself. The intended irony was towards Konkona, but ironically enough, it was Prosenjit who drew all our tears by his sheer helplessness!) Nandana puts up a believable performance…a good choice!

The songs are marvellous! I am still revelling in the rhythms “Amake aamar moto thakte dao”…kudos to Debojyoti Mishra! Soumik Halder’s camera credibly enlivens the very urbanity of Calcutta and the depth of melancholia that resides in the interstices of the city. Note the scene where a flock of white birds fly over the vast expanse of the city at daybreak. It’s heart-warming! Srijit Mukherjee is certainly the new director on the block we can now look up to! The good news is that perhaps Bengali cinema is once again coming of age!

Monday, October 11, 2010

"Do Dooni Char": Value for money happily redefined

Walt Disney’s foray into Bollywood could not have been more delightful; having tickled the funny bone of millions across the globe, Walt Disney stays true to its favourite genre in Habib Faizal’s Do Dooni Char, only that the latter conflates the tragic and the comic with a light-heartedness that brings it close to black humour, but the angst is more of an undertone than overtly felt. What touches most is the palpable reality of middle-class-ness and its irresistible consumerist aspirations: the Duggal family becomes a metonymy of the middle class and its perpetual monetary constraints. The furniture, the bedcovers, the stained chopping board, the clothes…in fact, everything is quintessentially middle class, yet the ‘feel good’ factor is never missed. For, the extraordinary couple Rishi and Neetu Kapoor bring effortless warmth into the family which grows more real with every passing minute. The main action of the film concentrates on the transition which the Duggal family almost challengingly undertakes from an almost dilapidated scooter to a four-wheeler. What follows is a crazy but highly identifiable drama with all its middle class nuances, ending up in the victory of the Duggal family. I consciously use the term ‘victory’ here, for the film does end up celebrating fundamental middle class values of honesty and perhaps the sheer happiness that comes from achieving goals through hard work, and a general deprecation of dishonest shortcut to easy money.

The film comes at a time when inflation has reached one of its rare heights, terribly affecting the middle-class. The disadvantages of globalization are perhaps felt a little more intensely now that the cultural capital of the middle-class has considerably increased, but the sustenance of the same seems difficult. The new consumerist generation feels no qualms to bid farewell to old moral values, for the only ethos available to them is money. Recalling the simplicity of folklores, Do Dooni Char primarily addressing GenY, tells an everyday story finally ending with a moral. The victory of the father lies not only in his success in buying a small car for the family, but in his success in being able to convert his children to his own world-view. I highly recommend this film to everyone. It’s truly value for money redefined; it fact, literally. You would get the intended pun in the last sentence only when you watch the film.

P.S: The Neetu-Rishi chemistry sizzles with a dignity that perfectly suits their age. Pity that son Ranbeer is trying hard to draw audiences to his Aanjana Aanjani at the same time. The parents have won over the son, hands down.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Food Soulful!

Paneer makhani

My microwave tales have been almost verging on the irritating for my dear colleagues were not getting to taste anything…so theoretical renditions of fabulous microwave yields were simply grating on their nerves, and all my valorous culinary experiments were, perhaps, becoming suspicious. Finally, however, I promised them to bring something, microwaved to college. I thought of several things: chicken fry, chicken butter masala, paneer butter masala, etc…but finally zeroed in on paneer makhani. And to compliment that asked Ma to make alu ka paratha. Pure North Indian cuisine from a middle class Bengali kitchen. However, my colleagues (barring Samata) are barely bothered about the origin of a dish…they generally do not mind anything as long as it is chewably digestible.

Alu ka paratha
My text-messages started spreading the news of a hatke Monday lunch as I shopped for paneer makhani. Paneer, tomatoes, ginger, garam masala, tomato ketchup, kasuri methi, cashew nuts, butter, and milk. I was specifically worried about the kasuri methi; it was an unavoidable ingredient but Sujan is psychologically allergic to anything green. So, I had to message him in advance that he should not mistake kasuri methi for dhone pata, the latter being a major turn-off for him. Suman has already gone onomatoepic in his messages, expressing lustful anticipation for a superb Monday lunch, thereby augmenting my tension manifold. I did not inform Krishnendu, the food-freak hard to match in enthusiasm, for I wished to surprise him on Monday. And, Sujan had almost compelled me to add another guest on the list: Kinsuk. It’s not that I did not wish to invite him; but it was Sujan who had almost made me call him up injecting in me a fear that I might die repenting later if I had not.

A sumptuous amount of paneer cooked in butter base was not good for Sujan, at least. Samata and I have been advising him on resorting to a healthy diet (which meant sufficient amount of vegetables and items containing fibre), for Sujan is one big (literally too) carnivorous guy who has never known the taste of green vegetables. I was feeling a tad guilty, for inviting him to eat something I had been sagaciously advising him against having. Anyways…

Sauteed Vegetables
We had fixed 1o’clock as our lunchtime, and all five of us gathered around the table of our department. Now, Samata had a surprise. She did not tell me that she had cooked something ‘really’ Chinese for us. Samata often saves us from the atrocious canteen offerings by her delicious cheese spreads, and sometimes something from Bobby di’s kitchen. This was the first time she had actually cooked something. What? Vegetables, mushrooms and paneer sautéed in soya-sauce. It smelt so Chinese, and it tasted so as well. The recipe was unostentatious, but amazing. Well, Samata had not flouted the health rules we were trying to impose on Sujan: she had him have a purely veggie dish for the first time; and that too cooked in negligible amount of oil. Sujan’s first step to healthy eating!

The fusion spread on the table (North Indian alu ka paratha and paneer makhani with Chinese-style sautéed vegetables) looked just as odd as chalk-and-cheese, but the whole thing reminded me of the inexpert charuibhatis (picnic) we used to have years back! The ambience was actualized by the juvenile excitement of Sujan, Suman and Krishnendu…all three made it a day for us, simply by praising our effort.

I also surprised myself. The paneer predominantly tasting of kasuri methi simply melted into asking for more while the alu ka paratha rocked. I am not sure whether the food was really that good! But all of us were happy. Perhaps that seasoned the spread generously.

Image Courtesy: Sujan Chandra

Monday, August 23, 2010

Peepli [Live]: All is not so well!

The news of Jitu Bagdi’s suicide is what I woke up to today in the morning...the 28-year old sharecropper, a resident of Karotia village in the Burdwan district, poisoned himself to death, unable to payback a loan of Rs. 10,000 (approximately US $ 200), as the crops failed due to scanty rainfall. Five kilometres away, in the village of Basantapur, another suicide was reported a few days ago…Yunus Sheikh another peasant had met with the same fate having failed to repay a loan of Rs. 22,000 (approximately US $ 440). Anusha Rizvi’s Peepli [Live] delves into this grim reality, and commendably so, but despite the sincere efforts, remains somehow detached from the real tragedy. By resorting to the comic mode, it manages to be sporadically entertaining, but the way the narrative is designed is quite predictable. In fact, Rizvi makes too much of the media, and at times, the audience ends up feeling confused whether it’s a lampoon on the media or satire on a major social problem. Actually by taking the satire on the media to an irritating, unbearable extreme, the director often loses focus.

However, the film does have its sunshine moments, thanks to the ensemble cast of non-stars, each of whom delivers power-packed performances. The difficult-to-pacify, half-paralysed, petulant mother who half-rises from her shabby khatia to abuse her daughter-in-law or shout at her good-for-nothing sons and the misfortune they have brought upon the family, is someone you would look forward to as one scene fades into another. The peasant brothers are brilliant too: especially Nattha who turns into a hero overnight having declared that he would commit suicide. The scene where the two brothers fight with fraternal affection against each other as to who would commit suicide is perhaps the most comical of all the scenes, most of the others verging precariously on the slapstick. Little did Nattha know that his life would be transformed in a twinkling of an eye, and all the media attention he gets thereafter makes his life hellish. The government officials, the ministers, the local political leaders are unsparingly satirised, and much of what they do to save the peasants makes for a laughing circus, which, as it goes without saying, does not yield any results. The ending of the film is certainly a telling commentary on how peasants are forced to migrate from the villages in search of asylums in cities, where they are thrust into life-long anguish and pain, no better than the life they have left behind. The poor peasant who quietly drags his loaded bicycle past the media-mela (carrying sacks of soil he digs out from his land), and dies in the end, but does not get any media attention, is another character one may look forward to.

Now friends, a word of caution: Do not rave about Peepli [Live] because everybody is raving about it. If you do not call the film good, your capacity to sympathise with the subaltern would not be called into question. Judge the film from the point-of-view of a film critic and not a social reformer, and you would surely find it wanting. The film is entertaining stuff…and by the virtue (or vice) of being so, the film becomes a typical bourgeoisie take on a serious peasant issue, for both eyes of the business-minded producer (read Aamir Khan) were on the box-office. Yes, the subaltern really cannot speak, and that’s why the bourgeoisie can gleefully sentimentalise on their issues…and when they really speak out…well, our government is already having sleepless nights, no?

P.S: The film may also be judged as a deliberate exercise in lightening the whole issue of peasant suicides for that's what the government has been doing so far. From this point of view, the film may appear a little more appealing.

Friday, August 13, 2010

"Once Upon a Time in Mumbai": Retelling a Postmodern Myth

Are myths really timeless? Yes, they are. Is it impossible to trace the origin of a myth? No, not really. For, myths do not always belong to prehistoric times. Myths can be created every day. In fact, the myths surrounding the Mumbai underworld are perhaps the most recent, and created and perpetuated by the Hindi film industry. Beginning in the late 60s, throughout the 70s and well into the 80s, this myth has been repeated so many times that for a Hindi film-buff the villain had become synonymous with the smuggler, who lived in a palatial mansion with an underground den having electrocuted entrances and where money, jewellery and all sorts of desirable things were hidden in chambers with password protected doors and blinking red-lights. This is magic realism at its best. Postmodern fictional representation often uses a trope which is referred to as ‘literalization of metaphor’. These fantastical garish films of the 70s and 80s did not ever use the world underworld. Rather they literally situated the villain (or the don) in a den that was underground. The best example would be Mogembo’s hi-tech den in Mr. India.

The Hindi film villain was always a diabolical smuggler, who also became a tragic hero in Don. Although the villain was finally killed, and all was set aright, the glamour surrounding the underworld and the easy road to money it ensured was difficult to overlook. The city of Bombay, apart from being the epicentre of the film industry and the associated glamour, also catapulted into a much desirable destination, thanks to the rumours (sometimes truths) about how its underworld was a utopia where fame, money, glamorous women and every other pleasure was easily accessible. Milan Lutharia’s Once Upon a Time in Mumbai, traces the reality behind the origin of the myth. ‘Once upon a time’− the very title resorts to the oft-repeated first line of fairy tales, thereby cleverly juxtaposing legend and reality, for it squarely locates the myth in a real space − the city of Mumbai. Although the disclaimer denies any relation to the lives of Haji Mastan and Daud Imbrahim, the story as it unfolds, speaks otherwise. One may argue that Once Upon a Time in Mumbai is nothing new, for Ram Gopal Varma has already told the same story in his critically acclaimed Company years ago. But the novelty of this film is that it not only reveals the myth which has so far served as the main source of plot material for numerous Hindi movies of the 70s, it also goes commendably in the retro mode to tell it in the 70s way! The sets, the costumes, the high-strung acting, the power-packed punch lines, the loud background score…everything is so very 70s, after all. Ram Gopal Varma’s Company was in the realistic mode; but Once Upon a Time, true to its title, recreates the fantastically over-the-top glam-world of the 70s. The departure from the stock 70s plot is made where the film refuses to draw the line between good and bad, and explores the grey area. That a lot of research has gone into the making is clearly visible. However, my approach to the film may send out the wrong signal that I was rather impressed by the movie. Actually I wasn’t. For, after all, the plot and execution is pretty average.

Of the performances, I would rate Emraan Hasmi and Prachi Desai quite high. Ajay Devgn is quite believable in the role he plays. I did not like Kangana Ranaut, for I do not like her, generally. Thank god, she did not sit precariously forlorn on the window sill or attempt suicide in her favourite hang-out, that is, the washroom. The supporting cast does not impress for the focus is so squarely on the two heroes that they almost sleep-walk through the film, it seems. By the way, Randeep Hooda makes a surprise come-back as the tough cop and puts up a praiseworthy show, as slick as his waistline.

I do not really recommend this film, but a one-time watch, when you have nothing to waste money on, is not discouraged.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

"Inception": Maya and all that?

Well, I am still very unsure of my surroundings, although I am already four days away from the curtains closing in upon the end-titles of Christopher Nolan’s path-breaking Inception. No amount of Freud or Jung or any other psychoanalyst can really provide a clue to the narrative that very often crosses the thin line between dream and reality. It’s difficult to make the distinction; a one-time watch is certainly not sufficient to unravel the several levels of dream and reality on which the narrative operates. True, some explanation is given at regular intervals…but following the visuals and interpreting them on your own requires you to be rather alert all the time…on your toes, literally. But it’s fun! It’s like solving a jig-saw puzzle which eternally expands to become more confounding.

And inception…the title…well, it’s a dangerous thing indeed! The film claims that it is possible to implant an idea in someone’s mind and make that person believe in it so deeply that he or she loses individual ways to seeing the world. The very thought is spine-chilling. The colonization of the human mind! Shall we say this is technological imperialism taken to its furthest limit?

And, there is this incredible machine that helps one visit someone else’s dream! Just come to think of it! And once again, this machine is used to visit the dream of a business tycoon…a marvellous game is played to incept in his brains the disastrous idea of splitting up his business empire for the benefit of his competitor who pays for the whole thing. This competitor is a South-east Asian. Does the film anticipate the rise of some other world power in the near future that might jeopardize the American sway across the globe?

Whatever it is, I highly recommend Inception. It’s a must-watch for that awesome mind-spinning experience and the associated pleasurable discomfort that stays with you for a long time.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

"Udaan": Up, up, up!

Vikramaditya Motwane’s Udaan could have been lost in oblivion had not the Cannes breakthrough happened. It’s a very small film, and every frame, though shot commendably, shows how little money might have gone into its making. Money, in this case, did not matter. The Cannes recognition did not come just like that; though not completely flawless, Udaan struck gold at Cannes by a theme which has barely found focus in Indian films. It’s a very simple yet vehement critique of gender construction, an uncompromising unravelling of the deeply flawed conception of masculinity that has often wrought political havoc. The nerve-racking conflict between Rohan (Rajat Bamacheri, quite good as a debutant…not brilliant though) and his father (Ronit Roy in his Bandini avatar) and the latter’s triumph in the end dismantle a long history of a heteronormative patriarchal hegemony. The insensitive, militant and almost bestial father is apparently the villain and Rohan and his half-brother’s monumental struggle is to free themselves from his strangling control. In fact, while the audience’s full sympathy is directed towards the helpless boys, the sensitive makers (the trio of Motwane, Anurag Kashyap and Sanjay Singh) did not allow the audience to miss the helplessness of the father as well. The father rock-hard on the outside is not butter-soft in the inside − now that would have been an unforgivable cliché. If you are sensitive enough, you would certainly feel the father’s tragic predicament in his failure to understand how inextricably he has been interpellated in a system which so strongly demands hard-heartedness, militancy and a sheer sense of utilitarianism from a man that he has altogether lost his emotional self. Two of his wives are dead (the clear implication is that they were victims of his lust or his unearthly anger), he cannot relate to his sons, and he harbours a profound hatred for his brother who, he believes, is not manly enough for he has not been able to father a child. Surprisingly, however, he refrains from meeting Rohan in school fearing that he may spoil his fun. He is aware of his failure, yet cannot comprehend the reason behind it. In an emotionally charged moment, he confesses that he is simply tired of compromising with others, a compromise that had begun with his father. He is just another generation in a long lineage of patriarchal Fathers faced with a son who challenges his fixated notions of being and becoming a Man.

Rohan’s ambition of becoming a writer is totally alien to this father who only believes in the undaunted pursuit of worldly-ends. As Rohan operates the monstrous machine in the factory, his dream seems to be ground to death, every time the machine comes thumping down. His father in a drunken state teases him about his girl-like features and his ‘feminine’ ambition. Rohan’s subalternity in the household is also shared by his six-year-old half-brother Arjun whose childhood seems to have been robbed off. But Rohan learns to speak; in a dramatic altercation with the father, he ends up physically retaliating him. He literally runs away from the house, with the father chasing him. But this time he wins the race, and the exhausted father finally gives up on him. He, however, comes back to take away with him little Arjun. They are both freed from the prison, and they head for the dream city of Mumbai.

The ending is a tad utopian, but, nonetheless necessary. Although all fathers are not usually like Rohan’s, the model of aggressive hypermasculinity is more often than not the only compulsive model available to male children. Any digression from it is met with disdain and insult, often compelling children to forsake their true selves. Rohan’s father is a hyperbolic representation of many fathers who often impose upon their male children their own image. Rohan’s protest and final abandonment of the house is a telling act that steals the sanctity associated with the figure of the father and the mute submission he demands of his wards. Udaan, therefore, is not merely a coming-of-age story as the publicity campaigns call it. It’s much more than that. Indeed, while watching the film, I felt a bit uncanny that last week only I had been cribbing about the relationship between gender constructs and being adept in Mathematics on my blog. Udaan gives an aesthetic expression to my essay on “What’s there in Mathematics?” I hope you understand what I mean.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

What’s there in Mathematics?

How many of you out there have suffered unspeakable heart-wrenching humiliation for not being good in Maths? I guess quite a handful of you, indeed! Even those who have somehow managed to become engineers and doctors! Well, all of a sudden, this morning I felt like retaliating for the endless insults naïve children have suffered in school, at home, among so-called sharper friends for having arithmophobia!

Now I was quite good in Maths, but somehow, I suffered from a constant fear that if I fail to cross that 80% bar this year, I shall fall in the eyes of my parents, teachers and classmates. Not only that, today, in retrospection, have I felt that proficiency in Maths has a lot to do with your maleness too. If you are not good in Maths, you are not a man…you are a sissy. Alarming indeed and that too in a country where a Sankuntala Devi was born! I remember that my parents were always more bothered about my marks in Maths, notwithstanding the fact that I was scaling heights in the Humanities. I almost ruefully recall that I could not even happily pronounce high scores in, say, Geography, if the marks in Maths were not up to the expectation. I knew what would follow was an awful humiliation…intimidating anticipations about my future when I would surely be left jobless. Such terrible scolding often left me dejected for days, and spent midnight oil apprehending a beggar’s future. I had seriously started believing that everything, even your life and of course, death, totally depended on your potential of solving Maths problems. My belief was strengthened as the years passed, for I witnessed a huge population of children suffering under the auspices of not being able to make out what was the use of the information that the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle was greater in length than the two other sides.

Nobody bothers to teach children the philosophy of Maths; instead, they have attached with the subject a baggage of materialism: If you can’t be an expert in Maths, life will reject you forever! Isn’t that a criminal offence? I strongly think it is. Name one Maths teacher who can make you fall in love with Maths. Can you? Perhaps, no. For, most Maths teachers do not know how to relate those problems in the textbook with life. Now please do not take this at face value! Connecting Maths textbook problems with life doesn’t imply that knowing how to measure a line correctly can help you draw the plan of a house perfectly in the future. That’s useless knowledge! All of us do not turn into architects or goddamn civil engineers. I mean a more universal knowledge, knowledge of life! Surely, Maths can do that! But is that the way school textbooks teach the subject? Do they at all do anything rather than throwing many of us in the Darsheel Safary syndrome with its endless rubbish on numbers? Do these text books and for that matter the dolts that teach these books ever try to play with the magic of numbers and erase the fear from the little heads?

And to the parents: Do not feel at a loss when your child cannot score well in Maths. You know, that’s a good sign. At least, he or she would not degenerate into a machine. Celebrate if he or she excels in the Humanities…that would make them real human beings. I had deliberately given up on Maths in spite of a good score at the JEE. Instead I chose to study English Literature. Nothing catastrophic has happened to me, you see! I am quite successful in life, in my own little way, and thank God, calculations do not plague my peaceful slumber!

Saturday, June 26, 2010

"Rajneeti": It’s for Ranbir only!

There is a famous Bengali proverb: Jaha nei (Maha)bharat e taha nei bharat e. There is nothing in India that has not found mention in the Mahabharata. Therefore, many Indian narratives, if read closely, would reveal some connection with this marvellous epic. One need not deliberately device a plot recalling the epic. Rajneeti as a re-telling of the Mahabharata, therefore, does not appeal in the first place. It would appear in even poorer light to those who have seen Shyam Benegal’s masterpiece Kaliyug. Although Anjum Rajabali, the co-script writer, claims that he has not seen this Benegal magnum opus, the film speaks otherwise. There are actually too many similarities. Benegal’s film based on the story of a business empire split into two had intelligently used tropes from the Mahabharata to apply to a capitalist post-industrial world, establishing the timelessness of myths. But Rajneeti cannot claim such artistic excellence, for one does not really need a conscious revoking of the Mahabharata myth to interpret the current political scenario of India.

What keeps you glued to the chair in Rajneeti is not the story; it’s much too predictable…it’s actually Ranbir Kapoor’s astounding Samar! You witness open-mouthed as this apparently ‘good’ boy pursuing his PhD in “Subtextual Violence in Nineteenth Century Victorian Poetry” in a foreign university graduates cold-bloodedly into a diabolic schemer at the onset of the epical tragedy that overtakes his family’s political career when his father is brutally murdered by his cousin’s men. Ranbir speaks through his eyes; his body language is so articulate that he does not need dialogues. His metamorphosis is so sudden but so believable only because this awesome actor carries off such transformation with an unmatchable aplomb. When he proposes to Indu (Katrina Kaif) he manages to emulate genuine emotions in his voice, although he does not love her. Simultaneously, he also manages to send a shiver down the audience’s spine for he is able to send the message across that he is making this compromise only to win over Indu’s father’s financial support of his party. The undertone of the satanic schemer does not once mar the ingenuous tone of the proposal, but compliment each other. Ranbir takes a very large slice of the cake in the acting department indeed leaving a very small portion for the others to lay claims on.

However, Nana Patekar impresses with his subtle performance. Arjun Rampal has managed to gather a little more than the infamous two-n-a-half expressions that hang on his face all the time. Ajay Devgn and Manoj Bajpai irritate. And Katrina Kaif? Would someone please show her the exit door? She has all kinds of weird expressions on her face which she mistakes as ‘acting’…expressions murderous (literally!) enough to compel you to leave the theatre. Thanks heavens, her presence is rather negligible compared to the huge retinue of male actors. And the hype and hoopla surrounding her Sonia Gandhi act is a wonderfully misleading publicity stunt. She appears in that famous cotton saree for two-n-a-half scenes, much to your relief, of course, and that too at the fag end of the movie. And what acting! O my God! Her eyes and her lips (and whatever comes of it in atrocious Hindi) are so out-of-tune with each other that the scene appears to be one of those American Teleshopping advertisements dubbed in Hindi. All Katrina Kaif films must henceforth carry with them in no ambiguous terms a statutory warning: Watching Katrina Kaif act may be injurious to your psychic well-being. Come at your own risk!

Well, Rajneeti has been declared a box-office hit and the Jha camp is going gaga over it. But it’s not a good film; an average venture in all sense of the term. Due to lack of other solid competitors it has managed to draw the audiences to the theatres, the failure of Ravaan, for example, adding more to its success! I would contend here that Prakash Jha is more in his elements on a smaller canvas. He is a good filmmaker; no two ways about that. But in Rajneeti, under the compulsion of generating a full-fledged entertainer, he had to do away with attention to details. It’s true that Indian politics has undergone a remarkable degeneration, and the film fittingly captures it; but it should have been more specific and individualistic. It seems to be a rather long sweeping statement on the degeneration of politics at large. The director does not even bother to locate the film. The map of the state often shown is a vague simulacrum of the state of Madhya Pradesh. But contemporary cinema has come a long way to be bold enough to be specific about its setting. Had the film been made in some other mode, apart from the realistic one, it could have afforded to be that fuzzy. But not in a realistic mode, no matter how melodramatic it may be! It cannot afford to be “Once upon a time somewhere in India…” story. Nonetheless, it’s a good one-time watch; only blind yourself of Katrina’s catastrophic presence.

Note: I have even chosen a poster without Katrina in it!

Sunday, June 6, 2010

"Mahanagar@Kolkata": Postmodern City Blues

Michael de Certeau in his renowned piece “Walking in the City” writes:

Their story begins on ground level, with footsteps. They are myriad but do not compose a series. They cannot be counted because each unit has a qualitative character: a style of tactile apprehension and kinaesthetic appropriation. Their swarming mass is an innumerable collection of singularities. Their intertwined paths give their shape to spaces. They weave places together. In this respect, pedestrian movements form one of these ‘real systems whose existence in fact makes up the city’.
This is so true of Suman Mukhopadhyay’s Mahanagar@Kolkata: it captures contemporary Kolkata by collecting singularities and merging them together in a dramatic mingling of three short stories by Nabarun Bhattacharyya recalling an outstanding Bollywood flick Love, Sex Aur Dhokha (See review below). The title unambiguously alludes to the 1964 Satyajit Ray classic Mahanagar, the new codicil @Kolkata underlining the city’s ushering into the globalized e-world. Certainly the city has made a long journey since Ray’s Mahanagar; the skyscrapers harbouring offices and commercial centres that crowd the final scene of the film have now become the abodes of estranged relationships, of suicidal men and women, an existentialist angst having crept into their very being. Promoters, an MBA-holder, a night-club regular proficient in Marx, a modern day wife unable to connect with her husband, a corporation officer, a tea-stall owner living in the slum, a superstitious father, and a dark gang having clear connection with political parties: their paths intertwine to make the city and how!

Manmotho (Anjan Dutta) and Jagadish (Biplab Chatterjee) meet on the premises of a government-run hospital and witness a brutal political murder. The hospital has by that time turned into a den where party-backed goondas hide, pretending to be ill, and taking in prostitutes every night. Jagadish’s weird belief that nothing can go wrong with him for he carries with himself a piece of rope used by a maid to hang herself unsettles Manmotho visibly. In a surreal night of wind and the rain, while Jagadish narrates his intriguing story of how he got hold of this exclusive piece of rope, an imbecile murder is committed. Jagadish continuously appeals to Manmotho to blind himself: “Don’t look!” It’s a kind of blindness which all the city-dwellers have voluntarily adopted, for that is the only survival strategy. But the irony of it all strikes in the next story when Biren (Arun Mukherjee), a poor man who thrives on others’ favour, is deeply perturbed by a murder in his locality, apprehending an-eye-for-an-eye war to follow soon. His belittled status makes him a laughing stock. His continuous exercise at acquiring assurance by asking all and sundry “Amar kono bhoy nei to?” (“Should I have anything to fear?”), encapsulates the very absurd condition in which every dweller of the postmodern city is caught. Biren’s character recalls so many others of black comedies. When Biren is really killed in a prank played on him by a party-backed goonda of the locality, the latter reiterates the question − Amar kono bhoy nei to? − which makes you feel a shiver run down the spine. You suddenly feel so terribly insecure, for the well-known city is frighteningly defamiliarized! What danger is waiting for you round that corner, so apparently familiar and safe? Do you really have anything to fear? Certainly you have. Only that you do not know it’s nature. Something continues to haunt you from this point on, and stays with you even after you have safely returned home.

Satyajit Ray wished to call his Mahanagar, A Woman’s Place, in English. But that did not happen (The official English title turned out to be as unimaginative as The Big City). But in the gendered space of the city, the woman has always been treated as the subaltern. Ray’s heroine gave up her career protesting against the injustice done to an Anglo-Indian woman. That’s the best she could have done in the face of patriarchal butchery of a woman’s honour. The women in Mahanagar@Kolkata are apparently more liberated, perhaps more empowered. But Suman Mukhopadhyay locates them in history, revoking the unspeakable injustice done to them in the past in public: the vicious Sati. The modern day woman, though liberated, has in her unconscious the terrible memories of the inhuman act deeply embedded. So, in a surreal sequence, we find Rongili (Rituparna Sengupta) undergoing the paraphernalia surrounding the bride to be sacrificed at her husband’s funeral pyre. Incidentally, she is on the verge of separation from her husband Rohit (Chandan Roy Sanyal) who suspects that she is sleeping with some other guy. In the surreal sequence Rongili’s constant companion is Kamalini (Sreelekha Mitra), the night-club queen, least prejudiced about sex and relationships, and someone who dabbles with Marx. Yet, she too is a victim of the patriarchal system, and undergoes the experience related to Sati, although indirectly.

The open-sky economy has opened up immense job opportunities for the educated middle class. We have come a long way from the 1960s, when Ray’s hero, having lost his job, sulks at home. In E-Kolkata, MBA degree-holders float like sewers beneath the roads everywhere, and are barely out of job, no matter what inhuman slavery they are compellingly a part of. Rohit is one such new age hero, although there is nothing heroic about him. For, there are no heroes any more. Suspicious of his wife’s adultery and unprepared for beginning a family, he undergoes tremendous stress, characteristic of the Genex crowd of the metropolis. As in a moment of crisis he takes off his clothes one by one, and madly breaks into a song with his guitar, he screams out his soul as it were…perhaps some emotional protest against what he exactly can’t figure out. Chandan Roy Sanyal is simply brilliant in this particular scene.

Mahanagar@Kolkata is a cult film in its own right…a new way of looking at our city. Although the cinematography is a bit too dull, an excellent script is its strength. Rupam Islam’s music does justice to the theme, and on the acting front all have delivered satisfactorily. Mostly claustrophobic, the film somehow inspires the need to feel this claustrophobia deeply. Squarely located in contemporary West Bengal and its turbulent political atmosphere, Mahanagar@Kolkata mutely apprehends an apocalypse. Suicide, death, violence, corruption and above all the death of compassion shock us…we can no longer afford not to look at things. The voluntary blindness we all have adopted cannot really help us keep that unknowable FEAR at bay.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

You’re standing beyond the reaches of my song…

That’s what the great maestro ruefully sung. His intense urge to unite with the Infinite has found expression in song after song. The union has sometimes seemed almost complete, sometimes impossible…but the appeal never stopped. Ironically enough, while composing such songs, the poet had ended up creating another order of that Infinite. And today, on his sesquicentennial anniversary, we, the lesser mortals have found for ourselves the definition of that Infinite: it’s the Poet himself! Every composition, how insignificant it may be, aspires to attain to that order of the Soulful Infinite. Tagore, for us, has turned into that Shelleyan skylark, the symbol of uncontaminated joy and unpremeditated art, albeit his sweetest songs tell of our saddest thoughts, they have all reached that unreachable: a perpetually flowing river of happiness, where we all stand, wishing to realize that Infinity in our humble attempts at giving expression to life! The craving to merge with the poet would be and has always been a life-long quest for all of us…a quest which is never-ending, but, certainly, worth pursuing.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

From Che to Mickey Mouse: Everyday Signs of American Imperialism

Today while reading a light-hearted article on how Mickey Mouse images abound everywhere, from the walls of parks to advertisement hoardings in Kolkata, I suddenly realised that the same is also true of Che, or Ernest Guevara, who, in the past few years, has become the most favourite T-shirt graphic. These ‘Che’ T-shirts have become somewhat ubiquitous, although teenagers sporting these are seldom aware as to why the man really deserves to be inscribed close to their hearts. Brought into fashion by an American company, these ‘Che’ T-shirts have now flooded the market, having been infinitely reproduced by local companies, and being available at an exceptionally cheap rate. It’s difficult not to spot one ‘Che’ T-shirt on the streets of Kolkata on any given day, as it is difficult not to spot a Mickey Mouse featuring on everyday objects. In fact, both Che T-shirts and the Disney cartoon have become so commonplace that we hardly notice them as staring out of T-shirts or even from bath towels or pillow covers. Yet, if both these figures are remarkably oppositional in the discourses they remind us of.

Although ‘Che’ is more often than not worn for he has a marvellously handsome face which may easily pass as a rock-star’s, his face recalls for many his unyielding struggle against American imperialism in Cuba, Congo or Bolivia, where he died fighting the monster, single-handedly. His very demeanour, the tales surrounding his political career as a revolutionist have gone into the making of a romantic image in the popular imagination, the romantic face of socialist revolution. On the other hand, this apparently innocent Mickey Mouse who enters our classrooms and our moments of fancy has undergone several mutations in its representation, every time cunningly adjusting itself to the changing cultural climates, always keeping intact the supremacy of the United States of America and propagating its invulnerability in the face of the apparently insurmountable economic or political challenges. For instance, the comic strips of the Mickey Mouse and the Three Little Pigs acted as appropriate symbols for the Americans during the Great Depression: these characters epitomized courageous optimism at the time of great crisis. Again, during World War II, particularly during the Holocaust, Mickey Mouse was used to damn Hitler. After the war, the Mouse became the policeman to the world; as a comic he was replaced by Donald Duck who appropriately turned into an apogee of the age of capitalism. The commonest critique of Walt Disney cartoons holds that he promulgates an American way of life as the only possible way of life. Any culturally conscious person should be able to recognize that my interpretation of the Mickey Mouse comic strips is nothing original, but a mere reiteration of what appeared in the hugely famous book How to Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic by Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart, two Latin American writers. This book was banned in the United States, for it tellingly deconstructed the cultural function of the Disney comics.

While it’s therefore understandable why Mickey Mouse-s abound everywhere, it may be a little baffling to read the abundance of ‘Che’ T-shirts on the same lines. But it should not be so. For, the most popular face rivalling the neo-imperialist must also be repeated infinitely and anxiously. The neo-imperialist is smart enough to acknowledge his enemies, for in the tales of their defeat are contained stories of his own sustenance. The discourse of imperialism can never be unidirectional: the subject of imperialism is as much responsible in shaping the discourse. Every time, the ‘Che’ image is repeated, the imperialist’s ego is gratified. It also constantly reminds the imperialist that his project is not without contest, and therefore, it needs to be always watchful of threatening elements. May be the ‘Che’ T-shirt on a South Asian teenager who is at the receiving end of American imperialism may still resonate with a different meaning altogether! But, who actually cares?

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Culinary Chores

My culinary expertise, I believe, has been transmitted to me through my genes, for my Mom is a great cook and so was my Grand-mom! Now that’s nothing new, for everybody feels that they have behind them an interminably long ancestry of cooking proficiency…specially boys who never really stop comparing their moms’ kitchen skilfulness to their wives’ cookery callousness, and no matter, how well their wives cook, they cannot really extricate themselves from this Oedipal Gustatory Complex! But, the wives never question their husbands’ sloppiness in cooking, and continue to bear the burden of inferiority all through their lives, although with ear-splitting protests. The question, they should ask their husbands at the very outset is that, instead of being so sadly nostalgic about their mom’s culinary potentials, why didn’t they, anticipating such cooking catastrophe, had not already learnt from their mom’s the trade secret? For, culinary expertise is also very well transmitted through genes, and it surely does not have gender bias! So, the mother can very well continue to live on in the son, and the poor wife may be spared of her kitchen duties, and relax!

However, I have no such problems, for I am happily single, till date! Yet, I have of late, began to exercise my cooking skills, much to the surprise of my mom, who is rather disconcerted that her monopoly over the kitchen is being considerably usurped. Every time I decide to cook something, my mother goes out of her way to help me with the paraphernalia of chopping and cutting vegetables, pasting spices and arranging the utensils, everything! Therefore, the credit of cooking a dish does not wholly goes to me! A strange battle is fought on the kitchen table, a battle which my Mom does not realise she is actually fighting. I have never pointed that out to her, and I shall never…for, I completely understand that the only space which she can claim to be her own (like countless other women of her country) is perhaps the kitchen. That does not mean that the other spaces are not available to her; but she is most surely the master of this particular space of the house. Hence her involvement. Of course, she does have other concerns that I might cut myself or burn my fingers…but nonetheless, I can feel her anxiety!

But I am an awfully lazy person! I would have barely braved the kitchen so frequently, had not there been a tech-revolution. My new enthusiasm in cooking solely rests on the Microwave which has invaded and colonized our kitchen a few months back. Although, I boast of carrying forward excellent cookery genes to make my entire maternal ancestry proud (for my paternal grandmother is anything but a cook), it is the Microwave and its several heat-adjusting buttons which really create the magic. A Sanjeev Kapoor recipe book remains open on my table from the very beginning to the end, and I follow each step rather punctiliously. And, what emerges out of the oven is generally edible. This, in fact, has become my favourite pastime of late, for the Microwave never-endingly fascinates me with its computerized culinary adroitness. Yet, at the end of every cooking expedition, I do feel a little morose, although the taste may be quite appealing to the gustatory sensations. The cause is something else: it’s like feeling objectified by the very object I have tried to create. Sounds complex? This is because the Microwave seems to smile back at me almost mockingly after I have finished cooking a dish: What have you done? The credit is mine! You know, it is this Microwave, which practically taught me what Marx meant by ‘alienation’ some one and half centuries ago.

Friday, April 23, 2010

The New World Cup Teaser and Fossilization of Africa

Incidentally, while re-reading Ngugi Wa Thiong’o’s Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature, my eyes fell on a television teaser of the upcoming FIFA World Cup sponsored by Castrol GTX. Ngugi, as many of you would know, in his drive at decolonizing the African mind, vehemently rejects European languages as means of expression; he even opposes Africanization of the colonizer’s language. While delving into the paradox of the postcolonial continent, he observes that the neo-colonial ‘comprador ruling cliques are…quite happy to have the peasantry and the working class all to themselves: distortions, dictatorial directives, decrees, museum-type fossils paraded as African culture…all these and more are communicated to the backward masses in their own languages without any challenges from those with alternative visions of tomorrow who have deliberately cocooned themselves in English, French and Portuguese.” While at home, the colonization of the lower classes continues, the images which have become associated with Africa, through the cultural discourse of colonialism, have not really changed. The Castrol teaser shows two young men accidentally falling through an empty Castrol container to emerge in the middle of a dense forest with two lions staring at them; next, they materialize inside a cauldron carried by two native African men in the midst of a tribal procession (made slightly comic…note the expression on the faces of the native men, and how the two boys are appalled by the prospective of being sacrificed; obviously, hinting that the tribe is unambiguously cannibalistic), and finally they pop up in a the middle of the stadium when John Abraham lifts them up. The motive of the ad is to convey to the world that the next World Cup Football is going to take place in Africa. What is painful is that Africa still conjures up in the minds of people across the globe wild animals and weird nocturnal rituals at the heart of the forest! This is, no doubt, an African reality. But, the approach to it is one of comic condescension…a sense of cultural superiority making itself visible in the expression of the two men, incidentally South Asians. And, besides, isn’t Africa something else too? You can’t blame the ad-maker, for he/she has correctly tapped on the popular imagination of the world, when it comes to Africa. What we may ponder over is the immense power of Western cultural imperialism and its tremendous capacity of image-creation! What flustered me is that whether decolonization of the mind is ever possible. Ironically, when such a global phenomenon (that is World Cup Football) is to take place in the continent, age-old fossilized images of the continent continue to act as its identity! It’s undeniable that even before the ad ends, all of us know it has something to do with Africa. For, in our collective unconscious we have always imagined Africa like that only. Who is going to erase such an image…an image that was culturally made current by the European colonizer to justify his imperialistic project in the unsuspecting continent? No academic appeal to reject the language of the master can really affect any overnight transformation. It’s not possible. The disease is too profound to be remedied.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Love, Sex aur Dokha: Experimental at its best!

It’s been really long since we have seen such an experimental film. It’s claustrophobic in the sense that it gives you a terrible feeling that you are under the constant vigilance of an unseen eye! Kind of a Foucauldian panopticon syndrome…the very watchfulness of an unknown pair of eyes that would make you feel imprisoned when you are apparently free! The entire film is shot in a hand-held camera that triples up as the camera of an amateurish filmmaker, the spy-cam of a departmental store, and the hidden camera of sting operation. All three are love stories…the first inspired by the iconic DDLJ, a deglamourised intertext of the same working in and out of the narrative underscoring the remarkable difference between the dream-like romantic world of Bollywood and the murkiness of the real world. The second draws from several MMS scandals that have flooded the internet! The third is based on a sting operation…the project of a news channel to unmask a pop-star, by revealing to the world his casting couch. The film does not resort to any kind of commentary for its difficult to even feel the presence of a director…for in all three stories the camera is controlled by the characters. We see what the characters within the film wish us to show. It is difficult to recall any film where the director is so completely absent. By absenting himself, the director seems to have put the responsibility of telling their own stories to the characters. ‘Mind-blowing’ would be an understatement. It’s brilliant, it’s awesome! In spite of all the experiments, the film does not bore you even for a minute. I had fallen in love with Dibakar Banerjee when he had gifted us with his awesome Khosla ka Ghosla…the respect for him has increased manifold after Love, Sex aur Dhokha! The Indian film industry has really matured…no doubts about that! Three cheers for Indian films! And one more thing...You need no stars to make a good film!!!