Monday, August 30, 2010

More on "Peepli [Live]"

I return briefly to my post on “Peepli [Live]”. I’ve just come across an interview with Peter Brook done a few years ago, in which he was fed questions by several theatre people and critics about his work and his ideas about theatre. The very first question put to him by a theatre director was, “Given the state of political unrest in Africa, is there an appropriate theatrical response?”

I’d like to quote part of his answer to this question because he it says succinctly about plays what I was struggling to say about the film’s approach to the problem of agrarian distress. He says, “It is quite clear that when one takes any political subject straight on the nose, one is in enormous danger of simplifying what everyone knows by heart from television and newspapers. Suppose we do a play about Iraq or genocide or Aids in Africa, it is very hard not to produce stereotype reactions. The only thing political theatre can do is open up contradictions by exposing the other side of an issue. And sometimes, by taking a subject from the past, we can awaken current concerns. Every real political play contains not only vibrant criticism of a ghastly situation. It's only complete if, at the same time, it evokes the possibility of something worth living for. Otherwise grumbling simply produces grumbling.”

I may not go with the last sentiment, because grumbling has a place in a society such as ours. But when the grumble ends once again with the obvious it doesn’t get us anywhere at all. In “Peepli [Live]” the end shows Natha as a construction worker in Mumbai. The contrast between where he once belonged and where he finds himself now is underlined in bold. Tall buildings go up before him as he sits disconsolately on a heap of rubble covered in the white dust of their construction. A caption tells us that X million farmers have migrated to the cities in the last Y decades. That’s sleight of hand. All those millions didn’t come because they’d lost their lands. They came and continue to come because that’s what industrialisation is all about and also because family holdings cannot sustain growing families for ever. Even if Natha had managed to keep his land, one of his sons would have had to migrate to the city. Are we trying to turn the clock back or should we be saying there will always be people who will choose to migrate to cities and that’s fine, but there should also be an assurance of survival for those who choose to stay back and till their land.

Circumstances being what they are, Natha might be allowed to see a silver lining in his present situation; to see that working hard and sending money home for the family was a better alternative to dying so they could live. It’s not the best life but it is work. Work is dignity. It is also an escape from the clutches of the local goonda politicians.

Of the many lovely touches in the film, one is the brief dream Natha has sleeping in the hut where he’s been dumped by his tormentors. He sees himself dressed in yellow silk riding a caparisoned horse. Perhaps a more realistic waking dream about having work and being productive could have put a little light in his eyes at the end of the film. Such an end would not have destroyed the “messages” the film-makers had already communicated about our cynical media and politicians and anti-poor systems of governance. But it would have given us a less maudlin view of migrants. They are poor, sure. They are exploited, sure. But on both counts less so than in the villages they come from. They are tough, these men and women who come to work in the cities. They have clear goals in life. They don’t sit around on rubble heaps inviting people to feel sorry for them.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

[Live] but not alive

I saw “Peepli [Live]” two days ago. Here, first, is my head-view of the film.

My head says the film depicts the truth. How do I know that? Because I read stories and statistics about farmers’ deaths in the papers everyday and I hear television newscasters occasionally breaking news about them. It’s like breaking wind, the only way they can remain in good health they say.

My head tells me the film is right about politicians too. We read those stories too in the papers and hear television newscasters and talk show anchors etc etc.

My head tells me the film has its heart in the right place which, as all of us know, is the left place. The conditions of farmers are dire. In our entire 5,000 year cultural history we have not found a way to beat the rain at its game. In Girish Karnad’s “The Fire and the Rain”, highly placed brahmin pundits hold a huge, huge yadnya to bring rain. At the end the rain comes. So does Indra’s voice, from up above. These things happen in plays, stories, novels, myths being used as metaphors etc.

Some of us believe in the science of yadnyas. Our ancients knew things which modern man foolishly discards as blind faith. Yadnyas are performed today for rain and because we love religious shows. Since belief in ancient science is a matter of faith, we believe the yadnyas work. But they are not known to have brought rain, filled our water reservoirs or irrigated parched fields. So the farmers’ basic most serious affliction remains unaddressed. “Peepli [Live]” demonstrates that this is so.

It also demonstrates other things like the absurdity of government schemes that compensate families of farmers who have committed suicide but do nothing to prevent those suicides. While showing us such worthwhile things about our country and the way it is run, the film also entertains us with excellent dialogue, performances and robust though occasionally erratic camerawork.

Despite all of which, the film fails to engage our mind. The reason is plain. It holds up for our attention what we already know; and since we already know, the thing that is satirically displayed in the hope that the overdoing will somehow penetrate our calloused layers of information. The problem with satire is that there can be no hope of progression. Given how the film begins, we know how it will proceed and how it will end. Its predictability puts our minds to sleep.

Satire is anger’s tool and as cathartic as tears. Let us suppose for a moment that a viewer comes in with zero information baggage. He doesn’t read the papers, doesn’t watch television, doesn’t think. The film tells him all the things about farmers that he should know. If he is sympathetic, he goes away thinking, okay, but what can I do about it? If he is not, he says, wasted evening. They said it’s funny, but it’s not.

The people who are supposed to sit up and take notice, the media, politicians and administrators, have never claimed to be better than their portrayal in the film. So again, it tells them nothing that they don’t know.

Raw knowledge of how things are is not in short supply. Film-makers who wish to turn that knowledge into film must find stories that will grip our imagination, allowing us to discover a new way of looking at what we have always known. Stories as demonstrations of “reality” don’t do that.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

As we stand to salute

I saw Peepli [Live] yesterday evening. I have a few things to say about it but in a separate post. This one is about what inaugurates the PVR Lower Parel film experience. Their “Jana gana mana”.

We are a free country and thereby free to innovate our own national anthem. Keep more or less (very less will do) to the original score and feel free to do your own thing. At PVR they fly a plastic flag on the screen. It looks waxy and doesn’t really fly. It only kind of heaves a little. The opening line is sung by a male, the next by a female and so on till they join voices for the final crescendo, except that in this case we must coin an alternative word to crescendo which I hope will suggest itself to me as we go along.

It is as difficult to catch the quality of a voice in words as it is to catch a colour, a smell or a taste. But I will do my best.

Take a pot of honey. A fuzzy-backed bee bumbles by, spots the honey and stops off for a sip. Its throat grows dreamily sticky and sweet. Now transfer that throat to the male singer of the first line of the national anthem at PVR. Naturally, the words that slip out of it are covered in this sticky, sweet substance. But that substance is further refined by what the Indian understands as the proper voice projection to express noble sentiments. The result is an added glaze of haziness.

The second line is sung by a female. She too has been on the honey pot. But the glaze she has added to the cloying leftovers of that outing is what the Indian understands as the essential sweetness of womanhood. In the role of the essential Indian woman, this singer is called upon to add cute little trills between notes. Her coup de grace is the trill on the dying note of the last ‘jaya he’. The anthem has been so slow and sweet that your dearest desire is to run out and puke when it ends. Then you get this last little trill and you’re nailed to your place in horror.

The idea of playing the national anthem before every show is to instill in us a feeling of pride in a nation that is marching ahead, however reluctant we may be to having such a feeling instilled in us. At Edward theatre, Dhobi Talao, where Majlis held a screening of faded old FD docus about (then) Bombay, a split second before the anthem came on, the usher commanded, “Khade ho jao”. There was threat in his voice, necessary, we inferred, for the Edward regulars. I mention it here just to point out that there are people who may not think there’s much truth in the notion that our nation is marching ahead.

We at PVR are also not encouraged to think so. Rather, the picture we are given is of a nation that has taken time off to sit in a garden stringing garlands of dainty flowers while everything else runs to seed. The charitable view of PVR then could be that, far from being proof of a wimpy idea of anthems reflected in a godawful choice of voices, their “Jana gana mana” is a heart-felt comment on the state of the nation.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Image seekers

I agree with Mani Shankar Aiyer in essence, although, taken as a whole, his outbursts against the Commonwealth Games sound like axe grinding. The idea I am wholeheartedly with is the need to put money and efforts into excelling in sports, making an international mark and then aspiring to host mega sports events.

One doesn’t know the process by which nations get selected as hosts for these events. Is it enough for them to thump their chests and say we can do it? Or is there a process by which their claims are examined? Are track records checked? Are there parameters against which a nation’s real rather than imagined preparedness determined? How far down the infrastructural ladder can a host nation afford to be if it is to meet deadlines? Are cultural blocks in the way of meeting deadlines such as proven corruption and inefficiency taken into account? Does someone mull over other cultural clues like the phrases by which a nation happily describes its attitudes, in our case “chalta hai” and “we are like that only”?

I have my doubts. But let’s take it from where we are. We’ve asked for this responsibility and been given it. We might even pull it off without too many noticeable glitches. To wish the event to fail as Aiyer has done, is churlish. I’d rather wish everybody involved (Kalmadi and Dikshit in particular) the very best of luck. Having said that, I must return to my original point about the mismatch between the reality and the image we are aspiring to. What will the image bring us if we manage to make a good show of the Commonwealth Games? We will be known as a country that can organise Commonwealth Games, and by extension, other international sports events. That will look good on the country’s CV. But the reality will also be up there on our CV, looking not so good.

The sports environment in India isn’t healthy. A particularly putrid stink has been in the air for the last few weeks around women’s sports. We do not have a consistent sports policy that assures promising young people the rigorous training required for international competition. Cricket is an exception. As the national mania we must leave it out of this discussion, except to point out that the body which administers it hasn’t come out of the IPL scams smelling of roses.

Saina Nehwal has triumphed because she backs her ambition with hard work, dedication, total focus and objectivity in assessing her strengths and weaknesses in the international context. Before her, her trainer Gopichand and before him Prakash Padukone shone in international badminton. Chess is the other golden feather in our cap. Then there’s tennis where there have been a few enthusing ups, neutralised somewhat by acres of plateau and several downs.

Let’s take the Olympics as a measure of where we are. Khashaba Jadhav won a bronze in 1952 at Helsinki. Milkha Singh, “the Flying Sikh” was a terror on the tracks between 1958 and 1960. He won golds right, left and centre. But when it came to the Rome Olympics in 1960, he lost his bronze in a photo finish. Twenty-four years later, another star runner, P. T. Usha, enacted the same script. It was medals galore before the Olympics and defeat by 1/100th of a second in a photo finish at Los Angeles in 1984. Then there was silence till 2008, when suddenly India won one gold in shooting (Abhinav Bindra) and two bronzes, Sushil Kumar in wrestling and Vijender Kumar in boxing. Soon after Bindra was treated shabbily by Indian selectors who didn’t see the importance of the amount of practice he had to put in to stay where he was.
Point is, we don’t really care about sports. Had we cared, we’d have been at the top more often. Look at the pool we can draw from-- 1,150,000,000 (1.15 billion) people at last count. Why then do we compete so fiercely to host mega sporting events and see them as a mark of national pride? I can think of only one answer. Because we worship false images, and we worship MONEY. We see how much of that has been slipping into committee members’ ever hungry pockets.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Good luck Jane Austen

Sonam Kapoor’s sister Rhea Kapoor has produced a film adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Emma”, to be released this Friday. The publicity has started. It is nothing like what happens with films that feature the Khans or the Bachchans. The budget is probably not impressive compared to their films and, even more importantly, the film is woman-centred, which makes it just a cut above that other down-market category, the “regional” film.
However, what bothered me was not so much how women are seen by the market, but how they see themselves and their work. The headline announcing the film on page 1 of the Bombay Times, dated Monday August 2 said, “It’s chick-flick time say Anil’s daughters”.
In the story, Sonam Kapoor is quoted as saying, “It is a coming-of-age chick-flick that will appeal to women of every age and social strata.” She goes on to add, (and this statement defeats logic), “Not to forget, that it’s a Victorian love story that the guys will find equally exciting.” Does she mean guys are so soppy that they have to go back 200 years to enjoy a love story? Or does it mean, a little more cleverly, that guys are stuck in the Victorian age and will, therefore, find the story relevant?
Anyway, to return to the headline, what exactly does chick-flick mean? Let’s go to the origins of the phrase, to find out. The term originated with a certain kind of women’s writing. I’ve come across four definitions of it. One holds, rather fuzzily, that chick-lit is literature “written by women for women”. Does that mean the book jackets carry a warning that says, “Injurious to male health”? If it is proved that some men have read it, does the book lose its precious place in the category?
A certain Prof Suzanne Ferris holds that although the genre chick-lit was born in 1996 with Helen Fielding’s “The Diary of Bridget Jones”, the mothers of the genre were the Bronte sisters and Jane Austen. The idea!!! Students of English Literature at college, men and women, read the Brontes and Jane Austen as seriously as they read Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens. No student of English Literature has been called upon to do the same with Bridget Jones.
Amy Sohn defines chick-lit as being about women, ages 20 to 60, who can stand on their own two feet. That lets off poor Jane Austen, none of whose protagonists ever stood on their own two feet, cushioned as they were by personal fortunes. But it does not let off Charlotte Bronte whose Jane Eyre was a working woman.
The definition that describes the genre most clearly, ensuring that no work that falls outside the definition can assume the name of chick-lit, puts the main emphasis on the tone of narration. In chick-lit, says the unknown author of this definition, the tone is personal and light, like a friend confiding in you, and its defining feature is humour. That lets out the Bronte sisters too. We may accuse them of many faults, but never of humour.
Now let’s return to “Aisha”. If the makers themselves are claiming it is a chick-flick, then we may expect something giddy, giggly and soppy. So be it. But how can we make it up to Jane Austen who’ll be turning frantically in her grave? First “Bride and prejudice” and now this. Give the dead soul a break.