Kashmir: Two narratives, one tragedy

I recently finished reading Rahul Pandita’s Our Moon Has Blood Clots. Together with Basharat Peer’s Curfewed Night, it makes for traumatic – and dare I say necessary – reading about a beautiful region mutilated by gunfire.

Peer’s is the older book, and in some sense the better written of the two. (Not that the quality of the writing is what I was looking for in the first place anyway.) He does a good job of detailing how militancy seemed like a perversely “glamorous” option to a while bunch of kids back then, and how those same kids grew into bitter, traumatised adults (or sometimes didn’t even make it that far).

It is also true that some of them became militants along the way — the casualness with which the phrase “attacking army convoys” is bandied about is a little galling sometimes, to be honest. As traumatised as some of them were, as much as they might have considered themselves freedom fighters, it is also true that they were fighting a guerrilla war that cost lives on both sides. Peer does mention this (there is an interesting section late in the book where he finds himself hesitant to ask a friend and former militant whether he had ever killed anyone), but his focus is on the everyday reality of living in a war zone, and this reality impacts both those who took to the gun as well as those who did not.

Pandita’s book, on the other hand, is written from the point of view of a community that was exiled from their own land as a result of this struggle. Much of the recent critical discourse around this book seems to be centered around the precise factual accuracy of what has been written (“such-and-such couldn’t have happened the way he says it did because…”). Or its one sided portrayal (“what about what happened to the Muslims left behind in Kashmir?”). Or the politics (too complex to merit a summary in parentheses).

Truth be told, I have no basis to comment on the factual accuracy of his account. Or for that matter Peer’s. However, I strongly suspect that, barring maybe some specifics, the general story is probably correct. “It sounds true” doesn’t seem like much, I know. But consider this: With any conflict of this nature and this magnitude, every narrative we hear is going to have its own set of issues.A chronicler might find it surprisingly difficult to get people to agree on whether a particular event happened, and if so, when and where. And this is before we even get to who did what and why. Perhaps the deeply personal ones, even with their alleged inaccuracies, are the ones best trusted.

As far as the one sided nature of these accounts goes, isn’t that the whole point of a personal narrative? For either party to walk a mile in the other’s shoes, we first have to agree that the shoes cannot – should not – be made by committee.

Both stories need to be told. Both stories need to be heard.

History is complex. It cannot be otherwise. But historical accounts, for lack of a better option, have to simplify the narrative to some extent. We have to trust in the collective wisdom of historians to not oversimplify, but I suspect, sadly, that we will be disappointed. But at least today, we have the choice of absorbing as much of the complexity of what is happening around us as our brains would allow. Like reading Curfewed Night and Our Moon Has Blood Clots.

Yennai Arindhaal

There is a lovely line in Anushka’s inner monologue right at the beginning, when she finds herself meeting, in her own words, the most handsome man she’s ever seen, while vomiting on a plane. Love and nausea, she says to herself. She likes the sound of that. It doesn’t quite have that ring in Thamizh, she adds. Kaadhalum vaandhiyum.

I have to agree with her. It doesn’t have the same ring to it.

Apart from the very fact that a character reflects on something like this, consider also her word choices in the two languages. Had she said love and vomit, I don’t think it would’ve had the same ring to it. And although I can’t think of anything right now, I’m sure there is a less prosaic way of putting it in Thamizh as well. (We actually have a phonetic grammar, for heaven’s sake!)

But here’s the thing: This is a character who is entirely comfortable with the fact that the language in which she would like to express herself at times, the language in which she can pick the right vocabulary to express herself, is English. The fact that she has the most Tamilian of names — Thenmozhi — adds a pinch of irony and social commentary to the whole thing. The film doesn’t apologize for her language.

Consider, now, another exchange that occurs late in the film, when the hero cop and his nemesis (a criminal he knew and put behind bars back in the day) are talking to each other on the phone. This occurs in a fairly tense situation, and both characters know that they are playing for high stakes. The dialogue is fast, fluid, profane and crackles with a feral energy. The dialogue is as good as anything Menon has written for this sort of situation before, maybe even better, and the film doesn’t tone it down either. Every sentence has an almost mandatory swear word, and despite the fact that you don’t actually hear them spoken, your mind hears everything loud and clear.

Both exchanges are typical of Gautam Menon’s ouevre — not the lines per se, but the situations. Romance between plain-spoken people in an urban milieu. Cops and criminals going for each other’s jugular, verbally and otherwise. There are enough other indications that let you know that you are in familiar territory, but this is not a blog post about auteur theory, so I’ll let you fill in those blanks.

All three of Gautam Menon’s cop dramas have wanted to establish a balance between these two aspects. And to be fair, I think he does it better and more fluidly than most other directors do, by playing on the cop’s fear of bringing his work home. The women in Gautam Menon’s films are sort of a MacGuffin — they are coveted by both the hero and the villain, albeit for different reasons. And in a manner that is reminiscent of Mani Ratnam, the sassiness and self-possession of the women (is there anything sexier than a woman who tells you what she wants?) ensures that we feel emotionally invested in their well-being, and therefore in the outcome.

There is, however, one more ingredient: we first have to feel that the women are in real danger. And this, sadly, is what is missing in Yennai Arindhaal. Kaakka Kaakka worked because Jyotika’s kidnapping ensured that we always heard the clock ticking, and the villain’s ruthlessness was well-established through scenes detailing his work habits, as it were. Vettaiyadu Vilaiyadu achieved the same objective by being a thorough procedural — the cop’s discovery of the extent of the villains’ ruthlessness was more gradual, and our horror grew at every discovery.

There is a sequence here when the hero provides a quick theory on how an organ harvesting gang might work. The narration is interspersed with scenes depicting what he’s saying. Trouble is, the fluidity of that narration robs it of its impact.

Part of it, I think, is because the film’s intention (as the title suggests), is not to show us an episode in the life of a cop, but his journey to make peace with who he is, and what it will entail. During a crucial fight sequence, his daughter knocks at the door he’s locked her behind for her safety, and he says, “30 seconds darling, I’ll be there.”

There will always be someone behind that locked door, and there will always be a reason to lock that door. The film is about the man who locks that door, and who’s behind it. Had it found a way for us to care a bit about why a lock was needed in the first place, I think I would’ve loved it a lot more than I did.

It’s a funny thing: here is a film that runs for the better part of three hours, and not much feels extraneous, and yet, I find myself wanting it to have been a bit longer. That’s a compliment. But as it stands, it’s a fantastic addition to Ajith’s filmography, and a nice way to round off a (sort of) cop trilogy, but not the best film Gautam Menon has made.

Freeze Frame #164: Kalakalappu

Writing a good screwball comedy sequence is like solving an n-body problem in Newtonian mechanics. But tougher — physics doesn’t have to worry about making you laugh.

My favourite by far is the one towards the end in Michael Madana Kama Rajan where pretty much every other Kamal Hassan character is pretending to be Madan. But a more recent sketch that has been climbing the charts is the car chase in Kalakalappu.

Here’s the setup: Vettipuli (Santhanam) wishes to marry Madhavi (Anjali). Madhavi wishes to marry Seenu (Vimal), and the two decide to elope — it all goes south, and he ends up having to take Madhavi’s grandfather hostage in order to escape Vettipuli and his goons. Marudamuthu (Manobala) wishes to get his daughter to marry Vettipuli, and decides that kidnapping Madhavi would solve the problem. He thinks, however, that Seenu is Vettipuli’s friend.

All of these bodies carom around for around 10 minutes of inspired hilarity, in three cars that keep going around a few village streets. It plays out so smoothly that it takes a while to realize the skill that must’ve gone into the writing.

Freeze Frame #163: The Newsroom

The trouble with being an insufferable churl about word choices is that the universe, yourself included, pisses you off on an almost hourly basis. (It’d be a helluva lot more frequent if I actually paid attention to what went on around me.)

But then, this scene comes along, like some kind of cosmic gesture of solidarity. That it comes in the middle of an immensely problematic third and final season suggests that the Department of Cosmic Gestures is staffed with beings possessing an overdeveloped sense of irony.

One wishes they’d greenlight a spin off about the early days of Atlantis Cable News. I for one would happily look forward to watching it if Aaron Sorkin solemnly promised, in the name of Archimedes, to insert enough volume of Jane Fonda and Sam Waterston to displace the batshit.

Chickens, Pirates, Special Theory of Relativity and, er, Mona Gasolina

Warning: This post might be a bit NSFW.

First, watch this. Then we’ll talk:

This post began with an urgent request for my email id from Ganesh Raghuraman in the middle of the night. Since he knew me well enough, I figured that the matter had to be of earth-shattering inconsequence for him to sound so desperate, so I obviously sent it to him right away. His email, which I reproduce below in its ungrammatical entirety (despite his fervent pleas to un-Michael Bolton the crap out of it) was as follows:

I am totally tripping on Mona now..thanks to Mukund.  One of those weird songs that gets better the more you listen to it.  I have some serious doubts about the production and shoot as it pertains to lyrics.

un kannu compassa

nan un columbussa

Nangooram na paychha, nee aaada,

kadal vedikkuthu pattasa
Have you guys seen the video?  Thalaivar raids a ship in the high seas and there is a elaborate cannon-fire routine all inside the studio. I mean, we are talking about straight out of TR’s page book.   I wonder if the poet, nay song writer,  (please don’t be vairamuthu, please) wrote some random shit to rhyme and thalaivar just told to producer to spend a few lakhs of rupees.  Or did he want a pirate themed song (i don’t think so. because he does some Mission Impossible shit).  Would they have done for some other guy who is not so famous.  They probably would have asked the song writer to come up with something else, right?

This is indeed a matter for deep thought, and deserves to be on par with the great existential questions of our age, such as “Does wisdom fruit have seeds?” or “Where is the other banana?” or “Could we (not we personally, more of a general we) possibly come up with a theory that reconciles gravity with quantum mechanics, leading them to have some urgent, sweaty, high-dimensional make-up silpongs in a corner of a Riemannian manifold?

Research suggests that the question is homomorphic to older ones such as “Kodi asainthathum kaattru vanthatha?” or “Which one came first, the chicken or the egg?” (the latter of which presupposes the existence of some very inventive — not to mention kinky — chickens).

Still, let me make an attempt to resolve this. A film like this begins with a resolution, and that resolution isn’t “We’re gonna make a great Rajni movie!” Rather, it’s “This is gonna be the biggest Rajni movie ever”. Which means that, once you’ve expended the GDP of the average banana republic on Rajni, you still have enough left in the tank to blow up on song sequences. The consequence, however, is that whatever trickles down to the serfs (lyricists etc.) after all the aforementioned profligacy smells faintly of ammonia and warrants lyrics with the same penetrative aroma.

You might still end up with a good movie, or even a decent one where Rajni is far and away the best thing about it. But it occurs to me that the bigness seems to be the first thing the makers focus on. It’s like a celluloid equivalent of the Spruce Goose – a big thing that flies rather than a thing that soars.

So the real answer to the question is: It. Doesn’t. Effing. Matter.

If they had already decided on dressing Rajni up as a pirate (is it just me, or are his song sequences increasingly looking like they’ve been designed by a Halloween party planner on crystal meth?), then these lyrics are as good as any you can expect. Okay, you can get all poetic about orgasms and condoms with visuals involving bandits in the desert, as in the case of Ottagatha Kattikko, but are you seriously gonna sit there and tell me that this approach would’ve immeasurably enriched your experience of Mona Gasolina?

If, on the other hand, the lyrics had come first, and had been speaking, instead, of rockets, then the budget would still have been blown up, except differently. Rajni would’ve donned a space suit, journeyed to a distant planet in the vicinity of a black hole (with scantily clad backup dancers chronicling the, umm, blast off and the reaching of escape velocity through interpretive dappankoothu), and returned to romance a girl a third his age, whereas here…

Actually, the outer space idea isn’t all that far-fetched. This is a man with a song titled Kilimanjaro that is shot in what appears to be Machchu Pichchu. He reads Joseph Campbell’s book years before Campbell was even toilet trained. Space-time bows before the sheer force of his awesomeness. Which, by the way, might answer the earlier question about the make-up sex.


Does wisdom fruit have seeds?

Where is the other banana?

Existential: An adjective usually attached to nouns like question or dilemma by neophytes who like to make trivial shit sound deep.

Neophytes who like to make trivial shit sound deep: See here.

Homomorphic: A mathematical term, which can be most-likely-incorrectly understood to mean “equivalent”. The word has been commonly misused to suggest that the subject has turned gay. Please note that this is a misnomer, irrespective of the gender of the egg.

Ganesh Raghuraman: Better known to BITSians of a certain vintage as Argon (a shortening of R. Ganesh, and certainly not to be confused with chemical elements that have adjectives such as noble or inert attached to them). A man who, when it comes to exploring the seedy underbelly of Thamizh vocabulary, has boldly gone where no man has gone before. (Or wanted to, for that matter.)

A man who can not only swear with more color and density than the average Jackson Pollock canvas, but can also, in mid-swear, pause to ask you for your preferred theory of creation, so that he can then continue to insult your family tree all the way up to Adam or the ape, depending on whom you state as your antecedent. A man who can not only put the words twerking and bharathanatyam in the same sentence but also — this is the part that is as tough as it is disturbing — make it sound logical.
I offered to put this on his LinkedIn profile as a recommendation, but he turned it down. Not sure why.

Dear Santa, now that the Christmas rush is over…

I always love the bit where Bond meets Q and gets a bunch of toys, all of which, would you know it, get used in critical situations. Which leads me to wonder about the dramatic possibilities of an action sequence where 007 desperately needs an exploding pen and finds himself stuck with a portable defibrillator instead.

Anyway, the point is, I love the gadgets more than the other perks of Bond’s job. Not that I’ve encountered too many situations where I’ve said to myself, “Man, I’d kill to have a watch with a laser beam right now” (which must’ve been how Richard III felt back in the day), but it’s really the principle of the thing. Besides, an Aston Martin DB5 is probably more low maintenance than Denise Richards.

Still, as Arundhati Roy says, for practical purposes in a hopelessly practical world, here’s what I’d like:

5. The computer they build in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that takes several million years to find the answer to the great question of Life, the Universe and Everything. With a bit more RAM and a processor upgrade, I figure it can do wonders.

4. On days when I’m stuck in traffic long enough to start gong postal, something like the Batcycle which detaches itself from the Batmobile (The Dark Knight) would come in handy. Ideally, I’d like to hold out for quantum teleportation, but with my luck, some colourful bird would find its way into the chamber just before I hit the big green Beam-Me-Up button and I’d come out looking like the Amitabh Bachchan character in Jhoom Barabar Jhoom.

3. That neuralyzer from Men in Black would be mighty helpful, especially when one is walking into review meetings for projects where one has spent a lot of time and money doing nothing. Hypothetically speaking, of course. I’ve never been in those meetings before. No really.

2. As helpers go, Jarvis from Iron Man or TARS from Interstellar sound like good bets. A certain sense of humour is always welcome in one’s AI. But really,  I’d give away all of these things in a microsecond if you could get me…

1. Chitti from Endhiran. Because Rajnikanth.

And while we’re on the subject, could we also see a bit more realism in the movies when it comes to technology? Like a nail biting sequence where the hacker desperately tries to fix a runtime error involving memory allocations for his double pointers while someone’s life (or his own junk, as in the case of Swordfish), um, hangs in the balance. I simply refuse to believe that they all get it right the first time around.

(But don’t mess with the virus idea on the alien spaceship, okay? When it comes to saving the world, it’s either that or Slim Whitman’s Indian Love Call, and I’m not crazy about that song.)

ps: I originally wrote this for a GE blog, but now that I’ve left the company, they seem to have taken it off. Pondering the science in Interstellar got me thinking about the topic again, so I figured I’d remove the mothballs and air the old post out for a bit.

pps: In other words, the well’s running a bit dry at the moment. Thank you for holding. Your visit is very important to us.

Freeze Frame #162: Ardh Satya

The scene begins with a date at a restaurant, and Anant Velankar (Om Puri) reading out poetry to Jyotsna (Smita Patil). They get to one of her favourite poems: Ardh Satya, by Dilip Chitre.

When he finishes the first stanza, he looks up at her and smiles briefly. He’s still on a date, and this is still an enjoyable pastime. But watch how the context changes for him internally as he proceeds: by the third or fourth stanza, he is no longer on a date. The words are beginning to strike home.

Shifting gears emotionally in the middle of reading something out is not an entirely unheard-of phenomenon in the movies. But for me, this ranks among the best.

Is it the brilliance of those lines? Or the mesmeric nature of Om Puri’s voice as he transforms Velankar’s reading of someone else’s words into something deeply autobiographical? Or Smita Patil’s stillness as Jyotsna realizes that, at this moment, all she can do is watch this man try to come to terms with his own demons?

The poem is recited again right at the end, in a voiceover. Just to remind you that what you have witnessed is an ending, not a resolution.

Roger Ebert often used to say that the quality of a film is determined not so much by what it is about, but by how it is about it. Here is a gritty drama about an angry, honest cop dealing with a corrupt system. And even if you watch it today, over three decades and many such films later, it feels like a punch to the gut. To me, this poem is why it does.