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.

Time passes slowly when you’re not having much fun

The effects of dilation of time
Are magical, strange, and sublime.
In your frame, this verse,
Which you’ll see is not terse,
Can be read in the same amount of time it takes someone else in another frame to read a similar sort of rhyme.

— Courtesy: Physics limericks page on the Harvard University website

It’s funny how, for a film of this scale, the scene that works best in Interstellar is the one that involves a sequence of grainy video messages. It comes somewhere in the middle of the second act, when Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) returns to his space station from an expedition that has, owing to the time dilation caused by proximity to a black hole, caused over twenty years to elapse on earth while he spent barely a few hours on another planet.

Now, read that last sentence again, but try and ignore the part that goes “owing to the time dilation caused by proximity to a black hole”? Apart from how much cleaner the sentence sounds, do you realize that you probably missed nothing of importance between the first reading and the second?

Fundamentally, I don’t think the film wants us to care about wormholes and black holes. It wants us to care about fathers and daughters, and about devil’s alternatives, and about survival being a zero-sum game at times. The science is basically just a way of putting people in difficult situations. What the characters do in these situations is a function of what they are faced with, as well as what they are like. There’s even a little space for ironic sidebars, such as how world hunger has brought about world peace, and how history has been rewritten to encourage students to think about the earth rather than the sky.

It’s not a bad premise to start with. Or even all that new. Like my wife said to me during the interval, it’s like Armageddon, except with a little less macho posturing. I suspect Christopher Nolan isn’t going to be overly thrilled with that comparison, but hey, she calls ‘em like she sees ‘em.

But here’s the thing: when you make a three hour movie about an interstellar expedition aimed at finding a new planet for humans to screw up, you want your audience to take home a wee bit more than a little scene that probably cost less than your catering budget for a week.

It’s okay to want to push both big themes and big visuals at us. I can see the ambition, even applaud it. But for the strategy to work, at least one of these things has to succeed spectacularly. Otherwise, one is still left with Armageddon without the macho posturing, and frankly, the macho posturing was probably the most enjoyable aspect of that film.

In order for the big themes to work, you have to be willing to follow your ideas to wherever they lead you. If you place hard choices about the survival of the species before your characters, you cannot allow yourself the luxury of a deus ex machina in the last 30 minutes. Also, I don’t think it helps your case when the protagonist’s humongous flash of insight about space-time is that the universe is like a little girl’s bedroom.

In order for the big visuals to work, you have to create at least one truly memorable sequence that people will keep talking about. Like Inception, where people would walk out of the film and tell their friends, “Oh, you just have to see the sequence where they roll up Paris.” Or The Matrix, where everyone remembers the business of bending over backwards to dodge a bullet in super slo-mo. (Or better still, the torture sequence in Narasimha, where Vijayakanth makes a power source explode simply by grimacing.) Or even something as leisurely as the docking sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey, which, as a friend of mine once memorably pointed out, you could watch on your laptop at work and convince your boss it’s a screensaver. There isn’t a single visual in Interstellar that expands your conception of what you could see in a  movie theatre.

As for all the science, it helps, I think, to think of it like this: When a film like Star Trek uses the term “warp speed”, the makers are fairly certain that 99.9% of their audience don’t understand it, while the remaining 0.1% deliberately try not to. All they need the audience to understand is, there’s a spaceship with good guys and one with bad guys, and warp speed is a thingummajig that allows the good guys to evade or catch up with the bad guys.In the Interstellar-verse, the side-effect of warp speed would be that the bad guys would’ve died of old age by the time the good guys got there, I guess. Or maybe I just don’t understand the science all that well. You know, I miss the good old days when you could solve problems by simply uploading a virus onto an alien spaceship’s computer.

PK

I suppose I ought to begin this review with a disclaimer of sorts: My views on God and religion are nobody else’s business but mine.

A while ago, I wrote about Terry Pratchett’s Moving Pictures, and how his strategy for satire was to approach our world through the eyes of characters in a very different one. So the things that we take for granted look strange, even funny to them. And we laugh at ourselves with them.

It is interesting to wonder what would have happened if Terry Pratchett were to have written a novel about people on Discworld discovering/inventing the concept of God and religion. Alas, even in Discworld, this would be a bridge too far, so he assumed that Gods did exist in Discworld, and wrote one about God, faith and religion. It was titled Small Gods, and it remains one of the most interesting and deeply humanistic novels I have read.

Rajkumar Hirani starts with the hypothetical question I just raised: what would an alien make of our belief in God? He strands an alien — the eponymous PK — on earth and leaves him to discover all these concepts in his own way. At some point, someone tells him that God alone can help him, a phrase he takes quite literally. Hence his search for God. And just as our first experience of God is typically not with the abstract concept of an omniscient deity but with the practice of worship through whichever religion we were brought up in, this is what this alien encounters as well. The story follows his arc of discovery, belief, disillusionment and eventual insight. And since this is a Rajkumar Hirani film, the story is told with a certain amount of sweetness and light.

Just to be clear: the film does not have a problem with the idea of God, or even with the idea of religion per se. Its beef is with the way it is practiced, and how our rituals have replaced belief with mindless routine, and how cynical Godmen have found a way to exploit our need for hope in an increasingly chaotic world. This is not a new idea by any means, nor for that matter is the solution offered by our intrepid alien. Personally, I don’t think it’s offensive, but then again, I’m a lot harder to offend so what do I know?

Having said that, I do write a film-related blog, so there is much that offends me when it comes to the movies.

The idea of using PK’s naivete to expose some of the problems we have with religion is not a bad one. Trouble is, what might work as a decent short story feels stretched at feature length. What he learns about the subject and what he deduces seem to be driven, not by plausibility, but by what the script demands at that point, or what seems like an entertaining thing to put in. Somewhere, one begins to feel like the string-pulling is a bit too obvious.

Take a scene at a church: Our hero, having just discovered Hinduism, now walks into a church service, incense sticks and coconut in hand. Their reaction is predictably one of horror, so he gets thrown out. And one of the angry churchgoers ushering him out says to him, “He died for your sins.” To which our man’s response is, “But I just got here!”

Trouble is, I can’t think of a plausible reason why a conversation between these two people would’ve gotten to that exchange at all. Not within a minute of someone attempting to break a coconut at the altar during Sunday mass. That conversation exists simply so that the punchline could exist. And that, I am afraid, is simply bad writing.

Not that the film is all bad. There are moments of beauty in there. And although the film doesn’t have the serrated edge of Oh My God, it is not entirely devoid of bite. One of the first things the alien encounters is a man playing a song on a portable cassette player in the middle of a desert. The song? Altaf Raja’s Tum to thehre pardesi, saath kya nibhaaoge? The story starts with this man stealing the alien’s “ET Call Home” device, leaving him with the cassette player.

Ignore for a moment, the very idea of a naked alien stranded in a hot desert with an Altaf Raja song for company. (Your homework assignment after you finish reading this blog post is to come up with at least three punchlines to describe this situation.)

Instead, consider this: Is the alien the pardesi? Or, from his standpoint, are we the outsiders? Or is it God, whom we shut out through our own pettiness?

There is a line towards the end that goes something like: We taught him how to lie. We did indeed.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1

To clarify: The latest installment of the Hunger Games series (I almost said trilogy, before I realized that you don’t make as much money with three movies as you do with four) is reasonably faithful to the book. I don’t necessarily mean in terms of whether every plot point in the film is exactly as it was in the book — my memory isn’t all that great. I mean that the film captures accurately, the tone of the film.

This, sadly, is not a compliment.

There is an extraordinarily moving scene right at the end of We were Soldiers, the Mel Gibson-Barry Pepper starrer about one of the first major American military offensives in Vietnam. The Pepper character, a reporter named Joe Galloway who had flown in with the unit and witnessed the entire battle, is accosted by a bunch of reporters who have been flown in after the battle is over. They’re looking for a soundbite. Joe and the soldiers just look and them blankly and move on. Soon after that, you hear the words: We who have seen war, never stop seeing.

That’s the mental state you expect to find Katniss Everdeen in. Maybe worse, given her age. Her narrative voice has the slightly dispossessed quality of one whose daily life has given her a case of PTSD before the T proper has even begun. How do you expect her not to want to strangle the people around her who expect her to care about how she looks on TV? The hunger games themselves, as I wrote earlier, feel like an inverted version of a reality show: unreal world, real emotional response. You can think of the arena as a laboratory, almost. But the world outside the arena, which is where most of the action takes place as the series progresses, cannot have that luxury. I get what Suzanne Collins is going for — Greek mythology meets pick-your-favourite-satire-on-the-public-obsession-with-tv meets pick-your-favourite-post-apocalyptic-dystopia. But the ingredients don’t mix as well as they should, and the result is inconsistent at best.

To be fair, the problem may be with the whole idea of writing a book series revolving around teenagers placed in increasingly dark situations. You either have to go at a pace at which there isn’t much room for the horror to truly settle in, or do justice to the emotions that these characters would plausibly feel. I know we’re supposed to be horrified when a murderous game is treated like an everyday reality show, but how will that work when a teenaged girl who has volunteered to be (most likely) killed in place of her sister behaves like a sheep in a slaughterhouse when a costume designer wants to discuss how he is going to make her look? This is the tone — no, these are the conflicting tones — the film is going for.

Given that this isn’t the sort of film where things keep getting blown up every two minutes, the only way this works is if our emotions are manipulated skilfully enough that we stay with Katniss through the entire ride. She is, after all, our window to this world. That doesn’t work out too well either. There is, for instance, a scene early on where Katniss visits District Twelve (her home) and sees the bombed out ruins that remain. You see the grief begin to build up in her eyes, but before she is allowed to express it, the scene cuts to a calmer Katniss going through her belongings in the still-intact Victors’ Village. The effect is jarring, to say the least. I see why, in hindsight — the big scene with the ruins is not this one, but a later one where Gale talks about what happened, and letting Katniss have her moment of grief too early might have diminished the impact of the later scene. But then, why let her emotion build up before cutting it off? Wouldn’t it have been better to find a quieter way for her to express her horror and circumvent this compromise entirely?

But why am I even bothering to agonize over this? The film has apparently made nearly $500 million already, of which the price of one ticket came from me. Maybe Suzanne Collins was on to something after all.

Bullets over Stratford-Upon-Avon

This blog post probably won’t make much sense to someone who hasn’t read Hamlet and watched Haider, for which I apologize in advance. For the record, both are worth doing, and an infinitely better use of your time than reading this.

It helps, I think, to think of Haider as not so much an adaptation but a re-imagining of Hamlet. Sort of like Shakespeare in Love, but with a bit more violence. Or The Immortals of Meluha, but with a lot better writing.

The chronology of events is not the same as in the play. The encounter with the ghost of Hamlet’s father, for instance, comes at the midway point. The reference to Shakespeare’s most famous soliloquy comes as part of a conversation. Like with Shakespeare in Love, there is a certain panache in the way the source material has been interpreted. A scene with two prisoners on a bridge turns out to be such a sublimely brilliant reference to the phrase “shuffling off one’s mortal coil” that I could barely keep myself from guffawing. There is a sly reference to the way Laertes (Liaqat) dies by his own sword, but done so beautifully that I didn’t even realize it until later.

But really, what stands out is the level of detail in the script. Over the course of his three adaptations, Vishal Bharadwaj has slowly moved from using Shakespeare as a source to using him as a medium to tell his own story. We understand Shakespeare’s plays in terms of their characters, perhaps because the audiences of his time would have related to those settings better than we do today. Bharadwaj reimagines the setting, and What the Bard summarized as “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” turns into a two hour long meditation on the state of Kashmir circa mid-1990s. It helps that the screenplay is co-written by Bharadwaj and Basharat Peer, the author of Curfewed Night.

There is a moment right at the beginning when Ghazala (Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother) asks her husband, “Which side are you on?” The question is very pertinent, given the context in which this adaptation is set: people in Kashmir at the time probably did not feel like they had the luxury of an apolitical viewpoint. And it is this enmeshing of the political and the personal (Haider and Hamlet, or Peer and Bharadwaj if you will) that makes the death of Hilal Meer (Hamlet’s father) and Haider’s thirst for revenge a lot more complex than a straightforward adaptation would have probably allowed for. As a result of the tumultous climate the characters find themselves in, what is a largely internal battle in Hamlet is externalized to a great extent in Haider. And this inversion is complete when you consider what happens to the key characters in the end.

The detailing extends to the characters and their relationships as well: Ophelia (Arshiya, Haider’s girlfriend) gets more to do, seeing as how she also has to play the role of Horatio. Her relationship with Hamlet is a lot less dysfunctional than in the play, and a certain conversation involving English pronunciation is such a wonderful mix of hilarity and warmth that it almost belongs in a different film. Polonius (Pervez, the father of Haider’s girlfriend) has a meatier part, and while his lines have a lot more matter and brevity, he is definitely not lacking in art. Khurram (Claudius, Hamlet’s stepfather) is more than just an unctuous usurper of his brother’s throne and marital bed — watch what he does in the end when all about him are doing something else altogether. But the real standout is Haider’s relationship with his mother, and the character of Ghazala herself. Rarely has Hindi cinema ventured to portray something this complex. And frankly, I suspect we won’t see its like too often again either.

As for the performances, I have rarely found myself wondering whether to write “the performances live up to the writing” or “the writing lives up to the performances”, and finding equally good reasons to put it either way. The weakest link is Shraddha Kapoor as Arshiya, and even she isn’t half bad (apart from an unfortunate tendency to blink under stress, as though she is reading her lines in Morse code). Shahid Kapoor does brilliantly in the title role, and lives up to the promise I feel he’s wasted in a series of bad roles in the past. The only problem is that he is in the company of actors whom he cannot overshadow. Kay Kay Menon does what Kay Kay Menon does, as does Irfan Khan, and when you see them, you realize that you cannot imagine anyone else playing that part. The standout, though, is Tabu. I consider her the most underrated actress in Hindi cinema: not because people don’t realize how good an actress she is, but because it is impossible to come up with superlatives to do her justice. Maybe one ought to initiate a Kickstarter project to keep her clothed and fed, just so she wouldn’t have to do something like Jai Ho.

ps: My wife and I watched the film in a largely empty cinema hall on Monday night. Apart from the fact that collections drop significantly after the weekend, the word on the street is probably that this film is not for everyone. I wouldn’t disagree. Two cases in point:

  1. A bunch of folks whom we overheard complaining that they only came to watch this movie because ToI gave it nine stars, or something like that. They vowed henceforth to watch only films rated three stars or less.
  2. A couple who brought their five year old daughter to watch the film. Thankfully, she seemed to have slept through a good portion of it. I hope.

Begin Again

A few years ago, I fell in love with a musical called Once. I would sometimes enthusiastically recommend it to people, only to be asked, “What’s it about?” I hate that question.

Oh, it’s not an unreasonable question. Everyone asks that. I do too, when someone recommends a film to me. Trouble is, the films I most enthusiastically recommend are typically those to which the question doesn’t apply.

Before Sunrise is an example: two people spend a day walking around Vienna and talking. Nothing happens, in the traditional sense of a plot. How do you explain to someone why it’s so wonderful?

Once is similar. Oh it has a plot, but it’s really just something for the film to do with itself while the music plays. The film works because it understands music, and musicians, and why they need music in order to exist. When Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova play Falling Slowly in that little music shop at lunchtime, the film basically stops to watch them. It does that often. And we do it with them.

As is often the case when someone makes such a wonderful film about nothing, someone else gives them a bigger budget and asks them to make another one, this time about something. Which completely misses the point of course, because the reason why the first film was so wonderful was because it was about nothing except the music itself. Heck, it didn’t even bother to name the characters — they are listed as Guy and Girl in the credits.

And so it goes with John Carney, who has now made a film called Begin Again, set in New York, about a down-and-out alcoholic A&R executive and a singer-songwriter who sometimes writes music for “her own pleasure. And her cat.” He is estranged from his family, has been thrown out of the record company he co-founded, and is always at least a little drunk. She has been dumped by her upcoming rock star boyfriend, is crashing on her friend’s couch and is about to pack up and go back home.

The premise is fine. And Carney clearly hasn’t forgotten anything he knew or learnt about musicians — there are some wonderfully well-observed scenes in there. The problem is that the film wants to have an actual story that grows from this premise, and fit the music in between.

Maybe the problem is mine, in that I just wanted them to chuck the plot and make music together. The scenes where they do precisely that are the ones that hold the rest of the film afloat. There is a liveliness to them that makes even the Mickey Rooney-esque “Hey kids, let’s put on a show” portions work better than they ought to. You can sense a certain joy in the performance. The rest of the time, though, you just check your mobile for messages and wait for the music to start again.

There’s a scene where the Keira Knightley character listens to a song and talks about how the music got lost in the production. Don’t you think there’s something ironic about a situation where you find that the best review for a movie, and not exactly a complimentary one, was actually uttered by a character in it?