Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The spin and reel of it

I sometimes wonder whether some of us (film reviewers especially) are losing the ability to be entertained. Or whether we like to set ourselves up as tough customers, who put up intellectual barriers between our minds and a movie, where having fun is not a virtue unto itself. What else could explain the negative/wishy-washy/pursed-lip reviews that Jhoom Barabar Jhoom has been getting?

Is it because we no longer enter a theatre with a little skip in our pulse, and when the lights go dim, our hearts do not thud with the anticipation of being whisked off into a different world? Is it because 'real' can only be equated with dark, gritty, gory, violent, depressing? Is it because we ourselves have lost faith in the power of fantasy, and we no longer believe in simple premises like girl-meets-boy-at-a-railway-station?

Or was it because some of us are so alienated from our own cultural contexts, that we just do not get the 'reality' of this fantasy? A fantasy in which ordinary people tell lies, not necessarily to get out of trouble, but also because those lies are their dreams. Dreams in which your lover is rich, foreign, exotic. And willing to marry you. Dreams in which you acknowledge your hard-headedness, your greed, your crookedness, even your self-defeating racism.

Is it that a whole generation has grown up without those classic, allovertheplace, Bollywood films that this film is contantly referencing? Do they not understand the slightly accented Punjabi peppering most of the dilogue? Do they not hear their mothers talking, when the mothers in the film talk? Do they not hear their own happy, romantic subconciouses tumbling towards the inevitable happy, romantic climax?

I, of course, loved Jhoom Barabar Jhoom. Saw it last night and could see it again tonight, if only movie-watching was not so expensive. If only I had the option of a third-rate theatre where tickets cost Rs 12, or even Rs 25, and the cold-drink man comes 'cold-ddrrrrink' clinking glass bottles with the metal opener during the intermission... If only, I could go see it again and again, every weekend for the next month.

Lest it appear as if I'm saying that 'it's a Hindi movie, so why not leave your brains outside the theatre', I'm not! This is actually a fairly intelligent movie. Not only does it experiment with the story within a story mould (which many people have done before in different ways, and of which Roshomon is the most obvious, most famous example), it also seeks to tweak the mould. I don't think we have seen this particular format of storytelling in mainstream Bollywood, so far. Nor have we seen a single theme song being used so cleverly, so successfully, so constantly in any other film. It is terribly hard to listen to the same song - high on beat and lyrics, low on quiet melodiousness - for half an hour or more. But here, the audience is begging for more of the same, because it never is quite exactly the same.

What's more, the filmmaker Shaad Ali has his finger on the pulse of the people. Not the whole nation; I don't mean that he's familiar with, or bringing to life, each class and caste in each corner of our very diverse counry, but he's very definitely got a grip on one vein - that of the aspiring, small-town Indian, who may not be hungry for food but is hungry for love and adventure and exotica and money and bigger, wider canvases. This was very evident in Bunty Aur Bubli (beautifully summed up in the song - chote chote shehro.n se, khaali bhor-dupahro.n se, hum to jhola uthaa ke chale), and to a smaller degree, in Saathiya (two subtly poignant scenes are stamped upon my memory - one is when Rani Mukherjee's family is sitting down in the evening, playing cards; her father is drinking alcohol, the mother and sisters are drinking tea. The other is the scene in which Rani wants to hug her husband in the film, after a hard day at work, and he is embarassed because she's doing so in the balcony, with other peole looking on; her resentment and frustration is a remarkably fine mix of just about everything in that frame, that moment, that life.) In Jhoom Barabar Jhoom, Shaad Ali has taken one step further, and opened the door between the audience's fantasy and that of his characters. For instance, there is an obvious reference to Punjabi illegals (immigrants) in the UK, and this was all the more delicious for me, because I have covered that story, and know just how big that aspiration - and that racket - is, and what a huge deal it is, to have made it from Punjabi Indian or Pakistani, to British Citizen.

Speaking of characters, all are well-sketched, well-cast. All four of the major roles are meaty in their own right. Of course, they're stereotypical too. But the beauty of it is that, because they're a fantasy, because they are and are not themselves, they have the scope for stereotypical, overthetop representation.

For those who like to read stuff in lists and boxes, for the following reasons, Jhoom Barabar Jhoom is immensely enjoyable:

1] The title came to the screen studded, as if with little fake diamonds.

2] Abhishek Bacchan's mobile phone's ring tone. It goes 'Ae Handsome! Ae Handsome!'

3] Hearing Lara Dutta abuse - like a good, authentic desi. The scene where Preity Zinta attempts an impromptu slanging contest with Dutta is particularly, er, endearing.

4] The guy playing Abhishek's friend-mentor, Hafiz Bhai. His tone, his diction, his dialogues, his expressions are priceless. (what's his name?)

5] Amitabh Bacchan is NOT playing sutradhaar, again.

6] It's funny. I was laughing out loud every five minutes.

7] The boys' costumes are to die for. The women's clothes are nice too, but to see silk and colour and glitter on men, for a change, is such joy.

8] The theme song (and dance) grows on you, and it assumes a special growth curve when you 'see' it. Listening to it is just not the same thing. Once you've seen it on the big screen, the song somehow slips into your blood and throbs there, willing you to get up and jhoom-o-fy.

9] Bobby Deol as he is in the second half.

10] The sizeable flirty young desi girl, with the spectacles stuck in her cleavage, and her Punjabi invocation of mum's advice.

11] The Mr and Ms Southall contest.

If anybody hasn't yet, go watch it. And if you've been to see it, and didn't like it... oh, forget it. Go see Roshomon.

Footnote: I hadn't been keen on film initially. The half-wit print interviews with the stars of the film had a lot to do with that, I suspect. None of the fun, none of the spirit, none of the cheek with which the film was made shines through.

UPDATE: Saw it once again! Yay!

UPDATE 2: Saw it once yet again!

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

A number-plated memory

Young man. Striped shirt. Big-ish car... cannot tell which make; never cared enough about models and names.

Young man leans out to ask for directions. The rest is a familiar, old story.

'Where is PVR Saket?'
'Do you live around here?'
'Would you like to come with me to PVR?'

And after I say 'No', he says, 'Fucking bitch'.

I stop, turn around, take a good, long look at him. No words. I glance down at his number plate, and walk on ahead.

He follows.

'Excuse me, ma'am. Sorry, ma'am.'

Whoever was driving HR29 Q 1782, on Monday evening, June 18th, 2007, is not a very nice young man. The apology was not accepted.

Friday, June 15, 2007


If only, brokers didn't have to be paid.

If only, people built houses meant to be lived in. Rooms with large windows, and doors right across so the breeze knows it is welcome and the air is not weighted with claustrophobia.

If only, homes were not created to earn - each square foot put there so that it can forever become a tiny mint all by itself. A thousand for a bathroom, two thousand for a kitchen, five thousand for a kitchen that doesn't send a woman into a depressive tailspin. If only, they didn't try to tell you that this is quite enough for your needs... what more could you possibly want?

If only, you had nothing but your clothes and books. Or that the cupboards understood - a woman's needs are king-size.

If only, you weren't afraid of bumping your head against the shower, or risked having a nervous breakdown each time you looked at the toilet.

If only, the walls weren't lilac. Or pink. Or green. Or both.

If only, there were railings on narrow staircases.

If only, people who had room to spare would give two rooms, instead of just one, keeping the adjacent one empty and utterly, senselessly, locked up.

If only, they wouldn't assume you cannot live without air-conditioning. And would believe you when you promised you wouldn't use it.

If only, you were a pigeon. So you could fit into the holes a city rents out. Or were free to sleep on other people's windowsills.

If only, landlords returned deposits without a fuss, without making you feel like you were cheating them.

If only, they didn't ask you your caste. And when you refuse to tell them, they didn't stammer, didn't press on with questions about where you belong. If only, they didn't care. If only, they didn't stare at you when said you were alone. If only, they didn't need the lie of respectability. If only, they weren't so afraid of 'boys'. If only, they didn't threaten to treat you exactly like their own daughters.

Oh, if only!

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Sunday afternoon

Sunday morning and a knock on the door. A stranger.

Who hands me a picture of guru nanak, benevolently gazing at nothing at a forty-five degree angle. I take it, finger it, and look expectantly at the stranger.
He says that there's a special function organised by the colony. At the gurudwara close by. A langar for the poor and water stalls for all thirsty passersby. I begin to calculate mentally how much I could spare.
The stranger whipped out a tiny bill-book. "Whatever you find it in your heart to give... sister. What is your name?"
I hesitated. Though I was half-willing to pay, shut the door and go back to sleep, something was holding me back. Yet, this was common enough. Every year, every festival, a knock on the door.
He extended another photo to me - some sort of religious ceremony underway. I glance at it but do not take it.
He asks, "Are you Punjabi?"
"That doesn't matter. Everybody has given. Even the students living downstairs."
For some reason I don't understand, I said "No, I don't think I can."
"Whatever you can. It is god's work." And that just made it worse.

"No thank you, I cannot attend and I cannot help." and I handed back the tiny picture.
He simply rustled his bill-book. "But you must. Sister, come tell me your name... And you should also pray. Every morning, you should spend some time, hold out your hands like this, and -"
Snap. "I have no faith. I don't pray."
"This if for the poor. They will be fed at the langar."
"When I want to give to the poor, I can do so directly. I don't need you to organise it for me."
"Everybody else has given."
"Sorry, I cannot."
He half-turns to go. "Are you a student?"
"No" and I shut the door.

It took me ten minutes to figure out what had happened. Why, despite being half-willing to pay up and be done with it, I refused so stubbornly. It was the awful mixture of religion and money. It was the pressure. It was the attempt to make me do somehing on the grounds that everybody else had done so. It was the invocation of the poor in that pitying-bullying tone.

And it took me another half an hour to realise that gurudwaras have langars anyway (a tradition that I admire and wish all other religions wouls emulate). All are free to step in, cover their heads and eat. I have never heard of a gurudwara organising a langar on the strength of door-to-door collections on a Sunday afternoon. What, then, was this collection for? Who was this young man?

On my way out, later in the afternoon, I checked to see if there was any water stall set up on the road outside the colony. There wasn't.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Why don't they speak up, then?

In Delhi's buses, about one-fourth of the seats are reserved for women. The first seat on the left is for the conductor(s). The second is for the handicapped. The next four rows (on the left side) are marked 'ladies'. Most often, there will be men sitting on these, until a woman shows up and dislodges them. (Just for the record, I do not dislodge men from ladies' seats. If, however, a young man - not an old one - gets up and offers me the seat, I usually, gratefully, accept).

The other day, a blind girl got onto the bus. She was accompanied by a young man, and it was very clear that they were much in love. For some strange reason, she also wore a ghoonghat that covered her face entirely. As she stood beside me, her fingers scraped the air around us, fumbling for something to hold onto. At first, I thought the was because of the ghoonghat, and it irritated me. I wanted to say something suitably biting about wearing viels and inconveniencing everybody else too. Then, I noticed that she was fumbling for the man's arm too. When she found it, she held onto that for dear life, and made no attempt to even peep through the folds of the fabric before the eyes. I realised that she was probably blind and was going to offer her my seat, when she began to move ahead. The progress was very slow, for she could neither see the people pressing in from all sides, nor figure out how to separate them and push ahead. Her fingers continued to scrape the air, in soft futile circles.

The young man apologized, to nobody in particular - she cannot see.

A woman sitting ahead of me beckoned - why don't you take her to the handicapped seat?

He said - ok. And he tried to guide her ahead.

The crowd did not move an inch. The couple seemed stuck for a while. Then, they reached the handicapped seat. A heavyset man occupied it. He sat there, staring straight ahead. Unseeing.

The same lady called out again - let her take the handicapped seat.

The man did not move. As if he had not heard. Could not hear.

Another lady beside her called out - hello! Let the girl take the handicapped seat.

Someone else said - where's the conductor? Conductor bhaiyya, get her that seat. She's blind.

The conductor got off his own seat quickly (which was quickly filled by another passenger), and moved towards the back of the bus, selling tickets. As if he hadn't heard.

The girl still stood there, fumbling, feeling, faceless. The young man stood there, silent.

From beside me - why isn't the conductor saying anything?

And suddenly, silence.

Then, I leaned forward and called out - hello! That's the handicapped seat. Please tell him to vacate it.

And the lady next to me also spoke up - conductor bhaiyya, tell him.

The voices - mostly women's voices - murmured again, called out again.

And the heavyset man finally turned around, for a brief instant, as if startled, and then vacated the seat.

The blind girl sat down. Everybody else sat back.

The conductor standing nearby mumbled under his breath - why don't they speak up for themselves, then?
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