Tuesday, December 31, 2013

In gratitude, and regret

I cannot fully express the nature of my regret at not having done this post before. I had meant to, as soon as I walked out of the hall after watching Club 60. But it was late, and over the last month, I was always either too sleepy, or too distracted by my own struggles to stay afloat, to stay hopeful. Next thing I hear, Farooque Shaikh is gone. And though I never met him, I would have liked to say 'Thank you', especially for playing Dr Tarique Shaikh. This post is not about the actor. It is about the film.

I cannot, with any sincerity, say that it is a flawless film. It is not. I was half-afraid actually, that I might be bored. It gave off 'sincere' vibes and such is the Hindi film industry's track record of sincerity in recent years, it is often accompanied by boredom and predictability. Still, I had little choice.

I have decided not to pay cinema halls for encouraging bad cinema. I especially stay away from 'big' films with 'stars' when they seem to offer nothing except a thick account of expenses. I stay away from stereotype and misogyny and re-makes. But I had not taken my mother out for a movie for a long time and Club 60 seemed to be the only film I could watch without compromising my newfound principles.

So we went out. One multiplex theatre had pulled the film off the screen, although a show was still being advertised in the papers. We went to another multiplex.

The film started. I was surprised at the outset - there was a very brief, fast-paced treatment of the events that led to the tragic death of Dr Saira and Dr Tarique Shaikh's son. No zabardasti ka melodrama. The drama of grief, after all, lies in the way people struggle to live, despite their losses. And the film allows this struggle to be a dignified one.

But what surprised me what that the film turned out to be actually quite entertaining. I was laughing, my mother was laughing, and none of the jokes were derogatory even if there was a hint of naughtiness in the scene. The music was lovely. We actually enjoyed all three ghazals.

But the real reason I am writing this post is that after a long, long, long time we saw characters who had 'Muslim' names, but who were allowed to be just human. They were doctors. They were allowed to live in a normal upper class home with a dining table, at which they eat parathas.

The couple is allowed to enjoy the sea breeze without an azaan somewhere in the background. The lady is allowed to wear silk sarees or salwars with no fuss. She is allowed to be who she is - a highly skilled professional - instead of being reduced to a bundle of token symbols or rituals that add up to a visual and aural portrait that screams 'Muslim'. She is allowed to love her man and demand love from her man.

And their problems are human problems. A dead child. Depression. Work. Friends. Leisure. Club memberships. They don't sit and 'pray' in times of trouble. They roll up their sleeves and try to act. And when they make friends with people from other cultural backgrounds, they don't feel like a misfit. They can go to parties and ask for a soft drink instead of alcohol, and that's that.

How hard is it to write and make films where people of a particular community are people and not slaves to communal identities? It must be very hard, indeed, for this one film has come after such a long time. But it came, and I am glad I saw it. And that's about all I want to say.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Low drama, low conflict

For a while now, I have been thinking about the need for 'drama' in stories, especially scripts. It is taken for granted that for a film or play to work, there needs to be a steady escalation of drama. That conflict must be established early on, that we (or rather, the audience) must be worried about the fate of the principal characters, and that the level of 'difficulty' in these characters' lives must rise, reaching a 'climax', after which there is a resolution.

Of course, it is taken for granted that we are talking about a particular moment in time, or rather, a phase in someone's life. It could be 24 hours or one night (eg - Gateway of India, starring Madhubala), or a few months (most films we watch), or over twenty years (eg - Amar Akbar Anthony). Very occasionally, the story may span two or three generations (eg - Jasmine Women, or Gangs of Wasseypur) wherein it is understood that the protagonists change, and our investment in their future might shift at any point.

Which means, we pick out a slice of someone's life, a slice that is full of difficulty, and further dramatize it for the purposes of... well, for the purpose of drama. Because what else do people want from storytelling, right?

That is what we're taught by books, by theatre and film practitioners, and in most of the entertainment options we've had. This is not wisdom I wanted to challenge. Until recently.

I read a short story a few months ago (I'm forgetting the story title and the author's name) and was left a bit unsettled at the way it ended. It was the story of a man and a woman who are in bed and perhaps trying to figure out what they will do with each other. They are not a married couple. I'd assumed that some form of marriage or a commitment angle would work itself into the story. There must be conflict, because one of them will not agree to the other's terms. There would be tears or resentment, and eventually, they'd make up or part ways forever.

But the story never left the bedroom. There was a vague discussion, skirting the edges of disagreement. No major drama though. There was an assumption of desire, and a call for truth. And then what? Well, nothing. That was it. The writer allowed the characters to stay untroubled. There was no violence, not even of the emotional kind.

And it left me stumped. Because I'm conditioned to expect 'high' drama. In stories, there's a lot at stake: life, limb, sanity, social security. My reading and watching life has prepared me for troubled situations escalating to fever pitch, usually ending in violence. If not blood and gore, then at least a kidnapping-rescue situation, a gentle-slide-into-fatal-disease situation. At the very minimum, an I'm-going-to-die-without-you situation.

I still remember the face of my little niece as I was trying to tell her a story. I'd created some animal characters and set up a chase. My niece was about four years old then, and she was not liking the dangerous direction my narrative had taken. She interrupted me twice, and each time, added bits to the story to 'save' the protagonist. She wanted things to be 'alright'. The problem was, I did not know how to tell a story in which things were just alright for everybody.

I realize now that this is not because I am so aware of the wrongness, the tragedy and danger in people's lives. 'Real' life is fairly dull. People are bored, but not bloodthirsty. Many of them accomplish things without coming to grief. Are those stories not worth telling?

I clearly remember being bewildered by this film Happy Go Lucky . It is the story of a school teacher who is very optimistic. From the first scene on, I was expecting that character to come to grief. Why else would you make someone so cheerful, right? I was so sure that her cheerful, trusting outlook would be destroyed (or at least, severely tested) that I got really tense, biting my knuckles in the dark theatre. But although she is walking about at night, alone, she comes to no harm. 

Then she meets a nice-looking man. I thought "Ah! Now comes the conflict!" But no. The man likes her back. They get together. All is well. So then?

So then, I felt a bit annoyed. I thought, 'What kind of film is this? Nothing really happens.' But then I calmed down and thought some more. It is not that 'nothing happens'. There's a lot happening in every scene.; I wasn't bored at all. I was actually very involved with this character and her life. The thing was, nothing bad happened. Sure, some people were mean to her. But I felt pity for them, not for the protagonist. She was fine, handling everyone's stress quite well.

The best part is, three years later, I remember every other scene. That actress, her smile, her eyes, her ability to trust, to not be overwhelmed by sadness, to wait for happiness. So now, I must admit that it's a good film. A memorable film! 

What was the script doing? It was not escalating the drama quotient. It was negating the need for a drama quotient. Not every story needs drama, and not all dramas need to end in either tragedy or comedy.

These days, I am more and more convinced that 'high drama' does not lie at the heart of entertainment. Most people are actually looking for happy sights and sounds. We fear death and destruction - ours as well as other people's. That's why so many people prefer watching 'hulka-phulka' cinema. When we watch 'action' films, we prefer violence that has no resemblance to real physical violence. It is not messy. We do not feel the pain or guilt that is inevitable in real life. When we watch thrillers, we want to walk away with something at the end - a sense of justice, at least, and restored normalcy. When we watch romance, we want to melt and have faith that people actually want - and get! - each other.

In a story, things must happen. In life too, things happen. But must those things be violent? Does every sadness or disappointment have to lead to depression? Why are we so very reluctant to tell stories of normalcy, of dull aches and quick recoveries? Why are we not more vigilant, more resistant, more open to what a good story is, and how it must be told?

Friday, December 13, 2013

Other loves and lives

Had recently reviewed 'Alternate Realities: Love in the lives of Muslim Women' for Time Out. Sharing the text below, with some personal additions.

A brief anecdote first: I had wandered into a tiny bookstore in Lokhandwala where I frequently drop in, just to browse. I had no intention of buying anything that day. I was picking up books at random and reading the first couple of pages before putting them back on the shelves.

And then I found a book that I didn't want to put back. I was fifteen pages in. The staff was starting to give off cold vibes. So, I did put the book back in its place and moved off to another section. Half an hour later, I had returned to the book and opened it somewhere in the middle of another chapter. I still wanted to go on reading. So I bought the book. Only to realize that I already had a review copy of the same book waiting to be read at home.

I ought, therefore, ought to state upfront that 'Alternate Realities: Love in the lives of Muslim Women' is a good read. The publisher's description of the book – 'a travelogue, a memoir, a satire and a feminist critique of Muslim women's lives, interwoven with the author's own ongoing struggles as a Muslim woman' – proves to be correct. It is indeed all of that, but it is not weighed down by the sort of presumptuous rhetoric one might expect.

Critiques of Muslim women's lives, however honest, can get tiresome. What helps this book is the fact that the author is poised to speak from a position of complexity and nuance. She begins by laying bare this complexity – the overwhelming love of a happy childhood, the power of the memory of such love, modern education, changing ideologies, political upheaval, power games over pizza. Oppression is never a simple process, and freedom never an obvious choice.

Allowing the reader to look at this intimate portrait of her own life and the force that led her to break with convention, Gandhi turn to her subject – love. She sets out to examine the ways in which Muslim women seek love, demonstrate love, or resign themselves to living without love. She populates the book with a cast of characters from Bangladesh and Pakistan, both nations she used to live in, and India where she now lives.

These stories are 'alternate' in the sense that Gandhi has chosen to write about Muslim women who do not quite fit into the stereotype. Ghazala is an educated, independent Christian woman in Pakistan who has converted to marry an already married man. Laila is training to be the first Lady Health Visitor in her village in the NorthWest Frontier Province. Firdaus is a writer and Reiki healer, in her seventies. Nahid is a teenaged telemarketer in Allahabad. Tara is single at thirty, hoping for a better job in Dhaka. Ayesha is a journalist-activist-poet, still single in her late thirties, and living by herself in Ahmedabad.

Almost none of the women interviewed seem to be wholly, passionately in love with their current partners (except Nusrat and QT, who are a lesbian couple). Gandhi approaches romantic love from the fringes of society. Marriage and motherhood are not at the heart of these women's lives. This allows a wider range of ideas about love. One of the most straightforward lines comes from Nisho, a transgender dancer in Hyderabad (Pakistan). She says, “Love is like cream in milk. Love always rises to the top.”

The author constantly reflects upon politics, sufism, language. She describes a mugging in Karachi (her chain was robbed by two men on a bike, one wearing a burqa. There was apparently a ban on two men riding bikes after a bomb attack). She describes railway stations, dargahs, her own impatience with certain people. These diversions from the core theme are not uninteresting, but they do leave lesser room for a wider, more inclusive cast of characters.

The title suggests that the book speaks of Muslim women in general, althought it is limited to Pakistan, Bangladesh and India. Muslim women are culturally as different from each other as women from other religions, so one cannot help but wonder how their lives and loves are different from that of a Chinese or Indonesian or French Muslim woman. A greater emphasis on geographical or cultural representation might have been useful. Alternately, the title could have mentioned that the book is limited to the subcontinent.

The main triumph of the book, however, is that it allows a range of Muslim women to speak of emotional hunger, of disappointment, of politics and money. Religious identity is neither irrelevant nor all-important. Gandhi has done well to neither ignore it nor be intimidated by it.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Poem in Cordite

A poem published in Cordite.

 "Sometimes I wonder if..."
Sometimes I Wonder if

our whole world is a third world
a step-sister left behind in the galaxy’s
cinderella story

ugly cousin earth spinning on her heel
raging at the cosmos’ beauty

defective pieces of swept-up stardust from factories that abuse labouring angels
offal from a flourishing inter-galactic trade, we who want nothing more than to be saved
and nothing saved but us
our unwatched backs, our shaken wombs
like all rejects, we spill mother’s secrets
to anyone who listens
anyone holding out his arms
anyone who promises toffee and lies
about how nice we look

mesmerized by metal and muscle
we ask strangers to swing an axe
into the sun’s gut
we watch

at night, we whisper to each other –
we were not made weak and small for nothing we can slide into mother’s cracked skin and hide inside her burn-red belly until it’s over
we are fated to drink the sap in her marrow we can grow a tangle of nerves and veins until
each one is inside each one
and no one can live without killing
and no one can kill without dying
thus, we can survive.

flowers in armpits, we fantasize
about another galaxy –
no factories, no fence-sitting angels
with halos of barbed wire
no greater muscle than our own

we pour yellow and black and red earth
on our eyes until the dream is solid
as earth’s bones

we cry for this place
tucked behind the knees of the galaxy
gurgling in the crook of the sun’s elbow
a place scorched clean.

in her sleep
our planet grinds her teeth.

[This is an edited version of the poem published in Cordite magazine]
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