Friendship in the Time of Mistrust: Dostojee film review

First published in Outlook

What sensory forces inhabit the landscape of childhood? What does it look, sound, feel and taste like? For Palash and Shafikul, two boys growing up in rural Bengal, that landscape looks like fields and rivers to play football and take a dip in; it sounds like the toktoki, a small metallic toy that makes a clickety-clack sound; it feels like catching caterpillars and flying kites. Dostojee, Prasun Chatterjee’s debut film, opens with a childhood scene most of us are acquainted with — throwing pebbles into the water. As the two boys try to outdo each other in covering the distance their stones can manage, no boundaries separate them. Yet, a wall appears soon enough, as quickly as the boys — each of whom calls the other by the same name — “Dostojee,” meaning friend — enter their respective houses, separated by a thatched straw wall.

As next door neighbours, the two boys have about as mainstream a friendship as two village boys could have during ordinary days. Except, the days have ceased to be ordinary. A spectre of suspicion and ill-will pervades the air around them, holding in its sway, the minds and moods of the grown-ups responsible for showing them the way. Dostojee uses the powerful trope of child’s play to convey messages that are anything but child’s play. In fact, this relationship couldn’t be developing at a more fraught time in history. The Babri Masjid, a 16th-century mosque has only recently been demolished in Ayodhya by a mob of Hindutva nationalists, who consider the mosque site to be the birthplace of Rama. This last fact is significant, because, although he’s a part of the region’s folklore, thanks to the epic of Ramayana, Rama isn’t traditionally revered as a god in Bengal. Yet as the wildfire of hurt religious sentiments reaches their village, that is set to change.

Dostojee presents a familiar story — of simmering communal tension — in a remarkably unfamiliar way. To begin with, the story takes place in a Muslim-majority village in West Bengal. This in itself is an interesting alternative to the dominant Hindu perspective one often comes across. When I asked him the reason behind this, Chatterjee told me “This comes from my own experience of traveling to areas like the film’s setting in Murshidabad for the last decade and a half, during which time I saw a continuous erosion of harmony between the Hindus and Muslims. There’s also another, more subconscious reason. My family came to West Bengal from East Pakistan in the early 1960s in dire circumstance. I tried to imagine what the relations between the two communities could be like, had we been living in a Muslim-majority scenario.”

Even as the battle lines are drawn — with the Muslims vowing to construct a new mosque, one they will call the Chhota Babri Masjid and the Hindus reciprocating by bringing Rama’s idol to the village temple — the graph of the Palash-Shafi (short for Shafikul) friendship maintains an even keel. The affairs of the grown-ups are beyond their understanding; Shafi, for instance, can’t understand why his father won’t allow him to attend a play on Ramayana, when he’d done the same without any fuss the previous year. When he still goes for the play, in stealth, the two friends walk up backstage during the play’s intermission and find the actors playing Rama, Sita and Ravana (all men), sharing a smoking break. The boys are incredulous, and when invited by the actors to enter their tent, Palash finally asks them, “Aren’t you each other’s enemies?” The response of the actors — “No, we’re friends. We only act as if we were enemies, all for the belly’s sake, you see?” — is one of the many subtle shrapnel director Chatterjee uses to make his point about organized religion and orchestrated clashes. This subtle artistry of getting the message across, where words and images have both external and internal meanings, makes Dostojee compelling yet poetic in the way great cinema is meant to be.

In the ceaseless romanticising of childhood, it is often overlooked that it is also a difficult territory. In a world governed by adults, children have to constantly look for workarounds, wiggling out ways to protect their little worlds while appearing to be abiding by the laws laid down for them. That is how childhood survives, by negotiating, but as Dostojee shows, also by subverting. And so, even as Shafi goes to see the Rama play despite being forbidden, Palash too, quietly brings an Eid treat from his friend’s house, hiding it well from his mother’s eyes, for his little sister. And on the eve of the Hindu festival of janamashtami that celebrates the birth of lord Krishna, Shafi comes over to Palash’s house to decorate the jhulan, an ornamental swing depicting various episodes from Krishna’s life. It is an activity children in Bengal take great joy in, and while Shafi’s innocent participation in an activity associated with a religion other than his own might not seem all that incongruous, what makes it noteworthy is Shafi’s sourcing of mud for the purpose — from the soil for the proposed new mosque.

One could watch Dostojee for its visuals alone — Chatterjee spoils the viewer in that department, with scene after stunning scene representing not only the beauty of rural Bengal, but of the particular joy of growing up there. In one scene, the two children are seen in a wide open field in the evening, wearing something similar to chef’s hats on their heads. Except, these are paper hats Shafi has made using scrap. They look ordinary up until the moment the hats achieve what their maker intends them to —  gleaming with fireflies that stick to the adhesive Shafi has plastered the hat with. Even the word magic falls short to describe this scene — two boys laughing and dancing with a thousand fireflies crowning their heads as dusk descends — and its visual thrill. Then there are the more familiar and enduring images of rural Bengal — endless paddy fields, lush monsoons, village fairs and the bioscope as well as  repetitive sights and sounds of weaving — the source of livelihood for Shafi’s family.

One of the most telling images in the film is that of Pagla, the village madman — sitting silently on a platform attached to a wall, the two halves of which have posters calling for the solidarity of Hindus and Muslims respectively. The madman isn’t a new idea, but even for an oft-used trope, this single wordless scene — depicting insanity as the only balance holding warring groups of religious fanatics in place — is as powerful as it gets in terms of visual coding.

Even as the two boys float — for “rise” is too lofty a word for the natural ease with which they bond — above the discord festering around them, there comes a point when they too must be separated. On an evening of torrential downpour when the boys dip into the river and begin “catching” fish with as much as Palash’s bare hands and the shirt Shafi has stripped himself of, Palash drowns, taking with himself Shafi’s privilege of uttering the word “Dostojee” ever again.

From this moment on, Shafi’s life wouldn’t be the same, of course, but Shafi himself won’t be the same person either. He would give up his waywardness and turn into the diligent student that Palash was, focusing on his lessons and reaching school on time. His friend’s death would make him obsessed with how fish can swim freely in water without drowning. When his home tutor illustrates for him how the fish’s body is designed to draw oxygen from water, Shafi, who had always been the more hands-on of the two friends, decides to invent a machine that would allow humans to similarly take in oxygen when in water.

Shafi would be diligent about one more thing — perhaps the most important of them all — keeping alive a project he and Palash had started together — making a butterfly from a caterpillar. Braving the awkwardness that comes with having to face Palash’s parents, he keeps returning to their house to put fresh leaves into the jar in which they put the caterpillar. The manner in which this simple act of childhood play is turned into metaphor is yet another testament to Chatterjee’s ability to turn the ordinary into the sublime. Gripped by the memory of the caterpillar, as Shafi comes running to Palash’s house late one evening, we see in the lantern’s dim flicker, how the caterpillar’s movement inside the glass jar catches the attention of Palash’s mother. Transcending itself, the tiny creature now becomes a symbol — of something that breathes and moves, and something that carries a bit of her son in its aliveness. She begins feeding it, and the day Shafi releases the fully formed butterfly, she is seen breaking down for the first time since her son’s death. The suddenness of the insect flying out of the jar hits too close to home for her.

It is perhaps in the film’s final scene — ambiguous, magic-realist, open-ended — where the stylistic panache of Chatterjee, comes full circle, albeit inconspicuously. As a reward for doing well in the final exams, Shafi’s home tutor offers to take him around the village on his bicycle. Shafi requests to be taken to the mango orchard he used to visit with Palash. Once there, he comes across the tree on which the two friends had carved the word “Dostojee”. The film could have ended here and made its point, but it doesn’t. As he looks around, Shafi hears the sharp, unmissable call of the koel, filling the air with its drawn-out koo-oo-s. Soon enough, Shafi returns the call with a koo sound and the bird responds with an even sharper call. This calling game goes on for a while, until Shafi, not the bird, becomes the primary caller. The entire exercise is about the echoing of the same sound by the bird and Shafi. Exactly like the echo he and Palash used to exchange every day when they called each other “Dostojee.” The film reminds us that is how friendship lives on — as echoes, as shadows — even when friends don’t.

Telling larger stories through the prism of childhood friendship is a delicate exercise and the execution is where the filmmaker’s facility and skill are tested. As in the case of the Chilean film, Machuca (2004), written and directed by Andrés Wood that depicts a friendship developing between two boys distanced by class during the months leading up to the coup d’état led by General Augusto Pinochet, or Julie Gavras’s French-Italian film, Blame It on Fidel (French: La Faute à Fidel; 2006), with a nine-year-old protagonist who must negotiate the world of her activist parents acting as liaisons for Chilean supporters of  Salvador Allende alongside that of her Catholic school and grandparents, Dostojee too does a superbly nuanced telling of how children separated by religion are able to keep the faith while working their way through the rough road of bigotry and distrust.

[After travelling to more than twenty countries around the world and winning eight international awards DOSTOJEE has hit the to the big screen in theatres on November 11. The two leading child actors, Arif Shaikh and Asik Shaikh recently won the Best Actor award at the Malaysian Golden Globe Awards 2022.]
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‘Jago Hua Savera’: A Classic Pakistani Film Based on an Indian Novel Set in East Bengal

My review-essay of the Pakistani film Jago Hua Savera (The Day Shall Dawn) in American Kahani.

Night falls on a river. The village around it thickens with darkness. Not the river. On its breast, distant lights flicker like inextinguishable fireflies. The glow comes from the boats of the fishermen sailing on its waves. A majhi (boatman) sings a drawn-out tune and the river’s water folds into its haunting essence with every splash of the oar. This is how the Pakistani film, “Jago Hua Savera” (The Day Shall Dawn) unfolds as does “Padma Nadir Majhi” (The Boatman of Padma), the novel it’s adapted from. 

An enthralling flute amplifies the aural impact of the film’s opening scene, holding the viewer in a delicate trance. A synthesis of the work of stalwarts like Faiz Ahmed Faiz who wrote the songs, dialogues and story; music director, Timir Baran and Academy award-winning cinematographer, Walter Lassally – this first scene establishes the tenor of the film’s sensitive and neo-realist aesthetic.

Read the rest in American Kahani

Of Endings, Happy and Sad

First published in Saaranga

In ‘Bateshwar’s Contribution’, a short film by Sandip Ray I recently watched, Bateshwar Sikdar, a veteran writer, suddenly finds himself in the company of visitors and advice – both unsolicited. Over the course of three days, as many individuals, supposedly Sikdar’s fans come to him with the same strange request. They all want him to make the ending of a novel he’s writing, a happy one. Based on a story by Rajshekhar Basu, often hailed as the greatest humourist of the last century, the film, or rather that peculiar request, struck a personal chord with me in what has been my nascent journey into published authorship so far. I am coming to that in a bit.

In Sikdar’s case, when the first reader, a young man, approaches him on one of his morning walks, there isn’t much to suspect – he’s seen gushing with praise for the senior writer and shows great interest in his current serialized work ‘Ke Thaakey, Ke Jaaye?’ (Who Stays, Who Goes?). In fact, he seems so involved with the story that he’s eager to find out the fate of a female character. He asks Sikdar about the same, referring to the character as the novel’s heroine. Sikdar reminds him that there are two heroines in the novel, and when the young reader specifies he’s referring to Aloka who is fighting a serious illness, Sikdar tells him that she’s going to die. Our young reader seems heartbroken and pleads with the author to let her live. Exasperated, Sikdar tells him off and continues on his walk. The next morning, the entreaty turns into a mild threat when another man, a renowned surgeon, drops by at Bateshwar’s house with the same proposition – to let Aloka live. As with the first petitioner, Sikdar turns down the physician’s request and remains firm on his stand to eliminate Aloka to have Sharbari, the novel’s other heroine, take her place. He would have a third and final requester – a woman who introduces herself as a film actor – who comes to him with the offer of buying the film rights for ‘Who Stays, Who Goes?’. She’s eager to play Aloka in the film she informs Sikdar, but he has to ensure she’s cured of her illness and continues to live. Sikdar, though excited at the offer, still remains reluctant to change his story’s ending. It’s only when the lady threatens to jump ship and make a similar offer to a rival author that he reverses his long-held decision to let Aloka die.

Read the rest in Saaranga

‘Jago Hua Savera’: Recalling a Cinematic Manifesto for the Dawn of Hope

First published in The Wire

Night falls on a river. The village around it thickens with darkness. Not the river. On its breast, distant lights flicker like inextinguishable fireflies. The glow comes from the boats of the fishermen sailing on its waves. A majhi (boatman) sings a drawn-out tune and the river’s water folds into its haunting essence with every splash of the oar.

This is how the 1959 Pakistani film, Jago Hua Savera (The Day Shall Dawn) unfolds as does Padma Nadir Majhi (The Boatman of Padma), the novel it’s adapted from. An enthralling flute amplifies the aural impact of Jago Hua Savera’s opening scene even more, holding the viewer in a delicate trance. A synthesis of the work of stalwarts like Faiz Ahmed Faiz who wrote the songs, dialogues and story; music director, Timir Baran and Academy Award winning cinematographer, Walter Lassally – this first scene establishes the tenor of the film’s sensitive and neo-realist aesthetic.

That the night isn’t pitch-black isn’t insignificant. Like the Padma itself, it is mysterious and pregnant with possibility. Of light. Of dawn. It has to be that way. For the Padma is as unforgiving to the fisherfolk edging its banks as it is giving.

When Manik Bandopadhyay wrote Padma Nadir Majhi, his sparkling novel chronicling the lives of East Bengal’s fishermen, India was under British rule and the Second World War was still three years away. When director A.J. Kardar adapted it for the screen, Partition had split India, and Faiz’s reworked story reflected the region’s altered geopolitics. Filmed on location at Saitnol on the banks of the Meghna River in what was then East Pakistan, the film’s story marks a significant, and arguably necessary, departure from the novel.

The biggest change is also the most awkward one – the fisherman’s tongue. Instead of the regional Bangla dialect of the book, the characters in Jago speak in colloquial Hindustani. It’s not an A for B transposition, though. For me, a Bengali married to a Sikh, the ingenious workaround Faiz and Kardar employed to get around the language hurdle struck a personal resonance. Despite speaking fairly respectable Hindi all my unmarried life in Delhi, my hometown, with my husband, I started speaking in a deliberately incorrect tongue, upturning verb conjugations – a pattern absent in Bengali.

The fishing villagers of Jago speak a similar broken Hindustani, their vocabulary sparse and uncluttered. When the viewer is least expecting it, fragments of Bengali float into her ears – a kid begging his father to spare “duto poisa,” another telling his uncle, “Miyan boddi anchhe,” (the miyan has brought a traditional doctor), and then a full exchange in Bangla between two sisters, Tripti Mitra playing the younger of them.

An idiom for celluloid

One would be mistaken, however, in attempting to locate the film’s vocabulary in a particular vernacular. From the first scene to the concluding one, the elements that dominate both the stylistic and utilitarian purposes of Jago are wordless – the music, the ambient sounds, the silence. In the opening scenes, the viewer gets a sense of a sound peculiar to Padma’s boatmen as Bandopadhyay describes it:

“From the heart of the river afar, a call is heard, a faint sound of human voice…This is a language known only to the boatmen of East Bengal. There are no words in this language, only undulating vocalization. Across unbounded horizons spreading over the river, this sound travels long distances, becoming fainter in volume, but unchanged in its ripples.” [From Padma Nadir Majhi, translated by the author.]

The depth and breadth of Timir Baran’s prowess as a composer are on full showcase here, not just in the three songs that a boatman sings, all carrying the resilient poise of Faiz’s poetry, but also in the music director’s unusual choice of the classical veena – to overlay everyday village scenes with a sedate composure.

Then there are atmospheric sounds – the Padma’s waves, of course, but also the chatter of kids playing on its banks, the cawing of crows, the buzz of a bustling fish market and, later in the film, the big city’s honking automobiles, hawking porters and tinkling bicycles – that lend the narrative a compelling immediacy.

Lassally’s mature camerawork makes it even easier for the director to stick to verbal minimalism in the film. From the first frame, the camera moves with eloquence to capture both nature and man. While the Padma’s expanse and excitability are made almost palpable for the viewer, the close-ups of the characters’ faces strike one as archives of an ancient sadness.

In Jago, the majority of the villagers are Muslims as opposed to the Hindus in the novel. The characters and the plot are a lot less complex, too, making this nearly an original story, written for a new audience.

Most noticeable among the revised characters is that of Bandopadhyay’s Hossain Miya, an enigmatic man of wealth who could be caring or ruthless, depending on the situation. In Jago, he becomes the unidimensional Lal Miyan, a moneylender like any other, stripped of complexities.

The other big character swap is that of the protagonist’s sister-in-law’s. The novel’s Kapila is Mala in the film, played with sensual charm by Tripti Mitra. As in the book, she retains her flirtatious ways, but instead of enticing Miya, her brother-in-law, is seen to attract the attention of Kasim, Miya’s brotherly friend. Bangladeshi acting legend, Khan Ataur Rahman not only plays the role of Kasim with self-assurance, but also sings the film’s songs with tender facility. Particularly enduring is his rendition of “Beet chali hai raat/ab chhoro gham ki baat,” (The night is about to end, my friend/Let go of your songs of sorrow), a spirited nazm by Faiz that Baran has set – to an electrifying effect – to a traditional bhatiyali tune.

Of deprivation and the dawn of hope

There is less gossip and innuendo in the film, too, the extent of it being Lal Miya pointing fingers at Kasim and Mala’s open show of affection for each other. Yet, despite all these deviations, the film remains faithful to Bandopadhyay’s work in a fundamental way – in its politics.

At the core of Padma Nadir Majhi is the social discrimination, ostracism and extreme poverty the fishermen suffer. Their destitution is naked, for they have little to cover it with. But it’s still not without dignity. Miya pulls a fragile cover over his newborn son and helps his invalid wife lie down beside him with the gentlest touch. When his daughter’s leg is fractured, Kasim lifts her in his arms and takes her for treatment to the city hospital – a long and arduous journey he undertakes without a blink. Ganju, obsessed with buying a new boat off Lal Miyan, saves every penny for it despite seeing tuberculosis sniffing the life out of him.

Despite its affirmative title, Jago Hua Savera is rooted in reality. Ganju will acquire his boat but not live long enough to enjoy it. Miya will not be able to buy it, not even after collecting all his life’s savings, including the money his wife has been saving for their daughter’s wedding, the pennies in his son’s piggy bank and Kasim’s offered savings. Wistfully, and in his torn vest, he’ll keep his gaze on the treasured boat as it floats on Padma’s bosom.

And still the fisherfolk will wrest their dawn from the night – the Padma will hold them in her sway again, Miya will approve of Kasim’s relationship with Mala, and Kasim and Miya will return to the fishing boat. And the glow of its lantern.

This is a dawn that’s as unremarkable as the fishermen’s’ lives. It is still a savera, nonetheless.

Jago Hua Savera is a landmark film, not only because of its international cast and crew or the way it draws inspiration from the best of world cinema. But because it reinvents a classic in its own, cinematic, idiom.

[The Day Shall Dawn (1959) was selected as the Pakistani entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 32nd Academy Awards, but was not accepted as a nominee. It was also entered into the first Moscow International Film Festival where it won a Golden Medal. Days before the film was to premier, the new government of Pakistan (under Ayub Khan) asked the film’s producer, Nauman Taseer not to release the film. The writer, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, was later imprisoned by the government for his communist beliefs. Anjum Taseer, son of the producer, had the film fully restored in 2010.]

The Whore as a Metaphor for a City

Bombay Stories by Saadat Hasan Manto 
Translated by Matt Reeck and Aftab Ahmad
Vintage International

First published in The Beacon

Sudhir Pattwardhan. “Street Corner” 1985

Mention Saadat Hasan Manto’s name and a landscape of tragedy unravels in all its grotesqueness. That he has become almost a Siamese twin of the Partition stories he wrote is a minor tragedy in itself. In both age and disposition, there is an altogether different Manto who predates his avatar as a chronicler of the Partition. Bombay Stories introduces one to this earlier Manto, and with him, the city that built his reputation as a writer. The same city that enabled him to become an indubitable annotator of “lowlifes.”

Manto’s Bombay (yes, still very much Bombay), part of pre-independence India, boils with cosmopolitan chaos. As a pot that melted extremes, the city became a home for everyone, from the business tycoon to the migrant labourer and the prostitute. The last group drew Manto’s literary imagination with an intensity bordering on obsession. Nearly every tale in Bombay Stories features a prostitute, even if she isn’t the central character. The skin-brushing proximity Manto evinces in projecting the lives of sex workers raised many an eyebrow in his lifetime. He had been accused of employing obscenity in his stories. One can see why. Manto presents the prostitute in her grimy and broken hovel, stripping her of exaggerated fancies of glamour and lust. The realism apart, the bigger surprise Manto packs in these stories is his not-so-hidden feminist agenda.

When Kanta opens the door to him stark naked, Khushiya, a pimp, is shocked and asks why she doesn’t have any clothes on.

          Kanta smiled. “When you said it was you, I thought, what’s the big deal? It’s only my Khushiya, I’ll let him in…”

The woman’s brazenness hits Khushiya as a whack of insult. It torments him that she could consider him so insignificant as to think nothing of appearing naked in front of him. This weird conflict in the pimp’s mind is a projectile of writerly brilliance. Who would think that a prostitute’s nudity — her most lascivious and prized offering — could be turned on its head and into a weapon to injure the male ego?

Manto’s prostitutes are the axiomatic flesh-and-blood, but they are more. They have beautiful minds of their own, which they exercise despite the compulsion of being tied to the body to pay for food.

The most visceral demonstration of this happens in The Insult, where Saugandhi, a sex worker kicks patriarchy in its shins instead of remaining in its bubble wrap of faux security. Ironically, Saugandhi’s provocation comes not from sexual exploitation but rejection from a potential customer. A man with whom her pimp sets her up says “Yuhkk,” in apparent revulsion and dashes away in his car. In the man’s single meaningless utterance, Saugandhi (literally, fragrant-smelling) decodes a lifetime of humiliation that masculinity has heaped on her. It is in her getting even that Manto concentrates the story’s greatest force. Shortly after the rejection episode, Madho, Saugandhi’s leeching “lover” reappears with his need for money. She rips his photos from her walls and throws them out of the window uttering, “Yuhkk. That is how she seizes her moment of showing Madho — and through him, every man — his place.

In Ten Rupees, Sarita, a young girl, is forced into prostitution by her mother. The story breaks one’s heart before enthralling and finally healing it — with twists as sharp as the ones Kifayat, the driver in the story – makes his car swerve to. Ten Rupees is evidence of the perversion of depraved men looking to sexually exploit a young girl. It is also proof of what the alchemy between a writer’s masterly imagination and his sensitivity can do to kindle the softest core of the human heart, no matter how savage. Ten Rupees is a fantastical story, electrifyingly so because of a young girl who is just that and the Hindi film songs she breaks into unbidden. It’s also an extraordinary story. Although almost a fairy tale, over the brief wingspan of its flight, it holds out the hope of coming true somewhere at some point in time.

In his depiction of prostitutes, Manto is somewhere between an exploiter and a benefactor – more like an ally. His vision has a diving mask that takes him beyond the prostitute’s essential physical territory. Accompanying him to their shanties allows the reader to see them, really see them — the way they live and dream, quarrel with or negotiate their fate. It isn’t difficult to find in Manto’s whores a metaphor for the Bombay of the 1940s. Like her, the city welcomed in a businesslike way anyone willing to pay for the pleasures it offered them. There were no strident calls for keeping outsiders out and the place teemed with characters from different regions, religions and communities.

Only one other character could possibly make the prostitute envious with the consistency of its appearance in Bombay stories. That of Manto’s. Most of the stories are in the first person, and the narrator refers to himself simply as Manto. It is tempting to take this as the author’s real-life persona, but one is well advised to read this character within the fictional framework of the stories. As translator, Matt Reeck informs us in his detailed notes, the Manto of the stories isn’t really a mirror image of the real-life Manto. Still, this self-depreciating, temperamental persona is close enough to the real Manto, one suspects. This is particularly true when he shares vignettes from the Hindi film industry, where he worked as a writer. He delights the reader with an insider’s view of the film industry, at once an enigma and an imperishable field of gossip fuel.

Consider this principle from a ten-point list Narayan, who works in the film industry draws up for working in the studio. #3: If you fall in love with an actress, don’t waste time dilly-dallying. Go meet her in private and recite the line, “I, too, have a tongue in my mouth.” If she doesn’t believe you, then stick the whole thing out. And#6, which rings so true, one could have written it today. Remember that an actor has an afterlife too. From time to time, instead of preening before a mirror, get a little dirty. I mean, do some charity work.” [Janaki]

The translators, Matt Reeck and Aftab Ahmad have rendered these stories into English with compelling credence without over-anglicising the text. The distinct Indian-ness of the narration is well preserved for the most part as is Manto’s signature sarcasm and wry humour.

One reads Manto not just for the stories he wrote but also because of the way he embalms each story with his deep humanity, his acerbic wit and his near-allergic impatience for masks — semantic or societal. In Mozelle, technically the only “Partition” story in the collection is also arguably the most brilliant in form, content and technique. It depicts the horrors of the communal tensions of the time with such vividness and neurotic pace that the reader is stunned into a suffocating silence. This one story is also an eerie foreboding of the departure of Manto himself from his beloved Bombay, which he had to leave following Partition and from the pluralistic freedom it offered him.


Bombay Stories
 is therefore, is an important collection to understand not only a city but its author who, tragically, died not in but of Partition.

Biryani Tales and Life Lessons From Kerala

First published in The Wire

Kerala has scarcely had a more challenging festival season than the recent Eid and Onam that went by. Festivals, for all their loaded moral and religious bearings, are also occasions for feasting together. Watching the 2017 Malayalam film Oru Visheshapetta Biriyani Kissa (dir. Kiran Narayanan) in the backdrop of the devastating floods in Kerala, I learned, with sobering appreciation, not only how food integrates people but also how it binds Keralites across communities with a peculiar endurance, one that only the tongue’s archived discretion can inspire.

The film begins with the redoubtable Ummi Abdulla, the diva of Malabar cuisine, presenting a radio show. Abdulla shares how biryani arrived in India with the Persians and was refined in the royal kitchens of the Mughals before travelling to Kerala, where it changed its form based on the “land, weather conditions and nature” of the locals. In that summation is a compendium of the history of Malabar cuisine – a confluence of cooking styles including European to Arabian and Persian besides, of course, Indian.

The film’s fantasy trope of angels-helping-humans shifts the scene from the imagined, dreamy heaven to the lush heaven-on-earth, where the main story unfolds. The camera moves with the nonchalance of being in a place – a fictional village about 50 kilometers from Kozhikode – where every shot is bound to hold the eyes captive.

The central attraction of the village is a 200-year-old mosque, famous not so much for its religious services or even the multi-gemstone studded walking stick of its founder preserved as an exhibit in the mosque as for its Sunday biryani program. Cutting across caste, class and religion, biryani lovers throng the mosque every Sunday. When a TV reporter comes to the village to do a story on the weekly feast, the first person he interviews is the elderly Krishnan, who prides his position as the president of the “2,000-year-old” Bhadrakali temple as much as he gloats over the fact that he sat on the front row of the first edition of the biryani program, hosted by Hajiyar, the mosque priest and his (now dead) wife, in 1998.

Dignified egalitarianism

As depicted in the film, the queues formed diligently for the free biryani – one each for men and women – held for me a mirror to the dignity and grace of the people of Kerala. Everyone waits for their turn patiently, and social position accords no special status to anyone. This is the same grace the Malayalees have displayed in the wake of the unimaginable calamity of the recent deluge. From cabinet ministers to district collectors, and police officers to ordinary millennials and seniors alike, Keralites displayed a spirit of cooperation that stood out when the force of water swallowed everything else around them. Images of a young girl carrying her pet dog on her head as she wades through waist-deep water, of poor villagers at the district collector’s office to return their eagerly-awaited meagre pension and of ministers carrying sacks of relief material on their shoulders won’t escape our memory soon. More so because, while stories of human endurance in crises involve ordinary folks are common, it is rare in the Indian context to see officials and legislators stepping in to respond to life-threatening situations.

Even besides the workplace and the biryani queue, the neighbours – Muslims, Christians and Hindus – freely intermingle on a social level, visiting each other’s houses, having tea and food together. God is a common point of reference in their conversations. Communal harmony is not a clichéd, feel-good cinematic flower vase here because it is precisely not that in the social milieu it draws from. This bond is real and sincere, as has been demonstrated by the temples and churches that opened their doors for namaaz in the wake of the recent floods.

The Malabar biryani then becomes a metaphor for this smooth amalgamation, combining as it does, according to the mosque priest, 35 different ingredients. When mixed in the right proportion, these create an aroma that rises “straight to the heaven.” Similar to the harmonizing of the spices in the biryani is the social mixing of the neighbours. Hassan, an aspirational tailor, works in Mariyama Memorial Tailoring Shop owned by a Christian and writes screenplays at work; his current work in progress is a modern-day story of Mahabharata’s king Pandu.

Biryani Tales and Life Lessons From Kerala
A screen grab from the trailer of the Malayalam film Oru Visheshapetta Biriyani Kissa.

But despite the egalitarianism and secularity, the biryani queue is also where strains of tension first become visible. The camera focuses on Miss Tara, a middle-aged widow who quickly becomes the object of ogling and slander from the men’s line. Her crime? Not displaying grief on her husband’s death in the Gulf two years earlier.

The perils of disinformation

The biryani program comes to an abrupt halt with due to certain circumstances. To cope with the drab Sundays, no-good youngsters like Paul, the tailoring shop owner’s adopted son, look forward to such activities as visiting Tara’s house on the pretext of delivering her blouse. At a village meeting chaired by Hajiyar and Krishnan, Tara volunteers to cook the Sunday biryani. But on her first scheduled Sunday, she ends up delivering a premature baby girl instead, sparking a wildfire of scandalous gossip through the village. Speculations on the baby’s father bring everyone into its ambit – from the impotent tailor master to Hajiyar.

The viral acceptance of rumour as truth that follows brings to the mind the vicious disinformation campaign launched with the aim of forestalling aid contributions for the recent flood victims.

Tara is defamed as a fallen woman, publicly called a whore and barred from participating in the biryani program. But Tara, like Kerala, stands her ground in the face of all the aspersions. Like Kerala, too, she does not let herself slide into victimhood, treating herself to a sumptuous home cooked meal instead.

Oru Visheshapetta Biriyani Kissa is a feminist film in several ways. The guest appearance of Ummi Abdulla featuring on an FM channel run entirely by women, the heavenly angel deciding to help Tara, the exposing of patriarchal hypocrisy—all point to that. Contrasting with that clear slant from director Kiran Narayanan is the easy geniality with which the villagers from different religions and social classes intermingle.

The film’s finale emerges from Tara revealing the name of her child’s father to the villagers and stepping forward to cook the Sunday biryani with the help of fellow villagers. After overcoming his initial shame-induced denial, the father of Tara’s illegitimate child finally owns up his responsibility. The village is able to bring the biryani program back without outside help, much like Keralites have done to rebuild their state in the aftermath of the floods.

It would be imprudent to simply draw the parallels without also considering the man-made causes that contributed in large measure to the recent flooding. That said, the soul of Oru Visheshapetta Biriyani Kissa is the wisdom it offers – living in harmony, assuming responsibility in full and a staunch refusal to negotiate with harmful agents – both as a fable and a doctrine to live by.

For, indeed, biryani can be a way of life if not a religion in itself.

Satirical Films Have a Lot to Say About India’s ‘Baba’ Culture

First published in The Wire

Stills from <em>Mahapurush</em> and <em>Ab Ayega Mazaa</em>.

Miracles, magic, superhuman powers, grand events – the works. Divine grace hides in samosas, the answer to fatal diseases in pranayama routines and relief from brutal office stress in pricey retreats and workshops. Science is debunked, its “helpless” limits made to capitulate before extraordinary and divine-blessed powers. The stories of many a spiritual guru in India would make for cracking comedy if it weren’t for the tragedy of real masses of converts being swindled in broad daylight, mostly of their own volition. As the court case involving Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh unravelled recently, I returned to Mahapurush (Satyajit Ray) and Ab Ayega Mazaa – two films that satirise ‘babadom’ at its hilarious best.

Based on Birinchi Baba, a story by Rajshekhar Basu, one of the greatest Bengali satirists, Ray’s Mahapurush shows how babas appear in many stripes to take care of every kind of gripe. In a discussion among three men – two chess players and their friend who is in search of a baba who would rescue him from his broke status – there’s mention of Mirchi Baba, a godman who gives his followers hot chilli peppers for curing all their distress and Radio Baba, who taps into electricity from the sky and turns it into sparks to combust any problems his disciples face. Not too long ago a real baba, who used to prescribe remedies involving the distribution of hot samosas and muffins among folks, went bust. The darbars of Nirmaljeet Singh Narula, Nirmal Baba to his followers, were a lesson in the incredible human capacity for suspending disbelief in front of a guru who sits on a gaudy throne and dishes out barkat (Urdu for abundance or blessings) via samosas, gol gappe and wearing ties, as if the sky were dispensing showers in the monsoon. Babas in India disseminate their abundance in different ways. Ramdev does it via kapalbhati and Patanjali, the efficacy of both of which have been questioned; Singh in the form of drugs and liquor rehabilitation, and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and Jaggi Vasudev by elevating the appeal of that elusive elixir called a “heightened state of consciousness” into something of a corporatised business model.

Read the rest in The Wire

Anhey Ghorey Da Daan—Making the Unseen Visible

Anhey Ghorey Da Daan (Alms for the Blind Horse) isn’t a film you will watch every day. The language of the film, Punjabi, makes it an even bigger rarity. For a while now, the Hindi film industry in India, popularly known as Bollywood, has been projecting a certain version of Punjabi culture—gaudily-dressed bhangra dancers, songs laced with Punjabi phrases or dashing heroes–self-assured, upwardly mobile and often given to crass humour.

Based on a Gurdial Singh novel of the same name, Anhey Ghorey breaks that pattern with grating sharpness. Rarely, if ever, was a story told about the people who are not any of the above. About those marginal men and women whose very existence is of little meaning for those who keep these people in the fringes.  Here is a film encapsulating a day in the life of a Mazhabi Sikh family, who are ranked the lowest in the caste hierarchy. Yet encapsulation is probably an inadequate and even inaccurate word to describe this debut film of director Gurvinder Singh.

For Anhey Ghorey is not so much a tapestry, but a number of threads hanging down a wire, even as the breeze around them threatens to rip these threads apart. The film opens with the house of Dharma being bulldozed by a powerful landlord who has sold the land to an industry. The tremors of this demolition are felt by Dharma’s neighbours, including the family that is at the centre of the story. The male elders’ collective plea to the village head or sarpanch falls on deaf ears, as his gun-wielding henchmen step forward to show the poor villagers who the boss is.

Thereafter, the story moves to the town of Bhatinda, where Melu, the son of the family, is a rickshaw puller. Despite moving to the city, he finds the pasture no greener than in his village. He is still on the margins, working hard and long hours, but not earning enough to lead a life of dignity.

This part—the middle of the film—can be a challenge for the mainstream/conventional viewer, who expects a turn of events to unfold. Instead what appears is a documentary-like collage of staccato images, punctuated with dialogue exchanges between stray characters. The director’s emphasis on using ambient sounds—the thunderous rumble of an approaching train, the screeching halt of a bus, the shrill noise of metals being sharpened—to amplified effects, is deliberate. In place of harmony as created by music, these sounds strike as discordant notes—announcing, as it were, that something isn’t quite all right in the world.

The subtlety of the film is such that it penetrates the viewer’s psyche even without a hard-hitting linear storyline. The imagery, particularly the way the camera has been used to convey the sense of the story, is arresting. For me, the verdant fields seen through the just bulldozed walls of Dharma’s house, the mass of empty rickshaws on a day the rickshaw pullers call for a strike in the city, or the village women standing next to each other in the dark on the tense night when gunshots are heard on the streets were more telling than any spoken dialogue.

The film ends in sombre irony—even as Melu’s father proceeds at night towards the city to meet his son, Melu, having had enough of the city life, returns to his village. But it isn’t just the irony that makes the scene of the father’s departure memorable. As he decides to make the journey, he seeks his young daughter Dyalo’s opinion. Her silence makes the old man, noticeably sparse in speech and defeated  in silence, utter one of the most endearing dialogues of the film—“If you don’t want me to go, I will stay back.” A stoic Dyalo, however, urges him to go ahead and meet his son.

Upon his return to the village–swept in uneasy darkness–Melu sees his sister Dyalo, who has ventured out of the house, unable to hold her restive spirit. Suddenly, all those threads hanging precariously are brought together—if only momentarily.

Anhey Ghorey is in the league of the best of contemporary world cinema. Both the content and the aesthetics of the film set it apart from the slew of Punjabi or Punjabi-themed films coming out of India. It might not be an easy film to watch. But then neither is the story reality of families leading sub-human lives no one cares about, an easy one to come to terms with.

Read another review of the film here.