Tuesday, August 28, 2012

All About Eve

The two parts of Gangs of Wasseypur strike a strange note, odd but not discordant. The victims are all men in this testosterone navigated drama despite the significant presence of female characters in the film. Think about it. Coppola’s Godfather trilogy had wives, mothers and sisters claiming screen space but they performed to a script framed by the men in their lives. Kashyap’s magnum opus marches to an entirely different tune. Not that the women remain untouched by violence perpetuated by the men in their lives. But the interesting thing is, be it Nagma, Sardar Khan’s first wife or his second spouse Durga, both of them are more than willing to be the catalysts for the blood and gore that lashes the dusty by lanes of Wasseypur. While one happily sends her husband to his death, the other extorts her son ‘tum logon ko khana kaise hazm hota hai, after her husband gets shot in cold blood. She knows that one barb is enough to turn him into an avenging angel. She is also aware that he will end up paying with his life to humour her vengeance, but it is amply evident from the subtext that the consequence matters little to her. The male characters in the film may be busy terrorising the town they live in, but in a neat quirky turn, all of them seem to be a little afraid of the women in their lives. Right down to Definite, Durga’s remorseless progeny.

Starting with his first success, Kashyap has steadfastly refused to treat his female characters as whining victims in any of his films. His version of Devdas had only one wimp, the protagonist. It was the two women in his life, Paro and Chanda who made all the decisions for him. Whether it was the former cycling with a mattress tied at the back of her bicycle to make love to him in the mustard fields or the latter awakening his conscience in the climax. Kashyap obviously likes his women to assert themselves, however male and macho the fictional context of his cinema may be. And thankfully most of the new age film makers seem to be following on his footsteps without a trace of self consciousness permeating the feminist undertones of their films.

Be it the comic Vicky Donor or the compromised Cocktail, the female protagonist is increasingly being projected as more nuanced and ultimately more substantive than her male counterpart. After the failure of her first marriage, Ashima Roy in Vicky Donor is slow to respond to the maverick hero’s advances but once she thaws, she treats the relationship with utmost integrity, coming clean with him about her past while he conceals his ‘donor’ status from her. But it is in the treatment of the secondary female characters the director Shoojit Sircar scores. Vicky’s beautician mother and his feisty grandmother are a treat to behold in their drinking sessions late in the night. Ashima’s middle aged aunt who has remained single is another marvellous characterisation. There is no back story to her but the writing by Juhi Chaturvedi is so clever that the viewer understands why she has remained unmarried without any explanations being provided.

Critics have been disappointed with the tame ending of the Imtiaz Ali produced and Homi Adjania directed Cocktail. Gautam Kapoor opts for the more Indian Meera but there is something about the abandon with which Deepika Padukone surrenders to her portrayal of Veronica that you leave the theatre feeling she is better off without the confused Gautam and his domineering mother. We would like to believe that she is going to eventually realize all her attempts to fit into the stereotype was a big mistake. It is the spunky Veronica who ends up being the hero of the film. Cocktail is her show and knowing the strange subversive ways of Adjania from his first film Being Cyrus, this may very well have been his intention.

Of course when it comes to Vidya Balan, only a fool would try to fit her into the conventional Bhartiya Nari mould. From Ishqiya to No One Killed Jessica, from The Dirty Picture to Kahaani, Balan has managed to change all the rules pertaining to the female protagonist in Hindi cinema. When you find her doing a silly Lavani item in an entirely undeserving film, it’s not only your aesthetic sensibilities that are affronted you also get angry with the film maker for wasting her like this. Hopefully Kashyap will cast her in one of his films soon and viewers can rejoice at the coming together of the most revolutionary director and the most astounding actor of our times.

It must be a sign of our times that even Yash Raj films seems to have outgrown wallflowers who liked being courted in the snow clad only in the sheerest of chiffons. Zoya in Ishaqzaade can out curse her ruffian suitor and climb walls to aim at him with a country pistol. The only way he can get the better of her is by resorting to lies and deception. It is also amusing to note that it is the villainous Parma who is treated as an object of lust by the local courtesan Chand. We don’t know whether this was intentional on the part of director Habib Faisal, but it is a nice touch nonetheless, turning the paradigm of the ‘female item’ in commercial cinema on its head.

The portrayal of women characters is all the more interesting when the work is helmed by a female director. In Kiran Rao’s directorial debut, Dhobi Ghat, Shai one of the film’s four protagonists is not afraid to stalk the man who has a one night stand with her because she believes they have a connection. Nor does she think twice before using a young boy from the slums who is besotted by her to achieve her dubious ends. Thankfully Rao’s directorial skills ensure that the viewer continues to vouch for Shai’s vulnerability and does not condemn her.

Empowered women are increasingly making their presence felt even in the popular works of regional cinemas. Manimegalai in Engeyum Eppothum directed by newcomer M Sarvanan puts her silent admirer through many tests including getting him tested for HIV before she allows him in her life. Vazhakku Enn 18/9, another recent success in Tamil Cinema has the victim of an acid attack extracting revenge on the policeman who has exploited her tragedy to make a quick buck for himself. She refuses to remain a mute victim.

Neighbouring Kerala has not been lagging behind when it comes to a more rounded depiction of female characters rather than cubby holing them as victims or paragons of virtue. The young nurse Tessa is no saint in 22 Female Kottayam helmed by Aashiq Abu. She has no problems about going to a pub with her boyfriend to have a drink or living in with him without getting married. When he betrays her to get her brutally raped not once but twice by his boss, she waits for her bruised body and soul to recover before she goes about extracting her revenge. What is interesting are the long counselling sessions she has with him after chaining him to a bed in the climax. Veteran director Kamal, whose Perumazhakkalam was remade as Dor by Nagesh Kukunoor has made a film on the plight of women from Kerala who are sent to Saudi Arabia as domestic helps. His Khaddama could very well have been a melodramatic tear jerker but the director’s vision as well as the intelligent interpretation by the actor Kavya Madhavan vests the character with a luminous dignity.

Bengali Cinema too is no longer dependent solely on Aparna Sen and Rituparna Ghosh for sensitive depiction of women on screen. In the last one decade, Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury has depicted some really complex women characters with shades of grey in films like Antaheen and Aparajita Tumi. His films usually revolve around the politics of marriage and his female protagonists are often the perpetuators of the conflict they find themselves in. But even when they are not, they come across as strong and capable individuals with clear perspectives on life and living and turn out to be much more interesting than the men in their lives.

Quite obviously, the new breed of Indian film makers are not just portraying women more realistically, but also imbuing them with their own enlightened sensibilities without bothering about the existing frameworks of the sacrificing heroine and the evil vamp. As long as Indian cinema is driven by the male superstars of the 100 Crore clubs, Chikni Chameli will continue with her shenanigans with a 100 men panting behind her. But the new age film makers are clearly not impressed. They seem to be a little bored of her just like the more discerning audience. And hopefully their enlightened take on the gender divide will sooner or later permeate down to chauvinistic males across the country. From Guwati to Mangalore.

Let’s keep our fingers crossed.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Protagonist's Tale- Mafia Queens of Mumbai and Gangs of Wasseypur 2

I had read decent reviews so I picked it up from a book shop last year. But there was something about the cover that prevented me from reading it. For nearly a year, the book lay untouched on my study table. Last week I made a day long trip to the city and carried it with me to read on the way. That too happened more by accident than design. I tend to procrastinate a lot in the mornings and get all rushed at the last minute, laying my hands on what I can find at that moment to carry with me to read in the car. Thankfully, I didn’t have to rue my choice. ‘Mafia Queens of Mumbai- Stories of women from the ganglands’ turned out to be a page turner. Simple and compelling. One of the best works of creative nonfiction I have read by an Indian author. Rather authors. The book has been written by S.Hussain Zaidi with Jane Borges. Both of them are Mumbai based journalists.

S Hussain Zaidi needs no introduction. His earlier best seller Black Friday was translated into celluloid by none other than Anurag Kashyap. I have read somewhere that Kashyap considers Black Friday to be the best film he has made. Unfortunately Paanch and Black Friday are the only two films of Kashyap’s that I haven’t watched. But like Kashap’s direction, Zaidi’s writing too brims with energy. The narrative shifts from third person to first person from essay to essay, bringing to life a group of spunky women who are at ease being avengers and murderers rather than nurturers and victims the Indian society wants them to be. What they seem to lack in physical strength, they more than make up with their wile and cunning. It is a little difficult to believe women like these actually existed, but their photographs in the book provide the evidence.

From the matriarch of the Mumbai Mafioso Jenabai to brothel madam Gangu Bai and from the avenger Ashraf to the drug peddler Mahalaxmi Papamani, each of these feisty women take it upon themselves to make a mark in a world ravaged by the most vicious of men. For lovers of film trivia, Monica Bedi, Abu Salem’s moll who was a part of the reality show Big Boss a few years ago also features in the book. But her story is probably the only tepid piece in this otherwise riveting book. Maybe because she is the only one capable of suing the writers. Otherwise this is a brilliant book, to use the clichĂ©, a rare gem.

It must be because I watched Gangs of Wasseypur 2 the same evening, but I found myself focusing on the female characters more. They have a lot less screen time as compared to the men in the film but that’s understandable given the gangster ethos of the film. What is interesting is how Kashyap has made the women an essential part of the narrative. They may not actually fire the bullets but it is amply clear that if it wasn’t for them, the men wouldn’t act the way they do in the film. Maybe not even be what they end up being.

It is the ‘other woman’ Durga who hastens Sardar Khan to his death, feeling no remorse for her part in his death afterwards. Though she is hardly present for most part of the film and appears in less than half a dozen scenes in the movie, her rage and frustration at her son Definite opting to be a lackey of Faizal Khan, Sardar’s legitimate son is palpable. There is a tongue in cheek tribute to the 70’s Bachchan blockbuster Trishul made by the Naseeruddin Shah of the current generation, Nawazuddin Sidique in the film so we are left in no doubt about Kashyap’s reference point, so much so that the hazy visage of Durga in the climax made me feel the Waheeda Rehman of Trishul had been vindicated once again in a film made a good three and a half decades later.

Kashyap having claimed a sort of feminist credentials in his interviews can be counted on to construct the legitimate wife with a lot more substance than Yash Chopra accorded Geeta Kak. Richa Chadda loses none of the fire that she displayed in part 1 as the ageing matriarch in the follow up. It is a bravura performance, all steel and grit as she turns her sons into gun toting devils to avenge her philandering husband’s death. I would have liked Kashyap to include a scene between her and the illegitimate offspring of Sultan, but in the absence of that, the wedding song where suddenly tears start rolling down her cheeks, qualifies as the moment of the film. The clever actor she is, she lets us know without the aid of dialogues, the suffering of her accumulating losses. First the husband and then the children. Pathos is a new emotion for Hindi film weddings.

The two daughters in law are a study in contrast. There is a lovely touch of humour to Huma Qureshi’s Mohsina. Whether it is her avid TV watching or the way she leads the way in the bustling bazaar, ragging her husband for looking much older than her. The bitter sweet song she sings to her husband is also sweet in the ears. When I was growing up in Bihar, we used to call these songs ‘ant sant gaana.’ So there was a nice unexpected touch of nostalgia to watching the film.

The other daughter in law gets a wholly undeserved bullet in her head. Of the four women in the family, she is the one who fits best the conventional mould of the traditional Indian women. She tries to reason with her husband and extends warmth to her estranged brother. When she is shot in the film, you wonder whether it is because that is what the narrative of the film demanded or Kashyap wanted to punish her for not displaying enough spunk and spirit like his other female protagonists.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Hard-edged vision: Margaret Atwood.

( Another of my earlier pieces in The Hindu on one of my favorite writers)

It’s difficult to unravel the primary identity of Margaret Eleanor Atwood. Is she a visionary philosopher who happens to use the twin tools of poetry and prose with effortless ease and felicity or is she a writer who happens to shape and articulate her vision with such clarity that countless readers and fans all over the world end up owning it for themselves. We have been as enriched by her prolific outpourings as we have been enlightened by her philosophical musings. We can claim with a measure of confidence that in the more than four decades of her writing, she appears to be on a mission to make the world a better place by making her readers think more and feel more.

Atwood burst into the Canadian literary firmament with her poetry in the early 1960s. She was rewarded by the Governor General’s award for her collection The Circle of Game a few years later. The fiction happened by the end of the same decade. Her first novel, The Edible Woman, was a rant against sexual roles inflicted on women. The protagonist Marian appears to delight in playing a passive aggressive role with her fiancĂ©e and her lover who are two distinct entities. Her increasing inability to eat as the story progresses is based on real and explicit fears of being consumed that the reader can easily resonate with. With her very first novel, Margaret Atwood communicated to the world that her writing is going to poke roughly rather than stroke gently.

The disagreements and debates were to follow when her treatise on Canadian Literature came out in the early 1970s. Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian literature is looked upon as an enduring reference text for anyone interested in the country’s literature and the country itself. It is a priceless insight on how Canadians view themselves. According to Atwood, most if not all literary works from Canada emerge in the context of survival and the protagonists take on the psychological baggage of being victims owing to the chequered history of the country. The framework espoused by Atwood has its detractors to this day who claim that she chose works that would support her hypothesis but the book endures as an academic as well as literary text.

Atwood continued to dazzle in the 80s with her prose as well as verse. She also demonstrated her full range as a writer in this decade. From penning television dramas to entertaining children with her stories, writing poetry and prose fuelled by her leanings towards civil rights, the writer in her was at the height of her prowess. Her feminist leanings were increasingly evident in the collected criticism Second Words. She appeared to be carrying the discourse further when she came out with her novel The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985. The almost surreal tonality of some of her earlier works seem to have found a home in the matching context of the science fiction genre the novel adhered to. It is a measure of Atwood’s genius that placing her tale in an alternate reality did not rob the story of any of its literary sheen. The novel not only went to win many prestigious awards but also became a huge popular success. This phase of prolific output also saw her writing for the stage.

However, her best seems to have been reserved for the last two decades. Alias Grace, published in 1996, can easily qualify as the best fiction she has written. A fictional biography of a notorious real life murderer, Grace Marks, who lived in the mid-19th century, it expertly mixed and matched a fictional first person narrative with actual journalistic accounts that appeared during that time to weave a complex and engaging tale of perception versus actual reality. Atwood’s Grace remains enigmatic and compelling to the very end because of the shadings the author gives her protagonist. While it may be read as a great story, Atwood, never content with the obvious, uses every subversive writing trick to raise pertinent questions about the nature of truth and how it gets contaminated by issues of power, culture and identity. During this phase, grumbles were getting louder about the way the wise judges deployed by the Booker committee were repeatedly ignoring her works. It seemed to be the sole literary recognition that had eluded Atwood. Atwood had to wait for the new millennium to have the slight repaired.

The Blind Assassin not only won the hearts of readers all over the world but also the coveted prize. The novel is a lesson for all aspiring novelists about structuring their works in progress. A seeming labyrinth in its narration, each piece of puzzle fits in perfectly as you turn the pages, enchanted as much by the style it adapts as you are impressed by the intellectual rigour she places on telling the story. The book achieves the near impossible: telling a complex tale of hurt and loss through the simple device of multiple narrations that repeatedly meet and fork. The accolades flew in fast and furious but Atwood had moved onto her next, Oryx and Crake, another Sci-Fi novel that came out in 2003. She has since then come out with two prose collections and a recent announcement talked of a new novel on its way.

We look forward to that. Just like millions of readers across the world delighting in every new offering she decides to surprise us with, ranging from a reinterpretation of Homer’s Odyssey to a children’s Musical. In her own words: “Like preachers, I sell vision, like perfume ads, desire or its facsimile. Like jokes or war, it’s all in the timing.”