Sunday, May 23, 2010

Himanshu Kumar on Indian Democracy

"For me, a democratic India has no meaning, if there isn’t a democratic Dantewada."
- Himanshu Kumar, March 2010, Kolkata

For the complete text look at

Monday, February 23, 2009

Living In Sin

Most of this morning was spent in thinking about the wonder of interpretation. Thought I'd share this poem which has been variously read/understood over the years.

Living In Sin

by Adrienne Rich

She had thought the studio would keep itself;
no dust upon the furniture of love.
Half heresy, to wish the taps less vocal,
the panes relieved of grime. A plate of pears,
a piano with a Persian shawl, a cat
stalking the picturesque amusing mouse
had risen at his urging.
Not that at five each separate stair would writhe
under the milkman's tramp; that morning light
so coldly would delineate the scraps
of last night's cheese and three sepulchral bottles;
that on the kitchen shelf among the saucers
a pair of beetle-eyes would fix her own--
envoy from some village in the moldings...
Meanwhile, he, with a yawn,
sounded a dozen notes upon the keyboard,
declared it out of tune, shrugged at the mirror,
rubbed at his beard, went out for cigarettes;
while she, jeered by the minor demons,
pulled back the sheets and made the bed and found
a towel to dust the table-top,
and let the coffee-pot boil over on the stove.
By evening she was back in love again,
though not so wholly but throughout the night
she woke sometimes to feel the daylight coming
like a relentless milkman up the stairs.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Crisis of Dev D

The unabated euphoria about Dev D represents a crisis. I am inclined to see it as a crisis of popular taste, but it might actually be a crisis of popular opinion. What is it that makes rabid critics of No Smoking turn around and declare Anurag Kashyap a rebel hero this time around? Why are otherwise intelligent people vouching for Dev D’s radical cult status?

It was early in my school years that I learnt a hard lesson. If someone shouts a fiction loud enough and long enough, it becomes a truth. And so Abhay Deol is a brilliant actor, Dev D is about female empowerment, Farhan Akhtar can sing, Manorama represents multiplex avant garde, and Slumdog Millionaire is Bollywood’s vindication. What might this mean? Is anybody watching? Is anybody thinking?

Here are a couple of things that didn’t work for me in Dev D:

  1. Emotional confusion: The director seemed torn between two impulses – the designer tragic impulse wherein we see Dev walking through a perpetual booze haze, where Paro has to roll up her mattress and lug it back home on a misty morning, where Leni is hounded by the echoing jeers of her contemporaries; and the bawdy comic impulse. The real tragedy is that the latter wins. Every moment that could aspire to genuine drama is undercut by the bawdy. For example, in a scene where Dev is ostensibly getting worked up by Sunny’s slander of Paro, the audience is too busy laughing at lines like “Tune uski li nahi?” to care.

  1. Style is not substance: For style to actually take off in a movie it needs to be either married to the context/content or it needs to be breathtaking enough to warrant no excuse. The Punjab sequences look like a Yashraj film with a seriously watered-down budget. To be fair, the Paharganj exteriors definitely look interesting, with neon signs and hoardings that transform it into a fantasy space. But the interiors are overdone kitsch. I thoroughly enjoyed Jesse Randhawa’s jazz number in No Smoking, but that kind of disjointed uber-stylish dance sequence is something you can only pull off once. The second time around I want it to be more than a gimmick.

  1. Poor screenwriting and ‘painful’ dialogue: It seems as if Kashyap & buddies wrote this film as a high school annual day spoof, and at an all-boys boarding school at that. Within that limited context, Dev D is radical, it pushes the limits of propriety and challenges convention. If you’re looking for juvenile jokes on sex and female sexuality, this should be your pick of the week. Here is what a Tehelka reviewer describes as “one of the film's best lines”: "London ja ke tera taste kharaab ho gaya hai: whiskey chhodke vodka peeta hai, asli auraton ko chhodke sookhi-sookhi lakdiyon ke pichche bhaagta hai." Here is a film that aspires to the status of a cult take on the urban contemporary but is sadly just a collection of wisecracks. I’ll give you another example. In a shot reminiscent of Wong Karwai’s 2046, Dev and Leni stand outside in her balcony, the glow from the hotel sign lighting up their faces… And she says: “When you are in pain, you should talk.” And he says, “What do you know about pain.” End of scene. Painfully delivered lines, they stun you with their sheer emptiness of imagination or emotion. Almost always in bad dialogue the characters talk directly to each other for the sake of one very lazy person: you.

  1. Female empowerment? The same Tehelka reviewer goes on to applaud the film for creating a character like Paro, “an unapologetically passionate woman who gives as good as she gets.” The TOI review announces that the film “might just go down in history as one of the most radical Indian films, at least in its delineation of male and female sexuality.” Obviously some of us have very low expectations from Indian films and Indian attitudes. Anurag Kashyap has consistently had trouble with writing female characters. Starting with the jinxed Paanch, his women are imbued with sexual edginess but little else. The women in Dev D are unabashed about desire, but the comic impulse reigns supreme and we’re often invited to laugh at their most vulnerable moments. Sitting in a crowded theatre in Delhi, I noticed that the crowd laughed loudest when Leni calls herself a “slut” or when Dev sarcastically asks Paro to go back and “ride her old man.” Kashyap has lavished care on the atmospherics, the physical spaces where we see his female characters, but he neglects to create an inner space for these women. Dev gains understanding of Leni’s troubled present and traumatic past only through the dramatically flat device of a diary. We see the women much as Dev would, with his puerile approach to women in which ignorance is confused with loathing, loathing with lust. Sorry, this is not about female empowerment. This in fact reinforces a particular strain of misogyny which fixes women as oversexed, wont to inflict emotional atyachar when dissatisfied. The song, though fantastic, is actually about sexual atyachar. No wonder then, that Dev is a bechara, a victim of female sexuality as much as he is a victim of urban ennui or whatever.

  1. What is Dev’s problem? A modern re-telling of a classic, possibly overrated story, must be able to justify the renewed effort. What does Dev D mean today? Is he symptomatic of a disaffected generation? Does he represent the poor little rich boy ruined by indulgent parents into complete amorality? Is he just an immature boy looking to grow up? The film doesn’t venture into this discussion. All we are given is a series of elaborate sets and cinematic shots of substance abuse, which add up to nothing. A canny critic might read that as a comment in itself. But that would be chicanery.

  1. This film is not about love: In a recent interview in the Times of India, Kashyap says “…at the heart of it, 'Dev D' is a pure emotional love story, a fact that people are acknowledging as they are coming out from the screening.” What?? Where in the name of Devdas, is love in this film? At no point is one able to connect with the characters, and the blame lies squarely with the screenplay and characterization. Apart from the opening sequences with Paro (brilliantly played by Mahi Gill), one does not engage with the characters at more than a superficial level. The film banks on our prior knowledge of the Devdas plot to spin a yarn which overindulges in the sheer contemporariness of the new avatars. Newness maketh not for dramatic tension, and swiftly doth it fade.

Godard once said that all you need to make a film is a girl and a gun. Dev D has two girls and alcohol could substitute for the gun. But Godard also said that “style is just the outside of content, and content the inside of style, like the outside and the inside of the human body. Both go together, they can't be separated.” Dev D could have been an interesting film and we know that Anurag might have been our best bet to pull it off. He surprised us with the audacity of No Smoking and I am glad he finally has a hit. But this is not just about Dev D. This is about the larger malaise that has settled in new cinemas from Bombay and new writings about it. The obsession with ‘cool,’ the privileging of mediocrity, the utter disregard for a story well told; these are signs of a minor crisis. It is incumbent upon us, the viewers/reviewers, to respond to this moment with our eyes wide open and our words well spent.