In praise of vegging, perhaps

Do you remember waking up in a sweat about some exam that you had forgotten to study for, only to remember that it has been three years since you had last written an exam? My current state is somewhat similiar. I lie on a couch determined to read murder mysteries and get up only to eat my mother's extraordinary pork curry. After half an hour I realise I have skimmed three pages without registering anything. And how to read, when the last three brain cells that remain are worrying about money, house-moving, growing old, work, writing, love, the death of love, friendship, the death of friendship, death and work again.

My half-baked Bollywood essay was published here. (With thanks to T&A who looked as distraught as I felt, didn't laugh at me and took me to the Kashyap-ish hell of Palika Bazaar)

A CRITIC ONCE said that one must assume that all Hindi films, unless stated otherwise, are set in Mumbai. In 2007, we have no Hindi movies left, only Bollywood, a gaping monster eating everything including its own past. We have left Mumbai and visited a lot of small-towns this year, but the small town we have visited the most this year is Bollywood. In a year when nostalgia was rife, Hindi cinema’s greatest hit Sholay underwent a makeover repulsive even to those who are fascinated by the badness of B-grade films. All the spoofs we have watched and performed in our living rooms, all the filmi gossip we ever heard and told, all came together in one interminable sitting called Om Shanti Om. Even the superb noir film Johnny Gaddar could not avoid paying homage to Bollywood.

While watching Om Shanti Om was like being forced by a garrulous friend to look at a pile of family albums, Jhoom Barabar Jhoom was like a sexy, amusing layabout, making you bemoan its wasted potential. Treacly with Bollywood references (Bobby Deol and Abhishek Bachchan riding a motorcycle-sidecar combo, looking like gorillas on tricycles with, of course, Yeh Dosti playing in the background) and happily zany visuals (an exploding wax Superman, Diana and Dodi Al-Fayed floating by at the Paris Ritz), the movie flopped like almost all of this year’s Yash Raj movies. Despite its chumminess, Om Shanti Om (and Jhoom Barabar Jhoom) kept us outside its oddly closed and uninviting world. Frequently, the self-referencing and nostalgia (especially the Bachchan self-referencing) became a dizzying mess that rivalled the radio scripts that get hopelessly mixed-up in Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter.

In a year full of confident debuts, Navdeep Singh stands out with his stylish and funny noir film, Manorama Six Feet Under. The suspended PWD engineer-turned-sleuth Satyaveer Randhawa (Abhay Deol)knows the long-waisted beauty in a ghagra choli who appears in the summer haze is a mirage. No woman from his Rajasthani smalltown, Lakhot, looks like the mirrorwork-and-bandhini goddesses of 90s Bollywood or even Aaja Nachle’s Shamli or Laaga Chunari Mein Daag’s Varanasi. Manorama Six Feet Under’s Lakhot does not have dancing troops of ‘colourful characters’ in ethnic costumes. For much of the movie, Singh keeps Randhawa’s wife Nimmi (sexy Gul Panag) in a pantheon of nighties topped by a sweater and a duppatta. Goldfish tanks are the most recurring image in this film, where everyone seems trapped and suffocated. Very different from the exuberant North Indian small-towns of Imtiaz Ali’s Jab We Met, through which we are summarily dragged by Geet Dhillon (Kareena Kapoor).

As we squeeze chin-deep into our metros, do we dare look back fearlessly at villages and small towns we have left behind, as Singh has? Or are we afraid of turning into pillars of salt? Is there any doubt that we think of our small towns as ‘back there’, where we don’t want to be? When Anurag Basu made Life in a Metro, he had one of his characters, Shruti, voice some of this discomfort. Like Shruti, we lie awake at night knowing that our cherished production of global citizenship can fall apart because of one Embarrassing Wedding Guest. Shruti is appalled at the idea of marrying Monty, a charmer who does not hide his Lucknow (or was it Meerut?) roots. So obvious are their differences to Shruti that she is appalled when Monty offers to set her up with a friend from back home. When she tells Monty that she wants a husband “who likes to travel, who reads, and who has a sense of humour”, multiplex audiences must have winced. We’re young enough for our pretensions to still embarrass us.

If we think of small towns as repositories of our authentic selves, parrots in which we have hidden our souls, then Aaja Nachle was a close-reading nightmare. Like many other small towns of cinema, Shamli likes starch and order and was scandalised when Diya Srivastav eloped with a gora. When she returns to Shamli, she finds that the ‘moral’ order is now enforced by the saffron brigade and villainish Muslim mall-builders. Madhuri Dixit in Aaja Nachle is not a drag version of Swades’ radical Shah Rukh. She cynically manipulates the leader of the saffron brigade. She lets Mrs Chojar (Sushmita Mukherjee) be thwarted in her passionate desire to be on stage. Mohan Sharma, the once-jilted cafe owner, is supportive, but Diya never reconsiders him as an object of romance. Instead, we are offered the possibility that the pizza-baking young politician will hook up with Diya in New York, to where she returns.

Is Bollywood’s current fascination for small-towns a sign that we are preparing to put our real small-towns in museums? Kamal Swaroop’s witty film Om-dar-ba-dar set in an imaginary small town in Rajasthan was made in 1988. Until very recently, the film was like a cinephile’s Loch Ness monster: beloved and rarely sighted. Om-dar-ba-dar is exactly the movie to dust off and fall in love with now.

This has also been a good year to decide which critic’s opinions you want to bank on in the decades to come. If, for instance, your neighbourhood reviewer said OSO was hilarious and you sat stonyfaced before jokes that have been done to death by a decade of MTV and Channel V, it is time to go looking for a new oracle. If your critic was also not canny enough to hedge her bets about superhit Aap Ka Suroor — The Moviee, tell her that what was good enough for the Beatles is good enough for Himesh Reshamiyya. Like Bharat Bhushan of Bheja Fry, the small-town viewer is confident enough to do his thing and make it work. The biggest hits of the year have been far from sophisticated: Partner, Dhamaal, Heyy Babyy, Dhol and Bhool Bhulaiyya. There is a similiar satisfaction (of just deserts, not cinematic standards) when the campless Akshay Kumar is applauded for his success in 2007. He has been the star of two of these comedies, as well as another huge hit, Namastey London. Namastey London was the NRI movie Shaad Ali Sehgal spoofed in Jhoom Barabar Jhoom but Sehgal’s Bunties and Bablies were not amused by his mocking their tastes for “ek chutki sindhoor” in Bathinda or Southall.

THIS IS the year that we had a film about a traffic signal, two movies about children with learning disabilities (Taare Zameen Par and Apna Aasman), a reasonably good May-December romance (Cheeni Kum) and a women’s hockey team. Tall, short, sexy, plain, butch, femme, we cheered for all the stick-wielding darlings, especially when they fulfilled our deepest desires by beating up loutish Delhi men. One happy effect of small cinema is that this has been a great year for character actors, people who look too much like us for us to hang our unreasonable fantasies on. Even really small character actors. Eight-year-old Darsheel Zafar shared top billing with Aamir Khan and wrung hardened hearts in Taare Zameen Par. We had Sushmita Mukherjee and Piyush Mishra return to the screen. We have had our heart’s fill of the astonishing Vinay Pathak. We can forgive him Bheja Fry.

Progressive social commentators like to fondly imagine or perhaps hope that cinema audiences are like savants who will tilt cinema in favour of the right and just. Hence it is appropriate that all the unfashionable movies were hits, and right that bloated Yash Raj productions (unless they featured sporty underdogs) and overly pretty Bhansali movies, failed. Commentators are carefully trying to find reasons for why Embarrassing Wedding Guests like Aap Ka Suroor should be treated well.

In all this the people who took the hit are filmmakers making uncharming cinema. Even Anurag Kashyap’s well-wishers would have probably preferred him to rest on the laurels of the perfectly constructed Black Friday. Instead Kashyap sent our reigning male sex symbol into a fabulous hell, located somewhere between Ghatkopar and Siberia. Fingers are cut, people are gassed, suicides are silly, wives morph into sexy secretaries and K (John Abraham) keeps emerging in his bathtub. Audiences fed on froth hated the grotesque furnishing of Kashyap’s imagination and foreign critics largely missed the jokes (Kashyap calls an abridged version of the non-smoker’s charter, a Rajagopalachari). In a world where Sudhir Mishra’s Khoya Khoya Chand, a sweet romance set in the 1950s, is being called very “complicated and layered”, what chance does Kashyap’s unabashedly surreal No Smoking have?

Kashyap is certainly a man we hope does not dwindle into bitterness. Around him there currently exists an energy of new filmmakers, new viewers and even new critics. Did they come first or did Kashyap? Does it matter while we await next year’s bounty? Perhaps it does because in the last two years we, the ever-greedy viewers, have imperceptibly raised our bar for Bollywood. And the only thing to do is raise them higher.


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