manorama and more

Its very depressing to meet fascinating people and do a lousy job of the writing.

A SLOW-PACED AND seductive noir film set in a fictional Rajasthani town called Lakhot, Manorama Six Feet Under barely made a ripple when it was first released in September 2007. Nearly a year later, people are still urging it on their friends, each convinced they are the first ones to have found it. Not surprsingly, it is currently one of the bestselling Hindi DVDs. Its director Navdeep Singh, however, thinks that Manorama was a competent yet unambitious debut, daring you to make a fool of yourself by praising it. He hopes that by alternating mainstream films with his personal projects he will be able to finally make the movies crowding his head for years. He is making fewer and fewer of the ad films that he is better known for and is now finishing the script of a bigger film, Basra. A spy-thriller, it is set partly in Iraq and explores the mysterious world of a RAW agent. In case you are wondering, Basra is his offering to mainstream cinema.
Photo: Deepak Salvi

It’s difficult not to wonder what kind of person made Manorama Six Feet Under. This is a man who signals the climactic revelation of the femme fatale by having her appear in a sleeveless salwar kameez rather than the sarees you have seen her in the rest of the film. As she hangs over the villain’s armchair her thin, bare arms shock you — so closely are you tuned into the morality of Lakhot’s ‘nightie’-wearing householders. In turn the scene makes you laugh because all along you felt no moral outrage when you discovered Satyaveer, the hero, a junior engineer, has been suspended for taking a bribe. Or when he continues to ride around on the bike bought with his ill-gotten gains. “I was not setting out to make an ‘issue’ film but morality has become to us only about virginity and vegetarianism. If you are a vegetarian virgin, nothing you do is immoral. You could be absolutely ruthless in making money, kill someone even.” He adds, “as long as you don’t eat the person you have killed, of course.”

Here is his pet theory: “The baniyafication of our culture has ruined our movies. So I can stand on my terrace and listen to families fighting, calling each other maa-behn gaalis. That is real but producers used to tell me that my movie about a father-son relationship was too westernised because the son talked back to the father. Perhaps it does not happen in the joint families of our mercantile class but it certainly happens in India.” But no sooner than he’s given it, he retracts it, saying he’s being “rude”.

As an ad filmmaker, Navdeep is smack in the middle of the consumerist deluge that he worries about. “There was always rich and poor. But now the spending is more visible. Sooner or later someone will catch on that walking down the street is a pair of shoes that costs three times his income. Why not knock out the wearer and steal the shoes?”

Singh’s enjoyment of the ridiculous is voluptuous, like someone rolling their tongue around a boiled sweet. Mocking himself, he tells you about the script he had written, and abandoned, as soon as he arrived in Bollywood. “It had a Russian gangster, his porn star girlfriend and the porn filmmaker who falls in love with her. I thought I could adapt it for India. I thought Mumbai would be like New York but with more Indians.”

AFTER GRADUATING in Delhi, he and a friend started an animation studio, one of the first in the country. “We were self-taught but did quite well. We made logos fly,” Singh says with a straight face. At 27, he decided that he wanted to study design. But later, on an impulse he decided to go to film school. I was married, my wife was pregnant and my father-in-law was very concerned. But they say you only regret the things you don’t do, not the things you do. So we went.” Singh went to Pasadena, California at the Art Centre School of Design, a school as well-known for producing automobile designers (including Dilip Chhabria) as artists and filmmakers (Zack Snyder and Tarsem Singh). For a decade he worked in LA and in London, and returned to India to make movies in 1999 at a time no one would even admit to watching Hindi films. After Satya and Hyderabad Blues many were holding their breath wondering whether alternative cinema had actually returned. Singh came to Mumbai and was astonished, like others before him, by its insularity. “I got ad films almost immediately. But Bollywood was suspicious and unfriendly. All the great art movements have come out of creative people sharing their work, their preoccupations, and ideas. But nobody here seems to get that.”

Today, at a time when criticising Bollywood is almost treason, Singh radiates deep dissatisfaction both with the industry and the aspirational culture on which it sits. “I hate living in cities cut off from any culture other than Bollywood. “What I miss most about living abroad are the libraries and museums and music. My children definitely have less access to culture or intellectual activity than I did when I grew up. Newer spaces like Gurgaon are completely devoid of anything even remotely cultural. If we must import from the West why not import the best? I certainly don’t miss McDonalds. Why not be like China and have great philharmonic orchestras? Forget art, we don’t even have pop-culture. That’s why we have movies like Dhoom. Where in India do we have motorcycle gangs?”

Singh was an army brat, the resident of many small towns and big cities. While Lakhot inspired an uneasy loyalty in Satyaveer, many viewers would have sympathised with his wife’s desperation to leave. Would you find serenity or claustrophobia in Lakhot, you wonder while characters stare into goldfish tanks. Singh insisted on shooting Manorama on location horrified at the idea of doing it on sets in Mumbai. One of the scripts he is working on is set in a travelling circus. His Andheri apartment has the odd, hand-painted signs he collects but he denies a fetish for small town life. “Small towns just have more colour. Most big cities look like each other.”

The absence of place in Bollywood annoys him tremendously. “Movies are either in New York or in Never-Never land. You look at characters in a movie and you don’t know who they are, where they are, where they are from.” He compares it to regional cinema. “Say you are watching a Tamil film. It has a well-defined catchment area. So the location of the characters, caste, class, everything is very clear. The problem for Bollywood is this. Who is its natural audience? Who speaks Hindi? Nobody does. When I had two minutes of Hindi as its spoken anywhere in Rajasthan in Manorama. People complained that it’s a dialect and that they couldn’t understand it. So we have movies about nowhere for people from nowhere.”

So why has he stayed put and not gone back to LA or London? “Where else would I get away with such mediocrity?” he responds, leaving you to your quiet shock. Having almost convinced you that pursuing realism or even good cinema in Bollywood is hopeless, he doubles back. Because, as he admits, he keeps swinging between hope and despair about Bollywood. “The cultural class will start exerting their own tastes. So for a long time no one watched Bollywood or thought it was kitschy, cool fun. After a while you get sick of kitschy, cool fun and you look for meaning. And so we start making movies we want to see. I hope.” The white heat and shadows of Lakhot hides many private jokes but Navdeep Singh’s amusement with the world’s vagaries is far more obvious.

(First published here)


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