Soumitra Chatterjee, a great actor

When I read that legendary actor Soumitra Chatterjee had been hospitalised after testing positive for the Corona virus I was really worried. He is 85 years old so he is much more likely to suffer for a longer spell. But then he must be in a good hospital and must be well looked after. I pray to God to save him and to bring him out of the hospital hale and hearty.

Those who are in their 30s have probably not seen many of his good films. He is famous as Satyajit Ray’s actor who played the lead role in many of his better known films. But he has also acted in many other films and has a wide range of roles. Thanks to technology we can now watch his old films on youtube.

Only last week I saw his 1963 film “Saat Paake Bandha” where the role of the heroine is played by Suchitra Sen. It is a beautiful film made in an era when there was nothing too shocking or vulgar in films. The story is about a couple who manage to get married after a lot of opposition from the mother of the woman but ultimately the marriage breaks up because of the interference from the family. They divorce but after a while the woman realises that it was a terrible mistake because she knows that they still care for each other. But by the time she goes to speak to him about re-uniting he has already left the city and also the country and no one knows where he has gone. In spite of the sad ending the film is very watchable.

Soumitra has also acted in theatre and I have had the great good fortune of seeing him on the stage in Calcutta. I am saying “Calcutta” because when I saw him acting on the stage in the Star Theatre it was still called “Calcutta”. I went to the theatre without knowing that he was in that play. Imagine my surprise when he appeared on the stage! I still clearly remember that when the play was over he stood on the edge of the stage after the curtain calls and people actually went and touched his feet! I understood then that it was a very Bengali tradition to go and touch the feet of a good actor to show appreciation and respect.

I also remember that he asked the people who were assembled to touch his feet if he could go back to the green room because he needed to rest. He explained to them that there were two shows that evening. He had just finished the 6 pm to 8 pm show and had to once again go up on stage and act in the 9 pm to 11 pm show. That’s the professional theatre actors’ life. They have to repeat the entire play after they have gone through it once.

I will not go into the Apu trilogy made by Ray. So much has been said that it would be redundant to say another word. Soumitra is good in all the Ray films in which he has acted. I really liked him in “Abhijan” and “Ghare Baire”. But my most favourite Ray film with Soumitra is “Charulata”. I have seen that film at least ten times and have always discovered something new.

I will end by asking you to see Charulata if you can find it anywhere on the internet. You can also see one of his recent films “Mayurakshi”. That will give you an idea about his acting in his youth and his work in his old age. In “Mayurakshi” he plays the role of an old man who is sliding into Alzheimer’s and his son, played marvellously by Prosenjit, is trying his best to do what he can for him, which is not much. All those who are looking after their aged parents will understand all the emotional pull and push which lie under this theme.

Soumitra is a legend but also so accessible and loveable.

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Sheeba Chaddha, the actress.

I first saw Sheeba in Pondicherry in the early 1990s when she came along with Atul Kumar, her then partner, to perform in a play in Auroville. She was young and really the carefree, cool woman, the kind one associates with theatre. Atul and she performed an entire play in mime. I was impressed.

At that time I was part of a theatre group which met three times a week to learn the craft of acting with Veenapani Chawla and Vinay Kumar. That week Veena was not well and we were not going to have our workshop but when we heard that Atul and Sheeba were in town we invited them to the place where we met regularly. We wanted them to tell us something about their profession and to interact with us.

I so clearly remember how they performed a scene for us with a third actor who had come with them, as their manager. They enacted the same scene once in Hindi then in English. The scene was from a French play which had been translated into Hindi and English. It was really an eye opener for us because we were then an amateur group while they were professionals. We saw how focused they were and didn’t need a minute to get into a role. One minute they were chatting with us the next they were on the stage acting this scene.

I have such a clear memory of Sheeba in her long cotton skirt and black top, her hair long and wild, never tied. She was absolutely relaxed and laughed easily. After that for years I didn’t even think of her. Then I saw her in a film “Luck by Chance”, Zoya Akhtar’s first film. I saw the film about five years ago on a DVD and recognised Sheeba in a small role. As I don’t watch TV I had never seen her in any of the family drama serials but I googled her and saw photos of her playing these very commercial cinema type mothers and elderly ladies.

I could not believe that she had transformed so completely. There was nothing of the “cool” Sheeba in the TV roles she played in recent years. I heard that she and Atul had separated. I knew that she and Atul had set up a theatre company, The Company Theatre and had created a workspace near Pune, similar to Veenapani’s Adishakti . The Company Theatre has gone from strength to strength and is doing so well.

Over the years I saw Sheeba in many other films, always in the role of mother or aunt and I saw what a fantastic actress she was on screen. When I had first seen her in Pondicherry I had thought, “She is such a good actress, but will she ever earn the kind of money that mediocre actresses earn in cinema? Can theatre really give her anything materially?”

Now that I have seen her in films I realise that she has managed to find a foothold on the stage and on the screen. The first film in which she acted was “Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam” and after that she took up small but significant roles in mainstream cinema. She had taken the right step by not looking down on TV and commercial cinema because she has earned good money from these mediums but she is essentially a theatre actress. She has said very frankly that she took those roles because they offered her good money. “Theatre actors have a kind of snobbery towards TV and cinema that I didn’t have,” she admitted.

Every time I see scenes from “Bandish Bandits” I see that actress Sheeba who can say so much with so little. She is so perfect in the role she plays in that web series that one would imagine she has always lived in that kind of a milieu. Not for a moment do you feel that she is acting. This is her training in theatre which gives her that ability to get under the skin of the character.

Fortunately Indian cinema is getting more and more realistic and that gives an actress like Sheeba the kind of roles she gets. See her in “Badhai Ho” or “Gully Boys” and you can see that no one else could have done those roles to that degree of perfection. Theatre is still a part of her life and she says that it will always be what attracts her the most.

 

Sheeba with Atul and their daughter

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Raat Akeli hai – a film review

For decades we moaned and cried over the fact that Indian films were so unrealistic, unnaturally melodramatic, over the top in the acting department and so repetitive in the themes. Now we have come to a point where the new films are a bit too real, too gritty and no film resembles the other. If you watch a Hindi film at night you may actually not be able to sleep, you are so rattled.

Yes, I am writing this after watching (on Youtube) “Raat Akeli Hai” directed by Honey Trehan and produced by Ronnie Screwvala. The film is a murder mystery thriller. But only on the surface. When the last scene of the film ends and the end credits roll you realise that actually it’s a film about patriarchy and power of the male members of the family. It is this double level of story that makes this film outstanding.

The screenplay is written by Smita Singh. You wonder how a woman could have written such a brutal story. Honey says in one of his interviews that he and Smita both come from UP where these kinds of stories are there in each family. “We have both seen this type of behaviour and thinking in our own families,” he says. That explains it. This is the stark reality of Uttar Pradesh society. Art imitates life. Smita didn’t have to go very far to get this sordid tale.

Here is the plot in brief. A rich old man, marrying for the second time, is found dead on the night of his wedding. His bride is a very young woman from a poor background. We discover later that she was sold by her father to this rich man who had kept her as his mistress for five years after which he decided to marry her. The police is called and an investigation starts but the story gets more and complicated as it proceeds.

The sprawling mansion is full of relatives and anyone could be the murderer. Till the middle of the film you feel you are in a Agatha Christie type story and you can see that the obvious suspects are not the ones. Slowly the layers peel off and you an see that there are new twists and turns and the end is completely unexpected. The dead man’s adult children as well as his sister and her adult children are all under the same roof and no one seems to be particularly sad to see him dead.

The film belongs to Nawazuddin who plays the inspector who is investigating the crime. The whole story is seen from his perspective. The screenwriter has kept in mind the personal arc of this man and this is such an interesting growth that in the end you don’t care who was murdered and who killed him. The fact that this man’s flawed way of thinking changes gradually is what makes the murder mystery more gripping. As more and more details of the crime are revealed the audience also gets to see more and more aspects of this man’s mind.

Radhika Apte is in an unglamorous role but completely at ease in it. She brings her raw energy to this character and we are never sure which way she will turn. Strangely, she is the only woman in the film who has some sort of freedom and strength while the other women are under the power of someone or the other.

The other characters are played by well-known actors who have given us convincing performances earlier and here too. Ironically, Khalid who plays the murdered patriarch had come to Pondicherry decades ago and everyone wanted to do acting workshops with him. This stage actor, known for his acting skills, gets only a couple of minutes of acting on screen and is only seen as the dead body for the rest of the time!

We are at an important turning point in the history of Indian cinema where women are coming out of the shadows. There are more women screenwriters than ever before and they are telling the stories of other women. This new trend can be seen in all the new films which have come out recently. We are no more in the old rut of love stories. We are now in the world of murder mysteries and tales of revenge. As long as men were in charge of writing and directing films these stories remained hidden. Perhaps Indian society will become more and more aware of where our flaws lie by looking at things from this new perspective.

The flow of events has brought this phase which we could not have foreseen. This pandemic has brought this situation where films are going for an OTT release and that means more people are getting to see these films than if they had been released in cinema theatres. All the parameters of film making in India will change now and we will enter a completely new era. I can’t wait to see what comes out next, specially from women writing women’s stories.

 

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Film Review: Nasir

This has been a strange year. We are still not sure where it is going. But one thing is sure:  much can and will happen online from now. The literary and film festivals which brought large numbers of people together all over the world every year were held online this year. The organisers of many world film festivals came together and held this common festival which was called “We Are One” and each organisation brought a small number of films to this group-festival. This is how we got to see this beautiful film ‘Nasir’, sitting at home. This was selected by the MAMI film festival of Mumbai.
The story of the film is a very simple one. An ordinary man living an ordinary life comes in the way of a religious mob and how these two completely unconnected worlds clash. The strength of this film lies in the telling, in the details, in the way the ordinariness is shown to contrast with the “not so ordinary” mob and its agenda.
Nasir, a muslim man, lives in a poor locality with his wife, mother and a special needs grown up son or ward. We see his day start with the way he wakes up and goes through the routine of his morning. Nothing is easy or simple but there is a sequence of activities which he follows everyday and also on this day which we are shown. Then he goes to leave his wife at the bus-stand as she is leaving for a few days to attend a wedding in her family.
Nasir works as a salesman in a cloth shop. He is the one who comes before the others and arranges everything. In the middle of the day he goes home for lunch and has a rest. Then he is back in the shop and continues showing what the customers want to buy. He has to hear the chatter of his co-workers and also their casual comments about Muslims. His day is shown in all its ordinariness but we are also shown his mind. We know he writes poetry and listens to good music and has so much empathy for others. He also  has so many little problems to deal with. In short, we are shown how he is not coming in anyone’s way.
The punch comes at the end and is so powerful because it is such a contrast to the rest of the film. The pace of the film is deliberately slow to take the viewer along with Nasir through his day. We have the sensation of living that day with him.
Those who have worked in the field of theatre or cinema know this truth: casting is half the work done. The main actor, Koumarane Valavane, brings this whole story to life. All actors want  to show themselves off. It is very difficult to become ordinary and to remain like that, without attracting any attention to oneself. This shows Koumarane’s skill in acting. Make no mistake, in real life Koumarane is not like Nasir at all. He is a trained theatre actor and himself runs a theatre in Pondicherry where others are trained. He taught physics in a French high school, so he is far from the ordinary man we see on screen. Moreover he had his theatre training in France and has performed in that country with his troupe. He has participated in many national theatre competitions and festivals representing Pondicherry. So have no illusions, the director didn’t choose a man who was like Nasir in real life. The director chose a stage actor so that he could get the right nuance of emotion.

Thia film is an Indo-Dutch co-production and has several small and big groups who are part of the production team. Here again one must applaud all those who supported this creation with logistics and money because it would have remained a story on paper or on a computer screen had these producers not backed it. Here again there is a Pondicherry connection. Samir Sarkar of Magic Hour Films, one of the producers, has been a key player in getting the Dutch collaboration. And he too is from Pondicherry.  This is a film which requires a certain amount of courage and faith in one’s principles in life to stand up and support the basic message of the film. Those who have enjoyed the film will understand how important is the contribution of these producers.
The director, Arun Karthick, has chosen a theme which is so important in today’s India but he gives us his message in such a gentle way that we can’t forget it. It is his light touch which makes him stand out.
One word of appreciation to the writer Dilip Kumar who conceived this story and wrote it as a short story. I have always believed that short stories lend themselves very well to cinema because of their compactness. And here is a story that packs so much into such a small time frame.
The cinematography has been appreciated by experts and even a lay person can see how unusual the images are. A certain poetry is created with these colours and compositions to give that feeling of looking into someone’s inner world.
This is one of the best films I have seen this year. It has come at a time when we need to talk about the place of religion in our lives and to think of the future of humanity. This pandemic has already forced us to change the way we have been living, now this film will open the eyes of those who could not see the obvious truth till now: all human beings are part of one large human family. Yes, and even ordinary lives matter.

 

 

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Film review: ‘Thappad’

I assume that by now everyone who wanted to see this film has already seen it and that those who haven’t seen the film are not going to see it. So I am not going to worry about spoilers.

The film shows the transformation of Amrita from a happy housewife to a pillar of strength. The turning point is a slap. But the context of the slap is also important. Her husband hits her in a moment of rage during an argument concerning his job, during a house party to celebrate his promotion. But this one incident becomes the starting point of a chain reaction that changes the lives of the couple and of those around them.

Any woman who has been slapped by her partner, either husband or boyfriend, knows very well that it is never something that comes out of the blue. There is a whole background. On the one hand there is what is acceptable in one’s society and on the other the man’s own psychological makeup. But the most important element is the man’s own sense of superiority.

This film is not so much about domestic violence as it is about mutual respect in a couple. This is such an important subject but it has never been addressed so directly in Indian cinema. The film is sure to make an impact even if it doesn’t make any money at the box office because it holds up a mirror and points a finger to the way Indian society thinks about women.

There are many layers to the story and the back ground of the film is rich with many characters who re-examine their own lives in the light of what has happened. It is not “just a slap”. It is a whole reflection on the man-woman relationship, on the role of a home maker, on self-fulfillment, on the role of money in a relationship and many other issues.

All the women in this film have a story, from the oldest to the youngest, from the richest to the poorest. Each one, except the widowed neighbour, have had to face the dominance of a male over them. All of them have had to give up their dreams to make others happy. But the writer makes it clear that happy stories are possible. There is a balance in the structure where on the one side there are episodes of inequality and selfishness and on the other side there are stories of sympathy and understanding among some of the characters.

Casting, as they say, is half the job done. In this film it is the excellent casting that makes it possible for the director to tell such a complex story. Ratna Pathak Shah is excellent as usual in the role of Amrita’s mother. The actress playing the maid servant stands out in her depiction of a poor woman who is beaten on a daily basis and yet she has a fiery spirit. Pavail Gulati as the husband has done a remarkable job of a good man who has imbibed all the prejudices of the environment in which he is brought up.

The strongest scene is the one where Amrita speaks to her own mother-in-law during a puja held in the family and where everyone is present. This is a scene that mirrors the party scene where she is slapped. Here again the whole family is gathered and Amrita speaks about herself and she reiterates that she is indeed leaving her husband.

The weakest scenes in my opinion are the ones where Amrita is teaching her neighbour’s daughter to dance. A dance teacher has to stop and correct the movements of the student otherwise she is not teaching. And we never see where the ‘bols’ the rhythmic syllables are coming from. You never see the teacher switch on and switch off anything. Evidently, the director doesn’t have such a clear idea about dance classes.

The director Anubhav Sinha has co-written the film with Mrunmayee Lagoo. The fact that there is a woman writer involved makes it easier for the director to get the authentic point of view of the women in the story. Dialogues are apt and quiet. This is the strength of the film: there is no melodrama and preaching. It is all very simply expressed and everything happens at the rhythm of everyday life.

Anubhav Sinha has worked very hard to write the film and to shoot it in such a way that it touches our hearts in a very subtle way. He has made Amrita look as if she is overdoing things so that we ourselves feel that we are not doing enough to ensure that everyone is given the respect that they deserve. The difficulty of the director lies in choosing what to keep and what to leave out. It requires years of experience to know what is too much and what is too little.

Some years ago I was invited to a press conference in London where Vishal Bharadwaj was going to speak about his film career. I asked him why he showed item songs in his films when he knew that this teaches men to look down on women. “Films make such a deep impact on society. So don’t you think you should be careful about what you show?” I asked him.

He was very annoyed and answered, “How can you accuse filmmakers of influencing society in a negative way? We only show what is already there in society. Do you think that if I show a bhajan by Kabir the whole of India will become very spiritual?”

I was amazed that so successful and intelligent a filmmaker as Vishal Bharadwaj didn’t seem to be aware of the power cinema has on the masses. Particularly the uneducated youth absorb the unspoken message of the films. Just as a negative message in cinema can harm Indian society a positive message can also help Indians to get rid of prejudices that have long been there in every level of our society. And ‘Thappad’ is sure to trigger a conversation at least among those who are even slightly aware.

I really enjoyed watching this film and felt that we have stepped into a new cinematic age in India when such films are being made and appreciated.

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“Two Loves and Other Stories”

This is a book I started writing about 12 years ago. I wrote the first story and it turned out to be a really long story. Then I was busy with other writing but this book of short stories was always there at the back of my mind.

My first book, “Seven Dedicated Lives”, came out in 2009. It was a compilation of several articles I had already written over years. So it wasn’t the same thing as writing a book and getting it published. Then the next three books were also in that same format: compilations of articles which I had already written and a few more that I write for that book. The idea of that book of short stories continued to live silently at the back of my mind.

I wrote short stories and had them published but as they were really short it did not add up to a word-count that could be enough for a book. The shorter the stories the more stories you need to make a book.

In the meantime I wrote a novel and after it was published I felt that the book of short stories just had to be finished. I pulled out all the short stories I had written over the years and wrote three more stories in order to have the right number of pages. And that is how it was ready for publication.

I have always had an attraction for short stories. They are like a miniature painting where the details matter a lot. Everything is in the details. In the last Lit Fest that I attended in London there was a session on short stories and one of the sentences that was prominent in that discussion was this; A short story is like an ice-berg. Indeed, much is suggested in a short story because the format is small. This makes a short story very intense.

This book will appeal to many readers because one can read one story at a time. One doesn’t have to read the whole book in one go. One can even read a few stories and leave the books for a few weeks or months and come back to it. I have myself done that when I get a book of short stories. A reader can read the stories in any order. So he or she can feel that he has read a complete story when that story is finished.

In this day and age when people don’t read books any more I hope I will be able to pass on my love of short stories to my readers. That much will be bring me satisfaction.

 

 

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Bulbul Can Sing


Every year I get to see some really interesting independent Indian films at the London Indian Film Festival. This year I saw Rima Das’ “Bulbul Can Sing” which later won the national award of the Best Assamese film.

The story is very simple. A group of teenage friends are leading their lives in a small town, or a big village, in Assam, trying to understand life. They divide their time between school and helping out their parents with their work. Teenage brings its own share of intense life experiences. The two main characters fall in love and discover the beginnings of adult life. They finally face the hard realities and Bulbul, the heroine, grows up through the passage of suffering.

Rima Das wrote the script but could not find the finance to make the film so she decided to make the film herself. Since she could not raise much money she has herself done the editing and the sound. Rima has directed the film in such a way that you feel as if it was shot without a script because the actors don’t seem to act. They live freely before the camera and are most unselfconscious.

The film is made almost by Rima Das single-handedly. She is the script-writer, director, producer, editor and the sound recordist. What does it show? We have reached a point where one can produce a film with a very low budget. The technology which has come into being is allowing us to make a film by handling many departments together. It is humanly possible now to make a film almost without a crew.

Rima Das went toMumbai in the hope of becoming an actress. You might say, “With a strong North-East look how did she hope to become a mainstream actress?” But we have had actresses like Mala Sinha once upon a time so everything is possible. After finding it difficult to get roles she decided to make films. And then she started focusing on her own territory, Assam. That is how she started writing her own scripts and started off making films about what she had observed around her.

“Bulbul Can Sing” has a marvellous cast. There is only one professional actress, the one who plays the role of the mother of Boni. If you see the film you will understand why Rima chose a professional actress for that role. This way of working with non-professional can be very difficult but in this case it has worked out very well because we see how comfortable the three actors are in their roles because they are practically playing themselves. They belong to the milieu which is being portrayed. They don’t have to try and learn about it.

This film shows us that a new phase has begun in Indian cinema where we see how the aim is to show the truth rather than to show an imitation of it. The priority is not a beautiful actress but an actress who is true to that role. The story is the most important part of the process, not the choice of stars.

Another important point the film makes is that the more local you get the more global appreciation you will get. We all live in urban spaces and have no idea any more how villages look or how villagers live. For us this is something we will never get access to: the day to day life of a village. This is why Rima Das’ films are so successful. They show us what can never see. Moreover, this is something the young adults of the cities have no idea about. It’s almost fantasy land.

One of the scenes that touched me most was the way people are listening to a discourse of a religious man who is talking about love, giving examples of the love between Krishna and Radha. The village women who have no time to sit and listen to discourses are busy with their work and say, “What is there to talk so much about love? Just get on with it, because it is the most natural thing in the world.”

There are many brilliant moments in this film and many sharp observations. This is what makes this film so special because the story is told through moments which are so touching. There are parts where the viewer is only an observer who is being led through places. After all, cinema is basically moments of true observation and feelings which are caught by the camera. From that point of view this is a very well-made film.

Bulbul is played by Arnali Das

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Review of Tamil film “’96”

This is a film that was waiting to be made and C. Prem Kumar was the man who actually went ahead and thought of writing this script and directing the film as well. The difficult part about writing this review is having to say so much without giving anything away. In this film everything is in the details. And one cannot describe those details without talking of the events that unfold. And that will kill the surprise element. So I will only talk about the quality of the work.

Made in 2018, “96” is the story of a man, Ramchandra, played by Vijay Sethupati, and a woman, Janaki played by Trisha, who had been in love in their teens and who now meet 22 years later in a high school reunion. They have less than 12 hours in Chennai before she has to fly back to Singapore. The second half of the film is about how they catch up on all that has happened in their lives in those 22 years and why they could not be a couple. The name of the film comes from the fact that this high school reunion is for the class of 96 of that school.

In order to show how poignant this meeting is for Ram and Janaki, after two decades, the filmmaker shows us what had happened in their high school days. The 17 year-old Ram is intensely in love with Janaki but he cannot express all his emotions for her in words. She on the other hand is more brave and outspoken and shows her love for him in many different ways. After their school holidays when they finish their 10th Standard Ram doesn’t come back to the high school and Janaki finds out that it is because of his family’s problems that they have had to move out of the town where they had been living. This is how they are separated.

The girl is named Janaki by her parents because they were fans of the singer S. Janaki so evidently they encourage her to take up singing and she sings very well. This special capacity makes her stand out among the students. Much of the communication between ram and Janaki is through their eyes or through others, as it happens in real life when one is a teenager.

This part of the film, which is the flash back, is so well made that you forget it is a film. It has a realism that is rarely seen in Indian films and with absolute new comers acting the roles of the young Ram and Janaki. You completely buy their story and feel for them. They are part of a group of friends and their conversation is straight out of real life.

When the film begins Ram has become a travel photographer and lives like a nomad. He teaches photography to youngsters and we see that he is strict and exacting. When he meets Janaki in the get together he finds out that she is married and has a daughter. Their first awkward moments are very well captured as their friends just leave them and they just sit and eat together. But their feelings, that they still consider themselves a couple, are beautifully shown when she eats half the plate and he eats the other half which she has left.

The second half shows us how they slowly express their thoughts to each other and decide where this relationship will go. I will not give away the story by telling all the details because then you will not discover things the way the director would want you to. But all I can say is that the script does not shy away from reality and totally avoids melodrama.

This kind of story must happen a thousand times every year, at every alumni get together, at every re-union of old friends. Men and women must end up meeting their first love and thanks to social media must find it easy to communicate. If one or both are married then do they feel they are being unfaithful to their spouse? Do they communicate regularly? Do they meet again? Do they suffer or are they happy about this arrangement?

The name of the film tells us that Ram and Janaki belong to that generation which was born in the 1980s and their mindset comes from that era. Someone born 20 years ago will behave in a completely different way. Perhaps the millenials will not be able to understand why two people give so much importance to their first love and are still so much attached. The story is deeply rooted in India and in South India in particular where you just could not go against your parents’ wishes when it came to the subject of marriage. Janaki is married but she had no choice in that. Ram has remained unmarried but Janaki absolutely wants him to get married and not remain single because of his love for her.

The film deals with the subject in a matured and realistic way. Prem Kumar the writer-director says he knows a few people who are like the ones he has portrayed. There are many who are married to someone but who remain emotionally bound to the first person they had fallen in love with. The way Prem Kumar tells the story is admirable. You see how observant he is and how he has seen the little details of life.

Trisha and Vijay Sethupathi get under the skin of the characters they play. They find the right note of never overdoing anything. The entire second part is a series of dialogues and they hold the attention of the audience with their presence. Prem Kumar has said that he chose Trisha over other actresses because she is a Tamil woman and she would understand the subtext of the dialogue where sometimes the characters say very ordinary things but actually mean so much more.

What I particularly liked is the way the characters are named Ram and Janaki but never is there any reference to the divine couple Ram and Sita to underline that they are destined to be a couple. It is left to the subconscious level of the mind to do its job. Rather there is a scene where Ram tells Janaki, “If I marry you you will become ‘Janaki Ramachandra’ (the name of MGR’s wife after she married him)” which I found very funny.

I highly recommend this film to everyone but I don’t know how you can see it. I saw it on a flight. But please don’t watch it on a fight because, as I discovered, they often delete scenes or dialogues in order not to shock their aged and conventional-minded passengers.

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Review of the film “Sir”

This film was appreciated at Cannes last year and received many good reviews. So I knew that if I got a chance I would surely watch it. The London Indian Film festival gave me this opportunity. The screening theatre was packed and there was not an empty seat.

The story of the film is a very simple one. Ashwin, a young wealthy Indian man has just broken up with his fiancee, apparently just before the wedding was to take place. He is now alone in his flat. He is not really alone as there is also the maid servant who looks after everything. Ratna is a live-in servant so they share this closed space.

They are both from the two opposite ends of the social ladder. He is wealthy, probably did his higher studies in the USA and worked there for a while. His father is in the real estate business in Mumbai. She is poor, barely educated and a widow. But they both have something in common: an unfulfilled dream. He has a half finished novel and she wants to be a fashion designer. And both are single. She is a widow and is therefore as lonely as he is.

This is where the story begins but gradually it shows us how the two lonely souls thrown together by destiny get drawn to each other. He allows her to go for her tailoring classes while she tells him that he should not think that his life is finished because of a broken engagement.

They care for each other and exchange gifts. The more they get attached to each other the more you start wondering how they will get out of this situation.

The story has a very realist end and even though it looks as if it doesn’t have a happy one the script actually leaves it open to many possibilities. The interesting point is that the man is more swept away with his emotions while the woman is more level headed and practical. Then he listens to his friend who can see what is going on in his mind and acts on that advice.

The script and direction are by Rohena Gera herself but the end credits show that there is collaboration from the French in many departments such as camera, sound, editing and perhaps also in marketing and distribution. I think there may also be some collaboration in the script. At this point we have to mention that Rohena Gera is married to a Frenchman who is a co-producer too in this film.

The film has been released in France and has had a good commercial success. The French public has given it a lot of critical appreciation. The film has also been screened in the USA where the director has attended many Q and A sessions. And finally, at long last, it is going to be released in India.

The story idea and the script have a ring of authenticity which comes from Rohena’s own observations. She is an Indian who went to the USA for her higher studies and on her return found people’s attitude towards their servants difficult to accept. Those who have never left India cannot see that this feudal attitude is not in synch with the times in which we live. In Europe as in America there is an underlying sense of equality that has yet to enter the Indian life.

What struck me as remarkable was the body language of the actors. Tillotama Shome and Vivek Gomber have the right gait, way of standing and moving. Rohena mentioned that the actors went through a workshop and special focus was given to this aspect of their acting. Their voice intonations are just as it should be. Tillotama has shown great skills in portraying the quiet yet ambitious maid. It is a fine balance to keep. She has managed to show how a servant keeps her social position yet doesn’t stop from showing compassion for a man who is evidently suffering. Vivek on his part has the right expressions of someone who is locked inside his suffering.

The script is tight and the audience is engaged throughout without losing interest. The progression of the relationship is a very delicate one and is handled very well. Rohena manages very well to set up the end by including a scene where Ratna spills a glass of drink on the dress of one of the friends who come to Ashwin’s house. This scene looks like it was written to show us how the man’s wealthy friends look down on the poor maid but it serves the double purpose of preparing the end.

I would like to make a special mention about Gitanjali Kulkarni who plays the role of the servant who works in the next flat. Gitanjali is a very well-known stage actress, seen recently in Atul Kumar’s production “Piya Behrupiya”. To see her play the role of the servant so convincingly is to witness the range of this actress.

This is where lies the strength of the film. Even the smallest roles have been very well drawn out and executed. There is a great attention to details on the part of the director. Much of the back story is told in the dialogues that take place between Ashwin and his mother or between the employees of the building. This helps the story to go forward without wasting time in telling us all that happened before.

I am particularly happy to see how Tillotama Shome has grown in her art and in fame. I always felt that she had not been given the opportunity to show her talent. And don’t think that because she played the role of the maid servant in Mira Nair’s “Monsoon Wedding” she has nothing new to offer. There is so much to discover and in the way she performs this role.

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Film Review – Mission Mangal

This film celebrates the Indian woman scientist who has remained largely unknown. While we were all admiring the movie stars the Indian scientist remained in the shadows doing her work quietly. She is an expert in rocket science but she is also that woman in a beautiful sari and with a bunch of flowers in her hair. She is trying to figure out the life problems that every woman has to deal with while she also tackles complicated scientific problems. She is thinking on several tracks at the same time – the home, the problems of bringing up children, relationship problems, cooking, cleaning and everything that comes in between.

“Mission Mangal” could not have come at a more appropriate moment. The Chandrayaan 2 lander missed its soft landing but there must have been thousands of Indians who had at least a rough idea of just what goes on in the preparation of a space mission. All those who saw the film have realised how the simple people who are behind these extraordinary feats of the human mind are so humble and so unassuming.

Vidya Balan was born to play the role of Tara Shinde. She is the woman next door, the lady who has to run a home and handle teenage children. She is the average Indian woman who has to use her common sense to survive. I was thrilled to see her on screen because although she is overweight she looks lovely in her saris. She carries this role which has no glamour in a way that allows you to focus only on what she has to say rather than what she is wearing. We believe in this character because we can all relate to her because she looks like the average Indian woman.

There are other women characters who are all dealing with some sort of personal problems. Sonakshi Sinha plays the role of the young scientist who wants to go away to the USA rather than live in India, she is more free-thinking, more “cool”. But she is very much an Indian woman. All the other women embody some aspect or the other of the average woman and bring home the point that we have no idea what each one is dealing with internally as they grapple with responsibilities that concern the whole nation.

The script is very well-balanced. You never feel the weight of the scientific matters as you watch this film. It has been made accessible to the common man who otherwise would not be able to get into that world. Such stories could not have been told before but now Indian cinema has changed so much that now we can talk of real stories of courage surmounting difficulties. Now we look back at those extravagant loves stories and think “How could we have gone on with that for so long?”

Of course, it is an Akshay Kumar film so he gets all the punch lines. But his bravado and intense talk balances the story and drives it forward. There has to be someone crazy to balance the story of these reasonable women. This kind of film will do much more to teach Indians about gender equality and mutual respect between genders than any amount of propaganda. The silent message is louder than any sentence that can be pronounced with shouting and dramatic music. Example is all we want. When the image of the item girl will be replaced with the woman scientist then we will have a better society.

The photo that went viral in 2014 when the Mars Mission was successful remains in everyone’s mind. It showed a group of women in bright saris and jasmine flowers in their hair. “Can they really be scientists?” everyone wondered, but only for a brief while. Suddenly the Indian public knew how many women were involved in our space research work. It was only a matter of time before that simple photo could be expanded into a full-fledged film.

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Film Review: His Father’s Voice

I just saw “His Father’s Voice” and it fills me with hope for the future because it shows that Indian cinema is now closer to being global cinema in its content and expression. There are all kinds of viewers in this world so there should be all kinds of films, for all different types of sensibilities. Refreshingly different from anything I have seen in the past few years, it is a tale told with simplicity and gentleness.

This is the kind of film that one has to watch with an attentive mind because it brings up so many subjects. Kaarthikeyan Kirubhakaran, the writer, director and cinematographer of this film, sets out to talk about the suffering of children whose parents separate and who then miss out on the love and companionship of one of their parents, but in telling this story he also touches on many other themes. It is an East-meets-West story in which the West is reaching out to the East and discovering her cultural depth.

The film is about a young man, Kris, who comes back to the place where he had lived in South India as a child in order to find his father. His parents had separated 12 years earlier when his mother had left their home, taking him with her. His return also reunites him with his childhood friend, Valli, who is now an adult like himself. As the scenes unfold before he reunites with his father, the young man understands the circumstances which had led to his parents’ separation and also why his father had not contacted him.

Kris is not just another young man. He is a dancer who is unable to dance because of this trauma which continues to have a grip on him. As things resolve themselves he finds the dancer in himself once again while at the same time he comes closer to Valli.

The entire story is set in an environment of creative artists and that is one of the elements that makes this film so special. We see here a group of artists, dancers, singers, choreographers, teachers. But their lives have a certain purity which is often missing in such groups.

The film brings up the subject of abandonment several times. There is the abandonment of Sita and her children by Rama which is a theme that the dancers are working on for their next performance. Then Parvathi speaks of how her father had abandoned her mother before she was born. The story takes the help of dance and music to show us other stories in the mythical past.

Kaarthikeyan has created this unusual situation where a human drama unfolds in the middle of the beauty of nature. During the whole film we rarely go out of the nurturing presence of nature. We see shaded groves, the open sea under the sun, a wild garden and a deep forest. It is as if human nature is a part of this nature. Isolated from the din and noise of the world we focus sharply on the feelings and thoughts. Everything is in its essential form.

We are also led to think about the very nature of love, the man-woman love, the parent-child love and the love one feels for all those who are interconnected through love with us. Here we see how the most fulfilling kind of love is when two people are united in their common love of something else, as it is in this story with music and dance.

It is difficult to put this film into any category as it straddles several genres. While the main genre is drama there is also an important element of romance and all this is woven together with the notes of music. There is poetry in the style and in the images. Visually it is a feast, as the beauty of the places and people, the attractive colours and the graceful lines of the dances light up the screen. Particularly beautiful are the scenes shot at night with the skillfully controlled lighting. At the same time there is a great deal of substance in the thoughts and ideas.

The performance of the actors is commendable as most of them are first-time actors although not first time performers. There is a lot of sincerity in their effort and the story touches us because it feels real, without any artificiality, precisely because these are unknown faces. The music and the dances are of a high order, bringing to the screen these classical forms rarely seen in feature films.

The poignancy of the love between the father and the son is the core of the film. Many emotions drive the story forward but it is this central theme which Kaarthikeyan keeps at the forefront. The script which moves back and forth in time sometimes slows down the intensity of the drama but the main focus is always before our eyes.

Each viewer will find something different to connect with as there are many layers to the narration, but the truth that Kaarthikeyan wants to communicate will touch everyone.

“His Father’s Voice” is available on Vimeo on Demand in India and on Amazon Prime in the UK, USA, Canada and Australia.

WEBSITE: www.hisfathersvoice.film
VIMEO ON DEMAND: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/hisfathersvoice
FACEBOOK PAGE: https://www.facebook.com/hisfathersvoice/
AMAZON PRIME LINK: https://tinyurl.com/y2em7mgu

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Konttho (Bengali Film) review

If you have had a smoker in your family you will appreciate this film more than those who don’t know what it is to see someone destroy himself with cigarettes. Directed by Nandita Roy and Shiboprosad Mukherjee the film is inspirational and moving.

This story of the film revolves around a radio jokey Arjun (played convincingly by Shiboprasad) who loses his voice after being diagnosed with cancer of the throat. After the operation in which his voice box is removed from his throat he has to learn to speak all over again with his esophageal voice, like belching. In this path to a new life the one who helps him is a speech therapist.

This is the story of a man overcoming his difficulties to start a new life against all odds. He is helped by his wife who has to support him and also encourage him. This role is played very well by Paoli Dam. She was the ability to speak with her eyes and that is what makes her such a joy to watch.

The other actress in this film is Jaya Ehsan who plays the role of the speech therapist. She is a Bangladeshi actress who has acted in quite a few successful Bengali (Kolkata) movies. She is the exact opposite of the wife. She is full of spirit and has a visible enthusiasm that pushes Arjun, her patient, to continue his efforts. Although Jaya has put a lot of effort into her role somehow she looks very self-conscious.

The story takes into account the social and personal implication of a man who loses not only an important part of his body but also his livelihood and his self-esteem. I have nothing but admiration for Nandita Roy who chose such an unlikely subject and has been able to convey her message without it soundings too loud or frightening. She has been able to show this story of a medical condition as if it was a love story.

The highest praise must go to Shiboprosad himself who has not only played the main protagonist but has also written the dialogue and co-directed the film. Apparently, he had done so much research on the subject and also learnt to speak with the esophageal voice that Nandita Roy thought it would be easier for him to play the role himself rather than explain everything to someone else and to teach it to him.

The script is balanced and has given time to all the different aspect of the problem. Perhaps they could have added a few scenes of Arjun’s life before the tragedy strikes then we could have made a comparison. The casting is good but unfortunately Paoli is taller than Sbiboprosad so it looks odd at times. The aunt is irritating instead of being funny.

The strong points of this film are the script, cinematography and music. This comes from the hands of the leading film-makers of Kolkata and as they have an impressive body of work one can safely watch it knowing it will be neither tasteless nor boring.

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Film Review Gully Boy

I am not at all familiar with the rap culture so I started watching the movie without any expectations. But hardly had I been ten minutes into the story I realised this wasn’t only about the Indian rap scene but about class, aspiration, about the tough life of those who live in the margins and also about women. I was blown away by the script which is solid…I am tempted to say …solid gold.

The story revolves around a young man called Murad who lives in Dharavi, Mumbai’s slum, and is still at college. He is in love with a girl who is studying to be a doctor and who comes from a better off family. Both are from the Muslim community. This detail is important because they both have very little freedom and can’t do many things that they would like to do. The young man, played by Ranveer Singh, writes lyrics for rap songs and one day he gets the opportunity to sing his own songs and becomes recognised and famous. His girlfriend, played by Alia Bhatt, shares that struggle and supports him.

The whole film has a “slice of life” feel. You are in the middle of a gripping story which is so real that you feel you have to duck when Murad’s father swings his arm to slap Murad’s mother. The story takes us into the world of the Mumbai rappers and you can almost smell the sweat on their bodies. The progression takes time and there are many hurdles to cross but each one is real. The language that these characters speak belongs to the milieu from which they come. The film is authentic to the smallest detail.

Ranveer is just outstanding as Murad. It is a role which asks him to tone himself down, to be meek, to be hurt. But he gets that so perfectly that you forget he is Ranveer. This is the strength of the film – the two big stars of the film, Alia and Ranveer, make us forget who they are. Alia has worked hard to get into the role of Safeena. She gets the right nuances of a woman who has been in a relationship for a long time and also of someone who is completely stifled.

Some critics felt that Kalki’s character was not convincing enough but I thought it was written quite well. She was not the superficial “showbiz” type which is what you think at first. The woman who feel s attracted to Murad and wants to start a physical relationship is strong enough not to make a police case against Safeena when things get violent. She has more than one layer to her. Her character is brought into the story to make Murad fall and to give the reality of the world that Murad is entering.

What struck me was the fact that this practice of having singer-poets compete with each other was already there in India, in 19th century Bengal. See the film Jatiswar, starring Prosenjit. It is interesting to see how it has come back in another form. It was called “Kobi Gaan” but it had a certain amount of melody in it.

This is Zoya Akhtar’s best film so far. I liked ZNMD but it had its flaws. This film is so well-written and directed that it is difficult to find a mistake. Her research is thorough and she has chosen her actors so well that they have responded to her direction in total harmony. She has found the right flow of sequences. I particularly liked the way she has given each character the time to express himself or herself. Zoya admits that this has resulted in the film becoming very long. It is fantastic to see how she has evolved.

One thing becomes clear when one sees this film that it is easier to write with a co-writer. Reema Katgi has worked with her on the script and that lends strength to the work. Are today’s Reema and Zoya the new Salim-Javed? Perhaps. The film is based on the real life story of two Indian rappers. But that doesn’t mean that writing that script was in way easy. Even when you tell a true story you have to choose between what to keep and what to remove from it.

And as I close I would like to remind my readers that Zoya is not only Javed Akhtar’s daughter she is also Honey Irani’s daughter. She has grown up with films being discussed around her. Honey Irani was not only a child actress but also a screen writer on her own merit.

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The Bridge of Love

One more love story? Aren’t all love stories alike? Maybe. But this one is different.

Pondicherry is a unique place in the world. It has beautiful villas by the sea and white church against a blue sky. But it also has many communities which live side by side but rarely mix. In spite of this situation there are some people who do find companions and friends in the communities that are not theirs. The charming “white town” area is still visually a delight and in my novel this part of the town hides a secret. It is a growing love story between a French man and an Indian woman.

They are from such different cultures that they have to firstly find a common ground to even have something to talk about. How can one live together if one has different ways of living?

But the world is evolving and now there is something that can be called “a global culture”. There are things that we all experience, a certain kind of education that we all go through.

Even if we do find a common ground can we still have other differences?

My novel is set in1996, a time when the world was less connected and less open than it is now. Paul and Mohini have many common passions – they both love Pondicherry and they both love France. They travel through various cities of Europe and enjoy each other’s company, taking the reader along with them.

This book will appeal to those who have lived in Pondicherry and known its very special ambiance, the places and people will all seem familiar. Any Indian who has lived even for a short while in Europe will understand what lies between the lines. But everyone will understand that the “Bridge” in the title refers to many bridges, although there is only one physical bridge in the story.

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Film Review: Projapoti Biskut

Bengali cinema is now in such an interesting phase that I watch out for any recent releases and I am often pleasantly surprised by the content. This film is produced by Shibo and Nandita who are usually seen as directors. The director here is Anindiya Chatterjee. The lead pair are new comers Esha Saha and Aditya Sengupta who have done a good job of their rather difficult roles.
The subject of the film is a very interesting one. The difficulties of a married couple trying to find opportunities to know each other while living within a joint family is something so well-known to Indians but so rarely discussed in cinema. Marriages are arranged in India but in today’s world it is important for the man and the woman to also fall in love. The whole question of compatibility and getting to know each other is so important but the family does little to help out. This happens mainly because the older generation never had this problem. Marriage was a different ball game then.
The story is about a couple who has been married for two years and a half. The problem facing them is that they have not yet been able to have a child. When we see the couple we can see that they have little in common and that they are not particularly attracted to each other. The man, in his emotional need for love even reconnects with his ex-girlfriend on Facebook. The woman gets bored in this joint family where no one really accepts her. Then the couple goes through all that they can to get medical assistance to conceive. But they get no results so they decide to adopt a child. But even that doesn’t work out. In the end the heroine goes back to her parents’ house and then the story takes a new turn.
The writers have taken great pains to create relatable characters. All the minor characters are very well-defined so that the viewer gets a feel of the real world in which this real problem is set. The mother-in-law has very clearly defined likes and dislikes. The father-in-law has his own set of weaknesses and strengths. The parents of the girl are also very relatable. Parijat, the young friend of the heroine is also straight out of the milieu of young creative people.
What I enjoyed most was the way Shaon, the heroine, takes a strong decision to go away and try to make her life again. The way she changes and becomes who she was before getting married really touched me. The one thing she can fall back on is her ability to write TV scripts. This is her secret activity that her husband’s family doesn’t know anything about. It takes courage to leave a comfortable home and live with little and alone. Perhaps Shaon wants to become like her friend who works in the TV industry and leads such a free life that she meets like-minded people. Perhaps she hopes to find a companion through her work once she is out of the joint family.
The film ends with the couple falling in love and this time there is a true connection between the two. It is this process of the two young people finally being able to open themselves to each other that is very well captured. There are moments of beauty there that make the film stand out of the ordinariness in which it is caught right from the beginning.
A woman who wants to find her self-worth and her freedom is rare in our society but the desire to be oneself is there in every woman. This film also delves into a man’s attempt at making himself desirable to his wife. This is something quite forgotten or neglected in most men in India. The transformation that the couple goes through at the end is very interesting.
The film has its flaws. The minor characters sometimes look like caricatures. There are places where the pace of the film slows down. But I would overlook all this because the main theme is very new in its approach.
This film is very relevant to our times and gives us a glimpse of what the future of India will look like as couples will seek greater emotional fulfilment in marriages. But the question that popped up in my mind as I watched the film was “How long will the institution of marriage survive?” I have a feeling that the young will find it easier to just live together and one day that form of companionship will become as valid as a marriage even in India.
Go ahead and have a watch.

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Book review: “The Last Mughal”

“The Last Mughal” by William Dalrymple is an extraordinary gathering of detailed information about a time we know so little about. Our knowledge of history is fragmented and often reliant on tales that are told by people several decades or even centuries after an event has happened. But here William gives us the facts he has gathered from written sources.
William Dalrymple has the great advantage of having lived in India and so he knows the way people think and feel. This is important in a work where much has to be interpreted and read between the lines. The main story in this book is the sepoy mutiny but it has been recounted in a way that sees things with a dispassionate eye. William interprets what has been said so that events are not just events but the expression of what was going on people’s minds at that time.
The funny thing about the story of “mutiny” is that the British see it as a “revolt” of the soldiers but the Indians see it as a war of independence. If you hear the British talk about it they have tales of horror of how the Indian soldiers employed by them turned around and killed the civilians they were supposed to protect. If you listen to the Indians talk about it they tell the tales of horror of the way the British had taken away their own freedom and tricked them into handing over their kingdoms to them in return for trade and commerce. They realised that the deals had been unfair and they were retaliating.
What is really the point of reading this book now when we are a good 150 years away from all that? It is the clarity of vision with which William shows us that the situation in which we are with the Islamic world at present has its seed in that event. The way the Hindus and the Muslims separated after this event, even though they had been together during this revolt, shows us the points we had missed.
The last Mughal emperor was Bahadur Shah Zafar. His rule was indeed marked by the decline and loss of power that made it possible for the British to rule India. William very successfully brings out the story of the man that Bahadur Shah Zafar was and gives us all the details of his imprisonment in Rangoon. It is sad to read how he was buried in an unmarked grave. The last emperor of the great dynasty of the Mughals was buried in an unmarked grave!
I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in Indian history but also anyone who wants to see the past has the secrets of the troubles we are dealing with in the present. The book ends with the quotation that those who have not learnt from the lessons of the past are condemned to repeat it.
William Dalrymple has a style that makes one want to go on reading so don’t get frightened by the thickness of the book.
I met the author during the Indian Lit Fest held in London in June this year. He was kind enough to pose for a selfie with me. I had borrowed a copy of the book from a friend but didn’t take it with me because I was sure I would not be able to get anywhere near him during the festival. Now I realise I missed a fantastic chance to get an autograph.

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Book review of “Bimal Roy – The Man who Spoke in Pictures”

I have just finished reading a very enjoyable book. It is a collection of essays on Bimal Roy, the filmmaker. Edited by his daughter Rinky Bhattacharya and his granddaughter Anwesha Arya, the book is a new edition of the previous version published in 2009.

Bimal Roy is primarily remembered for some of the classics of the black and white era: Bandini, Sujata, Do Bheega Zameen and Devdas. In this book we have the memories of many of the people who he worked with and they give an insight into his method of working. There are also the memories of those who knew him but who hadn’t actually worked with him. Names like Ritwik Ghatak, Mahasweta Devi, Shyam Benegal and Khalid Mohammed are some of the well-known ones which you will find in the content page.

For film buffs this is a must read. He had that sobriety and that social purpose which was so sorely missing from Indian Cinema afterwards for several decades. Interestingly, his films were based on novels and short stories which make them very clearly structured. This practice of making screenplays from published works was quite common in Bengal and Bimal Roy is perhaps the one who has to be credited for making this common in the film industry of Bombay. I say “Bombay” because that was the name of the city then to which he moved.

He was surrounded by other Bengalis like S.D. Burman and Hrishikesh Mukherjee. This created the right ambiance he needed to get the precise look or sentiment that was required. Bimal Roy trained an entire batch of technicians and directors who picked up the craft by working with him. So his influence went deep and far even after he had died. The well-known director Basu Bhattacharya was his son-in-law.

Most people don’t know that Bimal Roy started his film career as a photographer and later cinematographer with Calcutta’s New Theatres. He worked with PC Barua and learned much from him. Bimal Roy was the cinematographer of the almost unknown 1936 Hindi version of “Devdas”, starring KL Sehgal and Jamuna.

This book has writers from both Bengal and Mumbai. The pages are full of anecdotes and stories from the world of cinema and fill up all our gaps in understanding of this rich and fascinating world. Today’s Indian cinema owes a lot to those who helped it grow in the early years. And for those who are young now the book will open out a whole perspective and show them that Indian cinema was much more than the singing and dancing for which it is known now glabally.

I have particularly enjoyed reading this book as my copy was given to me by Anwesha Arya who is the granddaughter of Bimal Roy. She has co-edited this edition with her mother Rinky Bhattacharya. I went to spend the afternoon with her in her house in Rye in the UK where she lives with her actor husband Sagar Arya and their four children and practically finished reading the book on the train back to London.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys watching films and has hopes of being a film critic.

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Review of Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (available on youtube)

This summer I attended a short course, actually it was a series of lectures, at the British Film Institute which was about the screen adaptations of books in Hindi Cinema. The selection of films which were discussed was good and I had seen most of them already so I could enjoy the lectures. The best of the pick was, of course, Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam.

This film starring Meena Kumari and Guru Dutt is among my favourite films and watching it once again filled my heart with joy because I had only seen it on a small screen before, probably on an old VHS video cassette. This film is based on a Bengali novel by Bimal Mitra (Shaheb Bibi O Golam) and was made into a Bengali film before being made into a Hindi film. When I came back from the lecture on Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam I decided to watch the Bengali version just to see how it was different from the Hindi version. I was thrilled to find it on youtube.

Before I say anything else let me tell you the story in brief. Set against the background of the British Raj when the feudal lifestyle was declining and the new middle class emerging we see this wealthy but unhappy family. The younger brother in this joint family spends all his nights with the dancing girls while his young and beautiful wife waits for him in vain. A young man, a relative of an employee, comes to live in the complex which is the sprawling mansion. He soon becomes the confidant who shares all her sorrows and joys. She wants to have her husband near her and is even prepared to drink to keep him near her. Her husband comes to her but she turns into an alcoholic. Soon the fortune of the Zamindars turns and they start losing money. The story ends in tragedy.

Meena Kumari plays the Chhoti Bahu and I don’t know of a role played more perfectly by an actress in Hindi cinema. She actually lives that role perhaps because in many ways she was playing herself. Chhoti Bahu’s deep sorrow of not being able to get her husband’s physical presence is something that is visible to the viewer even when she is smiling. And in Meena Kumari’s life this was a reality too but even more close to her real life is the way she took to alcohol and became an addict. There is something in her voice that brings out the bitterness and pathos so well.

The Bengali version is very close to the novel and we see that the young man, played by Uttam Kumar, is not as naive and simple minded as Guru Dutt interprets him. In this version the Chhoti Bahu ( or Chhoto Bouthan as she is called) is a sad but sweet woman and her transformation into an alcoholic is tragic in a way that shows a broken woman but in the Hindi version we see Meena Kumari’s downfall as something more frightening as there is also her anger, frustration and humiliation simmering behind.

The Bengali version shows more of the social history of the times. We see the Brahmo Samaj and the return of Swami Vivekananda. There are also references to the revolution that is slowly manifesting itself against the British. We also see the emerging business class. The novel is more about the fall of the feudal class and the story of Chhoto Bouthan is one of the streams of the plot. But in the Hindi version Abrar Alvi, the screenplay writer and director, takes the story of this woman and brings it to the center of the stage.

Guru Dutt wanted the novelist to be involved in the screenplay so he rented a flat near Mumbai and brought Bimal Mitra from Calcutta to spend two months with Abrar so that they could work undisturbed and together. This is one of the rare instances of a novelist and screenplay writer working harmoniously together to produce a perfect script. The elements that are changed from the novel are about the way the feudal lifestyle. Abrar Alvi has taken out almost everything about the Brahmo Samaj, also the story of Jaba, the second woman in the story, is simplified. In the Bengali version the relationship between Jaba and the hero Bhootnath is shown in greater complexity.

I know that new films have been made with this same title or adapting a little but they have nothing to do with the original story. I have often wondered if a real modern remake can be made of this film. With a few changes here and there it would make an interesting screenlpay.

Both films are available on youtube. Do watch them. They are both very well made, particularly the Hindi one which has touched excellence in almost every department. Abrar Alvi, who was a good friend of Guru Dutt, has directed the film but he has admitted that the songs were picturised by Guru Dutt. That was the verbal agreement that they had had before starting work. As Guru Dutt was acting in the film it would have been difficult for him to direct it also.

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Uma by Srijit Mukherjee

I am really sorry to say that this is not my favourite Srijit Mukherjee film. The idea is good but it has been stretched a bit too much. The screenplay is based on a true story of a Canadian boy who wanted to see Christmas but as he was not going to live that long the whole village gets together to host a fake Christmas.

In this film there is a young Bengali girl who lives in Switzerland and her one big wish is to see Durga puja in Kolkata. So her father sets out with a few friends to recreate Durga puja in Spring. He takes the help of a film producer and his team to do this almost impossible task. How he succeeds is the story of the film.

I did not at first understand that every character is supposed to be a symbolic representation of a character in the legend. So Uma is a symbol of the goddess Durga who comes from the hills (Switzerland in the film) and goes back to her world at the end. Her father is called Himadri and her mother is called Menoka. The man who will create the illusion is Brahmananda and the others in the others in the team are Arka, Borun, Gobindo and other mythological characters. There is even a character called ‘Mariam’ who pretends to be the estranged mother of Uma and with whom the father and daughter stay in Kolkata. Why is she called Mariam? Maybe because she is an unmarried woman who becomes a mother! There is also a character called Mohish Sur to represent Mahishasur. The man in charge of the electricity supply is called “Indra”. And so on.

When a film is made about film makers it usually gets boring because they have their own inside stories to tell. Also this film is full of scenes where everyone is overacting. The best part of the film is when an old director who had worked with the one who is going to create the Durga puja is dying and he wants to give some final advice.

You can see that poor Jishu is under pressure to act and please his audience so poor man he overdoes everything. His daughter is under no pressure to prove anything so she is relaxed and does her parts very well. Anjan Dutt, as the producer who is brought in to create the fake puja, does an awful job but that is also because he was given a bad script. There is too much melodrama where things could have been said more convincingly in a logically calm manner.

I was not at all moved. The idea could have been made into a better script with real tensions. I feel that the editing was not tight enough. The end is left open. We don’t know if Uma lives or dies. So there is hope that she will perhaps get well and see a real puja in her life.

The story is interesting. The actresses are all good. The participation of a few celebrities makes you sit up and watch. For me the best few seconds of the film were where you see briefly the two boys from Radio Mirchi Bangla, Agni and Somak. They have a web comedy show called “O Maa Go” which I watch every week. They are absolutely hilarious. So I was overjoyed to see them, even if it was for a few seconds.

I read somewhere that the film has had a commercial success which means that it has pleased some people. This means that Srijit has enough money to make another good film.

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Two star kids

The publishing scene in India has changed so much in the last 15 years that nothing is as before. The days when only literary fiction was considered worthy of being printed are over. We have now moved into a scene where books can be read the way magazines used to be read a decade ago. Thy are interesting but they are just for passing time, not for getting anything deep or lasting. Many books are published now in India that we could never have seen the light of day before.

In this new literary landscape I find something really fascinating. Two star children from Bollywood have become authors. They have both been through unsuccessful film careers first before turning to writing. One is Twinkle Khanna and the other is Soha Ali Khan. They are both daughters of the Bollywood hit pair of the 70s – Rajesh Khanna and Sharmila Tagore. Would we have ever imagined as we watched the screen couple looking deeply into each other’s eyes and singing S. D. Burman songs that one day their real-life children would be writing books?

I have to admit that when I first read Twinkle Khanna’s column in the TOI I thought it was ghost written by someone else. I just could not believe that a Bollywood kid was actually writing such witty stuff. Why? Because we associate Bollywood with silly stories and absurd thinking. It never struck me that the children of stars had access to good education and that they had a completely different life. Soha Ali Khan actually was at Oxford.

Twinkle Khanna started writing when she was offered a weekly column in a paper by a friend who was moving to another paper. She wasn’t sure if she could carry it off but in the end she did. I started believing that she was herself writing the books only when she brought out a book of her best weekly columns. Just goes to show how biased we are about Bollywood stars’ intelligence. She spoke so well during the promotion of the book that it was clear she had a fantastic sense of humour. Twinkle has now brought out her book of short stories which has been well reviewed.

With Soha it was a proposal from Penguin India, the publishing house, that set her off on the journey to the life of a writer. They wanted her to write a book, just anything. They knew that even if she wrote something very mediocre they could market it and sell thousands of copies because she is a celebrity. So she decided to write about herself and particularly about her being moderately famous.

Both have had the honesty to say that if it had not been for their famous parents or their own names being famous however moderately they would never have been able to sell that many copies of their books.

Twinkle Khanna’s success as a writer is also a life lesson. Instead of crying over the fact that her film career did not go anywhere (she actually often laughs at her failure quite openly) she went ahead and made another path for herself.

Soha is actually a very fine actress and I have seen her Bengali films which are very very unusual. So I will be very happy if she goes back to acting some day. I do look forward to reading her book which is like a biography because there are many interesting anecdotes about her famous relatives – her father, her mother, her brother, her sister-in-law … I don’t know if it also includes Taimur!

Twinkle’s book is called “Mrs. Funnybones” and “The Legend of Lakshmiprasad”.
Soha Ali Khan’s book is called “The Perils of being Moderately Famous”.

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