Wednesday, June 28, 2006

'Amitabh is a Lucky Superstar'

Smartly turned out in a black T-shirt and grey bermudas and white sneakers, Mani Ratnam sat right in the middle of the Express press, thoughtfully scribbling something. His cinematographer Rajiv Menon, also clad in T-shirt and bermudas and sneakers, sat in a corner chatting with Fanaa writer Shibani Bathija. A couple of Mani Ratnam’s assistants, also wearing T-shirts and bermudas, went around setting up the place for the next shot. Is that the uniform of Mani and his crew, or is it because of the Chennai heat? Or it could just be for the sake of mobility, because when you are a Mani Ratnam or a member of his crew, you have to be on your feet all the time – as I was to realise a little later.

So there I was, standing at the door of the press, all set to watch the next shot of Guru, the upcoming and much talked-about film of Mani. It is a delight to watch the director. The man, I am told, has had his share of heart attacks, but he was bouncing around, as if he was wearing springs inside his FILA socks. His eyes were rarely normal: they either pondered or twinkled. As I surveyed him surveying the press, someone touched my shoulder and said, “Excuse me.” I stepped aside and let the male voice walk in. It was Madhavan. He was wearing a vest and an assistant was presently handing him a shirt. Then another tall man in a white kurta and dhoti, with his cropped hair painted in silver, arrived: Mithun Chakraborty. The same Mithunda who disco-danced into people’s hearts two and a half decades ago wearing white – not dhoti-kurta but shirt and bell-bottoms and white shoes. But the hair was black and long.

As soon as Mithun entered the press his assistant handed him a khadi waistcoat. They were ready for the shot. Mithun plays a media baron and Madhavan plays his son-in-law who is also his reporter. The scene is that of a confrontation between the two where Mithun basically asks Madhavan to get lost.

Ever since I moved to Chennai five and a half years years ago, I have seen quite a few film shootings and quite a few Tamil stars: Ajit Kumar, Vikram, Vijay, Sharath Kumar, Ramya, Rambha, Jyothika and a few others whose names I do not know. But they were all shooting action or song sequences. This was the first time I was witnessing an intense dialogue scene. And it taught me two things: 1. You can’t beat experience, and 2. Perfection can be a pain but it is worth it.

When I say experience, I mean Mithun Chakraborty. The confrontation scene was okayed after about half-a-dozen retakes, and Mithunda breezed through each of them. Each time Mani shouted “Cut!”, the Disco Dancer would take a break in front of a pedestal fan. An assistant would give him a piece of cloth and he would dab his face.

But Madhavan had no such respite. Mani, after shouting the “Cut!”, would walk up to him and ask him to put more emotion in his dialogue. Not that what Madhavan was doing was anything wrong, but Mani wanted perfection. He would make Madhavan rehearse his lines like a schoolboy after every take. But not once did the director have a word with Mithun Chakraborty.
Mithunda, after all, is no ordinary actor. The masses might know him as the Disco Dancer, but few know that he has won the National Award thrice, including for his debut film – Mrinal Sen’s Mrigyaa. And he hopes to get the fourth for Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s Kaalpurush.

Coming back to Mani Ratnam’s perfection. Perfectionists are usually an impatient lot, and impatience often breeds bad temper. And today I was witnessing Mani Ratnam’s temper. Before one of the retakes of the confrontation scene, an assistant who was barely in his twenties went around clearing the place. But in the process, he himself lingered on in front of the camera for long enough to arouse the temper of Mani, who had by now announced “Ready!” and was about to say “Action!” Mani went charging at the boy with a raised palm, as if about to slap him, and said, “You, you son of a b***h! You soiled a natural shot!” The boy’s face remained emotionless: he was clearly used to such abuses. After the shot was taken he gently told the boy that he should run out – and not stroll out – of the camera’s view after getting a shot ready. But the very next moment he lost his cool with another of his bermuda-clad assistants who was giving the clap. “You fool, don’t you know how to do it?”

Throughout the retakes I had plenty of opportunity to talk to Mithunda but I was too scared of Mani. A little later, I spotted him in the portico of the Express office. Technicians were setting up reflectors and lights and a few men were busy yanking off the backdoor of a Fiat that bore a number plate starting with M. Clearly, the movie dates back to a few decades. The door was being pulled out to enable Rajiv Menon to install his camera.

While the preparations were on, Mithunda sat on a plastic chair smoking a cigarette. A colleague who had already met him before, introduced me. He was visibly happy at having met a fellow Bengali on the sets.

For a 10-year-old watching a movie, especially in the days I was growing up, the hero was the man who could beat up ten goondas without batting an eyelid – as if it was a dance sequence. And if the hero could dance, it was a bonus. Mithun Chakraborty could do both not only effortlessly, but also convincingly. Amitabh could fight goondas well, but he was never a convincing dancer. Jeetendra danced well, but he was not a convincing fighter. But Mithun, with his dancing and ‘fighting’ abilities, made even a B-grade movie like Disco Dancer a superhit.

He was the only Bollywood star who command a parallel audience to that of Amitabh Bachchan’s throughout the 1970’s and 80’s. As a result, film glossies referred to him as poor man’s Amitabh; and when Govinda arrived on the scene later, they referred to him as poor man’s Mithun. Any other actor might have felt flattered being sandwiched between the two comparisons, but not Mithun Chakraborty, who won the National Award for his very first film as hero – Mrinal Sen’s Mrigaya, released in 1975. The success tasted even better because earlier in the same year, Mithun’s first commercial movie, Do Anjaane, was released. In the movie, which had Amitabh and Rekha in the lead, Mithun is only a junior artiste – he plays the role of a loafer who hangs around on the street outside Amitabh’s house and also has a brief confrontation with the superstar.

Ok, I think of Amitabh as a superstar, the world thinks of him as a superstar, but what does Mithunda, a contemporary and a co-actor in Agneepath (which fetched Mithunda a National Award for best supporting actor), think about the Big B? The Bengali star smiles and says: “I would say he is a lucky superstar.” Lucky? As in the Big B is no good as an actor? “Look, what is acting? Acting means you should be able to play any role given to you. Acting means playing Ramkrishna Paramhansa (in Swami Vivekananda) and also being the Disco Dancer of the nation. If you talk about acting, I think Naseeruddin Shah is a great actor, Paresh Rawal is a great actor, even Johnny Lever is a great actor. For me, they are the real actors.”

And the Big B? “He is a terrific actor too, no doubt, but I don’t think he is the ultimate superstar. As I told you, he is a lucky superstar. There are people like Naseeruddin Shah and Paresh Rawal. Even Johnny Lever. Such great actors!”

According to Mithun, the Big B’s superstar image had also hampered the growth of his son Abhishek as an actor. “Poor boy, they were all comparing him with his father. The boy has talent, and he has finally managed to come out of his father’s shadow. In fact I was first one to congratulate him and tell him that he was now an actor in his own right.”

Will his own son, Mimo, who was recently launched as an actor, won’t face the same problem? “I think he will,” Mithunda says, but quickly adds, “but he is a far better dancer than I. He dances 22 times better than me. He is a boy to watch.” Just as his face begin to assume a father’s pride I ask him a question I had always wanted him to ask: Why did he chuck everything in Bombay and come to settle in the South?

“Even while I was in Bombay, I found myself in Ooty for six months in a year. I fell in love with the place and decided to settle there. I love the South,” he explains. He also loves the South Indian approach to making movie. “They are perfectionists, technically and otherwise. The discipline you see here, you don’t see anywhere else. I want Mimo also to do films for South Indian banners before he moves elsewhere. It is a good training ground.”

His shot is called. He pulls out another cigarette and takes a few drags. The scene is like this: Mithun, the media baron, gets into the car (the Fiat whose door has just pulled out), and as soon as he gets in some goons appear and smash the car windows and decamp in a waiting taxi. Unfazed, the media baron jumps out of the car and yells at the escaping goons. The shot is okayed in two takes. The unit begins to wind up. So far, Mani Ratnam hasn’t exchanged a single word with him. Perhaps that explains the three National Awards that are currently under his belt.

But the man does not have any attitude. If I had wanted my picture to be taken with Madhavan, I might have thought thrice. But Mithunda was hanging around there like an affectionate college senior. “Aye, aye,” he said in Bengali – meaning “come, come” – the moment he saw me wanting to take pictures with him. To tell you the truth, I was never a great fan of his. But then, he and movies have been an integral part of my childhood. And after the encounter with him, I have become his greatest fan.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Old India, New Indian

The man on the upper bunk snored away as I sat by the window, watching the world-famous greenery of Kerala pass by. Every time the train stopped, he would lower his head and ask me ‘‘Which station?’’ and go back to sleep.

Finally, during a longish halt, he climbed down. He smiled at me and asked: ‘‘Where you going?’’ ‘‘Trivandrum,’’ I replied. ‘‘I also going to Trivandrum. My friends booking a resort in Kovalam. We will have some enjoyment.’’

In India, a train journey is rarely complete without fellow passengers exchanging bio-datas. Within minutes, I had his: His name was Velu, he was 29, and he worked as a leather technician in Guangzhou, China. He had a wife and a four-year-old daughter who lived back home in Chennai. He was on vacation, and he was on his way Kovalam beach for ‘‘enjoyment.’’

‘‘You coming to China? You must go to Shanghai. Very big city. I take my wife there last year.’’ He offered me a cigarette. I reminded him that smoking was not permitted in the train. He withdrew the packet and went on: ‘‘In China, even females are taking smokes, just like men!’’

The urge for a smoke had made him restless and he asked for the copy of Time magazine lying on my lap. He absentmindedly flipped through the pages until his eyes fell on an article titled ‘‘Sex, Please — We’re Young and Chinese.’’ His eyes kept widening as he progressed through the article and muttered from time to time: ‘‘Correct! Absolutely correct!’’ His eyes finally popped out of the sockets when he spotted the word Guangzhou. ‘‘See! See! Here I am working.’’

By now the train had pulled out of the station. We were passing railways buildings, their walls painted with slogans like ‘‘Railway men on strike!’’ and ‘‘SRMU Zindabad!’’ (SRMU is a union of railway workers). Barely 20 years ago, such graffiti could be seen on walls anywhere in the country. Those were the days of the capitalist versus the worker, when strikes, or threats to strike, were commonplace.

But in Corporate India, unions have by and large become redundant. They are now concentrated mainly in the communist bastions of West Bengal and Kerala, and it was Kerala our train was snaking through. Outside, it was the Old India, which still believed in the might of the workers. But inside, sitting with me, was the New Indian, earning good money in the New China. Old India, New Indian — these two contrasting concepts divide the average Indian today.

This division cannot be more obvious than on Kolkata’s Elgin Road. Last week, I stood on that road, asking for directions, when something struck me. On my left was the house of Subhas Chandra Bose (now called Netaji Research Bureau), an icon of Bengal — Communist or otherwise. Technically, the party founded by him, Forward Bloc, is now a part of the Left coalition ruling the state. Shattering the calm of his house is the loud music blaring from the compound of Forum, an upscale shopping mall. The music was meant to attract the attention of people to a car-buying scheme. A few years ago, such a blatant pratice of consumerism, that too on the road where Netaji once lived, would have been considered blasphemous. Not anymore. Most Calcuttans no longer think like Satya Kaku. One rarely comes across a committed man as Satya Ray, or Satya Kaku — Kaku meaning ‘‘uncle’’ in Bengali. He is a bachelor at 74, but he has been married to Communism. I met him at a friend’s place.

Satya Kaku retired about 15 years ago from the State Bank of India. He told me with pride: ‘‘I joined in 1955, when it was called the Imperial Bank. Then it became the State Bank of India. I worked there for 40 years minus 17 days.’’ He added with the same sense of pride: ‘‘I did a lot of ‘union’. That is why I never got promoted. But those days you treated the officer like an enemy, like dirt. But these days union leaders are sold out. They treat the officer with a lot of respect. It is really sad.’’

In fact, the new-generation Calcuttans have said an emphatic ‘‘No’’ to the graffiti with which the ruling Left Front wants to paint the city’s walls to highlight its 30 years in power. ‘‘Left or Right, you have no right to write,’’ a woman listener told a radio programme when asked about her reaction to the State Government’s move. Newly-formed unions of residents have crossed swords with the traditional unions over the proposed graffiti-writing. Considering that political graffiti is something that every Calcuttan has grown up with, the resistance indicates a drastic change in attitude.

That’s India for you today. On the one hand, you see the fruits of economic liberalisation and globalisation — processes started in the early 1990s by the then-Finance Minister Manmohan Singh, who is today the Prime Minister. Shopping malls are becoming so common that newspapers and magazines have stopped screaming: ‘‘Mall Mania!’’ Tommy Hilfiger underwear and Guess jeans have moved out from the glossy pages of GQ and Vanity Fair into the racks in these malls. Peopling these malls are young men and women who no longer seek government employment just for the sake of job security. One works in a confectionary company that has just been taken over by a Korean major, another works in a software firm headquartered in California, and so on. At parties, they curse Indian airports and debate which airport is better, Singapore or Kuala Lumpur.

On the other hand are the watchdogs of Old India — people who are highly allergic to the terms ‘‘economic liberalisation’’ and ‘‘globalisation’’. They oppose proposals to privatise airports or any government institution that is in a pathetic state: the idea is not to endanger the job security of employees. They fight all takeover bids. They go on strike. And yes, they hate America. These people are getting stronger as well. Earlier this month, Communists returned to power in West Bengal as well as Kerala. And in the 2004 general elections, the Left parties bagged 64 seats — their best performance ever.

But strangely, the New Indian and the watchdogs of the Old India are allies in the Central Government. And they seem to be faring well together, considering that Manmohan Singh has just finished two years in office without any hurdles coming his way. So while their friendship keeps the Government going, their differences keep editors and journalists in business. Good news, after all, is hardly any news.

The Eye of Time: Book Review

Camera Chronicles of Homai Vyarawalla By Sabeena Gadihoke Parzor Foundation and Mapin, Rs 2,570

Time is like a fistful of sand. You can rarely completely own it: the grains are bound to slip out of your fingers and become what we call history. But here is a chance to do just that, own history. Buy Camera Chronicles of Homai Vyarawalla.

Vyarawalla needed no introduction to the high and the mighty in the 1940s and 1950s, but for the benefit of the present generation, here goes. She was India’s first woman press photographer, who covered momentous events and who today lives, at age 93, alone in Baroda. Her lifetime’s work, whose importance she didn’t realise in the prime of her life as a photographer, has been put together by Sabeena Gadihoke, a mass communications teacher at the Jamia University in Delhi.

At Rs 2,750, the coffee table book might not fit every budget, but once bought, it gives you every paisa back in the form of hundreds of lavish photographs that mark the transition of British India into our India. And the bonus is that the history chronicled in this book is honest. Photographs, after all, don’t lie, though the same can’t be necessarily be said about a historian’s pen; a historian’s pen has the luxury of omitting or suppressing details, depending on his or her ideology.

Take the Partition, for example. We all know of it as a dark event, when a Muslim Pakistan was carved out of India in the Northwest and the East, leading to the butchering of thousands of people in communal riots on either side of the newly-formed border. Even 60 years on, India continues to pay a heavy price for that outcome of Partition called Pakistan. Today, you hardly notice the front page of any newspaper without the mention of Pakistan — and the news is rarely good.

It is easy to blame Mohammad Ali Jinnah. In fact, it is considered politically correct for Indians to blame him. Praise him, and you are in trouble — as L K Advani might have realised by now. But the lay Indian is not aware that the Partition was also endorsed by the All India Congress Committee during a marathon meeting on June 14, 1947, much to the displeasure of the Mahatma and many others.

Says Gadihoke of the meeting: “While scholarly work on the largest migration of people in history has been more prolific in recent times, the visual representation of Partition has largely focused on the victims of the tragic event… (Vyarawalla’s) own account of this meeting where a ‘handful of people’ voted for Partition is a testimony of her deep disappointment at the turn of the events.”

And this account cannot be more credible because she and another man called P N Sharma were the only photographers left to cover the All India Congress Committee meeting. They had covered the meeting clandestinely after other photographers staged a walkout because the then-Congress president, Acharya Kripalani, did not want the Partition debate to be photographed.

Says Gadihoke: “From Homai’s accounts, this meeting was a stormy one, where younger socialists like Ram Manohar Lohia and Jayaprakash Narayan lashed out at the others for allowing the division of the country. Congress Muslims like Maulana Azad and Khan Abdul Ghafar Khan were visibly upset, as was Gandhi.’’

Gadihoke further quotes Vyarawalla: ‘‘I feel absolutely disappointed about Partition. They were in a hurry to take power into their hands, and if you see my pictures of the final meeting, there were just a few people there. The entire hall was just about as big as my house. When they said ‘Raise hands for Partition’ you could see there were very few people there. India is so big: they should have taken the consensus of people but they didn’t do. Kripalani was in the chair, and he was averse to our taking pictures. He allowed only two minutes for everybody to speak for or against, and if anybody tried to speak against it, he was made to sit down, and if someone was in its favour, they were allowed to speak. Sardar Patel then stood up to speak and said, ‘If you have gangrene on your arm or leg, you cut it off and finish with it.’ That was their idea of Partition. But the gangrene is still there and it is progressing now.”

In other words, if the Mahatma had his way, the country might have escaped Partition, and you wouldn’t have had a Pakistan today to contend with. But the Congress leaders seemed to be in a hurry to gain power and they bulldozed Gandhi into saying yes. In Vyarawalla’s words: “The Congress party treated India like their own jagir, giving away part of the country as if it belonged to them.”

Only a Mahatma — a great soul — could have seen the larger picture then and felt the pain. For lesser mortals, India was a free nation, and Jawaharlal Nehru the face of that freedom. No other man was going to matter more for the next two decades, so it is not surprising that he figures in most of Homai’s pictures in the book. A rare picture shows Nehru flanked by the Dalai Lama and Chou en Lai.

“Somehow or the other he never resented photographers around him, and sometimes I noticed that he posed for pictures, as if unconsciously,” she says. A couple of pictures show Nehru waiting for his sister Vijayalakshmi Pandit at the Palam airport; right behind him is a signboard that reads: “Photography strictly prohibited.”

The book can help the younger generation catch up with many momentous events of the past, such as the Mahatma’s funeral; Vyarawalla’s coverage is extensive. Also prominently featured is the visit of Queen Elizabeth in 1961. But what can be particularly a treat to the eyes, especially for those interested in political history, are the pictures of Nehru and his first Cabinet ministers.

A set of pictures shows them at a lunch hosted by Sardar Patel. The impression one gets from the picture is that the lunch was a cold and silent affair — as if the bunch did not get along very well. Sitting in one corner is Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, the industry minister, who seems to be totally out of place. He was out of place indeed: he quit the government soon after to form the Jana Sangh, which later on became the BJP.

The book also chronicles Vyarawalla’s own life — from being a poverty-stricken girl to being the wife of a photographer to being a loving wife and a mother, and from being a star photographer to being a lonely woman who lost her husband and son and who now prefers to lead a lonely life. She is one of the monuments of Independent India, and this book is a monument to that monument.

Who Are You Banning?

In journalism we follow one principle when we are not certain about a fact or facts while writing or editing a copy: When in doubt, leave it out. Suppose we are not sure whether Tamil Nadu chief minister M Karunanidhi is 82 or 83, and if there is no reliable source at hand to verify his age instantly, we leave it out.

Governments, not only in India but also elsewhere, follow a similar policy when faced with controversial situations or tricky issues. The moment they sense an issue could create trouble, they slap a ban. That still makes sense, even though it could mean robbing their subjects of their fundamental rights.

Take, for example, the ban on Satanic Verses. The average Indian reader was not given a chance to decide whether Salman Rushdie’s book was indeed blasphemous. But a lot of times, a ban is slapped merely for historical reasons or to make a symbolic statement in the name of morality, in total disregard of the ground reality.

Indian movies, for example, continue to be banned in Pakistan. And in India, while youngsters in the rest of the country can spend evenings gathered around moisture-coated jugs of beer, their counterparts in Gujarat will still be breaking the law if they drink. Reason: Gujarat is the home-state of Mahatma Gandhi, and since the Mahatma was against the habit of drinking, the Gujaratis cannot drink too. From time to time, various regional parties who come to power on the plank of prohibition ban drinking in their states – only to revoke the ban a few years after.

What’s the point? For that matter, what’s the point in any ban? Does it serve any purpose? Indian movies might be banned in Pakistan, but there would hardly be a Pakistani who is not familiar with Bollywood stars or Hindi songs. Even during the 1987 World Cup, after which Imran Khan was supposed to retire, Pakistani girls, during the semi-final at Lahore against Australia, kept singing in chorus for their hero: “Chalte chalte, mere yeh geet yaad rakhna, kabhi alvida na kehna…” (remember my song: never say goodbye). That’s a hugely popular Kishore Kumar song, not a Pakistani song.

In Pakistan, where alcohol is prohibited for religious reasons, Scotch flows at parties hosted by the well-heeled. And in Gujarat, where alcohol is banned for moral reasons, people who have the money and the means to drink, drink. So at the end of the day, who is the ban enforced for? It is usually for the people who are not connected to the ban in any way. An average Indian, for example, couldn’t have cared less, in the 1980s, about Salman Rushdie’s books. In fact, but for the ban on Satanic Verses, they wouldn’t have even known who Rushdie was. As for the elite who were aware of his earlier works, they could have easily picked up Satanic Verses in either London or New York.

The same goes for drinking: a compulsive drinker, if he is poor, will manage to get his drink anyway, even if it is hooch. That he might pay for it with his life is a different matter. And if he is rich, he will have a bootlegger deliver Scotch at his home. So what about the ban?

Certain bans are outright ridiculous. Like the one on smoking in trains. This is not to defend or extol the habit of smoking, but the point is, if cigarettes are being sold in the market, there are bound to be people smoking them. World over, airports have separate smokers’ lounges. But imagine the plight of a habitual Indian smoker who travels, say, in Raptisagar Express from Gorakhpur to Kochi —a journey of 60 hours! Is he not supposed to smoke during those two and a half days? Little wonder that passengers don’t follow such an impractical ban: the smokers smoke away. Once again, the ban holds good for people who don’t smoke anyway.

But it is unfair to blame India alone: it is still a democracy that is growing up. Today every literarily-inclined Indian has at least heard of Henry Miller, if not read his works. In the West, he is an icon. But Miller was banned in his own country, the US, till the 1960s. The charge was that his writing was pornographic. Many other literary geniuses suffered because of similar bans, one of them being D H Lawrence. Till a few years ago, Lady Chatterley’s Lover was officially banned — I am not sure if it still is — in India. The ban had carried over from the British days.

The English should have learned from the French. It was in France that many of the icons of English literature flourished: Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Henry Miller, D H Lawrence and dozens of other writers, including the writers of the Beat generation. These people could write because Paris, even in the 1920s and 30s, encouraged freedom of expression. If the French went about banning books and writers, can you imagine how poor literature would have been?