Monday, May 23, 2011

Hrishikesh Mukherjee or Basu Chatterjee? A Midnight Analysis

You don't have to be an avid watcher of Hindi films to have heard of Hrishikesh Mukherjee or Basu Chatterjee. In case you still haven't, let me tell you that without these two directors, the Hindi film industry would be as poor as a rich man with all the grandeur but without a soul.

I would, in fact, place them on a pedestal that would make them stand taller than Satyajit Ray. It is, of course, fashionable to worship Ray. Especially as a Bengali, if you are not found to be in awe of him, or Tagore for that matter, you are bound to be sneered at. No doubt Ray was a genius -- you only have to watch Nayak, Aranyer Din Ratri and Ghare Baire to get an idea about his mastery over the craft. These happen to be the only Ray movies that I would like to watch over and again. Let me add Seemabaddha and Pratidwandi to the list. On the other hand, I found Joi Baba Felunath foolish (I would any day settle for Johnny Mera Naam) and Agantuk to be replete with overacting.

Between these two extremes, Ray made numerous other films that I have always found depressing and never had the patience to watch -- not to mention the insufferable background scores. I have also always wondered why he never hired S.D. Burman or Salil Chowdhury to do the background score for him. I guess the whole idea was not to have big commercial names on board -- most award-winning films either don't have background music or have a score so boring that you instinctively know it is an award-winning film.

Now, if this makes me an intellectually-challenged Bengali, so be it. Ray's films have had nothing for me -- me, as in the average Indian (and not French) movie-watcher who once upon a time could afford a ticket and now has the money to buy a DVD. I wonder how many people living in the villages of Bengal have actually watched Pather Panchali (it would be a good idea to find out even now); am pretty sure the film, no matter how good, got immortalised due to people who had their breakfast in Flurys or sipped red wine in French cafes. Appreciation of Ray's films came to exemplify the art of inverted snobbery -- an art that continues to flourish in parts of Calcutta and of the world even today. If you happen to be spending the night at a Bong woman's place, and if, over drinks, you choose to watch Amar Akbar Anthony over any of her Ray collection, be warned that that could be your last night with her. Unless you are so good with the basic skills that she switches off the TV and throws away the remote.

Even when Ray was at the height of his creative genius, two fellow Bengalis happened to make friends with the audience. They were Hrishida and Basuda. They told the audience stories that they could instantly relate to, and in the process made them laugh as well as cry. In short, they touched hearts. End of the day, that's what matters.

Hrishikesh Mukherjee made Satyakaam, Chupke Chupke, Anupama, Anand, Abhimaan, Guddi, Gol Maal, Aashirwad, Baawarchi, Namak Haraam -- to name a few.

Basu Chatterjee made Piya Ka Ghar, Chhoti Si Baat, Rajnigandha, Khatta Meetha, Apne Paraye, Manpasand, Shaukeen -- to name a few.

These two men -- who gave their best in the 1970's and 80's -- successfully demonstrated that a Hindi film did not have to revolve around a superman-like hero chasing smugglers (who landed on a deserted Bombay beach under the cover of darkness) or baying for the blood of his parents' killers. The hero, they proved, could be you, or the man next door -- basically the middle-class Indian man, without superhuman powers, who could be working as a clerk in some private firm or the other.

Now, the question that arises in my mind is (actually the comparison to Ray was quite pointless here, but never mind): who is greater of the two, Hrishida or Basuda?

It's a tough question, but I have an answer ready: if there is ever a fire at my home, I would first save the DVDs of Basu Chatterjee's films. Why so? Wait for the next post -- if you still want to.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Life In A Metro: A Victory For Fort St. George

"Changes of time are fickle,” Francis Day, the hard-drinking and womanising employee of the East India Company wrote in an emotional and personally delivered letter to his boss Andrew Cogan, “and if you suffer this opportunity to pass over, you shall perhaps in vain afterwards pursue the same when it is fled and gone.”

The year was 1639: the East India Company, competing with the Dutch, was eager to build a permanent settlement on the east coast, and Day was trying to hard-sell Cogan the idea of building it on a sandy strip of beach, which he had already negotiated for with the local chieftain.

The strip of beach was barely three miles away from the Portuguese settlement of San Thome, where Day had had a good time during his expeditions to scout for land — he even found himself a lover there.

The passionate grab-it-or-regret-it tone of Day's letter had its desired effect. On February 20, 1640, both Day and Cogan, dropped anchor at the appointed piece of beach after winding up business at Armagon (today known as a town called Durgarajupatnam, in Andhra Pradesh), where they had a trading post until then. On that dreary strip of sand they built a walled settlement and named it — rather grandiosely, after the patron saint of England — Fort St. George. Madraspatnam, today known as Chennai, grew out of Fort St. George.

But it is not Chennai alone that owes its existence to Fort St. George. When Day and Cogan founded Madraspatnam in February 1640, Delhi was still a medieval city that was ruled by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan and was actually known as Shahjahanabad, while Bombay and Calcutta weren't even born. The construction of the Fort, therefore, can be considered the starting point of modern India. In other words, modern India was born out of Fort St. George.

It is a different matter that this historical fact is never celebrated — either out of ignorance or indifference. Kolkata still fondly remembers its founder Job Charnock – there is a popular shopping complex-cum-restaurant called Charnock City – but Chennai has never had a Cogan CafĂ© or a Day Dosa. In fact, much before he founded Calcutta, Charnock got his daughters baptised at St. Mary's Church in Fort St. George.

The soil of Fort St. George seems to possess a lucky charm. A number of clerks and soldiers and administrators who came to serve here as non-entities got catapulted to unbelievably high positions — high enough not only to decide the destiny of India but also of Britain. During the 18th and 19th Centuries, a number of illustrious Britons, including prime ministers, commanders-in-chief, governors-general, members of Parliament and bureaucrats had one thing in common — the Fort St. George connection.

It was in the Fort that Elihu Yale made his riches, a small part of which was subsequently donated to a cash-strapped university in Connecticut, which decided to name itself after Yale in gratitude. Then there was Robert Clive, who arrived here as a clerk of the East India Company and got so depressed by the nature of his job that he decided to put a gun to his head. The gun failed to fire and Clive went on to become a “heaven-born general” and lay the foundation of the British Empire.

Similarly, Arthur Wellesley, who as a young colonel spent several months in the Fort planning (and then fighting) the war against Tipu Sultan, went on to win the most iconic battle in British history — the battle of Waterloo. Warren Hastings served in the Fort as the export warehouse-keeper before he was promoted and sent to Calcutta as India's first governor-general. The list of people who went on to be kissed by greatness after a stint in Fort St. George is long.

For 371 years, the Fort remained the seat of power in Madras. But in 2010, chief minister M. Karunanidhi decided to move out of its charmed soil — only to meet his Waterloo. He conceived a new Secretariat building on Mount Road and had it constructed in a tearing hurry so that it could be inaugurated while he was in power. One of the buildings sacrificed to make space for the new Secretariat was the 250-year-old Government House, perhaps the most precious piece of colonial heritage in the city after the Fort itself.

Eventually, Karunanidhi lost, Fort St. George won. It's gone back to being the seat of power — at least for the next five years.

Published in The Hindu MetroPlus, May 21, 2011.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Life in a Metro: The Mind of a Mother

Until that evening, I thought a hospital was the most depressing place on this planet. In a hospital, there is at least hope. In an old-age home, there is none — the inmates are like passengers of a bus that is taking them to the sunset of their lives. In the fading sunlight, they can only observe the world from the window; they are not permitted to alight until the bus has reached its final destination.

Quite symbolically, the sun had begun to set by the time I could locate the old-age home I was visiting to research a book. And quite ironically, the home happened to be situated right next to a park where elderly men were already out in their walking shoes — some of them would get back home to have their quota of two small drinks before dinner, some others would play with their grandchildren or help them with homework.

But in the old-age home, the inmates had no home to go back to; that was their home. A cold silence greeted me when I walked in. Not a soul in sight. I tried to listen for footsteps or coughing, but I all I could hear, in the silence, were sighs of resignation and the chirping of birds from the park. I was spotted soon enough by an attendant, who quickly rounded up the residents in the hall so that I could interview them.

It was the same story repeated over and over again: once upon a time they were a happy family until the sons landed dream jobs in the U.S. and the daughters got married to respectable professionals settled abroad. The elderly parents suddenly found themselves stranded in their own city. When one of them died, the surviving parent was either forced or coaxed by the children, all leading prosperous lives abroad, to move into the old-age home. No parent categorically blamed the children; all of them claimed that they had moved into the home out of their own choice. Except one woman — let's call her Ratnamma.

Ratnamma, 74 years old, was bitterly critical of her daughter. "My husband and I were living together until he died two years ago. Within 10 days of the funeral, my daughter brought me here. Imagine, she is my only daughter!" she seethed.

Ratnamma could only speak Tamil, and the inmate who acted as my interpreter had initially tried to present me with toned-down versions of her outbursts — it was quite obvious that he didn't want to bring a bad name to the 'children'. But Ratnamma had sufficient understanding of English to realise what the interpreter was up to. She rebuked him: "Let him know what I have been through." After which the interpreter began translating her sentences verbatim.

"I would have liked to stay with my daughter after my husband's death, but no, she did not allow me to!" Ratnamma went on. “She just dumped me here!"

"What does your daughter do?" I asked Ratnamma. "How old is she?"

"She is 42, she is an engineer. She is earning quite well. She has a son who goes to school."

"Why doesn't she want you to stay with her?"

"She says: 'Amma, who will look after you when I go to work and the child goes to school?' Am I bedridden to be looked after? Tell me. I get my pension. I am not going to be a burden on her."

The other inmates looked away in an uninterested manner as Ratnamma continued her tirade. They did not want to be seen in the same boat as hers.

"What does her husband do?" I asked.

"She is divorced. She and her child are living alone. Still, she is hell-bent on keeping me here!" she said.

Suddenly, there was silence. The anger on Ratnamma's face began to melt into embarrassment. "But I must say that my daughter is of good character," she sought to clarify.

"Good character!" the interpreter mocked her, seeking his revenge. "All this while you were saying how bad she is."

"She may be bad," Ratnamma fought back, "but her character is good."

Published in The Hindu MetroPlus, May 14, 2011.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

I Am The Entertainer

Thanks to a gentleman who makes me wish I could write like him and whose real name I do not know, I am hooked to Billy Joel's The Entertainer these days. In the moments of self-doubt and low self-esteem -- they seem to be occurring more frequently these days -- this song acts like an invisible hand that runs through the hair and automatically straightens out the eyebrows raised with worry. It goes like this:

I am the entertainer,
And I know just where I stand:
Another serenader,
And another long-haired band.
Today I am your champion.
I may have won your hearts.
But I know the game,
You will forget my name,
And I won't be here
In another year,
If I don't stay on the charts.

He knew the game obviously. After all, he managed to stay on long enough to be nominated for the Grammy 23 times and to win it six times.

The Entertainer was written sometime in the 1970's. Around the same time, an Indian lyricist also happened to express exactly the same sentiments in a song that went on to be a legend. The song is Main pal do pal ka shaayar hoon from Kabhie Kabhie, written (with a fountain pen, most probably) by Sahir Ludhianvi. To quote from it:

Kal aur ayenge naghmon ki khilti kaliyan chunnewale
mujhse behtar kehne waley, tumse behtar sunne waley
kal koi mujhko yaad karey, kyon koi mujhko yaad karey
masroof zamana mere liye kyon waqt apna barbadh kare
main pal do pal ka shaayar hoon.

My translation of Sahir's lines: Tomorrow, there will be new writers and new connoisseurs / there will be poets who will write better than me and listeners who will be more appreciating than you / why should anyone care to remember me tomorrow / why should the busy world spare it's precious time for me / I am a poet only for a moment or two.

Sahir, without doubt, is the only literary lyricist that Hindi cinema has ever had. He was a genius: his lyrics needle your mind even today. It was not for nothing that Amrita Pritam, once he left her home after paying her a visit, would light up the cigarettes stubbed by him in the ashtray and smoke the leftover tobacco, just to feel him in her lungs. For further evidence of his genius, you must listen to the songs of Pyaasa and Aa Gale Lag Ja at the same time.

The two films belong to two different generations, but Sahir effectively demonstrates that it does not matter which era you live in -- it feels all the same when you are in love or when you have been ditched. But Kabhie Kabhie, since it concerns the life of a poet, would go down in history as Sahir's landmark film. A long time ago, I wrote a lengthy post on the songs of Kabhie Kabhie, but back then, not many people read my blog. I hope you will be kind enough to read it now.

End of the day, be it Billy Joel or Sahir Ludhianvi, they mean the same thing: Keep it up, before they forget you. Unless your favourite holiday spot happens to be a town called Oblivion.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Return Of The Column

What's most rewarding about being a writer is that every single moment in your life presents you with raw material that can be turned into a piece of writing. If your bus breaks down in the middle of nowhere and you are stranded for several hours, you have a story to tell. If you happen to be bitten by a dog, you can write write a 500-word humorous piece and send it to a newspaper. If in bed, you happen to find your partner wearing her undies inside out, you can quietly store away that little discovery for use in a future book. Even if you are doing nothing, just lying in bed and watching the blades of the fan rotate furiously, you can use the image to open your new novel -- "Are they blades of a fan or hands of a clock -- he wondered. Time flies, sigh."

In the end that's what makes you feel powerful -- the ability to transform every moment into a story. Money and fame, if at all they come, cease to matter beyond a point. And nothing can be more gratifying for a writer than finding himself a platform from where he can share such -- seemingly -- day-to-day stories with readers without having to write lengthy articles or novels. A newspaper column is one such place.

Until about three years ago, I wrote a column called Sunday Spin in the Express. I don't remember exactly for how long the column ran; I think it was close to three years, initially as a fortnightly and then as a weekly. Every Tuesday night, around 10 o' clock (Wednesday was the deadline for the Sunday magazine to go to print), I would sit in front of the computer wondering what to write. Eventually an idea would arrive and I would manage to flesh it out into a 650-word column by two or three in the morning.

Before going to sleep I would mail it to two people, Sushila Ravindranath and Baradwaj Rangan. Sushila was the editor, while Baradwaj supervised the page in which the column went; so it was natural that I had to mail the piece to them. But the idea behind finishing the column and mailing it to them before daybreak was to make them read it as soon as they switched on their computers in the morning -- while there was still sufficient time left for me to make amends, if required, before the magazine went to print. They were people whose opinion I trusted blindly and I still do. But then, they also happen to be the nicest people I've known. By the time I switched on my laptop after waking up late in the morning, their feedback would be waiting in the inbox: "Very nice" or, simply, "V. Nice." I hope they meant it.

In February 2008 I left Express. I wanted to change with the Times. In the process, Sunday Spin died a sudden death. I had no idea that the column had become so popular until the Valentine's Day that year -- I had already submitted my resignation by then -- when I walked into the WITCO showroom on Cathedral Road with my wife to buy a bag for her. The elderly man at the payment counter, upon seeing my credit card, exclaimed: "Bishwanath Ghosh!" I panicked for a moment: was I on the defaulters' list or something?

"Bishwanath Ghosh. From Sunday Express. Right?"

"That's right. Why?"

"I read your column every Sunday, sir."

I felt like a star. At the same time I also felt a lump in my throat. Until then, I had been receiving complimentary emails and letters from numerous people who read Sunday Spin, but this was the first time -- and also the last -- that I came face to face with a 'lay reader' of Sunday Spin.

"But you won't read me anymore, sir," I told him as I signed the slip. "I've just quit the Express." For the next three years, I did not have a column but I wrote two books -- one already published and another about to be.

Today, Baradwaj and I are colleagues once again -- at The Hindu. And once again, I have a column. Looks like the good times are back. Only that the column is now going to appear on Saturdays in Metro Plus, and under a new name -- Life in a Metro. The deadline, though, remains the same: Wednesday.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

My Interests

If you go to my profile page on this blog, you will find the following listed under 'Interests' category (I've cut and pasted):

Sex, Scotch, Spiritualism, Yoga, Writing, Travelling, Travel Writing, Fountain Pens (not necessarily in that order).

I started the blog in October 2005, and even though I mentioned "Not necessarily in that order", I strongly suspect there was some logic behind that order. Perhaps it reflected my state of mind at the time. I was not yet 35, still single, and had no complaints against life -- so perhaps it was natural to subconsciously spell out the 'Interests' in the order in which they interested me.

Sex interested me immensely back then, not just as a means of pleasure or conquest but also as a subject. People read you if you wrote about sex -- not titillating stuff, but analysing human behaviour towards it and thus giving voice to thoughts that otherwise remain in the throat. Alcohol was another thing I could not do without, though it was not always Scotch -- a number of posts on this blog during that time were written in the afternoons, under the mild influence of alcohol. Yet, at the same time, I was in touch with my spiritual side and was also totally into yoga, never stepping out of home unless I had done 10 rounds of sun salutations and a few basic postures such as the chakrasana and sarvangasana. Then comes writing. It was a foolish thing to list it under the 'Interest' category because writing was not an interest, but a necessity. It was my bread and butter -- though I did write a lot of stuff out of my interest in writing. Towards the fag end of the list, you will see Travelling, Travel Writing and Fountain Pens. That was because I would occasionally travel to new places and write about them, and was gradually discovering the pleasure in doing so. Most of such writing happened on the spot itself, on the stationery of the hotel or the resort, with my fountain pen. I possessed not more than one fountain pen at a time.

Today, nearly six years later, my interests rank in the reverse order! I now have a collection of nearly two dozen fountain pens (excluding those I've lost or given away over the last few years) and am in the process of adding to it. My latest acquisition is a Ratnam pen. Mr Ratnam of Rajahmundry started manufacturing fountain pens way back in 1932 after Mahatma Gandhi gave a call against the use of foreign-made goods. Subsequently, a number of illustrious men, including Gandhi, have used Ratnam pens. I ordered a pen last month and it arrived within three days of my sending my address to them over SMS. But the pen had a defect: it would suddenly stop writing. When I called them up to convey the problem, the man who answered the phone advised me to dip the nib portion of the pen in water for an hour. I did as advised, but it didn't work. Quite magically, the very next morning, Mr Ratnam's son, Mr K.V. Ramana Murthy, who now runs the family business, called me. He apologised for the defect and asked me to send the pen back, along with a few lines in my own long hand so that he could also craft the nib according to my style. Once again, I did as advised. The pen came back to me in three days, along with a letter from Mr Ramana Murthy (produced at the bottom of this post). Suffice to say that if that pen were a woman, I would have married her right away -- that I already have a wife would not have mattered.

Travel Writing and Travelling would figure next on my current list of interests, considering that's what I am occupied with these days -- no longer for the pleasure of it but professionally, in order to earn my place under the sun. These two interests, by and large, define what I am today and tomorrow could well be my identity. Pleasure, by the way, has long been replaced by pain.

Spiritualism and yoga -- they are now like former girlfriends who you still desire and eagerly want to get back to, but you just can't figure how. As for sex -- oh, who cares! Today I pity people who still think that sex sells, and can't be bothered anymore about analysing or dissecting people's hypocritical attitude towards it. Sex is not something to be written about, it is meant to be had. Either you have it, or don't have it. Go have it if you can -- take the keys to my flat if you want to -- but leave me alone, at least for now.

Perhaps I was wise enough back then to know that interests can change with time and circumstances. Maybe that is why I took care to mention, "Not necessarily in that order." I am equally wise even today not to delete that line, because you never know.