Fandry and the ‘meaningful’ cinema

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For quite some time now, Netflix had been nudging me to watch ‘Fandry‘, I guess based on my viewing history. I took the bait after Ratna Pathak Shah mentioned the film during a recent but rare interview on a news channel. Fandry, according to her, is one of the must-watch films coming out of meaningful Indian cinema.

Fandry came out in 2014 and is the directorial debut of the now famous Nagraj Manjule, best known for his massive hit Sairat that released in 2016. Sairat has scored some important firsts: First Marathi film to gross Rs.100 crore worldwide. First Indian film to record in Hollywood – its soundtrack includes Western classical pieces recorded at the Sony Scoring Stage. The film’s music directors are a duo of brothers – Ajay and Atul Gogavale, who started their careers with dhol-tasha groups, used during the Ganesh Utsav, one of the most significant festivals in Maharashtra. These are grassroots men.

Nagraj Manjule’s roots lie in the stories he tells on the screen, and this is obvious to anyone who watches Fandry and Sairat. An aggressive caste dialogue takes place throughout the narrative. There is love, and then there is despair. Manjule grew up in Jeur village in the Solapur district of Maharashtra. He always wanted to be a filmmaker. Success kissed him and now he lives a hallowed life. He is, truly, a self-made man who made it big with ‘meaningful cinema’. His kind of success is rare.

This brings us to…

Meaningful cinema.

It has the gravitas, doesn’t it? With an extra grrr… in it. Meaningful. It smells different. Feels different. “I watch meaningful cinema,” there, no more questions; I have arrived. Today, this is the yesteryears’ equivalent of “I watch only Hollywood films”.

Ask me –  I just watched Fandry and I think it was okay. I was fascinated, moved even, by the way the Sairat story ends. Versus all those hours spent watching films like Dabangg, and Singham, and Ready, or Andaz Apna Apna. This felt different. How different? Sairat is QSQT (Qayamat se qayamat tak) based on caste and not class. Fandry… Is Bobby gone bad, based on caste and not class or religion. Fans of this ‘meaningful’ cinema will probably outrage at the comparisons made.

After all, Sairat wouldn’t be the same without the intense detailing of its characters – a spunky, multi-talented boy called Parshya and Archie, a girl who is courageous, outspoken, and unconventional – she rides an Enfield. Their love story appears far more ‘meaningful’ than QSQT ever could. Why?

But think about this: In both Fandry and Sairat, the definition of ‘love’ is pretty thin. Boy sees girl. Boy keeps staring at her. Boy tries to talk to her. Boy looks for situations through which he can get noticed by the girl, or get close to her. Girl gives in. Girl is taken in by the fact that the boy has shown some daring by approaching her. For the boy, the line between machismo and stupidity is very thin. There are innumerable stories of this sort.

In Fandry, Jambya the boy manages to talk to his Shalu only in his dreams, while in Sairat, things get a little more daring – there is an actual exchange before the girl decides she loves this audacious backward caste boy Parshya. Fandry’s Jambya is a schoolboy. Sairat’s Parshya is in college. Hardly the age when people try to find meaning.

In QSQT, it’s the same thing. In Bobby, same again.

In Hindi songs, love is often described as a malady, a madness, a condition where pain is the only constant. So does Jambya of Fandry in his letter to his beloved Shalu say: “I can give up anything for you, even my life.” Said every Indian romeo ever. Where is the meaning, pray tell?

I found meaning in Salman’s ‘Ready’ where he says he’s looking for a girl who is strong, smart, and dependable. In ‘Andaz Apna Apna’ where a millionaire’s daughter falls in love with a guy who is a nobody, and despite being tricked by him. In ‘English Vinglish’, where just about every frame is superb, and it’s a mature pondering over the meaning of love.

Who makes these distinctions for movie-goers? This is ‘meaningful’ and that is ‘popular’. And the twain shall never meet.

If meaningful can become popular, as in the case of Sairat, so can the popular be meaningful, as in the case of Dil Chahta Hai, the ham scene in the end notwithstanding. And again, if a handful of people tell others this is meaningful and that isn’t, what’s it called other than elitism? Do these people understand that pure entertainment actually means a lot to a large chunk of people?

Maybe when these people say meaning, they mean a movie set that is by far indistinguishable from what we see in real life. Lesser the escapism, greater the meaning. And meaning is good. The opposite, bad. Maybe that’s how Nagraj Manjule is such a powerful story-teller. Because, at times it so happens that those who live close to a broken system find it extremely difficult to stand away from it.

Read here the story of Sunita Manjule, Nagraj Manjule’s ex-wife. If it is true what she says about her 15-year marriage, one will have no choice but wonder. Your search for meaning might end in one definitive answer: that the powerful exploit the weak. The context may change: class, caste, religion, gender, race. The story really doesn’t.

The search for meaning, begins and ends in our subjective experience.

 

 

Jaa Simran Jaa, Jee Ley Apni Zindagi

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Praf, short for Praful Patel, is a 30 year old divorcee, living in Atlanta, US, only child of Gujarati parents who have owned a general store all their lives. She’s holding down a job as a housekeeping staff in a hotel. She not only has a past but a post-past as well – her ex-boyfriend happens to be her boss at the hotel.

Praf wants to make money, create financial security for herself, a craft almost perfected by Gujjus in general, but Praf is different – her aims are the same but her means are not. Self-control is not her thing. This Gujju gal has the balls – or shall we say vagina – to take risks. Okay, playing Baccarat (without knowing anything about the game) just to pursue a guy you’ve spotted inside a Las Vegas casino cannot be called guts. But then, the Gujju gal doesn’t even have the $25 she needs to enter the game at the table. Our lady does a James Bond, like it or not. She also gets the guy.

That’s where all the trouble begins. The addiction to gambling, losing money, trouble. Wanting to win it all back but no money to stake. Trouble. Using up all her savings just to play a few more hands, no luck. Trouble. Losing all money, landing in the hands of a loan shark, Trouble. That’s what Praf is. She doesn’t hedge her bets, doesn’t listen to her parents, doesn’t settle down with a boy to make sev-tameta nu shaak for the rest of her life, no wisdom coming with age. Instead, she goes on to single-handedly rob a few banks to earn the nickname Lipstick Bandit.

The character of Praful Patel is inspired by the story of the ‘Bombshell bandit’, Sandeep Kaur, who went on a 5-week long bank robbing spree because she was pushed to the brink to pay off loan sharks she had used to fuel her gambling addiction. One has to say, the story is interesting. Has it been executed well? Yes, mostly.

Kangana is the queen of nuance. She’s as usual, great. The performances are good. The story has its dense details – a close-knit but unhappy family. A difficult, tension-filled father-daughter relationship. Sweet moments with the boy Praf’s parents are trying to set her up. All good. But the film lacks the aha moment – when you experience the character so strongly you identify with her emotions. ‘English Vinglish‘ was full of such moments, so was ‘Queen’, to name a few. They had a very strong screenplay. Also, Simran felt a tad bit longer than it absolutely needed to be.

Now for the ham scenes: Luckily in the case of Simran, all the ham scenes happened outside of  and after the movie. I say luckily because otherwise, the film would have been that much longer and would have had to somehow feature Barkha Dutt and Rajat Sharma. That was me popping the lighter vein. One thing though: In terms of matter and gravity, I daresay the ham scenes overshadowed the movie itself. Kangana is an unbelievably strong contender for the solid ‘hero’ crown and she doesn’t even need to earn it. She has proved she has a vagina, and her films are the least of it. And as far as item numbers go, why can’t they be more like the AIB video/song?

In that sense, I’m rooting for every Praf, Tanu, Datto, and Rani that Kangana plays.

Now for a miss: There was much talk of Kangana adding this ‘sexual’ ‘edge’ to her character. That Praf actually likes sex. I would have thought that puts her in the ‘human’ category but in the Indian film industry and the larger Indian society, this is what makes news. You can probably hear a dilliwali aunty (no offence meant to Dilli, Dilliwalas, and aunties – it’s the combination here) scoffing a “Haw!! This girl likes sex!”

If you’re going to the hall thinking you’ll see some exciting moment there, say hello to disappointment. It’s a bit scene where Praf likes a guy, pursues him quite decently, I’d say ladylike manner but that would run afoul of the definition of ladylike. Ladylike and sex don’t mix. To be a lady, step 1: you shun your human nature for the divine. Anyway, Praf takes the guy to bed. No great shakes there, as you will find out. But, this ‘controversy’ is also why Simran is larger than life as a movie. It has set a lot of people talking. And some people squirming after being kneed in the nuts.

That this sort of thing is one of the firsts in the industry is probably why I’d give kudos to Simran. Thank you Praf, for being there. And thank you Simran, for being there.

Simran

 

Lucknow Central! You’ll need good luck

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Lucknow Central? So here’s a line from the film: There’s no justice. It’s either good luck or bad luck. Good advice if you’re planning to go watch it.

Because, there’s going to be no justice done to your time, money, or hopes. If you’re lucky, your cable operator wallah will call up during the show to discuss your latest plan and I suggest you do so in detail; if not, you’ll end up watching until the part where Farhan decides NOT to scale the walls of Lucknow Central Jail so that he can *** wait for it *** realize his dreams of playing in the jail’s band, of which HE is the only member who is even slightly tolerable, musically speaking.

Besides, he’s a convict, jailed and all, and I’m sure by now the government has his #Aadhar number. It’s not like he has any real, valid, comfortable career choices, except that he knows that he’s Farhan Akhtar in real life playing Kishen here and therefore, need not take the burden of thinking ‘Log Kya Kahenge’. He need not reason that the cops and the system don’t give two flying fucks about his band and his dreams and be they realized or not, they’re going to try their utmost to see that he gets back into the jug.

But, instead of thinking all of the above through, the makers invested all that time and energy into making sure that every single convict looks well-groomed, so well-groomed in fact, that I was expecting them to break out with a Sunny Leone-style ‘Layla’ item song any time now. Strangely it never came. It certainly wouldn’t have felt out of place.

So, banished are the zebra stripe uniforms and so is all the fluff off ALL of the men’s bodies, really ALL, even those who are not Farhan Akhtar (Yeah I noticed it, and so what if I notice such things!!!, huh?) For a long time I wondered which salon & spa services should be considered a product placement here. I kept looking for a clue but later I figured there was no need to split hairs… they were all gone… already… anyway.

This brings me to another funny thing about the movie: product placements. Come on, at least be subtle, man. You’re in a jail, not a mall. Different spelling, see? This Diana Penty is guzzling water from a pink coloured bottle of bottled water, very surreptitiously as if she’s expecting to find a clue in it. Good old H2O is the only thing that appears to be in colour in that scene.

Then there’s a brand of condoms Kishen is carrying in a mug on what seems to be his orientation day at Lucknow Central jail. Enough said.

And then, there’s an ecommerce website where they’re ordering stuff from, sitting in Lucknow Central Jail. Musical instruments C.O.D. Little Kishen and Gayatri opening those branded boxes as if kids opening their gifts from Santa on a Christmas morning. All this happening inside of Lucknow Central. The Lucknow Central jail. The flipping Lucknow Central Jail. Who cares about Log Kya Kahenge?

You know but I’ll tell you what: there’s a certain charm about these movies set in places like Lucknow. A non-metro no-nonsense real flesh-and-blood non-Karan Johar kind of charm. You’ll find it in tiny details and the ambience – like the lota party in ‘Toilet’, the lovela sweets in ‘Bareilly ki Barfi’… and the accent, Oh, the accent. Like how Rajkumar Rao did it in Bareilly, or how Usha Buaji in Lipstick under my burkha. Alia Bhatt and Shahid Kapur in ‘Udta Punjab’. It shows a certain commitment to the role. You won’t see that here. Kishen doesn’t care. He’s here to realise his dreams. Not his job to convince you, me, that he’s from Uttar Pradesh.

In Lucknow Central I found only about three things that had something to do with UP: Raja Bhaiya, Ravi Kishen, and a shot of my favourite dish Baati-Chokha. There was the jail signboard, not to forget.

Now comes the best part: The HAM scenes.

It’s my favourite part of any movie. This one had some but certain opportunities were missed, however. When Kishen is put in jail, his father is nowhere around to provide some worthy hamming and moral support. None of that jeep pulling away… tch! From undertrial to convict in a few seconds, facing capital punishment, Kishen keeps his smile on, even tells Gayatri to keep smiling. From being beaten within an inch of his life to being confined to a dark dungeon, Nothing. Kishen’s “rockstar” dreams crushed. Nothing. Being starved in jail. Nothing. Threatened. Nothing. Opportunities missed all through.

Once in a while a real ham comes along: One of Kishen’s band mates gets out on parole, to meet with his ‘girlfriend’ with whom he had been chatting all along from inside the jail (Don’t ask how, since convicts are not supposed to have a cellphone. Corruption, that’s how). He finds out she’s “settled”, with a bun in the oven. The guy is mighty pissed. How dare this woman go ahead and get a life while he is here serving a life sentence, doing her a favour talking to her and thinking only of her!!! How dare she! Angered, he tells her to get out of his sight lest he should kill her. Score!

The final one comes along when Kishen and his rock band is this close to making their plan a success. But if I tell you what happens next, this sequel to Rock On (jailhouse rock version) will lose all its magic. So I won’t.

Enjoy the weekend. Remember: There’s no justice. Only good luck or bad luck.

 

The Computer was a Bullet Train Once

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In India, the last time an international deal drew more attention than any other diplomatic aspect of the visit of an international Head of State was in 2006. US Prez George W Bush signed the Indo-US nuclear deal with Dr. Manmohan Singh being our PM.

This time around, Japan’s Shinzo Abe’s visit has been somewhat overshadowed by the Rs.1lakh crore project which is the Bullet train. It will run between Ahmedabad and Mumbai, cutting the travel time from 8 hours to 2 hours.

And, it has already run into opposition. Judas Priest Bullet Train, that Grammy nominated heavy metal number comes to mind:

Sunrise showing every flaw
Paying for the night before
Dark eyes, scanning every vein
Exploding – cannot stand the strain

With each new mile
They death defy me
Standing on trial
Scrutinize me

And questionize my

Strong denial

Bullet bullet train
Piercing through my brain

The Indian Bullet Train project has a strange bevy of people voicing their opposition: the educated lot, at times the highly educated lot that traditionally always seemed to want more education, more modernity, more technology. Less chaos, less noise, less tradition, less superstition… less of India, to be quite clear. So today if you’re asking what’s new in India? It’s this: 

The same lot that applauds, as it is supposed to, India’s might in the field of space engineering, launching of satellites, Mangalyaan, etc. are now asking if a country where a large population goes hungry to bed every night needs a bullet train.

Changing my course
Blurred and scorched
Breathing exhaust
As we distort

By gravity

Of such G-force

Bullet bullet train
Piercing through my brain

Breakdown close my eyes

Today, the so-called scientific, educated, progressive lot have taken over the jobs of the conservative, orthodox lot who they themselves used to frown upon for exactly this: In a country where people don’t have food, children don’t have schools, the sick don’t have hospitals, do we need a space program?

The question remains the same, the people that are asking it have changed. I have heard of a time when people asked why we needed computers in a country where people don’t have food, children don’t have schools, and the sick don’t have hospitals. Decades later now, political leaders are crediting their party with bringing in computer technology.

Computers came. What has stayed? People who are hungry, children who don’t have schools, the sick who don’t have hospitals. 

In fact, Uttar Pradesh children have been gifted laptops for free, in a state where 4-hour power cuts per day every day are absolutely routine (this observation predates Yogi government but I think it unlikely for the scene to have changed tremendously).

Voices talking many lies
Stained glass bursting in
Shattering my world again
Free fall but never can
Ever reach the ground again
Dark eyes scanning in
Feel my mind explode within

Before this, there was a time when people asked why we needed foreign car manufacturing technology, steel manufacturing technology, and so on. Perhaps, these people are the reason why India depends on others for every flipping thing under the sun: technology for agricultural growth, food storage, defense, computers, education, health, and much more. Because every time that somebody tried to do something in these areas that required any major investment, they brought forth the present: mouths to feed, bodies to clothe and house, sick to care for. Not realising that transforming technology was the one way to actually doing something about it.

Once upon a time, this attitude was seen in other parts of the world. Those people were branded Luddites (In England, where the Luddites originally came into being in the 1800s, they destroyed machinery, particularly cotton and woollen mills, that they saw as threatening their jobs). That happened in 1800s.

But these Luddites of the ‘New India’ are not those Luddites. These Luddites would love going to Japan and rave about its tech infrastructure. They would love to say ‘This kind of progress can NEVER happen in India’. Thing is, when someone tries to bring this technology into India, they’re the ones trying to make their own pronouncements come true. These are the people who think that Indian traditional thought is somehow “not worth it”, not worthy of all these technologies: digital, artificial intelligence, automation, 3D printing, the bullet train.

Also, when they rave about Japanese technology and infrastructure, they forget Japan’s demographic issues and social issues, and uncomfortable history: the society is deeply mired in patriarchy, an ageing population, historic burden of war and guilt of comfort women. There is always a context to any story. It’s not always as linear as the geniuses around us would like to be.

Wanting much more
I implore you
Near to death’s door
To ignore

The screams of all

Who fall before

Bullet bullet train
Piercing through my brain

But, the geniuses have pronounced their judgement and that’s it. The nuclear energy deal wasn’t much of a problem; in fact, the same Luddites went gaga over it, calling it a product of a strategic relationship with a superpower that India needed on her side.

One is prompted to ask, therefore, is this really about the project or the man who is rolling it out? Sadly, those taking the credit for bringing into the country the two main technologies that have transformed our lives: telephone and computers, also the space research, have decided to draw the line – THIS FAR AND NO FURTHER. The Bullet Train is taking it too far.

Internet: yes

Technology: yes

Space research: yes

Bullet Train: NO. Because people don’t have food, children don’t have schools, the sick don’t have hospitals, the society doesn’t have tolerance.

Bullet bullet train
Piercing through my brain

In effect, THEY want to be the ones to decide how much technology is enough. How much public good is good enough. The only thing that they fail to answer is how is it then, that people don’t have food, children don’t have schools, the sick don’t have hospitals? Even after 70 years?

Have you seen a more inefficient lot? 

Why should the people listen to such an incompetent, inefficient bunch?

You could either use the Bullet bullet train… to understand or we can all quietly chug along the merry old ‘chhuk chhuk chhuk’ and enjoy the ‘Chhaiya Chhaiya’ of these Luddites of the New India.

Unless they take matters in their hands and decide to feed, clothe, protect, educate, and employ the poor, build hospitals and schools that we need. Now that’s a fine thought! Bullet Train