Monday, April 30, 2012

Simply ‘Marvel’lous!

(Published in The New Sunday Express, on 30 April 2012, retrieved from

Cast: Samuel L Jackson, Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Tom Hiddleston
Director: Joss Whedon
Rating: 4 stars
When four superheroes who’ve had their own films – Thor, Captain America, Iron Man, The Hulk – and two who haven’t yet starred in Hollywood productions – The Black Widow and Hawkeye – come together to save the world, you know it’s going to be the biggest darned movie of the year. If you’re a Marvel fan, you’re worried that it may not do justice to your superheroes. Thankfully, Joss Whedon is one of us, and he steers the camaraderie and the individualism with masterful direction.
And for those who’ve never heard of Asgard, The Avengers offers enough to make them want to enter a universe where bizarrely-clad folks consistently save the world from glib criminals who sneak away little cubes that double as portals to outer space.
There isn’t much to the story. The high-maintenance Loki, estranged adoptive brother of the noble-but-troubled Thor, gets his hands on the Tesseract, and S.H.I.E.L.D. boss Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) deputes his best men – and woman – to claim it back and protect the world.
What could so easily have become just another spectacle with expensive action sequences, an overdose of graphics, and a flood of testosterone is moulded into a film that combines dazzling effects with scintillating repartee. All the while, it basks in the kitsch that makes these evergreen heroes, umm, evergreen.
They’re all conflicted individuals, driven by their strengths as much as their weaknesses, and when they come together, they don’t make a team. To quote the film, they’re a time bomb. The film is particularly well-executed in this aspect. The banter and jousting never seem forced, and the characters drive the situations. As if the coming together of six people used to taking charge weren’t bad enough, their personalities are woefully at variance – which makes for lovely clashes, when they’re as well-scripted as these.
Particularly enjoyable is Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man ribbing Chris Evans’ Captain America. Iron Man’s conversations with The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) are far more loaded with subtext. The Hulk has been played by three remarkable actors so far, and Ruffalo owns him as much as Eric Bana and Edward Norton did. Tom Hiddleston, reprising his role as Loki, makes for one of the best bad guys we’ve seen on the big screen of late, and I can’t wait to see him in Thor 2 next year.
Whedon leaves his mark in sequences that seem to subvert themselves. Watch out for the one where Scarlett Johansson is trapped, and the one where The Hulk undergoes a transformation. For all these little touches, this film is a good old summer blockbuster, a celebration of computer graphics and special effects that are meant to be lapped up in 3D. Make sure you don’t miss the end credits!
The Verdict: Start lining up at the ticket counters. This is the sort of movie that’ll make you walk out of the theatre spouting all the monosyllabic exclamations we usually attribute to teenagers.

Striking home with maudlin

(Published in City Express, The New Indian Express on 28 April, 2012, retrieved from

Cast: Thomas Horn, Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, Max von Sydow, Viola Davis
Director: Stephen Daldry
Rating: 3.5 stars
There’s a lot about Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close that begs a raised eyebrow. What is a 9/11 movie doing in 2012? Jonathan Safran Foer started writing the 2005 novel the film’s based on sometime in 2001, I suppose, and the moviemakers read and liked it years later. But here’s the thing about this film – it isn’t really a 9/11 movie. Yes, someone dies in 9/11, but it’s about a death that doesn’t make sense, about an empty coffin, the molecules of whose intended occupant are scattered all over Manhattan.
The book and the film haven’t received the best reviews, especially in America, where critics find Foer’s “milking” of 9/11 distasteful. Whose story is 9/11? Whose story is 26/11? If you like labels, you could call such an event ‘turning point’ or ‘national tragedy’ or ‘historic catastrophe’. You could use the more banal ‘terror attack’. You could say it’s nobody’s story to tell, or you could say it’s everybody’s story.
Being narrated by a 9-year-old who may have Asperger’s disease allows the dialogue to marry clichés with intelligent asides. And so it is that Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn) can say, without flinching, “If the sun were to explode, you wouldn’t even know about it for eight minutes because that’s how long it takes for light to travel to us. For eight minutes the world would still be bright and it would still feel warm.” And his quest to find the lock that fits a key he has stumbled upon is all about extending those eight minutes – it becomes the last “reconnaissance expedition” with his father, the man who sent him searching for the missing sixth borough of New York, and who challenged him to find something from every decade in the twentieth century.
The film makes you think about what happens when you lose the rock in your life. When one person holds a family together, does his or her absence bring the bereaved closer, or push them apart? The film needs to be seen as a fable, though – it hinges on impractical possibilities, and were it a true story, it would give Social Services, photographers, artists, pragmatists, futurists, mapmakers and sundry others palpitations.
One only wishes it had been less garrulous. Its most powerful performance comes from the mute Renter (Max von Sydow), while the multiple-award-winning Horn struggles to hold his own among the likes of Sandra Bullock and Tom Hanks, for all his well-timed snarky comebacks and natural facial expressions. There are times when the dialogue gets cloying, and the intensity of its central character begins to grate. I mean, there’s only so much nastiness one can take from a kid, even if he’s snarling in the aftermath of a traumatic event. A nuanced script that breaks sentimental rants with sudden spots of humour is somewhat undermined by syrupy reflections and shrieks like, “Don’t be disappointed in me!” However, a film about picking up the pieces will stray into formula, and you know it’s effective when it makes you well up.
The Verdict: Even though you may guess the end, and parts of the film do stretch, it does draw you in. Go with a box of tissues.

Tezz? Dheema, more like!

(Published in The Sunday Guardian on 29 April 2012, retrieved from

Cast: Ajay Devgn, Anil Kapoor, Boman Irani, Mohanlal, Zayed Khan, Kangana Ranaut, Sameera Reddy
Director: Priyadarshan
Rating: 1 star
When a film begins with stubble on a man, spittle from a woman, and bad cops in a London courtroom, and ends with an exchange between sentimental desi terrorists and patriotic desi cops, you kinda figure why no one wants Indians around. If you don’t give us work permits, we’ll bomb your country. Or, as Anil Kapoor puts it, we’ll “bombbbbb” your country. And it’s all your fault, you racists!
I honestly have no clue where to begin. Do I go with Kangana Ranaut’s delicate fainting act after the London Metropolitan Police hit her? Or this handy lesson – you can avoid deportation by bashing up the cops who punch your wife?  Or do I begin with my deductions? A man with a hooked nose and a hoodie, who says “inshallah”, has to be a terrorist. If a guy points a gun at you and says “show me the money”, you can bully him into submission by biting out, “show me the stuff”. Bobbies are evil, bobbies are racist, bobbies go to nightclubs in bulletproof vests, bobbies are the new daddies. And you can give the Metropolitan Police the slip by going to Desi Clubwhere a skimpily clad chick purrs, “Do you wanna get hot? Do you wanna get wet?” as she jolts her way through epileptic dance moves.
Do I skip to the godawful graphics and the unbelievably terrible timing of the one song? See, this movie has more wrinkles than music. Don’t anyone dare say “no country for old men” when Ajay Devgn, Anil Kapoor (complete with Brit-Americo-Indian accent), Mohanlal and Boman Irani can be the Fantastic Four! Of them, Irani oozes the most sex appeal.
This is an innovative film, though. What do you do to make aging men run fast? Fast forward your tapes, never mind if tree leaves go hyper, police car lights blink maniacally, and passersby walk like they’re in a Charlie Chaplin movie. This could also be the first film that manages to make every motor chase boring. Poor Sameera Reddy can’t rescue them for all the catsuits and cleavage in the world. Neither can Zayed Khan, despite landing on a boat with a dull thump that makes you think, “isska lineage toh khatam ho gaya.” It’s definitely the first movie in which I’ve seen Mohanlal flail.
The Verdict: The best thing about this Speed-inspired film is we’re spared the sight of Boman Irani and Mohanlal making out with the train drivers at the end.

Superhero Reunion

(Published in The Sunday Guardian on 29 April 2012, retrieved from

Cast: Samuel L Jackson, Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Tom Hiddleston
Director: Joss Whedon
Rating: 4 stars
The audience at my screening comprises the groups I expect it to – comic convention regulars who can recall every panel of everyMarvel superhero book, teenagers who’re prepping to become cool geeks, couples who believe a superhero movie is healthy for infants and film critics who’re looking warily at the rest.
A superhero film that brings together six powerhouses, of whom four have had their own films, is bound to be an orgy of catsuits, fake muscles, noise, CGI, and some kind of radiation. The crowning achievement of Joss Whedon’s The Avengers is giving everyone some preen time in the film’s two-and-a-half hours, even while bolstering the watery plot with witty dialogue, philosophical contemplation, and a guest appearance by Stan Lee, whose line will make the comic-literate chortle.
Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man pretty much owns the film, courtesy his repartee with Captain America (Chris Evans) and The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). Chances are you’ll enjoy the ego clashes more than the storyline, with its good-wins-out theme. I mean, the plot revolves around the borderline gay adoptive brother of the noble superhero wanting to take over the world after obliterating most of it. The good thing is, the writer-director seems to be laughing at the kitsch of it all.
Only in a comic could a body like the S.H.I.E.L.D be entrusted with the protection of a power-heady cube that’s surging with inexhaustible energy, and is coveted by the power-hungry supervillain. I mean, even Tolkien only needed hairy-legged little people traversing mountains. Of course, Iron Man, The Hulk, Captain America, Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) get a super-cool flying battleship. Loki (Tom Hiddleston) gets some nice lines and temporary possession of Tesseract.
You know the rest, don’t you? One or both of the superheroes who haven’t had their own film thus far has to be kissed by someone. Scarlett Johansson has to be part of an S-and-M style interrogation. Iconic buildings will go down. There will be Germans...whaa? Nevermind.
So Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), Lord of the S.H.I.E.L.D, assembles his best men and hottest woman to save Manhattan (and therefore the rest of the world). What follows is an adrenaline fest of which the most emotional part is a fan-crush, and whose most cheerful character is a villain who declares, “I am burdened with a glorious purpose.” Yes, the superhero propensity for depression could make Nietzsche and Sartre look upon the lot with pitying eyes as they burst bubble wrap and munch cotton candy together.
The Verdict: What’s not to like about a superhero slamathon?

Friday, April 27, 2012

Sachin for President, Rekha for Speaker

(Published in on 27 April 2012, retrieved from

(Photo Courtesy: Unauthorised reproduction of this photograph is prohibited.)

“What do you think of the Unfollow Sachin trend on Twitter?”
“Umm, I wasn’t too concerned about that. I was fighting nightmares about a wrinkles-and-white-hair-tainted Silsila when the nominations for Rajya Sabha were announced.”
“Okay, so there was this Unfollow Sachin trend because he was nominated.”
“As in, people want him in the Air Force or Army or whatever he’s been given an honorary rank in, and they want him scoring hundreds of hundreds, but they don’t want him sitting in the Rajya Sabha?”
“I suppose it goes to show that people’s love of Sachin is overshadowed by their disgust with the netas.”
“I think they should make Sachin President.”
“Of the Congress?”
“Of the nation. Please, he’s a Tendulkar, not a Gandhi. It’s about time we had a young one, no? A young President of the Nation, just so we’re clear.”
“Well, we can be relatively sure he won’t forget to salute the flag on his foreign trips.”
“Plus, he looks rather more dapper in military uniform than Pratibha Patil.”
“And, this could be his surest shot at cornering the Bharat Ratna.”
“But we’re being facetious now.”
“We’re always facetious.”
“No, dude, this is an important decision for me. I’ve taken into account the all-round potential for India’s growth in economy, diplomacy and society before coming up with that.”
“You were fantasising about two old women dancing around an old man before coming up with that.”
“Please, Rekhaji is never old! In fact, I think the only way to get the Houses to shut up would be to make her Speaker. More on that later. For now, Sachin. Can you think of anyone else who’s as caste-free, class-free, gender-free, allegiance-free as Sachin? He unites the nation in a way that only anti-gay activism can. Look at the potential for societal growth, for that melting pot we’ve been aspiring for. And because it’s a nominal role – hahaha, pun intended – there’s no question of politics coming into this thing, right?”
“Oh, I get where you’re going now. Think of how much our laws will be worth once he’s signed them!”
“Yeah, and his signature’s on Wikipedia anyway, so anyone can forge it if the issue gets contentious, na?”
“Do you think any issue that requires Presidential consent gets contentious?”
“Will he have to handle the pardoning of the Rajiv Gandhi murder case convicts etcetera?”
“Oh, I suppose he’ll have high-level talks with Muthiah Muralitharan or something.”
“Yes, that brings me to another point. Our government specialises in cricket diplomacy, right? As in, whenever we’re pissed off with some country, the first thing we do is stop playing cricket with them.”
“That makes our government sound a little infantile, no?”
“Oversimplification is the shortest route to a solution. Amateur political analysts should know that.”
“Touché. So, where are you headed with the cricket diplomacy?”
“I suppose we can make peace with all our ‘enemy’ countries by playing friendlies with them.”
“No, ya, that will only lead to controversy. Like, will they be official or not? Will Sachin’s hundreds in them count or not? Besides, how do you decide who wins? Does India win if India wins, or if the President scores a century?”
“You’re right. Maybe they should decide the winner with the coin toss.”
“Hey, do you think India and Pakistan will become frands if Imran Khan comes to power there, and Sachin comes to power here?”
“Please. We’re having a serious discussion here. Don’t bring Imran Khan into it.”
 “All right, fine. Sachin for President. Now, let’s move on to Rekha for Speaker.”
“Can’t you see her leaning into the mic. and saying shanti ho jaiye?”
“No, but I can see her smiling and lifting a bejewelled hand at the House before bringing it to her lips to imply shanti ho jaiye.”
“See, Rekhaji makes you spout bad poetic phrases.”
“I can also see her saying, ‘But doctor, what about my scars?’”
“Yeah, that’s the downside. Somehow, the bad dialogues are the only ones you remember with Rekhaji. Like that other one in Kamasutraabout the lower lip being more sensitive.”
“I’m embarrassed to admit I actually tried it. I think it’s true.”
“But the good thing is, if the House refuses to shut up, she could always get up and dance.”
“The bad thing is, Vidya Balan will probably try to follow her into the House too.”
“Well, that’s not so bad for the government. Sabyasachi Mukherjee’ll probably make Didi smile with a new wardrobe, you know.”

Monday, April 23, 2012

May his tribe increase!

(Published in The Sunday Guardian on 22 April 2012, retrieved from

Cast: Aayushman Khurana, Annu Kapoor, Yami Gautam, Dolly Ahluwalia, Kamlesh Gill, Jayanta Das
Director: Shoojit Sircar
Rating: 4 stars
When I saw the trailer, my first thought was, “Whaa, we actually have a film about sperm donation?!” Do we dare hope for anotherDelhi Belly? I then wondered whether Vicky Donor = VD was some kind of subtext. Turns out former VJ Aayushman Khurana’s big screen debut is a mostly hilarious flick about, umm, good breeding, no contact.
So, you know a Delhi boy called Vicky – whose mommy’s called Dolly – has to be Punjabi, right? As we wait for Sunny and Bunty to show up, we learn Vicky wants a job that’ll give him “respect” and “class” – instead, he finds one that’ll give him offspring, but more on that later. As I was saying, he’s one of those Delhi boys who won’t get into the family business, and bum around waiting for fate to turn their life on.
Fate takes the form of Dr. Chadha (Annu Kapoor) of Chadha Fertility Clinic, who stalks him with the manic determinedness of a sperm collector. And on merit of his lineage, personality, sporting ability and so on, Vicky’s (Aayushman Khurana’s) life is pretty much about being turned on. Between Dr. Chadha’s attempts at persuading an astonished Vicky into going forth and multiplying, and Khurana’s baffled expressions (not least at the décor of Dr. Chadha’s car and office), the pre-interval half has you cracking up every couple of minutes.
But when the hero starts sauntering around CP with sari-clad Ashima (Yami Gautam), you know the story will lag at some point. Not much, though, and the credit for that should go to a screenplay that constantly tickles and amuses, crafted by Juhi Chaturvedi. The repartee between Dolly (Dolly Ahluwalia) and her mother-in-law (Kamlesh Gill) is particularly enjoyable.
Which brings us to the language – the Delhiite in me loved the dialogues. Where else would you hear phrases like “non-veg type” or “mummy swear” but from the mouths of Delhi-born folks? The minor characters are instantly likeable – Vicky’s flat-screen-TV-demanding grandmother is a quirky representative of a generation that is more besotted with fancy gadgets than their grandchildren are. Jayanta Das will have you sniggering with his portrayal of the typical Bengali bhadralok.
The downside? There are about eight superfluous songs. And the only one you’ll remember the tune of is Pani da, sung by Khurana himself (Whaa...we have a Bollywood actor who can actually sing, and he’s not Pakistani?! ) Well, that and the ubiquitous Rum Whiskey.
The Verdict: This film has many pluses – among them is that producer John Abraham spares us his facial contortions, stilted dancing, and washboard abs for all but three minutes of the film.

A Tale of Two Idiots

(Published in City Express, The New Indian Express, on 21 April, retrieved from

Cast: Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Ice Cube, Dave Franco, Rob Riggle, DeRay Davis, Brie Larson, Ellie Kemper
Director: Phil Lord, Chris Miller
Rating: 3.5 stars
You know that awkward moment when you find a former schoolmate whom you never really got to know because you never really liked because s/he was never really anything like you is now a colleague? Well, so that’s how Morton Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Greg Jenko (Channing Tatum) reunite, eight years after graduating high school. Geek and jock land up at the same police academy, thanks to the turns life takes.
They never really liked each other, but they never really disliked each other, so they bumble along till they botch up the one interesting incident on their beat. They arrest druglord Domingo (DeRay Davis), but have to let him go on a technicality, and that spins them into a world of psychedelia and trauma – either because of their ineptitude, or luck, they’re reassigned to 21, Jump Street, a division of the police that specialises in infiltrating high schools for drug busts. Their boss, the aptly named Captain Dickson (Ice Cube) makes a great show of his incredulity at the existence of two such imbeciles.
So, Schmidt and Jenko are asked to go undercover at a high school, which Domingo is believed to have ties with. Conveniently, they went to the same high school, located within shouting distance of the Schmidts’ home. They move in with Schmidt’s parents, and pretend to be brothers. Predictable running gags follow. And since all of this ultimately has to do with geek living jock’s life and vice versa, revelations and showdowns follow.
The high school staples make their way here – the PE teacher who witnesses everyone’s goofballness (Rob Riggle), a lusting schoolteacher who fancies her students (Ellie Kemper), the cooler-than-cool popular guy (Dave Franco), the beautiful-but-sweet popular girl (Brie Larson), and the bad guys on bikes that the cool guys in school get mixed up with.
Thanks to Jenko’s paucity of cognitive skills, he and Schmidt end up rewriting their own lives by living each other’s, in their second tryst with high school. While at it, they get deeper into the drug-dealing business than they intended. Naturally, Schmidt ends up doing the dangerous stuff, while Jenko gets slightly effeminised, what with playing Peter Pan and whining after he eavesdropped on Schmidt dissing him.
The humour is mostly slapstick, but there are a couple of lines that will make you laugh out loud, and the dialogue delivery from Jonah Hill is especially good. The climactic scenes are nicely timed, though some of the action sequences – like most film action sequences – are rather too long, and you’re waiting for what you know will happen to happen.
Of course, a Hollywood action comedy is usually covered in bubble wrap, and this is no exception. But, it doesn’t grate, and we get some relief from an unexpected cameo.
The Verdict: Both the films I watched on Friday followed the idiot-saves-the-day formula, but I found this one far more entertaining.

Battleship: Fighting aliens with bad puns

(Published in City Express, The New Indian Express, on 21 April 2012, retrieved from

Cast: Taylor Kitsch, Liam Neeson, Brooklyn Decker, Alexander Skarsgård, Rihanna,Tadanobu Asano
Director: Peter Berg
Rating: 2 stars
What do you expect from a movie that begins with a wooing-gone-wrong centred around chicken burrito, and, going by its name, will eventually involve aliens-gone-bad landing on the planet and attacking American soldiers for all they’re worth?
Of course, the wastrel who’s in trouble with cops at the start has to turn hero. Of course, he has a solid-as-a-rock brother (called Stone). Of course, the noble leaders have to die. Of course, the hot chick has to end up with the hero. Of course, Liam Neeson is hot. Sigh. Liam Neeson in uniform is hotter. Bigger sigh. Huh? Back on track. Of course, the dialogues have to be awful. Of course, the acting has to be wooden. Of course, the clichés and excruciating wordplay will ram down harder and faster than alien missiles. Of course, this includes sworn enemy heroes turning BFFs. Of course, this also includes a rusty ship and its rustier crew coming to the rescue. Of course, at the end, you’re wondering whether you should stand up and sing the American national anthem.
Full disclosure: I don’t play video games, and I had no clue this film was based on one till my brother told me so, with extreme disgust. What I like most about video games is that the Princess isn’t seen unless the player is truly skilled (That still holds, right?) But here, we run into Samantha Shane (Brooklyn Decker) up front. I honestly wish we had action movies sans women. Especially sans daughters of tough seamen who double as nurses for daddy’s friends. Another thing about video games is that the enemy will hunt you down. Here, this largely incompetent guy sneaks into the camp and makes away with this crucial thingy, and the alien who spots him just stops short of lighting up a ciggie and whistling.
Like you need me to tell you the plot. Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch) is a firebrand – and nincompoop. His chick is pretty. His bro is awesome. Her dad is scary – and hot. He’s Admiral Shane (Liam Neeson). Hopper gets into a brawl with the captain (Tadanobu Asano) of a Japanese ship. They both get into a brawl with aliens whom the NASA has sent out a mating call to.
Yes, there are spectacular sets and an overdose of CGI. But the movie is painfully long. I mean, two hours and eleven minutes. Twenty years ago, Shahrukh Khan would’ve stuttered his way through pissing off his heroine, endearing himself to her, and impressing her parents in that time. And Liam Neeson, who’s the only leer-worthy individual in this film, doesn’t appear quite as much as I’d’ve liked. Throw in Rihanna and AC/DC guitar riffs, and you realise why the producer decided to direct the film himself – it has to be the most expensive alien movie made, and that’s saying something.
Verdict: If you’re out of something to watch, well, leave your brains behind at the ticket counter, and you’ll probably enjoy it. Or, buy last row corner seats for yourself and a partner, and chances are you’ll probably enjoy it more.

Slapstick, salvaged

(Published in The Sunday Guardian on 22 April 2012, retrieved from

Cast: Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Ice Cube, Dave Franco, Rob Riggle, DeRay Davis, Brie Larson, Ellie Kemper
Director: Phil Lord, Chris Miller
Rating: 3.5 stars
I must confess I expect very little from a movie whose poster has two men striking poses with guns. That could be why I found 21 Jump Street surprisingly good. From trailers and previous experience, I expected this return-to-high-school comedy involving a jock-nerd pairing to hinge on bad hairstyles, romance with teachers, and camp humour.
Yes, there’s all that – beginning with a police captain called Dickson (Ice Cube) – but there’s enough entertainment on the side. This is no tribute or sequel to the original TV series starring Johnny Depp, and the only callback to it is a nice touch towards the end.
Morton Schmidt (Jonah Hill), like anyone with a Jewish-sounding name in a Hollywood movie, is brainy, while Greg Jenko (Channing Tatum), like anyone with an Italian-sounding name in a Hollywood movie, is cool. Here’s where the movie sidesteps the formula – Jenko doesn’t actively bully Schmidt. They belong to enemy classes, but are not personal enemies, and barely meet. The prologue is, thankfully, kept tight, just long enough to give us a little context and a few laughs.
Eight years later, guy-who-can’t-ask-out-a-girl-to-save-his-life and dude-who-has-the-key-to-every-burger-joint-in-the-city-but-can’t-count-to-three-without-thinking meet. And become friends. With Schmidt’s brains and Jenko’s brawn, they can conquer the world, they think – but find out they can’t even patrol a park.
They get assigned to an undercover operation in a high school, on the premise that they look young enough, not. As if to make the disguise even more bizarre, they decide to go with being brothers. The awkwardness of people trying to fit back into eight years ago isn’t overdone, but isn’t overlooked either.
The dialogues make you break into grins, and the casting complements them. Channing Tatum can never look anything but the jock – the movies where he’s playing ‘sensitive’ roles make me want to put a bullet through my laptop. In comedy though, his blank expression could pass for good acting. Jonah Hill, even minus all that lard, provokes endearment from sympathy.
The film is far from free of cliché – there is the inevitable fresh start routine. And a step-into-the-other’s-shoes routine, which would have been excruciating with poorer screenplay. All this is tied in with a drug bust, so there are high-speed chases, dangerous-looking bad guys, and a party where everyone gets wasted, following which there are confrontations. But the film is rescued by its treatment.
The Verdict: 21 Jump Street is a fun, easy watch that never gets boring.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Liar, liar, pants on fire: Politicians and porn

(Published in on 19 April, 2012, retrieved from

(Picture Courtesy: Unauthorised reproduction of this image is prohibited.)

In a less prudish world, where people are less likely to be arrested for suggesting it, the Congress might as well thumb its nose at the BJP. “You guys only watch it, we do it!”
I mean, there was Narayan Dutt Tiwari’s sex scandal, and it hit our screens when he was – shudder – 84. Now, there’s Abhishek Manu Singhvi’s CD. Naturally, it was “doctored”.
And these “doctored” tapes were disseminated by a former driver, who was reportedly cheesed off because (a) the Singhvis didn’t pay him in proportion to their own earnings (b) his wife was allegedly slapped by his employers when she was pregnant, and he believes this caused his child to be mentally challenged.
Next, the driver, Mukesh Kumar Lal, was reported to have filed a statement before the Delhi High Court saying he had bought four “distorted” CDs from a shopkeeper in Bihar – yes, Bihar – to distribute to media houses.
Meanwhile, Twitter went crazy, with one woman claiming to know the woman in the CD – well enough to place her age accurately in the “40s to 50s” bracket. Wow. And apparently, she is influential enough to become a judge without Mr. Singhvi’s help. Wow again. I’m pretty sure my school Civics textbook made judgeship out to be a rather tedious process that didn’t involve sex.
But leave all that aside. This business of the doctored CD. Honestly, WHAT are we supposed to believe? That this shopkeeper in Darbhanga has a “guy” who films random people fornicating, another “guy” who Photoshops the likes of Abhishek Manu Singhvi into it, and another “guy” who brings it to his store, where he can sell these godawful tapes? Who’s his target audience – disgruntled domestic help? What does he sort them by – age, party, profession, attractiveness?
All right, let’s leave him to his indices. So, we’re supposed to believe it so happens that this shopkeeper had a doctored CD of Abhishek Manu Singhvi lying in wait for his annoyed driver, who happens to be passing through Darbhanga, just in case Mr. Lal feels like releasing these “fake” images to the media?
No wonder he was feeling unwell at the thought of the press conference for the party briefing. I’d feel pretty sick too. I mean, all those journalists with their accusatory questions and unwavering eyes and polished shoe-missiles. You never know, right.
I was quite unaffected by all this until a friend decided to send me this sneak peek into the dirty laundry – or lack thereof – of Mr. Singhvi. Oh, dear God. Of course I clicked. And I find myself wondering what there is in men that makes them want to dispose of their trousers for television.
Remember that infamous interview where Karan Thapar made Kapil Dev cry? And then the camera zoomed out to show us he was wearing boxers under that crisp blue formal shirt, as if to complete his humiliation on TV?
Those of us who are still interested in finding out how Ted Mosby met his children’s mother will know that Robin had a co-anchor who was prone to leaving his trousers behind for the early morning show. Hence, I was paranoid when I began to anchor an early morning show myself. Thankfully, the inclement weather in our Noida studio and, perhaps, good grooming ensured that my male co-anchors always kept their trousers on.
So, was it the balmy summer evening that made Mr. Singhvi drop his pants for television? Was it a subtly obscene gesture aimed at television, as if to say “See, I care so little for your channel, I couldn’t even be bothered with pyjamas. I dare you to look below the surface and figure out whether I’ve got my chaddis on”? Or did he simply forget to wear them?
Thing is, we women can’t really think of an equivalent. We wouldn’t dream of doing the same thing, of course. And it isn’t so much out of modesty, as pragmatic concerns. Men’s legs are always good to go. For us, there’s that ritual of waxing and moisturising and toning and manicuring and nail-polishing. We like to pretend we’re made that way, but really, it’s a lot of effort.
The closest I can think of to undermining one’s top half with the bottom half has to do with slippers. Like most women, I have secretly-worn ugly car-driving slippers and power heels that I claim to be comfortable driving in. There’s been one occasion when I walked into an event wearing an LBD and horrific black sandals with red piping. Naturally, I excused myself to go to the restroom, and returned four inches taller.
But would I go pyjama-less to make a statement on television? Well, I have no occasion to, so let’s put someone else in that place. Would Mayawati have? Hell, no, even her statues needed pyjamas. Not a good one for austerity, that lady.
There’s Didi with her Spartan image. If she were to appear with a sari like the one Lady Gaga made famous, and cycling shorts, it would get our attention, yes – like her combed and oiled hair did when she presented her last rail budget. And chances are, she’ll turn into a style icon.
All of this leads me to think it’s the ironic incongruity between the options men have – shorts, boxers, briefs – and the lack of scope for anything but ridicule that makes them rebel. And then, one feels rather sorry for this subdivision of humankind that spends the first third of its life exaggerating its sexual exploits, and the rest denying them.

Short shadows, long legacies

In an era of mutual back-scratching, where authors give each other’s books – and activism – rave reviews, Aatish Taseer strikes you as one of those people who could call a spade an outdated garden implement that serves little purpose outside idiom.

I’m rather nervous about my interview with Aatish Taseer. For all his almost courtly manners, there’s an undercurrent of impatience, as if his mind’s racing with observations, and filing them away for possible use in his future writing. And in his place, I might be very tempted to caricature the ditzy reporter who called to ask if Aurangazeb Road and Rajesh Pilot Marg were the same. Of course, that would be a rather more charming description than an interviewer who apologised through chattering teeth for landing up ten minutes late, her skin flaking off in the cold. So, when I do find Aatish Taseer’s writer’s den, I ask so many questions about how much his fiction draws from reality that he gets suspicious. We move on to his taste in cinema, his rapport withV S Naipaul, his book covers, linguistic chauvinism, émigré writers, his self-interview which went viral, and everything else that strikes us.  Leaning back against a sofa in a room with soft lighting, arresting artwork and the lovely shades of the Delhi winter glancing in from a rooftop garden, Aatish speaks with refreshing candour, displays a quick wit that seems at odds with the intensity of his writing, and is gamely drawn into some teasing about his good looks.
You debuted with an ambitious non-fiction project, and put a lot of your personal life out there. It usually takes people a while to get comfortable enough with the medium to start revealing so much, doesn’t it?
Stranger to History needed that: because the reason I was travelling was so wrapped up with my personal life, with the discovery of Pakistan, with the discovery of my father – it had prompted the larger journey in some ways, so the two needed to go together, because there was a relationship between them.
But doesn’t the idea of absolute strangers learning so much about you make you feel exposed in any manner?
No. I don’t think of it as particularly intimate. I mean, those were the most basic circumstances and facts surrounding my life, and normally for most people, those facts are quite straightforward – none of it seemed to me very intimate. I don’t feel that someone who’s read Stranger to History knows especially much about me. That’s just one part of my life.
You’ve spoken of how you filter your fiction through the prism of your life, of reality.
What I was talking about was how I sometimes use the prism of non-fiction to begin a work of fiction. And it always creates a surprise, but it’s something so old, you know. I’ve been reading Maugham’s novel Cakes and Ale. And Maugham must have done five novels in which he’s a writer, in which he grew up in the place in which he grew up, in which his parents have died and his aunt and uncle have raised him. All of that is there, and you think oh, this must be Maugham himself. In Razor’s Edge, I think he might actually even be called ‘Mr. Maugham’. And Of Human Bondage, of course, it’s like 100 percent his, it’s something that a lot of writers—including Manto—have done before, and it’s a mistake to believe it’s all real, to believe it’s more than just a prism.
A lot of people do that, though. I’ve noticed you keep getting asked how much of this is autobiographical. Don’t you get sick of it?
I do get a little sick of it, because I don’t want people to miss the fiction. I want people to know that there’s as much deception in fiction as there is in something like a self-interview, you know. (Laughs) People shouldn’t take it on face value, and I think sometimes with fiction, which is not really possible in non-fiction, if you suddenly don’t know where you are…if you find you’ve lost your footing, if your narrator feels unreliable, that’s a good thing. Not, of course, to feel that the writer doesn’t know what he’s doing, but for the reader to be put in places where he’s not quite sure how firm the ground is, that’s a good thing.
Given that you come from such high-profile parentage on both sides, people would probably assume all of your fiction is real. Has that had repercussions?
It never did before. What’s happened this year, by which I mean 2011 really, is that there was a lot of extra information in the public sphere, related to my father’s family. And that, I think, harmed the publication of Noon in India. Elsewhere it was fine, but in India, there was so much extra information about the family that I think it interfered with the kind of readings people could have had. And obviously, I couldn’t have anticipated that. The book was already finished when all that happened, I think that’s actually harmful, because a book, especially fiction, must work in its own circle, must work on its own terms, and if you have too much noise from the outside world, it can spoil a reading.
Yeah, because people are constantly looking to plot who a certain character is, and it needn’t really be anyone.
Yeah. It doesn’t matter though, because if the books survive, then these things always fall away. So, someone coming to Noon in three years or four years or five years is not going to have all of this. They’ll come to it freshly, and it’ll work in its own way, you know.
You’ve led a pretty extraordinary life, from birth, really. I would imagine that one would either not want to bring it into one’s work at all, or explore those circumstances through one’s writing. Did you ever think you might take the former path?
I think that that’s a mistake, especially for a young writer starting out. If your circumstances are complicated or whatever, you must make those journeys to understand yourself well. And it becomes a journey outwards, so Stranger was one kind of book and it was to understand one kind of thing, The Temple Goers was a very different book, very different in colour and feeling and mood, it was aboutdifferent things – it was about Delhi and about class in Delhi – and Noon, which in some ways brought together themes from both books, was in my opinion, a further journey. Sometimes in India, you get a lot of people saying oh, I would never write about the autobiographical. I think that’s a mistake, and I think that can come from not being able to see yourself clearly enough, and you mustsee yourself clearly because it will make it easier for you to see the world clearly. Let me also tell you that if you were to put all of literature together, those books we know of as big books, maybe 25 percent of it is pure imagination. For a writer like Proust, there’s not even a question about it: people spent ages writing books about his models and the people he used. But you see it in someone like Tolstoy as well. To make up the Rostovs, he was ripping up his wife’s family completely. I mean, there is no example I can think of, of a writer who’s had a long career, who doesn’t have a huge portion of his material come from real world circumstances.
Do you think it would be inimical to a writer to be guarded about how much he wants to reveal about his own life and experiences? Or to think about the people who may read it later?
I don’t think about people who may read it later and that sort of thing at all. I think that you should know why you’re writing. I think if your motives are wrong, then it would be bad for the writing. But if something has made a powerful impression on you, then you must write about it. Do what you can to make it hard for people to recognise themselves, but it shouldn’t get in the way of your writing.
Do you avoid talking about the things that you’re writing about? Events, or ideas?
Yeah, that happens. It’s just that if you have a certain idea, it usually has a sort of perfume or mist about it. It’s a very strange experience because it will keep nagging at you, but once you’ve written it out, then the thing that had such a hold on you, suddenly goes quiet, you know; ceases to interest you anymore. And that’s why I don’t want to talk about the things I’m writing about, because I need to work through them in the writing, before I can talk about them. That’s something Nabokov speaks off as well.
What stands out to me about your writing is that it’s an unapologetically privileged point of view, which a lot of Indian writers, especially those who’ve lived abroad and published abroad, tend to avoid. Whereas you speak quite frankly about how this is the way India works.
I’m glad you asked that question. I think that that note of apology to which you refer is problematic, because one is in the business of dealing with things that one knows to be true. And when you’re addressing your material, you should be looking at it clearly. In doing that, you’re showing much more compassion, you’re doing it a greater service than if you’re constantly apologising, which is the smaller thing to do. The bigger thing to do is to look at something frankly, and to write about it in a way that’s believable to people very near to it. It’s the closeness with which you look at something that contains the compassion,that contains the feeling. The good Russian writers, someone like Gogol, for example, paints some of the most heartbreaking portraits of Russia, and yet, you know that in the way he looks at it, is contained his love, his sympathy, his concern. He’s never apologetic about his Russia. And I think that when any writer is properly engrossed in his material, immersed in his material, there’s no question of having to apologise.
How does the West react to it, though?
Well, I completely dismiss the opinion of England. I think of it as a place that has, for the last 100 years, been very important, for voices coming from outside of it. But I think of it now as a terribly diminished place. It’s totally changed, and its perspective can be very destructive to India. It’s always producing these sentimental stereotypes, you know. First, there were mangoes, now there are slumdogs, and England can’t get past that. And that sentimentality is so offensive. India must dismiss that kind of view totally, because when you start to look at yourself in these exotic ways, in terms of mangoes and slumdogs, then your view of your own place becomes distorted, and that’s a very dangerous thing.
I think America’s better at the moment, actually. Probably two of the most serious reviews I’ve had were out of America. There was one in The Daily Beast by Taylor Antrim, who’s a novelist himself, and there was John Freeman, who’s the editor of Granta – his review appeared in a Canadian paper. And those people were coming into it clean, they were coming in just as people who were in the business of judging fiction. It’s not that I had a bigger reception in America; it was just more serious. And I think they understand very well what I’m saying.
It’s worrying how many people here subscribe to that mangoes-and-slumdog idea, as you put it.
I mean, you sometimes feel it’s as if this country is going to be enslaved again, you know. For one, there’s no knowledge of history, there’s a constant amnesia, and the other is this worship of things from abroad. You know, I have a friend in Bollywood, and you should hear his descriptions of it. It’s an industry that’s geared around this vast viewing public of Hindi and Urdu speakers, and they want nothing more than to bypass these people, who have filled Bollywood with energy, and make their “crossover film” or “international film”. I think now there’s an almost apartheid in Bollywood, of English-speakers and non-English speakers. (Laughs) I have friends who go into ads, where they say we’re looking for a Hindi-speaker, and he’ll arrive speaking Hindi. And then he’s told, “ji, agar aap ne pehle angrezi boli hoti toh phir hum kehten ki aap fit ho iss role ke liye”. But because he spoke Hindi first, they felt ki kahin lower class ka hoga. So, that tendency is, in my opinion, the ugliest thing in India. See, you can understand that English has a certain power and people might aspire to it. It’s that other thing, of it coming with a kind of contempt for your own people, that’s very uniquely Indian. It’s something that really holds us back. Because you don’t see that in Russia, you don’t see it in China – the Chinese, God knows they would break your arm if you try to give them advice, from outside, about what they should be doing, what they shouldn’t be doing.
This contempt comes through in the character of Aakash, the gym trainer from The Temple Goers. He keeps saying he wants to “upgrade” himself, and as he does, there’s also this disgust for his own beginnings.
Yeah. I wonder about someone like Aakash. There’s also an Aakash who’s quite sure of who he is, then there’s the kind of deracinated class that he aspires to. You wonder whether India in 20 or 30 years will be Aakash’s country, and the people who allowed themselves to become deracinated will find themselves on the outside. I don’t know, it’s a hard thing to bet on, because you feel that in some ways there’s a kind of promise about someone like Aakash, even though it’s a very uncertain promise. I’d want for India to be a country with many more Aakashes, you know. There would have to be a mechanism or a world in which somebody like that could come in and become who he wants to be, without being constantly made to feel small. That’s one of the things that comes out in the book – Aakash when he’s being nearest himself, is a very compelling character. It’s when he’s adopting roles—and he can do that because he has a sort of protean quality—that he’s most embarrassing.
All your books explore male sexuality in some way – in Stranger to History, you describe a gay club in Istanbul, in The Temple Goers, two men who are in heterosexual relationships share a bathtub, and in Noon, a blackmailer gets raped by another man. It’s not a theme that gets explored a lot in Indian writing. What was the trigger for you to look at this aspect?
Well, let me isolate some of these things. I think especially in The Temple Goers, that male sexuality theme represents something very important, which is the idea of people who are in some ways colonised also finding themselves in some ways effeminised, and that people who have a better hold of who they are, feel they have a kind of power over these people who are effete. And so there is not so much sexual attraction in The Temple Goers as there is sexual intimidation. More generally speaking, I think that this issue of masculinity or whatever is something that might be more present in my writing because of the absence of male role models in my life. So I suppose I’m interested in male power, in strong male friendships, in relationships between brothers, father and sons… that’s probably what comes out in the fiction.
Freud would want to talk to you, I think.
(Laughs) Probably! I don’t know if I’d want to talk to Freud, though.
With the narrator, there’s a sort of spillover in each book. He may not be the same character, but you give him your name in The Temple Goers, and his history carries over to Noon. And then there are journalistic pieces where you refer to people and events that find echoes in your novels. Is this something you do to screw with your readers?
Yes. (Laughs) No, not entirely. Some of it happens accidentally, but I always have in mind this idea of a body of work – not that I know what each part of it will be, but it’s my aspiration to make a body of work that—one day—I would like for my readers to be able to read together. A friend of mine said about Noon, “It’s your best book! But I can’t understand how someone could like it if they haven’t read the first two!” And it was a very nice thing for me to hear, because she liked the third book with her special reading, but obviously the book had reached many people who hadn’t read the first two, and they were able to see it in their own way. If someone were to take the trouble to read all of my books, it would be nice if they could see the remains of one book in another: together it would form a bigger picture, you know.
You get asked a lot about the narrator, and you just spoke about your intended body of work. So is he going to be a constant presence, or are you likely to change him?
Well, with Noon, I felt I was at the end of a vein when I wrote it. I felt that there was an area that needed a certain kind of exploration, and this happens with writing – it’s not that you lose your themes; your main interests will always be there. But you can come to the end of a vein and then you have to move, you have to break ground. And in the next [book]— partly because it’s about a time when this present narrator wasn’t born—my interest has already shifted. Yes: I think there will be different narrators, different characters. For sure.
Has this particular vein been cathartic in that sense, for you?
Not cathartic. I think all writing, if you’re dealing with material that’s close to you, brings you to some kind of resolution.  But see,catharsis is a very specific word, completely locked into a particular literary tradition. And in that sense, catharsis is something that happens to you because of what someone else is doing. It’s from watching tragedy that the audience feels catharsis or whatever. The business of writing which is—when it’s any good—absolutely draining and exhausting, and can leave you, in the end, feeling like you’ve been run over by a bus, is not cathartic. You can feel a sense of achievement; you can feel I’ve worked through this, but no: not catharsis.
Since V S Naipaul has read The Temple Goers, I’d like to know what he thought of the character of Vijaipal.
Ah...he’s not that kind of reader, you know. I mean, he never even mentioned the Vijaipal character. He’s a very critical reader, and so I think the only two nice things he might have said were that it was an ambitious work, which was nice, and I think that he praised the writing. But he was full of technical criticism. The conversation that I had with him...I mean, if I wasn’t prepared to learn from it, could almost have been a wounding conversation. Because he will criticise and criticise and that’s been one of the things that’s so wonderful about knowing him – he’s perhaps one of the most generous people I’ve known, and writers are not always generous. You know, they don’t bother necessarily. Everyone’s working through the same questions, and it’s very rare to have someone who will probe you about things that you’ve done, and then throw light on them with their own experience, so that you, in some ways, have to do less work than you would have had to normally. (Laughs) He shows you a way out, you know.
Is there anything specific that he helped you out with?
I’m talking mainly about technical things. I’ll give you a very good example. There’s a wonderful English novel called Hangover Square, written in the Thirties or Forties (by Patrick Hamilton). And I’d read the novel, and he asked me whether I liked it, and I hadn’t made up my mind. And he said, “I think it’s a very good book”, and he said because right in the beginning, there’s this girl Netta, whom the main character is going to kill – it says very early on in the book, “he had to kill Netta Longdon” – and at the end of this book, which takes you through the dinginess and squalor of London life in the inter-war years, Netta does die. And I think what he [Naipaul] was trying to point out was that it was an example of direct narrative, where right in the beginning, you know what is going to happen and you’re guided constantly by this thread that comes back again and again, and in the end, it’s executed. The book is held together in this way. And I think that that is something that he [Naipaul] values very much in writing: a clear line, you know. Not a book that goes here and there, but where the thread is very taut. And I may not have quite understood what he meant if he had spoken of it in an abstract way. But it was very clear through this example, and he’ll do this – he’ll talk about books in a way that anyone paying attention can learn a few important things. (Laughs)
Are there any specific film directors you like? With a lot of writers, the kind of cinema they watch informs their writing.
Yeah. Well, I watch a lot of Indian stuff, and the director I admire most would probably be Vishal Bharadwaj. Outside, a director I had a kind of obsession about is the Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, working about the same dates as Ray, maybe a little earlier. I watched all of his movies, literally, from the silent movies to the black-and-white to the colour. And then, of course, there’s Ray! I mean, I thinkNayak and Mahanagar, are probably two of my favourite films in the world.
Back to your writing, when you base characters on people you know – or when someone says something that sets off a spark, and leads you to create a certain character, the person who inspired it may recognise, or think he recognises, himself in that character. Do they ever feel betrayed or let down?
Hmm. I think that if somebody is written about, they can feel a bit shocked by that experience, even if they’re written about favourably. My elder brother has been someone I’ve written about both non-fictionally, and to some extent, fictionally as well. And I’ve always been inspired by a great feeling of tenderness for him, whenever I’ve written about him. He didn’t see it that way. You can’t help that, you know.
When fictional elements seep into a real character, do you ever struggle for control? Let’s say you’re basing a character on someone you’re not particularly close to, and he suddenly says something that gives you a new insight into his character, would it confuse you?
Pretty rarely. Pretty rarely, but you know, once you’ve got going, you have quite a deep sense of what people are about, and the pressure of a narrative, of working within a fictional space, is quite strong. It really has its own momentum, and if the outside world is still feeding in, then usually, something’s wrong. Then you’re doing something that is kind of more journalistic than fictional, because a fictional circle is very strange – sometimes you can just get a window into something, and then a character can come out of that, but then the real person, with all the issues of his life, usually falls away. I think it was a filmmaker who said something like, “Every time I see something, and I feel I must put that in my movie, I know I’m doing something wrong.” That’s not how it should be.
If it so happens that something that a character goes through ends up happening to the person who inspired that character, does it ever send you into a panic, like you pre-empted something?
You’re very interested in this question of my models (Laughs). Well, I can only think you’re referring to Noon, and it’s not a panic. But it’s a very disturbing feeling, because usually, if something has made a strong impression, in a way that you can’t really write about it in non-fiction, but it needs the imagination, it’s probably something quite strong. A little grain of truth about that place or that person or whatever, and then if any of that is lived out in real experience, it can always feel a bit sinister.
Well, actually, my question had a far more frivolous origin. I was writing a story where a character sort of reminded me of a co-worker, and umm, both of them ended up getting divorced for exactly the same reason.
(Laughs) Really? Maybe you should send him the story. (Laughs) Plough through it, don’t care. What is one office contact for a good, I’m joking!
Moving on, then. Another thread in your work is this constant inquiry about religion, all religions, and its place in one’s life. Was it the letter your father sent you, or was it the process of writing Stranger to History itself, that crystallised all these questions in your mind?
See, we should make a division between religions like Christianity, Islam and Judaism, and our religions, because there is a difference. But I’m very rarely interested in what is contained in the books of these religions, or in actual worship or faith or practice. And I think this is not because of Stranger, but because I grew up in a Sikh household, and the Sikhs are a very strange kind of religious group in some ways because they have very strong shades of Islam, in the sense that their places of worship have a quality that reminds me of mosques; there’s a strong sense of community; there’s a martial aspect; and there’s a powerful sense of nationhood. And that carries over into the way they see Hindus, the way they see Muslims, and it’s these things, these attitudes, that people get because of being from a religious background, that interest me. Sometimes they can be most pronounced in those people who are not religious. Like my father, for instance, was not a man of religion, and yet, I don’t think that the way that he viewed the past of India, or the way he viewed the struggle in Kashmir or Palestine, or the way he viewed the creation of Pakistan, could be separated from religion. The religion informed those things that were technically outside the faith, and that’s what interested me. Notions of caste in India, for instance. I’m very interested in the way that caste surfaces in India, interested in the way it can exist beneath things that are not obviously about caste. That’s what I try to write about.
In your books, you seem very open to the ideas of different faiths. At the same time, you can be judgmental of certain aspects of religion, of the way in which they’re followed. Do you have a personal perception, or even hope, with regard to the existence of God?
I never even think about it. It never crosses my mind, even. I have no metaphysical curiosity at all. For me, it’s a matter of supreme indifference what happens to us afterwards. I find what happens in the world so engaging and there are so many ways to live life in an ennobling way that don’t relate to God and religion that it always leaves me a little bit bewildered, to tell you the truth—this need for God, you know.
You engage with language in all your books, and sometimes that has to do with religion as well. You speak of a group in Pakistan that wants to publish English books in the Nastaliq script. There’s a man who immolates himself after learning his name has Sanskrit origins. And English is the language that transcends all other barriers to elevate people to a certain social class. Do you think of language as a conquering tool?
Umm, this is a big subject, and it’s a very long, very confusing story that begins sometime in the nineteenth century. The language, especially in the North Indian context of this Hindi and Urdu mixture, was really one language. It was a fluid idiom that became everything from Gujri to Dakkani to Rekhtah, and someone like Ghalib would never have thought of himself in the nineteenth century as an Urdu poet. I believe he used the word only once, and he used it in the masculine gender; the zebaan-e urdu-e mu’alla, the language of the exalted camp/court or whatever: that was how it was known. But there was a programme instituted by the colonial government in the nineteenth century to make a separation.
And people got very attached to these ideas, to on the one hand, purifying that mixed language of its Persian and Arabic borrowings, which was an absurd project. And then there was the even more absurd project in Pakistan, of importing Urdu, and trying to make it more Persian and Arabic. It leads you into a kind of schizophrenia. So, you have this business of khuda hafiz, for instance. Khuda is the Persian word. People in Pakistan make a great point to say Allah hafiz, which is an Arabized version of the same thing. Now, the only reason they have this language—Arabic—in theirs at all is because it fertilised Persian, and came to them through the Persians, and now they’re in the business of removing Persian words because those are no longer pure enough for them. Madness!
I’ll give you another example. There was this minister, a man who was in the same government as my father, and then worked for my father, a real fool called Luqman – the same man, by the way, who’s been leading this campaign against Najam Sethi – a real little thug, and he says to me, very proudly one day, “This word that you have in your language, ‘maha’, you think it’s an Indian word? I’ve just been in Iran, and they have ‘maha’, and it means great!” So it took me a while to understand what he was saying, and then I said, of course, but you understand that India and Persia have an ancient linguistic connection, a pre-Islamic connection, and there are girls called Mitra in Iran? I mean, there’s aab for water, and we have apsu, from which we get apsara, and it goes on and on and on. There are perhaps no two languages closer than old Persian and Sanskrit. And suddenly, this expression of horror crept into his face. Because if it was Pre-Islamic, then the whole point of what he was trying to say broke down.
This kind of schizophrenia was what I was trying to get at – of people forming these identities, and trying to purify language, and ending up in lunatic positions, because you can’t do that in the subcontinent. You’d go mad if you start to do that, especially in North India, where truly a composite language had developed.
In India, there’s a dichotomy between publishing in English and other Indian languages. There are some very intelligent people who read other languages, who would probably enjoy books originally written in English, if they could access them. Does that dichotomy bother you?
Oh, if you knew what an uphill battle it was! Indian language publishing, in Hindi and Urdu, it’s not even worth discussing the state of it.Stranger was published in two Chinese languages. I, myself, worked on a translation of Stranger, and I couldn’t find a Hindi publisher. When I found one, they were talking about a thousand copies. This is not an industry you can think about seriously, you know. I mean, I hear reports of it being better in the South, and Maharashtra and Bengal. Perhaps it is. But see, Kerala has a population twice the size of Holland I think, 40 million people or something like that, with 90 percent literacy. If a book was to succeed in Kerala, it should be able to sell half a million copies. I have never heard of a book like that in Kerala. I don’t think that there are [books like that]. So I think people are being sentimental when they talk about it. Every time say something about the state of Indian languages, people always say, oh, you don’t know, there’s so much happening. I’ve met Hindi writers and Urdu writers who say that, and when I ask them for a reading list, they melt away. When there is writing, and when there’s energy in a language, people find out about it. It’s not something that you can keep secret.
Why do you think the regional language publishing industry is the way it is?
As far as Hindi and Urdu are concerned, I can tell you straightaway what happened, which is that when you had my grandfather’s generation of people, you had people who were bi-, trilingual, easily, effortlessly. My grandfather would have grown up with Arabic, Urdu, and Punjabi, he would have learnt Farsi because it was the language of high literature, and he was the first man out of the subcontinent to be given a Ph.D. in English Literature from Oxbridge. So you can do the math of how many languages he would have had a deep knowledge of. And that generation then produced in India and Pakistan, to a man, people who could only read English, really. You know, some people in my mother’s generation made an effort to relearn language – my father did. But for the most part, that generation lost language. And that same generation is the bedrock of the new middle classes, so immediately, it was as if a whole readership got transferred out of those languages and put straight into English. And the Indian languages haven’t been able to produce a new, reading middle-class as such, you know. Not at least in the North.
You’ve spoken of how India is just beginning to support our authors, and how Indian authors tend to live off the West. When you’re being published there, do your publishers ask you to put in annotations or explanations, so people will understand better?
They’ve been very good like that. In fact, people speak in their reviews about how little is explained. There are sometimes whole passages in Indian languages which I don’t italicise. I don’t write mohalla comma neighbourhood. All of my books have been published in at least three or four places, and Stranger was published in fifteen, and I haven’t put in explanations unless I was trying to make some kind of point. See, if you look at the Russian novelists, by the time we get to Tolstoy, they were completely supported by their own public. And in those translations, you may have footnotes or explanations or whatever about things like orthodox religion, for example. But you don’t really find yourself in need of help, you know. And I feel that with my books, it’s the same thing – if one reader in America is struggling slightly with one thing, well, let him ask around, let him look it up. The fiction shouldn’t be so local that it needs to depend on that [local references]. And I have to say I can’t imagine writing with any readership in mind, so to speak. But on some level, you know, the West still has a very important place for writers in my position, because they’re still willing to pay for writing that comes from very far afield, they’re willing to think seriously about it, they’re willing to criticise it in ways. I mean, India, till not long ago, would haveburied people like Vikram Seth, V S Naipaul and Salman Rushdie. This country is still the great repository of mediocrity, you know. They love you if you’re mediocre. So, don’t think what I was saying was that one can depend completely on India, because one can’t. But, you know, one would like to.
Do you think all the marketing activity and hype surrounding book launches and lit fests has turned writers into an intellectual version of Page 3 celebrities, where they can hardly afford to want privacy?
Oh, not really. You know, I saw Vikram Seth the other day, and he can walk into a drawing room, and people know who he is. He’s a bigwriter, he’s been a writer all his life, and he still has a modicum of privacy. He can still wander the streets of India without being recognised. It’s the filmstars that really have that problem. A friend of mine is dating a Bollywood actor, and once, while we were having lunch, every other person came up, wanting to have a picture taken with him. That, for me, is an invasion of privacy. Writers...we’re lucky if we’re recognised at all, you know. (Laughs)
But you often get asked personal questions by interviewers based on what they think they know of you through the book, or through a character whom they immediately relate back to you. Aren’t you ever tempted to ask people what on earth makes them think they can ask such questions?
No. I think that if you’ve put something out there that’s suggested a question, then people have every right to ask you, and I try to answer as much as I can. They don’t actually know that much, you know. I think my interior life is much bigger than the bit that comes out in the books, so it never makes me feel exposed.
That self-interview of yours went viral because you were so outspoken in your opinions of two people who are seen as particularly important in the Indian literary scene. How has that been received in writers’ circles?
I don’t know. I received a few emails from people, I think. I wrote it in America, and you know, I don’t have much of a hold on Twitter and things like that, but I think that it got reproduced in India, because I got a lot of emails out of India.
I’m asking about that circle because many of them tend to sympathise with particular social causes, and that sort of means they support their fellow-writers who speak up for other causes.
I think that’s wonderful. I mean, writers should take up social causes when they can. I just felt that, where this writer was concerned, I could see to the heart of her politics. And this is, I think, an interesting point, because it’s not about political difference. Now, people like Ghosh and Guha are men of unimpeachable integrity, you know. They may have politics that might differ from yours, but there’s nothing questionable about their motives. But someone like her, I think you can smoke her out pretty easily.
One gets the feeling there’s so much support for her simply because she has this bank of fellow-writers to depend upon.
And a tremendous support system in England and America. Tremendous. I mean, in another time, if she was the proponent of an alternative politics, people would try her as a spy, so extensive is the support. And part of it is that people who think they’re Left-wing, in Europe and America don’t understand that this person whom they think of as a fellow Leftie wants to return India to a time that the most Left among them would not be willing to tolerate. (Laughs) So, they’re making a flawed correlation. That’s part of the reason. Part of it is very cynical – part of it is, I think, actually a modern version of Orientalism, where they want places like India to remain “bucolic,” “charming,” “rustic,” read poor. They don’t want real prosperity for India. When I was promoting Noon in America, I was sitting with a writer who was coming up with, I can’t tell you, the most bald-faced lies! I mean, we were having a conversation like you and I are having right now, and he was telling a roomful of people we could never have a conversation like that in India; and if we did, we would be silenced, people would shut us down. Fortunately, there was Alok Rai in the audience, who is by no means Right wing, and I had to look at him and say, “is this true?!” and it was he who finally had to say this is rubbish, but you could see that this writer was willing to go to every extent to run India down. And, of course, he was welcomed as a hero in the faculty rooms of American universities. He must have realised that this was a way to make a career, you know.
In India, I think it’s far easier to be Left than Right of Centre.
The country itself is determinedly pretty Left, anyway. One of the things that’s surprising about the BJP is, if you talk about Right wing in the way of the Conservative ideology, there’s no sign of it in them. I mean, to be right wing is not just to be chauvinist and prejudiced, you know. (Laughs) It’s to have a whole system of economics, a whole system of how government should work. In other places it’s a robust, alternative form of politics and thought. It’s not like that here.
Don’t you think there’s a problem with labelling people Left wing, or Right wing, or Liberal or Conservative in a place like this, where we’re a sort of mixture of all these things anyway?
There’s a problem specially when those labels are imported. I think there’s nothing false about being Left or Right in a place like England. Those are very deep political traditions [in that country], and they show themselves in its intellectual life: you can arrange each of those British papers along a line, from Left to Right, in different grades, and it means something there. But yes: if that is applied in a loose way to a place with a totally different history, it does end up as a very shallow way to describe someone.
You’ve spoken of Noon as a novel on the legacy of Partition. Is that how you think of it?
No, that’s just a simple way to put it. I don’t think it’s about that, really. But those last two pieces, to me, have the quality of a kind of diptych of sorts, where those societies are presented in their relationship to each other, and there’s—to some extent—a wish to create a very personal chronology of different moments in the subcontinent, and for them to reflect off each other in some ways, for there to be themes that carry over. So, yes: it gives a picture of a post-Partition subcontinent, but is not necessarily the direct legacy of Partition.
You speak in your books of how Pakistanis are almost systematically taught to hate India, through the kind of language used in schoolbooks. From your interaction with the elite as well as non-elite people of that society, do you think that’s something they can ever get over?
Well, it’s not so much the hatred of India that they have to get over—though they should get over that too—but they must get over this business of wanting to erase their connection to the subcontinent. Because what Pakistan is turning its back on is not India, it’s turning its back on itself: on the only culture it has. And if you systematically cut away your culture because it’s a shared culture, then you end up very denuded culturally. You end up in a society that’s unmoored, and that’s what they have to get over. Or get past.
You speak of several visits to Pakistan in your books, and every time, people seem to immediately recognise you by your family name, and assume you’ve grown up there. And when they find out you, in fact, grew up here, and that you’re half-Indian, the reader can sense a change in their attitude. Does actually experiencing it come as a shock?
I think you’re probably referring to that account of when I was travelling in Sindh, and this man discovered that I was Indian, and suddenly began talking about India. When it becomes a kind of anti-Hindu, it’s very hard for me to listen to. I could listen to something that’s purely anti-India, but if it starts to target a particular religious group, it’s difficult. And that’s the difference between India and Pakistan, in that you could hear anti-Pakistan rhetoric in India too, but it’s rare in a certain kind of society to hear people talking openly against Muslims, you know. In Pakistan, because there’s no longer that old Indian hybridity, people talk against Hindus all the time. And it is a shock because we’re not so used to that here.
In all your books, and in some of your journalistic writing too, you speak of a sense of calm or serenity that seems to indicate an assurance of higher reward among religious extremists who’re being punished for crimes they’ve perpetrated. Do you think it’s a characteristic of Islamic fundamentalism that people are taught to disregard the means for the end?
Well, I think that can happen with any social system that has a fixed social order in mind. That’s one of the reasons that Communism and Islam have often forged a close relationship based on this idea of Utopia. Modern Islam, which is what Pakistan was founded on, is full of a vision of Utopia. And that Utopia is a very violent thing. If there’s anything that is at the heart of that last section of Noon: it is this: this notion of the violent Utopia. Which is almost always a negative idea. It’s almost always formed as a reaction to something, rather than being a thing in itself. And it is, by its very nature, violent because—just as in Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia—it is willing to sacrifice the world that exists for the the sake of realising the Utopia.
Okay, let me ask you some unserious questions. Do you judge books by their covers?, I don’t. But that’s because when you read old books, the cover hardly matters, because you already know their worth in some ways. And then, it’s so strange these days, how covers are made. I think an attractive cover can help, but what I really judge books by is their feel. You know, those old Penguin paperbacks, the black ones, I love those books, I want to read them. Or those big, fat paperbacks from Vintage, those are very soft, they move easily, I like that kind of book a lot. I like the weight of it, the feel, those things.
Do you get a say in the kind of covers your books have?
It’s an uphill battle. Unless they get it right the first time. What happens is that they send you something, and if you don’t like it, they throw all kinds of jargon at you, about how the market is going to respond, and how much everyone loves it, and how it captures the essence of the book, until you almost don’t have the energy to resist any more. (Laughs)
I’ve seen at least three covers for The Temple Goers, and one has this guy with sunglasses, who’s carrying a briefcase.
That’s the English cover, yeah! See, a lot of the times, if a writer is not necessarily a commercial writer, people want to fool the reader, to make him feel that the book he’s picking up is in some way...uh, can you imagine reading The Temple Goers as a murder mystery? I mean, it’s a joke!
Do you think being this good-looking lets you get away with all the controversial things you say?
(Laughs) How can I answer that? I see myself so rarely, you know! But what do you find controversial?
Well, since I agree with most of your views, I can’t say I personally find anything controversial, but you’re pretty outspoken.
(Laughs) Well, it’s just that I like to write about things that I feel are important. And this is a problem, like a very famous disease we have here, you know, because what has been important has sometimes been so scary, that people have dabbled in obscurity. Even now in India, in an intellectual setting, people will think that the most intelligent thing to say is the most obscure. And really, that’s because it’s benign. I like to look at stuff that I think is important as clearly as possible, and to try and speak seriously about it, but I would hate to think that I was doing it for controversy. I think that certainly, when one speaks, one can possibly be less controlled, but with what I’ve written… I wouldn’t want anyone to feel it hadn’t come from the best kind of thought that I was able to give it.
Since you gave me a very serious answer to an unserious question, I’m going to be even more facetious, and ask if you ever feel objectified by your female interviewers.
(Laughs) No!
Well, lastly, the narrator in The Temple Goers has a very strict writing time table – he wakes up at five, and writes for these many hours, and then works out, and gets to his Urdu lessons. Is that what you follow?
It’s about six at the moment.  I’ve had a very difficult, very disrupted year. And that’s one of the reasons why I’ve been trying to say no to a lot of small things, and to draw back into that old schedule. For a long time, Delhi used to be a very private, quiet place for me where I could work. I knew a lot of people, but nobody knew when I was around. But this year, for the first time, I found that I was being stretched a little thin. But, yeah, I think I’ll be back to that old schedule pretty soon.
So you don’t write late into the night, like we imagine most authors doing?
No. I can’t even have a conversation past ten o’ clock!

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