April 16, 2014 at 5:03 pm (Cinema, Kiran David)

Sometime ago, when a friend and I were sitting in a movie hall waiting for a film to begin, we chatted about the deplorable state of cinema, both globally and more so locally.  A bloke two seats away leans over and tells us that great things are happening in Marathi cinema. If there’s one thing among many I can’t stand, it’s a fucker, especially one I don’t know, worming his or her way into a conversation I’m involved in. However, instead of giving him the brush-off I normally would have, I said to him that these films may have decent or well-meaning ideas, but don’t work as cinema.

Having seen films like Shwaas, Dombivali Fast, Vihir, Tingya, Natrang and others: as cinematic experiences they did not work beyond a utilitarian functional purpose and were dull, inert and sometimes derivative. Vihir, despite its ideas, was floundering, lacking in the discipline it needed.  Gabhricha Paus was just about bearable, though I would not recommend it to anyone.  Even earlier films like Doghi left me cold, despite its heartrending story. I am not saying these filmmakers are not sincere and that the issues they are tackling are not important, but they just fail to be of any cinematic interest.  Just before this wave, which also opened up the box-office for Marathi films, was Chitra Palekar’s Maati Maay which had truly worthy moments and deserved better critical attention and commercial success. Its main problem, I felt, was in the casting of Nandita Das who just doesn’t work in the milieu, and has never convinced me as an actress. The other problem is the dream sequence which can be forgiven due to budget limitations. One way round that could have been to construct it in simpler terms.

[I will now digress from the main object with the hope to make a connection of some kind, this may or may not work for this piece but may for future pieces. Then again……..

I was recently watching some operas on the best home format currently available. The filmed version is an idiom which mutilates the very language of the “staged” opera.  As in every performative art which is the staging of a narrative, there are many languages at play. In opera there would be the libretto, the music, the performances, the setting, each expressing something in its own language. The director places these multiple languages within the context of the staged space, creating the desired experience; this is also a kind of composite language within which these other languages interact. What I am talking about should be understood only in the context of the staged version of an opera.

The blu ray with better image and seriously superior sound, while excellent to listen to  great singers and orchestras and follow the libretto thanks to subtitles in one’s language of choice, completely destroys the integrity of the stage performance, and here I am certainly not talking about scale.  The very language is wrecked, thereby altering the original experience. It completely destroys the spatial tension required for an appreciation of the performance, and though you can follow the narrative it converts the viewing experience from perception to speculation.]

It is with great enthusiasm and joy that one must greet Fandry, a Marathi film directed by first-time feature director Nagraj Popatrao Manjule. What is striking about his work is that there constantly seems to be a search to find something through cinema. He is not just depending on his story and telling it in a banal or gimmicky way like most recently regarded filmmakers in India seem to do.  Manjule has a wonderful way of using space in various ways. He uses it to create relationships between sets of characters, sometimes contradicting the primary emotion; and he also uses a space within a space as a fulcrum to create tension within the geography.

The very first shot, with great economy and simplicity states the theme of the film, while expressing the inherent contradictions present in the narrative—a strategy that recurs throughout the work. Early in the film he uses a track countering the protagonist’s movement, marginalizing him within the space he occupies, one of the themes inherent in the narrative that unfolds. The director structures the film with great intelligence, often letting two successive sequences evoke something beyond a commonplace narrative. He has the ability to reveal elements just when the narrative needs them.

While setting the story in an environment that has casteist prejudices, Manjule never overplays the relationships.  Everyone is playing out his expected part within the given society, this is what expresses the horror and tragedy of the situation.  It is Jabya the protagonist who is trying to cut through these divisions with his unrequited love for Shalu. But his movement towards the object of his desire is informed by a great faith that exists on a level of fantasy which perpetually gets stymied by the reality of the world he inhabits. Through the mysterious character of Chankya, the director is able to expand on his themes with subtlety. In the film’s village fair section, motifs recur  at various points, the whole sequence appears carnivalesque in nature,  where  one gets the feeling that all barriers have dissolved, the sacred and profane mingle; with remarkable skill the director surgically reconfigures the space isolating the protagonist within that frenzied milieu.

The film is paced to evoke the rhythms of life present in the environment only to shift gears at moments of crisis.  In relation to the rest of the film the last section (which ends with the stone thrown towards the camera) while in itself a symbol of revolt, carries with it the burden of a possible tragedy to come.

All the actors (I do not know if some of them are non-professional) are judicially chosen to express the characters they play and none of them disappoint. The director also understands how to use faces to their optimal advantage.

Using dead time and making it resonate needs a certain skill, and Manjule pulls it off.

While I am told the film has been appreciated and has done well, it is a pity it doesn’t get the kind of mileage that rubbish like Queen with Kangana Ranaut gets and Shubhra Gupta (in her Indian Express review) exults over: “Stop press: I have just seen an honest-to-goodness, full-fledged, full-bodied film. A FILM, hear me?” To this, one can only say: “BALLS. Film, my arse.” It’s more like a corporate morale-boosting AV that is a compilation of plausible sequences that may ring true in the most banal way. Predictable stuff geared to warm the cockles of the viewers’ hearts (Woody Allen in an early film says, there’s nothing like warm cockles). Besides it has the stupidest use of flashbacks I’ve ever seen and I’ve seen some pretty awful ones.

While I’m happy Fandry has been liked by audiences, I hope people, whatever their response be, appreciate it for the rich text it is. It needs to be seen on screen, it would lose on small home formats.  Queen, other than scale, would be the same experience even if seen on a mobile phone

Before ending, I must mention a couple of places where there are problems. One being: too many cutaways to shots of the school  before the pig-hunt starts, and second: the motivation used to make Shalu turn towards Jabya and his buddy Pirya seems a bit forced, as we have already realised earlier in the sequence what the director is trying to express.

Unlike the posturing of many directors, who these days keep harping about being different and in truth are only deluded in believing they are unique, this director, while he may not use a radically new form, ploughs the familiar with an honest rigor, finding truths and arriving at a form that is tenuous but rich, opening out possibilities and arriving at a place his contemporaries are incapable of. Kabir Mohanty, the great artist largely working with video, in his illuminating talk (at Jnanapravaha Mumbai) a couple of years ago, said that staking a claim to being different for its own sake is pathetic.

What makes Manjule someone to watch out for is that Fandry makes us aware of an artist who has an awareness of “Art” and that his is a quest to express the truth he seeks through it.

– Kiran David



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April 12, 2014 at 9:19 am (Dani Clark, Poetry)

I wish I could tell someone about these magnolias
blooming on trees here and me laying and looking up

from a sunburnt bench alone during my lunch break
watching them flitter against the bluest sky imaginable

how limpid the air is and that the birds are chirping
how a petal fell on my face and I split the silken thing

once, twice and again until the pieces started browning
how I didn’t think about God or my little son

but of wanting to share the joy that is dying

how I have no one but myself to share this spectacle with
which caused a sob to roil up from some unknown depth

no, sitting here has to be enough even knowing the tree
dies and so do I and cities eventually turn to dust

– Dani Clark

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The Incredible Rubinstein!

April 10, 2014 at 7:14 pm (Cinema, Kiran David)

Was fortunate to see the 1975 film recording of the then 90 year old Arthur Rubinstein  playing on three concertos  – one each by  Greig, Chopin and Saint – Saens. He plays by memory as he could not read at that time. He had lost his central vision by then and could only see stuff that was peripheral. Unbelievable performance!

– Kiran David

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Free Agent in a Land of Devastation

April 1, 2014 at 4:56 pm (Sampurna Chattarji, The Reading Room)


Hemant Divate’s Struggles with Imagined Gods, has been translated from the Marathi by Mustansir Dalvi, and published by Poetrywala (the indie-press that has been regularly bringing out contemporary Indian and, more recently, international poetry with a kind of joyous élan). The poems it contains originally appeared in two different collections, Thambtach yet naahi (Abhidanantar, 2006) and Hya room madhye aale ki life suru hote (Poetrywala, 2012).


For those familiar with A Depressingly Monotonous Landscape (Poetrywala, 2011, translated by Sarabjeet Garcha), Struggles with Imagined Gods may, at first glance, seem like a replay. There are the same obsessions with a consumerist society; the presence of the all-pervasive “brand god” we encountered earlier; the omniscient flickering, dehumanizing light of TV and computer screens; the bombardment of advertising messages; the noise of the city; the banality of everyday dilemmas; the almost-casual “live telecast” of a person slowly going mad.  But what makes Struggles more than Part 2 in an ongoing conversation with this poet’s private demons is a vivid new ferocity, a killer-instinct for the line that will twist the knife just so. (Perhaps what seems new to me is simply the effect of a new translator who goes for the jugular in a way Divate’s earlier translator didn’t?) In any case, this is poetry as nightmare, poetry as record of the terrifying onslaught of minutes, poetry as rant addressed to a multitude of one. Foul-mouthed, dispensing gaalis with the liberality of vending machines, the poems cut loose, cut through the veneer of gentility, cut swathes through “This whole bloody world … / stuck in the labyrinth of superficiality.” In a world where “A man may die” but whose email id lives on forever, the poet envisions “A vast mob/ thirty-three crore fickle souls” preparing for the ultimate “festival of caprice”. In a demented show of solidarity, they “applaud the superficial./ It’s a sham hallelujah! It’s a sham! It’s a sham!” The sense of a heartless machine grinding one down, the automaton replacing the human, pre-programmed, with “no means of escape/ from traffucked thoughts/ spawning like viruses”—a unique claustrophobia exists within, and is evoked by, Hemant Divate’s poems. It is the claustrophobia of a single body, trapped between its orifices, bleeding, pissing, shitting, ejaculating, like some monstrous baby on the rampage, horrible, helpless and dependent, while its mind—all-too alert, intelligent, aware, overwhelmed—multiplies, regenerates, metamorphoses, escapes, a free agent in a land of devastation.


In A Depressingly Monotonous Landscape there is a poem in which the ‘I’ metamorphoses into a chicken about to be slaughtered. It is a brutal, even ugly poem, so close to reality it makes you sick, and yet, it is the essential sickness of a poet whose malady is the world, the fabric of his existence, from which he cannot tear himself apart without ripping his own guts out, slitting his own throat. As Adil Jussawalla says on the jacket of Struggles, this poetry is “not for weak stomachs”! But more than the ingestive-regurgitative properties that are common to both books, I’m interested in the recurrence of metamorphosis in Hemant Divate’s poetry. Metamorphosis into Godrej chicken, Whisper sanitary napkin and Jaguar shower, a sort of revolted (at moments even revolting) fascination with bedroom and bathroom intimacies; but also, on the cosmic scale, the metamorphosis that will save and condemn. In Struggles, Divate invokes (but of course) Kafka, as the poetourist roams the city of Prague, wolfing it down “like a glutton”; seeing, then becoming, the man in the long Kafka coat, eating chickpeas under the Charles Bridge with sinister ease; Kafka that old ghost, prophet, fucker, sissy tea-drinker, with whom the poet has a wager: “the one who pisses first wins, the other/ will have to run, micturating all over Prague.” Towards the end of this long poem, as the poet “Slowly, without fuss” transforms (but of course) into a “two-inch cockroach” (oh the diminishment of that giant dread), we return to the question almost cavalierly asked earlier on: “how many writers need to suffer and die/ to bring one insect to life”. Who knows. Who cares. “I cannot see the numbers.”


Simultaneously grim and hilarious, ‘praha: i’ll be back’ has a section that deserves to be quoted at length:

let me tell you a story:

not one that you should not repeat

nor one that no one knows, but

metamorphosis means the transformation

of a city into an installation in an exhibition hall,

a human artwork to be regarded by insects,

an insect artwork to be regarded by humans,

where a dim light metamorphosed over the installation

is the one that bathes the poet’s composition

in a soft, linguistic, biographical sheen

while the city, as it is now

is the detritus of screaming, blood-soaked geography

or of raw imperialism that, like a half-done omelette

is left to sizzle in the frying-pan of history.



The relentless surge of this line seems to me typical of Hemant Divate’s relentless anger and angst. And it is in Mustansir Dalvi’s translation that (what I suspect must be) the charge of the original Marathi crackles into an electricity that powers the lines in English. There is great confidence here, the confidence of a poet (Dalvi’s Brouhaha of Cocks is another book I hope to write about soon) with access to multiple spoken fluencies, solidly grounded in the language that he writes in. Marathi words pepper the English with no self-consciousness as the translator chews the “fresh, juicy meat” of the poems with an appetite equal to the task. On the flip side, the poem titled ‘fuck me if you can’ felt dated and adolescent; and ‘dreams while shopping’ was exactly the kind of male fantasy that leaves me cold! In fact, while reading the poems about “today’s Indian consumerist society” (the Italian poet Zingonia Zingone’s blurb) I felt strangely impatient. In the world of consumer trends today very swiftly becomes yesterday, and so the poems turn passé, losing the bite of their critique. It is in the longer meditations that depend less on the barrage of brand names and more on the horror of a dissipating selfhood (“who am I?”) that the poet’s participation in and resistance to conspicuous consumption gains a lasting moral and poetic valency. In an otherwise smartly produced book, occasional typo errors and inelegant punctuation jarred a bit, as did some of the weaker poems (‘new age 123’, ‘tell me when my number is called’); and one false note: “Perchance”! But overall, this book reaffirms my belief that poets make the best translators of poetry, and it is a delight to see that both Divate and Dalvi get equal weightage on the cover, rightly (and all-too rarely) claiming co-authorship of the text.


Oh, and before I close—what mortal blows struck by Hemant Divate against organised religion! In A Depressingly Monotonous Landscape there is a poem titled ‘Stories within Stories’ in which the poet writes: “Then and even now/ we never had need for religion./ All faiths were ours/ all demons, fairies, princesses, princes, dwarves/ the magic lamp, Vikram Vetal, Ali Baba/ They never belonged to a religion/ Now even stories are beginning to feel the need for religion/ and have started becoming cruel.” In Struggles, the poet’s imagined god “searches for humanity/ in this vast dung-heap of rags.” Lost faith, lost childhood, lost language, mourned, but never surrendered to saccharine nostalgia.  Read this book and be disturbed. You may dislike the full-frontal assault in its pages, but you cannot fail to be affected by the “jingle of life/ that slowly scrapes across the surface of dreams.”



– Sampurna Chattarji


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