Dhobi Ghat – of Art enabled in a study of class distinction

This essay is not a review and hence delves headlong into discussing what a filmis and has no room for plot points. While it is best read after having seen the film, I hope you enjoy it even if you haven’t seen it. It is spoiler free as far as I can see, but please feel free to ignore this to maximize your enjoyment of the film.

Dhobi Ghat

Dhobi Ghat, or as we say it here in Chilli Crab country, Dhoby Ghaut, is many things at once, but most strongly for me it (is a love letter to Mumbai that) talks about the relationship between the upper, privileged class and the lower to lower middle class that enables them, creates the essence of Mumbai. It also is about art and our relationship with it and this straddles the first theme almost completely. It is also about loss, betrayal, loneliness, regret, and hope – likely in that order – but those are byproducts of a film that chooses to lavish a lot of detail and nuance on to each character.

The biggest strength about the filmmaking on offer here is that each story strand is complete in and of itself. Munna has a coming of age arc, a reality slap that grows him up in an instant, while Shai and Arun’s stories are about finding the art within, though Shai has a lot to find about herself, while Arun needs to come to terms with his loss of emotion. Yasmin has the most poignant arc – that of innocence robbed – and it affects all the other stories more than it lets on. (Her happiness and grimness affect Arun, whose muse she has unwittingly become, but notice how his change in mood also affects the other two protagonists in profound ways).

The reason that Kiran Rao lets that happen to an offscreen character (and the most cheesily written – with a distinct lack of visual poetry in her scenes, Rao chooses to give her actual verbally poetic lines, which are poorly thought through. No matter her strengths as a director, her command of Hindustani isn’t as strong, often resorting to clichés in her lines for Yasmin. Then again, there aren’t too many words or turns of phrases left that Bollywood hasn’t mined) is not just to develop her as a valid, fourth story. Rao is trying to create a distilled vision of her artistic world view; it’s key for her to show us through her medium of choice the different relationships that artists have with their muse and how it effects them and vice versa.

There is no doubt in my mind that Munna and Yasmin’s stories – just as their social class as depicted in the film – are here to help Shai and Arun create their art and make them realize important things about themselves. This distinction between the privileged and the ones that enable their privilege is very clear in the structure of the film. It takes a moment of genuine selflessness on Munna’s part to make Shai , a fledgling photographer, realize something about herself. Similarly Arun’s final moment of truth comes through Yasmin’s final moment of admitted emotional incapacitation. Munna and Yasmin go through their transformations independently of these; their very real and tangible problems forcing them to grow up and lose their innocence. The working class enables the art and the emotional closure in the privileged in Rao’s Mumbai, and never the other way around.

A wondrous glimpse of the sheer derring-do of this class comes in a small moment when a bai’s daughter impromptu recites Tennyson while her mum admits she is more into poetry and dance than other subjects. Rao seems to concede that dreams and dreamers in her Mumbai come from elsewhere too, just that her story seems to be about these people. Probably her Mumbai will either crush that young girl as it crushed Munna and Yasmin, or it will make her a celebrated artist moving in higher strata of society just like Shai and Arun.

To be fair, the class politics are beautifully drawn: especially with Munna as he plays different roles that satisfy different needs. He is the dhobi, the rat killer, the muse, the confidante, the guide, the drug supplier, the boy toy, and ultimately the single most enabler of emotional catharsis for Shai. Little moments that show different working class people are equally well drawn – this mumblecore film is not beyond incessant navel gazing – to a point where it seems like the anti Oye Lucky, Lucky Oye (this film is about the BoBos and the privileged, with nicely drawn details of the working class, while OLLO told a well thought working class story with well drawn bourgeois characters).

The class politics are only the text though – the film speaks on a lot of levels to a lot of people. A close friend mentioned she thought it was about unfulfilled and nonreciprocal love, and how the film refuses to love us in return too. To me the biggest subtext was the creation of art and the different ways we treat and respond to our muse to create art. Shai’s best pictures (and her most prolific photography) comes after she has been emboldened by her relationship with Munna, where she confirms herself of the reality of the person before she can tackle his life. Arun’s fractured relationships have left him unfeeling – he calls Mumbai his muse and whore, but without feeling. He likely thinks hasn’t given anything back for the privilege of taking Mumbai in completely, until he realizes he has. Moving apartments to be in the middle of lower middle class Mumbai he finds more than he bargains for, and after he has created his masterpiece, goes back to the safety of the mechanical (his next apartment overlooks factories).

Arun’s arc and his relationship with his past and his art are probably the most complex, and ultimately the most heavy-handed. That his past has stopped him from having emotional closure comes a full circle when tapes from the past spark his creativity. Very visibly – well, very obviously his moods shift as he goes through the tapes. It all comes together when he displays a genuine, visible emotion for the first time in front of a silent neighbor. The neighbor being the stand in for the audience to the creation of art – they do not share in the creative process, and yet enjoy the naked emotions of the artist laid bare in front of them. Yet silent, forever. This irked me quite a bit – Rao seems to dismiss anyone who watches her art as a silent spectator, with nothing to add, while at the same time she seems to derive inspiration from the very people who are her audience.

Despite Aamir’s bit not working wholly for me though – I cannot urge you enough to go watch this film. There is a lot going on; it is also an immigrant story about outsiders trying to find a place for themselves in Mumbai. It begins with three characters moving houses and ends with two of them moving again. A city in motion constantly making people move too seemed apt, but it is hardly anything Rao dwells on. Ultimately I think her treatise on Mumbai is a little fractured, but never less than whole. Her stories cover what it is to be Mumbai and to be in Mumbai at the same time, even if the Mumbai on screen is her Mumbai.

Top 5 “that guy”s in Bollywood

I do utterly love Bolly and all other woods that come from India especially the rambunctiousness about that cinema ( like there is an impishness about Korean cinema, or a quiet dignity about Iranian) that is definitive of my Indian-ness.

Coming to the point of the post however, there is something about the underdog that has always appealed to me. it’s the quintessential human interest story, is it not? The guys in the fringe who make an impact. The filler with teeth; the guys who put support in supporting.

Here then, is my selection of 5 of the most impactful “that guy” s from Bollywood masala filmdom. The rules are simple:
1. They must not be bonafide supporting actors (so no love for Aruna Irani or Paresh Rawal. too famous)
2. They must not have transcended from that guy ness to genuine recognition including awards or a mainstream fanbase. This is a underdog story after all, non? Also excluded are fallen character actors. (bye bye Rajpal Yadav)
3. This is the most important rule, I think: their presence in the film has to mean good times all around. They cannot be good actors who can’t pick a role. I see this guy lurking in a promo and I am lining up at the cinemas, or at least interested in the DVD, because of him. (This, sadly precludes all those faces you see all the time, but can’t name or care to name. I kind of don’t like that, but I have to limit the list to 5. so long, Sanjay Dutt’s trainer)
4. They have to be professional that guys. That guy in a less than 10 flicks won’t cut it.
5. Lastly, I am removing all cameos and item numbers ( good riddance, Robin Bhatt)

Too much preamble , too less filmy-ness! Onwards, I say:

5. Raja Bundela
This Guy:

Kaafi Bada Hai

He’s just likable. Affable charm, goofy persona, and a cool demeanor. They tried giving him mainstream roles, but he kept on falling down to being the smiling guy just to the right of the ‘hero’.
Why he’s awesome: There’s absolutely no character he cannot build sympathy for. He’s been slapped silly in stupid Govinda films (although he does get to dance in khaki shorts), offed in horrible ways by villains looking to score one up on the hero, and sometimes, just sometimes acted with dubious moral character that got him into way too much trouble than he bargained for. And yet you just look at that goofy smile, think of a cute pup, and go “Awww”
Shining Moment: Should have been Arjun. Or maybe even Ankush. But it wasn’t. He will forever be the guy in that lovely advertisement on Doordarshan that was way ahead of it’s time. Raja Bundela is taking a shower, stops mid soaping lathering session, looks down (yes, they go there, but wait for it…) and looks back at the camera and says: “Sachmuch, kaafi bada hai”. If there was a list of advertisements with thinly veiled innuendo that paved way for the pornography visited upon us on a daily basis (not that I’m complainin’), this ad would make that list. Beloved that guy, forever to be remembered for something that was not meant to be dirty (but let’s face it: it probably was).

4. Rana Jung Bahadur
This guy:
Photo Courtesy Beth Loves Bollywood
Photo courtesy Beth Loves Bollywood. Forgive, Beth. It is hard to find his face.

Better known to me and my friends as “Jaaju” (see below), this man has made it his business to play every bumbling idiot villain as well as every horror movie cliche. All that remains in his stalwart body of that guy work is to play the bikin clad girl in blood shower, I suppose.

Why he’s awesome: First of all, the name. That’s an awesome and classy name. To top it, there is nothing classy about this man.There is no depth to which he will not plumb in the service of horrible that guy acting. He’s extremely physical though. Using his huge eyes and body and a voice that cannot but remind us of the Punjabi Physics tuition teacher we all had to it’s utmost extent, his presence means at least 15 minutes of fun times of extremely questionable taste.

Shining Moment: He’s played umpteen horror Ramsey bros. cliche characters, but I remember most for his portrayal of Bajaj, aka Jaaju, the quivering idiot of an assistant in Mahaul Theek Hai.

It’s not the terrible acting, it’s the howlarious lines he spews including “Ouno Inni Chamm Jhaado” with a straight face that has cemented him in my head. Check out his full range of constipated facial expressions in this clip here. Make no mistake – he is terrible, but he deserves a spot on this list.
I wish I could have included Vivek Shauq in this list – but he’s done fairly drab roles in nondescript films that Jaaju trumps him.

3. Razak Khan
This Guy:
Ninja Uncle
He has done nothing but bad roles. Weak ass gangster who thinks he is pimp is his forte.

Why he’s awesome: But what forte it is! He owns the weak gangster waiting for a bitch slap to go all crumbling weasel howling kitten on us. And he’ll take one from anyone – when Farooq Sheikh can call your bluff, you’re really asking for it. But don’t take my word for it. Hit his imdb page and gape at the awesomeness of the names of his characters. Usman Kujli. Babu Karela. Rajjo Tabela. He’s even played a character called Qutub Minar.

Shining Moment:

It probably would be a tie between his Ninja Chacha (watch above video straight at the point where he unleashes his awesome here) or the straight up cynic Keshav in Roop ki Rani Choron ka Raaja.
I don’t have a video, but bad movie aficionados will remember the part where Anil “Black Forest Cake” Kapoor meets Jugraj for the first time. AK smarms his way into Kher’s trust, but Keshav the smart one (!) is having nothing of that. He quickly retorts: “Isko kuch nahin maloom hai, iske kandhe per to kabootar hai” (The man knows nothing; he has a pigeon on his shoulder). Oh Razak Khan, you teach us all. You teach us so much.
AK and Kabootar
Men with Pigeons on shoulder clearly know nothing.

2. Sudhir
This Guy:
Cheesecake
Sudhir beefcake for breakfast, girls.
If there was someone perfect to dub Christian Bale’s ridiculous Batman voice in the Batman and Terminator films, Sudhir is it. His gravelly voice and almost always surly demeanour has lent themselves to a certain niche that only he filled, and that remains empty even now.

Why he’s awesome: Contrary to what you may think Sudhir was never rape king. Heck, he wasn’t even minor rape fiend. However! He was almost always lecherous. This distinction is important, because you cannot love rapists. (Bollywood doesn’t know that yet, but hopefully you’ll tell them.) Sorry losers whoslip on their own drool over a woman, with no obvious hope in hell – that’s a hard task too, but when it’s Sudhir, you can’t help but guffaw. There is no question what’s on his mind, but he’s not gonna get there. is he?
Despite the above stereotype, he has played enough loud angry Hulk Smash characters that make his list of roles quite multifaceted. Actually, I prefer him in his angry hulk mode more, because it’s always good times.

Shining Moment: Would have to be Satte Pe Satta. Of the brothers playing each day of the week, he is the surly, angry, shrieking and bellicose Monday. Not only does he completely symbolise Mondays, his pining for a girl this time around has an innocence to it that will never again be captured on film.

1. Sharat Saxena

This Guy:
The 'stache
He’s no Anil Kapoor or Raja Sen, but what a ‘stache, non?
This guy is the Stephen Lang of Bollywood. Not because he is a Shakespearean thespian, but because when you need a strong willed man with enough charisma to fill a frame to come and chew entire mountains of scenery and yet remain authentic, you call this man.

Why he’s awesome: Even when he was just a dude up against Mithun in a boxing ring, he was a formidable physical presence and a world weary ire that simmered on the surface. The go-to guy to play suave 2nd ring villains (never a henchman, but a deputy in his own right) called Daga or Doga or some such, his physicality was a menace and his presence a welcome relief over the minus-personality heroes of the time. That he always held his own against the likes of Mithun, Anil Kapoor, and Rajnikanth makes him THE that guy.
Champion, they say. Truth.
Guess who is Champion RaghuRaj?
In the aforementioned film about boxing with Mithun, he basically played Apollo Creed. And when a man out Apollo Creeds Apollo Creed, that there’s a truck full of awesome.
If memory serves correctly, he also has the distinction of being one of the few people who offed Rajnikanth in a film. How many people can boast of being awesome-er than Rajni, if only for dodgy script requirements? Using his powers for good and not evil, he also did some not so memorable character roles, but always, always with the enjoyable screen presence and the promise of a fun half hour.

Shining Moment:
Would be when he punches the living shit out of a whiny Aamir Khan:

Ostensibly, the film had him as the lead bad guy, but the real villain of the ill-conceived copy of On the Waterfront was Aamir’s past. Sharat still steps up to the plate and delivers a physical performance like no other. And look at him. That man’s huge.
Of course this would have made him a known guy over a “that guy”, but this film, apart from making Rani Mukherjea popular, did nothing. And poor Sharat was yet again left playing the old sullen guy with only half an idea what people are up to; twirling his moustache at them, going “Bah! Humbug!”

So there we are. These are my favourite underdogs of Hindi cinema. Some are camp, some are genuinely awesome. Some I just enjoy watching on screen. But all of them are faces you have seen and possibly ignored all your lives. Anyone I left out criminally?

Who wants to be a Slumdog Millionaire?

Slumdog Millionaire
Indians, eh? It is the contradiction in us that makes us who we are. The diversity, the different viewpoints, and always, always the vociferous opinions that bring forth the most argumentative parts out in us. We love a good argument, let’s not mince that out and the bigger the success the bigger the argument about the validity of the success, the importance of restraint, and the calls to be contradictory just to be contradictory.

I’ve been amusingly reading a lot of articles and opinions on the Oscar sweep that Slumdog Millionaire affected by it’s 8 out of 9 wins (it was never 10, remember this children.) It has been entirely hilarious reading oppositions to its name, and the protests against it depicting Mumbai slums as Mumbai slums. Actors like Aamir Khan and Amitabh Bachchan have been very PC about disliking the film, albeit with Aamir actually calling it over the top.

Let’s just say that I don’t think anyone making films for a living and a shame sheet of his own gets to diss another film for anything. Ever. Joel Schumacher does not get to call the Ed Norton Hulk film campy. Aamir needs to work off Mangal Pandey and Mann (especially Mann) and Mela before he gets to say any film made by anyone else was over the top. Just out of curiosity though, Aamir: in your opinion, was it more believable than Lagaan, or less? Bachchan’s comparisons to Delhi 6 are more earnest – he simply does not seem to get the difference between subtlety of meaning and nailing a conviction with a hammer.

Then there are the many, many different articles trying to make sense of what they see as unreasonable euphoria for the Slumdog Oscars. Tunku Varadarajan’s largely cacophonic take on it in the Times (pointed out to us by Sidin via twitter) is extremely stupid, of course. He asks the question a lot of people think is valid: how can the same people who thought the film is a blemish, a shame unto us, are now celebrating the wins by going over the top? Answer: they’re not. If you cannot think that a people can have different voices, and that they will get different weightage (there’s an Asian word for ya) in the media coverage simply because of the topicality, I’m sorry, but you are simply calling attention to you being dense or a compulsive contrarian or quite possibly, both.

I liked the film when I saw it, I like it still, and I like the fact that it won a prize. How hard is that to understand? Heath Ledger winning the Oscar made scores of comic book geeks very happy. Where is the problem in that? If Martin Scorsese has been neglected by the very same awards all his life and that makes me angry as a film buff, am I trying to assert ownership over the work of that master director? I’m not, all I’m saying is that I like his films, and it would make me happy if he did win every now and then. Indrajit Hazra (a man I much respect) on his blog does mention that

all credit should go to Boyle (not to England) and to the actors…as well as the fab let-nothing-ungushy-be-said-about-him A.R. Rahman and Resul Pookutty. It should not go to India and, er, ‘all of us’.

I agree, but important to consider here is the fact that all anyone seems to be doing is celebrating the win of one of our own in an international event. If eleven men can be carried on a Billion shoulders to their coronation as lords and Kings simply by playing a sport for an independent board of sport, surely we can fête a soft spoken sound editor and an awe-inspiring composer? It’s a call for sanity, and I am with him through and through, but I do think that toasting the success of someone amongst us is a quality that all Indians could have more of.

Of course people tend to be more pragmatic and mention that the film is an international film directed by a British (a lot of people think he’s a Scot, he’s not) and distributed by an American studio, so hey bud-dy, hey palll, chill out, won’tcha? Don’t just jump for joy, be cool. Be very, very cool.

I can see where they are coming from. Of course restraint is called for, and of course we need to realize that it was never our film. Of course, if there’s one thing the middle class has learnt over the many, many years of grooming to be more like the West, is to act cool, to abandon the wanton junglee-ness of the lesser peoples, to not dance on the streets, yaar.

As much as it pains me to say this, I tend to agree with something Vir Sanghvi said on his blog:

And yet, so much of Slumdog is Indian.

He comes at it from the point of view that much of the supporting cast, the original novel, the talented crew, including the oft forgotten co-director are all Indian. Sure, but so was more or less the case with Gandhi. Gandhi, as much as I like that film, DDL cameo and all, was not an Indian film. Attenborough came with a certain fascination with The Mahatma, and an amused enchantment with the passion that dictates us as a people. He managed to capture a lot of history in that film, and it was very strong thematically, but it always felt as a well educated guess of a foreigner trying to understand India.

I am not claiming Slumdog to be a thorough dissection of the Indian psyche, if there is such a collective thing, but it is unreservedly Indian. The film does not glorify our mysticism and our small triumphs, and neither does it try to show us a picture of horror which is the normal life of an impoverished child. It just shows it as it is, albeit through the impossibly stained glasses of the fatalist. And in that, it is an Indian film. We can go back and forth about the relative merit of the film as a best picture, but in this point I remain unswerving.

Boyle films it with a mix of his own kinetic, hyper detailed style and what we have come to accept as nouveau Bollywood, and uses his lens to direct our attention to what is not just an Indian story, but The India story. If you cannot see parallels of our nation in the story of Jamaal – a young impoverished, oft used, oft suffering person, growing up, learning new tricks of the trade, but with his mad optimism intact, and finally winning it all in a sweepstake with many, many stumbles, not because he could, but because it was his destiny – I urge you to watch it again. If you cannot see the Indian-ness of the story, the half-lingering, half reverential shots, the celebration of all our triumphs, the hard work to win small shit-stained ones, and the big ones we win by fighting for love, and indeed the whole film the way it is put together, you do a great disservice to a crew that worked hard to do so.

Of course, Danny Boyle is not one of us, and neither is Christian Colson, but for the few months they made this little gem of a film, they tried very hard to be. Don’t dust off your Bharat Ratnas just yet, but saying you are glad a good film, and an Indian film in all but name, won the best picture does not make you a less proud Indian, or a more over the top one. It’s another matter if you didn’t like it all that much, and that is a discussion for another day.

Slumdog Millionaire

No, fuck it. I am writing after many days, so yes, it is a discussion for right bloody now.

I love that film. Unabashedly. Not simply because it is an Indian film, but because it gets it more than a lot of films do. It is a multilayered masterclass in film making that you have to see to believe. No really see, with eyes wide open. The film asks you a question, asking you to participate in the rollercoaster quiz show right at the outset. Literally, the film flashes the question and four options right in your face. Slowly, methodically, it eliminates those answers in front of you, leaving you with the jackpot answer – it was his destiny.

Indians don’t love like most people think of love. Despite any façade a Metro boy will put up in front of you, when Indians love, they love like madmen, and without thought of what happens next. That the film gets that, and gets it not just in the main story, but in all of it is a feat. That it also gets the simple, ugly facet of Indian-ness that we are sometimes not euphoric over the success of another fellow is a testament to the honesty of the film. It is a fantasy, of course, and it could all be Jamaal’s fantasy, accentuated by the never more Bollywood moment when he thinks of taking his brother down a high-rise with him.

It is a unique physical experience, watching this film. It is staggering that despite the time Boyle spends explaining just how much it sucks to be a poor orphan from the slums, the celebrations are much more memorable than the defeats. It has a sentiment, without being sentimental. It’s not a docu-drama, it is a fairy tale, and like all fairy tales, the end explodes with uplift in tone that never leaves you for quite a while.

Sanghvi, in his article goes on to mention that:

Do we really need a Scottish director backed by American money to come to Bombay to make a film of a Vikas Swaroop bestseller starring Anil Kapoor and Irrfan Khan with songs by Gulzar and A R Rahman?
Obviously, we do. Otherwise it would have been Yash Chopra or somebody like him standing on that stage in the Kodak theatre waving that Oscar around.

First of all, Yash Chopra would never be able to do so, and the reason I can make that claim is the very reason some people have not liked this film. We are too used to being manipulated by our dream peddling cinema that will shy as much as it could from the cruder places in Mumbai. The minority voice of the Kashyaps and the Banerjees is being heard better these days, but not at equal volume with the cacophony of the factory produced fantasy mongering studio films. The reason something as regressive and dishonest as Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi was one of the most celebrated films last year, and a terribly wasteful, not to mention completely gimcrack film like Ghajini was considered a masterpiece is a symptom of the larger problem.

We are too used to the trappings of the bad kind of cinema that Bollywood, or any other cheaply named wood makes that we stepping out of the comfort zone is hard for us. Instead of thoroughly celebrating the triumphs that were Dev D or Oye Lucky, fans are left apologizing for them in a place where the worth of a film is till measured by the money it made. It’s not our fault either.

Bollywood is too exclusive a club. Not only are they completely resistant to the idea of anyone else other than them making films, they are completely resistant to change. Too many of the ‘trade pundit’ or ‘acting institutions’ have given interviews that smack of distaste at the new corporate film houses or the smaller, ‘multiplex’ films. Every step forward is coupled by a jog backwards. If they could, they would make the same film they know how to make again and again. Of course, in the times when ‘different’ is the new ‘safe’, they have made an art form of making an atavistic film with all the bells and whistles of a new wave film.

Of course Bollywood slams Slumdog and disavows it as a bastard child, a freak occurrence. Accepting it as a good film would mean they give their blessings to honest, technically accomplished, thematically rich film making. If they did that, how will they make one like that? Balderdash! That would mean the new kids will win, and we can’t have that, can we?

I am not claiming that just because you didn’t like a film I loved you are a brain dead Bolly-zombie. What I am getting at to is this: I liked the film, as I liked many more this year. I don’t denounce it or celebrate it just because it is an Indian film at heart. I am happy it won as much as I am happy Woody Allen’s fun film gave Cruz a statuette. I just don’t want you to get in my business of liking a film’s win with all your misguided cries of oh, it’s not ours, or oh it’s not special, or oh we suck. Sometimes good cinema is good cinema, regardless of the politics behind it.

I mean, look at Gandhi.