23 December 2010

Why Mythology lives on

Mythology has always been a fascinating treasure for our filmmakers to delve into. What’s the lasting appeal of our epics, will mythology be relevant to our cinema in the future, too?

With Raajneeti and Raavan this year — films that are adapted from our great epics, Mahabharata and Ramayana respectively — one would think there’s a certain revival of interest in mythological themes. However, fact is that Indian cinema has always drawn from the deep well of these influential epics. Every character and story within these epics have been so entrenched in our psyche and collective consciousness, that they have invariably come to determine our ideas of culture and morality. And the fact that our epics are such a compelling artistic and creative tour de force have made them timeless in their appeal and relevance. Not to add, they remain the ultimate source material for our arts, especially cinema.

Straight from epics

Naturally then, when Indian cinema took its first baby steps, it was mythological subjects that became the obvious choices for filmmakers. Dadasaheb Phalke’s most well-known films included Mohini Bhasmasur (1913), Satyavan Savitri (1914), Lanka Dahan (1917), Shri Krishna Janma (1918) and Kaliya Mardan (1919) — all derived from our great epics. And this was the trend across the country, with almost every film made down South, through the ’30s being a mythological one — Sakkubai, Sita Vanavasam, Krishna Tulabharam in Tamil cinema, to name just a few. These were all straight-forward representations of the epic tales and the fact that the audience were well-versed with the stories allowed them to make an immediate connection with the films. Hence, the transition to cinema proved to be an easy and pleasant one, where the content was familiar, even if the medium was a new one.
“Indians have a deep connect with their mythological texts. It’s an umbilical cord,” says writer and director Vinay Shukla. “There are so many strands in the Mahabharata that a filmmaker can base every story on the epic if he wanted, and yet never run out of material.”

The myth continues

With time, as cinema started evolving, filmmakers began experimenting with their stories, making it more contemporary. However, they seldom moved away from the templates and archetypes created by mythology. So the hero was mostly a representation of the ideal man Ram or the manipulative Krishna. The inspiration for the heroine came directly from the image of Ram’s dutiful wife, Sita — an embodiment of purity, compassion and sacrifice.
Even in the ’70s, when the anti-establishment wave took over, and youths were disenchanted with the old ‘ideals’, people got a new anti-hero after their own heart. Amitabh Bachchan’s characters in Trishul and Deewar, the illegitimate son and the underdog respectively, can easily be compared to that of Karna in Mahabharata, the illegitimate son of Kunti, who rebels and succeeds against all odds. Not only was such a character completely resonant with the mood of the nation, it also fired the imagination like none other. “Everyone has fantasies of being this abandoned child. It’s a universal fantasy, which is why Karna’s situation strikes such a deep chord,” says Anjum Rajabali, writer of films like Raajneeti, The Legend Of Bhagat Singh and Ghulam. “The don and his loyal henchman seen in countless films invariably draw their energy from the Ram and Hanuman relationship. Similarly, all our old villains have the same motivation that drove Raavan. It was revenge and lust. So he abducts the heroine to teach the hero a lesson and eventually falls in love/lust with her.”

A timeless treasure trove

“I have no doubt that our mythology is timeless in essence. Our epics are an external and dramatic representation of an inner life. Since human nature does not change, our epics will remain as compelling and influential as ever,” says Rajabali.
Almost everyone agrees that mythology has a treasure trove of stories and if they are are well-woven into contemporary settings, they will always find a resonance. “I would recommend every student and filmmaker to read the epics to simply understand how to tell stories and what these stories actually reveal. It helps one to see the entire range of depths and the layering of characters. They are simple, but never simplistic. For example, take the episode of Hanuman entering Lanka to retrieve Sita. Here is a man who is completely devoted to Ram and yet when he enters Raavan’s palace, he is struck by his glory and exclaims, ‘this man is fit to rule this world!’ This is the conflict which even Valmiki mentions in the original Ramayan. So our epics keep throwing cues at us, telling us not to look at things in a very simple way,” views Rajabali.
In spite of other narrative influences coming in, filmmakers believe that mythology can still be a great source of stories for films. “Mani Ratnam’s Roja is actually a simple tale of Savitri wanting her husband’s life back from Yama. And Mani does it very cleverly, so that the reference is never overt. I think South Indians perhaps have an advantage because mythology is very deeply ingrained in them. They can easily take the emotions from the epic stories and present them in the modern context,” says Shukla.
Rajabali too agrees that a lot more of mythology can flow into our films. “Unfortunately, the literary aspect of our films has not been explored enough. You need a literary tradition. Our earlier writers were all authors. Today, we don’t see that,” he says.

Mythology, a gimmick?

Author of several mythological books, Devdutt Patanaik believes our films, which directly try to adapt the epics or borrow recognisable elements from them, present very primitive versions. “They are cosmetically fantastic and alluring, but their soul is missing. They present to you a cosmetic archetype. So any person who is manipulative is Krishna, but then what about Shakuni? Earlier scholars who researched the Mahabharata and Ramayan tried to explore and impart the wisdom in it. That is not the intention of the films that one sees. Most of them only play with popular perception. They will glamourise the villain (Raavan) because the dark side is always interesting. But I doubt it is done with any understanding of the story. So I will say, they are great cosmetically, but on the soul level, there is a complete disconnect. A good katha should shake you up from your complacency and uplift you. Do you see that happening with any of these films?,” he asks.
Rajabali has a contrary view and argues, “I don’t see anything uplifting about Ramayana and Mahabharata. In fact, these epics make me ponderous and reflective. Both these texts end in tragedy. In Ramayana, you see Ram being the best king and having the ideal kingdom and yet, his life ends in pain. It is a way of telling us how life is very difficult and is ultimately very painful.”

The future of mythology

Since epics are living texts, the understanding is that they can be re-interpreted in a million ways, and they will still find a resonance among the future generations. Ultimately, whether one sees our epics as cautionary tales or inspirational parables, it is evident that their greatness lies in their narrative craftsmanship, emotional depth, and profound understanding of the human nature, something which every artiste can take inspiration from.
William Dalrymple’s Nine Lives sums it up best in a chapter about the Pabuji epic in Rajasthan and oral traditions, when he says. “Myths pick up the pieces when philosophy throws up its hands. Great myths help to think through the unthinkable and make sense by analogy.”

21 December 2010

Women Unbound, Leading Ladies - Writing on women by women and interview with Sudha Menon

It's not hard to see that women are increasingly dotting the professional arena, and even dominating the scene in specific industries. Every subsequent day is seeing their number rise at the work place, and in a few years, women are tipped to take over plum positions in all fields, including those that have been traditionally viewed to be male bastions. This changing gender dynamics on the work-front will unquestionably alter and challenge the working space in the years to come. Which is why, the timing of two recent books, Women Unbound (Penguin) by Gita Aravamudan and Leading Ladies (42 Bookz Galazy) by Sudha Menon couldn't have been better. Both expectedly 'celebrate women' and acknowledge the rapid strides they are making in their professions, and how this is impacting family and social life. Admirably, both books focus intently on the professional journey and achievements of women, not allowing their personalities to be overly defined by their private lives.

While Aravamudan focusses on the whole class of working women trying to gather an aggregate of how things stand today, Sudha Menon’s book, Leading Ladies profiles the country’s long-standing women achievers, seeing what makes them tick.

Both books have been penned by ex journalists. While Sudha I recogonise as a sassy journalist on the Pune reporting scene, Aravamudan has also worked as a journo in Bangalore. Both women take a mature and balanced approach towards the topic, trying to understand the role of women today and the realms of the possible. However like it happens often with print journalists who turn to non-fiction, the writing assumes an impersonal, third-person staidness. From time to time both of these give you the feeling of reading a newspaper cover story or magazine with the ‘he says’ ‘she says’ approach. Their authorial voice is a timid one having for years seen things from a generalized, neutral stand point. This is a disadvantage because non-fiction frequently relies on effervescent writing to offset the seriousness brought about by the theme at hand.
Both books  run out of steam after making a few points and then get  terribly repetitive.

Gita Aravamudan’s Women Unbound has interviews with women across the board - media personalities, IT professionals, BPO employees and one even with item girl Rakhi Sawant. There is novelty in the first few chapters as the author gives an introduction about the history of the ‘working women’ and tracing how and when things started changing. Some of the women she interviews are interesting. Like there’s one with NDTV journo Radhika Bordia and her reporting on hard news. Radhika rules out being differentiated on account of gender and says those days are long over. Yet, women are not singularly judged on their capabilities still. She notes how women on television have an advantage if they look good. This was something Radhika had to reluctantly come to terms with. “The visual media has become like the film industry. The male anchors are getting older, and the women are getting younger. But it’s not just the TV industry. It’s everywhere. All career women feel the pressure to look good."
There are some observations that stay with you. Like the author finds how even though women are found in plenty at the entry level of an organization, their number drastically reduces in the middle management level – this is because most women tend to take a break after marriage or pregnancy and find it difficult to get back into the groove. Working around the family and yet the same time having a full fledged career remains the single most important challenge before women. What the book brings out, however, is that many women are fiercely dedicated towards their work and given the right support system can really do wonders.
But the idea of a woman being defined by her professional life and career will only happen with time. In the book Gita narrates how many bosses at the time of recession were tilted in favour of  their male employees and when left with little option laid off the women, citing that men needed their jobs for their families. Obviously having a job may still not be viewed as a necessary part of a woman’s identity. But it’s very clear that the winds of change are blowing fast.
The book tries to cover just about every working woman it can find, so it feels like a great amount is crammed in. It gets repetitive and the only way one will not mind it so much is if one doesn’t read it at stretch.

The same condition needs to be applied to Sudha Menon’s book, Leading Ladies as well because the pattern in each story starts to get familiar and tedious. The book looks closely at the lives of well-known personalities like Anu Agha, Naina Kidwai, Lila Poonawala, Mallika Sarabhai. There are other leading business women and CEOs like Shikha Sharma, Kiran Muzumdar, Priya Paul and Amrita Patel that the book covers. Many of them have been extensively written about and quoted in the press, so straight away, the subject loses some of its novelty. 
Anu Agha is terrific and inspirational as ever as she reflects on her life where she suffered the worst knocks possible, including the death of her young son in an accident soon after the death of her husband. The tragedies made her philosophical, but not bitter, and she picked herself up in the larger interest of her company, Thermax. Today, Anu is putting her weight behind some of the most constructive social activities in the city. And her advice for professionals is especially valuable. “The balance between ordinary and extraordinary self is a key aspect. When you are full of your achievements and have a bloated ego, it is vital to remember that you are pretty ordinary. And when you are taking it easy and not pushing yourself, it is essential to remind yourself that you are extraordinary."

The one element common to all the success stories is that most of these women were ambitious from the very beginning, having an excellent academic track record and a focussed, single-minded approach to their careers. Most of them had extremely supportive parents who had big dreams for them. Importantly, the one aspect that comes across is the strong value system ingrained in them, where they were able to look at the collective good of people. Not surprisingly each one has been a terrific team player continuing to encourage and inspire others.

They all entered their fields in the 70s when most companies did not even hire women as a policy. But these achievers attest to the fact that there was no great gender bias once they got reasonably settled into their field of work. Invariably each one of them had the backing of a male mentor who proved decisive in their career growth.

It's also vital to consider that these high achievers suffered some form of personal loss or the other, and it brought in its wake a great deal of pain and anguish. But importantly, they showed the courage to rise above it and recogonise the larger roles they could play in their professional sphere. Kalpana Morparia, CEO J P Morgan says she found it difficult to recoincile with her childless state and until very long considered herself to be failure. That's when she resolved to flip that loss on its head and use it to her advantage instead, wherein she single-mindedly applied herself to her career.
There are many such inspirations to be drawn from.

But one thing to consider about the women featured is that most of them have been heirs to big business empires or had influential parents who guided them correctly and funded their education abroad. Not that their achievements are less commendable, but the stories may not resonate as well as one would have liked. Just to make sure all fields get a representation, there's PT Usha and Shubha Mudgal added to the mix. One gets the feeling that the author could have been far more eclectic in her choices of women. As it stands, the narrative gets into a familiar loop with familiar themes and words floating around. Each story should have been more distinctive in order to engage the reader fully.

The book nevertheless is sincere in intent, and its approach of citing specific examples where these women applied their talent and innovation will go some way in showing how much women can be productive in the professional and public arena.

'Women bring an emotional quotient to their dealings'

Journalist Sudha Menon's book Leading Ladies profiles 15 successful Indian women who've made a real difference in the professional world, and through them tries to understand the realms of the possible

The idea for Leading Ladies, a non-fictional book featuring some of the country's most successful women in varied fields, lingered with Sudha long before she actually got down to writing it. As a business journalist, she had followed the corporate world from close quarters and it inspired her to see so many 'can-do' career women with stunning success stories. “I was keen to find out what made them tick,” says Sudha about the book-idea that had been “rattling in her head” for a while.

It wasn't easy to give up a secure full time journalism job that she had been pursuing for the last 20 years. “But there was a restlessness in me. I had grown up in a house where there were books everywhere. I had finished reading all the Russian classics by the time I was eight or nine. I loved words. In that sense, though I enjoyed my work as a business journalist too, it was all facts and figures which does tend to get repetitive after a while. And since this topic inspired me for a book, I resolved that I would have to take the plunge,” she says. It of course meant altering her approach and style and fully donning the writer's cap. “As a journalist you are objective and cut and dry. This was a different project altogether where I wanted these highly talented women to open up their hearts to me. I wanted to tap into their real selves, and know more about them than what one has read in countless magazines,” she says.

Sudha listed down 100 super-successful women but soon realised she would not be able to do them justice in one book. Finally, she settled on 15 names, and some care was taken to include women from the arts fields as well. But primarily, the book concerns itself with women business executives and entrepreneurs. This makes her list far less eclectic, but Sudha says she was hesitant to include women from fields she didn't have an assured knowledge of. Leading Ladies has many of the names one would expect. It has Thermax ex chairperson and social worker Anu Agha, social activist, her daughter and current head, Meher Pudumjee, classical danseuse Mallika Sarabhai, Naina Kidwai, and Lila Poonawala. There are other leading business women and CEOs like Kalpana Morparia, Shikha Sharma, Shireen Mistry (Teach For India campaign), Vinita Bali, Kiran Muzumdar, Mallika Srinivasan. Priya Paul, and Amrita Patel that the book covers. From the sports world, it has P T Usha and from the music world, classical singer, Subha Mudgal. Their obvious professional success apart, most of these women have leveraged their positions to make a real difference in their respective fields. Almost all of them have either begun or nurtured organisations that contribute to the larger good of their community.

Most of the women Sudha featured were only known to her through their work, but her process of finding out more through her book, proved to be a personal journey of self-discovery as well. “I had a lot of self-confidence issues. I feared I wouldn't be able to capture all the aspects about these women. But each time I met them, their confidence and energy started to rub off on me. They were generous with their time and I noticed they bring a certain emotional quotient to their dealings, a heart into an other hard-nosed world that makes them sensitive and effective leaders,” she says.

Since much has already been covered in the mainstream media about these women, Sudha deliberately chose not to create biographies and instead pitch it as an inspirational book. “When you feel low, you can just leaf through it and it has enough to give you hope and uplift your spirits.”
Sudha is already planning for a Vol 2 which will feature women from a variety of fields. Besides that, she is also going to release her fiction work soon. “Yes, the writing bug has bitten me now,” she smiles.

- Sandhya Iyer

19 December 2010

The Lost Flamingoes of Bombay

Author: Siddharth Dhanvant Shaghvi
Pages: 348
Published in: 2010

Somewhere towards the middle of Siddharth Shanghvi's overwritten second novel, one of his characters bitches about a fictitious Indian author saying so and so's book is self-conscious, lurid and seems "like a creative writing workshop on an overdrive."
Surprising that such a sentence would land up in Shanghvi’s own book, lyrically titled, The Lost Flamingoes of Bombay, because nothing can more aptly describe his own florid language.
Even someone who might usually appreciate the high-flown language found in classics, will find the writing here overly decorative and cumbersome. The first few pages are especially hard to get by as the showiness and smug nonchalance of the writing starts to revolt you.

It's not like Shanghvi cannot write. He has a falicity with words, and has perhaps used up half the dictionary, but this excessiveness serves an early blow to the narrative because you're so turned off.

Firstly, the creative writer in Shanghvi is painfully self-indulgent.
He writers: “On Tuesday morning a big fat sun careened through thick layers of cloud, revealing a sky the colour of joy. The same evening, on the bust to Samar’s house, Karan saw the prairie-blue sly darken , opalescent grey turning to leaden silver”

Even banal sentences are stilted.

“In front of the portal, under a big rain tree, liveried chauffeurs traded flashes of filthy gossip about their bosses, and the tipsy memsahibs, smelling of their husbands abandonment, waited for valets to pull up their fancy cars.”

The metaphors are frequently tasteless and meant to shock: “Priya had a crusty librarian’s voice, one that could only be relieved with a dildo”
The sexed up language by itself is not a problem, but the phrases seem to appear out of nowhere

All this should be enough to dump the book, right? To be fair, the novel does gather some steam and good-will by the end of the second chapter. You start to invest in some of the characters, the language begins to compliment the narrative rather than stick out like a sore thumb, and this is where you can appreciate the author’s ability to enter the inner most recesses of his character’s hearts and articulate their emotions so well. Many passages are moving and insightful, as much as they are lyrical and apt.
The title suggests the book would be about Bombay – all that is stands for, what it has lost and so on. But no among of evoking places and people of the city brings about a resonance.

However, as a story about three people, Samar, Karan and Rhea – on different journeys, all of whom violently fall in love for different reasons and are torn apart by their own confused states and stations in life, the novel holds quite well. The Rhea-Karan relationship rings true, and some of the scenes involving this tortured, tumultuous married women- single man affair is genuinely captivating.
Shanghvi successfully brings out the many shades of love, its changeability and conflicts to the fore. And he anchors this around the Jessica Lal murder case, where the central characters are directly and indirectly involved in it.
Shanghvi’s strength lies in characterization and he etches out a human drama looking at all sides of story and the compulsions that drive its numerous players.
The resolution is not as powerful and the characters start getting hazier by the end, so your interest in them steadily starts to wane.
The book then is a mixed bag – many lows, many highs.

Brief chat with Siddharth Shanghvi

The author was in the city last week at Crossword to release the paperback edition of the novel and I did take the opportunity to ask him about some adverse reactions his book generated when it released earlier this year. "Not some, there were many negative reviews," he corrects, as he picks up another book to sign. Did it bother him? The author merely gesticulates that he didn't care. His life and education in England could have also influenced to the way he wrote, he admits.

At the event were also present Childrens' author Sonja Chanradhud and Anjali Joseph, author of the recent Saraswati Park. The Lost Flemingoes of Bombay uses several real-life incidences and people as fictionalised parallels. The Jessica Lal murder case is at its core. Joseph's question was related to 'transmuting' real life into art. She observed how fiction has always been considered a 'precious zone' and our real lives are not supposed to be the stuff of art. Shanghvi answered that he chose the subject because it was the only reality he could understand. "I needed to understand this climate that allows a politician's son to get away with killing someone for a banal reason like turning down someone's demand for a drink. The upside is that with enough amount of noise and media working with you, you can make a difference," says the author, who contributed to the case by the way of newspaper columns he wrote around that time.
The other aspect about the novel is its undercurrent of sexuality. "I was offered a scholarship abroad to study Sex. My parents objected, and I didn't end up going. But it gets sublimated in my novels. I believe sexuality has a profound impact on how you negotiate your roles in the world," he explains.
Shanghvi has written two novels, the earlier one being The Last Song of Dusk, but the author is ready to give up writing. "Something organic and magical seems to get lost for me in the process of exhibiting. I will continue with what I do, but the instrument will change. But it would really depend on the story and my mood," he says with an air of nonchalance.

18 December 2010

Author: RamchandraGuha
Pages: 537
Price: 799
Year of Publishing: 2010

Historian, author and columnist Ramchandra Guha’s recently published book, Makers of Modern India is a sincere effort at profiling some of India’s most prolific thinkers and doers, whose ideas have had a defining influence in the shaping of our republic. The book – through speeches, articles and essays by these great personalities – tracks Indian’s political, social and cultural history over the last two centuries, giving the reader a comprehensive idea of how the country has come to evolve.
In a detailed introduction, Guha talks about how political activism has mostly gone hand in hand with theoretical reflection in our country, and most of its greatest thinkers have all been in the thick of political action. This is of course not unique to India. But one of the reasons that makes the compilation of such a book a worthwhile exercise is because many of those ideas remain relevant to present day India, says Guha.
Among the 19 individuals chosen by the author, there are the obvious names of course. But on first glance, there are several others who seem to be missing from the list. In the introduction, the author explains his choices clearly. Two iconic leaders of Indian national struggle, Vallabhhai Patel and Subhash Chandra Bose are not included, and Guha says this was owning to the paucity of original ideas contained in their published works and because both were ‘out and out doers’. The others missing are either because their ‘influenced has passed’ with age or because their ideas didn’t extend far beyond a certain class. The Indian Marxist finds no representation and Guha explains why -- their work has been derivative and no novel contributions have been made to the ideas of Mao and Lenin.
So the men and women who Guha handpicks are not all of the same stature, and some of them are little known, but altogether, the book covers a great deal and thoroughly represents India through its many stages and movements. While the book comprehensively looks into and dedicates several pages to its two greatest national leaders, Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, it also brings to focus thinkers like Hamid Dalwai, Tarabai Shinde and some others who got unjustly forgotten.
Guha introduces every personality at the beginning of a chapter, before reproducing excerpts of their speeches and essays. Many of the themes do find a resonance to the times we live in. Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s explosive speeches talk about why it is imperative for Indian Muslims to have a separate Pakistan. “Hindus and Muslims belong to two different religious philosophies, social customs and literature….they have different epics, different heroes and different episodes. Very often the hero of one is a foe of the other and likewise, their victories and defeats overlap.”
Some of the most insightful thoughts come from C Rajagopalachari, first attorney general of India and CM of Tamil Nadu. His essays talk about the acute need for a strong Opposition to make parliamentary democracy effective. This was the time when Congress party was enjoying an unrivalled reign in the 50s and 60s. He also debates with much acuity on why English, and not Hindi, must be the national language.
All these themes are bound to touch a chord among today’s readers. At 537 pages, the book is a valuable addition to the repertoire of non-fiction writing in India.

13 December 2010

Leela - A Patchwork Life

Pages: 180
Price: Rs 450
Publishers: Penguin Vikings

The faintest memory one has of Leela Naidu is that of Anuradha, the haunting, virginal beauty in Hrishikesh Mukherjee's 1960s film with Balraj Sahni. There were a few more fleeting appearances from her on the screen, but by and large, she remained a figure known only to a close circle of friends in Mumbai, where she stayed till her death earlier this year.

Leela - A Patchwork Life is an autobiographical book, that captures some of highlights of her life - and there were many. She died before the book was published a few months back. She was 69. The multi-lingual, multi-cultural Leela was one of the most well-traveled, well-read people of her times, and French launguage in particular was ingrained into her system.

Born to an physicist Indian father and a French-journalist mother, Leela was thrown in the company of illustrious men and women very early on. Hindi films were incidental to her life. She acted in a few films, got married into a rich industrial family (Oberois), delivered twins, got divorced, married poet/writer Dom Moraes and stayed together for 25 years, until they separated. However, none of the personal tragedies in her life find a place in the book. In her prologue, she enumerates the incidences in just one sentence, but it unmistakably carries the weight of memory. 'I do not see what use it would be to recount my 'trials and tribulations', except to add to yet another narrative of feminine pain to the ones that are already extant."

If that was all there was to Leela's life - which she anyway didn't wish to talk about -- the exercise would seem pointless. If the book is still so readable it's because the memoir teems with wonderful anecdotes from a bygone era, where she came in close contact with some great luminaries of her time. Her parents were fairly influential in their fields, and Leela was privi to many of these personalities visiting her home from time to time. She remembers filmmaker Roberto Rossellini loving her mom's cooking and when Leela goes to Paris for a certain medical reason, she has his wife and legendary actress Ingrid Bergman for company. In one of the most interesting chapters of her life, she forms a close association with new wave director Jean Renoir, who teaches her some vital aspects of acting. In one of the episodes, she describes how Renoir got her to read a particular scene and led her through a series of exercises in what he described as the 'ifness' of the play. What if the character was such and such? The text was merely to be the framework and each interpretation could bring something new to that framework...

Obviously, her exposure to world cinema and her interactions with the masters had a bearing when she acted in films later on. In what is perhaps the most interesting segment of the book, Leela describes her working relationship with Ismail Merchant and James Ivory who made The Householder with her and Sashi Kapoor. Someone senior sees the clippings of the film and praises Leela for her good use of her toes in a scene where she is angry and on a hunger-strike. Leela had not noticed it at all. "I believe that if you know what one part of your body is doing, or you're planning what your eyebrows are going to do, you're not acting, you're modelling," she views.

Once Leela approaches her teens, her luminous beauty is noticed by all. Raj Kapoor who she is told has the 'regretable tendency of falling in love with his leading ladies', is struck by her good looks and offers her a four year contract. Leela says she was never very keen on films. Yet, she accepts Hrishikesh Mukherjee's Anuradha and describes the experience as pleasant. She seems to have shared a bitter-sweet equation with co-star Balraj Sahni. She says he lend his gravitas to many films that didn't deserve it, and then goes on to tell us that for all his gentlemanliness, Sahni was not above 'trying his luck with her' The other high point was when Vogue mazagine listed as one of the five most beautiful woman in the world.

Leela's inherent delicacy of speech and elegance prevents her from ever turning vitriolic towards any known figure, but she nevertheless gets across her point, either saying it plainly or then employing clever sarcasm. The latter she uses for her husband Dom Moraes (not being able to resist calling him 'morose'), who was also her childhood friend. Leela talks about how she was his unpaid secretary for years, taking down notes for him and interpreting his 'mumbling questions' as he interviewed high-profile personalities all around the globe. One of them happened to be Indira Gandhi, who kept giving them monosyllabic answers.

The first half of the book is made interesting only because of some the famous interactions she had, otherwise Leela's language often tends to get stilted and there is the appearance of some dainty posturing as well. One theme that is repeated episode after episode is Leela's good Samaritan acts. So either she is fighting for the rights of the 'extras' on the film sets, or taking up some racism issue. Leela's concerns may well be genuine, and that is plausible given how she went on to make documentaries on a variety of socially relevant subjects later on, but her self-projection as a do-gooder gets tedious to read after a point. Leela presents herself in no better than in the best light possible always, which makes the memoir seem quite imbalanced.

But the book grows on you and Leela has many valuable insights to share along the way. Her observations of Indian film units - make-up men keeping their shoes in the same trunk which contains the cosmetics - or Leela finding her expensive clothes being returned in shabby condition after use - point at their callous disregard for others. "The film industry and I never understood each other," she writes finally.

The writing has its moments, and at 180 pages, the  book never overstays its welcome. The book was narrated orally to writer Jerry Pinto. People who know Pinto believe that there is a definite shadow of him in the writing. It seems very likely he anchored the material. But what you get in the end is an engaging book that takes you back in time and entrances you with the scents and smells of an antiquated time.

08 December 2010

Somerset Maugham A Writer's Notebook

Most of us who grow up with the vague idea of becoming writers sometime in the future or at least putting what one reads to good use professionally will admit to have maintained a note book. I, for one, have. And since I rarely revisit a book for a second time, and since my own retention powers are so woefully limited, I rely either on making markings -underlining the text or then often diligently jotting it down in pretty notebooks. If employed with discretion and intelligence, as Maugham would say, the habit is not without profit.

Somerset Maugham's The Writer's Notebook is a collection of his thoughts, observations, ideas that he gathered along his prolific writing career that lasted over 50 years. The author kept a notebook and would scribble away anything that caught his fancy as he travelled far and wide and met a great deal of characters (one calls them 'characters' and not 'people' because Maugham always saw them as such and was otherwise quite a loner in real life.) It's a practise he started when he was all of 19, and kept updating it till he was well over 70 years. Maugham explains that it was not vanity that prompted him to publish his private notebook, instead it was born out of the thought that he himself would have been thrilled if a well-known writer had came out with such an edition while he was embarking on a writing career.

But when Maugham actually made the notes, it was with the idea of putting the material to future use. So what you find are several brief descriptions of characters and places, and reflections on life, art and human character. I must confess I didn't read everything in the book and though I glanced every single page, I rested my eyes and got immersed only on topics that I was inclined to read about. It's rightly a book that is usually found as a supplementary part of Maugham's stunning autobiography, The Summing Up, because there is an expected resonance in both works.

The parts which caught my eye were about Russian literature, which Maugham doesn't have very complimentary things to say about. Because the collective body of Russian literature is so small, Russians know it with a great thoroughness, he piquently observes. Maugham is a bit bewildered at its over-estimation all over Europe, and believes Russian literature to suffer severely in the area of characterisation. He notes that even someone like Dostoevsky -who has other strengths - has all his characters as 'all of one piece' and as personifications. He says, "It is humour which discerns the infinite diversity of human beings, and if Russian novels offer only a restricted variety of types it is perhaps because they are singularly lacking in humour. In Russian literature you will look in vain for wit and repartee, badinage, the rapier thrust of sarcasm, the intellectual refreshment of the epigram, or the lighthearted jest. Its irony is coarse and obvious."

The other insight is on 'irrationality' in characterisation. Maugham says that though man is fundamentally not a rational animal, he/she feels dissatisfied when the persons of a story do not act from motives that we accept as sufficient. He references Othello in this regard, terming how all of Shakespere's characters in this play were highly irrational. Critics have of course tried to justify their motives, but Maugham sees it as a futile exercise. "The critics would have done better to accept the play as a grand example of the fundamental irrationality of man."

There are other observations of the 'value' of art, the purpose of life and many such philosophical musings. The book in many ways points at the evolving of a writer, through his insatiable need to travel, meet new people, be exposed to new sensations and finally give expression to it in his books. Insightful, stimulating and bristling with original ideas, The Writer's Notebook is a terrific treasure trove that takes you into the rich and ever-curious mind of Maugham who considered every thing he saw as material for his writings. His invention, imagination and sense of narrative drama did the rest!