17 July 2011

Priya - Namita Gokhale

Author: Namita Gokhale
Pages: 195
Price: 350
Publishers: Penguin

This is the first book I took up to review by Namita Gokhale, better recogonised as the co-director of the highly popular Jaipur lit fest. She's written 10 books already - which I had no idea about.

You see the book’s inane title and cover design and wonder if the rest of the book is going to be as unimaginative. Its tag line below further reads -'In Incredible Indyaa' - an obvious smart-alecky attempt taking a dig at the socialite obsession with numerology. The author tries hard to satarise a certain class of people with their pretentions and superficial airs -the irony though is that the novel itself feels impossibly artificial and snooty.

The characters are not fleshed out and come across as obnoxious caricatures. Also, the author's own personality seems to pervade heavily on the way these people speak. The result is not pleasant. The men don't sound like men. For example, the 45 something protagonist’s teenager son speaks dialogues such as these, “ Honest! That’s what her feminist-sheminist mother said. And her father got really upset, he even tried phoning Pitaji. He didn’t get through - all the PAs and secretaries saw to that. And then I sort of surrendered, and agreed to marry Monalisa. Her parents got uber excited. I think they had dreams of Band Baja Ghodi and Disco Bhangra and all that! Or Some Bengali fancy-dress tamasha”

Gokhale's latest is a sequel of sorts to the her earlier novel titled Paro, about a free-spirited, promiscuous woman. Priya has a presence in that book too. She is the more timid, staid one. She grows up as a middle-class girl in Mumbai, marries Suresh Kaushal, who in an unexpected windfall turns into a successful minister at the centre. This change in fortune is quite sudden and Priya’s lifestyle transforms overnight. She suddenly finds herself in the midst of political and Page 3 glitterati and has new 'challenges' to face every day.
She has twin sons, Luv and Kush. Luv is more artistically inclined while Kush is the more pragmatic one with aspirations of following his father’s political footsteps.

But these characters are etched with no subtlety at all. What should have been conveyed in the narration with crafty irony is done blatantly with tasteless dialogues. For example, the author wants to assert Kush’s clinical approach to things. So when he gets a marriage proposal he meets the girl and discusses her on the breakfast table next day with his parents. He announces,“I’ve assessed the Sethia chick...It’s like a merger or an amalgamation. One has to study the fundamentals."
This is plain nasty writing and one would be hard-pressed to find anyone talking like that. The approach may be a reflection of Delhi’s opportunistic and mercenary culture, but the dialogues do the narration in completely.

You have the husband Suresh having extra-marital affairs. Priya herself has an old flame whom she goes gallivanting with. There’s a Page 3 social climber type thrown in who talks about Botox and refers to Priya as Mrs Menopause. There is a ridiculous story about Luv and his love entanglements. Then just like that Kush turns out to be gay as well, and Priya is most sanguine about it. All this is laughably amateurish.

The novel's narration is in Priya's voice, but her character never really emerges in any sense. You never enter her head. Also, there are too many purple patches with needless adjectives thrown in. The author has the annoying habit of inserting all kind of Hindi words like ajeeb and adla badla as well. There's only one time when I thought a Hindi expression is well-used. 'Yaari-type hug' - I thought that captures a scene in an instant.

However, the entire book has a vein of artificiality running through it with shrill coincidences and poor plot-construct and characterisation.

The book has a few lines that are well written here and there - somewhere Suresh talks about India being a serpent with its hood being in the 21st century and tail still being in the dark ages. Also, some of the author's comments on Delhi's opportunistic culture and its obsession for private shorthand is interesting. The book is ambitious to the extent that Gokhale tries to etch out a novel driven entirely by atmospherics. Unfortunately, she's not upto the task.

06 July 2011

The theme of retribution in Delhi Belly

The fact that this Akshat Varma penned script, stylishly directed by Abhinay Deo is a tightly-woven, smartly executed one is something all reviews have agreed. Varma – probably on account of having studied script-writing abroad – follows one of the essential rules of filmmaking – not to waste details. Every scene and reference in small or big ways adds to the development of the film – sooner or later. The story by itself is not novel, but it is this adherence to a simple scripting rule that makes this mad-cap, irreverent flick seem instantly fresh and unusual from the run-of-the-mill Hindi-film experience.

But I come to a different point about Delhi Belly. This is not a film that is particularly bothered about appearing intellectual and profound – it is happy to be a dark, wicked comic thriller. And yet, I felt the film is very strong on subliminals. It’s not like the writer is necessarily aiming for it, but I detected a strong theme of retribution in Varma’s work.

Retribution is the idea of justice. You are punished for what you do wrong and rewarded what you do right. The three guys in the film (Imran, Vir, Kunal) stay in a dump, leading the most wretched, lazy, indifferent life. This is not uncommon with bachelors, but the writer recogonises that his protagonists need to wake up and gives them the jolt of their life. The film picks them up and throws them in the deep end of the sea, and challenges them to find a way out now. The fact that Varma has some affection for his protagonists goes without saying. These are well-meaning, decent chaps. But he raises a storm – makes everything go wrong for them – until they take stock of their life – a coming-of-age of sorts. They are rewarded in the end. Imran gets the girl he wants, and the three of them get to keep the pickings.

This is the overarching retribution theme, but it works in every aspect of the film’s development. The writer takes no high moral ground anywhere, but there a subtle sense of poetic justice embedded into his script. Portly Nitin freely ogles at an actress, takes her photos from ‘those’ angles. His next stop is to a brothel where he could be a regular. The boob-press scene shows he enjoys some familiarity around. Today he is on business. His intent? To take pictures of his landlord (for all outward appearances a working-class, respectable man) in compromising positions with a prostitute. Nitin finds a simple blackmail the best immediate option for their rent woes. The writer sets up these things in such a way that you can’t help feel that Nitin is probably getting his just desserts. He suffers a horrible stomach upset that embarrasses him throughout the film. Nitin’s ordeal might be funny to the audience, but it’s never once a laughing matter to anyone in the film itself. His smug expression at the start of the film is soon replaced by a helpless, jolted one.

The writer derives fun out of Nitin’s uncomfortable state, and also from the landlord’s, who gets a caustic tongue-lashing from his police inspector bro. Both get away in the end, because of a certain good act by them. Nitin stands by Tashi in his hour of need, and is clever – so he deserves the money he gets. Comically, the landlord – having no clue that Nitin is behind the blackmailing – like a helpful neighbour takes him to the clinic for his check-up. Naturally, this goodness melts Nitin’s heart, and once his own troubles are over, he wastes no time in sending the landlord an anonymous letter asking him to forget about the photos. “Lead a happy life’ it says. This is one of the most heart-warming scenes in the film, because this is the first kindly emotion the writer allows you to feel in this otherwise chaotic, crazed, messed up world.

The retribution theme takes full force with the character of Vir Das (Arup) who is ditched by his girl friend. Cinematically, he is allowed a grand revenge with Jaa Chudail, even though the story cannot follow the girl in question.
Sonia (Shenaz Treasurywala ) pays for her dumbness with humiliation at the hands of the gangster (Raaz). But to Akshat’s credit – and this would have seemed very sexist and unacceptable otherwise – he is not entirely callous with her character. Rightly, she slaps Tashi hard, in full view of others for ditching her. In the last scene Nitin wonders whether he can start dating her if Taashi is not seeing her anymore. “She’s hot!’ he says. So Sonia’s feminine graces are allowed to be kept.

The jeweller loses his money because he was a cheat. The most splendid character of the film Vijay Raaz – who the writer etches with great delight – has to die for not letting off his protagonist after he recovers his diamonds. But he’s not casually disposed off like a cheap villain. There is a cinematic grandness to his death as the shot hits his forehead and the blood drops in slow motion. Here was no ordinary man, the writer seems to say.