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A Special Tribute Essay

Gandhi in Cinema by Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri

An innovative rap contest between Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Gandhi as a stand-up comedian, his life as a musical, and at least seventeen actors portraying him across numerous films. No other political and spiritual leader has influenced our cultural discourse as much as M.K. Gandhi. This despite Gandhi’s deep-rooted aversion to cinema and theatre. Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri looks at the legacy of Gandhi in films, plays, songs and TV shows.

“Slim be a combination of an actual kamikaze and Gandhi.” This is Eminem, seventy years after the Mahatma was assassinated, in a song from his 2018 album Kamikaze, that also became the theme song of the Marvel film Venom. It is interesting to conjecture what the bhajan-loving apostle of peace and non-violence would have to say about being referenced by the hip-hop rapper in a song whose very next lines talk of killing and use the F-word.

Probably no other political leader anywhere in the world has been part of popular culture – films, songs, music videos, animation shows, graphic novels – as much as Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Newsreels on him run into hundreds of hours. A China-based journalist, A.K. Chattier, put together one of the first celluloid versions of the Mahatma’s life and times from archival material available, sourcing rare footage. Unfortunately, both the print and the negative have been lost.

Beginning with the American feature documentary Mahatma Gandhi: Twentieth-century Prophet in 1953, to The Gandhi Murder, a conspiracy theory film on the assassination, in 2019, he has been part of at least thirty films. Even the Marvel film Age of Ultron has his footage. As many as seventeen actors have played him onscreen: J.S. Casshyap, Ben Kingsley, Sam Dastor, Jay Levey, Yashwant Satvik, Annu Kapur, Rajit Kapur, Mohan Gokhale, Naseeruddin Shah, Surendra Rajan, Mohan Jhangiani (voiced by Zul Vilani), Dilip Prabhavalkar, Dr Shikaripura Krishnamurthy, Avijit Datta, S. Kanagaraj, Neeraj Kabi and Jesus Sans.

Of these, Sam Dastor featured as the Mahatma in Lord Mountbatten: The Last Viceroy (1986) and Jinnah (1998), while Surendra Rajan has donned Gandhi’s garb as many as six times, in Veer Savarkar (2001), The Legend of Bhagat Singh (2002), Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose: The Forgotten Hero (2005), the TV movie The Last Days of the Raj (2007), the short film Gandhi: The Silent Gun (2012) and Srijit Mukherji’s Gumnaami (2019).

Gandhi and Early Indian Cinema

It was common in the 1930s and 1940s for film hoardings to have life-size pictures of Gandhi over the photographs of the stars. The protagonist of Kanjibhai Rathod’s mythological Bhakta Vidura (1921), the first film to be banned in India, resembled Gandhi, cap and all. Ajanta Cinetone’s Mazdoor (1934), written by Munshi Premchand, too was banned, and promoted as ‘the banned film’, as it dealt with Gandhian principles. Produced by Imperial Film Company and directed by R.S. Chaudhary, Wrath (1931) had a character called Garibdas who fights untouchability. The censors cut out many of its scenes and renamed it Khuda Ki Shaan. Vinayak Damodar Karnataki’s Brandy Ki Botal (1939) took up Bapu’s campaign against liquor and referred to Gandhi as ‘azadi ka devta’.

The Feature Biopics

The most well-known of these is Richard Attenborough’s 1982 film. In the making for over twenty years, it remains, warts and all, the definitive film on Gandhi. And though Attenborough made the cardinal error of falling prey to what Nehru had warned him against at the outset when the director had met him with the proposal in 1963 – “Whatever you do, do not deify him … that is what we have done in India … and he was too great a man to be deified” – there is no doubt that this is an epic labour of love that delivers a series of spectacular set-pieces of great emotional heft.

As the filmmaker himself observed, “It took me 20 years to get the money to get that movie made. I remember my pitch to 20th Century Fox. The guy said: ‘Dickie, it’s sweet of you to come here. You’re obviously obsessed. But who the f***ing hell will be interested in a little brown man wrapped in a sheet carrying a beanpole?’” As it turned out, the whole world was, as was the Oscar committee. And Ben Kingsley set a benchmark for the onscreen Gandhi that has been impossible to top over forty years later. So complete was the identification that a few years later a popular Hindi film, Peechha Karro (d: Pankaj Parashar, 1986), had a character swear by Ben Kingsley instead of Gandhi.

Ben Kingsley

Surprisingly, despite the many incarnations of the Mahatma on cinema, Gandhi is only one of two full-length feature films to deal with his life. The other one being Shyam Benegal’s The Making of the Mahatma (with Rajit Kapoor essaying the role), which as its Hindi title, Gandhi Se Mahatma Tak, suggests, deals primarily with his experiences as a barrister and in South Africa. Several biopics on national leaders of the freedom movement feature Gandhi in important cameos. These include Sardar (d: Ketan Mehta, 1993, Annu Kapoor as Gandhi) and Jabbar Patel’s Dr B.R. Ambedkar (2000, with Mohan Gokhale as Gandhi), probably the first time the Mahatma was shown in a negative light. There was also the 2011 film Dear Friend Hitler, based on his correspondences with Adolf Hitler (played by Raghubir Yadav).

These biographical films include Gandhi, My Father, which deals with his tortured and tumultuous relationship with his son, Harilal Gandhi. Based on the latter’s biography Harilal Gandhi: A Life by Chandulal Bhagubhai Dalal, the film was directed by Feroz Abbas Khan, who had earlier helmed a stage version, Mahatma Vs Gandhi (based on Dinkar Joshi’s Gujarati novel Prakashno Padchhayo), starring Naseeruddin Shah and Kay Kay Menon as Gandhi and Hiralal respectively. The film version starred Darshan Jariwala and Akshaye Khanna as father and son respectively.

The Adversarial Gaze

Existing with the eulogies are a handful of films that portray the world of his adversaries – people like Nathuram Godse and Veer Savarkar, in particular. Unfortunately, none of these have the rigour of the works of Richard Attenborough and Shyam Benegal and have been rightly dismissed as sensationalist. Ashok Tyagi’s 2017 short film Why I Killed Gandhi, which released in early 2022, became controversial for allegedly showing Godse as a hero, forcing its lead actor to apologise for playing the role of Godse. In the same vein is Ved Rahi’s Veer Savarkar (2001). Kamal Haasan’s Hey Ram (2000), a fictional tale of the moral dilemmas facing a would-be assassin of Gandhi, is in comparison a more nuanced take, though Naseeruddin Shah is probably the healthiest Gandhi onscreen ever.

Naseeruddin Shah as Gandhi

But by far the more interesting fiction came close to sixty years ago. In 1963, around the time that Attenborough was talking to Pandit Nehru about his film on Gandhi, Nine Hours to Rama created quite a flutter for its purportedly ‘sympathetic’ take on Nathuram Godse. Narrating the last nine hours of the life of Gandhi’s assassin, this one is a strange beast. Dismissed by academic Ravinder Singh as “a heady concoction of a little history and too much fiction”, the film shows Godse involved in an affair with a married woman and even an encounter with a prostitute. Godse tries to lure the former into sharing a room with him, describing the sexual encounter likely to follow as ‘dessert’ after a meal. No wonder, the film, as well as the novel of the same name by Stanley Wolpert on which it was based, faced protests from both Congress and Godse’s supporters, and an eventual ban.

A laughable enterprise in all respects – the only thing it probably gets right are the three bullets, and even that scene is followed by a ridiculous one where Gandhi forgives Godse who is shown as repenting his act immediately afterwards – what is surprising about it are the credentials of the people involved with the project. The director Mark Robson is well known for Hollywood blockbusters like The Bridges of Toko Ri, The Harder They Hall, Peyton Place and Von Ryan’s Express. The screenwriter Nelson Gidding scripted critically acclaimed ones like The Haunting and Andromeda Strain. And among the cast, we have respected actors such as Jose Ferrer (who essayed the definitive Cyrano de Bergerac on stage and screen) and Robert Morley. 

What makes this somewhat of a curio are the smattering of Indian actors in cameos, including David as a policeman, Achala Sachdeva (as Godse’s mother) and P. Jairaj as G.D. Birla. By far the most interesting and innovative aspect of the film is its credit titles – comprising the ticking of an old-fashioned pocket watch – designed by Saul Bass, which is deserving of a full-length article.

The Shadow of Gandhi: Gandhigiri

Gandhi’s life and philosophy have cast long shadows, particularly in Hindi cinema. Almost all films that show a police station invariably have his photograph up there on the wall as part of the background décor. However, it is in the subtle messaging of Hindi cinema that his influence is most strongly felt, particularly the way our films have for the longest time made a virtue of being poor, equating money with all evil.

Possibly the one film that epitomises the enduring legacy of the Mahatma and was instrumental in reintroducing him in popular discourse is Raju Hirani’s Lage Raho Munna Bhai (2006). In a stroke of genius, the filmmakers have a goonda hallucinating about the Mahatma, who inspires him to ‘Gandhigiri’ (the term caught on in a big way, leading to a 2016 film starring Om Puri titled Gandhigiri) instead of gundagiri as a tool to get your way

Munnabhai and Gandhi

Though not as influential as the Munna Bhai film, Jahnu Barua’s Maine Gandhi Ko Nahin Mara (2005) is as important. The film, about a retired professor whose dementia-wasted mind begins to believe that he was accused of killing Gandhi, is a metaphoric exposition of what Gandhi and the values he espoused mean today, how he has been reduced to a statute, a road and a stamp. If Munna Bhai has the two goondas recalling Gandhi only from his photo on currency notes and on account of 2 October being a dry day, Barua’s film highlights how we remember the man only on two days – 2 October and 30 January

Gandhi’s influence on the national psyche has been part of many other films tangentially. The 2009 film Road to Sangam is the story of a Muslim mechanic entrusted the job of repairing an old V8 ford engine, little knowing that the car had once carried Gandhi’s ashes to the sangam for immersion. While Shah Rukh Khan’s character in Swades is named Mohan, and the film, according to Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson Tushar Gandhi, “epitomises Gandhi’s values”, A. Balakrishnan’s Welcome Back Gandhi (2012) imagines the leader returning to contemporary India and dealing with a country he barely recognises.

Girish Kasaravalli’s Koormavatara (2011) tells the story of a government employee who is selected to portray Gandhi in a TV series, owing to his strong resemblance to the leader. Having never acted before and not a believer in Gandhian principles, he resists before reluctantly taking up the assignment. Reading on Gandhi and his philosophies transforms his life as people start flocking to him and he must negotiate the tricky terrain of being regarded as a modern-day Gandhi.

Different Strokes

Imagine Gandhi and and civil rights champion Martin Luther King Jr engaged in a battle of rap! That is exactly what Keegan Michael Key and Jordan Peele did in the popular web series Key and Peele, which has Gandhi and King going the hip-hop way to decide who is the better pacifist.

While the inspiration behind the name of the Canadian punk rock band, Propagandhi, is not hard to ascertain, the animated TV series Clone High, made by Phil Lord, Christopher Miller and Bill Lawrence, imagined teenage versions of legends, among them Gandhi, who is shown as a ‘fun-loving, hyperactive teenage slacker’. An episode in the popular TV show Seinfeld has a character claiming to have met Gandhi and having an affair with him. In the TV series Family Guy, Gandhi shows up as a stand-up comedian while South Park has a character meeting Gandhi in hell. 

Following in the footsteps of Mahatma Vs Gandhi and Lillete Dubey’s Sammy, from Pratap Sharma’s play (the title derived from the word ‘swami’ which was used by South African whites as a demeaning term for Indian workers), Danesh Khambata went the Broadway-style musical way with his theatrical production, Gandhi: The Musical. The play covers the leader’s life through sixteen songs, a dozen dances, featuring a cast of over forty dancers, incredibly introducing song-and-dance routines into the Mahatma’s life.

The impact that playing Gandhi has on an actor and the process that it involves also need to be explored at greater length as it provides insights on how influential he continues to be. Joy Sengupta, who portrayed Gandhi in Sammy, says, “It changed my perspective in life. I was all revolutionary and fashionably loathing Gandhi. I had even directed a play on Bhagat Singh, taking pot-shots at Gandhi. Sohail Hashmi told me not to do that, as Gandhi was the only and the most powerful secular symbol surviving in India. That kind of opened a few clogs in my head regarding what secularism is, whether it could coexist with spiritualism, etc. Ten years later, Sammy happened. I gave up all mainstream work for four months to focus on the play. I went to every Gandhi institution I could, pored over every photograph to imbibe the body language. Every films division reel to get his body rhythm. Recording of his speeches gave me his intonation and pitch. I switched to a Gandhian diet and lost 12 kg. I travelled by local transport. I took in all the hardships and drew strength from the Gandhian perspective of using your negatives by turning them into your strengths. This is something I had read when I was a kid in a school textbook, and it had remained with me. Now it became my full-blown philosophy – hardships and punishment can go on to make you a better man. I did not go for any complicated process – Gandhi believed in simplicity and executed everything in its simple organic form (something the intellectual Nehru found difficult to understand). It was simple. Be transparent, rely on truth, accept faults and do penance, forgive others, do it yourself, and always look at the poorest and most vulnerable as a consequence of your actions. Most importantly, listen to your inner voice for guidance. If you really mix all that, you get a simple childlike man who was always busy doing simple things to improve his inner being. I aimed for his essence, focussing on catching his spirit on stage and not mimicking him.”

Songs eulogising Gandhi are dime a dozen in India, of course. These include the reverential non-film ‘Suno-suno ae duniya waalon Bapu ki ye amar kahani’(Mohammad Rafi) and ‘Gundham hamare Gandhiji’ (S.D Burman).

While the celebrated ‘De di hamme azadi bina khadag bina dhal, Sabarmati ke sant tune kar diya kamal’ (Jagriti, 1953) spoke of Gandhi as someone to look up to, to emulate, Lage Raho Munna Bhai’s sensational ‘Bande mein tha dum’ made Gandhi cool, a buddy you can count on when in trouble, giving us a Gandhi for Generation Z.

For someone who has been such an integral part of popular culture, and for someone almost deified for his pacifism, Gandhi’s views on cinema are stridently illiberal. In fact, some of his pronouncements almost echo those of the bigoted ‘right’ that keeps calling for bans and boycotts. Describing cinema as a ‘sinful technology’ and a ‘corrupting influence [as bad as] a drinking bout, he said, “If I was made prime minister, I would close all the cinemas and theatres…” and “if I had my way, I would see to it that all cinemas and theatres in this country were converted into spinning halls”.

He watched just two films in his life, and hated both. The first one was Mission to Moscow (1943), which Miraben insisted he watch. The film, based on the memoirs of Joseph Davies, the US ambassador to Russia, featured scantily clad women in a few dancing scene. Horrified, Gandhi admonished the people there ‘for showing such nude dances’ to him. Soon after, he happened to watch Vijay Bhatt’s production Ram Rajya, at the insistence of the film’s art director, Kanti Desai. Extremely reluctant, Gandhi agreed only because, as he said, “I will have to see an Indian film as I have made the mistake of watching an English one.” And contrary to popular opinion, as industrialist Shanti Kumar Morarje mentioned, he disliked it ‘especially because of the shouting and uproar in the film’.

Such was his abhorrence for cinema – “The cinema, the stage, the race-course, the drink-booth and the opium-den – all these [are] enemies of society …” – that industry stalwarts like Khwaja Ahmad Abbas and Baburao Patel wrote open letters and editorials to Gandhi, articulating “the positive contribution of cinema to entertainment and its utility as a tool to further the cause of Indian freedom movement.” Patel wrote: “Let this champion of Daridra Narayan come down and meet us and we shall try to convince him, or be convinced. Surely as workers in the film field, we are not worse than the poor untouchables for whom the old Mahatma’s heart so often bleeds. And if he thinks we are, the more reason why he should come to our rescue.”

But to no avail. Gandhi remained unmoved. As he said, “I refuse to be enthused about [cinema] and waste God-given time [on it] … in Ahmedabad children get headaches, lose power of thinking, get fever and die … The disease is caused by going to cinemas.”

The dislike defied all logic and was so deep-rooted that it probably needs a psychiatric assessment. Or better still, a film that addresses the great man’s aversion to cinema.

(Parts of this essay was first published in The Telegraph)

Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri is a film buff, editor, publisher, film critic and writer. Books commissioned and edited by him have won the National Award for Best Book on Cinema twice and the inaugural MAMI (Mumbai Academy of Moving Images) Award for Best Writing on Cinema. In 2017, he was named Editor of the Year by the apex publishing body, Publishing Next. He has contributed to a number of magazines and websites like The Daily Eye, Cinemaazi, Film Companion, The Wire, Outlook, The Taj, and others. He is the author of two books: Whims – A Book of Poems(published by Writers Workshop) and Icons from Bollywood (published by Penguin/Puffin).

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Click here to access the Borderless anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles

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Contents

Borderless, January 2023

Painting by Sohana Manzoor

Editorial

Will Monalisa Smile Again? … Click here to read.

Translations

Nazrul’s Ring Bells of Victory has been translated from Bengali by Professor Fakrul Alam. Click here to read.

Nobody in the Sky by S Ramarishnan, has translated from Tamil by R Sathish. Click here to read.

The Bike Thief by Ihlwha Choi has been translated from Korean by the poet himself. Click here to read.

Tagore’s Banshi or Flute has been translated by Mitali Chakravarty from Bengali.Click here to read.

Poetry

Click on the names to read

Jared Carter, Ranu Uniyal, Rhys Hughes, Saranyan BV, Scott Thomas Outlar, Priyanka Panwar, Ron Pickett, Ananya Sarkar, K.S. Subramaniam, George Freek, Snigdha Agrawal, Jenny Middleton, Asad Latif, Michael R Burch

Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

In I Went to Kerala, Rhys Hughes treads a humorous path. Click here to read.

Conversation

In Conversation with Abhay K, a poet turned diplomat, translator and a polyglot, converses of how beauty inspired him to turn poet and translating Kalidasa and other poets taught him technique. Click here to read.

Musings/Slices from Life

What do Freddy Mercury, Rishi Sunak & Mississipi Masala have in Common?

Farouk Gulsara muses on the human race. Click here to read.

Ghosh & Company

Ratnottama Sengupta relives the past. Click here to read.

Sails, Whales, and Whimsical Winds

Meredith Stephens continues on her sailing adventures in New South Wales and spots some sporting whales. Click here to read.

Tsunami 2004: After 18 years

Sarpreet Kaur travels back to take a relook at the tsunami in 2004 from Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Click here to read.

‘I am in a New York state of mind’

Ravi Shankar shares his travel adventures in the city. Click here to read.

Half a World Away from Home

Mike Smith introspects on his travels to New Zealand. Click here to read.

Musings of a Copywriter

In Back to the Past, Devraj Singh Kalsi muses on the need to relive nostalgia. Click here to read.

Notes from Japan

In The Year of the Tiger Papa, Suzanne Kamata gives us a glimpse of Japan’s education system with a touch of humour. Click here to read.

Essays

A Solitary Pursuit: The Art of Suhas Roy

Ratnottama Sengupta journeys with the signature art of Suhas Roy as it transformed in theme, style, and medium. Click here to read.

New Perspectives on Cinema & Mental Health

Between 1990 and 2017 one in seven people in India suffered from mental illness. However, the depiction of this in cinema has been poor and sensationalist contends Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri. Click here to read.

The Observant Immigrant

In The Immigrant’s Dilemma, Candice Louisa Daquin explores immigrants and the great American Dream. Click here to read.

Stories

The Book Truck

Salini Vineeth writes a story set in the future. Click here to read.

The Scholar

Chaturvedi Divi explores academia. Click here to read.

Little Billy

Paul Mirabile renders the poignant tale of a little boy. Click here to read.

Book Excerpts

An excerpt from Sanjay Kumar’s Performing, Teaching and Writing Theatre: Exploring Play. Click here to read.

An excerpt from Abhay K’s Monsoon: A Poem of Love & Longing. Click here to read.

Book Reviews

Somdatta Mandal reviews Priya Hajela’s Ladies Tailor: A novel. Click here to read.

Rakhi Dalal reviews Shrinivas Vaidya’s A Handful of Sesame, translated from Kannada by Maithreyi Karnoor. Click here to read.

Gracy Samjetsabam reviews K.A. Abbas’s Sone Chandi Ke Buth: Writings on Cinema, translated and edited by Syeda Hameed and Sukhpreet Kahlon. Click here to read.

Bhaskar Parichha reviews MA Sreenivasan’s Of the Raj, Maharajas and Me. Click here to read.

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Click here to access the Borderless anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles

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Editorial

Will Monalisa Smile Again?

The first month of 2023 has been one of the most exciting! Our first book, Monalisa No Longer Smiles: An Anthology of Writings from across the World, is now in multiple bookstores in India (including Midlands and Om Bookstores). It has also had multiple launches in Delhi and been part of a festival.

We, Meenakshi Malhotra and I, were privileged to be together at the physical book events. We met the editor in chief of Om Books International, Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri, the editor of our anthology, Jyotsna Mehta, along with two translators and writers I most admire, Aruna Chakravarti and Radha Chakravarty, who also graced a panel discussion on the anthology during our physical book launch. The earlier e-book launch had been in November 2022. My heartfelt thanks to the two eminent translators and Chaudhuri for being part of the discussions at both these launches. Chaudhuri was also in the panel along with Debraj Mookerjee at a launch organised by Malhotra and the English Literary Society steered by Nabaneeta Choudhury at Hans Raj College, Delhi University. An energising, interactive session with students and faculty where we discussed traditional and online publishing, we are immensely grateful to Malhotra for actively organising the event and to the Pandies’ founder, Sanjay Kumar, for joining us for the discussion. It was wonderful to interact with young minds. On the same day, an online discussion on the poetry in Monalisa No Longer Smiles was released by the Pragati Vichar Literary Festival (PVLF) in Delhi.

At the PVLF session, I met an interesting contemporary diplomat cum poet, Abhay K. He has translated Kalidasa’s Meghaduta and the Ritusamhara from Sanskrit and then written a long poem based on these, called Monsoon. We are hosting a conversation with him and are carrying book excerpts from Monsoon, a poem that is part of the curriculum in Harvard. The other book excerpt is from Sanjay Kumar’s Performing, Teaching and Writing Theatre: Exploring Play, a book that has just been published by the Cambridge University Press.

Perhaps because it is nearing the Republic Day of India, we seem to have a flurry of book reviews that reflect the Sub-continental struggle for Independence from the colonials. Somdatta Mandal has reviewed Priya Hajela’s Ladies Tailor: A novel, a book that takes us back to the trauma of the Partition that killed nearly 200,000 to 2 million people – the counts are uncertain. Bhaskar Parichha has discussed MA Sreenivasan’s Of the Raj, Maharajas and Me, a biography of a long serving official in the Raj era — two different perspectives of the same period. Rakhi Dalal has shared her views on Shrinivas Vaidya’s A Handful of Sesame, translated from Kannada by Maithreyi Karnoor, a book that dwells on an immigrant to the Southern part of India in the same time period. The legendary film writer K.A. Abbas’s Sone Chandi Ke Buth: Writings on Cinema, translated and edited by Syeda Hameed and Sukhpreet Kahlon, has been praised by Gracy Samjetsabam.

We have a piece on mental health in cinema by Chaudhuri, an excellent essay written after interviewing specialists in the field. Ratnottama Sengupta has given us a vibrant piece on Suhas Roy, an artist who overrides the bounds of East and West to create art that touches the heart. Candice Louisa Daquin has written on border controls and migrants in America. High profile immigrants have also been the subject of Farouk Gulsara’s ‘What do Freddy Mercury, Rishi Sunak & Mississipi Masala have in Common?’ Sengupta also writes of her immigrant family, including her father, eminent writer, Nabendu Ghosh, who moved from Bengal during the Partition. There are a number of travel pieces across the world by Ravi Shankar, Meredith Stephens and Mike Smith — each written in distinctively different styles and exploring different areas on our beautiful Earth. Sarpreet Kaur has revisited the devastation of the 2004 tsunami and wonders if it is a backlash from nature. Could it be really that?

Suzanne Kamata gives us a glimpse of the education system in Japan in her column with a humorous overtone. Devraj Singh Kalsi dwells on the need for nostalgia with a tongue-in-cheek approach. Rhys Hughes makes us rollick with laughter when he talks of his trip to Kerala and yet there is no derision, perhaps, even a sense of admiration in the tone. Hughes poetry also revels in humour. We have wonderful poetry from Jared Carter, Ranu Uniyal, Asad Latif, Anaya Sarkar, Michael R Burch, Scott Thomas Outlar, Priyanka Panwar, George Freek and many more.

The flavours of cultures is enhanced by the translation of Nazrul’s inspirational poetry by Professor Fakrul Alam, Korean poetry written and translated by Ihlwha Choi and a transcreation of Tagore’s poem Banshi (or flute) which explores the theme of inspiration and the muse. We have a story by S Ramakrishnan translated from Tamil by R Sathish. The short stories featured at the start of this year startle with their content. Salini Vineeth writes a story set in the future and Paul Mirabile tells the gripping poignant tale of a strange child.

With these and more, we welcome you to savour the January 2023 edition of Borderless, which has been delayed a bit as we were busy with the book events for our first anthology. I am truly grateful to all those who arranged the discussions and hosted us, especially Ruchika Khanna, Om Books International, the English Literary Society of Hans Raj College and to the attendees of the event. My heartfelt thanks to the indefatigable team and our wonderful writers, artists and readers, without who this journey would have remained incomplete. Special thanks to Sohana Manzoor for her artwork. Many thanks to the readers of Borderless Journal and Monalisa No Longer Smiles. I hope you will find the book to your liking. We have made a special page for all comments and reviews.

I wish you a wonderful 2023. Let us make a New Year’s wish —

May all wars and conflicts end so that our iconic Monalisa can start smiling again!

Mitali Chakravarty,

borderlessjournal.com

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Photographs of events around Monalisa No Longer Smiles: An Anthology of Writings from across the World. Click here to access the Book.

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Insta Link to an excerpt of the launch at Om Bookstore. Click here to view.

E-Launch of the first anthology of Borderless Journal, November 14th 2022. Click here to view.

Categories
Essay

New Perspectives on Cinema & Mental Health

Between 1990 and 2017 one in seven people in India suffered from mental illness ranging from depression and anxiety to severe conditions such as schizophrenia. However, the depiction of this in cinema has been poor and sensationalist contends Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri.

‘In a lot of films there is the underlying message that all the patient really needs is love and affection. There is a tendency in films to try and normalise mental illness by saying that patients don’t need treatment, they need love. The audience gets the two extremes and what we are not getting are portrayals of people with chronic illness.’ – Dr Cleo Van Velsen, psychiatrist

A poet loses his mental balance on seeing his beloved fall to her death. And what do his family members do? They approach a dancing girl in a brothel to marry him in a bid to get him cured. In a fit of madness, he even rapes her, and she becomes pregnant. But the typical ‘good Indian woman’ that she is, she perseveres in her effort. A few convoluted plot-turns later, the poet gets into a brawl with the villain, resulting in the latter falling to his death, much like his lover. Lo and behold! He is cured, though now he has no memory of the dancing girl.

A nurse in a mental hospital is asked to take care of a patient as part of an ‘experiment’ that its dictatorial army doctor president wants to conduct. The patient is cured but it affects the nurse’s emotional stability. Insensitive to her turmoil, the doctor, preening with the ‘success’ of his experiment, more or less browbeats her into another one with a new patient. With disastrous consequences. Not only is the science/medicine of it dodgy (romantic love to cure a person), it also has the doctor spouting a line like ‘there’s nothing like a woman’s love and care to heal an unstable mind’, while the inmates going around the institute are, in the words of writer and critic Madhulika Liddle, the quintessential Hindi-film, “singing-screeching-long-haired lunatics in films like Khilona, Pagla Kahin Ka, Anhonee, etc”.

These are two of Hindi cinema’s most celebrated films, both huge commercial and critical successes: Khilona and Khamoshi. And both equally and criminally unaware of what mental health entails. Over fifty years later, on the evidence of films like Atarangi Re, Hasee Toh Phasee, Judgemental Hai Kya, Bhool Bhulaiyaa, Anjana Anjani, Tere Naam (in Hindi) and Hridpindo, Habgi Gabji and Bela Shuru (in Bengali), films continue to be as clueless about mental health conditions (MCHs) and how to deal with them.

As Vidushi Duggal, clinical psychologist and co-founder of Accept, says, “Mental health issues are grossly misrepresented in Hindi cinema. First, there is a tendency among filmmakers to select only the more overt (and hence the more ‘dramatic’) MHCs for portrayal, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, dissociative identity disorder to name a few. Second, the lack of proper understanding and research, coupled with creative liberties aimed at sensational dramatisation, manifests as misinformed content.”

Her colleague and co-founder of Accept, Nikita Ramachandran, also a clinical psychologist, adds, “The depiction of mental health, despite advancement in literature, conversations and growing awareness remains largely uninformed. The core of this depiction is a viewing of mental health from the lens of chronicity and severity of illness. The scope of mental health has largely been limited to insidious mental health conditions such as depressive disorders, OCD, schizophrenia, with some focus on developmental disorders such as intellectual disability, autism or learning disorders. This depiction itself poses a problem, due to the association of mental health with illness/disease. The illness-lens fails to consider a fundamental truth – that mental health exists by virtue of being human.”

Leave alone such classic portrayals as A Streetcar Named Desire, Ingmar Bergman’s Persona and Hour of the Wolf, going back to the 1950s and ’60s, to more contemporary ones as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, A Beautiful Mind, Silver Linings Playbook, one would be hard-pressed to find one Hindi or Bengali film which addresses the theme with any verisimilitude till almost the new millennium.

There was the odd Mahesh Bhatt film like Arth and Phir Teri Kahani Yaad Aayi. One character that might escape attention when we talk of MHCs is the tenacious cop played by Boman Irani in Jijy Philip’s My Wife’s Murder, which has an interesting and understated subtext linking a food fetish with subtle melancholia.

Over the last couple of decades, films depicting mental illnesses have proliferated, sadly, with little responsibility and almost no understanding. While it is interesting that the films that managed to get some of it right were all made in the new millennium – reflecting a greater awareness about MHCs and greater acceptance in popular discourse – it is equally frustrating that some of the most pathetic films too have been made in the last two decades. As Vidushi Duggal says, “They depict an oversimplified and skewed portrayal of the MHCs in question, replete with stereotypical and insensitive portrayals that are magnified for dramatic effect.”

But this has been par for the course from, say, a Pagla Kahin Ka in 1970 and other films of the era which showed electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) as the cure for all symptoms of ‘madness’, to Krazzy 4 in 2008, where four patients suffering from every disorder possible escape the institution they have been committed to. Their experiences and conditions are then played out for laughs in a manner that is not only insensitive but also offensive.

The Films That Got It Partly Right

Dear Zindagi: That this Gauri Shinde film has been feted in the India media despite its problematic therapist-client relationship says a lot about how starved we are of responsible content. It needs to be applauded for its very nuanced take on mental health (Alia Bhatt[1] is a revelation), with none of the cliches that we are used to. It is also one of the few films that has its protagonist seeking therapy and that depicts sessions with a psychiatrist. As Vidushi Duggal says, “I can think of no realistic psychiatrist in Indian cinema. SRK’s[2] character may come close to a halfway decent portrayal of a psychotherapist in practice, but it too has problematic elements.” One major problem pertains to the relationship between the client and therapist with the latter even taking the former out to the beach for ‘sessions’ and talking about his own failed marriage and relationship with his son. A strict no-no as far as therapy is concerned in real life. As Anupama Chopra pointed out, the film offers a “Vogue version of therapy – a lovely expansive Goa house, sessions during walks on the beach, cycling together and dialogue like har tooti hui cheez jodi ja sakti hai[3]. It’s manicured and pat.”

Taare Zameen Par: This much-lauded film gave us the very real world of a dyslexic child and his relationship with a teacher who recognises his problem and inspires him and people around him to come to terms with and understand the very real gifts the child possesses. Though the child’s trouble with simple arithmetic is more a trait of dyscalculia than dyslexia, it remains a rare Hindi film that has found mention in peer-reviewed academic journals like Annals of Indian Academy of Neurology and Indian Journal of Psychiatry. These journals have praised the film for its general accuracy in depicting dyslexia which “deserves to be vastly appreciated as an earnest endeavour to portray with sensitivity and empathetically diagnose a malady”, blending ‘modern professional knowledge’ with a ‘humane approach’ in working with a dyslexic child. However, it needs to be mentioned that dyslexia is a learning disability and not a mental illness. That the filmmakers club it with other mental illnesses shows how mental health is not correctly understood.

15 Park Avenue: The story of a woman, Mithi (Konkona Sen Sharma[4]), conjuring a utopia in her mind – an imaginary house, 15 Park Avenue, that gives the film its name, happy mother of five imaginary children, wife of an imaginary husband – and living with it, Aparna Sen’s [5]film, shattering and affecting in equal measure, addresses mental illness with a sensitivity and accuracy that almost all Indian films lack. The telling moment when Mithi’s sister (played by Shabana Azmi[6]) tells the psychiatrist (Dhritiman Chatterjee[7]), “What right do we have to take away the happiness she gets from her imaginary world?”, raises an issue that is rarely addressed, the subjectivity of reality: hallucinations can be just as compelling as ‘reality’. Just because someone’s perceptions of reality is at variance from ours, does it give us the right to term the former ‘abnormal’ or object to it?

Death in the Gunj: Konkona Sen Sharma’s directorial debut is another rare film that addresses the unravelling of a fragile mind over a family holiday. Given that the film is set in 1979, an era when there was no conversation around the subject, there is no overt mention of mental health. Also, though Shutu (Vikrant Massey[8]) may be the one who comes across as prone to what could be called mental health issues, the film strips the veneer off the ‘loving family’ to show how we are complicit with our toxic masculinity and bullying in driving a frail mind off the rails.

Other films that got aspects of it right are Black, which despite going over the top in many crucial sequences offers a very nuanced understanding of Alzheimer’s, and Kartik Calling Kartik, one of the first Hindi films dealing with schizophrenia.

The Bad and the Ugly

Tere Naam: Leading the list would be this Salman Khan [9]starrer that featured a mentally unstable protagonist whose head is shaved, and who is tied in chains. The mental hospital sequence in the film is a gratuitous misrepresentation. In a gross failure of messaging, like Shah Rukh Khan’s Rahul in Darr, Radhe Mohan’s obsessiveness, in keeping with the tradition of ‘heroes’ stalking women in Hindi films, is presented as worthy of emulation. One aspect of Hindi films dealing with mental health issues that needs to be called out is the manner in which they position unrequited love/obsession as a trigger, often portraying that as a fashionable antihero statement. Which of course harks back to Saratchandra Chattopadhyay’s Devdas, the original ‘antihero’ who could have done with psychiatric consultation.

Vidushi Duggal says, “While many films have gone on to give this impression, I would be wary of making that connection as it is yet another example of misinformed sensationalisation. Mental health issues are complex and have multiple causal factors – genetic, biological, psychological and social/environmental. Nikita Ramachandran adds: “The depiction of someone unravelling or descending into a breakdown or developing a mental health condition is an inaccurate portrayal, as well as an overgeneralisation that caters to the general theme of love, attempting to add an ‘interesting’ dimension or layer to this portrayal of love. Equally problematic is the manner in which mental health has been pathologised for a long time. Behaviour seen as deviant, classified as ‘abnormal’, characters depicted with mental health issues were villainized. The violent death has been an age-old trope of a satisfactory ‘The End’, where closure has been synonymous with death and a general depiction of ‘good over evil’.”

Bhool Bhulaiyaa: A psychological horror comedy (!) that ostensibly deals with dissociative identity disorder (DID), this colossal hit makes a series of missteps about mental disorders. Hypnosis as a cure for DID, ‘treatments’ rooted in superstition (including a psychological condition that is cured when the doctor slaps the patient), ‘psychiatrists’ who applaud themselves as godmen – it is an endless list of shocking distortions. Akshay Kumar [10] as a psychiatrist. Need one say more?

Atarangi Re: ‘I am a psychiatrist, and I know women.’ That’s a dialogue a doctor mouths and that’s the level of discourse around mental health this film stoops to. In another sequence the doctor clubs together people with bipolar, psychiatrist disorders and schizophrenia in a manner that’s downright offensive. In one sequence, the ‘imaginary’ character Sajjad, a magician, is supposed to make the Taj Mahal disappear and fails to do so only because the patient has popped a pill immediately before the ‘act’. Filmmaker Aanand L. Rai is a serial offender when it comes to woeful depiction of mental health issues, with the protagonists of Tanu Weds Manu Returns shown consulting a marriage counsellor in an asylum! The man describes his wife’s irrational behaviour as an example of bipolarity to which the doctor responds: “In that case, every woman is bipolar.”  

Anjana Anjani: Writing about the ‘hollow space in my heart’ that made her use the term ‘death thoughts’, Therese Borchard says in her blog, “The most difficult thing I will ever do in my lifetime is to not take my life.” That is everything that is wrong Anjana Anjani, where two adults battling life crises enter a pact to take their own lives. A hugely problematic representation that romanticises suicide, it makes a mockery of the breakdown that drives people to such despair. 

Hasee Toh Phasee: The protagonist here, described as ‘mental Meeta’ in the film’s promotional material, blinks her eyes incessantly, twitches her nose, is extremely jittery – all of which are shown as symptomatic of ‘madness’. She is constantly popping pills to control these sensations which lead to odd situations.

The Situation in Bengali Cinema

Such is the paucity of characters dealing with MHCs in Bengali cinema that a few filmmakers I reached out to, could not come up with a single film on the subject. One pointed out Aparna Sen’s Paromitar Ekdin for its realistic and heartfelt delineation of the character of Khuku, a girl with intellectual disability who is referred to as ‘schizophrenic’ by other characters in the film. Uttam Kumar’s[11]1955 film Hrad, based on a novel by Bimal Kar, is another instance of a film that places its protagonist in an asylum. He seems to have forgotten parts of his life and behaves in a manner that make people feel he is ‘mad’. There’s of course Deep Jwele Jaai, the Bengali original of Khamoshi

Three recent films stand out as examples of how clueless writers and filmmakers are when it comes to depiction of MHCs. Shieladityo Moulik’s Hridpindo is the story of a woman who, because of an accident and the brain surgery that follows, is left with her fourteen-year-old self, with no memory of her life after, including her husband. However, her pronounced lisp and the way she behaves, constantly demanding attention, leaves you wondering if she is a child of seven! Not to mention that a film dealing with a brain surgery is called Hridpindo.

Raj Chakraborty’s Habgi Gabji, the title a take-off on PUBG, addresses the very relevant theme of gaming and mobile addiction and its frightening consequences on young minds. Bolstered by a good turn by child actor Samantak Dyuti Maitra, the film, despite its noble intentions, suffers from the same problems that beset many other films of the genre. The child is taken to a psychiatrist. However, the session does not take place in a professional space but in the doctor’s drawing room. There is little emphasis on understanding, prevention and cure, with a large part of the meandering script devoted to the child’s violence and alienation. Which is disappointing given that the WHO has defined gaming disorder as a “pattern of behaviour characterised by impaired control over gaming, increasing priority given to gaming over other activities” and has flagged the escalation of gaming as a major health risk.

Bela Shuru, one of the biggest successes of 2022, is a high-intensity melodrama with a social message, typical of films by the filmmaker duo Nandita Roy and Shiboprasad Mukherjee. It addresses the onset of Alzheimer’s in the elderly but the symptoms that the wife displays – smearing her face with vermilion, among others – is more in tune with lunacy than the more insidious effects of Alzheimer’s. It is obvious that the filmmakers opt for the overdramatic and take creative liberties in the depiction of mental health issues, dumbing down the narrative, in the process bracketing different illnesses under the same umbrella and distorting the truth.

The lack of proper representation in Bengali cinema is also surprising given that its biggest icon, Satyajit Ray, introduced the world to many unheard-of mental health issues in his stories. Nakur Chandra Biswas in the Shonku books, for example, is a psychic who experiences flashes of the past and future. Barin Bhowmick-er Byaram is the story of a kleptomaniac who has been through therapy. The protagonist of Bipin Chowdhury-r Smritibhrom suffers from a curious case of memory loss, while Fritz explores the childhood trauma of its 37-year-old protagonist. In the Feluda story, Dr Munshi-r Diary, we have a patient who suffers from a persecution complex, an irrational fear or feeling that one is the object or target of collective hostility and persecution. What is fascinating is that Ray wrote about these conditions decades before they became part of the public discourse in India. However, none of these were adapted into cinema.

The Responsibility of Filmmakers and Writers

It is critical to note that cinema plays a significant role in shaping, creating and developing one’s understanding of reality. Films have of late started investing in an intimacy director/coordinator. Maybe it is time to have good psychiatric consultants too. Nikita Ramachandran says, “Mental health and emotional well-being are nuanced, and every story is different. It is challenging to depict the many layers, and also portray these in ways that will resonate or connect with the larger audience.” Vidushi Duggal is of the opinion that, “While acknowledging that an exhaustive depiction of all nuances of mental health is beyond the scope of a time-limited medium that is essentially designed for entertainment, as a community we need to remain cognizant of the potent and pervasive influence of cinema on creating awareness and developing/shaping attitudes. This calls for responsible filmmaking that involves adequate research on the mental health issues being portrayed.”

(Note: For Vidushi Duggal, who listened. Nikita Ramachandran, thank you for your inputs.)

A shorter version of this essay was published in Telegraph earlier

Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri is a film buff, editor, publisher, film critic and writer. Books commissioned and edited by him have won the National Award for Best Book on Cinema twice and the inaugural MAMI (Mumbai Academy of Moving Images) Award for Best Writing on Cinema. In 2017, he was named Editor of the Year by the apex publishing body, Publishing Next. He has contributed to a number of magazines and websites like The Daily Eye, Cinemaazi, Film Companion, The Wire, Outlook, The Taj, and others. He is the author of two books: Whims – A Book of Poems(published by Writers Workshop) and Icons from Bollywood (published by Penguin/Puffin).

[1] Indian film actress

[2] Indian film actor, Shah Rukh Khan

[3] Translates from Hindi as: “all broken things can be repaired”

[4] Actress and Director

[5] Actress and Director

[6] Actress

[7] Actor

[8] Actor

[9] Actor

[10] Indian film actor

[11] Actor (1926-1980)

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Contents

Borderless, December 2022

Art by Sohana Manzoor

Editorial

It’s Only Hope… Click here to read.

Conversations

Shantanu Ray Chaudhari converses with writer Gajra Kottary, a well-known writer of Indian TV series, novels and stories. Click here to read.

A discussion on Samaresh Bose’s In Search of the Pitcher of Nectar, a book that takes us to the heart of the Kumbh Mela, a festival recognised by the UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage, with the translator, Nirmal Kanti Bhattacharjee. Click here to read.

Translations

Nazrul’s Why Provide Thorns has been translated by Professor Fakrul Alam. Click here to read.

Mercy, a story be P. F. Mathews, has been translated from Malayalam by Ram Anantharaman. Click here to read.

Even A Simurgh Cannot Change Destiny, a Balochi folktale translated and retold by Fazal Baloch. Click here to read.

Confessions, a poem written by and translated from Korean by Ihlwha Choi. Click here to read.

The Sun on the First Day, a translation of Tagore’s Prothom Diner Shurjo by Mitali Chakravarty. Click here to read.

Pandies’ Corner

Songs of Freedom: Vikalangta or Disability is an autobiographical narrative by Kajal, translated from Hindustani by Janees. These narrations highlight the ongoing struggle against debilitating rigid boundaries drawn by societal norms, with the support from organisations like Shaktishalini and Pandies. Click here to read.

Poetry

Click on the names to read

Jared Carter, Sukrita Paul Kumar, Rhys Hughes, Asad Latif, Luis Cuauhtémoc Berriozábal, Santosh Bakaya, Phil Wood, Sharanya B, George Freek, Saibal Chatterjee, Jonathan Chan, Sutputra Radheye, Shambhu Nath Banerjee, Michael Burch

Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

In Some Differences Between Wales and India, Rhys Hughes makes some hilarious comparisons. Click here to read.

Musings/ Slices from Life

Near-Life Experiences: Hiking in New Zealand

Keith Lyons escapes city life to find his happy place while hiking in New Zealand. Click here to read.

The Seven Grandfather Teachings

Saeed Ibrahim introduces us to Native Indian lore from Canada and shows its relevance in the current times. Click here to read.

Dismasted in Bass Strait

Meredith Stephens takes us for a sailing adventure with photographs in the Southern Hemisphere. Click here to read.

Musings of a Copywriter

In Of Mice & Men, Devraj Singh Kalsi talks of his encounters with rats. Click here to read.

Notes from Japan

In A Clean Start, Suzanne Kamata tells us how the Japanese usher in a new year. Click here to read.

Stories

Annapurna Bhavan

Lakshmi Kannan closes class divides in Chennai over a meal. Click here to read.

Two Faces of a Mirror

Tulip Chowdhury gives us a story set in a Bangladeshi village. Click here to read.

The Slip

Sushma R Doshi takes a look at the pandemic against an Indian middle-class set up. Click here to read.

Till Life Do Us Part

Devraj Singh Kalsi explores a strange new trend. Click here to read.

Essays

Orangutans & a School at Sarawak

Christina Yin, a conservationist, travels to Borneo in an attempt to create awareness for conserving the Orangutan. Click here to read.

Taiping of the Raj Era

Ravi Shankar explores Taiping in Malaysia with a camera and words. Click here to read.

Ivory Ivy & Stephen Dedalus

Paul Mirabile explores James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus and his passion for words keeping in mind the hundred year old Ulysees & the even older, A Portrait of the Artists as a Young Man. Click here to read.

Book Excerpts

An excerpt from Radha Chakravarty’s translation of Tagore’s Farewell Song. Click here to read.

An excerpt or two short narratives from Rhys Hughes’ Yule Do Nicley. Click here to read.

Book Reviews

Somdatta Mandal reviews The Shaping of Modern Calcutta: The Lottery Committee Years, 1817 – 1830 by Ranabir Ray Chaudhury. Click here to read.

Rakhi Dalal reviews Freny Manecksha’s Flaming Forest, Wounded Valley: Stories from Bastar and Kashmir. Click here to read.

Basudhara Roy reviews Manoranjan Byapari’s How I Became a Writer: An Autobiography of a Dalit. Click here to read.

Bhaskar Parichha reviews In Search of the Divine: Living Histories of Sufism in India by Rana Safvi. Click here to read.

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Click here to access the Borderless anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles

You are all welcome to the book talks of our first anthology

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Editorial

Its Only Hope…

Painting by Sybil Pretious

New year, like a newborn, starts with hope.

The next year will do the same – we will all celebrate with Auld Lang Syne and look forward to a resolution of conflicts that reared a frightening face in 2022 and 2021. Perhaps, this time, if we have learnt from history, there will not be any annihilation but only a movement towards resolution. We have more or less tackled the pandemic and are regaining health despite the setbacks and disputes. There could be more outbreaks but unlike in the past, this time we are geared for it. That a third World War did not break out despite provocation and varied opinions, makes me feel we have really learnt from history.

That sounds almost like the voice of hope. This year was a landmark for Borderless Journal. As an online journal, we found a footing in the hardcopy world with our own anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles: Writings from Across the World, which had a wonderful e-launch hosted by our very well-established and supportive publisher, Om Books International. And now, it is in Om Book Shops across all of India. It will soon be on Amazon International. We also look forward to more anthologies that will create a dialogue on our values through different themes and maybe, just maybe, some more will agree with the need for a world that unites in clouds of ideas to take us forward to a future filled with love, hope and tolerance.

One of the themes of our journal has been reaching out for voices that speak for people. The eminent film critic and editor, Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri , has shared a conversation with such a person, the famed Gajra Kottary, a well-known writer of Indian TV series, novels and stories. The other conversation is with Nirmal Kanti Bhattajarchee, the translator of Samaresh Bose’s In Search of a Pitcher of Nectar, a book describing the Kumbh-mela, that in 2017 was declared to be an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. Bhattacharjee tells us how the festival has grown and improved in organisation from the time the author described a stampede that concluded the festivities. Life only gets better moving forward in time, despite events that terrorise with darkness. Facing fear and overcoming it does give a great sense of achievement.

Perhaps, that is what Freny Manecksha felt when she came up with a non-fiction called Flaming Forest, Wounded Valley: Stories from Bastar and Kashmir, which has been reviewed by Rakhi Dalal. Basudhara Roy has also tuned in with a voice that struggled to be heard as she discusses Manoranjan Byapari’s How I Became a Writer: An Autobiography of a Dalit. Somdatta Mandal has reviewed The Shaping of Modern Calcutta: The Lottery Committee Years, 1817 – 1830 by Ranabir Ray Chaudhury, a book that explores how a lottery was used by the colonials to develop the city. Bhaskar Parichha has poured a healing balm on dissensions with his exploration of Rana Safvi’s In Search of the Divine: Living Histories of Sufism in India as he concludes: “Weaving together facts and popular legends, ancient histories and living traditions, this unique treatise running into more than four hundred pages examines core Sufi beliefs and uncovers why they might offer hope for the future.”

In keeping with the festive season is our book excerpt from Rhys Hughes’ funny stories in his Christmas collection, Yule Do Nicely. Radha Chakravarty who brings many greats from Bengal to Anglophone readers shared an excerpt – a discussion on love — from her translation of Tagore’s novel, Farewell Song.

Love for words becomes the subject of Paul Mirabile’s essay on James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, where he touches on both A Portrait of the Artist as a young Man and  Ulysees, a novel that completed a century this year. Love for animals, especially orangutans, colours Christina Yin’s essay on conservation efforts in Borneo while Keith Lyons finds peace and an overwhelming sense of well-being during a hike in New Zealand. Ravi Shankar takes us to the historical town of Taiping in Malaysia as Meredith Stephens shares more sailing adventures in the Southern hemisphere, where it is summer. Saeed Ibrahim instils the seasonal goodwill with native Indian lores from Canada and Suzanne Kamata tells us how the Japanese usher in the New Year with a semi-humorous undertone.

Humour in non-fiction is brought in by Devraj Singh Kalsi’s ‘Of Mice and Men’ and in poetry by Santosh Bakaya. Laughter is stretched further by the inimitable Rhys Hughes in his poetry and column, where he reflects on his experiences in India and Wales. We have exquisite poetry by Jared Carter, Sukrita Paul Kumar, Asad Latif, Luis Cuauhtémoc Berriozábal, Michael R Burch, Sutputra Radheye, George Freek, Jonathan Chan and many more. Short stories by Lakshmi Kannan, Devraj Singh Kalsi, Tulip Chowdhury and Sushma R Doshi lace narratives with love, humour and a wry look at life as it is. The most amazing story comes from Kajal who pours out the story of her own battle in ‘Vikalangta or Disability‘ in Pandies’ Corner, translated from Hindustani by Janees.

Also touching and yet almost embracing the school of Absurd is PF Mathew’s story, ‘Mercy‘, translated from Malayalam by Ram Anantharaman. Fazal Baloch has brought us a Balochi folktale and Ihlwha Choi has translated his own poem from Korean to English. One of Tagore’s last poems, Prothom Diner Shurjo, translated as ‘The Sun on the First Day’ is short but philosophical and gives us a glimpse into his inner world. Professor Fakrul Alam shares with us the lyrics of a Nazrul song which is deeply spiritual by translating it into English from Bengali.

A huge thanks to all our contributors and readers, to the fabulous Borderless team without who the journal would be lost. Sohana Manzoor’s wonderful artwork continues to capture the mood of the season. Thanks to Sybil Pretious for her lovely painting. Please pause by our contents’ page to find what has not been covered in this note.

We wish you all a wonderful festive season.

Season’s Greetings from all of us at Borderless Journal.

Cheers!

Mitali Chakravarty

borderlessjournal.com

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Click here to access the Borderless anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles

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Discussion

How Gajra Kottary Weaponises Words

In a medium that is known for its regressive content, Gajra Kottary, novelist and short-story writer, has time and again gone against the tide and broken taboos. Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri looks at five shows she has written that went against the grain and emerged triumphant…

Growing up in the 1980s, one of the many pleasures of a less cluttered and leisurely time was the birth of the TV series. Many people I know would swear by the fact that the first of these represented the best of Indian television. Even close to forty years later, I can still rattle off the days on which each was telecast: Karamchand on Mondays; Hum Log[1]and then Buniyaad[2] on Tuesdays and Saturdays; Khandan[3] on Wednesdays; Ados Pados[4]on Thursdays; Yeh Jo Hain Zindagi[5]on Fridays. You had stalwarts like Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Shyam Benegal and Basu Chatterjee make fine works for the television.

Sometime by the end of the decade kitsch entered in the shape of Ramayan and Mahabharat. I moved on and lost touch. A resurgence of sorts happened with the coming of cable television, and we had path-breaking shows like Shanti and Tara. And then it became increasingly difficult to keep track of TV shows. The shows changed beyond recognition. Led by the likes of Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi,[6] they became more and more ridiculous in the worlds they represented. One word came to be bandied about regularly with respect to soap operas: regressive.

However, like all generalised judgements, a blanket application of the word is unfair to a number of serials that tried to, and often succeeded in breaking taboos, while operating within the limitations dictated by the medium and the grammar of its narrative. And the one writer who has time and again bucked the trend, gone against the tide, is Gajra Kottary, the creator of historic shows like Astitva: Ek Prem Kahani[7]and Balika Vadhu.[8]

Gajra Kottary with Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri. Photo provided by Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri

Journalism and Fiction Writing

One of the reasons Gajra manages to break new ground in her television narratives might have something to do with her training as a journalist. “IIMC [Indian Institute of Mass Communication] was a tough course to get into and we had a few fresh graduates like me, and a whole lot of older and established professional journalists from other non-aligned countries studying with us, a great mix,” she says. It provided her with a grounding in fact-based narratives while polishing her skills as a writer, of which she had provided glimpses in college, when two stories she wrote got published in Eve’s Weekly, along with two fiction-style middles in The Times of India. “The IIMC stint helped because as I have observed over the years, I have more respect for the sanctity of facts even while taking my flights of fancy than others in the business. I take fewer creative liberties than others. I have done more realistic shows on television which helped forge a distinct identity for my writing.” But it also left her confused since political and economic writing held no interest for her and Delhi offered avenues only for those.

Destiny intervened in the form of Cupid. Falling in love with Sailesh Kottary, a “hotshot and hardcore journalist”, she moved to Bombay. It was here, as a “stay-at-home mom”, that she gave wings to her imagination and honed her writing skills. Watching serials like Saans[9] and The Bold and the Beautiful might also have helped imbibe certain aspects of writing for a visual medium. Her first work of fiction, Fragile Victories, a collection of stories, led to her first assignment in television. She had sent a copy of the book to Mahesh Bhatt, who passed it on to Soni Razdan. Impressed by the collection, the latter signed Gajra up for the story and screenplay of her first TV production, Hamare Tumhare[10](2000), which marked her TV debut, before Astitva made everyone sit up and take notice.

If IIMC shaped her in some ways, another skill-set that has held her in good stead probably came from her experiments in writing fiction. Fragile Victories was followed by another collection of stories, The Last Laugh, and the novels Broken Melodies, Once Upon a Star, Girls Don’t Cry and Not Woman Enough. These helped her to keep to a discipline that could go missing in the never-ending juggernaut that is the TV soap opera. They also are testimony to her willingness to push the envelope when it comes to narratives and characters. Not many know that much before Indian writers, particularly women, began addressing issues of sexual identity and same-sex relationships, Gajra had written about these in her fiction. As she puts it, these themes “continued to ‘consume’ me”. Not Woman Enough may have been published as an e-book only recently, but it evolved from a story that she had published way back in 2003. “I felt that I hadn’t done justice to the theme in the short format, so I wrote a full-length novel titled Not Woman Enough and felt finally relieved of my obsession.” Another story, ‘Two Gold Guineas’, evolved to her third novel Girls Don’t Cry, a pun on the expression ‘boys don’t cry’ and “an ode to the bravery of women and the friendship between a grandmother, mother and daughter”.

What is startling about these works of fiction is her ability to address taboos. Not Woman Enough not only deals with a same-sex relationship, but Gajra has the audacity to set it in rural Rajasthan as opposed to an urban setting, where it would have probably been just another story. She has the perspicacity to understand that the stakes are so much higher for first-generation characters experiencing the forces of social liberation while battling age-old customs. It is the same acuity that she brings to bear upon her iconic TV shows, which have time and again shown what is possible in a medium that allows little leeway for out-of-the-box thinking. 

Astitva: Ek Prem Kahani (2002-2006, Zee TV)

Running 668 episodes, over a period of three-and-a-half years, this is the series that launched Gajra into the big league. Today, twenty years after the first episode was aired, an older woman-younger man relationship might appear staid. But back then it was bold, and Indian television had not seen anything like it. It made an icon of its lead, Niki Taneja, who plays a doctor who falls in love with a man ten years younger. What stood out is the maturity with which the series unfolds, largely devoid of the excesses that came to mark television in later years. “The first TV show maker I decided to call upon was Ajai Sinha, who had directed shows like Hasratein [11]and Justajoo[12]. He had been planning a show called Astitva with a bold theme and my timing was bang-on. It spoilt me enough to believe that television too was conducive to the kind of work I felt happy doing.” That this show managed to hold its own against a raging Kyonki[13], speaks volumes of the writer.

Balika Vadhu (2008-2016, Colors TV)

2167 episodes! Yes, you read that right. One of the longest-running shows on Indian television, this cemented Gajra’s reputation as a writer. Here again, Gajra was going out on a limb addressing a much-abused tradition prevalent in large parts of India. And sure enough, the press wasn’t flattering. It is one show that divided opinion like few others. “Yes, we received some negative press, because Anandi was this irrepressible kid, a happy child who kept bouncing back despite dealing with the dark consequences of child marriages of the past playing out in the present. It was a calculated approach as child marriage is a dark and gloomy issue. It was a conscious decision here as we needed to keep the cheer, but critics felt that we were glorifying child marriage. I think they were missing the woods for the trees.”

One possibly needs to understand the medium and its viewership to get a sense of what Gajra means. Unless the packaging is glossy enough – colourful clothes and jewellery – audiences might have been put off entirely by what is a repulsive subject. “And that would mean we would not be able to get across the underlying message of the show. These tactics are important due to the challenge of the medium of television, and the terror of the remote control. It was a classic case of the sugarcoated pill doing its work.”

Apart from the writing, the series was also recognised for its iconic performances and comments on several social issues that ail Indian society, which were woven in organically without being preachy. It also had an authentically rustic feel thanks to Purnendu Shekhar, whose concept it was. Those decrying the glossy packaging forget that the issues the series addressed included girl child education; peer, sibling and parental pressure to do the best; child labour; the begging racket; forced prostitution behind a legal façade; quacks and medical malpractices; date rape; adoption; alcoholism; divorcee and widow remarriage; trafficking in women; surrogacy; juvenile delinquency and teenage crimes, among others. From the comfort of our air-conditioned condos and offices, far removed from these realities, it was easy for the elitist press to criticise the series.

One standout episode dealt with the protagonist’s first experience of menstruation. This is a subject still, despite Padman and the increased conversation around it, spoken of in hushed tones. It is fascinating to hear Gajra’s take on this: “I remember how we involved Avika’s [the child actor who played Anandi] mother to explain to the child privately about menstruation before we shot the scene showing a young girl’s trauma when it happens to her as a bahu in a conservative household. Lots of people wrote to us about delaying the marriages of their girl children after watching Balika Vadhu. There was a girl who was emboldened enough to annul her marriage that had happened as a child when she turned eighteen. We received mails even from parents of city girls who were now reversing their decisions to get their girls married by the time they were sixteen.”

There was of course the flipside of popularity, when the writer received a death threat on Twitter if she dared to kill off the character of Shiv (played by Siddharth Shukla). “Those were the early days of social media, so real people started to write in with their reactions which were usually very intense and sometimes downright ridiculous.”

Buddha (2013-2014, Zee TV, DD[14] National)

This series, spanning 55 one-hour episodes, was a huge challenge, involving as it did a historical figure, and one of the most important religious figures of the world. But trust Gajra to approach the subject from a refreshing point a view: as she points out, in school textbooks we go straight from the story of Gautama leaving home to being under the Bodhi tree and achieving enlightenment. But his experiments to arrive at the truth had many stages to it. As she says, “What it did was to dispel my own myths about the Buddha’s life. I had always felt disturbed about his abandonment of his wife and child for his own spiritual search.”

It helped that the show came to her at a point in life when the strong opinions and idealism of youth, both professionally and personally, had given way to the realisation that nothing is or can be ‘perfect’. By the time the show was done she too had evolved to accept that the Buddha had to be true to his heart’s calling. “I understood the ‘larger purpose’ of his life. I came to terms with the ‘abandonment’, though my heart still bleeds for Yashodhara and Rahul. What also helped was learning about Yashodhara’s evolution, albeit painfully, to want to join his sangha voluntarily, and him helping her find her ‘larger purpose’.” The series focuses on aspects of his life after the Enlightenment that many are not aware of. It is this larger view that shapes the series, making it a departure from the dime-a-dozen ‘mythological/religious’ shows with ‘special effects’ that blight our senses.

Silsila Badalte Rishton Ka[15] (2018-2019, Colors TV)

Extramarital affairs are the oxygen to the beast that is the TV serial. Offhand, I can think of not one serial that does not have a million and more permutations and combinations of the theme. So, it takes a really perceptive writer to give this tired trope a new perspective, and Gajra manages that in Silsila, upending the traditional way that extramarital affairs are portrayed. “Is the ‘other’ woman necessarily a femme fatale, a super-cool career woman, and the wife a boring domestic goddess or could it be the other way round also?” she asks.

The series provides further proof of her ability to give a new spin to a theme that’s been done to death. As she says, “I am emotional about this show as it was inspired by what happened with some close friends and associates. I needed a relief from all the social stuff in Balika Vadhu. Also, I believe that an author’s voice in terms of standing for the right thing can and should reflect in any kind of story, even if it’s not apparently one on a social issue. The classic extramarital affair with the eternal conundrum is a fascinating aspect of human relationship … does a third person enter the picture because a marriage is already collapsing or does the entry of a third person lead to the collapse of a marriage. Is it the cause or effect?”

Molkki (2020-2022, Colors TV)

After Silsila, it was back to a classic social issue for Gajra. At the heart of this show is the tradition of bride-buying in Haryana, which in turn has its roots in the scarcity of brides due to female feticide/infanticide. As Gajra says, “Molkki was a Covid baby, my second project with Ekta Kapoor and it was made keeping in mind all commercial considerations.”

Female infanticide is a recurrent theme in several of her stories. She writes about it in her novel, Girls Don’t Cry, while Not Woman Enough, published as an e-book by Juggernaut, has this as a strong strand, being part of the protagonist’s backstory impacting her psyche. Again, what needs to be noted here is the writer’s willingness to explore issues that contemporary television is not known for, even if the execution falters given the demands of the medium. 

Addressing the Regressive Nature of Television

But Gajra does agree that on the whole, television is regressive. Though it is described as a writer’s medium, there’s only so much that writers can do in terms of trying to infuse new ideas and nuanced storytelling in the face of TRPs[16] and other market considerations and entrenched beliefs that ‘bas yahi chalta hai’[17]. So, writers take the easy way out, churning out what the studio executives want. “For the handful of people prepared to take the risk and at least try to do things differently, there are scores of others who would like to use every gimmick in their book and keep regurgitating bad content.”

In terms of audience profiling too, what’s happening with television is that most of the intelligentsia has shifted to web shows. The television viewership class has gone lower down in the social scale. So when content is being made and consumed by a non-thinking class, it also starts reflecting in the TRP studies. The classic chicken-and-egg syndrome.

Looking Ahead

Gajra is currently basking in the success of her latest show, Na Umr Ki Seema Ho,[18] which recently celebrated its hundredth episode. The show is being hailed as ‘different’ by many. As she says, “The most heartening comment that I often get to hear is that ‘it’s the first TV show I have started watching after many years’, from people who had switched full time to watching web shows.”

Shantanu and Gajra with the lead actors of Na Umr Ki Seema Ho. Photo provided by Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri

Any grand obsession, a show she would like to write? “As far as TV goes, I have always dreamed of doing a version of one of my all-time favourite films, Abhimaan[19], with or without the music background. The subject becomes more and more relevant every decade. Frankly, no channel wants to touch it. Though the people one speaks to share my admiration for the story, the ‘system’, they say, is not conducive to making it. I also want to adapt my first novel, Broken Melodies, as a web show or film. It’s the story of a girl growing up in the seventies, torn between the values and stifling world that her classical musician father [an autobiographical element given that Gajra is the daughter of the classical maestro Pandit Amarnath] represents and the liberation that the English education sponsored by her mother affords her.”

One can only say, more power to writers like her, and the breaking of glass ceilings and taboos.

(Originally published in The Telegraph, Kolkata)

Addendum

Shantanu: You grew up in Delhi in the 1980s. That was the birth of the TV era with Hum Log, Buniyad, and all those glorious serials. Did any of these influence you?

Gajra: You’re so right, Shantanu, they hugely did, except that there was no plan that I had then, to actually use that impact to write something similar. I loved both these shows purely as a viewer. Hum Log did tackle social issues, for example, dowry, but why I liked it was that it showed the clash of values within a family with different generations, and through that, it entertained and made one feel and think – the sensitization process as its termed. Later, I learned that Hum Log was inspired by the Sabido method (originating in Mexico) where TV is used as a medium to bring about positive social change by making viewers ‘feel and think’ rather than preaching to them.

I loved Buniyaad for a purely sentimental reason. My parents were from Lahore and Multan respectively and had come as refugees to Delhi, so we had grown up hearing stories of Partition and here was a show that brought that era alive for me in an extremely moving and entertaining way. So maybe subconsciously both these shows did impact my psyche – as in it was possible to talk emotions that were universal, even while having a responsible author’s voice.

Shantanu: What do you attribute the change in the style and content in TV soaps, first with Tara and Shanti, and then Kyunki Saas Bhi

Gajra: Tara and Shanti were the first movers, coming in like a breath of fresh air after the DD days which were associated with somewhat stodgy storytelling, Buniyaad etc., being the shining exceptions. Tara and Shanti were great in terms of revolving around thinking and evolved women, but perhaps were ahead of their times…they still are, given where TV storytelling has gone.

By the time Kyunki Saas came to TV screens, middle- and lower-middle-class homes could afford a TV set, so there was a genuine need for TV to go more middle class in its appeal. So, we had a plethora of shows with joint families and generations under one roof, which truly was the reality of such homes, and which therefore connected with the masses easily. Ekta Kapoor also upped the drama quotient hugely, so there was no way it wasn’t going to work with the masses.

Unfortunately, however, everyone went about copying the formula and there was the overdose factor. So, TV honchos were afraid of trying different subjects and worlds and that for a very long time became the bane of TV writers.

Shantanu: On Buddha: ‘dispel your own myths, you say …’ What apart from his abandonment of his wife and child haunted you. Do you reconcile with the abandonment once you had done the writing for this? Did it make sense now?

Gajra: Buddha, the show, came to me at a point in life when the strong opinions and idealism of youth – both in professional and family life – had given way to some acceptance and the realisation that actually nothing is or can be ‘perfect’. And certainly not any decisions of life that we might make. So, we might as well make the decision, and accept and live with the consequences as positively as one can. I know that that’s so ‘anti’ the way today’s youngsters think!

So yes, from his wife and family’s point of view his decision seemed ‘selfish’ but he had to be true to his heart’s calling and that so-called ‘selfishness’ of his is what made him give so much to the world to make it a better one. I understood the ‘larger purpose’ part of the Buddha’s life after I started researching more and more while writing the story for the show. I came to terms with the ‘abandonment’, though my heart still bleeds for Yashodhara and Rahul, when I think about them. What also helped was me learning the historical truths about how Yashodhara evolved, albeit painfully, to want to join his sangha voluntarily at some point, and him helping her find her ‘larger purpose’. 

Also, what I realised is that in school textbooks we go straight from the story of Buddha leaving home to being under the Bodhi tree and achieving enlightenment and uplifting the world. This had been my myth too. But, in reality, the Buddha’s many experiments to arrive at the truth had many stages to it. He went through extreme deprivation, abnegation, self-loathing and much else, before he arrived at the eight-fold path – the most practical and fair way to lead life in any time and space.

And he certainly did not advocate renunciation for all or even the perception of Buddhism as a religion. His was the ultimate live-and-let- live approach to life – just that his methods helped his followers lead a life of peace and equanimity within their chosen path. Through writing the show I realised that there could be no other way of life that was so compatible with the modern way of thinking and doing. So I am not a ‘Buddhist’ but I still try to recall the eight-fold path at various difficult points in my life and it really helps me.

Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri is a film buff, editor, publisher, film critic and writer. Books commissioned and edited by him have won the National Award for Best Book on Cinema twice and the inaugural MAMI (Mumbai Academy of Moving Images) Award for Best Writing on Cinema. In 2017, he was named Editor of the Year by the apex publishing body, Publishing Next. He has contributed to a number of magazines and websites like The Daily Eye, Cinemaazi, Film Companion, The Wire, Outlook, The Taj, and others. He is the author of two books: Whims – A Book of Poems(published by Writers Workshop) and Icons from Bollywood (published by Penguin/Puffin).

.

[1] TV series, translates to ‘We – the People’

[2] TV series, translates to ‘Foundation’

[3] TV series, translates to ‘Dynasty’

[4]   TV series, translates to ‘Neighbours’

[5] Comedy TV series, translates to ‘This is life’

[6] TV Series, translates to ‘Because the Mother-in-law was a bride too’

[7] TV Series, translates to ‘Identity: A Love Story’

[8] TV Series, translates to ‘Child Bride’

[9] TV Series, translates to ‘Breath’

[10] TV Series, translates to ‘Ours & Yours’

[11] TV Series, translates to ‘Desires’

[12] TV Series, translates to ‘Search’

[13] TV Series, translates to ‘Because’

[14] Doordarshan or DD, Indian public service broadcaster founded by the government of India

[15] Translates to ‘Changing Relationships’

[16] Target Rating Points

[17] Hindi phrase: ‘This is what works…’

[18] ‘Age is just a number’, literal translation ‘Age has no boundary”

[19] Translates to ‘Ego’, 1973 Bollywood film

PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Click here to access the Borderless anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles

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Contents

Borderless, November 2022

Art by Sohana Manzoor

Editorial

We did it! … Announcing our first anthology … Monalisa No Longer Smiles… Click here to read.

Conversations

Suchen Christine Lim, an iconic writer from Singapore in conversation about her latest book, Dearest Intimate. Click here to read.

Blazing trails, as well as retracing the footsteps of great explorers, Christopher Winnan, a travel writer, delves into the past, and gazes into the future while conversing with Keith Lyons. Click here to read.

Translations

Rows of Betelnut Trees by My Window by Nazrul has been translated from Bengali by Professor Fakrul Alam. Click here to read.

A Day in the Life of the Pink Man is a story by Shankhadeep Bhattacharya, translated from Bengali by Rituparna Mukherjee. Click here to read.

The Clay Toys and The Two Boys is a story by Haneef Shareef, translated from Balochi by Fazal Baloch. Click here to read.

Saturday Afternoon is a poem by Ihlwha Choi, translated from Korean by the poet himself. Click here to read.

Tagore’s poem, Tomar Shonkho Dhulay Porey (your conch lies in the dust), has been translated from Bengali by Mitali Chakravarty as The Conch Calls. Click here to read.

Poetry

Click on the names to read

Jared Carter, Asad Latif, Rhys Hughes, Alpana, Mimi Bordeaux, Saranyan BV, Luis Cuauhtémoc Berriozábal, Quratulain Qureshi, Jim Bellamy, Sourav Sengupta, Ron Pickett, Davis Varghese, Ryan Quinn Flanagan, Jonathan Chan, Terry Trowbridge, Amrita Sharma, George Freek, Gayatri Majumdar, Michael R Burch

Poets, Poetry and Rhys Hughes

In Infinite Tiffin, Rhys Hughes gives an unusual short story centring around food and hunger. Click here to read.

Musings/Slices from Life

The Scream & Me

Prithvijeet Sinha writes of how Edvard Munch’s painting, The Scream, impacts him. Click here to read.

A Fine Sunset

Mike Smith travels with a book to a Scottish beach and walks in the footsteps of a well-know novelist. Click here to read.

The Death of a Doctor

Ravi Shankar mourns the loss of a friend and muses on mortality in his experience. Click here to read.

My Contagious Birthday Party

Meredith Stephens writes of her experience of Covid. Click here to read.

Dim Memories of the Festival of Lights

Farouk Gulsara takes a nostalgic trip to Deepavali celebrations in Malaysia. Click here to read.

Musings of a Copywriter

In Strumming Me Softly with His Guitar…, Devraj Singh Kalsi talks of his friends’s adventure with the guitar. Click here to read.

Notes from Japan

In Therese Schumacher and Nagayoshi Nagai: A Love Story, Suzanne Kamata introduces us to one of the first German women married to a Japanese scientist and their love story. Click here to read.

Essays

My Favourite Book by Fakrul Alam

The essay is a journey into Fakrul Alam’s evolution as a translator. Click here to read.

The Ultimate Genius of Kishore Kumar

Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri, an eminent film critic, writes on the legend of Kishore Kumar. Click here to read.

T.S Eliot’s The Waste Land: Finding Hope in Darkness

Dan Meloche muses on the century-old poem and its current relevance. Click here to read.

The Observant Immigrant

In Piano Board Keys, Candice Louisa Daquin talks of biracial issues. Click here to read.

Stories

The Funeral Attendee

Ravi Prakash shares the story of the life of a migrant in rural India. Click here to read.

A Letter I can Never Post

Monisha Raman unravels the past in a short narrative using the epistolary technique. Click here to read.

Red Moss at the Abbey of Saint Pons

Paul Mirabile takes us to St Pons Abbey in France in the fifteenth century. Click here to read.

You have lost your son!

Farhanaz Rabbani gives a light story with a twist that shuttles between Dhaka and Noakhali. Click here to read.

Book Excerpts

An Excerpt from Manoranjan Byapari’s How I Became a Writer: An Autobiography of a Dalit, translated from Bengali by Anurima Chanda. Click here to read.

An excerpt from Evening with a Sufi: Selected Poems by Afsar Mohammad, translated from Telugu by Afsar Mohammad & Shamala Gallagher. Click here to read.

Book Reviews

Reba Som has reviewed Aruna Chakravarti’s Through the Looking Glass: Stories. Click here to read.

Somdatta Mandal has reviewed Shehan Karunatilaka’s The Birth Lottery and Other Surprises. Click here to read.

Basudhara Roy has reviewed Afsar Mohammad’s Evening with a Sufi: Selected Poems, translated from Telugu by Afsar Mohammad and Shamala Gallagher. Click here to read.

Bhaskar Parichha has reviewed Rahul Ramagundam’s The Life and Times of George Fernandes. Click here to read.

Borderless Journal Anthology

Click here to access the Borderless anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles

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Editorial

We Did It!

That good things happen despite darkness, despite prognostications of doom, that light glimmers hope if you strive to focus on your strength in hard times is borne true both in fiction and in life. Perhaps, we cannot get back the old ways (but is that what we want?) but new paths emerge. Old gives way to new. And while trying to gather pearls of human excellence — borne not of awards or degrees but of bringing out the best, the kindest, the most loving in human hearts — we managed to create with a team an outstanding anthology. Woven with the writings of old and new — we created a tapestry together that the editor in chief of our publishing house said was “classy, literary, engaging and international”. That one of the oldest and most reputed publishing houses in India with bookshops countrywide took it on was also an unusual event! We are truly grateful to Om Books International, Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri and Jyotsna Mehta along with all our writers and readers who made our anthology a reality, and to Radha Chakravarty and Fakrul Alam for the kind words they bestowed on our effort.

Click here to access the Borderless anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles

Please greet our first anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles, with love and friendship. It could be the perfect Christmas gift in the spirit of the season! And as the blurb says, “it will definitely bring a smile to your face because it is a celebration of the human spirit.”

The anthology is different from our journal in as much as it has a sample of an eclectic collection that has been honed with further editing and has some new features. Most of the writing is from our first year and showcases our ethos, except for Lesya’s poetry and interview. Lesya Bakun from Ukraine is still on the run, looking for a refuge — she cannot return home like you or I can. Her family is scattered across number of countries. Her cousin, who was guarding the factory at Azovstal, was taken prisoner. We included her story in the anthology hoping to create global empathy for refugees as the numbers will increase not only due to war but also due to climate change.

The reason we felt a hardcopy anthology was a good idea was because nothing beats the joy of having a bunch of interesting reads in the warmth of your hands (especially where internet cannot reach or is unavailable). In any case, books with the feel of paper, the rustling whispers which carry voices of leaves can never be replaced as Goutam Ghose had also said in his interview which is now part of our anthology.

And that is why we celebrate more books… this time we feature Singaporean prima donna of literature, Suchen Christine Lim, with her new book Dearest Intimate, a novel that spans more than hundred years including the harrowing Japanese invasion during World War II. She shared sound advice with writers: “Suffering is good for the writer. It will deepen lived experience and expand the heart’s empathy.” And perhaps that is what is echoed through the experiences of the other writer interviewed on our pages by Keith Lyons. This is a writer who not only brought out his own books but was a regular contributor of travel pieces for Frommer’s and National Geographic traveling to unexplored destinations — Christopher Winnan. Another writer Lyon had interviewed recently, Steve Carr, has passed on. We would like to convey our heartfelt condolences to his family and friends.

We have a number of books that have been reviewed. Reba Som reviewed Aruna Chakravarti’s Through the Looking Glass: Stories that span eras spread across time. Somdatta Mandal has reviewed Shehan Karunatilaka’s The Birth Lottery and Other Surprises and Bhaskar Parichha, Rahul Ramagundam’s The Life and Times of George Fernandes. Basudhara Roy has written of Afsar Mohammad’s Evening with a Sufi: Selected Poems, translated from Telugu by the poet and Shamala Gallagher, verses that again transcend borders and divides. We have an excerpt from the same book and another from Manoranjan Byapari’s How I Became a Writer: An Autobiography of a Dalit, translated from Bengali by Anurima Chanda.

More translations from Bengali, Balochi and Korean enrich our November edition. Fazal Baloch has translated a story by Haneef Shareef and Rituparna Mukherjee by Shankhadeep Bhattacharya. We have the translation of an inspirational Tagore poem helping us find courage (Shonkho Dhulaye Pore or ‘the conch lies in the dust’). Another such poem by Nazrul has been rendered in English from Bengali by Professor Fakrul Alam. He has also shared an autobiographical musing on how he started translating Tagore’s Gitabitan, which also happens to be his favourite book. More discussion on the literary persona of TS Eliot and the relevance of his hundred year old poem — ‘The Waste Land’ by Dan Meloche adds variety to our essay section.

Evoking the genius of another outstanding artiste, Kishore Kumar, who happened to pen thought provoking dialogues in some films, is Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri’s essay, review of a recent book on the legendary actor-singer and an interview with the authors. Infringing the boundaries of literary with popular culture and art and integrating all forms into a wholistic bundle has been part of our ethos. In that spirit we have a musing by Prithvijeet Sinha on Edvard Munch’s famous painting called Scream. We have non-fiction from Australia spanning Meredith Stephens’s recent brush with Covid, Mike Smith visits a Scottish beach in the footsteps of a novelist, Ravi Shankar has given us a poignant piece for a late friend and Candice Lousia Daquin talks of the existence of bi-racial biases. In contrast, Suzanne Kamata sent a narrative that bridges divides showcasing a German wife of a Japanese scientist that draws us to conclude that biases erode over time to create an acceptance of bi-racial people. Devraj Singh Kalsi brings in humour with his funny narrative about a guitarist. Rhys Hughes writes in a lighter vein on Indian cuisine in his column and spouts more funny poetry bordering on the absurd.

Jared Carter has shared beautiful poetry on murmuration in birds and we have touching verses from Asad Latif for a little girl he met on a train — reminiscent of Tagore’s poem Hide and Seek (Lukochuri). Michael R Burch has given us poems setting sombre but beautiful notes for the season. We host more poetry by Luis Cuauhtémoc Berriozábal, Quratulain Qureshi, Jim Bellamy, Gayatri Majumdar, Ryan Quinn Flanagan, Alpana, Jonathan Chan, Saranyan BV, George Freek and many more. We have stories from around the world: India, France and Bangladesh.

Gathering all of your thoughts in strings of words from all corners of the world, we present to you the bumper November issue of Borderless Journal . Thank you all for sharing your thoughts with us. Thanks to Sohana Manzoor for her fantastic painting and more thanks to the whole Borderless team for seeing this issue through. We would not have been able to do the anthology or these issues without each one of you — writers and readers.

Thank you all from the bottom of my heart.

There is always hope for a new tomorrow!

Mitali Chakravarty

borderlessjournal.com

Click here to access the Borderless anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles

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Essay Interview Review

The Ultimate Genius of Kishore Kumar

An exhaustive essay by Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri, one of the best film critics from India, an editor and writer along with an interview with the writers of the book, The Ultimate Biography, on the film legend and genius called Kishore Kumar

Kishore Kumar

Introducing the Genius of Kishore Kumar

Singer, composer, lyricist, director, writer, actor — Kishore Kumar was all this and more. Apart from Satyajit Ray, I can think of no other person in cinema whose talents ranged across so many departments. As a playback singer, he had no parallels – not Mohammad Rafi, not Hemant Kumar, no one came close. As an actor, he was almost surreal in comedies like Half Ticket and Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi[1]. It is only because we do not view comedy as an artform at par with tragedy and melodrama that his contribution as an actor has not been acknowledged. As a director and writer, he balanced the almost surreal Badhti Ka Naam Dadhi [2] with the minimalist Door Wadiyon Mein Kahin[3]. It is immensely sad that he did not have more films and songs to his credit as a composer and lyricist.

Take a look at these dialogues —

Kya dekh rahe ho, Prashant?

(What are you seeing Prashant)

Uss raaste ko jo duur pahariyon ke beech kho gaya.

(I lost myself in that distant road among the hills)

Haan, musafir aur raaste ka gehra sambandh hai. Shayad uss raaste ko dekh kar tum apni naye safar ke shuruwat ke barey me soch rahe hogay.

(Yes, the traveller and the road has a deep relationship. Perhaps seeing that road, you are thinking of a new start for yourself)

Jindegi ek safar hai, Joseph sahab, aur uss raaste ka koi anth nahin. Har purani raah ek nayi raah ko janam deti hai aur manzilon ke silsile kabhi khatam nehi hote. Sirf uska saath denewale musafir badal jatein hai.

(Life is a journey, Joseph sahab, and that way has no ending. A new path is born of old roads and the stories never end. Only the traveller changes.)

Theek kaha tumney, Prashant. Saath denewala musafir hamesha badal jatey hain. Magar na jane kyon log phir bhi jazbaati ho jatein hai. Darasal zindagi ka maqsad hai zindagi ka saath nibhana, par tum in raston ka saath nibhakar chaltey ho. Aisa kyon?

(You are right, Prashant. The travelling companions always change. But people for some unknown reason become emotional. Actually, the goal of life is to be with life, but you walk along the paths. Why?)

Unhi raaston mein hi toh zindagi hai, Joseph sahab … kahin khushi, kahin ansoo, kahin dukh, kahin hahakar, kahin itni bhook aur lachari ki insaan par zindagi bhari hain, aur kahin itni khushiyan ki aadmi sambhal hi nahin sambhalta. Hamein in sab ka saath nibhatey chalna hai … uss anjaney andekhe path par … jiska koi anth nahin…

(Those paths is where you find your life, Joseph Sahab… Our Life is full of happiness, tears, sorrows, despair, sometimes it is full so much hunger and desperation that life becomes a burden and sometimes there is so much happiness that it spills over. That unknown, untrod path knows no end.)

– A sequence from Door Ka Rahi[4], 1971

So entrenched is his reputation as a comic star that it might come as a surprise that this exchange above was scripted, directed and acted by Kishore Kumar in one of his most atypical roles.

In the wake of his madcap antics in Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi (1958) and Jhumroo (1961), and the sustained lunacy of Half Ticket (1962, where he plays Vijaychand vald Lalchand vald Dhyanchand vald Hukumchand alias the child Munna, as also his own mother, in a performance that has no parallel in Hindi cinema), Door Gagan Ki Chhaon Mein [5](1964) was probably what audiences and critics of the era might have least expected from Kishore Kumar.

Why only audiences and critics? As film folklore has it, even elder brother Ashok Kumar was sceptical of his ability to deliver the emotion required for serious songs. Composer Chitragupt had reportedly composed the beautiful ‘Itni badi yeh duniya’ [6](Toofan Mein Pyar Kahan[7],1966) only with Kishore Kumar in mind and even recorded it. Only to have the star of the film, Ashok Kumar, on whom the song was to be picturized, veto it. Ashok Kumar felt that his younger sibling did not have it in him to give the song the pathos it required and that only Mohammed Rafi could do it justice. The song was recorded again, this time by Rafi who did a brilliant job.

And yet in his directorial ventures, Kishore Kumar time and again presented a facet of himself that other filmmakers never tapped and no other producer had the vision to explore. Which is why each of these films had the singer multitasking as producer, director, actor, writer and composer.

Door Gagan Ki Chhaon Mein

Based on the 1958 Western The Proud Rebel, starring Alan Ladd, Door Gagan Ki Chhaon Mein is the story of a soldier, Shankar (Kishore Kumar), who returns from a war to find that his wife and father have perished in a fire that has destroyed his house. The trauma has robbed his ten-year-old son Ramu (Amit Kumar in his maiden film appearance) of his voice. Shankar sets out on a quest to treat his son and restore his voice. On the way, they are waylaid by a villainous Thakur (Raj Mehra) and his thuggish sons (played by Iftikhar and Sajjan). They are rescued by the kind-hearted Meera (Bengali superstar Supriya Devi), who shelters them and becomes a surrogate mother to Ramu.

It is unlike any film that Kishore Kumar had starred in (barring probably Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Musafir[8]). And though the inspiration may have been James Edward Grant’s story directed by Michael Curtiz, it is the influence of Satyajit Ray that is apparent in the making. The singer-director had reportedly watched Ray’s Pather Panchali[9] thirteen times before embarking on his directorial debut. The setting is rural (barring one sequence set in the city) and the director gives us a close look at the landscape, the ramshackle hutments, the swaying fields, the water rippling in the ponds, even the dog that follows Ramu every step of the way.

The film is of course now part of Hindi film legend because of its songs. Kishore Kumar himself wrote that ultimate father-son anthem ‘Aa chal ke tujhe’, a sequence that in the bonding between the two recalls the final sequences of Ray’s Apur Sansar[10]. Shailendra penned the other classics, including Koi lauta de meray[11]and Jin raaton ki bhor nahin hai[12]and two Asha Bhosle gems. But it is in the way that Kishore Kumar eschews all trappings of his comic persona to capture the little moments around the characters that the film stands out in the midst of the fluffy entertainers that characterised the era. Interestingly enough, Iftikhar, who plays the main villain, also designed and painted the film’s title cards.

The film was critically well-received, with even the impossible-to-please Baburao Patel of Filmindia calling it a film that “just misses out on being a classic”. Though not a big commercial success, the film did well enough, and Kishore Kumar had the last laugh vis-à-vis another film at the time which was expected to be a blockbuster. As Kishore Kumar narrated in his now-cult interview with Pritish Nandy, “It started with an audience of 10 people in Alankar. I know because I was in the hall myself … Even its release was peculiar. Subhodh Mukherjee, the brother of my brother-in-law, had booked Alankar for 8 weeks for his film April Fool[13], which everyone knew was going to be a blockbuster. My film, everyone was sure, was going to be a thundering flop. So, he offered to give me a week of his booking. Take the first week, he said flamboyantly, and I’ll manage within seven. After all, the movie can’t run beyond a week. It can’t run beyond two days, I reassured him. When 10 people came for the first show, he tried to console me. Don’t worry, he said, it happens at times. But who was worried? Then, the word spread. Like wildfire. And within a few days, the hall began to fill. It ran for all 8 weeks at Alankar, house full! Subodh Mukherjee kept screaming at me but how could I let go the hall? After 8 weeks when the booking ran out, the movie shifted to Super, where it ran for another 21 weeks! That’s the anatomy of a hit of mine. How does one explain it? … Can Subodh Mukherjee, whose April Fool went on to become a thundering flop?”

Door Ka Rahi[14]

With Door Ka Rahi (1971), Kishore Kumar goes a step further with his character. Hindi cinema seldom has a drifter as the protagonist. As a people, we do not take to characters who do not have a definite goal in life – in the world of Hindi films that either means pursuing the girl you love or avenging the death of your family and loved ones. Prashant (Kishore Kumar) is unlike any hero in Hindi cinema. He does not have a love interest. He has no family of his own. He refuses to settle down at one place. Prashant reminds me of Larry Darrell, the protagonist of Somerset Maugham’s Razor Edge[15].

The film opens with a sequence of an old man trudging his way through the snow before collapsing. As he breathes his last, he reminisces about his life and the many people he has known and whose lives he has touched. There’s Karuna who wants to set up home with him, there’s a group of orphans he takes care of, there’s his friend Vimal (Abhi Bhattacharya) and his family that includes his wife and her brother Jeetu (Amit Kumar) who are being exploited by their local zamindar and moneylender. In the final episode of the film, he comes across a widow Monica (Tanuja) and her father-in-law Joseph (Ashok Kumar). He reminds them of George, Joseph’s son and Monica’s husband. Even as Joseph proposes that he stay back and make a life with Monica, Prashant has to take a decision on the larger calling that beckons him.

If one thought that Door Gagan Ki Chhaon Mein would be a hard act to follow musically, Door Ka Rahi goes one better with what are possibly the finest philosophical numbers in any Hindi film ever. No other Hindi film in my view has songs that so evocatively capture the essence of a film. If Shailendra’s ‘Chalti chali jaaye[16]’, rendered by Hemanta Kumar in a splendid baritone, echoes the eternal journey that is life, Irshad’s words in ‘Panthi hoon main’, ‘Khushi do ghadi ki’ and the ephemeral ‘Beqarar dil tu gaaye ja’ evoke a spirit that few lyricists in Hindi cinema have managed. There’s also Manna Dey’s ‘Ek din aur gaya’ and the Kishore songlet ‘Mujhe kho jaane do’.

Door Wadiyon Mein Kahin

While Door Gagan Ki Chhaon Mein and Door Ka Rahi marked a break from the standard film fare of the times and Kishore Kumar’s image as an actor, Door Wadiyon Mein Kahin (1980) demonstrated his penchant for experimentation – one that earned the filmmaker plaudits from none other than Satyajit Ray himself.

He not only did away with songs – in itself a huge creative decision given his stature as a singer – he decided to shun music altogether in the film. Thus, you have that rare Hindi film that does not have a background score. Instead, there is a remarkable array of natural sounds filling in – the crunch of feet on snow, the rustle of leaves, the soughing of the breeze, and silences which accentuate the bleak and forlorn ambience of the film. 

The film begins with an extreme close-up of a pair of eyes watching a bird in flight against the vast expanse of the sky, accompanied by the azaan[17] on the soundtrack. The camera pulls back to reveal a man holding on to the bars of a prison window. Aslam (Kishore Kumar) is serving a term in this jail set in the middle of inhospitable mountainous terrain. He talks to the warden (Raza Murad – who is nameless in the film and is always addressed as ‘Inspector Sahab’) about how suffocating imprisonment can be for a man, and how envious he is of birds. At the first opportunity he gets, Aslam makes a run for it with his prison mate Ghulam Ali.

While Ghulam Ali dies during the escape, Aslam finds himself in a farm inhabited by a mother-daughter duo, Olivia (Bindu, in quite a turn with her grating voice, in one of her rare starring roles) and Jennifer (Shyamalee). His presence sets off a chain of events involving the women, both of whom take a fancy to this man from nowhere. Interestingly, if in Door Ka Rahi, Prashant is a free spirit refusing to be tied down to one place or any human attachment, in Door Wadiyon Mein Kahin, Aslam seeks to break free but fails. The escape from the prison only leads him to another one in the form of Olivia and Jennifer’s house. As he tells the inspector at the end, the world, life itself, is a prison. The only difference with his erstwhile prison is in scale. And the only escape lies in death.

Mamta Ki Chhaon Mein[18]

The last of these atypical films that he directed was his final outing too – Mamta Ki Chhaon Mein (1989). Unfortunately, Kishore Kumar passed away while the film was in production and it was Amit Kumar who completed it. Unlike the others in this list, Mamta Ki Chhaon Mein is not a very distinguished piece of filmmaking with a dated story celebrating the greatness of motherhood that belongs more to the hoary 1950s. It is surprising that Kishore, who broke away from established mores in the other films, zeroed in on this hackneyed theme for his swansong, which looks more like a love-letter to wife, Leena Chandavarkar.

The film tells the story of Gauri (Leena Chandavarkar) who brings up her son Niranjan (Amit Kumar) single-handedly. She nurses a secret about Niranjan’s father which forms the crux of the film. Niranjan grows up with the question about his father haunting him all his life. He travels to the nearby town for his higher studies, and it is here that he comes in contact with a man (Raj Babbar) who claims to know Gauri and gives Niranjan an unsavoury take on her past. Niranjan confronts his mother, but she refuses to divulge her secret, leading to the two falling out. The rest of the film deals with the story of Gauri’s past and Niranjan’s realization that he has been unfair to his mother.

It’s a poor film in every respect but it’s impossible not to feel nostalgic about a film that recreates one of Kishore’s cult crazy songs, ‘Allah Allah … Bhagwan bhagwan’ (Hum Do Daku[19], 1967). Or one that has what is probably Kishore’s last playback for Rajesh Khanna (who has a cameo in the film), aptly titled ‘Mera geet adhoora hai’[20]. It was reported in the media at the time that the director had wanted Amitabh Bachchan in the role. However, the star was not forthcoming and that affected the relationship between the two. Kishore in fact hinted at this in an interview at the time and named Manmohan Desai as the one responsible for the rift between him and the star whose voice he was.

Then there is the music of course. A standout album, this has some of Kishore’s most lovingly crafted songs. He himself sings two gems while Amit Kumar has four numbers which count among his best, including ‘Main ik panchhi matwala re[21](which he had earlier rendered in Door Ka Rahi) and the life-affirming ‘Beeti jaaye[22](the mukhda[23] of which harks back to the antara[24] of one of his hits from Jhumroo, ‘Ge ge ge geli jara Timbuktoo’[25]. The composer in Kishore Kumar could not have asked for a better album to bid adieu.

The Call of the Distant Horizon

There are certain aspects that one finds in common across these films. An old man looking back on life. A loner as the protagonist – a man with a love for the road as well as the road less taken. A man with a unique philosophy of life. Time and again in these films you have the protagonist articulating that he does not know who he is, nor where he comes from or is bound for. As the character in Door Ka Rahi says – door ko apne qareeb bula leta hoon aur khud ko apne se door kar leta hoon (I embrace that which is faraway while I distance myself from me). There’s a lingering sense of the fleeting nature of life, a longing for a lost past. These lines from the film that Kishore hums hold true for almost all the protagonists across these films:

Mujhe kho jaane do duniya ki nigahon se parey

Jahan na dhoond sakey koi nazar mera nishaan

Koi awaaz na pahunche, koi aansoo na bahey

Kisi tinke, kisi zarre ko na ho mera ghuman

Meri laash par rakhde kudrat hi ek safed kafan

Rooh ko meri nazaron mein hi kho jaane do

Dastaan meri hawaon ko hi dohrane do[26]

There’s an affinity for birds and the freedom they epitomize, for animals roaming in the wilderness, and for people at the margins, for example, the madman who befriends Ramu in Door Gagan Ki Chhaon Mein. And a genuine feel for harmony. It says something that the protagonist in Door Wadiyon Mein Kahin is a Muslim (the climax has a beautifully understated sequence where Aslam offers namaz while the police officer waits to arrest him) while Christians are pivotal characters in two of these films.

None of these films is set in a city. The cinematography (Aloke Dasgupta in the first two and Nando Bhattacharya in the rest) captures the everyday sight and sound of the countryside. There’s a song in a bullock cart in each of these films (barring Door Wadiyon Mein Kahin) which articulate a philosophy of life and that of the film – Door Ka Rahi and Mamta Ki Chhaon Mein begin with such a song. There’s a feel for the topography that is very ‘Western’ in its look. Parts of Door Ka Rahi evoke Shane [27]as the man rides from one destination to the next (Shane was probably a favourite of the singer as his unfinished film Neela Aasmaan[28]has a song, ‘Akela hoon main is jahan mein[29]’, inspired by Shane’s theme). Door Gagan Ki Chhaon Mein is of course based on a Western and Kishore invokes the look of the original at many places. Door Wadiyon Mein Kahin stands out for some breath-taking shots of the barren snowy terrain against which the drama plays out.

These film of Kishore Kumar may not have been great commercial successes. And his craft as a filmmaker may not secure him a rank among the best. There is however no denying his desire to go out on a limb and give us films that leave you with something to reflect on. He was seemingly unperturbed by the fact that the films wouldn’t run. As he told Pritish Nandy, “I tell my distributors to avoid my films. I warn them at the very outset that the film might run for a week at the most … Where will you find a producer-director who warns you not to touch his film because even he can’t understand what he has made.”

And yet he made them. Why? “Because,” as he said, “the spirit moves me. I feel I have something to say.”

On the evidence of these films, despite their flaws, the spirit behind them has the power to move the viewer too.

Book Review of The Ultimate Biography

Given the range of his contribution and the eccentricities that defined his personal life, a biography of Kishore Kumar that adequately covers his life and times is a tall ask. Anirudha Bhattacharjee and Parthiv Dhar’s exhaustive biography of the legend, audaciously titled The Ultimate Biography, pulls it off – well, almost.

For one, it is a pleasure to come across a biography of a legend like Kishore Kumar that does not seem like an armchair hack job (refer to, say, Aseem Chhabra’s book on Shashi Kapoor, Yaseer Usman’s on Guru Dutt, Rajeev Vijaykar’s atrocious ones on Laxmikant-Pyarelal and Dharmendra and the many banalities that go for biographies these days). At close to 600 pages, this one is a painstakingly researched tome. And it does not even talk about his repertoire as a singer in that great a detail. As co-author Anirudha Bhattacharjee tells me, “If I were to make a selection of even a hundred of his songs – an impossible task – and talk about them, this book would have gone beyond 2000 pages.”

Despite that, what the book covers by way of the trajectory of Kishore’s life is commendable. The authors have gone to great lengths to get first-person accounts, supplementing that with a great eye for trivia and other obscure facts. They incorporate all of this in bite-sized chapters, most of them three to four pages long, so that the reading never gets tedious. It also gives the book that essential quality in an era of short attention spans: you can open to any page and start reading. Though it does come at the cost of a detailed analysis of any one aspect.

And it is a delight to have such detailed indexes – a general one and a song index – in a book. Most publishers have abandoned the index to cut costs.

If I say the authors ‘almost’ pull it off, it is because the language leaves something to be desired. It could have done with a more rigorous copy-edit. The book gets off to an unfortunate start with the preface whose first paragraph had me scratching my head. And the inelegancies continue to haunt the careful, close reader off and on, with erroneous words, wrong sentence construction, often the syntax at odds. The authors seem to get carried away with the information they have to share, and some passages are a trifle overblown.

One would also have loved to see the authors playing it a little less safe, assessing Kishore Kumar vis-à-vis his contemporaries, or providing a more comprehensive reading of his directorial ventures. Or for that matter talking of what accounts for his popularity in the years after his death. During my growing years, I distinctly remember reading about him being dismissed offhand – Naushad’s comments are part of cinematic folklore (he in fact left the jury when it was decided to honour Kishore with the Tansen Samman). I grew up with people who swore by Rafi and Manna Dey, Naushad and Madan Mohan. And Kishore, despite his popularity, was someone who always came off second best in these conversations. Something shifted in the last thirty years. It would have been fascinating to understand what did. In response to my question on this, Parthiv Dhar says, “Nothing changed. Naushad was an aberration.” He goes on to mention the crowds at Kishore’s funeral. Which is not the issue here. Something in the way we consume music has led to a Kishore and RD [30] fandom like it probably never existed during their lifetimes. Why is it that with the opening of the airwaves, so to say, Kishore and RD have ruled almost all channels broadcasting music? None of their contemporaries – not Rafi, not Laxmikant-Pyarelal, definitely not Naushad or Mukesh – have enjoyed the kind of revival they have. 

The authors do not leave anything out – but the text often tends to become a chronological litany of facts. Fascinating, no doubt. And invaluable. But I could never shrug off the feeling that a book that has so much history and offers such delights, with authors who know the subject so well and don’t stint on research, should have been a little more.

Interview

Tell us something about the process of writing the book. Given that all the dramatis personae are long gone, how difficult was it to put information together.

Parthiv Dhar: Anirudha-da and I go a long way. In fact, around 2004-05, we started a campaign for the Bharat Ratna for Kishore Kumar, and did quite a fair bit of work. Probably it was at that time that writing a book on Kishore Kumar crossed our minds. I remember, we were clueless on the structure of the book owing to the multidimensional persona that Kishore was. My visit to Khandwa in 2010 and Anirudha-da’s book on R.D. Burman (with Balaji Vittal) winning the national award provided the much-needed impetus. Graduating to Kishore was a natural progression.

The visit to Khandwa made me realise that it would be a crime not to write a book on him, given the paucity of knowledge. Kishore himself did not help matters much by being extremely economical with the press. The Khandwa and Indore visits brought me close to his friends and their families, his caretaker at the Ganguly House, his college professors who went out of their way in sharing with us breath-taking anecdotes and documents. Fittingly, the book is dedicated to Khandwa. Apart from that we had a fantastic time at Bhagalpur, interacting with his relatives like Ratna-di, daughter of his cousin Arun Kumar, getting a treasure trove of unknown events related to his maternal side. Meeting his secretary Abdul was also a high point in the making of the book.

The decision to structure the narrative by ragas and their times: dawn, afternoon, evening. You slot Aradhana[31] in the evening. I found that interesting.

Anirudha Bhattacharjee: The structure with ragas developed organically given the enormous amount of material we had. The first draft was over a 1000 pages long. Giving it the structure enabled us to get clarity. As for Aradhana appearing under an evening raga … Madhubala passed away in 1969. That was probably a setback. His mother too passed away after a year. Kishore’s tenure as a hero had almost come to an end. He was forty. If we go back in time, K.L. Saigal passed away at the age of forty-two. Critics were urging Lata to stop singing in the late 1960s. She withdrew from the Filmfare awards after 1969. Hence, we equated the time with the evening of their lives. And extrapolated it to Kishore Kumar’s as well. Kishore had great strength of character and turned the tide … but that’s another story.

Would you say that Kishore was the one true maverick genius of Hindi cinema, maybe even Indian cinema? The only other person who comes to mind is Satyajit Ray.

Parthiv Dhar: Kishore Kumar was a phenomenon, the likes of whom you rarely encounter. He was perhaps the only person in showbiz whose reel and real lives were mirror images of each other. Precisely why there was no reason for him to ‘act’. You never knew whether he was acting on screen or being his own self. That held true even for his real life. His ratio of hits to total songs composed must be one of the highest in the world. He tried everything that the camera and the studios offered but unfortunately there were occupational hazards that clipped his wings. Had some of his unreleased songs and movies seen the light of day, he would have been unassailable. That he did all these only by pure observations and without any formal training made him a genius. As Rama Varma told us in a chat, he had the ability to identify shortcomings in a particular guitar string in the midst of a session without even looking at the guitar or the guitarist. Genius would be too small a word for him. However, we have not assumed much in the book and left the readers to judge for themselves.

What in your view is his greatest contribution to the art of playback singing in India? The one thing that sets him apart from all the rest.

Parthiv Dhar: Definitely the fact that he made singing appear so easy that emulation became an everyday affair. The clones would, of course, realise that the songs were after all not everybody’s cup of tea. But everyone would attempt a Kishore song. The very fact that he was an actor made him think like one when he would playback. Also, he was perhaps the only one to develop his texture and baritone with infrastructural progress each decade after independence. This led to him being probably the only one to realize that tragic songs need to make the audience cry, not the singer.

Anirudha Bhattacharjee: All our male singers except Bhupinder and too some extent Yesudas have been tenors. Maybe the timber has varied, but they are tenors, nevertheless. In my opinion, K.L. Saigal, Kishore Kumar and Pankaj Mullick were tenors who had a unique quality in their voice: ‘dhaar’ and ‘bhaar’ (sharpness and weight). This they used to great advantage. For other singers, it was a case of either/or. Hence, Kishore could playback for Dev Anand using his ‘dhaar’ (Hum hain rahi pyaar ke[32]), complement it with some ‘bhaar’ and ‘mizaaz[33]’ when he sang for Rajesh Khanna (Kuch toh log kahenge[34]), and use his ‘bhaar’ when he sang for Amitabh Bachchan (O saathi re[35]). He also had a strong swarranth[36], which gave the songs resonance. Plus, his flux density was unique. Even with such a heavy voice, it would remain steady when negotiating long notes, something very difficult to achieve. I know from experience as I sing.

He sang Saigal’s ‘Dil jalta hai[37]in reverse, set the Malthusian theory to tune, introduced scatting, yodelling, nonsense/gibberish words (bam chik chik) to music in India … where would you place these innovations in his output? Do you think his comic genius came in the way of him being taken seriously as a singer for the longest time?

Parthiv Dhar: He was born to innovate, and his childhood is testimony to that. Lateral thinking and he went hand in hand. Domesticating jackals, singing in reverse, giving nicknames to almost every friend, composer … the list is endless. How he handled the goof-up in Baap re Baap [38]is a terrific example of his innovation. Similarly, making a wardrobe malfunction in Badhti Ka Naam Dadhi the reason for executing anything and everything as a director’s prerogative could be another.

However, it is probably not true that his comic persona had anything to do with his singing. He started his career with several serious songs while simultaneously making people laugh in his movies. He gained recognition as a serious actor courtesy his roles in Bandi[39] and Naukri and was known as a sufficiently good actor. He sang for all the top music directors till as late as 1958. That he had a long gap after that could be attributed to his preoccupation with Madhubala’s health.

Let’s talk about him as an actor … would you agree that as a comic he had no parallels in India? It is only because comedy is not regarded as a genuine art form in India that there has been little recognition of him as an actor.

Parthiv Dhar: A very difficult question and not proper to say that he had no parallels. It should not be forgotten that he was a hero in almost 99 per cent of his films, a fact renowned actors would be proud of. While reviewing Bandi, critics had placed him above his more famous brother (in those days). As mentioned earlier, he did not enact comedy, it was in his DNA although by nature he was an equally serious person. His comedy was a mix of slapstick, mimicry, antics. Very few would enact comic role as a hero for the entire length of time without appearing stale. Kishore Kumar had that quality.

Where would you rank him as a filmmaker? Do you think he tended to overcompensate for his madcap image with his own films which were ‘serious’? Door Wadiyon Mein Kahin is a rather daring experimentation, even if the execution is amateurish. Even Ray commended its sound design. Your comments.

Anirudha Bhattacharjee: As a filmmaker, he was a lateral thinker. He tried unique subjects. But the issue is that he got entangled in too many activities at the same time and could never devote himself properly to making films. Had he concentrated only on filmmaking, he might have made some great films. Door Gagan Ki Chhaon Mein and Door Wadiyon Mein Kahin could have been classics.

You devote an entire chapter to Laxmikant Pyarelal. His songs with LP are not spoken of as much. You correct that, though you focus on their early collaborations…

Anirudha Bhattacharjee: We focused on Mr X in Bombay[40], Sreemaan Funtoosh [41]and Hum Sab Ustaad Hain[42] primarily because these films gave him the dimension of a singer first and a hero later. Till then Kishore was viewed as an actor who also used to sing. People forgot Mr X in Bombay (it was a bad film) but remembered ‘Mere mehboob qayamat hogi[43]. Ditto for Sreemaan Funtoosh and Hum Sab Ustaad hain. Most did not even see these films. But ‘Yeh dard bhara afsana[44]’ and ‘Ajnabee tum jaane pehchane se lagte ho[45] became classics. So, on one side, Kishore emerged as a singer, while the actor gradually faded into the background. LP had a key role in this transformation.

(Originally published in The Telegraph, Kolkata)

Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri is a film buff, editor, publisher, film critic and writer. Books commissioned and edited by him have won the National Award for Best Book on Cinema twice and the inaugural MAMI (Mumbai Academy of Moving Images) Award for Best Writing on Cinema. In 2017, he was named Editor of the Year by the apex publishing body, Publishing Next. He has contributed to a number of magazines and websites like The Daily Eye, Cinemaazi, Film Companion, The Wire, Outlook, The Taj, and others. He is the author of two books: Whims – A Book of Poems (published by Writers Workshop) and Icons from Bollywood (published by Penguin/Puffin).


[1] 1958 movie produced by Kishore Kumar, also the lead actor.

[2] 1974 movie directed by Kishore Kumar, also the lead actor.

[3] In the Distant Valleys, 1980 film directed by Kishore Kumar, also the lead actor.

[4] The Distant Wayfarer, 1971 film

[5] Under the Shelter of the Sky

[6] Such a Large World

[7] Is there Love in Stormy Weather

[8] Traveler, 1957 film where Kishore Kumar played the lead

[9] Song of the Little Road, 1955 Satyajit Ray film

[10] The World of Apu, Satyajit Ray film 1959

[11] Someone return my… lyrics of a song sung by Kishore Kumar

[12]  Where nights do not have a dawn… lyrics of a song sung by Kishore Kumar

[13] 1964 film

[14] The Distant Traveler, 1971 film written, directed by Kishore Kumar who acted in the lead role.

[15] 1984 book with a title based on the Upanishads

[16] Let’s go on… lyrics of a song

[17] Prayers calls of the Muezzin

[18] In the Shadow of a Mother’s Love

[19] We, Two Bandits

[20] My song is half sung

[21] I am an intoxicated bird

[22] Past goes

[23] Middle of the song

[24] Start of the song

[25] Those who go to Timbuktoo

[26] Translation of the lines:

Let me loose myself from the sight of the world
Where no one can find me:
No voices reach me, no tears be shed for me, 
No straw, no inklings trace my thoughts.
Drape my body in a white shroud.
Even spirits should lose sight of me --
My being should only waft in the breeze…

[27] 1953 American film

[28] Blue Skies, 1961 film

[29] ‘I am alone in this world’

[30] RD Burman (1939-1994), Indian music director who composed film scores for more than 300 movies.

[31] Worship, a 1969 film

[32] ‘We are wayfarers of love’

[33] Mood of the song

[34] People will say somethings…

[35] O Companions…

[36] Ending of the song

[37] ‘The heart burns’ sung by legenedary singer KL Saigal(1904-1947)

[38] My God!, 1955 film starring Kishore Kumar

[39] Slave, 1957 film starring Kishore Kumar

[40] 1964 film starring Kishore Kumar

[41] Mr Funtoosh, 1965 film starring Kishore Kumar

[42] We are all Experts, 1965 film starring Kishore Kumar

[43] ‘My Sweetheart will be a astounding’

[44] ‘This moment filled with pain’

[45] ‘Stranger you look familiar’

Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri is a film buff, editor, publisher, film critic and writer. Books commissioned and edited by him have won the National Award for Best Book on Cinema twice and the inaugural MAMI (Mumbai Academy of Moving Images) Award for Best Writing on Cinema. In 2017, he was named Editor of the Year by the apex publishing body, Publishing Next. He has contributed to a number of magazines and websites like The Daily Eye, Cinemaazi, Film Companion, The Wire, Outlook, The Taj, and others. He is the author of two books: Whims – A Book of Poems(published by Writers Workshop) and Icons from Bollywood (published by Penguin/Puffin).

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