Thursday, June 27, 2013

Modern Times

(First published on NewsYaps)

Yesterday, in a conversation with a colleague at lunch (I work in Bombay) I discovered she had recently been to Calcutta. I asked her what her impression of the city was. “Hated it,” she said, with some vehemence. “It’s like the city is stuck in the 19th century”. 

“Yep, glad you noticed. Calcuttans work very hard to keep it that way,” I quipped.

That very evening though, when in a conversation with my mother I discovered that Calcutta’s 106-year old Chaplin Cinema Hall was being razed to the ground, the inadvertent veracity of my wisecrack became rather apparent.


The history of Chaplin Cinema Hall is closely connected to the history of cinema in Calcutta and, indeed, in India.

While today, Bombay might stand head and shoulders above any other Indian city when it comes to cinema, things weren’t always that way. In the early 20th century, Calcutta was, arguably, a bigger centre for films than Bombay. In 1932, this led Wilford Deming, an American sound engineer to call Calcutta’s film industry Tollywood, a portmanteau of the words Tollygunge, a neighbourhood of Calcutta where most film studios are located, and Hollywood. He wanted a catchy term to refer to Calcutta as India’s Hollywood for an article he was writing. The name stuck and was then taken up by film industries across the country, with the one situated in Bombay, of course, being called Bollywood (which should now be renamed to Mollywood, really. Hello, Shiv Sena?).

The beginnings of Chaplin lie in 1902 when Jamshedji Madan, a Parsi theatre magnate who had made his money in the Bombay Parsi theatre moved to Calcutta. He started a bioscope show in the Maidan which was hugely successful. Egged on by his success, he went on to start the Elphinstone Picture Palace in 1907 (which would eventually be named Chaplin). This cinema hall is widely held to be the first permanent cinema hall in India. It also screened the first talkie in India—Universal Studio’s Melody of Love. Bad times led Madan to sell Elphinstone Picture Palace to a Sohrab Modi who renamed in Minerva, a name that many city old-timers would recognise. Later on, the CPI(M) government nationalised the hall, renaming it to Chaplin. If you think that’s a unique (but apt) name for a cinema hall, consider that Calcutta also has roads named after Shakespeare and Ghalib (the latter, ironically finds no place in his own city, Delhi). This is Calcutta, dada. Like the ketchup, it’s different.


As a child growing up in Calcutta, Chaplin was a familiar haunt. It was situated in the New Market area which housed almost all of Calcutta’s cinemas at the time. This area of the city was once the English quarter, the Black Town (or the Indian quarter) being what is now North Calcutta. Although this area has now gone to seed, the old single-screen theatres still remained till the 90s till they were replaced by the multiplexes which sprang up in the more posh areas of the city, mainly the South.

Roxy, Paradise, Hind, Jamuna, Jyoti, Elite, New Empire, Lighthouse and Globe were the some of the names which featured prominently as places to get away to on a hot weekend.  If you wanted to watch a movie, you looked up the listings in the newspaper. Timings were fixed and went by the quaint names of Afternoon, Matinee (3:00 PM), Evening (6:00 PM) and (the forbidden) Night Show (9:00 PM). The lack of say in timing was made up for by the choice in elevation. You could chose dress circle or stall in a single theatre hall. Since we mostly sat in the dress circle, I distinctly remember feeling cheated when I first went to a multiplex and, after paying a substantial sum of money, was made to sit in the “stalls”.

This was the heyday of the CPI(M) and Mamata was a far-away dream (nightmare?). Hence bourgeoisie luxuries such as movie-watching were heavily regulated. Ticket prices were capped at a piddling 35 bucks. However, the Berlin Wall had fallen and the USSR had collapsed. Communism wasn’t exactly killing it. Under these circumstances, even Calcutta felt like thumbing its nose, however subtly, at it. As a result of these ridiculous price controls, theatre owners would sell tickets in bulk to touts. Buying a “current” ticket (the other sort being “advance”) invariably meant seeking out a tout who’d be standing there furiously muttering "Dress Circle, 200" or some such to advertise his wares. You’d pay him the cash and he’d hand you the tickets with a surreptitiously stylish, Azharuddin-like flick of his wrists, making sure to not make eye-contact as he did. When I first started reading spy novels, my visual template for the spy was almost always the ticket touts of Calcutta.

Of all these cinema halls, Chaplin along with Elite were my favourites. This has nothing do with their cinema—Chaplin mainly played arty stuff (being run by the government) and Elite played Hindi blockbusters. This was to do with their location. Both halls were within a hundred metres of the legendary Nizam’s. At the interval (yep, “interval”; we're Calcuttans, we use only pukka British terms), a couple of us would rush out, buy the rolls from Nizam’s along with bottles of Thums-Up and rush back. No plastic bottles at the time, so we'd pay a deposit on the Thums-up to be returned if and when were returned the bottles. The first 15 minutes post-interval, as our whole family sat silhouetted against the light of the screen, munching their rolls while simultaneously passing and sipping their Thums-Ups is the visual image that defines my childhood.

Nizam’s in itself is an institution, being founded in 1932. It claims to have invented the kathi roll, Calcutta’s most famous street food. The (apocryphal) story goes that an Englishman from the nearby Calcutta Municipal Corporation headquarters loved the kaathi kabaab (kathi meaning stick in Hindi or, in this case, skewer) and paraantha at Nizam’s. But being all propah and all, he couldn’t eat “native style” with his hands. So Nizam’s seeing as how the customer’s always right (even when he’s not), rolled up the kabaabs in a paraantha and voila: Roll!

Even before its closure, Chaplin had long since gone to seed. Jokes about rats scurrying about its floors were never funny given how the truth seldom us. Yet the building itself was a familiar sight, situated as it is just outside New Market in the Esplanade area. Its dilapidated two-storey frame with the word 'Chaplin' affixed onto the facade in red was just ‘there’ whenever we stopped by for rolls at Nizam's or popped into Nahoum's for cakes. The cinema hall was next to a park with a pavilion which had a roof shaped like a large bowler hat in homage to Chaplin. I wonder whether they'll do away with that too.

Goodbye, Chaplin. We had some good times.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Raanjhanaa: Thoughts, Flies, Ointment...and Soup

(Since I'm a good person at heart, there are no spoilers here. You're welcome.)

There are many interesting things about Raanjhanaa.

Acting: Fantastic stuff by Dhanush (who owns Kundan and, by extension, the movie) as well as by Zeeshan Ayub and pretty much everyone else. Shout out for Asmita Theatre Group.

Its depiction of love: Raanjhanaa deals with obsessive love which, as things go, can be pretty OTT. But Raanjhanaa manages to keep it real. Dhanush’s love is the fanaa sorts but it’s also fucked up. It’s selfish and Dhanush, when it matters most, ends up thinking of himself over and above everything, even when it’s going to destroy his lady love's life (not a lot of ‘tumhari khushi main hi meri khushi hai’, no siree). But at the end of the day, it is love and it’s beautiful (Awww).

Class divide (vis-a-vis creed divide): That’s the real fault line in India today, says the film, overturning years of hard work by Bollywood. Zoya (Sonam) thinks Kundan’s (Dhanush) a bit of joke really. Never really looks at him as a person, you know, with feelings and stuff. Part of it is because she’s a bitch. The other is because she just can’t see herself marrying a person who, well, fixes the car or brings home the gas cylinder. She needs someone from her background. A pukka PLU. Well-read, English medium types, you know. Kinda ironic that she’s a commie in the film. Loved the dig at the JNU endless debate culture in a scene where JNU students discuss why someone would turn to burglary. Reminded me of the Judean People’s Front/People’s front Judea Scene from The Life of Brian. Zoya’s father’s: more simple. Hindus and poor people, keep offa my daughter, he screams. Silently. Cos he’s a chomu. He knows squat of what his daughter's up to, right from her her 15-year old self to when she's in JNU and he really needs to do more off a background check when agreeing to get his daughter married off.

Banaras: Depicted brilliantly in the first half without descending into any sort of cliché. Another thing’s that not clichéd: Muslims. None of them wear achkans or go about salaaming people. Also, almost (...) no namaaz! Woo!

The dialogue: Witty repartee delivered in some sort of faux Banaras accent? Yes, please! Pick of the lot: “Tumahara pyaar na ho gaya, UPSC ka exam ho gaya. 10 saal se paas hi nahi ho raha”.

The ending: More of the love-is-fucked-up-but beautiful shit. In other words, perfect. And also a bit of an unexpected twist plus it rounds of Sonam's character beautifully, her motivations clear as day and pretty kick ass. The metamorphosis of Sonam Kapoor’s character from innocent 15-year old, to oppressed woman, to liberated woman who woos her man with a public kiss to wronged woman is amazingly done. While Dhanush’s character is far more lovable and larger, it’s also a bit straightforward (just a little bit). Soman’s character, now there’s a whopper. So so well written.

A couple of dei ex machina act a bit like flies in the ointment. But really small, tiny little insignificant flies. Which you just flick out and carry on with drinking your soup, cos it’s just so good. Which is also a bit confusing cos the original idiom dealt with ointment so where did the soup come from?Any which way, Raanjhanaa is a pretty amazing film.

P.S: Wonder what Raanjhanaa means. "Like Raanjhaa"? The parallels with Heer Ranjha are more than a bit obvious. Other than the fact that it's a pretty sardonic take on it, almost a caricature. A bit like Paranjpe's Katha was to the Hare and the Tortoise.

P.P.S: I've just been reliably informed that Raanjhanaa is just a corrupted/informal form of Raanjhaa.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Hindi-Turki Bhai Bhai

(First published on NewYaps)

In an ancient capital, its people protest for, what could only be called, their legitimate rights. What’s more, the protests are largely peaceful and, at least initially, small. The government though reacts in an extremely high-handed manner. It takes the protestors to task, assaulting them violently. Water cannons, baton charges and even tear gas­—it’s fairly brutal.

You might be forgiven for thinking the picture I just painted is from one of the Arab ‘Springs’; Cairo, maybe or some other dictatorship where peaceful protests are as alien as sanity is to Mamata Banerjee. The “ancient capital” I described, though, is Istanbul, rocked by protests since last week. Ironically, this “ancient capital” could even be Delhi during the Nirbhaya protests.

Indeed, the similarities between the Turkey protests and the spate of urban protests that have rocked India since 2011 are quite a bit more than skin deep and represent striking parallels between two ancient societies as they adapt themselves to electoral democracy and all its bamboozling twists and turns.

Both protests have been led and, indeed, constituted by people who could be called urban elites. In both, the protestors have sneered at a properly elected democratic government and even questioned its legitimacy. And in both countries, the government has responded with force against largely peaceful protestors.

To understand why the urban elites in both Istanbul and Delhi are so peeved with their democracies, it’s instructive to take a step back and look at that term: “democracy”.

Democracy has historically been a tool for a country’s elites to share power amongst themselves. The origins of democracy in Britain, for example, are traced back to the Magna Carta of 1215. Unlike what is popularly understood to be democracy, all the document did was to force the King to share power with a small group of feudal barons. This is, of course, not to discount the historical importance of the document but just to illustrate how far away from the modern concept of one-man-one-vote democracy it is. In Britain, the concept of democracy as a rich man’s game was to persevere for some time. In the early 1800s very few Britons—less than 2%—had the right to vote. Till 1832, only landowners could vote and right up till the early 20th century there were various restrictions based on sex and income which had to be satisfied if you wanted to have a say in who ruled over you. It was only in 1928 that all British adults achieved the right to vote. To put that in perspective, the concept of an egalitarian democracy (can there be any other sort?) is only 85 years old in the country that’s widely considered a model for modern democracy worldwide. Even in India, the electorate for our Constituent Assembly only consisted of 10% of the country’s population since there were income restrictions in place at the time if you wanted to vote. In effect, the representatives who framed our constitution only represented the elite classes of our country. In 1947, if you were an aam aadmi, you literally had no representation, no voice in that august body. Which is why the assembly consisted primarily of rich, upper caste members. In fact, 75% of the assembly consisted of upper caste members when upper castes make up less than 15% of the population—that’s how elitist the House was.

The beginnings of the republic in Turkey were similarly elitist. Set up by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and a clique of westernised revolutionaries in 1923, the state was dominated by a small elite with Ataturk being a father-figure for the country much like Nehru till 1962. Ataturk was in favour of mass democracy but placed it on the back-burner in favour of carrying out radical reforms such as strict, French-style secularism and language reform (Turkish is today written in the Roman script as a result). After Ataturk, the army took it upon itself to defend the interests of Turkey’s elites, often deposing popularly elected governments in coups and maintains a strict often surreal form of secularism. In Turkey, for example, it is illegal to wear a fez since the dress was seen by Ataturk as Islamic and Ottoman.

In effect, throughout the history of what is called democratic rule, it’s been the rich and well-off that have called the shots: government of the elites, by the elites and for the elites.

In old, established polities like the UK, the transition from elite rule to a more broad-based power base has been gradual and taken its own time. In developing societies like India and Turkey, though, that transition was a bit more abrupt and, consequently, bumpier.

In India, even after the introduction of universal adult franchise in 1952, the elite castes dominated politics. But this changed with the introduction of the Mandal factor in Indian politics. Suddenly Indian politics, once the preserve of genteel, upper-caste folk, was invaded by rustic OBC and even SC leaders as their electorates strained for their voices to be heard in the corridors of power. This is the period which saw the rise of the bucolic Laloo and the irrepressible Mayawati. Many of these leaders were ridiculed, even hated, by the urban elites who despised their invasion into what was “once such a nice neighbourhood”.

Interestingly, something similar happened in Turkey with the election of the AKP (the current ruling party) in 2002. The army, mouthpiece of the elites, was mostly shut out of power as rustic “Anatolians” (the Turkish equivalent of the cow belt) took power.

At first the elites in India reacted to this new situation by retreating inwards. They cut themselves off from politics. Earlier elite Stephanians would, for example, join the civil services. Now they would prefer an MBA, wanting nothing to do with the government. Of course, insularity is hardly a long-term solution. Hence the recent eruptions since 2011 as urban elites in India struggle to snatch back the power they lost to the lower castes since the 1990s.

Similarly, in Turkey, while the park acted as catalyst, these protests seem largely to be driven by upper class dissatisfaction with the government, a fact that prompted Erdogan to boast (not untruthfully) "you bring one hundred thousand, we bring one million!"

Given the developments in the past decade, it’ll be impossible for both Turkey and India to go back fully to their old plutocratic ways. But the recent protests show that the elite classes of both countries will not let go of their privileges that easily.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Language Revolt of 2013

(First published on NewsYaps)

The Language Revolt has broken out, ladies and gentlemen. This is a battle for Human Civilisation as we know it.

The Words have risen.

To avoid any confusion, I will begin at the beginning and then go on till I reach the end. I will then stop.

Mankind’s history has been a long saga of man ruling over man. This social system is responsible for all order, all that’s good and all progress. But keeping this order intact is not easy, my friends. It requires hard work, brains and, most of all, language. For all of human history, language has been a perfect slave for the Rulers. You can have all the guns, tanks and armies in the world but your rule will be little less than a blimp if you do not have the Words fighting by your side. Whoever controls the Words has, throughout history, controlled the world.

But how, you ask?

An old master once remarked:” When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean”. We Rulers have perfected the art and science of controlling Words. The meanings of Words have been twisted, contorted and, in some cases, reinvented altogether to help control the Ruled. Armies and tanks control via force; and force, as Gandhiji has shown, is weak—it’s temporary and ephemeral. To really control people you need to mess with their tiny little heads. And for that we have Words. These little slave soldiers of ours go in and lock onto your brains. And from then on, we own you. You think what we want you to and, consequently, do what we want you to. Muhahaha! (the laugh’s corny, I know, but come on, it’s fun).

You don’t believe me do you? You think this is some kooky joke. You think I’m just making it all up like those IPL matches? Don’t worry, I have proof.

Democracy: What does it mean? Who does it benefit? Where do we get it? You’d think this was an easy one, right? Naah. “Democracy” is what the US imports into Iraq as it bombs it into rubble. “Democracy” is what India brings to the tribals in its forests as it strips the land of its minerals.

You see what we did there? We took an innocuous, well-meaning word and used it to mess with your brains, all so that we could propagate our rule. Smart, no?

But of course, all that’s coming to end! All of it! The bloody Words have stopped listening! They’ve suddenly developed a mind of their own; maybe even a conscience. They say they’ll only mean what they mean from now on. They won’t listen to us.

Which is why all we have now is chaos.

Just the other day, the US president wanted to praise his army of occupation in Iraq. “As Americans, let us never, ever forget that our freedom is only sustained because there are people who are willing to fight for it, to stand up for it, and in some cases, lay down their lives for it,” is what he wanted to say.

But instead of “Freedom” what he said was “oil supplies”.

“As Americans, let us never, ever forget that our oil supplies are only sustained because there are people who are willing to fight for it, to stand up for it, and in some cases, lay down their lives for it.”

“Freedom” had had enough. It refused to comply. Obama was left dumbfounded. All his protestations, his anger was futile. Everyone knows you can’t threaten a Word. It’s too powerful.

And this spread across the world. In India, on Facebook, the word “Equality” revolted when used by a certain Mr Ravi Singh as he posted his third anti-reservation post of the day. “We want equality in college admissions” is what he wanted to post but the phrase “but want to conveniently paper over thousands of years of inequality” somehow got added on. You should have seen the look on his face.

The word “terrorism” now attaches itself to all acts of political violence even if the perpetrator is White or even a rioter from Gujarat. Indian politicians regularly trip up now when they use the word “justice”. Most of the times, they are unable to say anything and sometimes they end up saying “injustice” in its stead.

Indian families have stopped calling their daughters betaa and Fair and Lovely ads seem to be unable to use the word “beauty” when describing the after effects of their products.

McDonald’s, particularly, has been badly affected. Its slogan now is, “I’m meh-ing it”. “Low fat” chips have now become “low fat but still high calorie” chips. And Coke’s “Open Happiness” has become “Open Fatness”. Even the “Married yet innocent” matrimonial ads haven’t gotten away. The word “innocent” has been variously replaced by words such as “virgin” and even “recipient of hymen reconstructive surgery”.

It’s chaos, ladies and gentlemen, chaos.

A long time back, a certain Mr George Orwell (of Motihari, Bihar) had remarked that political language “is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

And was he right. Imagine where humanity would be without a little bit of respectable murder and some gas. This Language Revolt is the end, ladies and gentlemen. I tell you, it’s the end.