I recall watching Dev D. It sent shivers down my spine. Then on I started watching Hindi films with a keen interest, especially films by Anurag Kashyap.
Once, during an interview, I was asked, “What fascinates you more than your writing?” I replied instantly, “Wine, women and God,” forgetting to add the fourth thing that enthrals me: cinema. During my Delhi years with the rationing department, from 1978 to 1990, Rangayan theatre was the place to watch cinema. Being a steno, I used to visit every juggi-jhopri with my boss to issue ration cards.
The then lieutenant-governor of Delhi, Jagmohan, probably impressed by my “field work”, invited me to join his staff. I thought about the offer, and politely declined.
The rationing department was located in the Civil Lines area of Old Delhi where the Indraprastha College for Women was also located. (When recollecting locations, only attractive landmarks, like the IP College for Women, remain etched in the memory, doesn’t it?) One Chandan Singh, with a bushy “Nietzsche” moustache, ran a tea shop near the college. Some other eatables also were available at his stall. But every day for me it was toasted bread and chhole for breakfast. Never in my life have I savoured such delicious chhole anywhere else.
I never got a chance to really visit Delhi after 1990, except a couple of times for a few days at the India International Centre to attend literary meets. Delhi is the place where my literary life began. If I were asked about my native place, I would rather talk about Delhi than the place I was born and grew up in. I was familiar with every street, nook and corner of Delhi.
In those 12 years, learning Hindi was the most unforgettable of all my experiences. My Hindi vocabulary could not have exceeded a dozen words when I set foot in Delhi. On the first day a colleague said to me, “Hey Madrasi babu, ek kagaz do”; I disliked being addressed as “Madrasi”. (Even today, if someone introduces me as a “Tamil writer”, I feel squeamish. Can you imagine someone introducing Paulo Coelho as a Portuguese writer or Umberto Eco as an Italian writer?) To escape this Madrasi identity meant mingling with my civil supplies colleagues and shedding the “Madrasi accent”. All this stuff I learnt later on, but on the first day I did not even know what kagaz was till my friend waved a sheet of paper.
That very day I started learning Hindi from the chaprasis. The quandary was that my Hindi got enriched with too many cuss words. I never managed to speak Hindi without uttering “behen…”, “maa…”, which received delighted encouragement from my Punjabi friends.
My boss in those days was S.K. Oroan, a Bihari. On the first day, first dictation, he started, “A jo-kaaj noteej waaj ijood…’ I was dazed till I could somehow make out what he was trying to say: “A show-cause notice was issued…”
I journeyed north last year, for the sole reason of seeing my beloved Delhi. First thing I did was to visit Chandan Singh’s dukan. Good old Chandan Singh welcomed me with tea. Was it sweeter than what it used to be? No. The quantum of sugar remained unchanged in 21 years, though I have arrived at the “cheeni kum” age.
All these memories started flooding me while I was watching Gangs of Wasseypur recently. In the Eighties, there were no computers and no DVDs. I could watch films only at the Delhi Film Society or in embassies. I used to ramble from embassy to embassy, chasing films. In fact, the very first book I wrote was about Latin American cinema. In that book I wrote elaborately about less-known directors then, like Jorge Sanjines, Glauber Rocha etc. So far I have written six books on international, Hindi and Tamil cinemas (all in Tamil, of course).
I recall watching Dev D. It sent shivers down my spine, like it would have done to every Indian who, like me, had been obsessively following cinema. Then on I started watching Hindi films with a keen interest, especially films by Anurag Kashyap. I wrote in detail about Dev D, under the title “The Madness of Lust and the Pinnacle of Art”. The synopsis is this: Dev D subverted and demolished pseudo-simplicity and traditions considered sacrosanct in all the aspects of filmmaking — story, dialogue, editing, music, cinematography (for example, you can compare Italian designer Ettore Sotsass’ psychedelics with Dev D’s cinematography, particularly the song Emotional Atyachaar). I regard it as the first post-modern film from Bollywood.
After Dev D, followed Gulaal — and then onwards you could say that I became a dedicated fan of the Mumbai triumvirate — Anurag Kashyap, Amit Trivedi and Piyush Mishra. On the same note, films like Dibakar Banerjee’s Love, Sex aur Dhoka, Onir’s I Am, Vishal Bharadwaj’s 7 Khoon Maaf and now Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur have demolished the established norms of serious cinema tradition. They have dropped the “Bollywood trash” tag by exploiting the very same genre, and transforming it into subversive cinema.
In Tamil art cinema — assuming that the absence of songs, dance, comedy, action etc. means serious cinema — they roll out films that not a single soul manages to watch fully and get out alive. Few optimistic audiences take a tea break hoping that things will change on re-entry, but are totally bewildered to see that the famished, torn and battered hero (the hero actually survived on meagre meals for a few days before the shoot — See, it is realism!) searching for food for half an hour in the trash can. This is what intellectuals here celebrate as good cinema.
(The only exception recently has been Aaranya Kaandam. It is a real classic and the best film ever made in Tamil Nadu. But it was a flop and Kollywood has driven director Thiagarajan Kumararaja to Mumbai, on the pretext that his film is decadent.)
Gangs of Wasseypur contains 14 songs and the composer is Sneha Khanwalkar. After Piyush Mishra and Amit Trivedi, she has become one of my favourite composers. Listening to the song Bhoos, sung by the prisoners, I kept thinking how rare it is to listen to such original folk music in Indian cinema. The voices and music in this film’s songs challenge the traditional models. How can one describe the feelings of euphoria and celebration after listening to the song Jiya Tu played after the film’s hero, Sardar Khan, is shot dead?
So far I have written reviews of numerous films, but felt Gangs of Wasseypur was beyond comprehension. Can you describe in words your most wonderful sexual experience?