21 August, 2008

Triumph of the Caricature – Is Singh King?

The Incident:
The nuke deal was signed in one of the most shameful sessions of the Indian parliament. The Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had orchestrated one of the canniest of victories dispelling all doubts of his surviving a battle of real- politic. Watching this on TV, the PM could make no speech in the house in the melee; the man touted by his rivals as a puppet and a caricature had triumphed.

We saw his smiling face and heard the background music. Singh is King…Singh is King…Singh is King. This was the title song in a film to be released soon and the distributors rubbed their hands in glee at the unexpected bonus of publicity. We did see the film where the hero is one character by the name of Happy Singh, needless to say a Sikh.

The Question:
Is this coincidence or is this a distinct paradigm shift? Are truly the caricatures from the sidelines taking and demanding their space in the mainstream upfront?

The Search
“Art mirrors Society and Society mirrors Art”. I went down my memory lane to explore this question further through Hindi Cinema.
How many mainstream Hindi movies do you remember since Dadasaheb Phalke made “Raja Harishchandra” that had a Sikh as the leading man? Now what’s wrong with that would one ask? Nothing, but it had not happened yet. Sunny Deol did wear a turban in “Gadar” a huge runaway hit. Here the background storyline on partition had Indian and Pakistani jingoism in an overdose, that the leading man was a Sikh did not register at all. This new movie of Akshay Kumar has nothing to claim on any front ( No plot, no story, nothing) but that everyone here who is someone,is in a turban and all are Singh’s, the indomitable lions.

Before sound in Cinema, the caricatures were physical in their oddities. The fat man, The huge evil man, The big bully and the bumbling simpleton who gets the better of him every time to win his lady love ; Immortalized on screen by Charley Chaplin.

Sound came to Indian Cinema in 1931 with “Alam Ara”. From then and till the mid-1950’s all we saw were mythological, historical or adventure films. Music had become integral with cinema and songs occupied nearly as much space as the plot thus doubling the length of a feature film from its silent counterpart. As technology improved,the plots became crisper, light and sound sharper and the look of the package i mproved. More serious subjects in the plotlines demanded comic relief to keep the viewer engaged and the first caricature character was created.
They would hover around the fringes of the main plot, step in for their lines in a filler moment and retire back to the fringes. Let’s look at some of them.

Sample this
The Marwari Baniya / Munim
: Kanjoos marwari. He was born out of the poverty stricken era post independence that hoarded food grains and pinched his pennies. Look at the roles played by the actor Kanhaiyya Lal or Jeevan and his ilk in the fifties. These actors were mainstream performers but the character caricatures lived on.
The Pathan: He was a throwback till the Independence era and all he did was shout Oye Barkhodaar and Saab andar nahi hai from the gates of a palatial mansion. The exceptions were Balraj Sahani in Kabuliwallah and much later Pran in Zanjeer lent some credence to this caricature.
The Baawaji: The Parsi Bawa is Bombay or Mumbai’s unique addition to the caricatural filmography. They would have exaggerated accents scream Aeyyy Deekra, Bol ni and drive vintage cars, slip on banana peels. The Baawaji finally climaxed on the billboards in the advertisements for Sagar butter, simply the tastiest butter.
The Gujarati: Again all roles were those of grocers, and fringe businessmen. The caricature more than the man was the wife who would have her sari draped the other way as is the wont and would be the next door neighbour who would drop in to borrow a cup of milk or sugar and make eyes at the hero.
Ghaati/ Maharashtrian : He would wear the dhoti and mumble a "kasa kai bara hai I am Mumbai" type of dialogue and vanish into the woodwork. Typical roles would be of the cook or the maidservant.
Christian: Would be either a priest if a man or any female who wore a frock or a dress while the rest of the world wore a sari. Roles would be typical, secretary or moll either a Jenny or a Mona Darling.
The Madraasi: Aiyayyo..They would wear starched white lungis and smear their foreheads with white chalk and speak their Hindi dialogue with u guessed it Aiyayyo again.

Hindi movies were made by filmmakers who were Punjabi’s, Muslims or Bengalis hence you would have Muslim socials or films with a distinct Bengali ethos. So the hero would naturally be a Bengali or a Muslim. The Kapoor’s when they acted or made films largely did not have surnames as Raj was Raju.. And the bigger than life villain/father/father-in-law of the bride was just a Rai Bahadur/ Thakur title. When the Chopra’s made films all the heroes were a Vijay or a Raj with a Singh/ Malhotra /Chopra/ Khanna /Kapoor as a suffix. Here the caricatures as support characters had a regional bias to keep up with the spirit of National Integration. Guys like Manoj Kumar took it to the other extreme with his villains too being Hindu, Muslim or Christian

Cinema of recent times and exceptions:

For a couple of years now you could sense the mood was Gujarati and the NRI.
On TV the hit shows are “Baa Bahu Baby” or “Jassubhai Joshi ki joint family” both having a Gujju milieu. Unconvincing though the performance was "Kal Ho Na Ho’s" hero, the one who gets the girl, is a Gujju boy.Shahrukhs umpteen Raj Malhotras were feeding the NRI's image of an Indian world citizen.

Back in 1988, Naseeruddin Shah had played a Parsee in “Pestonjee” but it was not mainstream cinema then and suddenly we have a Saif Ali Khan playing the lead as a bawa (albeit a bawa of today) in “Being Cyrus”. Being Cyrus, is a dark film, on the other hand the Naserruddin Shah -Sarika starrer "Parzania" is starkly chilling in its recount. The best movie with a Parsi milieu has been Khatta Meetha and it is still a success on the DVD circuit a clean heartwarming family film .

A Mumbai Mac or Pau wala or a Christian too has not been seen as a leading man. The best example was Amol Palekar who played Tony Braganza in the 1979 film “Baton Baton Mein” by Basu Chatterji. But this was simply a one off case. The going was always going to be tough with the typical Anglo-Indian aunty character who said “kya man tumko kya maangta?” Ala Nadira in Julie, and Amitabh Bacchan with his Anthony Gonsalves pushed the absurdity levels over the top. Little wonder then “Albert Pinto ko gussaa kyon aata hai?”

Cinema of the recent times doesn’t make fun of characters with a regional bias as is exemplified by the Gen-next flick “ Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na” . Here kids are kids with different community backgrounds sharing equal screen space and time as with main ones.

Coming back to the movie that began this monologue, Singh is King, is this now a new rule or like the ones above just an exception, taken advantage of, for its shock value? I am sure Sikh youth are romantic or amorous as ever in Punjab and Punjabi cinema but one actually dancing and getting a Katrina Kaif? “Balley Balley” till I see more it’s difficult to foresee this as a trend. Whatever the market wants the market gets. However is the world ready for a US President who is a lady or a candidate of African American lineage or Hindi cinema for more heroes who are Sikhs/Parsis/Christians/Maharshtrians remains to be seen? For every 10 Vijays or Raj's ( thats still better than Bunty's and Pinkys of the past ) we may have fewer of a Kartar/Hormus/Jacob/Ramakant but the trickle has begun...

This movie is successful,but is Singh King? In one word ..YES..the side kick , the caricature of the past is emerging out of the shadows ..triumphantly into the mainstream in a leading role.

02 August, 2008

Ayushyawar Bolu Kahi - A refreshingly different stage experience

My mother firmly announced " We are going for a stage show and you are coming ." She refused to say anything more. Both I and my wife assumed that it is a play in the Marathi language and resigned ourselves to the decision taken for us. We found ourselves in Shivaji Mandir - a drama theatre in suburban Dadar, at 8pm having braved the returning traffic of Mumbai.

That’s when we saw the tickets, they declared “Ayushyawar Bolu Kahi” (Lets discuss about Life) and a foot rule would have been found short to measure the length of our fallen faces. Were they long? It typically sounded like some heavy crap that my mom has dished out. Almost like a two day old casserole from her huge refrigerator being opened. Yikes what have we let in ourselves for? Our only solace now lay in the batata wada and chaha of Shivaji Mandir’s pantry and I love the two items from here. These days they don’t allow food in the hall. In my minds eye I could see a famished performing crew member leaping off stage and snatching the wada from a member of the audience and the ensuing drama within the drama.This could have been the logic for the management to have stopped eatables inside. Who knows maybe I was nearer the mark than I thought? We gorged on wada’s all the same. Before the show had started, I and my wife had 4 each, washed down with two cups of tea. Those who had seen us pig were worried about being seated next to us, Cant blame them. No one enjoys a fully spudded neighbour at a Cinema or a play.

Marathi theatre experience is more like revisiting an old school. There is a pattern almost distinct. The attendees are almost all genteel as a rule. They speak in hushed tones and catch up with neighbors and friends. Exceptions to this rule are those spotlight hungry ( stage term ) or footage eaters ( cinema term ) who deliberately drag attention to themselves. This is also a set pattern. They make a big show of purposefully walking up the aisle, confidently opening up the backstage door and making several trips to and from it. Pointedly looking at the front row audience with a "So what if you sit upfront, can you walk backstage???" look.

After all Saree patterns, Jewellery design-weight-brand, Recipes & Gossip has been exchanged amongst the atyas and maushi’s (dowager aunts of the wrinkled variety) a cell phone rings. How did I forget this ubiquitous device of personal invasion? It’s as if technology has given the gentlemen in the stage audience a subject of their own to discuss. There is a subtle difference though; in the display of pride of ownership. While bejeweled women take pride in saying “I have the heaviest” Men quite the contrary for cell phones say “I have the smallest” you even hear a stray “Dakhavu?” (Wanna see?). Out of context eavesdropping is always simply hilarious. The wife and parents are in some deep discussion so I am spared sour looks as I snicker.

The final bell rings and the lights dim save the velvety sword and shield insignia of Shivaji Mandir. The anticipation increases and the voices die down. The crew is delayed and the program announcers convey regrets. After an instruction to shut or silence our cellphones, the curtains part. The stage is yet dark. A voice sings the opening lines of the name of the performance and the stage lightens up. Three young men sitting on the stage, one stocky with a tabla, one geeky guy with a harmonium and one rather fresh faced good looking young man with a thick notebook. It’s the fresh faced guy who is singing. His voice has a curious tenor husky, and clear. He is Sandeep Khare a poet, singer and music director and the geeky guy is Dr. Salil Kulkarni an eminent Music Director and singer. Nothing else is on the stage.

My interest is piqued. What are these guys going to present? Then Sandeep introduces all on stage and confesses to the rather heavy title, urging the audience not to be worried by it. It’s a poetry recital and music program. Without any more preliminaries they start with one beautiful composition after another, completely fresh. Some are recited, many sung. These are truly awesome & are interspaced with conversations and anecdotes. Both have a very disarming style of speech and being from Pune love to talk. I realize that there are many in the audience who has come again having watched them earlier.
The range of poetry of Sandeep ,the mellifluous voice of Salil Kulkarni and the tenor of Sandeep Khare made for such a splendid experience that I was an instant convert. One could see many an old person moved to prickling eyes when Salil sang “Nastes Ghari tu jevha” or the younger crowd roaring to the bhajiwaala song that has given them complete recognition among the masses “Dipaang Dipaang”.

All of this poetry is by Sandeep and the connection of the performing artistes on stage was so complete that the experience was at once soul stirring and totally moving. This was not like a refrigerated two day old casserole warmed up. It was fresh, though these guys had done some 400 odd shows across the country and some outside.

A neo convert often is a zealot and like a person in need of the next fix I went scouring the music shops for all their titles. Most of their work is excellent, some outstanding while some are distinctly for the masses. I had made a new find for myself and though I woke up late to them, I am glad that I could hear them live on stage. Look forward to their next performance in the city again.

नसतेस घरी तू जेव्हा..जीव तुटका तुटका होतो…जगण्याचे विरती धागे..संसार फाटका होतो…

नभ फाटून वीज पडावी…कल्लोळ तसा ओढवतो …ही धरा दिशाहीन होते…अन्‌ चंद्र पोरका होतो…

येतात उन्हे दाराशी…हिरमुसून जाती मागे…खिडकीशी थबकुन वारा…तव गंधावाचून जातो…

तव मिठीत विरघळणाऱ्या…मज स्मरती लाघववेळा…श्वासाविण ह्रुदय अडावे…मी तसाच अकंतिक होतो…

तू सांग सखे मज काय…मी सांगू या घरदारा ?...समईचा जीव उदास…माझ्यासह मिणमिण मिटतो…

ना अजून झालो मोठा…ना स्वतंत्र अजुनी झालो…तुजवाचून उमगत जाते…तुजवाचून जन्मच अडतो !..