Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Movie Review: Devdas

Melancholy reigns supreme in "Devdas", a heartrending story of lover committed to self-destruction, a story penned by legendary Bengali writer Saratchandra Chatterjee and given the shape of an all-time classic by a master filmmaker Bimal Roy. The timeless Saratchandra Chatterjee novel has been treated impeccably by Bimal Roy in this 1955 movie that starred Dilip Kumar, Suchithra Sen, Vyjayanthimala and Motilal. Devdas is a film that grows on you and ultimately leaves you devastated by the tragic end of the protagonist.

Devdas is a moving tale that revolves around three characters: Devdas (Dilip Kumar), Paro (Suchithra Sen) who are childhood sweethearts and grow up together in Tal Sonapur, a village in West Bengal. Their association assumes the form of love when they become adults but Devdas faces opposition from his father, who rejects their marriage proposal since Devdas belongs to the higher caste zamindars. Paro is married off to a man who is twice her age with a grown up son and daughter while Devdas is packed off to erstwhile Calcutta where he takes to drinking anc comes in contact with Chunni Babu (Motilal), who introduces him to Chandramukhi (Vyjayanthimala), a dancer with a heart of gold.

Chandramukhi falls in love with Devdas, who is by now an incorrigible alcoholic, unaware of a reformed Chandramukhi's feelings. The drinking drives him to death, the end coming at the door of Paro's mansion. Devdas and Paro fail to meet and in that sombre moment the writer succeeds in evoking sympathy for the tragic hero, so brilliantly portrayed by Dilip Kumar. He was at his best in this film.

Devdas was Bimal Roy's tribute to a story seeped in sorrow, a most sensitive narration of a man who drinks himself into oblivion. It was Suchithra Sen's debut in a Hindi movie and she left a lasting impression with her controlled performance, her beauty leaving the audience in a trance. The three main actors were so sincere in their roles and given Bimal Roy's abilities as a filmmaker, they were bound to give memorable performances.

The spellbinding cinematic effort is heightened by S.D. Burman's music and a young Sahir Ludhianvi's enduring poetry. "Devdas", the one by Bimal Roy, alone brings alive the Saratchandra Chatterjee story, thanks a combination of really talented artists who signify the essence of pure cinema. On the ratings scale, four out of five.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Dishonour Killings

Romeo must die and so must Juliet, if she and her star-crossed lover happen to belong to different castes--or to the same "gotra"--and decide to get married. The so-called "honour killings" have become a macabre trend: a new incident is reported almost every day in some part of North India.

It is often remarked that though India has only one official time zone--Indian Standard Time--in actual fact different mental time frames--often a century or more apart--jostle each other and, not infrequently, collide headlong with fatal results. Increasingly rapid urbanization is one of the main factors involved. Not only are more and more people--particularly younger people--moving into towns and cities in search of livelihood, but urban areas, under the strain of migrant populations, are expanding to swallow up what was once the rural hinterland. The result is often not just a physical but a massive cultural dislocation in which traditional norms and taboos are inevitably challenged or broken. Equally inevitably, there is a backlash in which the self-appointed custodians of a community's moral and social codes--in this case the Khap Panchayats--take it upon themselves to punish those who transgress such codes.

Most, if not all, of these traditional codes relate to caste, particularly when it comes to marriage. Inter-caste marriages is widely seen--and not just by the newly urbanized or semi-urbanized--as a cultural pollutant that defiles the caste purity not just of the immediate families involved but of the entirety of the two communities concerned. However, with urbanization--and the relatively greater emancipation of women that often, thought not always, comes in its wake--these age-old caste barriers are becoming increasingly porous, or irrelevant.

Unlike in villages and rural areas where caste is your unalterable destiny, in the melting pot of urban India, the contours of caste are less rigidly defined. Your gram panchayat certainly knows your caste and expects you to behave accordingly; your BPO employer and your call centre colleagues may well be ignorant about it, or indifferent, about your caste, leaving you free to marry or to socialize with whoever you will.

This is the source of the conflict that leads to the murder of inter-caste couples, the revenge of tradition against the heresy of modernism. How is it to be combated, and potential victims protected from such cruel atrocities? The first thing is to stop calling such despicable acts "honour" killings: there is nothing whatsoever honourable about them; if anything, they bring dishonour to the perpetrators and to our society as a whole for allowing such crimes to take place. These "dishonourable" killings are a premediated murder and ought to be treated as such by law enforcers.

Deplorably, thanks to vote-bank politics, a number of politicians, including the current Chief Minister of Haryana, have taken a supportive view of the Khap Panchayat's ban on same-gotra marriages. If same-gotra marriages are "incestuous" , as the Khaps insist they are, shouldn't by extension of this logic inter-caste marriages be preferable to same-caste marriage to prevent inbreeding?

The Supreme Court has taken the lead by issuing a notice to the Centre and to the eight northern states, including Haryana, to explain what steps they have taken to prevent caste and gotra related murders. Social activists, in Haryana and elsewhere, are raising awareness about the issue through Public Interest Litigations (PILs), street theatre and other means.

Perhaps, what is needed is organized mass marriages, conducted under government auspices, where irrespective of caste or gotra, nuptials can be solmenised by the mutual consent of couples and the blessings of a truly secular state. Such a state could not promise that marriages are made in heaven. But it could guarantee that caste-controversial marriages can be made in a sarkari haven.

Friday, 18 June 2010

Raining Memories

"Jhadi barkha ki,
Lari boondon ki,
Lari boondon ki toot ke yun aise barse
Ghata saawan ki... ghata saawan ki
aise chamke barse"

Of all the rain songs filmed in Hindi movies, this particular Indian pop song sung by classical singer Shubha Mudgal stands out. The lyrics in the song depict the beauty of the rains. I personally believe that rains renew an old casket of memories and take us to another world. In short, it helps us come alive with renewed vigour and passion. I've always grown up associating the rains with romance due to the climate.

Rains do not stop me from heading out to play basketball. Call it a connection with rain or an inexplicable desire to get messy, but I was always the first one out of the door the minute the raindrops were heard shattering on the windowpanes. And today, I'm sitting in my room and playing witness to the crazy lightning-thunder dance in the sky. I'm pulled back in time where the rains were an integral part of my life--the absolute freedom that they brought with them, the only reason to go to college was experience the cool breeze while standing at the door of the local trains, the perfect balance that tempers the summer heat with the winter numbness, the in-between that lets you think, connect and just be.

School and colleges in Bombay have always reopened at the start of the monsoons and, to me, the idea of rain is connected closely with newness--new classrooms, new teachers, new escapades with friends and the start of a brand new academic year. Being a die-hard romantic, I was obsessed with thinking of all the possible rain songs that promote romance and the moment the rains kicked in, the thought of being near the seaface to see the sun set!! Rains meant getting wet and savouring endless cups of hot tea for no reason as we saw the earth celebrating its birthday.

We used to purposely run through the puddles, get as messy as possible and land up at home, looking worse than street urchins. When I look at the rain now, all I can think of are scraped knees, loud laughter, toothy smiles and exasperated faces of my parents. Last year, I and my friends went to an Irani Cafe to have bun maska and chai and munching on corns and vadapavs as we walked back home. By the way, vadapavs and a hot cup of chai still remains my favourite monsoon grub and I can never have enough of it.

Suddenly, it seems like responsibilities have taken the place of spontaneity and impulsiveness in our lives and we think twice before doing anything crazy, even if it's something as tiny as stepping out in the rains. We have all turned into adult versions of Little Johnny--who is afraid of the rains and afraid to play.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

A Tribute to WCG-2s

It has now become a well-known fact that I am totally crazy about my fascination with Indian trains especially now with my Facebook photos bearing testimony to that. Recently, there were a unique set of railway engines which were scrapped from services by the Central Railway. As usual, the event did not receive much publicity among the media circles since it was the demise of a railway engine.

On telling a friend of mine about this, he reacted in the usual way: "Akshay, it's just another railway engine which has been scrapped from service. What's the need to shed tears over a lifeless object like engines? I can still understand if it is a human being or someone dear whom you have lost but why single out an engine and cry?" The point he made was true to a certain extent especially considering our emotions can connect with anything regardless of whether tangible or intangible.

True that people who do not have an inclination towards trains will not identify with the pain associated with the demise. Most of the people who have an inclination towards trains remember WCG-2s for the loud noise that was caused by the blowers which were used to cool the dynamic brake resistors of the engines. Today, the WCG-2s no longer exist as they were the last set of purely DC (Direct Current) engines which can be operated only at 1500 volts. As a matter of fact, Mumbai is the only city in India which still has electric traction under 1500 volts.

The Mumbai division of the Central Railways had 57 WCG-2 locomotives in all. They came into prominence as late as 1992--1996 when the Mumbai division were desperately short of motive power due to the aging and failure prone WCM-1, WCM-2, WCM-4 and WCM-5 fleet. The punctuality of trains that came in and went out of Mumbai CST went haywire due to massive locomotive failures. In this period, the WCG-2 did a commendable job by hauling several mail and express trains. Ironically, the Mumbai--Pune Deccan Queen Express was hauled by a WCG-2 just once.

As the work for converting power lines from DC (Direct Current) to AC (Alternating Current) began in and around Mumbai, the WCG-2s were sent to perform banking duties on both the Thull Ghats stretching from Kasara to Igatpuri on the Mumbai--Howrah line and on the Bhore Ghat extending from Karjat to Lonavla on the Mumbai--Pune line. Until February 2010, the WCG-2s hauled certain express trains that departed from Mumbai. Now as they are replaced with the sleek electric engines which are able to produce more horsepower as compared to the WCG-2s, the poor things continued to do the jobs assigned to them.

Recently, a friend of mine sent me a poem related to the WCG-2, written specially mourning the demise of the engines, I couldn't help but be awed of the total impact it had on a whole generation which lived through the 1990s.

Saturday, 12 June 2010

First Class Disparity

Any visitor to Mumbai is fasscinated by its rail network. Each day, the city sees thousands of people make their way into the city from the remotest corners of the country. Not all of them are well-to-do or educated, but unlike in other parts of India, most buy a ticket before they board a Mumbai local train. The trouble starts when they cannot distinguish between a first class and a general compartment.

Last week, two young men from Bhubaneshwar found themselves hauled up by a ticket checker on a Central Railway train. It was apparent that they were not intending to break the law. Their demeanour suggested that it was a genuine mistake. Probably in Mumbai for the first time, they had rushed into the first train compartment they saw empty.

The ticket checker had no choice, but to read out the rules to them. Once off the train, he pointed out that the compartment clearly said, "First Class". The duo confessed that neither could read. They also admitted that to them the entire train looked the same and stripes painted on the side of a particular compartment held no special importance to them. They reiterated that they meant no offence and had been uninitiated in Mumbai's ways. Yet, after a brief discussion, they coughed up a hefty fine for what could only be called a mistake. They disappeared into the crowd, shoulders slumped and nodding their heads.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010


Amrita Pritam
Translated from Punjabi by The Authors' Guild of India Co-operative Society, Delhi.

The oven-baked chapati, crisp and hot, was most inviting. I dipped it in the vegetable curry and bit off a morsel.
"There are too many chillies in the curry!" My children and I cried. The spicy curry had set our mouths aflame. "Most Jats frequent my hotel," the hotel-keeper said. "And there's only one liquor shop for miles around. When the Jats are drunk, they like to have something spicy to eat." "The Jats...?"
"Yes, my child. All Jats enjoy a drop of liquor. And when they commit murder, they like to get well and truly drunk."
"How terrible!"

"Only the other day, a couple of them barged into the hotel, dead drunk. They had killed a man and they were very rowdy. Do you see those broken chairs? That's their doing. Bless the police. They arrived in time, otherwise the hotel would have been in shambles. Well, anyway, I cannot complain. They are my main source of income after all."

My eagerness to see the Kaushalya river had once again led me from Chandigarh to this village. Our talk had started with chillies, but from chillies it ran to liquor and then to the horror of bloodshed. I became anxious to take my children away from there. The wayside dhaba, its floor plastered with mud paste, was clean and airy. A part of it had been portioned off by a curtain made of hessian bags, which didn't quite reach the floor. From the gap below the curtain, one could glimpse the legs of three chairs. A place where a family lived could not be so dangerous after all.

I was not wrong in my conjecture. A woman peeped from behind the curtain, then she came out and stood in front of me.
"Don't you recognize me?" She asked.
She was a young woman, plainly dressed. I stared at her face but I was unable to place her.
"I recognized you the moment I saw you," she said. "You came here last year... no, it was the year before last," she corrected herself.
"Yes, I came here the year before last," I answered.
"While you were here, a marriage party had stopped on the maidan."
"A marriage party? Yes, I remember it."

The whole thing came vividly back to my mind. Two years ago, I had been asked to recite a poem that I had written at the inauguration of the Chandigarh Radio Station. The programme over,I had decided to make a trip to the Kaushalya river with some of my friends. The road to the river ran through this village and sloped down to the river a mile-a-half away. The uphill climb on the way back had tired us and we felt like stopping for a hot cup of tea here and to eat something. That day, besides the oven-baked chapatis and the meat curry which was the usual fare at such a shop, we were also served with platefuls of sweets.

"My niece's marriage procession is to pass through this village tonight. I owe it to my niece to entertain the party. I must do them honour."
We were still in the shop when the procession arrived. At the request of the bride's uncle, it stopped at the maidan.
"Marriage is a fascinating thing," one of us had remarked.
"When one enters wedlock, it's all smiles and gaiety and when one..." With each sip of tea, the discussion had become more and more animated.
"If you will wait for me, I'll go and see the bride," I said. "I would like to see the expression on her face."

I smiled as I approached the palanquin. There was an opening at one end of the curtain. "May I have a look at the bride?" I asked the barber woman who was escorting the bride to her new home. "You're welcome, bibiji," the woman said effusively. "Our bride is beautiful." Yes, the bride was as beautiful as the pearl in her Shringarpuri nose-ring. I placed a one-rupee note in her hand and returned to my friends.

"If the bride knew you were a celebrated poetess, she would have asked you to autograph the note," one of them said jokingly.

Though this had happened two years ago, I was able to recall every detail. "Are you the same girl, the bride I saw in the palanquin?"
In a matter of two years, she had changed from a lovely girl to a careworn woman. I could see that life had not dealt with her kindly. I did not know what to say to her.
"I've seen your picture in the newspaper," she said. "Not once, but twice. Sometimes, customers leave their newspapers here. I came across your picture in one of them."

"How interesting! And you recognized me?"
"Yes, at once. But why did they put your picture in the paper?"
No one had ever asked me such a question. I did not know how to respond. "It's because I write poems and stories," I replied feeling embarrassed.
"Stories? Do you write stories, true stories?"
"Yes, the stories are true, but the names are false, so that nobody should find whom they are about."
"Will you write my story?"
"Of course I will, if you want to."

"My name is Karmanwali, the fortunate one. You need not conceal my name. You can use it, I'm not afraid of speaking the truth. But no one listens to me, no one actually cares." She took my hand and led me to the cot behind the curtain.

"Before my marriage took place, two women came from my future father-in-law's house to take my measurements. One of them was a girl about my age. She was a distant cousin of the man I was to marry. "We're the same size," she said, "The clothes that I will make for your will fit you perfectly." "What she said was true. The bridal clothes that my in-laws sent for me fitted me exactly. The girl lived with me for many months and made all my clothes. She was very fond of me. When she left our home, she told me not to have my clothes made by anyone else while she was away, even if she was away for several months. She wanted to make them herself when she returned.

"I liked the girl as much as she liked me. There was only one thing about her that annoyed me. She always made a point of trying on all my clothes before she gave them to me. "Our measurements are the same," she would say, "See how well your clothes fit me?" "Inspite of the fact that the clothes were new, I could never get over the fact that they had been worn by someone else before I wore them."

The woman was illiterate, sitting on a loosely strung cot, covered with a threadbare sheet, but I was startled by the delicacy of her thought. "I did not tell the girl what was in my mind," the woman continued. "It might have hurt her feelings." "Well?" I said, as she stopped. "I came to know about it after a year had passed. My husband and the girl were having an affair. She was my husband's cousin, twice or thrice removed. Her brother was terribly upset at their goings on. He even threatened to cut off his sister's head. Someone told me that at the time of my marriage, when the girl was holding the reins of the mare on which my husband rode to the wedding, she became hysterical and fainted."

I noticed that there were tears in the woman's eyes. Impulsively, she reached for my hand and held it. I could feel hers trembling. "Please understand me clearly," she said. "I hate to wear discarded clothes. My gold trimmed salwars, my star-studded chunnis, my brocade kameez, they were her cast-offs in a way and so was my husband, you know what I mean." Could one clothe such feelings in words? I felt unequal to the task.

"I have left these clothes behind," the woman continued. "And my husband too. Now, I live with my maternal uncle. I sweep the floor and wipe the tables. I have brought a sewing machine and I take in work. I wear homespun clothes. I am content with them. I prefer them to discarded clothes even if they are made from the finest of silk. My uncle is anxious to patch up our quarrel. He doesn't understand me. I am happy as I am. I want nothing more. And that in short, is the story of my life. Please write it down for me. I want people to understand how I feel about it."

The fortunate one! The woman with the strong body and the strong heart, who had undergone much suffering. I reached out to her and embraced her. Outside cars sped past the small hotel on their way down from Shimla. Now and then, a car stopped briefly in front of the hotel and its occupants, dressed in silks, emerged for a cup of tea or a packet of cigarettes or some oven-baked chapatis. The fortunate one, who had discarded silks and was now in a homespun kameez, silently attended to their demands.

"I've preserved the note you gave me," she said.
"Really? I gave it to you a long time ago," I answered.
"Yes, I handed it over to the barber woman for safe-keeping. When I saw your photograph, I took it back from her."
She pulled out a trunk from under the cot and produced a folded one rupee note from a wooden casket.

"Please write your name on it for me," she said.
"Karmanwali, I would gladly write my name on this note," I said. "But I would rather that you wrote your name on my note. The writer of a story is not as great as the one who has lived the story. It is the suffering that makes one great."
I took a rupee note out of my purse. "I'm no good at writing," she said shyly. "But still, I'll try."

The fortunate one, today I have sat down to write your story. Your name, like the sacred mark on the forehead of a devotee, is the title. I know the story will not do you any good. But those who spill others' blood, which resembles the colour of saffron on your forehead, will honour you.