Friday, August 30, 2013

On Gandhinagar's Place in Kannada cinema: In Open Magazine this Week

Someone I met recently told me this about a byline in a magazine, that it is like tasting blood, that after the first one, you just keep seeking the next and the next. That is true of bylines anywhere actually. That is what makes journalism so dangerously addictive. 

Open is a magazine I have been following and admiring from the time they sold their first issue. The first of the stories I will be writing for them came out today here. I write on the subject of Kannada cinema. It is too vast a topic to cover in 1700 odd words and my article was on just one aspect of the industry, not a comment on Sandalwood in its entirety. 

Read the unedited, very slightly longer version below.

I need not have asked the tender coconut seller standing under the skywalk with his wares tied to the end of a rusty bicycle how to get to Triveni theatre in Bangalore’s Gandhinagar area. The overpowering smell of a long string of crackers that drowned the hoots and shrill whistles of devout fans would have led me right to its front steps. The buntings that flapped furiously above me had the face of the star on each; I hadn’t paid close enough attention earlier. That road, in fact that whole neighbourhood, is one that I only always hurry past. It is not a ‘nice’ area for girls to wander alone after dark, for the streets are crowded and in the jostle and shoving of people getting back home or coming out for a late night, there are many who will ‘accidently’ brush against you ever so often. Most of the lodges have a reputation. Most of the bars with two initials as names seem sleazy; some though supposedly serve excellent rasam. There are fake branded clothes, tiny sample perfume bottles, imported lingerie and cheap electronics without bills for sale at tiny cubicles at old shopping arcades, the predecessors of glitzy malls. Tucked into some of the lanes are Jain temples, Hindu temples, commercial establishments and the odd house. The houses are the sorts that you know hold old world treasures and old Bangalore tales within its walls. In most other neighbourhoods, the houses, its residents might slip into anachronistic mantle pieces, but in Gandhinagar, they fit right in with the rest of the décor.

A stone’s throw away in all directions from these is also where fortunes are made or paupers are born every Friday. Filmdom is fickle that way and Gandhinagar is where they all come to count their new money or rue their fates. For here is the heart of the Kannada film industry, Sandalwood, as they call it. Here is the highest concentration of single screen movie theatres in Bangalore. Here they all have names like Menaka, Santosh, Bhumika, Sagar, Kailash, Sapna, Tribhuvan, Triveni… Not all of them always show only Kannada films anymore, Shah Rukh Khan’s Chennai Express was opening in one. But Gandhinagar, its audiences, these box offices are what matters for a new film. The multiplexes are fancy places for the film to be in but these greasy halls of history are where a film’s, its star’s and its directors’ fates are scripted. That is how it always has been in Sandalwood.

It is Friday and a big banner film is opening this morning at the Triveni theatre. I am there early enough for the roads to be empty, relatively. But then it is also the Eid holiday. Not that it matters for some ardent fans. When their idol’s latest makes an opening, they will take a day off work, park at home their autorickshaws or feign a sudden illness to make it to the first day first show, a phrase as important for the film crew to gauge first reactions as it is for the fan to prove his devotion yet again. For doing that, they will buy a ticket in black. They will pour milk over humungous cut-outs that are draped in thick garlands. They will break several dozen coconuts which will then be swept aside and collected by street urchins. They will dance a few crude steps before the floral décor that announces the star and the film’s name at the entrance in bright yellow marigolds. They will do all that that makes them a classic study in the stereotype that we know frenzied, temple-building South Indian movie fans to be. Not quite ready to commit suicide for their heroes like in other states, but steeped nevertheless in the machinery that allows them a small happy haven that is very distant from their mundane lives.

That Friday, when Tony, a film that stars 23-film old ‘diamond star’ Srinagara Kitty opens, there is all that. All the heroes are assigned monikers; there is a crazy star, there is a rebel star, such like. The promotional posters mostly show Kitty holding a tiger at the end of a leash. The film is a philosophical thriller with three narratives that culminate at a common point; later, reviewers will call it among the better films to be released in recent times. Once the fire crackers are spent and the doors open and a feisty old woman asks me if I want a ticket in black for the next show and the two duty constables there look the other way at this and I walk inside telling he who is ripping the flimsy tickets in half that I am from the media, I see the hero sitting on a faded sofa just outside the main hall. There are hoots that break through the soundproof walls and slightly open door, but Srinagara Kitty hasn’t lost his look of nervousness. Shorn of all makeup, descended from the posters, he looks…common… as I suppose all stars do. He mumbles to me that of course he gets mighty nervous before a film of his releases, then spouts mandatory lines about the love and respect he has for his fans. The show is housefull and the director’s phone doesn’t stop ringing all the while that I am there.

The fans have pushed and shoved each other to go in. They are too busy to tell me too much about themselves, for there is their hero amongst them to adore, crackers, coconuts and activities to do and a news channel’s cameraman’s attention to catch. Shankar, first name only, is an auto driver who isn’t working for half a day that day to watch the first day, first show of Tony. I ask him why and he answers in superlatives, “I am a huge fan of Kitty, he is a great actor, the trailer was fantastic so I came.” His friend Kumar says, “I wanted to watch the first show. I will come back with my family and watch it again.” Not many others stop to talk to me, but there are auto drivers in their khakhi shirts, workers with dirt under their fingernails, some students bunking class from the college nearby, mostly people of a certain working class who buy three hours’ worth of dreams here. The tickets are under Rs 100, even for the best balcony rows. The distributors of the film pay for the coconuts and the crackers, some stars route money to their fan clubs too, I learn later, to organize the hoo-ha. Like with votes, it isn’t too hard to buy fans either.

The management at Triveni isn’t sure about getting me a seat in the hall but tell me to go in and stay as long as I want. I go in. I watch Tony for a bit. I watch the audience chuckling, hooting, glued to the screen, some to their mobile phones. It will be just the film that the audience wants, I see, with a simple enough plot, flimsy songs, drama, tears, laughs and a happy ending. What the audience wants, the audience gets.

Film historians call the 1970s and the 80s the golden age of Kannada films. That was the time Puttanna Kanagal – think Satyajit Ray in this language – was taking popular novels and turning them into women centric films that explored taboo subjects like post natal depression, cougar and Oedipal relationships and defiant girls. That was the time the late thespian Dr Rajkumar – think Dilip Kumar, Amitabh Bachchan, Rajnikanth even – was at his peak, channelizing a background in theatre to films that were known for their music, his righteousness and slightly over the top dramatics. Natural, subtle acting wasn’t for them. He, and Vishnuvardhan, ruled Sandalwood for decades.

Perhaps it was after the 1980s that films began metamorphosing into the commercial stereotypes of today. With Ravichandran, who discovered the likes of Juhi Chawla, came the lover boy films. There was then a period of extremely violent films, then some tame rom-coms. Now I suppose it is a wider mix of themes, some unusual, some experimental.

A good actor friend of mine who had a major hit in the last few months nods his head when I complain about Kannada films being the way they are. He tells me not to write his name here. I am, he says, part of what he calls the class audience, educated, exposed to films in other languages, from other countries even, who might find the films of today crass and sub-standard. He agrees that there are less than a handful of films that the class audience might even consider watching. Reason why even mediocre films like the older Mungaru Male and the newer Mynaa become such hits with all levels of audiences, I tell myself.

My actor friend says that we, the class audience, are not a section anyone is interested in. Films will never be made for us, for we are apparently too fickle, too unpredictable. He tells me that the moneybags that produce and distribute these films have usually risen from the ranks of the working class, watching these sorts of films. For them it is the glamour of making, of being part of a film that their friends will enjoy. For them, it is never about the aesthetics, the legacy or the history of cinema. Also, making ‘good’ films is just not worth it, monetarily. It always boils down to that. The audiences that bring back the money to the filmmakers are ones that demand a good fight, an item song, straight plots, a simple, commercial film in a nutshell, he tells me sagely. How will the audience like different films unless they are made, I try to argue. We are talking of a commercial industry and if these commercial films are what work, why fix something that isn’t broken, my actor friend points out.

Will the Kannada film industry get better, I wonder. But then, what defines ‘better’, I wonder next. Commercial cinema nowhere prophesizes a study in cinema aesthetics now, does it? The audiences at Gandhinagar don’t look for it. They seek only to take pictures of the visiting star with their cheap mobile phones to show friends later. They seek only to create a festival on opening day. They seek only some validation for their routine lives from some public acts, like their fan frenzy. If the news camera captures two seconds of them doing that, they are happy. If the film they are here for is entertaining, their day is made. Gandhinagar is their Wonderland. Shankar, the auto driver fan, sums it up, “I come to forget my troubles. I know I can never have that life, but for those two-odd hours in the film hall, I get to have beautiful things and a happy ending.” A film has served its purpose.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Writing on the Nomadic Budubudike Tribe: In The New Indian Express

An edited version of the story below was published in today's Magazine section in The New Indian Express here.

Some bequeath private planes, some bequeath a tiny rattle drum. To the graying, lightly rotund old man, that little drum is the most revered heirloom he could have wished for. It is what gives him his identity, his livelihood. It is what gives him the epithet Budubudike Dasaiah when he sells people the idea of listening to their daily fortunes first thing in the morning or sometime in the lazy afternoons. 

Amidst cereal for breakfast and dreading rush hours, the old man who saunters into city lanes with the rattle held firmly between his pointer and his thumb does not catch any attention now. Except maybe that of old timers who remember slower times yet. Their fortune telling in exchange for a bowl of rice or loose change is scorned at, the members of the tribe looked at suspiciously and shooed away with disdain. But in the frayed edges of cities, in villages, in hamlets and along country roads, the nomadic Budubudike tribe is still revered for their insight into the future, for their apparent clairvoyance.

The old glory is what Shankarappa holds on to. Wrapped in several layers of colour cloth, the little rattle drum is his inheritance. It is the middle of the day, just after lunch hours. He sits surrounded by women, children and several men younger than him. In the backdrop are huts erected over thin bamboo sticks bent into domes and covered with old torn sarees. 

The Budubudike tribe, identified almost solely by the rattle of their tiny drums as they seek alms and offer to tell people’s futures, used to be nomadic. Most today hover between a semi-nomadic state and rootedness in a village. Shankarappa, amongst the older ones who used to be completely nomadic once upon a time, is one of the first in his tribe to own a house. It doesn’t matter that his house is far away from the town of Pavagada, on the border of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu that rose to infamy over a case of the sale of widows a few years ago.

The smell of a wild pigs being roasted in an open fire wafts in. These people are good hunters; when wild pigs become a menace in fields, farmers invite them to kill the beasts. They get to keep the meat. The count was two the previous evening, one is being roasted, the other is tied to a tree and looks forlorn. We decline a lunch invitation.

Seated on a rickety chair that is conjured up from one of the huts perhaps, we listen to Shankarappa romanticizing his old nomadic life. “My parents were nomads, I settled 
down in Pavagada about ten years ago,” says the 50-something year old. He was earlier in Chalkere, at a distance of “Rs 15 for a ticket in the bus,” that’s how they measure distance. 

The Budubudike tribe seeks alms in the morning and share the food they get for lunch. That makes up their work day. Some have now taken to making brooms. Their 
little drum is always about their person, believers are still told their fortunes. Some, like Ramu, sell sarees in villages.

Ramu lives at the foothills of a rocky hill at the edge of Pavagada, along with 20 other families. His dome shaped hut is an assortment of sarees most colourful, some parts embroidered by his wife. He lovingly unfolds sheaths of cloth and holds up his little drum as well. His idea of the community is devoid of romanticism; he focuses instead 
on the hardships. “I settled down in Pavagada about 16 years ago for my children. They can go to school. If we are nomads, how can they study? I don’t beg though,” he emphasizes.

What Ramu does is buy in auction sarees donated to goddesses in temples. Each cost about Rs 30. Repairing, cleaning and packing costs another Rs 5-10. He boards 
buses and sells them in villages for a profit of Rs 10-15. That apart, once in a while he tells fortunes at village fairs. “It is my family profession, I can’t completely leave it,” he adds.

The tribe worships Adi Shakti in varied forms, as Gowdachandramma, Muthyalamma, Soudamma, Kollapuramma, Maramma. Two families in the colony have converted to Christianity. The head of the family fell ill and only Jesus was able to cure him, he says, refusing to give his name or any other details. He wears a plastic cross around his neck and listens to the radio all day. There is a big red cross painted above his door; the family no longer mingles with the rest of the tribe.

As is wont with tribes elsewhere, very few here study at all. The government classifies them as Marathi, depriving them thus of all beneficial schemes. Rifts are resolved in a Panchayat tradition; they and the government largely ignore each other’s existence.

Shankarappa plays his little drum and mutters for a minute. They are perhaps chants, perhaps incantations designed to mystify and intimidate listeners. The fortune teller imagines a future for his people. He wants the government to recognize them. He wants them to have houses, education, jobs and respectability. He wants them to set their roots firmly into lands of this earth.

Friday, August 16, 2013

The Sound of the Spice Box: This Month's Filter Coffee Column in Kindle

This article is among the Editor's Choice this month at Kindle! The magazine celebrates five years this month with a double issue that talks about the five senses. I have seen the soft copy and it looks fantastic. Pick up a copy people and read the rest. You can read my story here and see below.

Some stereotypes can be endearing, wouldn’t you say? In the manner of filter coffee
immediately bringing to mind mustachioed dhoti clad men sipping copious amounts of this milky, sugary concoction out of stainless steel glasses – tumblers, the old worlders prefer it be called – stereotypes best let us be contextualized, identified in the national milieu. Never mind if that leads to a caricature, a cliché. When you grow up with the clichés, you grow up stocking nostalgia as well to look back upon. The rain will always remind of the cold and of winds that wail like the banshee in the hills. Literature will always remind of grandfather’s collection of Tolstoys and Pushkins in old teakwood bookcases. Lunch will always remind of the sound of Amma’s gold bangles when they clanked against the spices box she opened, like my own magician, to conjure up different this and thats every day.

The Spice Box is always round in shape, sometimes aluminum, often, in stereotypical 
middle class style, stainless steel. There is always another lid inside, to keep the unopened plastic packets of lesser used spices – bay leaves, nutmeg, maybe cinnamon sticks. Beneath that are seven small bowls arranged to fit in neatly. Sitting beneath this and then shut in tight by the outer lid, these bowls brew in their own smells. Mustard seeds have a bowl for themselves, so do coriander seeds, cloves, fenugreek, white lentils, black pepper and cumin. Pale green pods of cardamom might get some space too. If they do, soon they will pucker up, open an inch and take over the box with an intoxicating fragrance. Maybe that was why Amma put them away separately. Not that the rest of the spices behaved any better. Maybe they had a pattern, because every time the box was opened, the smell of one spice would strike first, for a bit second, before it all became mixed and confusing again.

The moment Amma started making lunch or dinner, the Spice Box would come out, 
rather ceremoniously, I would think, as if they knew of their important place in the 
scheme of things. I couldn’t be bothered by the process of cooking back then, but 
watching the process was a theatre. Food to me, still, sounds of the Spice Box – Amma’s bangles, catching the glint of the light as she brought the ensemble out; the 
spluttering mustard, cantankerous and impatient almost; the angry hiss of the oil when the chillies dropped in, the cackle they all made together in the large dollop of coconut oil, not much unlike Abracadabra in another language. When I think of memories, I think of how the chillies in the angry oil, indignant at the intrusion upon their selves, nevertheless allowed a fragrance that I can only describe as the smell of childhood. 

Like my own mistress of spices, the aftertaste of a blend of these, of shreds of coconut seeping into succulent pieces of tubers or roots or other vegetables, remind me of the performance Amma unwittingly staged every time I sat myself down in her kitchen. 

*  * * 

My aunts have had Spice Boxes as well. With blessings and good luck, these were not passed on to the daughters when they built their own kitchens. You bought a new one and infused it with your own mix of spices; some secrets were not meant to be passed on. So it remains with cooks, all-male teams, hired to cater at weddings, death anniversaries, house-warming ceremonies, pujas. Many in small towns have a cult following even, though the fans were not encouraged to watch over their shoulders; the secret of a signature rasam ought not to be replicated by the housewives. Children, chasing each other around their large cauldrons were a little better tolerated; their culinary secrets were safe with the noisy lot. The cooks had to work their way through a flow chart of processes to feed 10-20 things on the menu to 200, 250 or a 1000 people.

The accident of birth into a religion that then looks at your lineage and thrusts upon you a caste, then a sub-caste, also determines what you eat, how you eat. More so this at community functions, like at weddings, there are strict rules to be followed. The caste that I happened to be born into followed these rules to the letter; it is still considered an affront to the sanctity of Brahminism not to do so. And so at weddings and functions I had to sit on the floor, in neat rows with others of my community, waiting patiently till all the vegetables, chutneys, the payasa and such like filled up the edges of a green plantain leaf (the best sections of the leaf reserved for this group). The dishes had to be served in a particular order, that curry came out behind the sweet dish in the middle of the meal; a mix up there would be a great failure by the host. The texture and feel of each curry, whether the sambhar left a fragrance on your fingertips, whether the papad was crisp enough – these merits divided the traditional/authentic/success from the modern/fusion/failure of the meal.

The helpers, nannies, drivers, estate workers, cleaning up ladies, they were relegated to a distant end of the room. Like an afterthought. After everyone else ate, they would be served by other nannies or helpers or by the catering team themselves. The catering team were still lower on the social status ladder than the guests, but above this othercaste lot by virtue of being born Brahmins as well. The rules of dining did not apply to the help. The dishes followed each other in quick succession, in no particular order. Supposedly this was because they did not eat like we do, I have heard that one often.They mix everything together anyway. They didn’t need to be given all the sweets. “They aren’t very clean now, are they?” The sacred rules, the ‘this-is-how-it-is’ section of the social pecking order passes me by, with a whooshing sound. It isn’t enough just to be born into a caste, I realize.

*  * *

S comes to my parents’ house to help with the housework. For the longest time she didn’t have a BPL card, though there were assurances from the local councilor who wanted our votes. Now she has a card. Her expenses at the weekly vegetable market run up to a couple of hundred rupees; there are three daughters and a drunken husband she has to feed. Expenses rise every fifth week at the market. Beside her hut is a small vegetable patch, organic stuff, every now and then she gifts me a capsicum or a few strings of beans when I visit. Her catalogue of recipes includes traditional Malabar coconut curries, unusual green vegetables, strange concoctions for cold, headache and such like. She grinds her spices in a stone mortar; the spices turn coarse, playing with all the taste, smell, touch senses, once the moaning rumble of the stone against the stone is brought to a halt. Those sounds, those smells are not something a Meenu Mixie can ever hope to replicate.

A few days ago, the Government of Karnataka announced the Anna Bhagya scheme for S’s family and nearly a crore other BPL families. She will now get 30 kilograms of rice per month at Re 1 per kilogram. Of course, the prices of oil, salt, flour, chillies, spices, everything else that make a meal are steadily increasing. In cities, conversation begins with complaining of the price of tomatoes or peas. A union leader I know, who contests every election, be it for an MP or an MLA position, is part of the one crore category of families. His one question is whether he and his wife are to eat ganji- gruel alone every day; with food inflation this high, there isn’t much the old working class couple can afford to spice up their meals. In a way, S, the help, is happy. Relieved rather at the small mercies of the government. But the larger picture gets a shade grimmer every passing day.

Luckily for her, S and her family came from a region that eats rice as a staple. The kilograms of rice at Re 1 allow her to retain some food habits at least. Unlike the family of, let’s call them the Desais, in a district in north Karnataka. I heard about them through a writer friend. For them, rice was an affair for a few festivities in a year, not a daily craving. Corn, sometimes wheat is what goes best with the hot curries they make. Rice is unpalatable. But the Karnataka government doesn’t give them that choice any longer. Corn and wheat are pricier than ever. Food prices have apparently gone up by 70 per cent in the last five years alone, so says a UN report. The Desais and their neighbours cannot afford their staples anymore, rice is in their every meal now. A Kannada proverb talks of how the habits of your birth don’t leave even when your body is burnt. It took a mere ambitious scheme for the government to erase the old habits of the Desais. The crisis of a food identity might not have been something the Desais would have anticipated when their crops failed and they became poor.

*  * * 

In this country of our birth, there is no escaping the community, the caste you are born into. In spite of my discomfort with mine, without having been given a choice, a large part of my identity is defined around the food I eat, Amma’s meals that I long for, the juicy white shreds of coconut that decorate nearly every single thing we make. That part is a caste marker as well, however much you might want to deny its origins.

You grow up, you leave the hearth, you enter the melting cauldron that explains the idea of a metropolis, you get your own Spice Box, for a while you even take Instagrammed photos at fancy places you eat at, of foods that made the childhood memories of friends. But when you lose a love, leave a job, catch a cold, you turn to your coconut, the smell of cardamom wafts that in through the back of your memory room and you find your eyes moist, for no reason, for many reasons. You seek out that place in the distant neighbourhood that purports to make authentic your kind of food. They lie. They can never match what the mistress of spices of your history makes; even you are better than their purported authenticity. You start your own theatre, you invent secrets, you smell new smells when you reach up to the last shelf in your tiny kitchen to bring out the array of spices. There is fancier glassware now, they look better than middle class steel. Yet you cannot give away the Spice Box. Some secrets are not to be passed on.

Sunday, August 04, 2013

That incredible, inspiring moment when you almost physically feel your mind opening up to new ideas, new realities, new possibilities and you acknowledge that the heart and mind are both at that stage where you allow yourself to embrace all these. That moment can take your breathe away.

Friday, August 02, 2013

This Afternoon

Nothing quite like
- Rain along the coast
- Rain in the hills
- Rain, its sound on my skin, its smell in your hair, its flavour on your lips 
- Green outside the window
- Quietness
- Possibilities 
- Happening upon a book at the very exact moment in life when you can read it. 
- Smiling at that thought
- You