I had written and published CONVERGENCE two years ago. I reiterate this poem’s parallels between two iconic individuals in the light of the upcoming release of SPENCER starring Kristen Stewart as Lady Diana.
The binding thread here is director Pablo Larrain who had previously helmed the brilliant 2016 portrait of Jackie Kennedy titled JACKIE where Natalie Portman essayed the beleaguered first lady with understated elegance and pathos. It’s one of the works that has inspired me in multiple ways.
I mean I had written this work as a tribute to two women who, I felt, were like soul sisters. This is further attested by Mr. Larrain’s choice to bring their individual lives to the spotlight in complex interiority.
That also validates my own vision. So read it again and share your thoughts.
Just when the weight of the crown had extricated itself, from the crime of almost snapping her neck, A glass palace in her mind crashed.
a whirlwind of faraway drums tin-tinning in her head. Cracking a crooked, dewy smile, Keeping abreast of her tour of engagements. Intent on remembering the last thing she said, Everlasting pleasantry or just a peck on his cheek before tucking them to bed, the kids and Jack.
The Pacific waves crash at her side, on the assassin’s pathway, where compassion and her snubbed radiance were last heard walking on the beach, talking over the politics of killing fields and nuclear disarmaments.
The Jangling Amoral ultraviolence Cocking an inlet, cocksure Kindling the final vulgarity of his death. In her lap his brains lay splayed Enjambing the poetic words that died on his beautiful head and shamed every father’s rifle.
Shots were fired at her that day, Jackie was splayed wide open, kissing dripping blood on entitlements of ‘ the most famous woman in the world’.
Shots Boomeranged. All her particulars memorialized on Love Field.
Deftly walk in the hall, my befuddled princess in the mirage. What poise became yours even as conspiracy theories overtook your chambers. What did it leave you with? But a ‘ candle in the wind’ and a consolation from the windswept dust of Windsor. A nominal title, endangered privacies, from cameras stationed like overhead helicopters that you loathed. They smothered your wavelengths and still you delicately waved at each.
Is this the soft stereotype of womanhood as it embraced you? Or is it the unsaid, unfelt, tutored dignity that suppresses desires, so what remains if ‘ worldly’ is your undertaking. The mud of luxuries that you tread on as the eyes, ears and spirit of England and the cosmopolitan fluency of London that heroically consumed you overall.
Where was Diana in all this? in the Distasteful heirarchy that she inherited Instigated towards keeping appearances, taking her part. Another part in the violence of unfaithful kitchen sinks, and Artful nose-diving in the cesspool of youth diminishing, with every act. Acts of such force – fed maturities were those. Where was the name in all this? Her name blossoming with protrusions out of the headlines, as ‘ the most famous woman in the world’. But the swan like upper-crust had to remain, the dignities of irony too and the mere skeleton and cult of the good woman.
Diana had perished long ago in all this, didn’t you see?
all gloves and pearl necklaces and fashionable decorum, misogyny dreaded and smelt from a distance, authority that shut you mum. The cumulation of your burdened histories had to come to this? But you gave them the middle path and broached your own negotiations in individual links. All your own spurning the smug, crushed jewel of tradition.
Love Field at an angle, Champs Elysees and Paris, bon vivant, at the axis of correlation. The pure acrostics of lives intertwined, dissolving in the quicksilver flashes of death and registries of popular culture, for better or worse, with burnt historic hands dealt.
The fluid parallels The bloodied shots in rear view. Blessed be the spectre of thee, bleeding womanhood supreme and in gobsmacked tragedy, never giving in to idolatry or melancholy’s rush hour.
They are what they are, huddled spirits in unison for the ashen infidelity of men. Two women conjoining fates in constant, equivocal flutters.
Till those car rides each Thinking back to Time’s finest chronology, descending in the flagrant history of blood.
Still. All they accommodated were these :
free will and a life to cast out of those shadow lines, giving away to the personality of eras, a shroud of silences to enwrap itself in. Long live the legend of thee.
‘ candle in the wind’ refers to the iconic elegiac song by Sir Elton John that was dedicated to Diana.
There’s a time of day to witness nature’s crown in the sky. One can say with some honesty that customary mornings oftentimes make the magic of incantatory forms dissipate and not quite appear as they do around sunset.
That’s the perfect point to catch golden inflections. When the curtain of light opens itself. When the evening clouds are in repose and no longer believe in spreading their day-long expanse of lucid blue.
This particular day, my eyes could see a final blink from the sun, appearing without any inhibition, like melting butter, as if the ancestors themselves were purveyors of this beauty.
Such a canvas is somber. The crows becoming incarnates of the departed and those stoic cows are at leisure, patches of pleasant white and brown with the green around them, as I feed them customary portions of the day’s feast.
Witnessing all this is the river around whom a ministry of faith rings in evening bell tolls and distant incantations; a sacred geometry since ancient awakenings.
This scenery, with the sun soft and dappled with life, a whole lineage reminisced in prayer, build up the laws of life and an almost incantatory mystery is in all of this, a mute songcraft only heard by a few.
The rituals of the day and a reprieve to the soul always bathed in golden light.
NOTE: this poem is based on the Hindu/ Indian tradition of Pitrapaksha, in which we pray for departed elders, preparing a vegetarian feast in their name and then offering portions of it to crows and cows, in sacred consonance with them being symbols of the soul, of the mortal world. On such a day, I saw nature mingling with the somber mood of this observation.
Hence, the photograph above that I clicked and around which I have designed this poem.
From my early days as a kindergarten student, my teachers instilled in me a love and inclination towards images and words. Picture compositions, where one lets imagination fly high and explore the implicit and explicit details behind an image, always allowed me to excel in terms of creative manifestation. To this date, that early blueprint has helped me tremendously to construct worlds both real and imagined in my poetry.
EKPHRASTIC REVIEW is a publication that celebrates the same penchant for boundless creativity with its prolific output that expands our creative powers, with its sundry prompts based on artwork cutting across eras. All in the service of also facilitating an appreciation for art in general and the global cultural legacy in particular.
As all these aspects have always been dear to me, it’s my honour to have my poem AFTER THE GOLD RUSH, based on the prompt around Elin Danielson- Gambogi’s painting AFTER BREAKFAST, be published by EKPHRASTIC REVIEW. It’s my second publication on this platform this year. So it makes me very happy that my poem was chosen and placed among other highly worthy pieces. Most importantly, it helped me conjoin images and words in a cohesive whole and to be acknowledged for it gives me immense satisfaction.
So read the poem, look at the original painting and share your thoughts.
Freedom is strife, a differential consonant, with silence bargained from solitude. The former a beseecher, the latter a form of tortured lullaby, both honing our mothers in prison cells to bear us in foetuses, tepidly carrying us from the incoherence of midnight screechings against these walls.
Freedom is life under lock and key, fear coming at us like a vengeful overlord, strung around that unutterable word, strung around that soiled desecration of young bodies in limbo, strung around like irony, pacing up and down on a nation’s destiny like gloom. Calling us Bastards. The War Boys. Children of War.
If you could hear the screaming madness, smell the lice on our hair, the icy psychology of dictatorship in these guarded rooms. How they betray us.
We cry out then whimper like scapegoats, chiselled out for the bounty, all flesh and bone for the midnight, all under this ‘freedom’
Freedom is strife and ours are young bodies sealed and entombed within prison cells, in the farthest reaches of civil wars and eluding rescue.
For us, freedom cries out, ‘let the silence be your bargain, let it be a possible manner of survival’ For in this world, it is the shroud over our naked bodies when we are plucked and outraged and told to breathe and recover.
Freedom is life under lock and key. Now could all this irony be lost on you?
I’ve waited for a long time to share this bounty of music from the second quarter of 2021. The simple reason being that I wanted to savour each new song and memorise every minute rhythm, aural texture and vocal feat like I usually do before writing about them.
I’m elated to present them to you as legendary artists like Barbra Streisand, Tony Bennett, AC/DC, Eric Clapton and Bruce Springsteen continued to make substantive records while the younger batch bolstered its always sublime creative output with melody and refined songwriting in tow. Lana Del Rey, Lady A and The Lumineers, familiar favourites, come to the picture hence.
I’m also happy to announce that the release of three album cycles by the likes of Bennett and Gaga, The Killers and Brandi Carlile was worth the wait and greatly impressed me.
So here is the gold standard for the second half of this year in which spirits and our souls seem to recuperate with the promise of hope. Music, then, is its befitting salve and companion.
1) PRESSURE MACHINE by THE KILLERS
Just less than a year ago, the Brandon Flowers fronted iconic outfit released the ebullient and uplifting IMPLODING THE MIRAGE. Among its coterie of standouts apart from CAUTION, MY OWN SOUL’S WARNING, BLOWBACK and MY GOD, all bathed in the synth soundscapes so beloved to its oeuvre, one song became my very own favourite. That is LIGHTNING FIELDS. I remember how it played in my head as I frequented my preferred riverside park for morning walks in the latter half of 2020, with guest star K. D. Lang’s verse especially becoming resonant. The yen for effective storytelling continued with the 2020 version of LAND OF THE FREE, with modified lyrics and a spare piano accompaniment to the vocals. Of course just a few weeks ago, the update of one of their signature songs DUSTLAND featured Bruce Springsteen, in a clever nod to its idol whose aesthetics has influenced the group as a composite whole. So all members have been turning in a prolific collective output to prepare us for PRESSURE MACHINE, their latest album of original material.
This one hews closer to an autobiography and portrait of frontman Brandon Flowers’ upbringing in the isolated pockets of Utah. That very personal sense of belonging to a place, its inhabitants and a past seen through the prism of one’s adult history makes for compelling songwriting and rootedness in humility of expression. NOMADLAND came to mind to this writer, given protagonist Fern’s insulated life in rural Nevada, quite close to the geographical and emotional space portrayed here.
Interspersed with dialogues coming from different members of the community, a whole gamut of emotions, from a small town’s suffocating mores, opioid crises, young deaths courtesy the passing railway line and even one’s affinity to the natural world ( in this case, to the horses one grows to raise and deeply love) are covered.
Tracks like WEST HILLS and QUIET TOWN acknowledge those multiple strands, the former beautifully employing a muted vocal slowly building to an inner churn and the sonic textures of the guitar while the latter has the mouth organ and a rhythmic beat instantly capturing our attention. They begin the album on a solid note. I also liked the simplicity in the next batch comprising of the hummable CODY and SLEEPWALKER.
DESPERATE THINGS is the real deal here, a spare ballad, acoustic by nature, that contemplates the ways of people who mean well but end up committing actions that come their way on account of a closed-off social structure and inner void that even stereotypes of family and community cannot fill up. Brandon Flowers’ haunting vocals are up to the mark here but his excellent use of the falsetto on title track PRESSURE MACHINE makes it a highlight of this coherent album cycle towards the closing passage. It’s such a supple, delicate vocal performance despite the fact that most of the latter songs have an identical 80s style synth sound. The violin instrumental towards the end portion too is poignant and effective.
However, this album’s centerpiece is, hands down, RUNAWAY HORSES featuring PHOEBE BRIDGERS, the current era’s phoenix of sorts whose own album PUNISHER saved us from the pall of a pandemic year. The sparse, acoustic sound on this beautifully sublime track is again rooted in the reality of a young girl’s life within small town ethos and abandoned dreams and the melodic whole makes it universal. One listen and it registers in the mind. Multiple listens lodges it in the heart.
Listen, hence, to PRESSURE MACHINE. It is an evolved step in the right direction for this consistently prolific group. The title track, DESPERATE THINGS and RUNAWAY HORSES give it a special tinge.
**** 2) LOVE FOR SALE by TONY BENNETT and LADY GAGA.
Oh it was a joy to listen to CHEEK TO CHEEK seven years ago. To behold and be beguiled by a legendary collaboration between two consummate artists sixty years apart but so intrinsically united in the service of redefining the Great American Songbook. For me, still in the initial years of college, it was a wake up call and a profound celebration of music transcending eras, boundaries and expectations of popular taste. The album proved that you don’t need to be just a veteran to bring the bounty of classic pop to the forefront.
LOVE FOR SALE is the second chapter to that collaborative journey and it sparkles and comes to life as expected. I love the fact that most of the songs begin sparingly with just the vocals, almost a capella, and then the bass, saxophones and jazzy aura take over for bursts of wonder and joy. The title track, I GET A KICK OUT OF YOU, I CONCENTRATE ON YOU comply with that standard. As is the classic flagbearer DE-LOVELY.
I personally feel most enthused when Gaga goes solo for one of legendary singer-songwriter- composer Cole Porter’s best known songs LET’S DO IT( LET’S FALL IN LOVE), the original still ringing in my ears from the first listen almost six years ago. On this one, she maintains the naughty and loveable streak central to the innocent lyrics. This individual moment for the ever-versatile vocalist also takes me back to her warm rendition of LUSH LIFE from Cheek to Cheek.
Then, the duet partners give I’VE GOT YOU UNDER MY SKIN, a paean to burgeoning love with its tangents of wonder and practical wisdom, a wonderful take. Note how Gaga improvises the word ‘tattoo’ here.
So this one is for all afficianados of the classic songbook, of the two singers and good music. It is a treat in these times of recovery from a blanched era.
3) IN THESE SILENT DAYS by BRANDI CARLILE.
RIGHT ON TIME, a song I instantly connected with, is clearly the reason to savour the latest batch of songs from BRANDI CARLILE. A soaring chorus and vocal alignment is preceded by piano balladry. The melody is unforgettable and clearly a signature, given that she rose to stratospheric heights based on these aspects on the breakout BY THE WAY, I FORGIVE YOU (2018)
I’ve listened to three other tracks out of a total ten on this album and they made me listen again and again till I had committed the arrangements, the melodies and amalgamation of notes to memory. This within a single day.
BROKEN HORSES, taking its title from her own memoir published few months ago, is classic Americana iconography suffused with great soaring vocals from her, effective harmonies and guitars. It’s a track I went back to more than twice. Then there’s SINNERS, SAINTS AND FOOLS, tipping its hat to the origins of a nation. The way she effortlessly balances a sense of restraint along with the mid-point high note stays with the listener. The final track THROWING GOOD AFTER BAD is another melodic stunner, a piano ballad and hence relays points of distance, farewell and hope beautifully. I will listen to the other six songs soon and I am sure they will be just as immersive.
Trivia Alert: the video for RIGHT ON TIME was directed by none other than our beloved Monica ala COURTNEY COX from Friends.
Done with the album cycles, now we shift our focus towards the singularity of individual songs and it is an eclectic and exciting mix.
BARBRA STREISAND takes the lead with her world class delivery on BE AWARE, off her latest collection of standards RELEASE ME 2. Smooth, crystal clear in her enunciation and bursting with empathy as also characteristically persuasive, she shows us the mirror of our world, contrasting the things we take for granted with the yearning for those same luxuries by have-nots eking out difficult lives. In a post-pandemic world, we need to take note of her exhortations because her eloquence is undying, timeless.
Brian Johnson and Angus Young take the mantle forward with their fifth single off the explosive new AC/DC album POWER UP which has already produced such fireworks as DEMON FIRE, SHOT IN THE DARK, REALIZE and WITCH’S SPELL.
THROUGH THE MISTS OF TIME is actually all about celebrating the legacy of this iconic band and tipping its hat to a dedicated, often frenzied fandom. After all, the music is on fire as is the case with the vocals and guitar, trademark elements barely distinguishable from the common riffs the band deploys so often. It still works. I guess deja vu and a sense of getting in the headspace of a new generation endears these legends. This one is no exception.
Following suit, the original smooth operator is back with THIS HAS GOTTA STOP, an angry plea to let sense prevail amid persistent chaos. It’s vintage Clapton and the second iteration with Van Morrison under the nom de plume of SLOWHAND & VAN has an added appeal by way of Morrison’s saxophone solo. As is the norm, the prolific artist brings to the center the elegance of blues and jazz, in the end amalgamating them in a cohesive musical whole.
Ditto his latest take on AFTER MIDNIGHT, off his LADY IN THE BALCONY: THE LOCKDOWN SESSIONS stint, an album to be released soon. What stay true and unwavering are his signature crisp, mellow vocals and the band’s fine-tuned instrumental gifts. It’s always a pleasure to come home to these greats within our immediate era hence.
To round out this class of songs by veritable icons, Bruce Springsteen rises to the occassion to pay his obeisance to the legacy of 9/11 with a live performance of I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS off his 2020 set LETTER TO YOU. Each word and the unvarnished, acoustic ethos are somberly attuned to the value of lives lost and their reverberating historic echoes through time and individuals who remember them with a heavy burden in their hearts. Only the Boss can add such poignant dignity to this elegy.
Then at last, we hail songs by modern artists of agency and repute.
ARCADIA by Lana Del Rey is another gem, a piano ballad with supple textures and her heartwarming vocals . This is one artist who keeps her word when it comes to artistic and more so lyrical integrity. The poetic palette of Arcadia attests to that steadfast, restrained spirit which has been prolific this year on her part with two albums to boast of. I’m proud to call her one of my many inspirations till date. Arcadia continues that lovely trajectory.
WHERE WOULD I BE? by Lady A plays to its strengths, with a supple and simple melody buoyed by relatable lyrics. Of course, the trademark harmonies are always appreciated and the members come up with aces on that front. Overall, this latest from the upcoming second part of their album WHAT A SONG CAN DO is winsome. This consistent arc makes a difference.
YOU’RE NOT HERE- I urge all discerning listeners to listen to Cynthia Erivo’s heart-wrenching new song post Harriet’s Oscar nominated showstopper STAND UP. Her own history of abandonment by a parental figure is lyrically stirring and backed by just a piano, the starkness of that personal station arrests us. The composition is simple, stripped down and lets one think about the traumatic impact of a lifetime of emotional emptiness. At first, I thought it’s about her mother (who was there by her side at the Oscars a year back) and a possible mortal premonition for the older lady. But thank God, Cynthia has her pillar of support by her side.
I highly recommend YOU’RE NOT HERE for its brilliant distillation of a personal narrative that becomes universal. The sighing and sobbing at the end captures that poignantly. Erivo’s live performance on Jimmy Fallon is further proof of her uncompromising artistry. She is a consummate vocalist, that’s for sure.
BRIGHTSIDE by THE LUMINEERS is a brand new song and suffice it to say, the quality of this band’s musical affinities to love and its profusion is absolutely appealing after the complex cycle of its excellent last album 3.
I’M NOT A WOMAN, I’M A GOD(LIVE)
Halsey’s vocals, especially on the second half, in this live version of the intense single from her latest album is a standout.
So this diverse mix should keep us occupied and expecting further riches from the world of music.
My published poem SHANTI, written in English and shared here by yours truly, was actually first composed in my native tongue Hindi. That’s the pattern with many of my poems, to be bilingual and maintain the felicity and flow of expression.
Hence, I am sharing the original Hindi version here for all those who read and speak the language.
I hope it’s as fruitful an experience for all as the English version was.
हे राम, घोर कलयुग आ गया अब तो शिव ने भी स्वयं अपना देह संस्कार कर दिया। कर अपनी भुजाओ को त्याग और ले आत्मा से परम निर्वाण, बहा दी अपनी छवी विशाल महासागर में
कोई कहे की ये एक प्रतिमा है, एक तस्वीर संसार का, पर कौन सा संसार रहा अपने समक्ष जब खुद भोलेनाथ बिना तांडव किए या अपने केश खोले, विलेन कर चले खुद को अपने ही आशरु से उत्तपन हुए सागर में
शीतल चेहरे पे मत जाओ, वो तो देह और माया से सदा ऊपर था। देखो तो ये असीम त्याग, देखो परिंदे की व्यथा, जो देवभूमि पर देख रहा है भ्रामंड के रचयता को आज निर्जीव मृत जैसे जीवन और मृत्यु से कोई सरोकार नहीं
कोई कहे है वो कृष्णा, है वो विष्णु, है वो दुर्गा, है वो काली का एक रूप। कोई कहे है वो मेरा बेटा, मेरा बच्चा, जिसे जीवन धरा ने अपने में समा लिया और रह गया तो मातृ उसका चेहरा।
जैसे खुद धरती सो गई हो और संसार खो गया हो इस काले स्वप्न के नगर में
My ekphrastic poem SHANTI has been published by my departmental journal RHETORICA QUARTERLY. It is of course inspired by the painting titled PEACE by Marian Spore Bush which I feel reflects Indian myths of Shiva and the idea of life and death with intensity.
So this particular work springs from my own interpretation and hopefully all readers will find it to be resonant too.
I also reserve pride and joy for this departmental journal has completed a full year and a half since its inception in 2020. Even amidst the pandemic, the team continued to provide impetus for all literary minds and their eclectic vision. So kudos to them.
I feel particularly proud as an alumnus of the department to have many of my poems find a home here. It always is homecoming in that manner.
It is heartening to announce that I finally watched this beautifully resonant, socially timeless work of pure art from debuting director Joe Talbot, a work I was determined to experience in its visual and sonic whole. Thanks to its availability on Netflix India, my wish was granted few days ago.
The premise of this autobiographical work is based on a concept of home as personal sanctuary and that makes it special to me. I know what it feels to be bereft of a home of one’s own, as my family home was usurped by a conniving paternal relative and we had to reconcile with occupying a rented flat for a period of almost two decades. The emotional toll of that period and the loss of a familiar generational abode is deep and affecting for each family member. To equate that primary loss with unresolved trauma will be appropriate on multiple levels.
In THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO, Jimmy Fails too understands the pangs of losing his beloved childhood home that goes back to two whole generations. His predicament is doubly poignant as his identity as an African-American adds layers of racial complexity. His home is now part of San Francisco’s gentrified neighbourhood so that even when he does occupy this beloved abode with his best friend ( Jonathan Majors), others who are endowed with a different skin colour and hence a supposed ‘cultural superiority’ eye him with bewilderment. He is drifting through life owing to his place in the world, governed by status quo. The loss of a space to call his own has solely contributed to that feeling of disintegration. A good heart and optimistic love for places and people can hardly fill that void.
Trust me, I could absolutely relate with this tale and its repercussions on any discerning viewer who has even come close to knowing what ‘dislocation’ means psychologically in the first place. This depth of understanding and treatment of one’s home as repository of memories hence holding ‘sentimental value’, a term I grasp so intimately with my own lifetime so far, is beautiful.
But this one has grace notes, humour and a fidelity to relationships grounded in humility, such as the one between Jimmy and his father( Rob Morgan), between his best friend and his grandfather ( Majors and Danny Glover) or the one of easy camaraderie that Jimmy shares with his aunt( Tichina Arnold) Jonathan Majors tilts the mirror towards his own quest to fulfill his best friend’s wish to repossess his home, investing his arc with hope, uncertainty, an inherent artistic eye and unwavering courage. In reality, it’s their mutual love for each other that defines this film. It’s also a showcase for the beauty of having sensitive males around us who go beyond the usual tropes of bonding with each other. I was touched to behold such collective tact and care in the direction.
Of course, it’s sonically and visually stunning yet never in a picture postcard manner. Emile Mosseri’s music, editing by David Marks and the cinematography by Adam Newport-Berra illuminate the personal prism from which this enchanting city with undulating geographical heights and depths as also multitude of personalities come to greet the protagonists. Cue the angles, the resolutions and the kinetic use of music in the beginning where both men skateboard through the diverse landscape of this city by the bay, their collective home. Home is where their heart truly is even as Jimmy’s claims that his own grandfather built the elegant home brick by brick back in the 1940s is open to interpretation by the ending. To me, it is a statement on how the minority communities are always erased from our cultural lexicon and their contributions taken away. It’s a conceit and reality on the part of Jimmy Fails himself, owing to the autobiographical imprints of this narrative, that stays with us. It’s history seen through a personal prism.
THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO is pregnant with meaning and insights. It celebrates its bittersweet sunchrony and trains a melancholic-hopeful sensibility towards more than just statistics of representation. In the whole process, this screen treatment deals with feelings, letting them sing and go with the flow. Which is what makes this real to reel transformation a genuine heartwarmer.
TARPAN( THE ABSOLUTION), 1995.
If you want to understand the true aesthetics of magic realism, look no further than diplomat turned director K. Bikram Singh’s TARPAN( THE ABSOLUTION)
As illustrated so pivotally here as also on Pedro Almodovar’s VOLVER(which I wrote about few months ago), that mode of storytelling never possesses an empty stance in terms of fantasy but emerges from the weight of social realities, often uncomfortable ones, hence challenging the stability of gender and interpersonal equations. So it’s a mode of enquiry as also a movement towards piquing our interests. It’s a device used well in literature and theatre and this screenplay honours those benchmarks, especially the latter in the way it stages, in a gradual process, the unfolding of the titular absolution, for various individuals occupying a village in Rajasthan.
The central conceit is cleverly delineated: a couple( Mita Vashisht and Ravi Jhankal) must visit another village and clean up an unused well in order to cure its unnaturally ailing seven year old daughter. The polluted water of this well and the eventual exorcising of ghosts, literal and metaphorical, through its purification is a commentary on the evils wrought by gender, class and caste differences. Watch it to know how the well is a metaphor, symbol and site of residence for all those who were wronged by others wielding power in their given circumstances in the past. Myths and folklores get subsumed within the auspices of magical realism here.
I particularly like how the same cyclical rhythm of conducting the action transpires. The man( Ravi Jhankal) goes down to the well, experiences an epiphany within the deep water, comes up retrieving one item such as an old trinket, a bracelet or even skeletal remains and then the dead person’s exploitation at the hands of senior prefects of the village is unraveled. Flashbacks recreating that sordid past are rooted in unflinching realism and social consciousness between the haves and have-nots. Then the ghost emerges amidst smoke to address the congregation. This is preceded by a ritualistic prayer and incantation by the wrongdoers and other village seniors. Guilt and their share of complicity hence has never eluded them and they all strive for recompense.
Watch these intensely created pieces to be enthralled by the backstories and then the final breakthrough where water squirts out like catharsis, rescuing the ailing girl’s health. TARPAN is uniquely realised and upholds its theatrical staging of the resurrections of ghosts, then juxtaposing them with on-location shooting to posit a generational stream. It confronts history, melding the past’s legacy with our present reckoning.
Formidable performers like OM PURI, DINA PATHAK, REVATHY, VIJAY KASHYAP, MANOHAR SINGH, SAVITA BAJAJ, ANANG DESAI, RAJENDRA GUPTA, LALIT TIWARI, VIRENDRA SAXENA and PAWAN MALHOTRA add heft to its arresting whole.
CHAR ADHYAY( FOUR CHAPTERS), 1997
Now that I have completed the cycle of watching all of auteur Kumar Shahani’s feature films, CHAR ADHYAY(1997), his last work in all these years, was notable for its precise style. As also for his focus on the act of walking as marking a movement through time and space, with Vanraj Bhatia’s music beautifully utilising the sitar to evoke an appropriate period feel and the non-diegetic use of nature imagery mingling with the sorroundings within which pre-independence Bengal’s fight for liberation simmers with angst and unresolved moral tensions. It is a cause not for inviting irony or a simplistic contradiction but one of unstinted realism, naturalistic in tone and execution.
Bengal in the 1930s etches a landscape for Shahani and his team of expert technicians, including cinematographer du jour K.K. Mahajan, to which they contribute their own quietly effective impetus and arthouse imprints. For that reason, Bengali and Hindi dialogues merge seamlessly without the need to announce those moments of transition. The linguistic adaptability is actually an extension of Shahani’s all- encompassing vision of India, only this time it is set in the Eastern state at a particularly hostile, culturally specific point in time.
Like KHAYAL GATHA(1989), the first few minutes are imbued with exposition in his inimitable style, a series of images that bear no narrative coherence, setting the stage, in turn, for what is to come. The core of this film is derived from the conversational quality between Nandini Ghoshal and Sumanto Chattopadhyay, lovers and freedom fighters who exercise the intimacy of a profound bond even amid violence, orchestrated by their fellow compatriots and by themselves. The foregrounding, however, is on their moments together where deep truths and irreconcilable dilemmas occupy their locational spaces. Shahani’s debt to the foundations of theatre are found in the lighting, setting and gestural articulations here.
Every now and then, a shooting, a burning village and cries of those caught in the throes of these local infractions are shown, brought to the screen quietly without exploiting the severity of the matter. This juxtaposition or singular presentation of each scene works very well for a viewer who wants to experience the events in a more practical light.
For me, CHAR ADHYAY is like caesura- a film that shows us a break from the middle or focal point of the story and ethos. So that words of endearment and nervous energy between the central pair, their non- verbal meetings in a train, a teenager’s preoccupation with building a bamboo cage for pet rabbits or a young woman swinging by a tree and nature imagery in general become accommodative of everyday actions that we continue to pursue even as our era is rife with sectarian emotions or nationalistic propaganda. To the discerning eye, hence, this work will be relevant in our own era. As also for its eye for detail that brings the past and present together for the protagonists, in a delicate delineation of personal choices in the name of rasthra (nation), leading to unsavoury consequences for them.
DANCE LIKE A MAN( 2004)
This film, based on the iconic play by Mahesh Dattani, is a multidimensional story rich in the social realities of urban India.
The title itself makes it crystal clear that a male dancer’s pursuit of classical form of Bharatnatyam is one in a minority mould thus challenging social norms at their most extensive. His partnership, both on the creative and personal front, with his wife is then one of oppositions- they have to wrestle with the financial aspect of being creative individuals as also counter sexism in individual capacities owing to that vocation itself. Gradually, her pronounced success invites more contours.
Mohan Agashe as the parental figure is another pivotal part of the picture- he is celebrated as a social reformer but displays the same brutish, intolerant hostility towards his own son that he probably counters on a public front. He is also dismissive of the classical form practiced by his daughter in law, claiming it to be descended from courtesans. The complexity of that statement is another strand altogether, reflecting cultural nuances that were man- made in the first place.
All of these negative strands are obliterated and hence the purity of the art form is rehabilitated when the couple’s daughter enters this generational field and shows early signs of greatness. Success and the lack of it, gender norms and interpersonal relationships are dealt with delicacy by director Pamela Rooks, working from a script by Mr. Dattani himself. All of it is set to stirring musical and dance recitals that transcend the web of conventional thinking to emerge as a liberating form of artistic integrity.
But DANCE LIKE A MAN is compelling because it shows human endeavours at their most blase and vulnerable. Performances by Shobhana, herself an excellent practitioner of classical dance and a choreographer here too, and Arif Zakaria elevate the script while sitar maestro Anushka Shankar is surprisingly effective and openly expressive in her acting turn. She’s very good with the dance recitals too. So is Samir Soni as her supportive and effervescent fiance.
All in all, I highly recommend this one.
BY THE SEA(2015)
Within the laidback silences of this tale is a compelling look at familial disintegration, voyeurism and the erotic impulses of a couple’s unraveling hitting hard owing to pronounced loss. The return to a place of common and mutual intimacy earns its share of poignancy. Watch as Angelina Jolie resists her husband’s proximity and the way they are distant figures and yet are bound by years of togetherness to make attempts at reconciliation. She is particularly impactful at portraying the effects of withdrawing into one’s shell where an inner implosion gets channelized through reticence in actions and almost non- verbal articulations.
It’s a patient, weary road and Jolie, doubling up as screenwriter and director, mimics that developmental inertia with a careful eye for people and places that revel in quietude. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie together craft some stirring scenes of a journey that is never really resolved but reaches a place of interpersonal exchanges, no matter how laconic they are.
To me, BY THE SEA is an engrossing drama on adult relationships.
NOTE: all these Indian films that I’ve written about are available in HD and with excellent sound quality on EPIC ON, the application of EPIC CHANNEL. It’s a proper treasure trove for all those seeking Indian arthouse classics. That’s where I watched them.
‘Thari Bhali Hove( may good come to you)’ – these words, seemingly taken to be a term of endearment, became like thunderclaps in the hands of the legendary on-screen matriarch Dadisa. The anticipation of a dressing down from her given that line of dialogue and her inimitable delivery made Surekha Sikri a name to reckon with on BALIKA VADHU. Not only was the show a game changer in terms of its affecting storyline, execution and social consciousness rarely seen on Indian television for over a decade when it premiered in 2008, it gave the veteran a chance to become an overnight superstar. Every household tuned into the show at 8 O’ clock and Dadisa was a total fixture, leading an ensemble of finest talents, old and new. In her innate strength, conservatism, snarling display of aristocratic anger, tenderness and old-world cast of stubborn patriarchal values, she reflected all the polarities we found in our own elderly prefects at home.
As a young widow who was able to financially secure her household’s fortunes and raise her two sons as a single mother in a rural town rife with male dominance, she showed us the flipside of her own social conditioning when opposing progress in terms of gender equality. Sikri was so nuanced and complex within sometimes a single scene that those contradictions of modernity and progress informed us of our own universal ethos. So good was she that initially I used to think that she herself belonged to a rural Rajasthani background. So entrenched was the milieu and its attendant mindsets in her collective personality.
Even when we could have seen her conventionally as just a slender lady with medium height, a typical grandmother figure, her stance and unwavering pride amplified her screen presence. She was the queen of primetime and for atleast six years of the show’s strong run as a bonafide hit, she paved the way for personal transformation in characterisation by way of changing mindsets for the better. It was a welcome reintroduction to the great performing artist for a whole generation that further fell in love with her class act, as a similarly pegged matriarch in BADHAAI HO(2018)
She was sweet and sour, a taunting mass and storehouse of wit but ready to stand up for her middle-aged daughter in law( Neena Gupta) as an unexpected pregnancy made her the target of unkind words. Her love and concern for Priyamvada is evident and she doesn’t play favourites and hence spares not even her own daughter. It is pitched as a dramedy and its ultimate emotional appeal is earned. Like Daadisa, she is in control and refuses to be caught in the flux of ageism, even cutting down her distant granddaughter on her marital day when she promises to call her regularly, “you could not make a simple call from Meerut to Delhi, now who expects you to do so all the way from USA?” Her droll and decidedly practical sense of humour is on point.
Sikri Ma’am was just like that, an absolute natural and as a person in my twenties, I am happy to say that I grew up with her prowess over the years even before or after Dadisa became a mainstay and pop culture icon.
She particularly blended her typical action of shaking of the head, an earthy body language and recognisable voice in Shyam Benegal’s trilogy of movies based on the women in renowned writer Khalid Mohammed’s life. In MAMMO(1994), she was unforgettable as Khalid’s grandmother, raising the young teenager in Bombay where cultural clashes are ripe and his age-appropriate tendencies exasperate her. Cue that one scene where the thanklessness of her station in life makes her say, “oh, I am sick and tired of your day to day bickering”, in a manner only she could, never losing that shred of authority. But this is a primary showcase for her bonding with the eternally delightful Farida Jalal as her older sister, the titular Mammo. This tale and its post-independence ethos wouldn’t be the same, if not for this sisterly bonding where the innate love and years of separation between them make them inseparable and yet the reality of life enroaches at pivotal junctures, like when she bickers about how Mammo never had to work owing to her privileged life back in Lahore while she has toiled all her life, not to be spared even at her age. That practicality in terms of body language, dialogue delivery and temperament makes sure it is in the mould of everyday conversation, never constructed for effect. Of course, the pairing of these ladies as sisters over two years on BALIKA VADHU later on was a treat to watch.
2001’s celebrated Zubeidaa further tapped into her middle age, in the years where she lived a life of elegant material comforts but was overshadowed by her husband’s dominance, the majority of its share ensuring doom for daughter Zubeidaa. Here too, her confrontation with Amrish Puri at the breakfast table after burying her daughter is rife with suppressed anger and helplessness coming to the surface. She has no moral role to offer her daughter throughout her short life except remember her as a fairy princess who yearned to be truly free, mirroring somehow her own trajectory. It’s such a heartbreaking performance. Equally unforgettable is her turn in SARDARI BEGUM (1996), the middle spoke of the trilogy, especially on the classical song SAAWARIYA where her sense of nazaakat and elegance as a thumri singer is to behold. Apparently, her humility and self-assessment, without the power of ego guiding her, was such that in a documentary on Shyam Benegal directed by Khalid Mohammed, she confessed that she could not justify her arc or be convincing enough as a classical practitioner of the arts. Such is the hallmark of great artists.
** In fact, the length of the role never mattered when it came to registering her presence. Be it a one minute bit in SARFAROSH or her supporting arc on Mr. and Mrs. Iyer as one half of a Muslim couple aboard a contentious bus journey in a riot-torn location. I can never forget how she is unable to catch the drift of what awaits them as they are made to disembark from the bus by an enraged mob and we don’t see them again. The power of suggestion is derived from as much the screenplay as Sikri’s hapless cries, a victim of communal violence. In 1995’s exemplary NASEEM, she was again put in a similar predicament as the mother of a bright and outspoken teenager who sees the world change around her in a post 1992 Bombay. Her care and concern, anticipation of the worst even for peace-loving Muslims like them under such circumstances and observations on fundamentalism rising with political safrronisation hit me hard.
Having been a product of the distinguished National School of Drama( a beautiful documentary short on the institution from Films Division’s YouTube channel titled NSD actually features her rare footage on stage along with the likes of Pankaj Kapoor), her heart was always with such sensitive scripts which held a mirror to our social churning through the eras. Which is what makes her National Award winning turn on the epic TAMAS (1988) so memorable. She begins as a benevolent Muslim woman harbouring a Punjabi couple in her home after the post Partition riots have broken. She is apprehensive about her decision yet doesn’t waver in her belief or kindness and later comes down staunchly on her son who wishes to kill the elderly couple, finally ensuring their safe flight from the confines of her home. In those thirty minutes, her expressions convey a whole gamut of experiences that all those on either sides of the border continue to feel to this day. Humanity is their binding force and she manages to seal that emotional connect with us. Or take her work on GULZAR’s KIRDAAR(1993), a miniseries. She is hopeful and tragic on the episode she features in titled Rehman ke Joote, with the formidable Om Puri playing her husband. Take the instance of the historic television series BHARAT EK KHOJ by Shyam Benegal where her performance as Shah Jahan’s daughter Jahan Ara was sought out by me. Here, she implores her brother Dara Shikoh to not be weak and rise up against their cruel sibling Aurangzeb while tending to her ailing father, imprisoned in the tiny room with him by her own younger brother. Her dignity and forbearance make it memorable in this two episode arc based on the life choices of the notorious Mughal ruler.
Another example of her sustained artistry is on the underrated DEHAM(2001) by Govind Nihalani, a film exploring futuristic technological advancements and sexual repression from the prism of the new millennium, with probing depth. Here, her exasperated and dominating mother in law can easily pass off into realms of caricature but Sikri Ma’am embodies her middle class concerns so well, with such tact that it isn’t the case. We understand hence where her behavioural tics come from. This grounding in the ethos elevates the overall material.
** If you ask me about her final role which I watched then it will be her stellar part on the first installment of the Netflix anthology film GHOST STORIES (2020); directed by Zoya Akhtar, she played an elderly lady confined to bed and looked after by a young nurse within her elegant but crumbling home. The atmospherics, cinematography and rainy foregrounding made it effective but Sikri Ma’am, with her frail physicality and faraway looks, stood out as usual. Here she was, a woman of great style of yore who is bitter and pliant and is a metaphorical ghost reduced to a gaunt appearance owing to neglect in old age. Here as also in her appearance to receive her National Award win for Badhai Ho, I felt a pang for her advancing age, her worryingly gaunt appearance and immobile movements. I mourned for the reality of time catching up with the best among us.
Which is why I haven’t written this essay as an obituary but as a celebration of her body of work that bears her distinctive stamp. I had planned to watch her 1989 feature film PARINATI for few weeks, having downloaded it on YouTube. I watched it after I received the news of her passing away. It was like opening up the passageway for her immortal talent, to watch her first proper lead performance in a film when she was past 40 years of age. But then she was no ordinary individual. In this hauntingly effective adaptation of a Vijaydan Detha short story, the folkloric and morally reflexive tradition of Rajasthan comes alive.
I cannot forget her expressive transparency as she charts the descending moral fortunes of an honest to God couple which gets lured by the power of riches and overturns personal natures, informing us of how we are essentially beasts. In a subtle, ethically pricking treatment, she is every bit a part of her ethos, be it in terms of costumes, body language or the inevitable building up of heartlessness when greed gets the better of her.
As I let the lingering effect of her performance and realism impress me for the umpteenth time, I said a little prayer for her peaceful heavenly journey and mourned her loss. I finally hope that my generation continues to strive to watch and hence preserve her legacy and of others of her ilk. For me, Sikri Ma’am will always continue to be an artistic trendsetter with her unique contributions in the fields of theatre, film and television. God bless her.
Today as I returned home from work, I received the physical copy of Anita Nahal Ma’am’s excellent book of prose poetry titled WHAT’S WRONG WITH US KALI WOMEN?
She was kind enough to bestow the honour of writing its review to me and it got published by SETU BILINGUAL JOURNAL, a review I have shared earlier here. I am including the link below so that you can read it again.
So I am very grateful to her and hope this journey continues to flourish, with her experience and literary guidance enlightening me in the future. One must remember that she is the co-editor of an upcoming anthology which will carry two of my poems and was instrumental in publishing my two poems DREAM and WISH UPON A STAR in the children’s anthology NURSERY RHYMES AND CHILDREN’S POEMS FROM AROUND THE WORLD that was published in February, 2020. It has since become a part of so many of my well wishers and relatives’ bookshelves. In a nutshell, it was overall a hugely successful collection for all contributors and readers.
So thank you once again to you Ma’am for being such a strong source of support. We writers always need that and I personally appreciate that in droves.