Thursday, June 17, 2010

Tyranny of the larks

Imagine a winged world wherein only two species have survived. The larks and the owls. The larks rise with the sun. The owls, on the other hand, soar after the sun sets. Stop imagining. There’s no need to imagine. I’m not talking about a distant universe. I’m talking about us. More specifically, I’m alluding to the unbridgeable divide between the early risers and the late sleepers.
It’s a divide alright, perhaps the most important one amongst homo sapiens barring the gender divide. Because a few thousand years from now, when caste has been abolished, religion made irrelevant, the skin tones rendered an even beige and national boundaries erased, the lark will still sneer at the owl and say:
‘Aren’t you a lazy bum?’
To which, the owl will offer a half-owlish, half-sheepish, wholly apologetic grin and flutter away into a dark corner.
This exchange between the owl and lark has been one of the defining themes of my life. For I’m an owl. I’ve been one for as long as I can remember. In fact, I vividly remember my first day at secondary school. Having enjoyed the luxury of attending an afternoon primary school, I was now being given the opportunity to “be an adult.” Which meant I’d have to wake up at 5 am, take a cold bath, gobble a breakfast and hop off to school, pretending to be happy.
‘You’ll get used to it soon enough,’ my mother told me.
I never did. For the next six years, I woke up surly and sleepwalked through the morning routine. At school, I acquired a crucial survival skill. I learnt to appear attentive, although it was obvious to me that my brain refused to wake up before 10 am, no matter how long my body has been limbering along. Once past that threshold hour, I’d acquire the magical ability to comprehend the blackboard. I’d realize that my teachers weren’t speaking Swahili after all.
‘But you’re missing more than half the lessons,’ my mother worried. She began playing Suprabatham and Bhaja Govindam for me in the mornings. ‘That’ll perk you up.’ I tried telling her that the great M. S. Subbalakshmi’s voice sounded platinum to me only in the evenings. In the mornings, however, I couldn’t differentiate between her melody and a catfight. ‘Never mind. I’m sure it will help,’ she concluded, raising the volume. Now, that’s totally acceptable in our country. You can blare a devotional song from a loudspeaker at 4 am and everybody will take it in their stride. Try listening to an Eminem song on your stereo at midnight and the chances are that your neighbour will pay you an angry visit.
It seemed a little unfair that society was based on such hypocritical practices. I often tried to plead my case, especially to those oldies in the family who liked to kick me awake at 7 am during my summer vacations. All I received in return were sermons camouflaged as lessons:
‘Asuras lurk in the nights,’ an especially orthodox granduncle informed me once. ‘You look like an asura, I concede that. But you don’t have to behave like one.’
‘If you don’t learn to obey nature’s laws, you’ll never amount to anything,’ a grandfather added.
‘It has been scientifically proven,’ an uncle – US-returned and all that – said, ‘that the human brain works best in the mornings. Haven’t you heard the Chinese proverb that one must finish half the day’s work by 9 am?’
I nevertheless begged to differ. Experience taught me that waking up at 4 am to study for the exams meant that I’d languish at the bottom of the class. So I began studying till 4 am and did well. An idea began forming in my mind. Perhaps there were others like me. People who were journalists, security guards, truck drivers and the like. Heck, even the milkman relied on someone who drove a van through the night. Upon reaching this conclusion, I began asserting my Owl Rights (since Human Rights apply only to humans and I wasn’t one). I even rebelled when necessary. By the time I began employment, I had acquired the joyous habit of sleeping well past midnight.
The working world partially brought me back to reality. Like school, office began early. Unlike school, it kept me chained way past midnight. This was no longer a battle between birds. It was a battle to overtake fatigue and retain sanity. But even in this overcharged atmosphere, I quickly learnt to tell the larks and the owls apart. The larks insisted on having the heaviest discussions first thing in the morning. The owls, as usual, didn’t have a say in the matter. This discovery worried me. I had zombied through 12 years of morning classes, confident in my ability to teach myself later, preferably a few days before the exams began. But that sort of thinking doesn’t work in the corporate world. One must make lucid decisions all the time. For which one must be lucid. So I learnt to listen intently during the morning meetings. I made detailed notes of everything that was said – the parrot part of my owlish brain worked alright in the mornings – and reprocessed them post noon. My bosses realized that my most productive inputs arrived after lunch. They began making allowances for my “disability.” As a happy corollary, I realized that I was at my singing best in the evenings, around the time the larks were ready to throw in the towel. The time zone, too, worked in my favour. I did well during the conference calls with American clients. When I moved to the US, my offshore team called me during my nights, when I could resolve all their problems without batting an eyelid. Of course, they continued to call me in the mornings, but with the understanding that my half-coherent replies would crystallize into complete solutions by the time they returned to work the next day.
Today, as a writer, I find that my stories seep into my bones after the sun sets. And even now, I work extensively with corporate clients who insist on calling me as soon as they reach their workstations in the morning. I’d have gone to asleep around 7 am, but I’m duty-bound to pick up calls starting 9 am – after all, won’t any self-respecting professional be up by then? And having picked up the call, I practice my latest art – the art of having a plausible conversation on autopilot. The content in these conversations “dawn” on me hours later, while I brush my teeth.

So there it is. I live in a world where I feel like a hapless minority. I don’t accept this world’s clock, but I must accept every other rule it imposes – rules regarding decorum, timelines, meeting hours etc. And despite my glaring disability, I've never missed my deadlines and meetings because I overslept. Oftentimes, I don’t sleep in order to attend an early morning meeting. My body runs on an owlish clock, but I force it to wear larky apparel at least once a week. Does it take a toll on my body? It must. Not because my body is deprived of sunlight or is playing host to demonic elements. My body suffers simply because I don’t give it sufficient rest. Because I’m dancing simultaneously to two rhythms – mine and the world’s. Because I don’t live in a progressive Scandinavian country which allows owls to begin work at a later hour.
As a result, I accept that friends will message me at 6 am, just as I’m drifting off to sleep. My bank will run early-morning batch jobs and thus send me an SMS at 7 am reminding me that I used my debit card last evening. School-going children of neighbours – fellow owls, I think – will create a ruckus and break my sleep. Telemarketers and travelling salesmen will wonder why I’m angry about nothing. And, finally, when I enjoy Bhaja Govindam at 9 pm, I will be called a weirdo.
And as we know, the majority is always right.

Monday, June 14, 2010

The politics of disappointment

An adaptation is a double-edged sword. If executed well, it harnesses the power of the original tale in a refreshing new context. And if executed badly, it mars the tale beyond redemption.
So what happenes when a single narrative is a contextual juxtaposition of two tales as potent as the Mahabharata and Godfather? You get Rajneeti. A mishmash of violence, sex and political intrigue that's loud without being convincing.

The film begins well and wastes no time in introducing the mirror characters from the greatest epic of all time. Surya bhagwan (Naseeruddin Shah) doesn't need a powerful chant to experience a moment of amorous weakness; the shamed man has no option but to disappear forever, leaving a dark void behind. The corollary: Kunti (Nikhila Trikha) bears an illegitimate son, Karna (Ajay Devgan). Keeping to the ancient script, Karna is abandoned in a boat in a river. Kunti is aided in this effort by her brother Shakuni (Nana Patekar). Yes, Shakuni is on the depleted Pandav camp this time. He's also multi-faceted. He transforms himself into Krishna during the climax and otherwise acts as Bhishma in the political clan, but let's not jump the gun.
Karna is destined to procure a Dalit identity, even though he belongs to the most powerful political family of the land. Which land? Well, it's not Hastinapur or Indraprastha. It's a divided Patilaputra.
Cut forward twenty-five years (perhaps fifty, considering how swollen Devgan looks), and Kunti is the proud mother of two sons - Sonny and Michael Corleone, both perfect replicas of Mario Puzo's creations. Sonny is played by Arjun Rampal and Michael by Ranbir Kapoor. The former promises to diversify and become a good actor in the near future. The latter performs well in a couple of emotive scenes. For the rest, he's as deadpan as the script expects him to be.
Oh, we forgot all about the Kauravs, didn't we? Let's get to them. I mean, him. There's Duryodhan (Manoj Bajpai), aided ably by Karna. Dhirdharashtra acquires his physical disability late in life, on time to trigger a power struggle between Sonny Corleone and Duryodhan. Unconcerned by all this, Michael would have returned to America and presented his thesis on "subtextual violence in 19th century Victorian poetry", except that Pandu is assassinated by Karna (or someone acting on his behalf). Michael must now fulfil his destiny. He must overnight become a vampire in a butcher's shop. From now on, no machination will be beyond him. No local Patna brain will be able to outsmart him. He will destroy everything in his path. He will also make a convenient sacrifice - the Panchali (Katrina Kaif) who loves him passionately and unconditionally will suddenly find herself marrying the senior Corleone.
No need for alarm. Panchali will not practice polyandry. And her feminine mind is flexible enough to see the shimmering soul crouching behind Sonny's mass-murdering exterior. She will copulate with him, efficiently (once from the look of it) and give the wonderfully bloodthirsty family the next generation politician. Much required, that, because Sonny Corleone and Kate (played by Sarah Thompson) will perish together in a car explosion. Mercifully, this does not instigate a romantic liaison between Panchali and Michael. Unmercifully, this means that Panchali will now occcupy the political centrestage because, well, Indian political berths must be inherited by family members and we can't assume otherwise even in fiction.
The Corleones emerge victorious in the election and the Kauravs are shot dead without compunction.
Had enough? I did. After Gangaajal and Apharan (not to mention the serenely executed Hip Hip Hurray from the 80s), one expects so much more from Prakash Jha. More so because of the talent he had at his disposal (except, of course, for the ravishing Kaif who manages half an expression more than usual, allowing her to demonstrate a grand total of one and a half expressions).
Devgan is so underused that one is tempted to see his role as a Special Appearance. Manoj Bajpai plays a narrow character and is thus wasted. Naseeruddin Shah doesn't return even to provide a proverbial twist in the tale. Nana Patekar has been given the most complex character of the lot and he does justice to it. But given the flawed screenplay, even he can do nothing but look aghast when Kunti tells Karna that he's her "jyest putra!" The performances of the Corleones, I've already mentioned.
But most of all, Rajneeti does not enliven the landscape it is set in. And with the screenplay remaining uniformly high-pitched, there just isn't sufficient space for subtlety, layered characterization and dialect-heavy dialogues - Jha's strengths. Moreover:
1) The whole saga is supposed to happen during one election campaign, within a matter of weeks. Jha does himself a disservice here. The Mahabharata takes place over a century (from Shantanu to Parikrit). The Godfather consumes half as much time. There's sufficient time for characters to develop, change and change some more. But how does one justify Panchali's penchant to reinvent at the drop of a hat? She's a bubbly, spoilt, independent, lovey-dovey gal to begin with. She then succumbs to parental pressure to marry the wrong man, fall in love with him, mourn his loss, then assume political leadership. All this happens in weeks? Really?
Why couldn't Jha have envisaged this over four election campaigns, with the pendulum swinging either way, with the clan perishing in small doses and each character adjusting anew to the situation? Everything in the plot could have fit in neatly then.
2) Why does the top brass of the biggest political family feel compelled to participate in gun fights? I was given the impression that Bihar is full of trigger-happy henchmen. These filmy turns in an otherwise realistic depiction (the glamour notwithstanding) stick out like a sore asses.

Final verdict: even a flawed Jha movie is better than a template-driven Rahul/Raj candy romance. Go see it without expectations. Better still, buy the DVD. That way, you can pause, have a hearty laugh once in a while and see some more.

P.S: On a personal aside, I stepped into a theatre after a gap of six years. I must say that multiplexes built inside malls are such logistical disasters that I'd sooner sit on an electric chair. On the plus side, the audience reacts incongrously and that allows one a seat-shaking snigger.
P.P.S: If you're looking for a decent adaptation of the Mahabharata, read Tharoor's The Great Indian Novel.