Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Retro Sci-fi: Steamboy

I watched Steamboy a couple of weeks ago and have been meaning to write about it. The DVD was released only late last year. I bought it in Feb – a 75-buck version – but have only just got around to watching it. Let me be the first to admit that this was the first animé film I’d ever seen; I know less than nothing about the genre, and I don’t intend to make uneducated comparisons with the tiny sliver of animé that features in Kill Bill Vol.I.

Steamboy is what the blurb on the DVD calls retro-sci-fi. Made by Japanese manga author and animé director Katsuhiro Otomo, it is the story of Ray Steam, a third generation scientific genius, whose grandfather gives him a mysterious steamball to deliver to the very real Robert Stephenson. Set in Manchester and London in the year 1866, Steamboy is not only an anti-war allegory, it is a cautionary tale of the dangers of science when it becomes dislocated from morality.

Though the film is about technology, there is something magical about what this technology can do; the dangerous whiff of sulphur is never far from the gloomy, towering machines – zeppelins that fly, submarines that wage war at sea – devilish engines of war and destruction.

And with the magic comes the horror of what cannot be controlled, of a creation that becomes larger and more powerful than the creator. Through the film, Ray is witness to the opposing views of his father and grandfather. His father intends to be high priest of the new religion, technology; his grandfather believes that science is neutral and unless the person wielding its power is ready to use it morally and for the benefit of humankind, only evil will result. Ray has to choose between these and other positions.

Now, though I’ve never watched animé, I’ve watched enough Cartoon Network and Jetix and Disney (which for reasons I don’t understand appears not to qualify as animé) so maybe I’ve grown used to reasonably sophisticated animation. I can’t bring myself to wax lyrical over the movement of waves or the billowing steam. When Otomo’s first animé feature, Akira came out in 1988, it was supposed to have stunned the world. Almost twenty years later, Steamboy doesn’t seem anything out of the ordinary.

If anything – because the subject is another country and age – the film suffers from stilted dialogue and a lack of expressiveness. No doubt because of the Inscrutable Occidental.

The reason I picked it up at all was because it said ‘retro sci-fi’; I was intrigued. There is something fascinating about superimposing the world as it is today, over the past and waiting to see what happens. In Steamboy, the future is not dragged kicking and screaming into the past; it is already there. What the film really says is, what if all of todays’ technology had already been realised a century or more earlier. Would things have been worse today? Or better, because Science was a temple we worshipped at, which still retained an aura of the mystical and god-given? These are questions the film answers in a moralising, heavy-handed way.

I believe what I have is the longer version of the film. It was dubbed as well as subtitled. And really, I can’t decide which is worse. The dialogues in English are uninteresting and flat while the subtitles appear to tell an entirely different story.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Sitting On A Fence With A Political Compass

I’ve never really needed to know where I stand on important issues for a very good reason: I’m usually not to be found standing at all. In fact, I sit very firmly and with great conviction, squarely in the middle of any available fence.

So it was mere curiosity that made me take this quiz when I found a post about it on Annie’s blog. To my horror, I found that the quiz has no place for honourable dissenters or people who decline to hold an opinion. My fence was reduced to a single point on the compass. But there was no way to occupy that point, that still centre of the magnetically volatile political/social compass.

So: if I did not agree, disagree, agree vehemently (or whatever other emphatic qualifier) or disagree vehemently (see above) I had no place in the spectrum of possible opinion that could be held.

Why? How? Whatever happened to I Agree But… or Up To A Point? And what about those of us who can hold several contradictory opinions with no visible discomfort?

I found that I am, like a lot of other people, in the same square with Nelson Mandela and Gandhi; I also appear to tend more towards communism than anarchism (about which I find I am a little unhappy. I like anarchy!). Or so the results say. I say, give me my fence back!

More about this quiz here.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The Spaniard Makes PC

The other day, while out running some rather domestic errands, I happened to notice an old friend at the neighbourhood vegetable shop. Now, I did need to buy veggies, but I wasn’t entirely sure I wanted to meet this person. I hadn’t seen him or his wife in almost a year, and in the way these things happen, friends became acquaintances and became finally, a phone number one hardly ever dialled anymore.

I could have stopped at some other place; I didn’t. I parked my car and went and said hello. Through the inane conversation that followed (So how are you guys? What are you doing these days? You still in your old place? Come over some time, na? I heard about you from xyz) I was kicking myself for having put myself in a position that, though not uncomfortable, I could have comfortably avoided.

We sidestepped a lot of things one could have said that would put a different complexion on the dialogue: how come you two don’t call any more? You changed your number and didn’t tell me? And so on.

And I asked myself why, when I had that second’s chance to change my mind and go elsewhere, I stopped.

Just as a digression – it occurred to me that this used to happen in school and college a lot: you hung out with a certain set of people and a few months later, for reasons you never articulated, you’d pass those same people in a corridor and not even say hello or smile. They might have been total strangers, people whose names you didn’t even know.

Sometimes, though, the people you studiously ignore or are carefully polite to, used to be very close friends. But for one reason or another, that friendship is no longer a given; and then, you are faced with a choice – avoid them entirely, or make PC when you meet them accidentally.

This person at the vegetable shop was not a very close friend, so it ought to have been easy to make that PC and get out. What made the experience an annoying one was, the second I said hello, I knew that what I really wanted to do was make the other choice, the one I did not make.

And I’m wondering if this person was saying to himself, after we said goodbye, I wish I’d gone out a little earlier I wish I’d been in the next shop where she couldn’t see me.

Only, his wishes – had he made them at all – would have depended on blind chance. I had a choice.

Monday, June 19, 2006

After Images: my list of memorable shots

There are some moments during the watching of a film that you know you will remember long after the details of the film escape recall. There might be different reasons for this: it could be that the narrative has been building up to a particular revelation – as in the turning of the chair in Psycho; it could be the shock of incongruity, as in the slit eyeball in Un Chein Andalou; or it could merely be the second-hand recognition of an iconic image, such as the old man being kicked in the subway, in A Clockwork Orange or the angularity of the steps and what happens on them, in Battleship Potemkin.

But there are other, more idiosyncratic reasons why one remembers one shot or sequence over so many others. My personal list of favourites sometimes has rather peculiar reasons for being memorable. Here goes:

2046: Tony Leung Chiu-wai is writing in his room; next to him, the inevitable cigarette in the ashtray. In close shot, in slow motion, the smoke rises up straight as a pillar. For a few beats, it is almost immobile, then it wavers, breaks and dissolves.

Anyone who has watched a lit cigarette will know that it is next to impossible to have an unbroken, straight line of smoke rising up. On a film set, with even a minimum crew, it must have taken some effort to make the air still enough to get that shot. It falls in the category of shots that don’t have a reason for being in the film except for the pure beauty of the image.

And while on the subject of 2046, I loved the way the whole film was framed. Shot in Cinemascope, the whole film plays with frames within frames. People – usually two or alone – are in one half of the frame, while the remaining half is usually a solid block of colour, or an open doorway, or empty sky. Very occasionally, things might be happening in the half of the frame, but it is out of focus and implied rather than shown.

Sonatine: In Kitano’s gangster film, the gang waits for a big raid the following day. In the evening, on the beach, two sumo wrestlers get ready to fight. Without appearing to move, they make circles in the sand. It is an exuberant moment, one that everyone knows will be short-lived, and therefore more acutely experienced.

Knife In The Water: On the boat, the young man the couple picks up, puts his hand on the table, palms spread and takes out his knife. And without appearing to think or even look at his hand, he stabs the knife in the spaces between his fingers. One space ahead and back; one space further and back. The knife moves viciously and you are hypnotised by the rhythm, fascinated and waiting for it to plunge into skin. In the frame only the palm, the knife and the hand holding it are visible – an already dis-jointed and threatening composition.

This knife act is referenced in A Short Film About Love when the young boy tries to show how grown-up he is.

Mirror: The mother waits, sitting on a fence by a huge field. From nowhere, a slight breeze starts up and waves across the field. It ripples across the frame, and a man is walking towards the woman.

(A lot of Tarkovsky’s films have shots that are there for no apparent reason than that they are poetic and beautiful. In a lot of these beautiful moments, milk is spilt in slow motion, over which, clearly, there is no use crying. But snide remarks aside, a lot of these shots have been much imitated, perhaps indicating the power they have over viewers in general and filmmakers in particular.)

Nizhalkoothu: Once the proclamation has been made that a man will hang and the hangman should get ready, the prisoners prepare the rope. In the prison yard, other condemned men make long trains of yarn and enter and leave the frame across which white threads dance and twist and become the rope the hangman will use. Like in Sonatine, the beauty of the sequence is heightened by the irony in the contrast between what is seen and what is to follow.

Coastguard: The woman who has been forced to abort her baby, comes back to her home torn and bleeding and sits in the fish tank where her brother keeps the fish he sells. In this shot, you see her drawn legs, the water slowly turning red and the fish moving about in a suddenly constricted space.

And talking of fish and feet,

Children of Heaven: The last shot of this film is an understated end to a very dramatic Race For Shoes, which the brother unwittingly wins. In this last shot, after his disappointed sister walks away, the brother puts his tired feet into the water. From inside the water, orange fish dart around his toes and occasionally nibble at his feet.

This was the image on the poster for Children Of Heaven, displayed at Sirifort. On the last day of the festival, I tried to look confident and steal the poster, but I was caught and had to hand it over to the officious cop on duty. Sigh.

And, just for light relief,

Throw Mamma From The Train: Billy Crystal is a writer who is forever traumatised by people who steal his ideas before he’s managed to make a book out of it. When he is on the train from which mamma is to be thrown (the criss-cross idea coming from Strangers On A Train), he is telling her about the trouble he is having with the first line of a story, where is trying to describe a hot and humid night. ‘Humid’ is clearly not adequate, he explains to mamma. Mamma looks characteristically malicious as she hisses out one word: ‘Sultry.’

I guess I ought to have listed directors as well: in order of the films I’ve picked, Wong Kar-wai, Takeshi Kitano, Roman Polanski, Andrei Tarkovsky, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Kim Ki-duk, Majid Majidi and I-have-no-idea-and-am-too-lazy-to-check-imdb.

The long list is, naturally, endless.

Friday, June 16, 2006

‘Words Fail Us Continually’

One aspect of poetry that I am fascinated by is the process of how a poem comes into being. It would seem that the poet is the right person to talk about the ways in which an experience is transformed into verse; but it is a rare poet who will avoid the pitfalls of slipping to the grand formulation of a theory to accommodate her work.

On the other hand, the reader of poetry has lost her nerve. A poem no longer merely speaks simply or directly to the reader; instead, it is to be revealed by the study of poetics, by the unravelling of what appears to be deliberately obscure word play. Daunted, the average reader abandons all attempts to read anything more than what s/he is forced to while being schooled in a language.

And yet, it is in the craft of the poetic form that all our ancient literatures have been transmitted to us; poetry is the original zip-drive into which all learning was compressed and stored for easy retrieval. If poetry has lost its power, the fault perhaps lies with those who make it, rather than those who no longer want to read it.

In his T S Eliot lecture published in The Guardian Review, in November2004, Don Paterson makes a powerful case for the return of the poet to her throne.

Only plumbers can plumb, roofers roof and drummers drum; only poets can write
poetry. Restoring the science of verse-making would restore our self-certainty
in this matter; the main result of such an empowerment would be the rediscovery
of our ambition, our risk, and our relevance, through the confidence to insist
on the poem as possessing an intrinsic cultural value, of absolutely no use
other than for its simple reading.

"Risk" needs some redefinition. To take a risk in a poem is not to write a big sweary outburst about how dreadful the war in Iraq is, even if you are the world's greatest living playwright. This kind of poetry is really nothing but a kind of inverse sentimentalism - that's to say by the time it reaches the page, it's less real anger than a celebration of one's own strength of feeling. Since it tries to provoke an emotion of which its target readers are already in high possession, it will change no one's mind about anything; more to the point, anyone can do it. Neither is "risk" the deployment of disjunctive syntax, crazy punctuation or wee allusions to Heisenberg and Lacan; because anyone can do
that, too. Risk, of the sort that makes readers feel genuinely uncomfortable, excited, open to suggestion, vulnerable to reprogramming, complicit in the creative business of their self-transformation - is quite different.

Real danger flirts with the things we most dread as poets. Real risk is writing with real feeling, as Frost did, while somehow avoiding sentimentality, or simplicity, as Cavafy did, and somehow avoiding artlessness; or daring to be prophetic, as Rilke did, and miraculously avoiding
pretentiousness; or writing with real originality, as Dickinson did, while somehow avoiding cliché (since for a reader to be astonished by the original phrase it must already be partly familiar to them, if they are to register the transformation; a point fatally misunderstood by every generation of the
avant-garde, which is one reason they often seem stylistically interchangeable). The narrowest of these paths, though, the poets' beautiful tightropewalk, is the one between sense and mystery - to make one, while revealing the other.

When I read this lecture more than a year ago, I was struck by the clarity with which Paterson stated so many of the dilemmas of a practising poet. If the poem is to be more than the sum of its parts, as it were, it has to fall back into language and make it new each time. The power of poetry is in its ability to name; the same sort of power that magicians and necromancers have over their world which they transform by a code or an invocation.

Paterson says:

The human dream is one of all things first recognised, and then named, in
accordance with their human utility, translated and metaphorised into the human
realm. It is just as flimsy a consensual reality as

When we allow silence to reclaim those
objects and things of the world, when we allow the words to fall away from them
- they reassume their own genius, and repossess something of their mystery and
infinite possibility. Then we awaken a little to the realm of the symmetries
again, and of no-time, of eternity.

Poetry is the
paradox of language turned against its own declared purpose, that of nailing
down the human dream. Poets are therefore experts in the failure of language.
Words fail us continually, as we search for them beyond the borders of speech,
or drive them to the limit of their meaning and then beyond it.

‘Words fail us continually’. Indeed they do. And it seems to me that the great work of the poet is to reach beyond the failure of what is received, into a place where the act of placing an empty frame over a portion of the world will transform and renew it.

Don Paterson’s website is, unfortunately, under construction. So the link to the essay, ‘The Dilemma of the Peot’ that appeared in ‘How Poets Work’ (ed. Tony Curtis, Seren, 1997) is not available at the moment. Paterson’s latest is a book of aphorisms. The Book Of Shadows (2004) won the T.S. Eliot Prize.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Spaniard Goes Shopping

The other day I went to one of these McMalls to exchange something. Now, the absurdity of most malls’ exchange policies deserves another post, so I won’t even get into the up-and-downing I did that day. Suffice it to say that by the time I’d done with the exchange, I was in a very bad temper.

So on my way out, I presented the guy at the counter with my exchange coupon and idly looked at all the things in baskets kept close by for some last-minute temptation. Among all the nail polishes and lipsticks was one basket full of thin, tall vials of perfume (I guess they think malls are peopled with women shoppers. Someone should do a study). Almost every one of these perfumes had printed, sticky labels saying FREE, so I naturally asked the guy at the counter if they really were for free. Like, could I just pick one of my choice and put it in my bag without all the store alarms going off and shop tecs doing the polite thing by taking me to a quiet place to be interrogated.

Now, I love perfumes, but I don’t use them often. There’s nothing more nauseating than stale perfume on a hot afternoon. If you want to know what I mean, just walk along M Block market in Delhi when the generators are on and aunties are wafting by and you’ll know what I mean.

So, while I didn’t really want the perfume, free or not, I did want to know whether free meant, you know, Free.

The Guy At The Counter hit a few keys hard, stared at the screen, called for a hasty, whispered conference with the other Guys At The Counters. I was beginning to enjoy myself. While they dithered and made frantic calls to person or persons unknown, I examined every minute label on the bottles very ostentatiously. I even pulled out a small notebook, I think. The Guys At The Counters went into a tizzy.

“In the system it says Rs. 199, ma’am,” they said apologetically.

“Then why would it have a label that clearly said FREE?” I asked.

In a short while, the manager came. “Ma’am, it’s buy-one-get-one-free, ma’am.”

“Where does it say so?” I wanted to know.

By this time, other people were trying not to look interested. I gave the manager a short lecture on misleading customers but had to stop pretty soon and get out because of the giggles that were threatening.

I’ve decided that if I must endure malls at all, I must take the spaniard with me for some outrage and entertainment value.

Can you quote a cat?

Or can't you?

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

A RIVER Runs Through It: Random Thoughts On Schooling

I was going to say ‘random thoughts on education’ but changed my mind, not only because it seemed too grand and large, but also because when we say ‘education’ we usually mean ‘schooling’.

In Which I Get Annoyed

The previous week’s issue of The Week (June 11 issue) has an article on schools in Chennai. Unlike the reporter, I wouldn’t like to fling pithy labels around to describe the kind of schools these are supposed to be, but one of the schools the article talks about is The School. Here’s the portion of the article that has caused such indignation in me:

‘J. Krishnamurti said in one of his speeches: “It is the concern of these schools to bring about a new generation of human beings who are free from self-centred action, to bring about a mind that has no conflict within itself and so to end the struggle and conflict in the world.”

‘In contrast to this ‘commune with nature’ school the American International School…’

Am I missing something here? Can anyone see it? How does ‘commune with nature’ follow what JK had to say about education?

‘Commune with nature’. Sheesh. But I should have known better than to read on when I saw the beginning:

‘Education is no longer about just getting plugged to classrooms, listening to the monotony of a teacher’s drone. It’s all about students realising their potential, and generating pools of skilled man power.’

Oh my god. As if getting plugged in isn’t bad enough – welcome to the machine and all that – schooling is now about ‘realising potential’; from which, naturally, it follows that the realisation of potential is primarily a refined method of ‘generating pools of skilled man power.’

And clearly, this is why we need alternative schools.

The RIVER and the Valley

But while on the subject of Krishnamurti and education, one of the things I admire most about the Krishnamurti Foundation India is the way it stretches itself in all directions. People often talk about an alternative education; the sub-text is that this education will be available for the privileged. It is hard to imagine that a radical, engaged kind of teaching might be available to the poor or disadvantaged.

Initiated by The Rishi Valley School ,The RIVER project, about which more here, here and here, attempts to do just that. I’ve seen a film that attempts to document one such school in progress. I’ll link to it later. While the film is well-meaning, it is in what is happening in these rural school classrooms that the magic lies.

Imagine a school which is, in effect, one room. The school has been built by the very people for whom it is intended – the children of the village and the teacher who will be their guide. All around you are shelves with filled charts, boxes and all kinds of teaching aids. There is no blackboard. The children – boys and girls – are anywhere between three and fourteen. Through the day, each child works at something different. Someone is learning the Telugu alphabet; one child is helping another with some math that they had done just the previous week; when the teacher has to teach someone else, she asks one of the older children to help out with someone else. Geography is taught mostly outdoors. If they can be persuaded to, the women of the village come to evening school.

It sounds idyllic. It probably isn’t. The teachers must have some trouble persuading the people to allow their girl children to continue studying once they are thirteen. Or to let their children into school at all instead of working in the fields.

It sounds idyllic but it happens. In several villages across Andhra Pradesh and in other States, RIVER schools are thriving.

Can you imagine a regular run-of-the-mill school of the kind you or I attended where children are vertically grouped and allowed to study what they like, how they like and at their own pace?

Stumped (for an answer)

A few days ago (when I began this post but had to abandon it) I was asked, “Frogs have sticky tongues, don’t they?”

“Yes,” I replied. “That’s how they catch flies. The flies get stuck on the tongue.”
Next question (you didn’t think there’s only be one, did you?): “Then how come, if the tongue is sticky, it doesn’t get stuck to the frog’s mouth?”

That was when I was stumped. Any answers, anyone?

Monday, June 12, 2006

Make dust our paper

I just wrote a long, impromptu post, but I lost it. So here I am, backing it up before I write, as I usually do.

I’ve been away because my grandfather passed away on the 8th. It was not entirely unexpected; he was 84, and he lived a full life. And though I’d decided from the start that this would not be a personal blog, I feel the need to memorialise.

My grandfather called a month ago to tell us that he and my grandmother were celebrating their 63rd wedding anniversary. Even in an absolute sense, that is an astounding achievement; with our generation, it is nothing short of a miracle. Can you imagine spending 63 years with a person who was not, to start with, family? I’m not even sure we can any of us stick our families for 63 uninterrupted years. My grandparents were special.

When I left here for the funeral two days ago, I found my grandfather’s body laid out on the floor. It is a cliché, no doubt about it, but really – he looked like he was asleep. His feet tilted the same way they always did, and nothing looked especially different about him. My grandmother was sitting next to him on the floor and stroking his hand as if he were in a fever and she was sitting by him until the doctor arrived. Every once in a while, she would stroke his cheek. She didn’t look any different either.

When I was on the flight there, I expected to be quite detached. After all, he was 84, I thought. There was nothing to regret and there would be much to observe and assimilate during a funeral. I said to myself we’ll see if nani has taken off her pottu, expecting a certain bitter confirmation of the unfairness of social customs.

Nothing turns out as you expect it to. Which is good or bad depending. My grandmother was as she always was, bangles and everything intact. In fact, she was more detached and accepting than I expected her to be, and I less so. The sight of my grandfather laid out like he was threw up so many memories: his stories when I was child, never of mythologies, but of places, natural phenomena, chemicals; nonsense words and rhymes, a continuous, soothing patter; his way of taking the skin off mangoes, or eating bread-toast as he called it – with total attention and enjoyment.

Just before he died, my grandmother said, he couldn’t speak. He pulled at his ear, and my grandmother bent down to whisper some prayer. Perfectionist that he was, he laid out his hands neatly by his side and stopped breathing.

At his funeral, a wealth of family, friends and well-wishers turned up to pay their respects. He was with his family when he died, and it was a short death, brought on by no illness, accident or wasting disease.

We should all be so lucky.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

All Orange

Zadie Smith’s On Beauty has won the Orange Prize for Fiction this year. Goody.

Coming up: a longish rant, maybe later today.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Comfort Reading

A few days ago, I had begun re-reading Faro’s Daughter for, I think, the twentieth time when I decided to do a post about Georgette Heyer. I kept postponing it for several reasons, but last night I landed up here and decided I had to write about one of my favourite writers. (Warning: nothing in the link above except for the title and the comments section has anything to do with Heyer).

Like Mills and Boons, most people will not admit to reading Georgette Heyer. But while M&Bs deserve their reputation for being utter tripe Heyer most certainly doesn’t. It does not help that Heyer—like Wodehouse—was first published by Mills and Boon in the days when they had better taste.

Heyer was almost single-handedly responsible for what is now known as Regency Romance; the difference is that her research was meticulous and detailed. Almost anybody who writes in the genre now draws, not from original sources, but from Heyer.

Since I’m reading Faro’s Daughter, here are a couple of random selections:

His hair, which was black, and slightly curling, was cut into something perilously near a Bedford crop. Lady Mablethorpe, who belonged to an older generation, and herself continued to make free use of the pounce-box, in spite of Mr. Pitt’s iniquitous tax on hair-powder, could never look upon the new heads without a shudder. (page 1, Bantam Edition)

And in the gaming hell that the heroine’s aunt runs, a cash crunch is exacerbated by the arrival of more bills.

Miss Grantham abandoned this line of argument, and returned to her study of the bills. Such items as Naples Soap, Patent Silk Stockings, Indian Toothbrushes, and Chintz Patches, mounted up to quite an alarming total; while a bill from Warren’s, Perfumiers, and another from a mantua-maker, enumerating such interesting items as One Morning Sacque of Paris Mud, Two Heads Soupir d’étouffes and One Satin Cloak trimmed Opera Brûlée Gauze, made her feel quite low. (page 44)

Heyer has been very useful for me; much of the history of the period I learnt because of what appeared in a book. In college, one lecturer teaching background history for the early 19th Century, said that it was easier to remember bloody wars than peaceful, dull legislations. To make her point, she said, “Everyone remembers 1815; but who remembers 1824?” When I said 1824 was the Reform Act, for which also Wellington was responsible, she was rendered speechless with shock. Heyer’s An Infamous Army is, I believe, a text at Sandhurst for its descriptions of battle and reconstruction of events.

But lest anyone think Heyer is all worthy, plodding description of history, let me hasten to add (heavens, I’m slipping into Heyerese) that she is very funny. A friend and I were travelling together to Bombay when we discovered a mutual passion for GH. In very little time, we were quoting large portions of dialogue from our favourites, much to the disgust of another friend who was also with us but might as well not have been. We laughed so much that evening that we were suddenly possessed of a strong desire (help! I can’t stop!) to renew our acquaintance with our old friends. I think I started on Venetia and my friend on Devil’s Cub.

The saddest thing about Heyer is that there is only so much to reread. I have all the historical romances (including the non-Regency ones such as The Conqueror, or Royal Escape) and all but one of her seven or eight murder mysteries. And still I wish there was more.

There is, actually. There were three or four romances she wrote that were set in the early 20th C, but she suppressed them. Extracts from these can be found here.

There’s a very good essay by A.S.Byatt on Heyer, which I used to have but have since lost. If anyone can find it anywhere, please send me a link. There’s a biography of Heyer by Jane Aiken Hodge (she and her sister, Joan Aiken, both children’s writers, are Conrad Aiken’s daughters.)

Saturday, June 03, 2006

My Own Cinema Paradiso

It’s not the years I spent playing antakshari and cheating with great seriousness that did it. If I had to think of a time when films became an important part of my life, I’d have to say, boarding school.

Saturday evenings, the old 16mm projector used to be set up in the semi-open auditorium. We waited for dinner to be over so the film could begin. During the day, by mysterious processes, the film would have arrived at school—someone would have taken the matador van and gone to the railway station where a square steel trunk sent from the Film Archives in Pune would be waiting in the station master’s office for verifications and signatures. But we didn’t know all of this when we changed into our pyjamas and, armed with pillows, we walked to the auditorium. The young ones would lie down on dhurries that had been laid out; the older ones, more careful of their dignity, would take the wooden benches.

With a flickery whirr the projector would start and (mostly) black and white images would magically appear on the wall. We saw unsubtitled Ray—Pather Panchali, Goopy Gyne, and god knows what other gems of Indian Cinema. When we found someone who spoke the language, they had their hour of fame doing impromptu and quite likely inaccurate translations. Otherwise we slept, lulled by the soothing sounds we did not understand, the cool breeze pouring in through the open portions of the auditorium and by the warmth of surrounding bodies. When we were older, we pretended disdain and left early, so we could snatch an undisturbed period of time with the current heartthrob.

In later years, when the school got itself a VCR and TV, film viewing was less communal and more concentrated. We saw some of the best Hollywood films during this time though offhand I can’t remember a single one that I’m not confusing with a later time when I rented three films a day from the nearest video library (these films I bought off the library when they were selling up. I still have the tapes but they’re fungused out of their magnetic brains – Hitchcock, Howard Hawks Woody Allen, the Marx Brothers and many, many more. But I’ll never be able to watch them on tape again).

But it wasn’t until I was in class nine and towards the end of the year when we had one entire week off to do a project on whatever we liked, that I started my long obsession with cinema. There was the thrill of the insanely unusual—even in a school with no exams, one whole week where you could hook off and take photographs and mess around in the dark room, or whatever else it was that was offered, seemed incredibly radical.

One of the projects offered—we had guides—was film. There were three of us, and one very brilliant teacher that everyone, regardless of gender, was in love with. For one week, I devoured all the available books in the library. We saw about five films, but each one more than once. Some scenes we saw again and again. It seemed unbelievable that we had been watching films for all these years and never realised how many things went into it.

A couple of years later, another enthusiastic and charismatic teacher did film appreciation with us. We wrote out scenarios, we critiqued the films we watched each weekend; somehow the experience of viewing was changed forever. For the first time, I went to a screening with pen and paper and made notes in the dark. The next day, I discovered that the words had inevitably run into each other, but the very act of putting a line of dialogue down, or a particularly clever shot or juxtaposition (yes, the vocabulary was getting precise) made it stick in the head.

Once, a classmate’s parent who was a film director, came and spoke to us about cinema. He asked everyone present which was the first film ever made (this was before Project Week). After a tense silence when everybody pretended they were just not in the room, his son finally piped up, ‘Train Entering A Station.’ We were shocked. This guy knew the answer to that question? We looked at him with a new respect.

One time, P. K. Nair from the NFAI came to do an FA workshop. At that time, not knowing the scale of his contribution to the acquisition and preservation of films in this country, we groaned at his low mumble and at the lines he drew on a blackboard but we watched the films eagerly. We saw An Incident At Owl Creek, Anniversary, 23 Skidoo, Big City Blues (or maybe not; we were in school and younger kids were around), McLaren’s Lines, Hanstra’s Zoo and Glass, and very likely many more films.

In college, when the film club had invited him to do the same course, Nair asked me if I was going to be around. I was busy and I said, ‘But I’ve seen all these films many times.’ Big mistake. I got a gentle but disapproving lecture on how one can never see a film enough times. I stayed and watched every one of those films again.

At the Institute, the excitement deepened and sharpened. All around you, there was not only evidence of film history—the props you used in your films were very likely the same ones you saw in Duniya Na Mane—you were breathing in the smell of celluloid. You sat under a tree discussing the evening’s film and around you there would be rusting film cans, or a twirl of discarded sound negative. In the editing room, we hung garlands of film around us. The marks you made with the glass marking pencil magically did a dance when you went in to view the film on the Steenbeck.

Every Holi, someone would go across to the Archives and choose a string of songs that would be endlessly projected and we would dance to R. D. Burman all night long. Rumour had it that when almost everyone had called it a night and gone to bed, the real fun would begin. East European Cinema was the euphemism.

So when did watching or talking cinema become a chore? When did the headiness turn to indifference?

Hard to say. It’s not that I don’t like watching films, oh no. It’s just that every time it comes with another choice, the other option seems more attractive, and the film less necessary.

And this photo is a signpost to something that no longer exists. The building in the background is the old sound studio at the Institute. I’m not sure what’s there now, but it most certainly isn’t any of the things in this photograph.