Childhood Crushes – I: Nafisa Ali In ‘Junoon’

I was eleven years old when I saw Nafisa Ali, then all of eighteen years old, play the part of Ruth Labadoor in Shyam Benegal‘s 1978 art-house classic Junoon–Ruth is a young Englishwoman, living on an English military cantonment in colonial India with her family. As the Indian Mutiny of 1857 breaks out, Ruth’s family is attacked in the church by rebels; her mother, grandmother, and her find shelter, first with a loyalist to the English, and then later, with a Pathan obsessed with Ruth, who wants  to marry her and make her his wife. He does not succeed; Ruth’s fate is cleverly tied to the fate of the Mutiny by her mother; when the Mutiny fails, so do Javed Khan’s ‘claims’ on Ruth. But Ruth has–despite her early fear of the ‘mad Pathan’–fallen in love with the man who has pursued her and confessed to his obsessions; in the movie’s final scene at a church where Ruth and her mother are hiding, and where Javed has come to find them, as Javed prepares to ride off into battle to face the rampaging and revengeful English troops, Ruth rushes out to see Javed despite her mother’s disapproval, and blurts out a single word, “Javed!” Their eyes meet; their hearts have too. Then fade to black, as the movie’s epigraph informs us that Javed died in battle while Ruth died fifty-five years later in London. Unwed.

Nafisa Ali in Junoon:

 Image result

I walked out of the theater that night, heartsick and crushed. I had fallen in love with Nafisa Ali. Madly, heartbreakingly so. It was the crush to end all crushes. Over the next few months, I wondered if even the fictional Javed Khan’s obsession could rival mine. Nafisa was drop-dead gorgeous; she was stunningly beautiful, a sportswoman, India’s national swimming champion, a long-legged beauty who had found her way into an art-house movie. She was only seven years older than me, a fact that somehow made her more ‘real’; she could have been that girl in the twelfth grade that I had a crush on–and I had had a few desperate ones already.

Junoons final scene completed the legend of Ruth Labadoor; I had come to believe that such a girl had actually existed, that she had actually been love-lorn, and had indeed, died alone, of a broken heart, pining over a love that could not dare speak its name. That magical blending of reality and artifice, whereby I had come to believe a fictional character had walked the earth was complete, made so by my adolescent pining for a beautiful young woman; on screen, she was vulnerable, heartachingly so, and I longed to comfort her, to reach out and hold her hand, and tell her it was going to be OK. And ask her out for a movie, of course.

I went looking for Nafisa; I found her in the odd magazine or two, but nowhere else. She made one movie, and then little else; she faded from public life, and then, stunningly she was married, to an older man, an Army officer. All was ashes. My crush faded, like all crushes do. But I never forgot the phenomenology of that heartache she induced in me.

PS: Nafisa went on to act in a few movies, but never made a career in Bollywood; she is now a social activist in India. She is still stunningly beautiful:


The Bollywood War Movie And The Indian Popular Imagination  

In 1947, even as India attained independence from colonial subjugation, war broke out in Kashmir as guerrillas backed by Pakistan sought to bring it into the Pakistani fold. That war ended in stalemate after intervention by the UN. Since then, the fledgling nation of India has gone to war four more times: first, in 1962, Jawaharlal Nehru’s darkest hour, against China, a war that ended in a humiliating loss of territory and self-esteem, which left Nehru a broken man, and ultimately finished him off; then, in 1965, India and Pakistan fought their way to another inconclusive stalemate over Kashmir; in 1971, India fought a just war to bring freedom to the erstwhile East Pakistan, producing the new nation of Bangladesh in the process (war broke out on the western and eastern fronts in December 1971 and ended quickly as the Pakistan Army surrendered in Dacca two weeks later); finally, in 1999, India forced its old nemesis, Pakistan, back from the brink of nuclear war by pushing them off the occupied heights of Kargil. War is part of the story of the Indian nation; it continues to shape its present and the future. India, and its understanding of itself, has changed over the years; Bollywood has tried to keep track of these changes through its movies, in its own inimitable style. In a book project that I am working on, and for which I have just signed a contract with HarperCollins (India), I will examine how well it has succeeded in this task.  (I have begun making notes for this book and anticipate a completion date of May 31st 2018; the book will come to a compact sixty thousand words.)

In my book, I will take a close look at the depiction of war and Indian military history in Bollywood movies. I will do this by examining some selected ‘classics’ of the Bollywood war movie genre; by closely ‘reading’ these movies, I will inquire into what they say about the Indian cinematic imagination with regards to—among other things—patriotism, militarism, and nationalism, and how they act to reinforce supposed ‘Indian values’ in the process. Because Bollywood both reflects and constructs India and Indians’ self-image, this examination will reveal too the Indian popular imagination in these domains; how can Indians come to understand themselves and their nation through the Bollywood representation of war?

Surprisingly enough, despite India having waged these four wars in the space of merely fifty-one years, the Bollywood war movie genre is a relatively unpopulated one, and moreover, few of its movie have been commercial or critical successes. The Bollywood war movie is not necessarily an exemplary example of the Bollywood production; some of these movies did not rise to the level of cinematic or popular classics though their songs often did. This puzzling anomaly is matched correspondingly by the poor state of military history scholarship in India. My book aims to address this imbalance in two ways. First, by examining the Bollywood war movie itself as a movie critic might, it will show how these movies succeed or fail as movies qua movies and as war movies in particular. (Not all Bollywood war movies feature war as a central aspect, as opposed to offering a backdrop for the central character’s heroics, sometimes captured in typical Bollywood formulas of the romantic musical. This is in stark contrast to the specialized Hollywood war movie, of which there are many stellar examples in its history.) Second, by paying attention to the place of these wars in Indian popular culture, I will contribute to a broader history of these wars and their role in the construction of the idea of India. Nations are sustained by dreams and concrete achievement alike.

After a brief historical introduction to Bollywood, I will critically analyze selected movies–(Haqeeqat, 1971, Aakraman, Lalkaar, Border, Hindustan Ki Kasam, Hum Dono, Lakshya, LOC Kargil, Deewar (2004 version), Shaurya, Tango Charlie, and Vijeta)–beginning with post-WWII classics and chronologically moving on to more contemporary offerings. Along the way, I hope to uncover–in a non-academic idiom–changing ideas of the Indian nation, its peoples, and the Indian understanding of war and its relationship to Indian politics and culture as Bollywood has seen it. This book will blend cinematic and cultural criticism with military history; the wars depicted in these movies serve as factual backdrop for their critical analysis. I will read these movies like texts, examining their form and content to explore what they teach us about Bollywood’s attitudes about war, the effects of its violence on human beings, on the role of violence in human lives, on how romantic love finds expression in times of war, how bravery, cowardice, and loyalty are depicted on the screen. I will explore questions like: What does Bollywood (India) think war is? What does it think happens on a battlefield? Why is war important to India? What does Bollywood think India is, and why does it need defending from external enemies? Who are these ‘external enemies’ and why do they threaten India? How does Bollywood understand the military’s role in India and in the Indian imagination? And so on.


Wanted: Moar Philosophers in Bollywood

A few days ago, a delightful oddity began making the rounds: a clip of Bertrand Russell in a Bollywood movie.  The background for this clip is straightforward even if improbable:

The year was 1967. Russell was by then a very frail 95-year-old man. Besides finishing work on his three-volume autobiography, Russell was devoting much of his remaining time to the struggle for peace and nuclear disarmament. To that end, he sometimes made himself available to people he thought could help the cause….So when he was asked to appear in a movie called Aman, about a young Indian man who has just received his medical degree in London and wants to go to Japan to help victims of the atomic bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Russell said yes.

The actual conversation between Russell and Rajendra Kumar is quite stilted and staged but still worth a gander nevertheless. Having now witnessed such an encounter though, one’s mind turns quite naturally to the endless opportunities for philosophy-meets-Bollywood, not all of which require the philosophers concerned to just play themselves.

Here are a couple of tentative suggestions:

1. Foucault in Aakrosh: Here, Foucault plays the part of a French expat philosophy professor, now settled in India after originally travelling there as a hippie undergraduate. He has returned time and again to the strange land he has fallen in love with, and slowly come to empathize with the lot of the landless, brutalized, peasant oppressed by feudal landlords. He sees in that sphere of power politics, a visible demonstration of his writings. As Bhaskar Kulkarni the lawyer, struggles to understand why his client Lahanya Bhikhu is speechless, Foucault comes to his aid, helping Kulkarni to understand how the relentless application of power, exerted in multimodal forms upon the body and mind of Lahanya and his family have reached their logical summum bonum: the peasant, having reacted through and via the one visible outlet of power i.e., an act of ‘protective’ violence upon his wife, is now spent and unable to communicate meaningfully. Armed with this knowledge Kulkarni is able to modulate his relationship with Bhikhu, and more importantly, by distributing Foucauldian pamphlets among Bhikhu’s fellow peasants, spark an uprising. At the movie’s end, the peasants gather for a group shaving of their heads in honor of Foucault.

2. Martha Nussbaum in a yet to be made movie: Nussbaum is an American philosopher married to an Indian economist who has returned to his homeland to dabble in politics. Nussbaum plunges into Indian life, naturalizes, and joins in. Soon, this dabbling turns serious, and before she knows it, our heroine is running for parliament on a pro-woman, pro-flourishing platform. She comes under attack from Hindu nationalists, who dismiss her as a a rabble-rousing ignorant, Hinduism-hating foreigner. Nussbaum, however, meets them at their own game, learning Sanskrit, mastering Hindu scriptures and defusing her opponents via a series of brilliant written exegeses and public debates. Her marriage does not last, but Nussbaum does not return to the US, choosing instead to make India her new home, now a true daughter of the soil.

The Sunday Evening Movie, Blues-Killer Sans Pareil

It’s a strange business to have written about ‘The Sunday Evening Blues‘ on this blog, in such plaintive fashion, because for many years, Sunday evening was the time of the week that promised a very particular form of entertainment: the Sunday evening movie, for many years, an institution in the life of any Indian household that owned, or had access to, a television. Long before the video cassette recorder, before hundreds of channels and endless movies playing around the clock became de rigueur on Indian television, there was only one way you could see movies outside the cinema: on television, on Sunday night, via a Bollywood offering broadcast on the one and only channel, the national one.

The Sunday evening movie began promptly at 6 and ran without commercials, with one break for the evening news at 8 PM. It then resumed, ending around 9:30 PM or so. (Most Bollywood movies then, as now, ran over three hours). But what made the Sunday evening movie distinctive was that for many years, my family did not own a television. So we had to travel, perhaps to a neighbor’s house, perhaps to a school friend’s living room, but most commonly, it meant visiting my grandparents’ home, several kilometers away. My two uncles–my mother’s brothers–lived there too, so it was a relatively large family gathering. Every Sunday evening followed, roughly, the same pattern: departure from home in well-timed fashion (my father, as noted before on this blog, was an Air Force pilot, so punctuality in this regard was never a problem), arrival at my grandmother’s home, a quick procurement of seats before the movie started. At my grandparents’ first residence in New Delhi, we watched the movie in the living room; at the second, we congregated in my grandparent’s bedroom. Somehow, quite effortlessly, the eight or nine or ten of us would seat ourselves and enter movie-land. Talking during the movie was discouraged; my grandmother was especially strict in enforcing this rule. If the movie happened to not be of interest to me–perhaps a tearjerker, perhaps a ponderous, meandering romance, as opposed to a thriller or comedy–I still felt strangely compelled to keep watching: it never occurred to me to leave that gathering alone and go bury myself in a book, the way I did when confronted with many other family-centered social occasions.

Perhaps the most dramatic effect of the Sunday movie was the way it cleared the city’s streets, markets and parks: cricket, soccer and hockey games were suspended as was housework and homework. Somehow, mysteriously, Indian parents knew there was no point in trying to get schoolchildren to do their assignments at that time, or perhaps it was considered cruel and unusual punishment. The desertion of the normally bustling streets was uncanny and made even more so by the movie soundtrack that could be heard on them; sometimes, if the resonance and amplification came together, you could hear line by line, the progression of the script as you walked down a street. Perhaps the closest Indian streets came to this emptiness was when a big cricket game was on or when election results were being announced. But even those didn’t quite match the effect of the Sunday movie.

The Sunday movie as a social event disappeared quickly with the advent of a television in our house. The trips to other movie-watching destinations ceased; the family gatherings became more nuclear. Later, with the VCR, the novelty of the movie at home completely wore off. But what really killed the Sunday movie for me was growing up, the sense that responsibilities had to be taken on come Monday morning.

Baltimore Dispatches: The Cask of Amontillado and the Terrors of Immurement

This Columbus Day weekend, I am ensconced in Baltimore, which has meant that, among other things, my thoughts turned to Edgar Allan Poe, the city’s most distinguished literary son, one of a select group of writers whose work I was first exposed to via comic books, and someone who, to put it mildly, gave me the shakes for a very long time. The story that did the most to ensure this clammy place in my heart was the Cask of Amontillado.

One hot Delhi afternoon, as I rode back in a crowded school bus from a fairly typical sixth or seventh grade day, I noticed, next to me, a boy reading a comic book with a lurid cover that spoke of stories of the terrifying, the macabre, the gloomy. I was bold enough to ask to read it when my companion was done, and was soon plunged into its grim world. The first story I read was the tale of Montresor’s deadly revenge. I was horrified by the ending, as Montresor immured Fortunato within the catacombs that lay beyond the wine cellar under his palazzo. I read other stories in the collection, but none of them, including the Murders in the Rue Morgue, had the same effect on me.

The story of Montresor and Fortunato tapped into a childhood claustrophobia, a paralyzing fear of being locked in, of being crushed alive by an invisible weight that drove the air out from my lungs. A recurrent childhood nightmare of mine had been that of somehow suffocating under a blanket. It was one reason I found the winter months especially scary:  sleeping then meant the use of the classic North Indian razai, the heavy, stuffed-with-cotton-wool quilt that made the Delhi winter nights tolerable. Time and again, I would wake at night, shaking, gasping for air, convinced I had been buried by my razai. The razais seemed cavernous, with acres of space beneath them that shrank to enclose me in a woolly grave. I was never able to put my head under one and regarded my brother, who nonchalantly went to sleep with his head shoved under his quilt, with some amazement.

This fear was compounded by the presence of the immurement theme in Indian legend and history. More than one Bollywood movie featured characters walled up alive while plaintive dirges played in the background. One particularly famous instance occurs in the 1960 epic Mughal-e-Azam, which shows the Mughal Crown Prince Salim’s illicit lover Anarkali, immured on the order of Salim’s father, the Emperor Akbar. And immurement didn’t just happen in the movies. The tenth Sikh Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, suffered the loss of his two sons to this terrible fate: the nine year old Sahibzada Fateh Singh and the seven year old Sahibzada Zorawar Singh were so condemned on 12 December 1705, by the Governor of Sirhind, Wazir Khan. (The two boys had been captured following battles between Sikh and Mughal forces in the Punjab, and ‘asked’ to convert to Islam, a ‘request’ they had refused). It wasn’t just in the realm of fantasy that immurement lurked.

But there was something else about the Cask of Amontillado that made it more than a story about about a man left to die, walled in and alone. It featured treachery and deception, it spoke of unhinged anger, moved to reach out and exact the most terrible retribution of all. And if I had a fear of being crushed, suffocated, and buried, I felt even more terrified by the thought that such a fate would be facilitated and eventuated by an ostensible friend’s deception. Fortunato’s shrieks haunted me for years; for the love of God indeed.