Links: Books and films

You know, I keep giving myself stern looks each time I whinge about reviewing films. It’s not like this is the most trying job in the world, after all? It’s been a brutal year for Indian journalism with some publications folding up, some becoming wobblier than ever and a nightmarish number of job cuts. Predictably, those who write about cultural stuff are among the worst hit — we’re always considered the most practically useless, whether in India or abroad. So in this climate, to have a job that lets you read books, watch films and so on for a living is something to be thankful for… until the films you end up watching are the likes of Gori Tere Pyaar Mein and Bullett Raja. There’d be some redemption for Bollywood if its stars were at least more engaging off-screen, but if the new season of Koffee with Karan is any indication, they’re about as interesting as their press releases.

There was one surprise film for me: Frozen, Disney’s take on the fairy tale, “The Snow Queen”. I’m one of those kids who grew up on Disney animation and while I loved how utterly gorgeous they were (still are), the princesses never made much of an impact on me. Sure, they were pretty and sweet but since I was neither pretty nor sweet, it seemed so much better an idea to focus on the side characters who were WAY more fun. Come to think of it, the few times I can remember relating to the central protagonist of a Disney film, they were animals. Dumbo, for instance.

Anyway, Frozen is a film I wish they’d made when I was a kid. I was very curious to know how they were going to treat this very complex story, with its toxic vision of maternity and all the loops in the tale. Disney did something smart: they didn’t bother much with the original and instead, told a whole new story.

Frozen has lovely classically Disney animation, it feels a little too song-stuffed (because Pixar has opened us up to this whole new world where animated characters do regular things. Like talk), and it’s got not one but two awesome princesses. Everyone expected Pixar to create the new age princess, who would be elegant and yet spunky, who would be romanticised but not a coquette, blah blah blah, but all they could manage was Brave, in which the storytelling just collapsed under all these expectations to create a thoroughly disappointing film. Frozen, on the other hand, completely changes the story of “The Snow Queen” and without being heavy-handed about it, makes a princess film that is about princesses, rather than about finding Princes and falling in love etc.

Plus it has the cutest snowman who has his own personal flurry!

Elsa, who becomes the Snow Queen, is a superb character and one that the story doesn’t constrain at all. At no point in the film is she looking for a man to complete her, which is so, so refreshing. This is not to say that there isn’t a love story. This is a Disney film, there has to be a happily ever after and there is. Complete with a song by trolls! Adorable trolls, no less. Wish these guys left comments on our online writing.

Anyway, so Frozen — highly recommended.

Prabha Mallya, who illustrated both The Wildings and The 100 Names of Darkness, is fantabulous.
Prabha Mallya, who illustrated both The Wildings and The 100 Names of Darkness, is fantabulous.

From the world of books, a short guide to Book No. 2 of Nilanjana Roy’s The Wildings series: The Hundred Names of Darkness. It’s a more conventional novel than The Wildings is, since the visuals aren’t used as cleverly as in the first book, but it’s still immensely satisfying. Plus, dog lovers, there is Doginder Singh. If you don’t adore Doginder, I’m labelling you “unnatural”.

Also, The Siege, in which Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark reconstruct the attack on the Taj that began on 26th November, 2008. They’ve collected some amazing information, particularly about David Headley and how he tried to work both ISI and FBI, and about the jihadi camps in Pakistan. The disappointment in the book is that the copy editors couldn’t ensure the accuracy of little details, beginning with spellings and going on to little claims that aren’t critically important to the story but are nonetheless terribly jarring for readers who know better. Also, I’m a little uncomfortable with this focus on the Taj and almost dismissing the horror of what happened in CST, the Oberoi and Chabad House. I’m not saying a writer can’t focus their attention on one part of a historical event, but it needs to come across as part of a whole. That said, read this after watching BBC’s Dispatches episode on the attack, and you’ve got to say a thanks to the British for continuing to record our history for us. All we managed was Ram Gopal Varma’s film on the subject, which thankfully disappeared from screens within days of its release.

Sathnam Sanghera, who wrote the very enjoyable Marriage Material, is among the authors shortlisted for this year’s Costa Book Awards. You can read an interview with him here.

And in case you’re among those who has been wondering for decades just what the Indian government was thinking banning The Satanic Verses before even Iran got into the act, here’s what happened from the proverbial horse’s mouth. If you have read Shovon Chowdhury’s The Competent Authority, you will be in the strangely uncomfortable condition of getting chills and giggling at the absurdity of this retelling.

Finally, there was this piece on Tarun Tejpal’s bail application, in which he basically said “It’s her fault”. Charming. Though with supporters like Palash Krishna Mehrotra, who needs enemies? Mehrotra declared men were under siege in his column in India Today. This sputterance followed.



Banned Books Week


Nicked from Nilanjana’s website.

Nilanjana Roy, author and literary critic extraordinaire has a series of guest posts up on her site to commemorate Banner Books Week. One of them is my review of The Satanic Verses. She’d casually mentioned that I could write a few lines as a prelude of sorts, about how it felt to re-read the novel. (Me stop at a mere few lines? *collapses with manic laughter*) Here’s what I wrote.

I actually started re-reading The Satanic Verses well before I’d got my hands on a copy of Joseph Anton, all because of Mihir Sharma who wrote in a column that The Satanic Verses is Salman Rushdie’s “most unreadable” work. Once I’d stopped hissing indignantly, I wondered whether Mihir was right and a particularly potent attack of youthful adoration had made me love the book when I’d first read it. So, after years, I started reading it again.

In Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi writes about an Iranian film censor who was blind. Those of us who have had the chance to read banned books are a bit like the censor’s assistant whose job was to describe the films to the blind man. It’s a terrible responsibility because it falls upon us to not only depict the work, but to also presume how a work may be interpreted. We shouldn’t have to do this, but here’s the silver lining: it gives us the opportunity to reinterpret a work of art, to wave the fan of our opinions at the miasma around it. Re-reading The Satanic Verses, I realised that I was swept along the whirlpool of Gibreel and Saladin’s adventures, rather than getting stuck at controversial bits. It was the snap-crackle-pop of Rushdie’s storytelling that I was enjoying and not a banned book. And so, for a few days, there was no controversy, there was no fatwa; there was just a big, fat British-Indian novel that’s loads of fun.
Go to Nilanjana’s website to see all the guest posts. They’re well worth reading. Also highly-recommended and by Nilanjana: The History of Banned Books in India.

The Mag This Week

Sunday reading:

Sumit Chakraberty interviewed Pankaj Mishra, about his new book From The Ruins of Empire. There are many quotable quotes in there. My favourite is probably the where Mishra says that India at the time of independence had “a moral prestige.”

A review of Jeffery Deaver’s XO, by Apoorva Dutt.

I reviewed Nilanjana Roy’s The Wildings and interviewed the book’s illustrator, Prabha Mallya.

The Cat’s Whiskers

A few pages into Nilanjana Roy’s The Wildings, you’ll wish you had whiskers and could mew. The world as imagined by Roy in this remarkable debut is filled with marvels, not the least of which is the feline social media network which makes Twitter look witheringly banal. Roy is a cat-, cheel-, mouse- and mongoose-whisperer and this is the animals’ story, unhampered by human interference.

Set in the neighbourhood of Nizamuddin, which is neatly divided between different wild and semi-tame animals, The Wildings begins with a threat named Mara. You wouldn’t think that an adorable orange fuzzball could endanger an entire colony of cats, but Mara is no ordinary kitten. She is a Sender, which means she can dominate the telepathic network through which cats communicate.

The problem is that Mara doesn’t belong to Nizamuddin and has been adopted by humans. Stray cats, or wildings, don’t think much of house cats and to have a Sender who transmits messages about “the fell captivity of the fearsome sock drawer” is downright embarrassing. Fortunately, Mara has a few friends among the wildings, namely Beraal, who becomes Mara’s tutor, and Southpaw, a kitten with a gift for landing in trouble.

Unfortunately, despite the fact that Mara and Beraal are the most finely-etched characters in The Wildings, the novelis not about the Sender. Mara’s appearance in Nizamuddin is the appetiser while the entree is a clash between the wildings and the ferals, a group of crazed, bloodthirsty cats led by the vicious Datura. With the ferals taking centrestage, Mara’s story is set aside (presumably for the sequel), which is frustrating.

Roy also makes you hunger for more back stories, particularly since the few she offers, like that of Ozzy the tiger, are delightful. However, despite these disappointments, The Wildings is a pageturner and a charming read. Apparently, Roy wrote the novel by treating it like non-fiction. No wonder, then, that it feels perfectly real.

Interview with Prabha Mallya

The Babblers from Nilanjana Roy’s The Wildings (Aleph); illustrations by Prabha Mallya.

How did you begin work on The Wildings?
Aleph had given me the manuscript and [asked for] a set number of illustrations. Going strictly by that, the book might have looked different. However, as the illustrations began to develop, we (Bena Sareen, creative cirector of Aleph, David Davidar, co-founder of Aleph, and the other editors) could all see what a difference little drawings snuck into the margins could do. It just grew and grew, like a wild interesting bunch of mushrooms, like kittens tumbling out of a box.

Did you read the entire book?
Yes! From start to end, and I was glued. I must have read it twice through the whole two months of illustrating.

Were you very conscious that The Wildings shouldn’t seem like a children’s book?
Yes. Aleph wanted it to be an illustrated book and specifically, a not-cute one. Conventional kiddie illustrations tend to stay bright and cheerful and keep away from gory ideas like death, blood, un-prettiness, wildness. I think if a kid can take in this gritty, brave, wild story, then the illustrations must stay true to the words and be just as wild and real. I wanted to portray the animals in a way that appeared as realistic as possible, so readers could perhaps relate what they see in the book to what they see in the street animals around them too. The world of The Wildings is full of so many layers — plants, earth, rain, stone, garbage from humans, sound, smells.

Is it more fun drawing animals than humans?
I’ve come to prefer drawing animals (though I absolutely love drawing kooky-looking people and strange clothes). There are so many nuances of bodily expression in animals to latch upon, so much that can be observed from an animal and captured in a drawing in unconventional ways. I think when you’ve spent enough time with a particular animal, you get to know what it’s telling you non-verbally. That’s what Nilanjana’s view of cats reveals.

What are your favourite parts of The Wildings?
My favourite character of all has got to be Kirri. I could even imagine how her voice might sound. The idea of a mongoose “dancing” with a snake or any other enemy is so full of thrill and movement. The illustration of Kirri needed to show the kind of sinuous motion she’s capable of. Besides, to all the other creatures, she’s almost a mythic creature full of unexplained power, so the figure drawn is a little bit abstract and unreal. Of course there is the cinematic, stripey spread [when Mara meets Ozzy the tiger]. The illustration was a black and white translation of the scene. Nilanjana’s written this so vividly you nearly expect to see black and orange flames crackling in the air around you as you read. As one of the first illustrations done for the book, this is where the mixed-media technique really fell into place.

Do you have a preference for cats? 
I started out a dog person until one day a mewling kitten was brought to Pencil Sauce (where I worked, in Bengaluru). Watching that cat grow and do all those wonderful things cats do… I have been inspired by cats ever since. Artistically, you can reduce every move of a cat to a gentle s-curve. They’re very poised and balanced and graceful, neat and composed. And besides, they sit on your lap, making you stay put and finish the drawing instead of prancing around and being distracted or procrastinating. One should never wake a sleeping cat. Somewhere an angel dies when you do that.