Archive for ‘madras’

September 14, 2013

Bulletpoints: Madras Cafe



  • When I watched this film a couple of weeks ago, PVR Priya in Basant Lok was showing two films: Madras Cafe (obviously) and Chennai Express. Neither film is set in Chennai/Madras, though Madras Cafe does have a few scenes there.
  • Other people have written in much greater detail about the film’s glossing over huge swathes of the real political events it depicts-but-doesn’t-really (since changing everyone’s names/refusing to name certain characters is the best disclaimer). And I’m not confident enough of my own historical knowledge (and have too many Sri Lankan relatives) to add to this. For most of this post I’m going to pretend the whole story is fictional, but there are real-world consequences I can’t ignore.
  • Intent is not the best angle upon which to hinge one’s own critical position, but in some places I found myself wildly curious to know what the creators of this film were trying to do.
  • Was it, for example, their intention to create an Indian intelligence service that was quite this … unintelligent? The gormless but well meaning Vikram Singh (John Abraham) who only seems to know anything at all about the fraught political situation in Sri Lanka because he did his “homework”–his wife, who actually watches the news, at least seems to be aware that there’s a war going on. Perhaps she’d be better at his job than he is. The gormless but well meaning Siddharth Basu, who really ought to have stuck with Mastermind India–what are things coming to when T.V quizmasters are politicians? (*insert joke about Derek O’Brien*) The gormless but well meaning group of Indian government types who sit around a table and discuss the intervention of the country into the Sri Lankan situation, but apparently do not recognise the key figures in the war? All the way up to the gormless but well meaning ex-prime minister who seems to be useless at regarding warnings.
  • In the context of India’s 2014 elections I do wonder how this works. Well-meaning incompetence is pretty much the UPA’s electoral platform.
  • As a result of all this, Nargis Fakhri’s British-journalist-with-American-accent comes across as the most competent and well-informed person present. This isn’t saying much.
  • All of Fakhri and Abraham’s interactions go as follows. Abraham: please share your sources. Fakhri: I’m not sharing my sources, that would be bad journalism. Okay, here are my sources.
  • I’m also fascinated by the characters in the film and their apparent deification of not!Rajiv Gandhi. Gandhi was assassinated in 1991–at the time I was very young and in another country. So I don’t remember mass mourning, and I don’t remember my parents being hugely affected by it (perhaps they were and I was too young to understand, but I remember what they were like when the Berlin wall came down).
  • Madras Cafe has its characters genuinely adore not!Gandhi. When his wife dies, Vikram Singh mourns appropriately and goes back to work. When his ex-PM dies, Vikram Singh quits his job, stops shaving, and begins to haunt a church in Kasauli. Siddharth Basu’s character’s wife is brought into the film for about a minute only to express shock at not!Gandhi’s death and ask what wrong poor, innocent not!Gandhi did that he deserved to die? It’s the same question that Vikram Singh asks upon the death of his wife.
  • Which makes me wonder if we’re supposed to see all of these characters, and by implication the nation itself, as widowed by not!Gandhi’s death.
  • What’s more embarrassing, Judi Dench reciting Tennyson in Skyfall, or John Abraham reciting Tagore’s “Where the mind is without fear” in Madras Cafe? Ans: Do not put people reciting poetry in movies. Especially do not do this if the only relevant poetry you know is something you were forced to recite in school. I was cringing.
  • Sinister white people are behind everything.
  • It is very prettily shot.
August 13, 2013

3 ways of looking at Chennai Express

Trying to make sense of it all. I’d warn for spoilers, but I’m not sure you could spoil this film.


1. Deepika Padukone is not human. Okay, not entirely human. If the film is to be assumed to be set in the human world, she’s existing on a slightly different plane to everybody else.

I don’t mean this as an insult. Pretty much every review of the film I’ve seen has talked about how surprisingly good (“surprisingly”, because what she has to work with is a pretty terrible plot and a ludicrous accent) Padukone is–far superior to pretty much anyone else in the movie. One piece of evidence that she isn’t quite of this (the film’s) world comes shortly after the interval. SRK’s Rahul and Padukone’s Meena have convinced the innocent and morally pure inhabitants of a village that they are legally married and on the run from the bride’s angry family, and they are offered a room to stay in with only one bed. Comedy ensues, as the conservative southern girl does not want to share a bed with this man she barely knows, and man she barely knows asks if she thinks she’ll be unable to keep her hands off him. It turns out Meena actually has a pretty solid reason for not wanting him in bed with her — at night she is possessed by some sort of spirit that manifests itself in making her sway and mutter at him not to come near her and kick him out of bed. This sudden intrusion of the supernatural into the film’s world is never addressed, beyond a quick joke towards the end about a future in which she keeps kicking him out of bed.

But this moment is enough to suggest that there’s something not quite normal about Meena. In an earlier scene, Rahul suggested that Meena was some sort of harbinger of doom–that since her arrival into his life everything had gone horribly wrong. While this is probably unfair to her (his character is so irritating as to deserve all that happens to him) perhaps it’s another indicator that she exists on some level outside the film itself. In a later scene, an old woman tells the couple they’re destined to be together for seven lifetimes. Meena looks miserable. Perhaps this is because she’s doomed to be aware of all seven, perhaps it’s because she knows she’s going to spend a lifetime shoving a man old enough to be her dad out of bed every night. Meena spends most of her exchanges with Rahul gazing at him with a sort of fascinated disgust that makes perfect sense in context–but it works just as well if you see her as a sort of superhuman, semi-outside-the-text figure. We who are also outside the text can easily understand her pain.


2. Chennai Express is a film about the breakdown of language. One of the things that interested me about the film were the ways in which Rahul’s lack of knowledge of Tamil played a role. Rahul is our narrator, and much of the film is shown to us from his perspective. We’re not shown subtitles when those around him are speaking Tamil; we’re expected to share his incomprehension and hope that Meena (who he calls “miss subtitle”) will translate. At one point the film addresses this directly–yes, yes, Rahul tells us, he knows we don’t have a clue what’s going on either.

I’m not a Tamil speaker, but I’ve grown up around people who are and I generally understand what they’re saying. If this was made somewhat difficult by Rahul’s voiceovers occasionally cutting over what the other characters were saying, it was interesting to know that I was, in this very basic way, not a part of the film’s intended audience. Except, of course, that it is releasing in Tamil Nadu as well, and people are presumably going to watch it.

There’s an utterly bizarre scene about midway through the movie where Rahul is walking alone in a forest and comes across a dwarf sharpening a knife. This man, it turns out, speaks neither English nor Hindi, but communicates in a series of clicking noises. He and Rahul bond over their mutual inability to understand one another (or Rahul does- we’re not told what the other man thinks they’re bonding over), and how they’re both too old to have to learn new languages. Then they part.

On the surface there’s no point to this scene (a friend who was watching the film with me wondered if this was some sort of Tom Bombadil-ish digression), and that’s without even getting into the “a little person! How hilarious!” undertone that is apparently supposed to pass for comedy. The only possible function I can see in it is as a reference point for the end of the film, when Rahul’s voiceover reminds us that India has many languages, but that love has only one (the second half of this assertion is patently untrue). We’re all doomed to keep misunderstanding one another, to understand only a small fraction of what the rest of our countrymen are saying. Communication is an impossible mess, we’ll keep hearing “teri ma ki” when people are asking us “Tamil terima?” (or “monkey” when people are saying “teri ma ki”, as Harbhajan Singh’s defenders would claim). What “bakwaas” dictionary is Rahul operating from, asks Meena early on in the film. Indeed, what bakwaas dictionaries are we all relying on?


3. The patriarchy will reassert itself over and over and over and over and … Meena is running away from her family (by trying to catch a train that will take her to her ancestral village?) because her father is trying to force her to marry another man. Meena doesn’t want to marry, she explains to Rahul, before using him as a decoy fiance so that she can escape once more. Rahul having been introduced as Meena’s (supposed) preferred partner, he’s still expected to fight her previous fiancee to prove his own worth.

In many ways, Rahul is the opposite of the sort of man Meena has had chosen for her. He’s physically smaller and weaker than Tangaballi (though who isn’t?), from the other side of the country, and of a lower social class–for some reason she cannot get over the fact that he is a halwai. In embracing her fake (and later real) relationship with him she’s choosing a different set of values to the ones she’s expected to embrace, and a relationship in which she has at least as much power as him–though at present this power is derived from her facility with the local language and his fundemantal hopelessness more than anything else.

But first religion, then patriarchy (and the two are strongly intertwined here) pop up as obstacles. Rahul “proves” himself to have unexpected quantities of upper body strength when he carries her up 3000 steps to a temple to humour the innocent villagers among whom they have fallen; and Meena immediately begins to gaze dreamily at his sweaty face. When the two of them escape Tangaballi (again) by the sensible act of running away, she begins to hint heavily that he should marry her, sulking when he refuses to take the bait. For all that Meena has claimed she doesn’t want to marry, she doesn’t seem to have given thought to what she does want to do. Her options appear to be to lurk in a friend’s house in Pune, lurk in Rahul’s house in Bombay, or go home and marry. In the universe of the film, women with careers don’t seem to exist.

All this is moot though, since Rahul decides without Meena’s permission to take her back to her village. Meena has tried to escape the parameters within which her family and society seem to demand that she live her life; Rahul autonomously decides that no, he must win her freedom within those parameters, and face her father on his (her father’s) terms, not hers. An embarrassing speech (by Rahul, who has apparently transcended the language barrier and therefore rendered Meena unnecessary to this discussion about her rights) on the position of women in an India that has been independent for 66 years, leaves the listeners … unmoved. The patriarchy doesn’t care about your fine speeches. The patriarchy will only accept Rahul as Meena’s suitor (and Rahul has already accepted for Meena that the patriarchy’s acceptance is required) when he has proved himself on its terms–by beating the shit out of every man present. Rahul wins, he and Tangaballi shake hands; Meena has run away from the guy who wins women by beating up other men into the arms of the guy who … wins women by beating up other men. Her radical choice has been entirely co-opted into the system she wanted to escape. It’s so sweet how women think they might get some control over their lives.


I suppose there’s also 4. Arvind Kejriwal’s Epic Road Trip Across South India, 5. LOL, Madrasis, and innumerable others, but I refuse to do more. I watched Chennai Express with a devoted SRK fangirl and after a point even she couldn’t take it anymore. It’s utterly dire.


(Beth Watkins is far, far nicer to the film here)

June 29, 2013

Sheela Chari, Vanished

There’s been a minor revolution in Indian children’s publishing in the last few years, particularly with regard to Middle Grade and Young Adult books. But all this really means is that we have MG and YA books; it’s still rare that I find one I actually enjoy. So I leapt at the offer of a copy of Vanished, a book set in India and the USA and featuring a hunt for a possibly-magical veena.

Neela is eleven years old and lives in Massachusetts where, after school, she takes veena lessons. Her veena is an unusual one; a gift from a grandmother who also plays the instrument, it’s a Guru original, made by one of the greatest veena makers of all time. It has a strange, winged dragon carved into its pegbox. And then the veena goes missing.

Legend has it that one of Guru’s veenas keeps returning to a particular music shop in Chennai. And we’re also told that a famous American veena player called Veronica Wyvern (as in winged dragon, you ask?) owned a Guru original. None of this is particularly hard to piece together and it doesn’t really have to be. For me the big mystery was whether or not this was really a supernatural story.

There’s a blurb from The Hindu at the back of this book which¬† suggests that one of its virtues is that it “gives Indian readers a glimpse of life in America”. I thought this was interesting because I got the opposite sense–I think there’s an element of explaining India to American (or Americans of Indian origin) children (Vanished was first published in the USA by Hyperion in 2011). And part of the reason why it worked well for me is Chari’s choice to avoid turning it into a novel of multicultural angst. We’re never under the impression that there’s one model of Indian-in-America; Neela’s friend Pavi has far more conservative parents, but is (unlike Neela) also more willing to flaunt her difference and wear a bindi in public (Gwen Stefani wears one, she points out in a popculture reference that might already be outdated). And there’s no romance plot, merely a few friendship ones, and at least one of these is left unresolved in a way that felt very realistic to me. It sounds at this point as if I’m praising the book more for what it doesn’t do than what it does. But what all these omissions allow for is a relatively simple, likeable book and I genuinely enjoyed it.

And look, cover art by Jon Klassen!

April 9, 2009

Here, have some quality journalism

The Indian Express picks up this story about a sixteen year old boy who was kidnapped and castrated, apparently, at the behest of a “transexual gang”. It’s a pretty horrible story.

The Express version of the story is rather illuminating:

Investigations reveal that Pune is emerging as a link between an inter-state gang of transgenders who castrate young boys and force them into prostitution.

This has come out after a team of Criminal Investigation Department (CID) of Chennai police visited Pune last week and arrested a 75-year-old surgeon, S Naganna, at Kadapa in Andhra Pradesh, for allegedly castrating a 16-year-old boy from Tamil Nadu at the behest of some transgenders. The boy had fled Pune from his captors .

Well obviously, we’re all told as children that hijras Kidnap Children And Turn Them Into Hijras Too Oh Noes. Much more often than we’re told things like, say, Beware Older Male Relatives (guess which of these groups is statistically more threatening?)

After two pages of the website consistently referring to “transgenders” (terminology FAIL, IE, did no one from the initial journalist through editing guess this?), we come to this bit at the end:

Tejaswini Sevekari, a social activist working for uplift of sex workers in the red light areas of Pune, said she was aware of some transgenders willingly going to Chennai and Bangalore for surgeries, but I have not come across any boy who had been forced to forcibly castrated and pushed into the prostitution racket.

When contacted, the Faraskhana police said they were not aware of the case.

So…we’re not sure this particular case happened*. We’re even less sure it has happened to other people. But hey, we thought you’d like a couple of pages of transpanic first. Yes?

(Via Bird of Paradox )

*If it did, clearly, it’s awful. I shouldn’t have to write a disclaimer for this.

May 2, 2008

Regarding non-appearance of brilliant blog posts

I am in Bangalore (right now, tomorrow I’ll be in Chennai) with the PL. Faithful Laptop Nigel has accompanied me, but I can’t be bothered to do the research that the posts I want to write would require until I’m back in Delhi. So I’ll probably be seeing you after the 14th.