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Death, Debt and Decay

Except for the instalments on his loans, nothing in V.M Subramani’s life has been ‘outstanding’.

In the last six years, in fact, the 52-year-old has aged fast. The premature lines on this cobbler’s leathery face speak of a harsh tryst with both debt and injustice. The traditional career of this man has come to an abrupt halt and though he was recently appointed as village waterman, the paltry Rs 700 salary does not assure two square meals. The walls of 176/4, his squalid house in Adi Dravida colony in rural Dindigul, seem to be crumbling, as if tired of bearing his burdens.

It started in May 2005 when his elder daughter Jyotimani was brutally killed by her husband Sounderaj. The painter, who used cigarette butts to torture her before the murder, was sentenced for life in 2006 but was freed three months later. Following this, the Poothampatti Panchayat Office offered the family Rs. 10,000 but only if they produced the murderer’s signature. “We returned without the money.” Subramani has since been looking after the grandchildren, 13-year-old Indira and Masandichelvan, 8.

Times were happier two decades ago, when he moved into the colony with his “love marriage wife” Karthumani and two children, Jyotimani and Jayaram. A third child, Veeramani, was born in the settlement built by the government for backward communities. “Our daughters were our ‘manis’ (gems),” he says, breaking down at the sight of old photographs. They are black and white, just like his hair now.

Subramani wishes he had defeated poverty in his youth because “to be heard you have to be rich or educated.” Instead, he made peace with a Class 10 education and the cobbling business which he has now given up as his calloused feet do not allow him to sit for long hours. The panchayat then gave him the waterman’s post. Four times a year, he sings with a folk theatre troupe for an added income of Rs 400. Karthumani earns 80 rupees for each gruelling day of labour in a field near Vedasandur.

Last year, Subramani gave away his younger daughter in marriage along with a tedious dowry. He has managed to pay the first instalment of 1500 out of the 70,000 rupees he had borrowed. But a burgeoning cloud of debt still stands adamantly above him.

His grandchildren, who learn at a government school in Devanaikanpatti, are now the carriers of his dreams and their education is top priority. He has not stopped blaming himself for Indira’s poor scores in a Science test. “I could not afford one of the workbooks she needed,” Subramani rues, adding that he has now saved enough for a trip to the Dindigul bookstore. “Usually, they stand among the top 5 in their class,” he observes, the guilt in his eyes replaced by pride. Accepting money from his son Jayaram, an agricultural labourer, is out of the question because “he has his own family to support.”

Despite attempts to give them a protected life, the children are growing angry and curious as time passes. The aging couple’s will was tested when they found Jyotimani’s photo tucked neatly in the siblings’ notes. “They said she helps them through tough exams,” Karthumani recalls. “And sometimes I catch them crying quietly.”

Subramani has not fully let go of memories either. The carefully preserved ration card with his daughter’s name and newspaper clippings about his son-in-law’s arrest are testimony. But he will not pursue the court case. “We cannot afford it,” he declares, adding, “Let natural justice take place. My only aim is to not let that animal anywhere near my family.”

Music has helped him tide over difficult moments. After breaking into a Tamil ‘karuthu’ (moral) song, he stops to explain, “A meal can give you the will to live. At other times, it can drive you to take a life. The difference is in the decisions we make.”

As he walks towards the water tank with determined strides and purposeful hands folded behind his back, he seems like a man with a plan.



The Man Who Was Sold To The World

Authored on August 6, 2010

With clockwork regularity, the more conservative nations of the world have banished artists who played with the illusion of artistic freedom. Perhaps Iran’s most fancy hand-me-down to the West, Abbas Kiarostami is a recent victim of such an aesthetic cleansing.

The filmmaker was forced into a creative exile after his Cannes Palmes d’Or winning film Taste of Cherry (1997) shocked the regime with its lusty exploration of suicide. Screening of his films has been banned in Iran since and this became the turning point of his career; clearly distinguishing what preceded from what was to follow.

Kiarostami’s dark glasses, a result of a medical condition he suffers from, have never shaded his views of the world and cinema which remain eerily clear. He was among the first products of the New Wave in Iran and formed a department of films in the Institute for Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults. The shorts and documentaries produced by the department are just as relevant and delightful today as they were in 1969.

With the release of ‘Where is the Friend’s Home?’ in 1987, Kiarostami found international recognition. He shot two more films in the same village creating, what is now known as the ‘Koker trilogy’. The second movie in the sequence documented a real search for the young boy who played the lead in ‘Where is the Friend’s Home’, undertaken after a devastating earthquake hit Iran in 1990.

“I don’t like to engage in telling stories. I don’t like to arouse the viewer emotionally or give him advice.” Not a fan of deeply disturbing films, he prefers the ones that are “at least kind enough to allow you a nap and not leave you overwhelmed.” He is also clever in critiquing the Tarantino brand of gory cinema, “Since violence will never leave American film, what Tarantino has done is find a way to make fun of violence, and that brings down the tension of violence.” But when the two shared space on the jury of the 2006 edition of the Cannes Film Festival, Kiarostami heartily praised the American for backing a small film from Kazakhstan.

Cinema may be his strongest love now but there were several other influences like poetry and art. Harvard University Press published ‘Walking with the Wind’, a collection of 200 poems by Kiarostami in Persian and English. His reverence for the art is also evidenced by the effortless weaving of Khayyam’s verses in ‘The Wind Will Carry Us’ (1999). He is also a  painter and photographer. It hardly comes as a surprise that Kiarostami’s younger son Bahman directed his first documentary at the age of 15 (Journey to the land of the traveller).

Close-Up (1999) The award winning director discusses the finer points of film making in ‘Ten on Ten’, while also explaining the cinematic quirks he indulges in. This documentary as well as the experimental film ‘Ten’ made in 2000, were shot entirely inside cars with the camera positioned on the side view mirror. ‘Through the Olive Trees’ in 1999 which had Mohamad Ali Keshavarz playing a director, presented a striking picture of the veteran’s film making methods. Shortlisting untrained students from village schools for lead roles borrowing props from locals are prominent Kiarostamian quirks featured here. Close-Up (1990) was another film where Kiarostami referenced himself by talking to his actors from behind the camera.

Kiarostami often likens his films to windows. They come with an uncomplicated view outside of your life and the freedom to look calmly away if you please. In a way, the 70-year-old is a rather romantic journalist, who lends a lyrical beauty to inconvenient truths. The constant switches between fact and fiction in his cinema often leaves the audience feeling like confused voyeurs.

Liberty was never a perk for Kiarostami who maintains that the best art is born “when artists operate in unfavourable circumstances.” In keeping with the law, he would choose non-controversial plots. Usually against a backdrop of quaint villages, his films were innocently modeled around children. Not out of fear of the establishment, but those were the stories he wanted to tell. Curiously, he has always defended the political restrictions in his country, “In the West when I’m asked about censorship, I am offended. They think we are a third world country, with incredible restrictions and we work in terrible conditions. We’ve always had the problem of censorship not just as filmmakers. We deal with it and talking about it in another nation will not solve anything.”

Akira Kurosawa once said of Kiarostami’s films, “Words cannot describe my feelings about them and I simply advice you to see his films. When Satyajit Ray passed on, I was very depressed, but after seeing Kiarostami’s films, I thank God for giving us just the right person to take his place.”
Copie Conforme (2010)
Increasingly, though, his films have lost that neo-realist, documentary style of narrative. Fiction is now accentuated and he uses seasoned actors, bound scripts and exotic locations. In new-found safety, his leading lady can lay her head on her lover’s shoulder, minus the headscarf. And the film would not be banned for it. A case in point is ‘Copie Conforme’ (Certified Copy), his latest venture set in Tuscany and starring Juliette Binoche. The film has invited comparisons with Roberto Rosellini’s ‘Journey to Italy’, a signal of grim change. Selling out to Europe hardly sits well beside this man who is known to have stamped simplicity onto celluloid. With his dapper looks and fine clothes, he looks comfortable rubbing shoulders with global greats but his best-loved works are still the ones perfumed with an interminable love for Iran.

Using the global media glare to good effect, he turned spokesperson for his friend and colleague Jafar Panahi who was arrested by the Iran government under suspicion of planning anti-national films. “When a filmmaker is imprisoned, it is an attack on the art as a whole. We need explanations. I don’t understand how a film can be a crime, particularly when that film has not been made,” he observed. He even wrote a well publicised letter to the administration that hastened Panahi’s bail procedure.

Kiarostami is a target of mindless rules laid in an erratic system, but we hope he will not give in to wicked voices that may suggest that he quietly resign to “life, and nothing more”.

The Colour of Submission

For years, Chennai’s walls captured the quirks of its favourite faces in garish hues, bestowing the city with exclusive rights to exhibitionism. Green-yellow film stars and black-red politicians beamed down from hand painted billboards. Where the cut outs ended, the sky began. Wars of the ballot and box-office alike were fought in technicolour. At the turn of the decade though, the Eastman style paints that ran in the city’s veins began drying out.

C. Sivakumar at his T. Nagar based "Chella Arts".

C. Sivakumar of Chella Arts, T.Nagar believes everything is digital now, even affection. The 59-year-old is only one of thousands of former cut-out painters. Reluctantly, he reminisces of a time when he got steady orders for portraits but “lately they stick digital images of deceased relatives behind a fancy frame. It is cheaper.”

Seated in the dingy confines of the vinyl printing store cum PCO, he seems disconcertingly comfortable with the state of affairs. “I have not held a brush in five years but I am lucky. Those who couldn’t afford vinyl machinery are still suffering.” Like him, many have embraced the printing industry that stole their jobs.

G. Venkatesan of Jayaram Arts is also representative of the resignation which defines the life of former painters. “The last big projects were when Rajini and Kamal were at the helm of their career. After that, painting assignments grew very rare,” he says. Six years ago, he switched to digital printing and dismissed nearly 30 painters from his 58-year-old establishment at Mount Road. Some of them are now vegetable vendors, security guards and masons.

Rare murals like this one at Adyar Junction are surviving signs of unsanctioned hand-painted art. Other political and cinematic imagery has been done away with.

Few artists like G. Kumar of Saidapet have found ways not to let go of the art. After the lay-off, he broke into the “cine field” and began assisting set designer Rajeevan. Though work includes designing and furnishing, he best loves painting portraits and name boards to use as props. S. Ramesh started an art class in West Mambalam that now has seven students. Returns are nominal, but he is happy to teach the skill even if most students only pursue it as a hobby.

Local arts come with a looming expiry date. The terminal illness that struck cut-out painting was triggered by technology and policy. A 2008 order banned unauthorised hoardings and displays on private walls. The recent municipal wall paintings project seemed an opportunity for painters to shine but Sivakumar discloses, “Pay has moved from the original 30 to as low as four rupees per sq. ft.”

The forthcoming elections too will employ only printed ad campaigns. A hefty boost to vinyl printing is expected. “They prefer vinyl cut-outs which are made fast but tear within days. A painting could take between 10 days and three months to make but they last for years,” rues Venkatesan.

“A photo is a dull recreation of reality. In paintings, we would add shades of pink to the cheeks and green around the sideburns to give a unique finishing,” he observes with a hint of pride. Among his clients are AVM and Ananda Pictures but “they opt for the quick-fix digital cut-outs.” Shops and offices also prefer neon or glow signs.

Bollywood-style painting

Long after its death, Bollywood-style painting has found takers in rich youngsters and expats for whom the art holds kitsch appeal. For 1000 rupees a sq. ft., artists from Mumbai and Delhi create customised posters with the niche buyers painted alongside Bollywood superstars. The trend is yet to unfold in Chennai but Venkatesan doubts that it will, “We have never received such requests.”

Revival sounds a tad romantic even to these men who designed destinies and etched Tamil figures into the viewer’s consciousness. “Renewing this industry will be an uphill task. Artists have lost interest,” says Sivakumar. Then, with strange conviction, he adds – “Still, it will make a comeback.”

You want to believe him till a row of digitised boards confronts you outside the shop, confirming your worst fears.

insensitive index

While equity indices are often touted as good indicators of growth in an economy, a simple study of their sectoral composition establishes otherwise.

India’s two leading stock exchanges, BSE and NSE, maintain that their standard indices are designed so as to represent changes in the real economy. However, just two sectors — oil and gas and financial services — cover nearly 40% of the Nifty-50. They account for 43% of the Sensex. Along with capital goods and basic materials, the four sectors together cover as much as 60% of the benchmark index. In contrast, the consumer goods makers find low representation –15% in the Sensex and 11% in the Nifty. The food sector, hospitality, retail, logistics, media & entertainment, textiles and chemicals form large part of the economy, but find no mention in the indices.

The Indian economy is consumption driven. According to reports of the Central Statistical Organisation (CSO), consumption demand has accounted for almost 60% of India’s GDP since 2008. Even during the economic downturn of 2008-09, the consumption sector was more resilient than investment demand. FDI inflows were also buoyant during the period. But, this was not reflected in the Indian equity markets since they favour interest rate sensitive stocks which create volatility.

A boom or bust in the Sensex and Nifty only reflects the price movement of 30 and 50 companies respectively. Relative movements in the indices do not signify changes in the health of the real economy. In order to be truly representative, the indices should apportion fair representation to all major sectors of the economy.

With a little help from-




global goes local

“Have you seen ‘Russian Ark’?” a salesman quizzes curious customers outside Shop No.188 in Burma Bazaar, waving a CD packed in plastic. Their ‘No’ meets a look of disappointment and he goes on to say that the ‘beautiful’ film was made entirely in a single shot. “The cameraman followed the actors with a camera strapped to his body. You simply cannot count the number of rooms they move in and out of,” the short, jolly man exclaims. Interest suitably piqued, they decide to enter.

‘Sihabu World Cinema Collections’ appears like any other in a multitude of roadside DVD stores in Burma Bazaar – small, shady and cramped. A closer look reveals that both the shop and its salesman Shabbir Mohammad aka “DVD Shabbir” are far from regular. The writing on many of the 3000 DVDs is alien. This unique store, owned by Shabbir’s uncle, stocks the rarest shorts, feature films and documentaries from over 25 countries. Most are replicas of festival copies, sourced mainly from Malaysia and China.

Along with each DVD priced between 40-150 rupees, Shabbir offers his two pence worth. He is the poor man’s IMDB. Even a speech impediment does not deter the 32-year-old from rattling off director’s names, year of release, quotes, plots or making informed recommendations. He stops only to apologise, “I talk too much – a disease that comes with the trade.”

What started as routine 10 years ago steadily turned into passion. Instead of speed checking DVDs for glitches, Shabbir began pausing and watching whole scenes. “I was glued to action flicks before a friendly old customer introduced me to Majid Majidi’s work. The love for foreign films started then,” he recollects.

On a little TV beneath the counter, Shabbir watches films throughout the day. Despite the lack of college education and only a broken understanding of English, his grasp of cinema betters that of some present day critics. In his opinion flops should be watched to understand why they failed because “money and effort go into making them too.”

The generously shared trivia comes from careful accumulation of facts from CD back covers, books that customers show him and videos of the ‘making’ of various films. His constant advice is to remember the director’s name because, “He is the boss. There can be a film without actors but not a director.”

His love for direction is evident in the way he calls shots at the shop, skilfully guiding shoppers through the works of Bresson, Almodovar or Makhmalbaf. Shabbir’s profession often requires him to act but he harbours muted dreams of film-making, “I want to work with Majidi.” Then, launching back into the cubbyhole reality of his job, “Do you know he started out as an ice-cream seller?” he adds.

By a process he calls ‘brainwashing’, Shabbir convinces buyers to try new kinds of cinema, “Most people are restricted to one genre — action or romance or comedy. I encourage them to see something different.” The only customer he has not managed to outdo is Nasrin, his wife of three years. “If I watch films at home, I have to do without meals,” he laughs before adding, “But my wife is the greatest gift God gave me.”

Students of cinema form the major chunk of his clientele which also includes dealers from other states and foreign tourists. Shabbir once sold an American professor as many as 300 DVDs. But business is unpredictable, ranging from low sales to bulk orders. While online download sites threaten profits, he remains unperturbed. “Every trade is bitter-sweet. From inside this shop I get a chance to see other countries,” he shrugs.

Though he would like to launch his own business, he refuses to make plans. “You can never plan enough because things will happen when they have to. I try not to think too much.”

This is perhaps why DVD Shabbir is a happy man.

The dynamics of Indian cult films

Last updated on September 2, 2010 at 1600 hrs IST
RANJITA GANESAN________________________

There is much contention surrounding the existence of an underground film scene in India. Though not in the form of a focused movement, underground filmmakers do operate here. The dynamics of Indian cult films are murkier than those of the west – not in terms of quality but because of the multi-layered conditions that govern them.

Since they cannot proliferate in a society possessed by well-produced formula films backed by hefty promotion, some filmmakers in India lie low by choice. For an audience uninitiated in the art of film appreciation, hard-hitting cinema that transmits macabre truths is never more desirable than mainstream flicks, where even sorrow shines prettily. Big banners are unwilling to touch alternate subjects which seem either too drab or dark for mainstream consumption- ‘Ek Cup Chya’, a film about the Right to Information (RTI), is a case in point. On the rare occasion when producers oblige, the director’s freedom is contorted.

Disconcerted by the tyranny of commercial forces, an organisation called Little Fish Eat Big Fish released a DVD set of 5 Bengali ‘no-budget’ films in 2008. They write in their blog, “We view the producer as an unwanted intervention of the consumerist culture to control and, thereby, subjugate the auteur.” They stick to independent film-making, and invite film-lovers “to come and see what kind of quality a no budget film can deliver.” Short film clubs like Shamiana too are promising initiatives. Student film-makers with low resources form a big chunk of the unknown underground. The Magic Lantern Foundation has been lending support to small socio-political film projects since 1989.

Modern documentary makers try to keep up the political underground film-making tradition of post-emergency India. Since anti-establishment films are confrontational, they become a censor’s delight. So filmmakers have to shoot, edit and produce their work from the sidelines. Anand Patwardhan‘s ‘social action’ films have screened more times in court than in cinema halls, but he still attempts to pitch his films among the masses. The ban on ‘War and Peace’ (2002) (see video) was revoked but not without 21 cuts. After a long struggle, the Bombay High Court finally cleared the entire film for multiplex screening in 2005. Yet it remains relatively unknown.

Little or no money can be spared for publicity. Piracy, therefore, is an approved form of distribution in the underground. Owing to the audacity of Pradip Krishen’s ‘In Which Annie Gives It Those Ones’, it was aired just one night on Doordarshan. Only recently the forgotten work was revived by propagation online. Paanch, Anurag Kashyap’s controversial debut film, was distributed through file sharing websites with the director’s sanction.

Popular recognition eludes independent films here but they are received well abroad. Also, within India, curiosity about regional films is limited. So they live and die in film festivals. Murali Nair’s Malayalam film ‘Marana Simhasanam’ won the Camera d’Or, but it is barely known within Kerala, let alone outside it.  Few have heard of Partho Sengupta but his first feature film ‘Hava Aney Dey’ was selected for Global Lens 2008 and his next venture is being funded by Hubert Bals. Self proclaimed underground auteur Quashik Mukherjee’s ‘Bishh’ (Bengali) which released statewide with 2 cuts was watched by few and thrashed generously by mainstream critics. But he finds a growing fanbase among Bengalis in parts of the US. His documentary ‘Le Pocha’ is a big hit with alternate music lovers (see video).

It is interesting how blue films (underground porn) find a meticulous distribution through dedicated networks. Independent auteurs too must start a strong underground movement and use means like the internet or open public screenings to create a stir in the Indian mainstream.

the brother i never had

Often, at the silly age of 11, I would lie awake under the bedsheets and listen to the sounds around my house. I relished this secret nocturnal exercise, with my eyes closed and a smile playing on carefully pursed lips. On that particular night in the year 2000, however, I wish I had simply succumbed to sleep.
I caught snatches of my parents’ conversation. “…you’ve forgotten two years before Ranji? When our boy was born dead?” Amma asked Appa in Tamil. Instantly, my eyes flew open. I became still, breathing as quietly as I could in the light of this disturbing revelation. ‘Perhaps I had heard wrong?’ I hoped. But the pained silence that followed and later, mention of the word ‘miscarriage’ (which I looked up in the Oxford dictionary the next morning) confirmed otherwise; I had almost had an elder brother.
Fearing that she would tell on me, I did not confide in my elder sister about that night’s discovery. Instead, my mind drowned in a deluge of questions. How could he have died? Who would he have resembled? I wondered what they might have named him. Was he a ghost now? And the inevitable- would my parents have had me at all after Akka and a son?
Years later, when my mother decided to let us know, it was hard to feign shock. Amma probably attributed my calm intake of the news to the wisdom of adulthood. But the fact is, I had healed. For Akka, the knowledge was fresh and difficult. She and I had, on countless occasions, wished aloud for a brother. We knew now that he had always been there. Somewhere between us.
I like to believe my brother died so that I may be born.