15 November 2009

Two States - The story of my marriage

Knotty affairs

Author: Chetan Bhagat
Price: Rs 99
Year of Publishing: 2009
Publishers: Rupa
Pages: 269

Like all his last three works, Five Point Someone, One Night @ A Call Centre and 3 Mistakes of My Life, his latest, 2 States - The Story Of My Marriage, also leaves you with mixed feelings.

Chetan Bhagat's simple theme, rooted in middle class sensibilities and the ordinariness of life will once again appeal to his fans --- a sizeable class of emerging mid-brow readers. But let's be clear that it is the author's funny bone that saves the day for him again. His nonchalant wit gives a point to his observations and lends a perky liveliness to an otherwise not-so-great book.

Even if one were to lower the literary bar considerably, it's hard to ignore the numerous banal and trite elements here. Chetan's construction of dialogues at many places (especially involving women) is cringe-worthy, as are many of the situational turns that he introduces in the book. His sense of drama comes straight out of trashy Bollywood potboilers. Some scenes are so hackneyed and over-the-top, it could make Ekta Kapoor seem restrained! Chetan actually has a dowry scene where a bride's father keeps his pagdi at the in-laws' feet. In any case, the story has a Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge flavour to it. But since this is partly an autobiographical story, we'll give that to him. It's derived from Chetan's own experiences when he married his wife, Anusha (pic below).

2 States begins where Five Point Someone ends. After his (mis) adventures at the IIT – where he loves and loses the professor’s daughter – Krish goes to IIMA to pursue his management studies. He falls in love with Ananya, a bright Tamilian Brahmin girl, who seems on a rampage to break every shackle imposed by her conservative upbringing.
She drinks once in a while, has no qualms with pre marital sex or even living in with Krish. But once marriage plans come into the equation, both realise they have an arduous task before them.
Krish’s Punjabi mother won’t let "some Madrasis" trap her son, (the Tamilians are referred as ‘those black people’ by various North Indian characters a douzen times! There’s no malise in Chetan’s description, but it does start to jar after a point), while Ananya’s parents are stuck up on their Tam Bram 'we are so educated and cultured' credentials. How both sides eventually come around and accept the match is what 2 States is all about.

The story is clearly dated, because, the events are inspired from Chetan’s own love story and this was a decade ago! Much like in Five Point Someone, the tackling of the campus romance between Krish and Ananya is pedestrian here too. The exchanges are drab and the female character, in particular, behaves with a strange aggressiveness that is altogether unappealing. There are a few snatches of humour here and there, but not enough for you to be reassured about the rest of the pages ahead.

But in a pleasant surprise, the book comes into its own when Krish applies and gets a job in Chennai. Suddenly, he’s thrown into a new place and has to use his time and charm to get to know Ananya’s parents and make them like him. Chetan’s humour gets unleashed in full force, as he talks about various aspects about Tamilians he finds puzzling. He finds it curious how everyone here wants to be up at the break of dawn. He notices their sparse, functional homes – contrasting with the obscenely lavish and ostentatious homes of the Punjabis. He refers to the Tamil snacks as ‘spirals’, observes the funeral-like silence when they have their lunch or dinner. In the description of his boss - Bala, Chetan sharply brings out the propensity for sycophancy found among people of the community. But he also sensibly subverts this aspect with the character of Ananya’s father, who grudges the fact that his work doesn’t get him the appreciation he deserves, because he does not speak up. Chetan alludes here to the excessive sense of decorum and protocol ingrained in many South Indians.
The author’s penchant for humour makes these portions immensely readable and to his credit, even though he points at several of the community's idiosyncrasies, it’s done out of a genuine feeling of bemusement rather than to poke fun.
In fact, the author is far more brutal with his description of the Punjabis – with their love for showing off, their lack of subtly, their pretentious living.

When it comes to observations of these two communities, Chetan displays his natural flair as a writer. However, his characterization and plot development are less than impressive. The parts where Krish tries to win over Ananya’s parents are interesting, but it spirals downwards when the girl comes visiting Delhi and stays in his house. This is the weakest section of the book. Then the whole chapter where both sets of parents meet at Goa is downright bizarre. Also, some of the exchanges between the parents are so rude and direct, it’s a little hard to believe that people would converse this way in real life.

The book bounces back in the final section, where Krish goes though a depression and in an unexpected turn of events, things falls in place. The part where Krish's boisterous extended family come to attend his wedding in Chennai and are shocked that they have to be ready by six in the morning for the rituals is genuinely funny. "Is this a marriage or torture?" someone asks.

The biggest plus for the book is the choice of narrator – which happens to be Chetan himself as Krish. He comes across as level-headed, sharp-witted and genuinely nice so that even when the action starts to slacken, you remain interested in the twists and turns of his life.

Finally, as I mentioned, it’s 50-50 deal. Lots of laughs and light moments, but enough that is puerile and commonplace as well.
So where does one place this one among his earlier works? This too has many of the weaknesses of the other books, but it's probably more palatable than his last two works in terms of plot, because this is a straight-forward, episodic book.
It’s quick to read, which should mean something at a time when people run out of patience and time so quickly. And yes, full marks for the humour.

- Sandhya Iyer

11 November 2009

Megastar - Chiranjeevi and Telugu Cinema after N T Rama Rao

Author: S V Srinivas
Pages: 240 Add Image
Price: 695
Publishers: Oxford

Film studies, as an area of interest to many of us, is not really a well-explored field in India. In spite of the fact that the country produces the largest number of films in the world, the various critical aspects vis a vis, its changing forms, trends, socio-cultural impact have rarely been written about at any great length academically.
Which is why, one ought to welcome any book that attempts to understand cinema in its larger context. S. V Srinivas chooses an extremely interesting, relevant and hitherto unexplored aspect of southern cinema - the mass film, the fan culture and its intimacy to politics.

It's intriguing how every big politician in the South - from N T Rama Rao to M G R from Jayalalitha to Rajkumar in Karnataka to now Chiranjeevi have played a definite role in mass mobilisation achieved through their screen images. This is the overarching theme of Srinivas' book and he goes about explaining this complex phenomenon by understanding the role of fan clubs, the mass film movement and the various elements facilitating the genre to achieve this.
What is unfortunate though is that even though the book delves into an interesting area of study, it does so in a drab, academic fashion.
It requires the reader to summon up a great level of concentration and patience to actually get by this. It's jargon-heavy, technical and approached with a tone of high seriousness, that sucks out a lot of the fun in reading it.
Also, the book tends to give you important pointers about various aspects of the subject, but there's also a certain lack of focus, which means there is too much repetition and you don't get an adequate sense of what the author intends to say finally.
Yet, for a book that solely focuses on Telugu cinema and its socio-political impact, it's obvious there will be a good deal of observations and insights about the industry in it. The author does not explain why such mass adulation is mostly a South phenomenon. My own understanding is that regional cinema is developed in the Southern states more than any other part of the country. The influence of Bollywood is limited here, unlike in other states.
Screen idols, I would imagine, are always born out of a certain sense of identification that the audience feels with the actor - the son of the soil factor. Thereby this sense of intimacy and bonding with a star is achievable only in the regional context mostly. The rare exception to this rule in Hindi is Amitabh Bachchan, but otherwise, the appeal of celebrities has been restricted to adding glamour to political campaigns.
This aspect is not really explored in the book, but Srinivas does point at a peculiar aspect of how a fan looks at his idol - his affinity to the star could be based on class/caste (though most fan clubs deny this!) which is where the question of identification comes in. So the star is viewed as “one among them - but also someone who is superior to them”, as he's blessed with special abilities. Another aspect about fans is their sense of “entailment” wherein they have definite expectations from the star and his films. This often led to what the author calls as a 'blockage” for the star-actor who could not explore new forms of narratives. For one, he could not die on screen at all!

The books speaks a great deal about the prevailing “mass film” and how it is structured entirely around the superstar to evoke a response from its target audience. The author says the “foundationally populist” nature of this cinema ensures that the narrative moves ahead according to the audiences' expectations. Using various films of Chiranjeevi, the author delves into different factors that go into making a mass film. Most of the actors earlier films, he says, established him as a subaltern, threating the prevailing feudal order. This phase also saw the rise of the 'rowdy' in the mass film, where “the ordinariness (of character) and distinction (of star) are intertwined.” Using the example of films like Gharana Mogudu (Mannan in Tamil and Laadla in Hindi), the author analyses the inherent politics of these films and the conflicts they seek to resolve. The subaltern taming the haughty, upper class heroine and so on.
(Interestingly, I noticed Hindi cinema's definite influence on Southern films and vice versa. I got to understand that Chiranjeevi is called 'Vijay' in some of his films in the 80s– Bachchan's screen name in maximum films. Similarly, the whole feudal culture/ authoritative patriarch figure seen in Hindi is mostly derived from the South films).

The author also talks at length about one of Chiranjeevi's most controversial film, Alluda Majaka, that came under a lot of flak for having several obscene sequences. Srinivas first delves into what constitutes obscenity and concludes how it “exists because it recogonises our worst fears” --- in the sense that someone else is enjoying what is so obviously offensive and embarrassing to a particular class of people. He also adds that a lot of the masses who enjoyed the obscenity did so because they saw nothing in it to hurt their sensibilities. The film was also important for the mass mobilisation it brought about. When several organisations asked for the film to be banned, the actor's fan associations organised themselves for the first time to aggressively stand up for him.

Alluda Majaka, and the events around it set the stage for Chiranjeevi's future moves in politics. The actor's career plummeted in the mid-90s, and when he came back with his film Hitler, he had also changed his image. What you had now was the tragic, authoritative figure of the patriarch, who resolved not just familial issues but also those concerning the state. Many of the actor's films around this time, says the author, addressed a mass of people within the film itself.

The book touches upon a great many points and these are divided into many more sub heads. The authorial voice does not guide you well enough through the complex tapestry of themes that are brought forth. The language is excellent though academic and goes about its business in a matter-of-fact manner. For a book on cinema and mass films, one could have done with more anecdotes and preferably a racy style of writing.

-Sandhya Iyer