Saturday, January 14, 2006

15 Park Avenue

Has schizophrenia ever been looked into more intimately than this? I don't think so.

The best thing about Aparna Sen's film is that it could have been told from so many points of view. As it is, 15 Park Avenue doesn't stick to one and though we largely see the story unfolding from the elder sister's perspective, it’s not through her eyes. Anjali, the older sister-caregiver character is played by Shabana Azmi and she, like most of the other characters and the film itself, is so many things at the same time. A successful physicist and lecturer, a good daughter and excellent sister, a woman with a failed marriage behind her, an attractive woman who obviously takes care of what she wears and how she looks, and who is attracted to a man even while she has a steady relationship with another, though that seems to be on its last legs. And what’s most attractive about this character is that she’s so human, not a sacrificing saint but someone who is often irritated, angry, frustrated at the situation life has dealt her.

For me, what makes a good film really good is wanting to know more about each of the characters, the back-stories, the stories you sense are there, but being ultimately glad that they are left untold. It's also when you can really see the same situation from several different points of view, and feel each of them are right in their own way, and yet understand why the others involved in the drama can deny that.

Take Joydeep's (Rahul Bose’s) antipathy towards Anjali – he sees her as this dominating, overtly forceful woman who's jealous of any man who might threaten to replace her in her sister's life, while she sees him as a young fool in love who doesn't realise the enormity of the task he is taking on and as the factor that could upset her sister's tenuous hold on sanity, hence is a bit more aggressive towards him than is necessary.

Then there's Mithi, who's beyond points of view. Konkona is... well... she’s also beyond praise, really. I loved the way she portrays the schizophrenic’s certainty that it’s the world, not they, that is skewed. The patience in her voice when she’s explaining things that are obvious to her to the incredulous listeners. “No no I know Palm Avenue, my uncle lives there. I’m looking for Paaark Avenue, not Palm Avenue...”

The way her story unfolds in the film is superb. Not one straight flash-back but a gentle peeling away that reveals the whens and hows and whys. Though it leaves the chronology a bit shaky, one of the weaknesses of the film.

Oh yes, there are plenty. The dialogue, predictably, flags in places. It's mostly in English, and one would rather Anjali and her mother (played by Waheeda Rehman, who is competent in portraying the weak mother who relies wholly on her elder daughter for strength and who is, perhaps, a little afraid of the younger) spoke in Hindi, as they're shown to be a Hindi-speaking family. The bond between this mother-daughter duo is beautifully drawn out, and yet doesn't degenerate into saccharine sweetness. Anjali lashes out at her mother for not being strong enough to take charge of Mithi and her mother tries to placate her with a few soothing lies.

The minor characters are so well drawn-out that they become almost as strong as the protagonists, though I felt Rahul Bose’s wife’s character (played with her usual thoroughness by Shefali Shah) was a bit over-wrought. I thought she was reacting a bit too strongly to her husband’s interest in his ex-girlfriend, though I do know women who are pretty irrational when it comes to their men's past affairs.

A film really works for me when it makes me inhabit its world so completely that I have trouble coming back to my reality after the credits have rolled. After this film was over, I kept sitting in my seat staring at the empty screen, trying not to cry, and so did a young girl sitting next to me, while the people accompanying us stood around patiently waiting for us to snap out of it. Finally, a woman accompanying the girl said “Let’s go. She’s not going to come back.” I realised with a jerk that she’s not, and walked out.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Quick, sister, look the other way. There's a man coming!

Reading this post by Mridula about the cultural stereotyping of India, I was reminded of something I had been reading some time back on the Net. Had this written down somewhere, but had forgotten to post it. So here it is now:

Going through some tips for Western women travelling alone in India on this website, I realised with a sense of profound shock that I have lived out all these years in India in complete ignorance of my own country and its people. Some startling facts I have discovered about this ancient land where all can attain nirvana:

Indian women still practice sati

Indian women do not make eye contact with strangers

Indian women don’t even walk to the market-place alone, let alone travel to another city alone

Indian women always go around swathed in saris or garments that cover every inch of their bodies. Wearing things like sleeveless tops or shorts is punishable by law.

Indian women never, NEVER, smoke in public. In fact, the writer is inclined to believe none of them smoke at all

If faced with a problem on the rare solitary trip to the market-place, Indian women always pretend their husbands are in the next shop

Indian women are studiously ignored by other men when in the protection of a man. Shopkeepers, restaurant owners just avert their eyes and always speak to the man in charge

In India, and I quote: “…media saturation of the Clinton-Lewinsky trial, Hollywood movies and scantily clad models are the only source of foreign context and news.”

Indian women (the article makes no exceptions, so it must mean ALL Indian women) having their periods “cannot say their prayers or come in contact with men for fear of tainting others.”

And to think I actually had the temerity to look a man in the eye at the shop where I buy cigarettes. What a wanton, loose creature I am, what a cultural anomaly!

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Doing something you’ve wanted to do for a long, long time is so, so satisfying. I am also a boring, boring person for repeating words like this, but anyway...

I just told a man I would appreciate it if he didn’t call me any more. Thanks. Exactly those words. They might seem tame, especially after I tell you how much he has managed to irritate me over the last few months, but for sweet, please-one please-all me, that’s a major accomplishment.

So there was this Bengali man, in his late thirties, ugly, balding and a bore (these facts have everything to do with how I felt about him, and yes, I am a very frivolous person who is very partial to good-looking men) introduced to us, as in R and me, by a colleague from Delhi. He was apparently going to be in Bangalore for a year to do a course at an institute and wanted introductions to common friends. He called, I was at effusive hostess welcoming lonely person to Bangalore best. He called again, and then again. By third phone call, I knew just what I had let myself in for. He was such a bore. Not boring, which is entirely different, but a bore. Told me entire story of his entire life full of struggles by second phone call, if that helps you get his character and everything.

He invited himself over to our place one weekend some months back. I had of course primed entire gaggle of friends who all turned up on the said day to look at him. They pulled his leg rather badly, tried to shock him by flirting outrageously with each other’s partners, threw in-jokes at each other over his head. We were not a mean lot generally, but somehow, it was felt he deserved it. He seemed to take things pretty sportingly. But surprisingly, this did not lead to anyone’s liking him any more than I did. If I could say this without sounding very mean (I can’t, so what the heck) it sort of demonstrated what a loser he was.

Then he started calling me more and more frequently. Never R, who had been as much his host as me at the aforementioned 'party', but me. In the beginning it was always to invite us to his place and all, which I always replied to with an 'oh sure. will do sometime'. Then he started asking me to meet him for dinner after office. True to my Rude People Will Go To Hell beliefs, I hemmed and hawed and sounded vague, invented excuses about being busy. Didn’t take calls, didn’t reply to messages. Did this for about a week. He was nothing if not persistent. Friends egged me on to make him crawl back into his hole in misery. What sport it was. What a keenly watched match.

Finally, and I hate to admit this, I had to fall back on ‘R doesn’t like it’. [Scrrrratch! (Sound of name being struck from Register of Sometime Feminists)].

Which was bullshit of course, in the sense that R would definitely not like my meeting this guy, but that was just because I bothered to discuss it with him. Mostly, I leave him out of all this. So much work pressure, night shifts on top, poor fellow.

All quiet for a couple of months. Then messages of ‘can I call you’ – ignored for a couple of days. Then in new year bonhomie and good cheer, I took a call from him. After painful pleasantries were exchanged, the man, in very obvious defensive fashion, started off with ‘don’t take this otherwise, I hope you don’t mind my saying this etc etc’, then asked me (again R was not even mentioned) if I would meet him for dinner. Also said he had a ‘small gift’ for me which he had brought back from the US (of course it was a perfume, as he let slip. Cheesiness of it makes me want to puke) and would I meet him so he could give it to me?

Now I got seriously psyched out. Till now I was treating him as a sort of elderly bore, mostly harmless and slightly daft for not getting rather pointed hints. Again, and this should be noted, I refused to tell him to go to hell. Where did I read recently that some women have this sort of... umm... underconfidence... that makes them loath to see the worst side of things? Which, often enough, is the right side. Ok, so tell me all about how I am a popularity junkie. Stems from my repressed childhood, no doubt.

But equally, it’s about an aversion towards unnecessary dramatisation. Telling somebody to go to hell and all that is just so dramatic. I find it infinitely easier to ho and hum and be vague. Not give in, but not make a huge point of not giving in either. To my defence, I did say R would also love to meet him (heh heh) and WE would see him sometime, of course we would. Not much enthusiasm was shown to this statement.

He said he would call me early this week. Yesterday, I sat next to my phone for a good two hours, refusing to pick up the phone. He called some twenty times. On my cell, on my landline, from his cell, his landline, from an unidentified local number. Everything. I just sat tight. Called up R and random friends and acted psyched out (I was a bit, honestly).

Today, I get this text message from him: “U were busy yesterday, can I call you now? Also if you feel that I am going crazy let me know.”

That’s when those immortal lines were uttered. I would appreciate it if you didn’t call me. Thanks.

Sweeter words were never spoken. Aaah!