Sunday, October 29, 2006

Self/Images: Girish Karnad’s Bikhre Bimb

I have to confess that the theatre does nothing for me. The last time a play sent a frisson of excitement down my spine was when I was in college and we read, assigned parts and rehearsed Hellman’s Children’s Hour overnight for some theatre festival at Stephens.

I fail to understand what theatre does today that cannot be done better and in a more sophisticated manner by cinema. Admittedly, I am biased; all the great innovations in art in the last century have come from cinema. In animation, montage, art direction, lensing, sound – cinema has done more to dramatise the human condition than theatre can ever hope to.

A dedicated theatre person cannot but respond to the challenges that technology-in-art presents. How would proscenium theatre respond? Not having attended a play in ages, I’m astonishingly ignorant, so I have no idea of the range of possible engagements that theatre may have made with technology. Which is why Girish Karnad’s new play, Bikhre Bimb, came as a pleasant surprise.

Set in a TV studio, where Manjula Nayak is presenting her very successful new novel in English, the play plunges into contentious waters, with the now-familiar debate between vernacular writing and Indian writing in English. Nayak is in the studio to rebut the Kannada intellectuals’ dismissal of her new novel as one written to pander to western tastes.

But this is a red herring, as we soon find out. The interview over, Nayak is about to leave the studio, when her own image from the screen stops her and begins a conversation with her. Getting over the shock of finding herself apparently as a separate entity on screen, Nayak soon enters into a conversation with her image, and many secrets spill out over the rest of the play.

It is an interesting device. Using a screen – the word itself being a loaded one – to separate one’s self and make it ‘other’ is a useful interpretation and one that is done with a certain a amount of self-consciousness in the play. In one entire conversation, Nayak stops talking in a fit of pique and her image speculates on the nature of this creature in (I use the word advisedly) the screen: am I like Narcissus, she asks in love with one's own reflection; or, like the Romantics imagined it, am I a doppelganger, a double; a Dorian Gray; or an ‘objective correlative’ for your anxieties; Lacan would have embraced me, she says; or, since this is about the global and native, I could be like the voice of conscience in Hindi cinema, exhorting you think about your poor father whose money he has kept aside for medicines, that you are about to steal.

This is done with a tongue-in-cheek playfulness that does not detract from the very fundamental question it raises: the nature of the self, especially since it is raised by what would appear to be a figment of the imagination or a feverish hallucination. It is not Manjula's indentity the image is questioning, though that unasked question hovers over the whole play, but her own: as a mere image, who is she?

Nayak breaks her silence, after all, and more secrets emerge, none of which are particularly startling or earth-shattering. The play ends in a rather disappointing manner, but I won’t reveal how, in the event that anyone actually watches the play and is likely to be impressed terribly by it.

The play was interesting to watch for several reasons: apart from the portion that I’ve described above, the most interesting use of or interaction with technology was a response that was very analogous to cinema: the play only has one actor, Arundhati Nag. She is both writer and image. This means that an hour long take of the image speaking was shot and projected on screen, and Nag as actor on stage responds to the image. This self speaking to self is done in much the way that one would shoot dialogue in cinema. One actor, off screen, speaks her lines and the actor on screen responds.

In other words, a good half of the play happened much earlier, while it was being filmed. Someone moved around and spoke lines, and Nag-as-image responded, looked in different directions as the other character moved about and spoke. On stage, this process was reversed; Nag-as-writer spoke and moved about to be in the places where the image would be looking, to maintain the illusion that this was a ‘real’ conversation between self and image.

The other most interesting thing that happened during this particular performance was multiple technical failures. For the actor and the crew this must have been distressing; for me, in the audience, the process of resuming the performance from the point at which it had been interrupted by technical failure, was very, very informative. For a start, this had never happened in any other performance. Those performances must have been an exercise in a perfectly-created illusion, a state of experience analogous to the watching of cinema. Here, the performance being disrupted, it reminded me of nothing so much as a film shoot, where many things can go wrong in the coordination of several technical aspects, and where performances are repeated and meaning accrues to a performance only incrementally. For me, these technical hitches, instead of taking away from the performance, added an unexpected element to it.

I suppose what I am saying is that this play was interesting to watch because it intersected with cinema in many ways. I'm not sure how I'd have responded had it been otherwise.

Bikhre Bimb has been performed over 50 times in the last few months. I’m not sure where the next performance is, but do watch it if you can. I can’t say it’s a great play, but it is certainly an interesting one and worth watching.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006


Everyone knows, or at least I hope everyone knows, that neither Bogey nor Ingrid Bergman ever said "Play it again, Sam." in Casablanca. Sometimes, the misquote becomes more iconic and memorable than the no doubt less-than-perfect original.

"Elementary, my dear Watson." is one of 'em. Sir Arthur's etheric remains must be twirling in a tizzy, wishing it'd thought of it first.

Picture Plum sitting at his typewriter, joining up one sheet of paper to the other so that he need not interrupt his own genius. Psmith takes shape on the page. And at Plum's shoulder, something else takes shape -- Sir Arthur Ectoplasm, tinged green with envy, watches Plum as he types the immortal words and puts them in Psmith's mouth.

The Oxford Dictionary Of Quotations, edited by Elizabeth Knowles, now has a section on misquotations.

Ms Knowles said: "The last thing we want is to be seen as clever clogs,
saying that these quotes are wrong. The fascination lies in how and why they
were altered. Misquotations are much more interesting than mistakes."

Sherlock Holmes's trademark phrase is a key example in the collection,
entitled They Never Said That, which Oxford University Press publishes this
week. The nearest the fictional detective got to "elementary" was a single use
of the word in one short story, The Crooked Man, published in 1894. The full
phrase was coined 21 years later by PG Wodehouse, in Psmith, Journalist, whose
hero tacks on the remainder of the phrase.

Ms Knowles said: "It's an example of a misquotation which sounds much
more in keeping than the original."

Anyone who has read Nigel Rees will have a store of quotes, unquotes and misquotes. Like he says, there are some things that, "once heard are never remembered accurately."

Feel free to misquote him on that.. Link to the Guardian article here.

More from Quote...Unquote here.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Bilkiz Alladin

It is an odd coincidence that the release of William Dalrymple's The Last Mughal should have taken place in the same month that Bilkiz Alladin passed away.

Some time in 2000, Bilkiz had organised a reading at her place. Dalrymple was there, reading from At The Court Of The Fish-Eyed Goddess. Whatever else followed is not very clear, but a few years later, Dalrymple came out with the hugely successful White Mughals. Bilkiz always maintained that her help was not acknowledged enough, and that Dalrymple essentially based his entire book on her play, For The Love Of a Begum.

I've read a play she showed me, based on the Khairunnisa story. The whole incident reminded me of Throw Mamma From The Train. In the film, after Billy Crystal and Danny De Vito are both free from the nuisances of their ex-wife and mother respectively, they each settle down to write their book. In what seems like a horrible deja vu, Billy Crystal is about to announce the completion of his book only to find he's been upstaged by De Vito, who has already published the story of their adventures.

Crystal is in a deep, murderous rage, ready for any act he might later regret, when De Vito shows him the book--it is a pop-up children's book, nothing at all like the the no doubt dark and hard-boiled book Crystal has written. He is relieved.

I wish Bilkiz could have seen the For The Love Of A Begum/White Mughals incident like that. The two were so completely different. The play she showed me was a light-hearted romp, part musical, part old-fashioned romance. I don't even begin to see the comparison with White Mughals. Perhaps what rankled was that Dalrymple was not seen to be grateful enough. (He acknowledged her help in the book, but she is one of the many people he thanked.)

Bilkiz passed away on the 16th of this month. The very last time I met her was at another reading. It was drizzling and she was walking from her house to the place where the reading was to take place -- a less than two-minute walk. I offered her a lift, but she insisted that she wanted to walk. Later, she said she'd been doing the rounds of some publishing houses, that she had a manuscript ready.

That will probably never see the light of day now. One could feel some regret, if it wasn't for Bilkiz's enthusiasm that did not allow for such presumption.

Odd that this article written so many years ago, should sound so like an obituary.

Friday, October 20, 2006

In which the adolescents write the darndest things

These are 14 year olds?! Deschool society NOW!

Here's a good one one:

"The greatest writer of the Renaissance was Shakespeare. He was born in 1564, supposedly on his birthday. He never made much money and is famous only because of his plays.

"He wrote tragedies, comedies and hysterectomies - all in Islamic pentameter."

But my favourite:

...wrote that Caesar had been murdered by the Ides of March and that his
dying words were "same to you, Brutus".

The Independent link via Crooked Timber.

More GCSE howlers here.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The futility of it all

I'm trying to think of a good reason why I'd want to continue blogging.

Over the last three days, I've been under immense work pressure, and what with the electricity acting up, I'm in a lousy mood.

And I've discarded several attempts at a post. Every time I start, I feel especially snarly, and sneery.

I feel, in fact, like one of those tall, dark, handsome, moody heroes who drop their heads into their hands in Wodehouse books and groan piteously, their souls wracked by the weight of the world's sorrows.

But I'm no hero; hell -- I'm even the wrong gender for herodom -- and my soul ain't wracked by anything more earth-shaking than a very bad mood.

All of which is to say, unless I snap out of it, expect a looooooooong. silence. The thought that someone somewhere is waiting anxiously for me to deliver another gem for them to marvel at is stressing me out too much.

And, just as an objective correlative for all of the above, here is Escher's Drawing Hands.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The Judge, The Cook, The Orphan and Her Lover

And before you think it is Peter Greenaway redux, it's not.

John Crace digests this year's Booker Short List and that's the Digested, digested for Kiran Desai's The Inheritance Of Loss.

Why am I so troubled? thought Sai. Why does every chapter start with a few
words in italics? Why has every sentence become a question? Is it because there are so few answers in such a chaotic world?

A brief flash of rebel violence
interrupted the introspection, but all the characters were left unscathed.

Nasty, nasty. Go read.

Update: Kiran Desai has won the Booker.

The Guardian says,

"And at her first attempt Desai, 37, not only became the youngest woman to win but achieved a victory which repeatedly eluded her mother. The esteemed Indian novelist Anita Desai - to whom The Inheritance of Loss is dedicated - has been shortlisted for the prize three times."

Monday, October 09, 2006


I've always been insanely jealous of those who have exciting google searches to report. I mean, who wouldn't get a thrill down their spine if someone landed up on their blog after typing in 'Paris Hilton sex toys' (evil strategy at work here) or 'suhaag raat experience' or some weird random combination of words that makes you wonder what they're on, the guys who do these searches.

I usually get people who land up here after typing in the word 'spaniard' or in combination with 'in the works'. So exciting. Sometimes it is preceded by either the definite or the indefinite article. Sometime the Ghost of John Lennon lingers behind the words. Mostly, it is yawn-inducingly predictable. This is when I begin to think that everyone is faffing their heads off about the searches they get, only to make their life seem more interesting than it is.

Today, dear reader, I am pleased to report that finally, finally, someone came here after looking for some information with the following combination of words: 'nt error space bunnies'.

'nt error' is very ordinary. but space bunnies?! (It appears to be the Miroslav Holub poem); but what I want to know is, what would induce anybody to search for these two items together?

I'm working on some theories, she said darkly.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

A thousand truths: Caché

In an interview that is an extra on the DVD of Caché, Michael Haneke says, “There are a thousand truths. Truth is a matter of perspective.” Nothing establishes this more clearly than the opening shot of the film: a camera that is placed in some side street shows a road in a residential area.

Some cars are parked; there are apartments in the front and on the left of the frame; an occasional cyclist passes by, or a car hisses past from left to right. If there are murmurs or any ambient sound, you don’t really hear them because the titles are coming up across the screen and they are almost too tiny to read. The titles eventually disappear but nothing else changes – a static shot of a street, and some movement in the frame and perhaps a little more sound than there was a minute ago.

Suddenly the image flickers, twists and there are a couple of large dropouts. Then, the steady horizontal lines across the frame that you get when you’re rewinding a VHS tape. With a shock you realise that this is exactly what is happening: the shot that you’ve been watching is being wound back and replayed.

In cinema, one of the ‘truths’ that has been handed down is that the camera itself is a mere recording instrument. That what you see is a ‘truth’, an event that has as its basis a measure of verifiability, because it cannot be broken down. It is to montage, or construction, that we look for the distortion of the simplicity of a shot. We have come to expect from montage the 2+2=5 formula that implies that the whole is more than the sum of its parts.

This opening shot of Caché overturns those expectations so effectively, that you are already unsettled by the time you understand what you have just seen. Immediately after, you see a couple standing in front of a TV screen, watching a tape. Someone has been sending them videotapes of their house and their movements, as if to say, “Look out. You’re being watched.” Sometimes, these tapes come wrapped in a paper that has disturbing drawings that are meant to look as if they were drawn by a child. Very briefly, the film is about the couple trying to find out who made and sent those tapes, and the effects that this event has upon the family.

In the course of the film, many things that have been hidden (the English title of the film is Hidden) are revealed either reluctantly or in such a manner that you are forced to doubt not only the intentions of the person who makes such revelations, but the truth of the statement itself. There are indeed a thousand truths, and everyone has their own version of it.

To return to the import of the opening shot: when the film opens, as a viewer, you are ready to take what is presented to you at face value. A street, with some occasional movement on it. When the image is rewound, another ‘truth’ laminates itself on to the earlier one, until you are forced to view the first in the light of the second. What this emphasises, cinematically, is that if truth is a matter of perspective, then what you see in the film is not just a story of people who have kept many disturbing things in their lives buried and unexamined; it is also the story of how you, as a viewer, begin to realise the ways in which the truth is concealed.

In an interview with Sight and Sound, Godard says, “Certain ministers of culture in France are saying young people should be taught how to read images and films. No. They need to learn how to see them. Learning to read is different.”

Indeed it is. You don’t ‘read’ a film; you see it. This cannot be emphasised enough. There is no other way of understanding the opening of Caché except in visual terms. Just as there would have been no way of writing the slight alteration of meaning that takes place within the single opening shot. If a shot is one unified package of meaning, the only way of questioning the veracity of the shot is to call into question the way you see it. In other words, the only way to challenge a truth is to put it in a different perspective. In Caché, Haneke does this visually.

That this method is not accidental becomes clear at several points in the film. One tape that the couple gets, shows roads, a building, and finally, a corridor that leads to a blue door. Later, when the man traces the particular locality and is walking down the same corridor leading to the same door, the shot shows exactly what the tape did. You are meant to think that this is the same as that. Then you realise that where the tape was utterly silent, here you hear footsteps. And that the camera shows the same things, but not in exactly the same way – on the tape, the movement was smooth; here, there is a clear left-right sway to the camera. As these details register in increments, feet appear on the floor, and a point-of-view shot becomes a more neutral one. The man outpaces the camera and strides on to the door that you are already familiar with. But because so many things have become different visually, you no longer know what to expect.

Again, Haneke alters the truth of something within the shot itself, rather than through montage. Nothing is reliable, he seems to say. Not even what I say, because see how I say it?

NB: The final shot of the film, another lengthy shot of the outside of the son’s school, has been the subject of much debate because of its deliberate ambiguity. Haneke said, in the same interview, that he had originally written dialogues for two of the people in the shot, but later decided against using it. What is even more interesting is that a large number of people who watched the film missed out on a crucial element of the end because it was in long shot and they simply did not notice something important. For these viewers, the film must have meant something entirely different simply because of what they did not see. This is very cryptic, I know, but I’m really not going to say more. You’ll have to watch the film for yourself.

Monday, October 02, 2006

MS Error Messages in Japan

From a few years ago, but just in case some of you haven't seen 'em.

They're haikus, by the way.

Your file was so big.
It might be very useful.
But now it is gone.

The Website you seek
Cannot be located,
but Countless more exist.

Chaos reigns within.
Reflect, repent, and reboot.
Order shall return.

Program aborting:
Close all that you have worked on.
You ask far too much.

Windows NT crashed.
I am the Blue Screen of Death.
No one hears your screams.

Yesterday it worked.
Today it is not working.
Windows is like that.

First snow, then silence.
This thousand dollar screen dies
So beautifully.

With searching comes loss
And the presence of absence:
"My Novel" not found.

The Tao that is seen
Is not the true Tao
until You bring fresh toner.

Stay the patient course.
Of little worth is your ire.
The network is down.

A crash reduces
Your expensive computer
To a simple stone.

Three things are certain:
Death, taxes and lost data.
Guess which has occurred.

You step in the stream,
But the water has moved on.
This page is not here.

Out of memory.
We wish to hold the whole sky,
But we never will.

Having been erased,
The document you're seeking
Must now be retyped.

Serious error.
All shortcuts have disappeared.
Screen, mind, both are blank.


4th October: Update, Update, Update!!!!

I read from India Uncut that Pete Grey points him to where these haikus originally appeared. These were the results of a competition that the Salon held in 1998. Thanks, Amit!

That's one mystery solved. What a relief. Now, if only people who forward stuff like this via email also had the sense to provide a link, I might get more sleep than I do. Someone owes me for eight years' lost sleep!