Monday, April 7, 2014

Out of focus: The slacker figure in Hindi cinema

An old piece I wrote for GQ and forgot to post.  

“We’re looking for a narrative…a focus…a direction” says an old producer in the first scene of Dev Benegal’s English, August. Narrative, focus, direction: three words that are anathema to what this 1994 film and its protagonist represent. English, August is a rare film that belongs unreservedly to a genre that’s never really taken root in India – the slacker film. That’s hardly surprising. The slacker film says that having no plan is okay; but in India, everyone from God to the tea-seller on the corner has a plan. The slacker film says it’s alright to drift in life; for the majority of Indian parents, drift equals death.

If one looks down the decades, it makes perfect sense why Indian cinema has so few slackers. The cinema of the ‘20s and ‘30s relied heavily on historical and mythological sources, not the kind of material that lends itself to inaction. In the ‘40s, there was a freedom struggle to complete and partition to endure. Slacking wasn’t just a non-option in those days, it was anti-national. The same went for the ‘50s, a time of nation-building and Nehruvian Socialism. That decade is now considered the golden age of Indian cinema, with directors like Guru Dutt, Raj Kapoor and Mrinal Sen doing some of their best work, but it yielded few cinematic slackers.

Shammi Kapoor would have been a good candidate for Hindi cinema’s first slacker were it not for his tremendous energy (no true slacker is this kinetic). Other ‘60s stars also rule themselves out on various counts. Dilip Kumar is too earnest to qualify, and Rajesh Khanna put an unacceptable amount of effort into his onscreen wooing. Dev Anand, meanwhile, always seemed to be holding down a job; just look at the titles of his movies – Guide, Jewel Thief, C.I.D.

Come the ‘70s, it was angry young man time. While not every character Amitabh Bachchan played was gainfully employed, they were all men with a mission, decidedly un-slack. Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s blissful comedies yielded a few slackers, though they usually spent the second half embroiled in some complex subterfuge involving the heroine’s dad which required them to be resourceful. On then to the ‘80s, and India’s first real slacker film.

From the very first shot tracing a cigarette’s journey from makeshift coconut ashtray to being passed between three hands (and a foot), 1983’s Chashme Buddoor is delightfully unpurposeful. Farooque Shaikh, Ravi Baswani and Rakesh Bedi are three Delhi University students on holiday, both from college and that terrible Indian affliction – a sense of responsibility. The trio spend their time smoking, chasing girls, roaming around on uncooperative two-wheelers, and smoking some more. The film doesn’t appear to cover more than a few months in their lives, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it returned five years later to find them doing the same thing. That’s the essence of slackerdom: lives without upward mobility or downward spiral, in a state of perpetual drift.

Two and a half decades later, Ayan Mukerji’s Wake Up Sid celebrated – and slyly deflated – this idea of drift. Ranbir Kapoor played Sid, a rich scion who’s content to watch the clouds roll by. So far, so drifty, except then he argues with his dad, who throws him out of the house. Sid moves in with Konkona Sen Sharma’s self-sufficient journalist, but continues to potter around. Kapoor’s gentle performance separates Sid from the kind of rich, brash loafers Shah Rukh Khan used to play in the ‘90s. He’s just a man without a plan, and though he eventually finds a job as a photographer, the movie makes it clear that his slackitude was a character trait, not just the lethargy of the privileged.

In Which Annie Gives It Those Ones usually surfaces as a trivia question (What was Shah Rukh’s first onscreen appearance? What 1989 film did Arundhati Roy write and star in?) What isn’t acknowledged – perhaps on account of it never having released in theatres or on DVD – is that this is one of the most acute, true-to-life films ever made about young people in India. It’s certainly the best Indian film about slackers. Radha, Annie, Kosozi, Mankind, Paapey may be in their final year at the Delhi School of Architechture, their theses may be woefully incomplete, yet no one seems to care. The movie goes by in a rooster-chasing, ping-pong-playing haze. Even the climactic gesture of rebellion by Radha – who makes her final presentation in a sari and a hat – is offhand, a futile protest in a losing game. In a movie whose soundtrack consists of instrumental versions of Beatles songs, these are kids who’ve taken John Lennon’s advice in “Revolution” to heart: they won’t do anything concrete, but they know it’s gonna be alright. 

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