Thursday, November 29, 2007

Indian discontent in Malaysia

The harsh reaction by Kuala Lumpur’s police Sunday to a protest organized by the Hindu Rights Action Force, a pressure group established to further the cause of Malaysia’s 2 million Indians, turns the spotlight on the country’s third largest ethnic group and the problems it has faced for decades.

Tensions have been inflamed recently with the accelerated destruction of Hindu temples by the government. Although many have been built without permits on government land, they have been in place for decades. Three have been bulldozed this year to make way for road construction and a housing development and another three are due for demolition over the next few months.

Read on...

On Prakash Jha

There are very few film directors in Bollywood who are not only critically acclaimed filmmakers but are also commercially savvy entrepreneurs. Prakash Jha is one of them.

From Hip Hip Hurray (HHH, 1984) to Apaharan (2005), Prakash Jha's cinematic journey has been long and varied. Jha, who made his directorial debut with HHH, a movie featuring youngsters focussing on sports, has wowed audiences with his politically sensitive films like Gangajal (2003) and Apaharan in recent years. Both the films have been commercial and critical successes.

But Jha is not the one to rest on his past laurels or limit himself to the director's chair. Today he is charting a different path, shaping a new future, not just for Bollywood but also for his home state, Bihar.

Jha, who has recently floated his own production house, Prakash Jha Productions, after more than three decades of independent filmmaking, was in Patna when I spoke to him. "We are building multiplex cinemas in Bihar and Jharkhand," he said. "We have just started building four. We have acquired 16. We intend to build one multiplex in every district which is totalling about 30."

Writing, direction, production and now distribution--Jha has done it all with a great impact.

From Bihar to Bollywood

Prakash Jha was born on February 27, 1952, in Patna, Bihar. After finishing school, he migrated to Delhi. In 1970, after graduating from the University of Delhi, he moved back to his native place to work on family farms. But the love of cinema drove him to the learning portals of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune in 1972. Ever since he came out of the film school, he has spun celluloid dreams. He has been working independently since 1974.

Jha began his career as a director with Hip Hip Hurray (1984), starring Raj Kiran and Deepti Naval. He got instant recognition with this film. His next film, Damul (1985), further strengthened his reputation as a director. Damul's theme was socioeconomic and political exploitation. It depicted the caste politics of rural Bihar. This announced the arrival of a new voice in the offbeat movie genre. The movie bagged six National Awards and a couple of international honors, which added to his prestige.

Post- Damul, there was no looking back for Jha. The following years, a number of films came from this talented filmmaker and he started making sensitive films keeping an eye on the commercial elements of cinema. These included Parinati (1986), Bandish (1996), Mrityudand (1997), Dil Kya Kare (1999) and Rahul (2001). Apart from features, he has made 42 documentaries till date. He also contributed to the genre of Hindi sitcoms on Indian television with his comedy series, Mungherilal Ke Haseen Sapne (1990), which became very popular.

Changing Lanes

As the art film movement began to wane in India in the 1990s, Jha tried to change track and make a place for himself in the mainstream movie world of Mumbai. His first commercial venture, Bandish (1996) failed at the box office despite having stars like Jackie Shroff and Juhi Chawla in the cast. An undeterred Jha mounted another ambitious project, called Mrityudand (1997). The film, a tribute to women, had reigning superstar Madhuri Dixit in the lead role. Set in rural Bihar, it featured two protagonists, played by Dixit and Shabana Azmi, who challenge the social mores designed and controlled by the male order. Jha's gamble paid off this time, as the film got both public and critical appreciation. He had made a place for himself in mainstream Bollywood. His next few films, Dil Kya Kare (1999), Rahul (2001), Apaharan and Gangajal cemented his position in Bollywood as a leading filmmaker.

Over the years, Jha's ouevre has been increasingly dealing with political issues, especially set in the backdrop of Bihar. While Gangajal depicted the good and bad elements of the police force in Bihar manipulated by its wily politicians, Apharan explored the complex relationship between a father (Mohan Agashe) and son (Ajay Devgan), set against the backdrop of a thriving kidnapping industry in Bihar. His next directorial venture, Rajneeti, will again deal with a similar theme. "It is a take on the India democratic system, loktantra as we call it," he told me. The film is in pre-production stage and shooting is expected to start in Januray 2008.

New Initiatives

Founding a production house of his own has marked a new beginning for this filmmaker. He intends to produce 4-5 films every year under his banner. "I will make evey kind of film which I think will work," he said.

The first film to come out of his stable is Dil Dosti etc. (2007) which has has been helmed by a debutant director, Manish Tiwari. Does it mean his production house will promote new talent?

"Yeah, I am quite open to it," he said in affirmation.

Speaking of Dil Dosti Etc, he said, "This was a first time director Manish Tewary with a cast of small time actors and it works very well for its cost."

The response to this new film has been good. "It is doing pretty well in most of India. Apart from the eastern territory which is Bengal and Bihar, the film is doing extremely well in Delhi, Jaipur, Indore, Bombay, Mysore, and the first week collections have met our expectations," he told India Se.

As a filmmaker, as Jha has changed gears, so has the filmmaking scene in an ever-evolving Bollywood. More and more corporate houses and even Hollywood studios are getting into Bollywood. What does he make of this transition?

"I don't think the variety of films is likely to change very much. The Indian market is also in transition. You didn't hear a few years ago like weekend collections of films, films recovering their cost in one week in India. So, the full texture of marketing is changing rapidly. That is what is attracting the western studios," he said.

So, is Jha afraid of these changes? Will he work with the Hollywood studios if given a chance? "Given a chance, I think, means if there is a subject which is acceptable and there's a market for it, then why not?" he said.

But Hollywood's studios have this reputation of limiting a director's creativity. Will it not upset him? "I don't know. I haven't dealt with them. And if marketing begins to dictate your content, then so be it," he said candidly.

For such a fearless filmmaker, nothing can come in the way of achieving greater success.

A version of this piece appeared in India Se (Nov. 2007). Khoya Khoya Chand, directed by Sudhir Mishra, is Prakash Jha Production's next release.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

On writer's block, blogs and 'dumbocracy of news'

Married, with a day job. That could perhaps be, practically speaking, an alternative definition of a writer's block. If you throw kids into the equation, the situation could be far worse for a writer. That's the recipe for a guaranteed dry spell.

Laugh, laugh. But I cannot take much credit for this observation. I thought of it after reading this snippet in Outlook. Here it goes:
Nalini Jones, author of debut short story collection What You Call Winter, recounted her meeting with Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. "How can you write?" Jhabvala asked Jones, who has a double writer’s handicap: married, with a day job. "I could because I was in India," Jhabvala went on to add. "Over there we have servants to do everything."

Next topic. Blogs. Tehelka's Shoma Chaudhury (I admire hers and Tarun Tejpal's writings in Tehelka) thinks that 'blogs are totally overrated'. Why? Becuase they lack rigour (True in most cases). And in an interview with the famous journalist and editor Tina Brown, she almost makes her agree. Brown personally does not like to blog because it does not bring her any moolah. However, she has her eyes fixed on the cyberspace as her next El Dorado. She says:

That’s what the DNA of my website will be. Rigour. I don’t want any more spouting of sloppy opinions. I don’t have the time. ABC just fired 75 TV journalists and hired 75 bloggers instead, responsible only to themselves. It’s insane to do that to your brand. This is just the exuberance of a new medium. No one wants to look uncool, but who’s reading it? People keep asking me to blog, but I’m not going to lower my standards, and why would I write for nothing? Haven’t done that since childhood.

The Tina Brown interview is excellent in which she talks about the dumbocracy of news.

By the way, did you read that news that Facebook has tied up with ABC News and Facebook members can track US politics with those '75 bloggers' recruited by ABC?

Sounds interesting? Here's Wired's take on this development:

ABC News said today it signed a deal with Facebook, which, as far as we can tell, basically entails ABC News-branded election forums where Facebook users can vent discuss politics. ABC News reports from the campaign trail will also be folded into Facebook's U.S. Politics application.

Although financial details weren't disclosed, we can't help but wonder how much cash ABC News spent to get into Facebook's exclusive club -- the arrangement sounds suspiciously similar to deals signed with AOL and Yahoo back in 1999, when dot-com startups spent millions of dollars for real estate on the portal sites. And occasionally went bankrupt in the process.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Are reviewers/critics eunuchs?

In his diary, Outlook's editor Vinod Mehta talks about British (food) critic A.A. Gill who has the reputation of being a slasher. He writes:

Gill says people often ask him that since he claims to know so much about food, why doesn’t he open a restaurant. He answers with a borrowed quote: "Critics are like eunuchs in a harem—they know how it is done, they’ve seen it done every day, but they are unable to do it themselves." Gill adds: "That’s smart but not quite right. Critics may well be like eunuchs in a harem who know how it is done—but having seen it done every day, they just don’t fancy having it done to them."

So, are reviewers or critics eunuchs?

Or, as referred to by Bollywood director Farah Khan, are film critics "retards"?

(Reference: During the 'word association' segment of one of those 'rapid fire' things on Koffee With Karan not so long ago the host tossed this word out: Critics.
Pat came the answer, from guest Farah Khan: 'Retards'.)

Is criticism the last resort of the creative failures? If you can't do, teach, goes the saying. If you can't do, criticise. Can this be said about critics?

Quickly, let me say, I don't buy this line of argument. Like anybody else, critics work in a line, with some knowledge, some hindsight and foresight. And anybody who has this ability can be a critic--on his blog or in the column inches of the mainstream media if he/she can convince the powers that be that he/she can do the job. Or in the adda or on the beramda of one's own's house.

But is it that simple? I want to look at this debate more closely.

In any creative business, there are many parties involved. On the one hand, there are the creators of products (a film, a novel or a meal, for example) and their marketers and distributors; on the other, there are consumers (who consume the products for a pay or fee). In between, there is the media and its practitioners. They review the products (a film, a novel or a gadget), on the basis of their knowledge and taste (and some other factors that vary from individual to individual), and signal to the consumer whether the product is good or bad (in their opinion).

Or, as Charles Taylor put it in a 1999 Salon article, critics often act as the hype filters:

We don't need critics to tell us how we feel, or how to feel. But bouncing your own reactions off of a critic's can sometimes help you explain why you feel the way you do about movies. Critics have long been the only independent voice standing between moviegoers and the millions of dollars (today, hundreds of millions) studios use to promote movies. Like any advertisers out to push their product, studio publicists campaign to control public perception; that's one of the reasons for the current emphasis on the business side of movies, the blurring of the line between journalism and publicity. Movie journalism has become more and more dictated by hype.

However, in the age of instant communication (TV, internet and blogs), people are increasingly questioning the validity of this go-between tribe's existence and judgement on products. Anybody with a blog can now review a book or a film. And even some of the professionals have taken to the internet to publish their views (reviews).

Now, when a product receives unkind reviews, who does the creator blame? Where do they see vested interests sabotaging their creation? Where do they see well-known critics settling scores with the creators? Of course, they blame the mainstream media critics because what they say still matters.

Some think that certain reviewers are not knowledgeable enough to comment on their work. They question their credentials and get personal (if the reviewer gets personal), and all this tamasha goes on in the cyberspace with hundreds of people chipping in with their supportive or critical views. Fair enough for a democtaric medium like the inernet.

But this raises some interesting questions. How should a work of art (a product) be reviewed? Who should review it? And, sometimes, even the creator getting in the way, suggesting, after the fact, how it should have been reviewed. In case of a film, for example, how valid is the reviewer's criticism.

I'm writing this in the context of the debate that started with Anurag Kashyap's latest release, No Smoking. Hands down, NS is the most debated Indian film in the recent years (just look at the sheer number of posts and responses from Anurag and his readers at Passion For Cinema or at

Khalid Mohammad, a well-known critic and a filmmaker himself, rubbished NS in his review in a national daily. Anurag, in anger, retaliated in these words on his blog:

Sitting in rome reading the extreme reactions and reviews.. I don’t mind taran’s review for he in his seven lives would not have understood why someone would like to make a film like this.. Khalid reviewed me and not the film and from his review all i can say is neither has he read “Quitter’s inc” nor has he seen “cat’s eye”.. he just read the comments on PFC.. and i will say to him is , “Chutiye tu retire ho ja , tera time khatam.”

The debate has also licked the two most recent commercial releases, Farah Khan's Om Shanti Om and Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Saawariya. Unlike the latter, the former received favourable reviews and trade pundits gave it a thumbs up. In defence, filmmaker Karan Johar paid a glowing tribute to Bhansali.

On this issue, a guest blogger has this to say on PFC:

Both the directors of NS & SAAWARIYA are miffed with reviewers and really disappointed with audiences..Whatsoever their genuine reasons may be regarding some of the reviewers who could be biased but both have given generalized and sweeping statements denouncing the reviewers and lamenting the dumbing down of audience tastes..I beg to differ.

I have high regards for both the directors’ capabilities..But the issue is not about talent, vision, knowledge and skills..The issue is much deeper and affects many others in Bollywood..Both have refused somehow to accept the fate of their movies..Anuraag Kashyap(AK) has still shown some courage to come down from where- he –smoked- a –classic- mild after getting the first reactions in papers and electronic media and has gingerly accepted people’s verdict but his stance is still rebellious..He has his reasons to justify himself..And he has gone on record saying henceforth he will make movies(apart from what he is his personal agenda) that even a toddler can understand..He wants to hold a mirror to the audiences and not pander to them..Fair enough..But who decides whether audience wants a mirror or a mirage?And how one can force them to see in the mirror?.. Moreover in AK’s acceptance of audience verdict one senses ( at least I do) a taste of bitterness.

On the other side Sanjay Leela Bhansali(SLB) has lots of difficulty in coming down from his arrogant pedestal..He has a kind of paranoia..He thinks his movie has been sabotaged by the reviewers..And first time people did not go to watch it only because of the reviews...

Anyway, back to the original issue. Are we seeing something changing through this debate and online chatter?

There are signs. If you think this is just an Indian issue, think again. On the larger questions of film criticism, the debate is getting global. Here's a report from Variety:

Back in March, British film historian and Guardian blogger Ronald Bergan launched a withering attack on the state of contemporary film criticism.
In a blog entry titled "What every film critic must know," Bergan complained that modern film criticism was far too subjective and not nearly analytical enough.

"Most reviewers deal primarily with the content of a film rather than the style because they don't have the necessary knowledge to do so," Bergan wrote. "This leads me to believe that film critics should have some formal education in their subject, such as a degree in film studies."

So, what are your thoughts on this? Or as the Salon piece's blurb put it, in a culture increasingly driven by hype, who matters more? The critic or you?

PS: Great minds (or wicked minds?) think alike (wink, wink). Just spotted this on Columnist Bolly Woods poses some more questions on the film criticism debate. Here are the relevant excerpts:

...last night I watched Ratatouille for a second time, and the words of food critic Anton Ego (in the cultivated, cultured accents of Peter O'Toole) jumped out at me. Remember?

"In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little; yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read.

"But the bitter truth we critics must face is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so."

That segment in the film raised a whole heap of questions about critics and criticism -- questions I hope you can, and will, answer: What value do you place on film criticism? Do reviews help you decide which movies to watch, and which to avoid? Has a critic ever influenced you in favour of, or against, a film, and/or its maker? Has a critic ever enhanced your understanding/appreciation of a particular film?

Thursday, November 15, 2007

A little break and some short notes

I got lucky to get a few days of break from work. Apart from writing some long-committed pieces, also got a chance to see a few movies. Some I have been wanting to see for quite a while now, others I saw on the insistence of family and friends. The following are not film reviews; I am just recording my impressions as I tend be quite forgetful.

I will start with Ekachai Uekrongtham's Pleasure Factory. This film, shot in Singapore's red light district Geylang, had made it to the Cannes recently. Though the reviews had not been encouraging, I wanted to see it any way. I was pleasantly surprised to see quite a few people in the theatre on a week day afternoon screeing, and the good thing was that, except for a few chuckles in the beginning, they behaved quite well. They kept quiet throughtout the screening. Not sure if they had fallen asleep but some even clapped when the film ended.

The film was shot digitally, that too at night, so it showed on the screen which was visually not pleasant. The camerawork is less than professional even though perhaps the attempt was to get a documentary feel to the product. There is hardly any story (the narrative is incoherent with a few storylines going from somewhere to no where). The actors, whatever little they were allowed to do, apart from taking their clothes off and shedding tears, have acquitted themselves honorably. Some scenes seem to have been spliced in as an after thought. Characters suddenly begin to speak to someone out of the frame in a mockumentary fashion. There are long streches of bared bodied gymnastics and silences and reveries (without thought bubbles), that is sometimes artistic but mostly boring. If the director had meant to tell the story of Geylang as a visual poem, then its poetry does not sing nor does it touch the soul of the viewer.

However, I liked the symbolism in the movie. Of beautiful fish trapped in an acquarium like the fair-skinned, tarted-up girls trapped in the flesh trade. Of vending machines symolizing the flesh market with humans as cans of flavoured drink ready to satisfy your thirst for a coin.

My disapointment stemmed not from the fact that it was "amateurish in design and look" or the story was "maladroitly assembled" but from the lack of any meat in the film. I had hoped that I would emerge from the theatre with some insights on the sex trade and what fuelled it. Perhaps the filmmaker had nothing to say on this in the first place.

During the break, my long time wish to see Kevin MacDonald's The Last King of Scotland was also fulfilled. This marvellous film, based on a novel, deservedly got Forest Whitaker (playing Uganda's dictator Idi Amin) the best actor Academy Award in 2006. The film keeps a taut focus on the relationship between a chamelion-like Amin and playboy doctor Nicholas Garrigan (played by the talented James McAvoy), without going deeper into the politics of mass killings and Amin's dictatorial regime. This film makes it to my all time favourites list.

I also watched Gautam Ghosh's Yatra. I don't know if many are even aware of this film which highlihts the dichotomy between fact and fiction, between imagination and reality, between witing a story and turning it into cinema; at the same time, the film makes a great comment on the marginalisation of literature (and of moral values) in this age of commercially sponsored film and TV. Nana Patekar, playing the lead as an award-winning writer, has given a subdued yet impressive performance. The dialogues by Rashid Iqbal are amazingly witty or caustic in a literary way. If you are a writer, you should watch this film.

I also watched Farah Khan's Om Shanti Om on its second day of release. The theatre was packed and it seemed people lived every moment of the movie. Short of dancing in the aisles, people clapped and laughed with the antics of Shah Rukh Khan.

In one sentence, the film is a tribute to the Hindi film industry and celebrates whatever Bollywood means and stands for. Farah's film even cocks a snock at Hollywood through the villainous character of Mike (Arjun Rampal).

My wife loved the movie's madness and I was oaky with it. But the film reminded me of the movies of Mr Bachchan in the 1980s (and the hysteria they created among the masses), films that were especially created for him by his pet directors, showcasing his variegated talent in a larger than life way. After that Mr Bachchan's films began to flop. I hope SRK watches out and keeps making films like Chak De. For a detailed take on this film, read Deepika's post here.

Monday, November 12, 2007

A remarkable debut

I had reviewed Tan Twan Eng's novel The Gift of Rain when I had interviewed him. It appeared in India Se (Nov 2007). Here's the full version:

The Gift of Rain
By Tan Twan Eng
Myrmidion, S$34.95

This year’s Man Booker Prize long list surprised many Booker watchers as established literary names were sidestepped to make way for new literary talents. Tan Twan Eng with his The Gift of Rain was one of them, about whom or whose debut novel hardly anyone had heard before.

Twan, a lawyer by profession, had struggled to find a publisher for his novel through his agent; but all that agony paid off with the Booker nomination.

Though the novel did not make it to the Booker shortlist, it immediately grabbed the attention of readers the world over and made it to the’s best seller list. Impressive for a little known work of fiction by a Malaysian writer!

And after reading it, I am asking why didn’t it make to the shortlist? I sincerely thought it was deserving of going further.

The novel is set in the Second World War time of Penang, then under British Malaya. The story is narrated by the novel’s protagonist Philip Hutton, a half-Chinese, half-English young man. Though in the novel’s opening scene, we meet a much older Philip who welcomes an old Japanese lady to his house, and the meeting leads to the opening of the floodgates of his memory.

As the masterful narrative unfolds, we are taken around Penang with a cast of exceptionally etched out characters who stay with us long after we have finished reading the last sentence. In the novel, the mystical Penang, with all its geography, architecture, beaches, temples, rainforests, sounds and smells, itself comes across as a solid character.

In the heart of the narrative lies the friendship between the 16-year old Philip and a much older Japanese diplomat, Hayato Endo, who comes to Penang with a special mission. The friendship flourishes into the relationship of master and disciple when Philip starts learning aikido from Endo.

Like all relationships in life, this too exacts a price and both Philip and Endo have to pay that price in a manner that can only haunt and overwhelm the reader. The values of love and friendship and the steadfast courage in the face of betrayal and barbarism -- all such human conditions have been deeply and marvelously explored in the mesmerizing weave of a narrative.

Twan not just impresses you with his wisdom and grace in writing, it is his powerful sense of aesthetic description and acute observation, in splendidly crafted metaphors and epithets that make you sit up and intensely enjoy the work. Sample this: “It was a balmy night, the sea giving off a metallic sheen, the sky starless, an unending sheet of black velvet.” Almost every paragraph is embellished with such beautifully chiseled sentences.

Once you start reading, Twan’s words will fascinate you. It is his writing power that has turned the story of a friendship into sort of a mythic narrative. This is definitely one of the most powerful debuts in recent years which makes a lot of contemporary fiction seem incredibly shallow in comparison.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

A gifted writer

I had interviewed Malaysian novelist, Tan Twan Eng, sometime ago for India Se. I am reproducing the full interview here for your reading pleasure. Hope you enjoy reading it.

You are a lawyer by profession. How did you decide to become a writer? Were you inspired by some other writers or you genuinely felt that you had something to express?

I’ve always wanted to be a writer since I began reading children’s books at the age of four or five, without realising how difficult it is to write. But as I grew older I became aware that it’s almost impossible to make a living from it, and so I decided to read Law when the time came to choose a career. I don’t regret it, because it’s given me an awareness of the importance of writing with clarity, and it’s made me a more disciplined writer. As I used to be an intellectual property lawyer, it’s also been useful whenever I have to read the publisher’s contracts.

Some of the books I’ve read were so awful that I often told myself, ‘I can do much better than this.’ But I was also galvanised into action by some writers who took my breath away with their writing: Salman Rushdie, Kazuo Ishiguro, Andre Brink, Edmund White, Anthony Burgess, Vladimir Nabokov. Reading these authors made me realise how unlimited, varied and vibrant the world of the imagination could be.

When did you start to think of writing The Gift of Rain? What motivations were at work?

I started to seriously think of writing a book when I was doing my Masters in Shipping Law in Cape Town, in 2003. At that point I had in mind of writing a massive history of Malaya and Malaysia from the late 18th century to present day. I soon realised I had taken on a heavy load and became dispirited about ever completing it. Then one day I decided I would take two of the minor characters from this work and write a much shorter novel about them. I told myself if I could finish this shorter novel, it would give me a strong boost of confidence to tackle the larger work. To my surprise this originally shorter novel which became The Gift of Rain soon grew to the size it is now.

In many ways, The Gift of Rain is a testament to the island of Penang, to what is fast disappearing: the beautiful and elaborate architecture from the 1900s, which combined Anglo-Indian elements with local Malay and Peranakan and Chinese influences. Such a combination has resulted in buildings which are unique and which should be protected – shophouses, schools, mansions, townhouses and municipal buildings. Unfortunately, they are being torn down to make way for modern apartment blocks, shopping malls and coffee shops.

I wanted to record the old way of life in Penang before it all faded away, to capture that wonderful, nostalgic atmosphere that is found only on this island.

As I’m interested in the meeting of Western and Eastern thoughts and philosophies, The Gift of Rain is also an exploration of these issues – I wanted to see how different and yet similar they are.

But most of all, I wanted to tell a strong, emotionally-resonant story that would remain lodged in the reader’s memory for the rest of his or her life.

Did you always imagine setting your novel in the Second World War era? And, was it a difficult novel to write as it deals with a historical time period?

There was never any question that The Gift of Rain would be set around and during the Second World War. It is such a fertile period for a writer: the world was changing, painfully, with great uncertainty and chaos. Something of the old order was coming to an end, and no one then knew what was going to replace it.

It wasn’t a difficult novel to write from that aspect. I’ve always been a history buff and I’ve been collecting books on that era since I was a teenager. I know my history and it was merely a question of going back to the materials to reconfirm a particular fact.

As I was living in South Africa at that time and most of my books were in Malaysia, I owe my mother a debt of gratitude for her patience in answering my questions I’d sent via email. I often asked her to get a particular book from my shelf, open it to a particular chapter, and tell me if I had gotten a name or a date correct.

The West expects a certain kind of writing or certain elements in a work of fiction from writers coming from the East. Did this consideration cross your mind while you were penning your novel?
No, I wrote with a wonderful lack of self-imposed restrictions. That’s always the case with a first novel, I feel, this total freedom – beginner-writers have no awareness of the rules they may be breaking, and that’s when truly original and exciting art is created. I was aware that there were certain aspects of lifestyle or custom which I had to explain to a reader who is unfamiliar with this part of the world, and I had to find a balance to ensure that my clarifications would not be tedious to a reader who is completely familiar with the East. This was the hardest part of writing The Gift of Rain, finding this balance.

There is also a strong element of subversion to The Gift of Rain – One of my goals when I began writing was to subvert the expectations of readers, especially readers in Asia, who’ve grown up with the same plot-structures in story-telling as I have.

Being a first time novelist, how was the journey from writing to publication to Booker nomination? Did you feel overly frustrated or overly elated at any point of time?

The Gift of Rain encountered difficulties in obtaining a publisher. The major publishing houses sent back positive comments (barring one or two which said it was dull and boring!) but the editorial teams had to get feedback from the sales teams, and quite often it was these sales teams which said The Gift of Rain would be difficult to market. I became doubtful if it’d ever be published and here credit must go to my agent, who’s an amazing woman. She’s been in the business for 20 years and she’s always been unwavering in her faith. “Don’t worry,” she’d always tell me. “I’ve never been wrong. It’ll be published.” In the meantime she told me to start work on my second novel. It’s funny, because on the day the nominations were announced, my agent had phone calls from publishers saying, “You were right!” I was glad that her faith in me had been paid off, had been vindicated.

Did you ever imagine that your debut work will make it to the Booker Long list? How did you feel when you got the news?

I never imagined it would make it to the Man Booker Long List, although like many authors I had hopes of that happening! Which author doesn’t? When I was informed that The Gift of Rain was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, I was naturally stunned, elated and also fearful. I was fearful of the sudden focus of attention to my novel, I was fearful of the weight of expectation this would bring. But I was also grateful that The Gift of Rain would now be taken to a larger, worldwide audience of discerning book-lovers. It had been doing well even in the two months before the announcement of the Longlist, when it went all the way up to No. 41 on the bestseller list. Since then it’s been hovering in the Top 100, occasionally falling to the 500s. But with the news of the longlisting the sales have risen tremendously. It’s now going to be translated into Italian, Greek, and, surprisingly, Serbian.

It was also an incredible honour to be on the Longlist together with established authors like Ian McEwan. In fact the publisher is the youngest publisher ever to have a novel nominated in the history of the Booker Prize. The first thing I did was to send an email to thank my agent for her support.

I was not at home the night the announcement was issued but when I got back and checked my e-mail, I had a slew of mails from my agent and publisher. They had kindly put “CONGRATULATIONS!” on the subject heading. And since I wasn’t expecting a baby at that stage, I knew I had been nominated before I even opened the mails. For the first time in my life I could not fall asleep that night. Quite bizarre, actually. So at 3 a.m. I decided to get up from bed and begin answering the emails which had come in from friends and family.

A few years back, it was Tash Aw in the Booker long list. This year, it’s you. Do you think it is a sign that Malaysians writing in English have started to make their mark?

I think Tash Aw’s Booker nomination was in 2004 or 2005, wasn’t it? But yes, I think it’s a sign that Malaysians are starting to make their mark in the literary world. It’s exciting, but we face such strong competition from writers around the world. Especially India! Which regularly produces writers of impressive calibre.

What’s your next project going to be? Another novel or a collection of short stories?

My next project will be a novel set in Malaya after the war. I am just starting to write some short stories. It’s difficult for me to write short stories since I hardly ever read them. I prefer the extended relationship and commitment a novel requires!

Aside from writing, I will be speaking at the Singapore Writers’ Festival in December this year, the Perth Writers’ Festival early next year, and also the Asian Man Booker Festival in Hong Kong thereafter. I enjoy these festivals because I get to listen to feedback from readers of The Gift of Rain from so many places.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Impressions from a reading

I had been looking forward to Rana Dasgupta's reading ever since Deepika had informed me about it. Rana too was kind enough to drop me an email reminding me of the event. There was no way I could have given it a miss, even though I was working on that day.

Why was I interested in Rana Dasgupta?

To be frank, I have not read his debut novel, Tokyo Cancelled except in snatches. Like many other good novels, it lies unread in my list of must-read novels.

Was it the celebrity value then? The star power of a novelist? Maybe not. The star power of a novelist, seeing and listening to a writer about whom one had only read in the media and talked amongst friends, has got diluted over the years. He is among the dozens of young novelists that India produces on a regular basis year after year. He is not a Naipaul or a Rushdie, with many works and numerous awards under his belt. He has so far written only one novel. So why was I interested?

Rana is not a run of the mill author, I believed instinctively (unlike so many other young Indian writers crowding the scene today), that's why. I carried this impression after reading some of his pieces that appeared in newspapers and are available on his blog. Chucking a well-paying marketing job and globe-trotting lifestyle for the dead calm of a writerly life in Delhi is a gutsy decision for anyone to take. Rana had done that, and that impresses me most about him. "To decide to become a writer was an arrogant decision," he said during the one hour plus talk. There it is. I like this kind of stuff, when a writer says these kind of things, because when one talks like that, one knows that here is a man who understands what it means to be a writer, to decide to be a writer which comes with a certain obligation to the calling. That kind of seriousness in a writer is what impresses me most.

It took Naipaul five books to writer whenceupon he became sure of the fact that he had actually become a writer. To believe that you have become a writer, that you are a writer, is a big leap of faith. It is not a hollow pronouncement. It comes with certain givens that you have to respect and live with. That is very important to realise and I believed Rana was that kind of a Writer, a writer with a capital W.

Whatever passages Rana read from his forthcoming novel, tentatively called "Half Life" (a term taken from atomic physics, bears no connection to Naipaul's Half a Life), were mesmerising to say the least. In the reading, a retired, over 100-years-old, nearly blind methusaleh in Bulgaria takes in the view of the city from his window. The tapestry of images and sounds that Rana has woven is marvellous and reminded me of the prose of Borges, Marquez and Coetzee. It was sheer pleasure to hear him read those passages.

During the talk, peppered with innocuous yet perceptive questions from some of the students, Rana talked about many things. Why he decided to settle down in Delhi (love, conversations with a set of creatively-inclined friends), why did he name his novel Tokyo Cancelled (he didn't and it could have been NY Cancelled or London Cancelled but he wanted to shift the focus to an Asian setting for his tale of globalisation), how cinematic images inform his sense of setting a scene in his works (he mentioned a little known movie that showed New York's highways and bridges completely empty of people or vehicles, I forgot the name of the film), how he admires the short stories of Roald Dahl (when a kid asked him about his fav children's author) and what he was trying to do in his next novel (Half Life), due out in early 2009.

For a view from the other side of the table, read Deepika Shetty's post on the event. You will enjoy reading it.

Friday, November 02, 2007

On Bergman

There is this saying in Hindi: Yeh moonh aur masoor ki daal!

I was reminded of it when I saw my interview on Ingmar Bergman in Sarah Buck's column in Academia. More than anything else, it was an honour to talk about Bergman who will be remembered as one of the towering figures in international cinema.

You can read the interview here.

If you have something to say about it, please drop me a line.