Tuesday, June 30, 2009

New York: The Neo-Empire Films Back

In one sentence the latest Bollywood movie, New York could be defined as follows: About making and breaking a terrorist. Perhaps, ‘New York’ is a movie that tells the world that Indian movie has arrived in the international scene. You may ask why I discount ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ as an international movie despite its multiple Oscar achievements. For me, ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ belongs to that category (like naming Indian girls as Miss World, Miss Universe etc), which is an import of ‘perspectives’ meant for changing our opinion about life, beauty, market, consumerism, politics, culture etc. Slumdog Millionaire was a litmus test conducted by the Western film moguls in the Indian market and it proved that they can coolly invest in Indian films. I strongly believe that A.R.Rahman has done wonderful original music scores before ‘Slumdog’ and Frieda Pinto is not one of the beautiful Indian women. While not discounting ‘Slumdog’s achievements, I would say that the movie was a well placed market ploy.

New York is not a movie about aesthetic marketing. While its story and narration stay deeply rooted in the thriller/action genre, it addresses the ‘global’ issue of terrorism through not much airbrushed relationships between the characters. Interestingly, it is not a cross over film that addresses multi-cultural and cross-cultural issues as in Gurinder Chadda’s ‘Bhajji on the Beach’, ‘Bend it Like Beckham’, or Mira Nair’s ‘Mississipi Masala’, ‘Salaam Bombay’ or films like ‘My Son is a Fanatic’ by Udayan Prakash. New York is a post multi-cultural movie and to be precise it is a ‘global’ movie from an Indian production house, Yash Raj films and directed by a Bollywood director, Kabir Khan.

The issue of global terrorism and its local variants has inspired several film makers in India and elsewhere. We had ‘Bombay’, ‘Mumbai Meri Jaan,’ ‘D’, ‘Wednesday’ and so on. All these films dealt with terrorism as something that affects the locale. The global ramifications of terrorism are treated in these movies as an ‘effect’ rather than as a cause. While Mani Ratnam’s ‘Bombay’ captured the nuances of religious terrorism that affect the common people, Santhosh Sivan’s ‘The Terrorist’ traced how a terrorist is made for political and geographical reasons. In all these movies, we see a set of victims of terrorism and the resultant ideological marginalization of a terrorist’s identity. Religion and terror become a heady mix in these narratives, forcing the audience to think in a secular mode so that the national disintegration could be kept under check.

But New York is not about nations or nationalisms. It is not too apparently about religion and terror. It is a scathing analysis of global hegemony as seen materialized in the form of the United States of America. It also deals with how the ideological and political hegemony can literally ‘produce’ a terrorist out of a law abiding citizen and then use him to track a terrorist and his associates. Fundamentally, the state erases the difference between a law abiding citizen and a potential terrorist. The state can conjure up evidences against a citizen, give him a new identity, use him for ulterior motives and finally breach the trust (both written and unwritten) between the state and the citizen. New York, the movie becomes important as this critique is not coming from the West or America itself but from a country like India. The neo-empire finally speaks back. Isn’t it a welcoming change?

The basic story line of New York is chokingly simple: one girl and two boys (all of Indian origin) in the State University of America doing a course in Architecture. Maya played by Katrina Kaif is the girl and Sameer Sheikh (John Abraham), Ijaaz Omar (Neil Nitin Mukesh) are the boys. Omar silently fantasies that he is in love with Maya, whereas Maya is in love with Sameer. The story starts in 1999 and on 11th September 2001, the twin towers are felled by the terrorists. Omar leaves the city heartbroken and settles elsewhere. He is no longer in touch with Sameer and Maya.

One day Omar is arrested by the FBI for carrying arms and ammunition in his taxi boot. He is detained for questioning. The year is 2008. The Indian born FBI agent Ishaan (played by Irrfan) is in charge of investigation. Omar comes to know how he is set up by the FBI to pin down Sameer, who now runs a construction-maintenance firm and according to FBI, is a terrorist with potential connections. Omar is now on the FBI mission to get Sameer in trap with evidence. Maya and Sameer have been married for seven years and they have a son, Danielle. Omar now enters their house a long lost and just now found dear friend and start his work. Sameer reveals his terrorist’s identity to Omar in a very sensitive moment and explains him how he became a terrorist.

The post 9/11 panic made the administration of the USA to capture innocent citizens only because they have different skin color and religious affiliation and put them through horrendous torturing methods in the detention camps like Guantanamo Bay. Those people who came out of the ordeal either became living corpses or potential terrorists. The administration under George W Bush said that it does not have any intention to detain people. But the truth was different. The government of the USA was literally making terrorists in these camps and later breaking them one by one in order to keep its global hegemony intact.

Omar gets Sameer for the FBI and talks Sameer out of an explosive situation. But the FBI breaches the pact by shooting down Sameer and Maya as if it was trying to erase the evidences of their lives. Omar lives to tell us the tale and also to take care of the orphaned son of Sameer-Maya couple. Ishaan repeatedly tells a rebelling Omar that the state eventually takes care of the law abiding citizen citing the example of the orphaned Danielle.

That is where the film maker confirms with the government of the USA. All the religious minorities or racial minorities need not be treated as criminals or terrorists. To underline the point, the director makes the statement in writing that Barak Obama has abolished the detention camps like Guantanamo Bay. Hence, New York is a critique on the inhumane administrative style adopted by George W Bush. Also it is an expression of India’s sentiments towards Obama administration. However, the hegemonic state speaks through a character like Ishaan, who vouches on his religious bend and his conformity with the state. A film can pinpoint such nuances but in real life as well as in reel life there is no solution for such situations. As I mentioned before, this movie is about making a terrorist and breaking him/her and in due course destroying several innocent lives. Khuda ke Liye was an example from Pakistan. New York is a thrilling rejoinder to it from India.

To rate the artists, it is purely a Neil Nitin Mukesh movie. He has proved his histrionic abilities once again after his debut movie, Johnnie Gaddar. John Abraham is the usual hunk but he needs to be free from his body to prove his acting talents. However, he has done his role well in New York. Katrina Kaif is refreshing though the accent and the ‘upwardly mobile’ upper lip feel too much at times. Irrfan is a unique actor. His dialogue delivery should be a lesson for both Neil and John. Even the smallest syllables in the fastest dialogues of Irrfan are audible, while both Neil and John fumble during such dialogues or lose the tone and timbre of their voices which otherwise sound good.

Monday, June 29, 2009

From Thriller to Never Land- The Other Self of Michael Jackson

Five years back, one fine morning, I decided to part with my favorite 50 Cent album. On the previous day I had bought a CD of ‘Thriller’ by Michael Jackson. You can see a bit of anachronism there. 50 Cent came much later in the scene, he must be a 21st century kid trying to step in the path left vacant by the violent deaths of Biggie and later his buddy Tupac Shakur. Rapper Eminem was his mentor and I had seen Mile 8 by then. Hip Hop was not fad in India though the popular Bollywood music was trying to struggle away from the clutches of Jazz, Blues and Rock. Michael Jackson was there as an influence and also as an irrefutable spoof. Indian film Industry was not prepared to take the refrain,‘mother f***ing’ from 50 Cent. We had to wait till a few more years to familiarize ourselves with Snoop Dog who said Singh was still king.

Michael Jackson refuses to die and I still listen to him at least twice in a week, if not from my personal stereo, from the blasting sound devices of a local gym in Faridabad, Haryana where I sweat the stuff out daily. I was with my artist friend Chintan Upadhyay and curator friend Anubhav Nath, when my wife called to tell me that the King of Pop, Michael Jackson was no more. Going by journalistic clichés, my response should have been a ‘shock’. But I was not shocked. As Vir Sanghvi of Hindustan Times said in his piece later, we were all expecting this but only the timing was bit odd. As an avid reader of newspapers, I too had seen snippets on Michael Jackson’s physical, mental and materialistic conditions. The last news item that I had seen before his death was formally announced was of him going for a ‘skin shave’ to ward off some kind of skin cancer.

Someone from the fourth estate had asked Chintan for his response. Yes, it is like that when a very ‘popular’ guy passes away, the reactions of the local popular guys are sought. As you know, Chintan is our local popular guy though he does not have much do with rock music. His response was another cliché. He said, ‘It is the end of an era.’ Predictably, several newspapers screamed on the next day with this cliché (obviously not from Chintan, but thanks to the lack of other adequate phrases to express MJ’s death)- End of an Era.

This put me into thinking. What was Michael Jackson for me, who is not at all a keen listener to the Rock/pop music? Like many I too had seen MJ videos, listened to his music. Beyond that, was there any connection between me and a global icon like MJ? Soon came the answer, he is a Global Icon because people like me in some way like him, despite all his shortcomings as a person. We adore him and feel thrilled the moment we see his videos played out in a plasma screen in a local pub, Youtube or in some music channels. Geography, race, time and anything that restricts vanishes in this adoration. A global icon is born when all the barriers are transcended. There is unconditional love between the adored and the adoring, if not unconditional hatred.

Vir Sanghvi is perceptive when he says that it was Michael Jackson who added visual relevance to a purely audible medium that is rock music. He brought theatrics into it. He added visual magic to music. True, when I look back to my teen years, exactly when MJ consolidated his position as the King of Pop, it was MJ’s visual part that came before the part of his music. As a rural boy, I remember I came across Michael Jackson for the first time as a pair of eyes looking out from the glossy posters in a local barber shop. Those eyes were so powerful like those of a wild animal. Then came the curly locks and an effeminate face. It was MJ for me during those days. Later I heard him. To my untrained ears he was a set of screams adequately pepped up with electronic string instruments and drum beats.

I came to know MJ closely almost after a decade since his path-breaking album came out in 1982. I was introduced to Bob Marley’s reggae music and the interest grew slowly into the general black music. Michael Jackson was there- between James Brown and 50 Cent. He was an extension of wailing, rapping and break dancing. He transformed the wailing into screams, the rapturous incantations of rapping into musical hooting, street aggression of break dance into aesthetically polished moon-walking. MJ was continuously polishing himself. He rebelled against his own clan of the Jackson Five to transcend himself as a solo artist. The child prodigy of the Famous Five soon became an unresolved hero of black rock.

MJ made attempts to resolve his own confusion through successive plastic surgeries. He reinvented himself through skin jobs and nose jobs and every time he did it his blackness was pronounced in a different way. He was a performing artist and at the same time he was a performance artist too a la the French artist Orlan who underwent a series of plastic surgeries as a part of her creative projects. Or he was like Cindy Sherman, who impersonated herself as characters in order to erase a ‘given’ character. Or he was like Yinka Shonibare, who enacted colonial dramas through impersonation. MJ was taking impersonation a bit too seriously.

In 2002 in London, I spent innumerable number of hours in Goldsmiths College Library and watched all the visual materials available on/of MJ. It was a revelation; this man who was accused of pedophilia, overspending and drug abuse was actually a genius caught in his own body. He was trying to escape from the bodily bondage through successive abuses of his own body as he did not find any other adequate route to transcend his internal self. Look at Madonna, who came after MJ. She turned to the Eastern philosophy to transcend herself. MJ did not look for any alternative philosophy. He lived in materialism and died in the lacks of it.

The death of Michael Jackson in fact informs us of his physical absence. At the same time, the news of his death and the ensuing controversies and estate related problems heralds the beginning of a new era for his music. With his death, he ceases to be a musician who introduced moon walking to rock performances. He becomes more in his death. I still remember the images of his wolfish self in the album Thriller and the image of him lying like a leopard on a tree branch in the Never Land Ranch, as seen in the documentary ‘Living with Michael Jackson’ by the British Journalist Martin Bashir. From Thriller to Martin Bashir’s documentary and the twenty years that passed in between- one thing is consistent in MJ, his other self. You call it a beastly self or a divine self; whatever you call it, MJ was actually looking out for his complete metamorphosis into that. He is going to haunt us through his music because, in his death too, he has not completed the metamorphosis.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Art as Message and Fault lines: Khatti Mithi

To the lexicon of Indian contemporary art, noted young artist, Chintan Upadhyaya has contributed a new word; Art Toxicism. By the new word, it seems that the artist wants to forward a new idea of making art with highly toxic materials. However, at the same time, there is a palpable artistic intention there as the phrase suggests the possible acceptance of this parlance followed by the acceptance of the art made out of toxic materials. The coinage sounds as tricky as a deliberate trap as the toxic art that Chintan has made would eventually go into acceptable art collections with a conscious coat of non-toxic and durable materials over the toxic materials, rendering them harmless to its surroundings.

Here we have a set of works from Chintan Upadhyay’s ‘factory’ (as he claims himself to be a factory artist) that talks about the unmindful pollution caused by human beings to their surroundings. Chintan finds his metaphor in/from the river Mithi that runs through the city of Mumbai but no longer considered to be a river, but a drain filled with filth and dirt. The title of the project to which these works belong is ‘Khatti Mithi’. There is a word play in it as the word ‘Khatti’ (sourness) connotes the pollution in the Mithi (literally means Sweet) river.

This project opened at the Sakshi Gallery, Mumbai on 20th June 2009 and curated by the artist’s friend and film maker, Anish Aluwaliah, should be seen as an extension of Chintan’s involvement with environment through artistic projects. He has been doing it for the last seven years using an annual site specific art workshop called ‘Sandarbh’ (Context) in rural Rajasthan. In 2007, Chintan did one of his pivotal projects called ‘Tentua Dabaa Do’ (Strangulate) that spoke of the female foeticide and infanticide rampant amongst the Indian populace. Khatti Mithi should be seen as a continuation of his artistic interventions in the social process.

Khatti Mithi has four sculptures with Chintan’s signature style smart alec babies playing the role of protagonists, one large painting, one video (with a title Art Toxicism), six drawings and a diptych panel of small drawings created by underprivileged children living along the shores of the polluted river Mithi. The sculpture ‘Not me Not you’ shows six almost identical baby figures standing in a line of progression, which is suggested by the level of filth on their bodies. The progression towards total filthiness is ironical and suggestively critical in this work. The children are bound to live by the filth and they, in due course get caught or immersed in absolute filth.

The hybrid forms that we see in other sculptures also tell us the plight of people who are forced to live by the dirty waters. The babies (almost an obsessive imagery for Chintan) are metaphorical as they could be anybody who is a victim of pollution. The painting, ‘Let’s Make a Better World’ has three babies supporting a globe like image with unnatural growth from it, and the painting is smeared with a splash of dirt from the river Mithi. Art Toxicism, the video captures ‘moving’ pictures of the river that is in a very sad situation now. The drawings too have baby images but all smeared with the river dirt. The diptych panel is made out of small drawings (auto drawn babies in them), interpolated with graffiti done by children and later dipped and floated in the river Mithi. Wherever Chintan uses the filth from the river, an extra coat of non-toxic material is given in order to make it harmless during the presentation in an aesthetic context.

The Khatti Mithi project has been in Chintan’s mind for a long time. To be precise, he started contemplating on this issue of pollution in 2005 when the river Mithi flooded during the heavy monsoons in Mumbai. For the first time in the contemporary times, people realized that the drain that carried the daily filth of the city was not an open drain but a river. Though several reams of newsprint and several hours of airtime were spent on this issue since then no political or administrative intervention was done for cleaning up the river. Chintan’s project, in this sense, is a pointer towards opening up a process for cleaning and reclaiming the river-ness of the river Mithi.

A project that apparently looks foolproof and perfect, to my eyes, seems to have couple of problems embedded in it. The works presented as a part of the project, even while stand in proximity with the surroundings that caused these works fall into the inescapable trap of aesthetic-ization of terror and trauma of a people. Perhaps, art is helpless when it comes to this aspect. It rebels to yield. Chintan’s project does not stand above it. Had it been a funded one, it could have achieved a sort of critical impermanency, which would have created a much more socially concerned debate around the issue rather than an art project, which could be bought, sold and auctioned. Now, we have a set of sanitized pieces of works in a sanitized interior of a gallery with sanitized people looking at them. I cannot write out its capacity to generate a dialogue as on the very next day of the opening, one of the Tabloids in Mumbai (Mumbai Mirror) ran a full page story on the state of the river Mithi and incorporated Chintan’s exhibition in it.

The second problem that I have here is something moralistic, if that kind of a thing left in the art scene at least for name’s sake. When Chintan did Tentua Dabaa Do in 2007, the majority of the people who came to see it in Jaipur, Rajasthan was from the rural areas. There was a constant stream of people throughout the exhibition, especially women, who wanted to see what a ‘young boy’ had done towards a cause, which they too were fighting with their lives. Here in ‘Khatti Mithi’ project, I hardly found any people from the shores of this particular river, especially those who collaborated with Chintan during the production of the project.

May be one can overlook that factor. But, in one of the press releases I chanced upon (with photographic evidences) a detail that said how Chintan took ‘underprivileged’ children along the polluted river and made them to over-draw his baby drawings. In fact, what do they need to know more about the polluted river as it is their daily experience and they live by that? I wished, the children should have been from the ‘privileged class’ (the art buying and investing class) because the major part of the pollution in any city is caused by this class through their vigorous consumption of things. I found the project slipping into an NGO (non-governmental organization) mind-set in this aspect. The privileged class needs more education than the underprivileged class- that is the basic factor when it comes to any debate on environmental depletion and degradation.

(Image courtesy Sakshi Gallery, Mumbai)

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Gallery Residency During Economic Recession

Shalini Sawhney, director of Guild Gallery, Mumbai is one of the best talent scouting gallerists in India. She has been identifying the young talents from the length and breadth of a vast country like India and has been nurturing them with consistent financial and moral support for over a period of ten years. A few years back, when gallery based residency programs were an unheard of thing in India, Shalini had initiated her residency programs with her protégés, who later became worth reckoning names in Indian contemporary art scene.

Claim or blame it on the global economic recession, Shalini has once again struck the art scene with her gallery based residency, but this time with a precise title and plan. Titled ‘Viewing Urban Spaces’, the residency program is conceived in two consecutive phases where the artists would work from within the gallery space, which is temporarily converted into ‘studios’. For each session a young art critic is invited to be with the artists throughout the duration of residency, who together with the gallery’s consultant art critic, Subhalakshmi Shukla would do writing workshop with the artists, besides contributing a comprehensive essay on the residency to which he/she is a part.

The first phase of the Guild residency started on 17th June and it ends on 23rd June 2009. The artists participating in this program are Ved Gupta, Kedar Dhondu, Balaji Ponna, Om Soorya, Shreyas Karle, Hemali Bhuta, Himanshu S and Remen Chopra. The critic in residence is Mohd Ahmad Sabih, a student scholar from the Aesthetic Department of Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

The second phase, which starts on 25th June and end on 1st July 2009 has K.P.Reji, Sandeep Pisalkar, Satyanand Mohan, Lokesh Khodke, Bhuvanesh Gowda, Shirkant Puranik, Amitesh Srivastava and Ashutosh Bharadwaj as artists and Parvez Kabir, a lecturer in Art History at Kalabhavana, Santiniketan as critic in residence.

To add flair to the residency program and also to enrich the experience of the participating artists and scholars, Shalini has organized interactive sessions with established artists and scholars. Noted artists such as Gigi Scaria, Koushik Mukhopadhyay, Bose Krishnamachari, Vivek Vilasini, Riyas Komu, Prajakta Palav and T.V.Santhosh participate in these interactive sessions. There are film shows and poetry reading sessions too.

To a question put to Shalini Sawhney, regarding the future of such a project, she said that it is completely a personal initiative meant for boosting up the morale of the artists and related art workers. “I work on instinct. This is the time the young and upcoming artists need moral support. I make programs that are mutually beneficial. The works created in this residency program will be on view through my website and the writings produced by the writers workshops will also be published in the web magazine embedded in the gallery’s website,” Shalini said.

In Delhi Religare Arts Initiative too is on its way of establishing in-house residency programs. This residency program has four sessions with around twenty five artists and the works produced in this residency will be on view in the Arts i Gallery, during the India Art Summit slated to happen in Delhi between 19th and 22nd August 2009.

(photo courtesy The Guild Gallery, Mumbai)

Thursday, June 18, 2009

‘Memorials for Something’- Making a Documentary on Artists Sanjeev Sinha and Dianne Hagen

Come 27th August 2009, you will have one of the most interesting shows in New Delhi. To be precise, there will be around five interesting projects to which I am involved as a curator, happening back to back in August. The one which I am talking about has a provocative title, ‘Grave for Nothing’ and is by noted artists Sanjeev Sinha and Dianne Hagen. And it is curated by myself and Elizabeth Roger, an American curator currently working from Delhi.

It is too early to talk about the show, though we are ready with it. Here, my intention is to tell you about a documentary that I am directing as a part of the ‘Grave for Nothing’ project. The documentary, which will be formally released on the opening day of the show is titled, ‘Memorials for Something.’

The project, ‘Grave for Nothing’ is a prestigious one undertaken by Delhi’s ‘Arts i’, a flagship organization of Religare Arts Initiative Limited, which formally came into being almost a year back.

Mukesh Panika, Director of Religare Arts Initiative Ltd, Aditya Dhawan, Consultant, Programs and Outreach, Sanjeev Sinha, Dianne Hagen, Elizabeth Roger and myself have been working closely on this project for the last one year. It was our collective idea to have an audio-visual presentation that explains the curious combination of Sanjeev and Dianne working on the same canvases for almost a year.

Sanjeev Sinha, an Indian male artist, Dianne Hagen, a white woman artist from Amsterdam stayed together for almost two years to produce a series of works- painted canvases from where individual identities are vigorously eliminated or contested- and we thought it would be great to have their lives and works together documented to a certain extent.

During one of our regular meetings, I volunteered myself to script and direct a documentary, instead of an informal audio-visual program. Mukesh and Aditya gave me green signal to start the shooting.

Now I am a three documentary old film maker. When I started directing my crew members, Dianne was looking at me with a lot of interest. She asked me whether I had been working with these crew members for a long time. I told her that I met them almost fifteen minutes back. She could not imagine that.

In India it is like that. When I made my first documentary on the veteran artist, Jeram Patel last year, I landed up in Baroda from Mumbai via Kochi, and the producer had provided me with a camera man and light boys who generally recorded marriage ceremonies. They did not have a clue. I could not complaint as it was my first shoot.

That does not mean that I did not have any professional parameters then regarding the quality of the equipments and the professionals who handled them. I had worked with some film makers temporarily and also had attended shoots in professional film studios. But the challenge for me was to get the best result out of the worst conditions. I was successful in it.

For my second documentary I got professionals to work with me. And for ‘Memorials for Something’ too I got professionals arranged by a well known production house in Delhi. The budget for the documentary was not too much so I had to shoot continuously for nine hours to can at least seventy per cent in one day.

We started the shoot by 10 am, somewhat an unearthly time for Sanjeev Sinha who is a complete night person. Dianne had already prepared herself to face the camera. While Sanjeev slipped into his ‘brand’ black jeans and shirt and sipped some whiskey, I started interviewing Dianne.

The first day’s shoot was all about how these two artists met for the first time, how they decided to work together, and what was their working process etc. While Dianne has very accurate answers, Sanjeev has politically loaded ones. He is a peace monger. He spoke aggressively against the imperialist forces, national politicians, corrupt bureaucracy and the arms traders. Dianne substantiated Sanjeev’s points by adding art historical reasons.

On a hot day we shot without a break. I made them to act for camera indoor and outdoor. These are stock footages for embellishing the narrative part of the documentary. Dianne responds to my cues with responsibility. Sanjeev is quirky. If you ask him to walk normally, he would add a lot of romantic touch to that walk.

It was a pleasure to shoot their bedroom, which they called ‘Staff Chamber’. The room is filled with small paintings, souvenirs, graffiti done using spray cans. It gives to you the feeling of a sublimated dungeon. The light is always low there. With an air-conditioner on throughout, that is a welcoming space. Desecration at its heights- that is the definition I could give for this ‘staff chamber.’

Our second day shoot was in Connaught Place, the heart of New Delhi, where the Arts i Gallery is located. After canning a lot of establishing shots in CP, I made Sanjeev and Dianne to walk, talk, act, behave etc while many people watched the shooting process with a lot of enthusiasm.

The last leg of shoot was done within the gallery, where I recorded an interview with Mukesh at his well designed ‘transparent’ chamber. He wanted to have a shot against one of the huge portraits photographs by the noted photography artist, Samar Jodha. Then we canned a lot of discussion between the curators, artists and Mukesh. We worked on the display plans and everything was shot.

Hope, this is going to be an interesting documentary that would supplement an interesting show.

(pics by Dianne Hagen)