Tell us a bit about yourself.
I was in advertising for 12 years as a copywriter, then gave it up in 2000 to be a full-time writer. I published a novel, Local, in 2005. I directed a feature film, Hulla, which was released in 2008, and a full-length documentary feature film called Leaving Home - the Life & Music of Indian Ocean, which was released in 2010 and won the National Film Award this year. I also, purely accidentally, invented a statistical system in cricket called Impact Index, which is what I am running and co-developing full-time currently.
Despite my aversion to return to advertising as a profession, I had the most significant insight of my life when I was in it — about the importance of idea over and above any detail. It's ironic that this observation came to me in the ad business as it has perhaps the flimsiest application of ideas in the modern world, but it is also the easiest to spot. Later, after leaving advertising, I have found the importance of a central idea sorely underestimated in all walks of life, and an excessive attention to detail, often to the detriment of the project. The attempt to have a strong idea as a foundation for all my projects has been a bit of a guiding light for me.
Out and In of a Mumbai Local Train
The Mumbai local train is an active presence in the narrative of your novel Local.
Local is just a story of a white collar professional who is hurting from some kind of heartbreak and he discovers that when he is motion, that pain is considerably less. So, he looks for that kind of perpetual motion — and the only place he can find it is the local trains in Mumbai — so he decides to live on the train — and has this odd double life (working in a multinational by day, living as a homeless person in the night, on the local trains). That is the only reason why the story is set in local trains; if he could get this in a taxi, he would have. Of course, the local train (which literally is the backbone of the Mumbai commute) provides a grand sweep of story-telling, in all its diversity and scope. It also provides the book with its structure — the main narrative (the novel) punctuated by short stories about people the protagonist meets (short stories) where the minor characters become the protagonists, for a short while — much like a long train journey, punctuated by various stops.
How was your novel received in Mumbai?
It's an Indian-published book in a country where the media entirely is constituted of Western-colonised wannabes — they look to the West for prescriptions of what to read to the extent that they are not even interested in their own stories. So, it was largely ignored by the mainstream media, which led to bookshops not really stocking the book, for too long anyway.
But, in terms of reviews, etc, the response was quite positive overall. And it appears to have made an impact on some people too, going by the responses it still receives. There has been interest to make it into a film, so maybe that will happen someday (not by me, as I lived with this story for long enough, though it would be interesting to revisit it again in the film medium as a writer/co-writer perhaps).
"Hulla" by Jaideep Varma
Your feature film "Hulla" deals with the daily tribulations of middle class Indians. How were you able to maintain artistic integrity while directing a feature film in the heart of Bollywood?
It was an off-Bollywood film (much like off-Broadway) in that it was very small budget, therefore coming with much less pressure of sticking to the various commercial formulae of its time. I had a great degree of (artistic) freedom to make the film, provided I stuck to a very tight budget (which, of course, came with its own set of problems — still, not a bad trade-off but sadly not one easily possible after the 2008 recession; Hulla couldn't get made and released in today's environment).
Leaving Home: The Life and Music of Indian Ocean
What led you to make a documentary about the band "Indian Ocean"?
Three things. One, since 2001, I believed that the 10-year-old-band Indian Ocean was India's best-kept musical secret (happily the secret was subsequently broken quite comprehensively), the biggest proof of that, for me, was that their music did not show signs of aging at all. Two, I had had a great interest in feature-length music films, and was thirsting to see one that was made in India. Three, I was a position in 2006 to make a small film; not enough to make a fiction feature, and with the freedom to not worry too much about precedent (and therefore commercial viability) — and a music film on Indian Ocean just seemed the obvious choice to me. So, everything kind of came together for this to happen, even though it was unprecedented in an Indian context (as the film went on to be India's first-ever non-fiction film to release nationally in theatres).
For someone new to the Indian cultural scene could you recommend a list of some hidden gems (music, films, novels) coming out of contemporary India?
I'm sticking to the last two decades only here (perhaps the classic definition of 'contemporary').
Kandisa by Indian Ocean (2000)
Indian Ocean is India's greatest-ever music band, and in Kandisa, they are at their best — it is as simple as that. At least 4 of their albums are all-time-classics, but this 2000 release remains their peak. Indian folk, jazz improvisation, Indian classical - all melded together through unabashed, and completely unique-sounding, rock, and make no mistake — it is rock.
Sunoh by Lucky Ali (1996)
His first 3 albums are classics, and his delicate, melody-driven personal songs still make him one of the finest singer-songwriters to come out of India. This is the first album, populated with songs he had lived with for many years — not a single filler in it.
Rabbi by Rabbi Shergill (2004)
Perhaps the most-played non-film song in over a decade, 'Bulla Ki Jana' is just one of the many classics in an album, filled with Punjabi lyrics, a Sufi temperament and robust rock and roll spirit.
Boondein by Silk Route (1998)
A Himachali folk vibe met breezy soft rock — a soulful album with songs that sound fresh to this day. Three outstanding musicians walked into unchartered territory that still lies largely unexplored. It is very sad that this band does not exist today.
Tomake Chaai by Suman Chatterjee (now Kabir Suman) (1992)
Hugely influenced by the likes of Pete Seegar and Bob Dylan, Suman Chatterjee's determination to tell his own stories, and delve into his own roots, resulted in the beginnings of a very significant cultural movement that he should rightfully get the credit for. Here are many of those early songs - sparsely backed by either a guitar or a synthesizer — the magic is in what he makes you feel, whether you know the language or not. Truly Bengali in its essence.
Hazaaron Khwaaishein Aisi by Sudhir Mishra (2005) Fundamentally, a triangular love story, set primarily during the tumultuous Emergency years of the mid-1970s. It has wry wit and soul — a very rare combination in contemporary Indian cinema.
Monsoon Wedding by Mira Nair (2001) An NRI-director (therefore not an 'Indian-made' film technically) went back to her Delhi roots to capture perhaps the most lively and vivid portrait of modern-day India in all its diversity and pre-occupations.
Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year by Shimit Amin (2008)
The only soulful film made in India about the corporate world, its greed and elusive integrity. The biggest achievement is that it uses elements of the popular idiom to tell this story, which it does superbly.
Lagaan by Aushutosh Gowariker (2001)
This is a film remarkable for the perfect meeting point of Bollywood expectations and international sensibilities — its greatest achievement, and perhaps impossible to recreate consciously. The Oscar nomination was not a coincidence.
Crime/gangland films annoy me immensely now, for their ubiquitousness and the copping out that working on these kind of films often suggest. But, there are two films which have the same status as the Godfather films in the Hindi cinema firmament:
Maqbool by Vishal Bharadwaj (2004)
A tantalisingly-rooted adaptation of Hamlet in the Indian underworld — notable for the presence/ performances of 5 of India's finest-ever actors — Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, Irfan Khan, Pankaj Kapoor, and Tabu.
Company by Ram Gopal Varma (2002)
The triumph of a universal story (friendship and betrayal), told through a very tight screenplay, set in an unusual milieu for such a story. An ostensible fictional expose of the Mumbai underworld, it remains a classic in the Bollywood context.
Company and Rocket Singh were both written by Jaideep Sahni — who is, in my opinion, the most significant single writer or filmmaker of the last two decades in Bollywood.
Black Friday by Anurag Kashyap (2004)
A chilling and absorbing film made on the terrorists of the 1993 Mumbai bombings, in the aftermath of the incidents as they were chased down by the law.
This is the toughest category, as Indian writing has, by far, been the worst affected amongst all the art forms in India. A combination of circumstances — low attention spans and online distractions causing far fewer people to read; publishers finding it therefore difficult to make money; a colonised media, looking at the West for prescriptions of what to read — therefore rejecting indigenous writers and encouraging the kind of exotica-laden writing that the West finds meaningful from these parts. More than anything else, unimaginative, dishonest and smug publishing editors have destroyed indigenous writing in India — leaving the likes of pulp-writers like Chetan Bhagat to be seen as the only indigenous writers who are spoken of.
Through the wreckage of the last two decades or so, these 5 titles emerge, to me.
The White Tiger by Arvind Adiga (2008)
Despite many saying this was not worthy of the Man Booker, despite many having authenticity problems with some of the details the book conjures up, its subject of how the poor coexist with the rich in India, the complexities that result from that (through the head of an entrepreneurial driver) makes this the most relevant contemporary Indian novel in many, many years.
A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth (1993)
Not quite a contemporary novel, in that it is set really in the 1950s, but significant for perhaps the most clear-eyed portrayal of the Indian middle-class sensibility amongst Indian novels in English. The 1400-page novel is worth its girth in gold for the enjoyment it brings, without illumination.
Mango Coloured Fish by Kavery Nambisan (1998)
A real and thoughtful novel about self-discovery, through the eyes of a middle-class 'marriageable girl' in her twenties. Quiet, restrained, soulful and eschewing the exotica (despite the title) such material usually veers towards in Indian English novels. 'The Scent of Pepper' is more highly-rated amongst her books, but this one is my favourite.
The Sari Shop by Rupa Bajwa (2004)
Set in Amritsar, this is a poignant story about Ramchand, who works in a sari shop. Darkly funny in parts but mostly an affecting rooted story, told with a refreshing clear-eyed simplicity (and a welcome lack of irony). Evokes Anton Chekhov and Rohinton Mistry at their best (a huge compliment), though the world-view is completely, and refreshingly, Bajwa's.
Mole! by Asokamitran (translated by Kalyan Raman) (1984; transl. 2004)
Again, not strictly contemporary in terms of it being set in the early 1970s, but certainly contemporary and universal in its concerns (it became available in English only in 2004). A middle-aged writer from Chennai is in a 7-month writers' workshop in the American Midwest, amidst fellow-writers from different parts of the world, all trying to express themselves in a strange environment. Written by one of the most distinguished contemporary Tamil writers alive.