Monday, July 06, 2009

alien nation

Revisiting Manmohan Desai's 1977 classic - and my favourite film of all time, Amar Akbar Anthony. I wrote this in December 2008, but a version of it appeared in Verve's July issue, under a section entitled 'Urbanism,' part of their 75th issue special.

As the city’s multiplexes have opened up to mainland influences and independent film-makers, some of the most trenchant clichés about urbanism have found expression in Bollywood’s 21st century portrayals of Mumbai. The dark underbelly pulsing beneath the glittering surface of the city, the artificiality behind the art, the terrible loneliness of the metropolis – all of these tell us what we fear; that our boom years have not protected us from the evils of urban overdevelopment. There are days in the life of this city, after all, during which we don’t have to open a newspaper to feel endangered; we simply have to step on a train.

It seems as though the industry now finds the once-mandatory celebration of ‘Bambai’ as India’s melting pot too trite for film. Tempting as it may be to trace the feeling to the rise of communalism in a city once famous for its origin-blindness, it probably has much more to do with the rapid gentrification of our living areas, compartmentalising classes and deepening differences. In a liberalised economy, as high-rises pile up around us, we tend to remember the perils, and forget the pleasures, of our shared civic life.

It is the public, open, festive Bombay that we celebrate in that mammoth classic of Hindi cinema, Amar Akbar Anthony. Manmohan Desai’s 1977 masterpiece still gets regular airtime on primetime television and weekend film festivals, for a number of reasons: it’s a ‘clean,’ ‘family’ film that kids love; it is a feat of star casting that still has the power to amaze and has never been achieved since; its performances and comic track are still vivid, slick and adorably hilarious. It is a proven fact that Indians of every stripe will sit through as many advertisements as it takes to see Amitabh Bachchan jump out of an Easter egg in the My name is Anthony Gonsalves song sequence, again and again. If the film hasn’t entered the pantheon of Bollywood’s absolute crowning glories, at the same level as a Sholay or a Mother India, it is perhaps because it is far too unselfconscious, far too ready to give in both to absurd soppiness and absurd jollity, and far too reliant on its preposterous magical-realist location – the Bombay of the 70s.

There is an almost Shakespearean felicity to city life in Amar Akbar Anthony. The woods of Borivali National Park become its Forest of Arden. (It helps that Mumbai is the only city in the world to have a forest plumb within city limits.) The park swallows up a family looking for shelter, and separates them from each other. The three children end up in motherless homes, with three foster fathers of three different faiths. They grow up to inhabit their own magical worlds in different parts of the city, but are always colliding with each other in improbable ways. Anthony’s wadi, an area that is part-fishing village, part-spaghetti Western set, is by turns incalculably distant from and right next door to Akbar’s Muslim neighbourhood. In Akbar’s world, rich conservatives are continually rubbing shoulders with young, impoverished mavericks. Qawwals and doctors envision romantic futures with each other. Eunuchs form a chorus for the hero as he lampoons his girlfriend’s dad as love’s enemy. Even prostitutes get some agency.

All through the film, the brothers run into each other, by turn strangers, antagonists, and friends, and fight, sing, dance and chatter at each other in a profusion of colour and chaos. The Christian breaks out spontaneously into a qawwali at the Muslim’s concert. The Muslim sings a bhajan to Sai Baba in a temple where his long-lost mother miraculously regains her sight. Even the strait-laced, law-enforcing Hindu cop shucks his inhibitions as the film hurtles towards its climax; he dons a fez cap, knickerbockers and concertina, and loses his measured, middle-class diction to break into the Bambaiya argot of the street.

Together, they fight crime.
All of this is generally understood to be too good to be true. There is no more pretence to realism in Amar Akbar Anthony than in the average Bollywood potboiler. But it isn’t just the pulpy by-product of an abstract idealism. The city of the film teems with dangerous coincidences. It is a mess. Dirt and unruliness abound in its frames. Its women are constantly at the mercy of cold-hearted families and villainous vendettas. Betrayal and petty thievery are running themes. But its biggest triumph is in its unabashed good humour. The narrative’s emotional crux is not the eventual reunion of a family long grown apart. What it brings home is the triumph of bonds formed randomly, not by way of blood and oaths, but friendship and faith. In the great loneliness of the throng, the film tells us, separated from our kith and kin and struggling to eke out a living, we can still sing each other’s songs and fight each other’s fights. We may lead segregated, separate lives, but on the street and in the square, we’re still part of a larger pattern.

It is a belief that is now backed up by the work of an increasing number of social scientists, as New York magazine reported in December 2008, in a cover story examining urban loneliness. In spite of their differences from the ideal of the intimate village community, large population centres actually synchronise large groups of people and instill better community virtues in them than small ones do. While strong connections – close family, best friends – proliferate less in cities, the plethora of ‘weak connections’ we form in our daily lives, with the number of people we meet and join forces with over the course of work, travel, meals and more, increases our potential to form those strong connections. In the film’s last sequence, as the boys’ imprisoned father greets his wife, he says to her, “Look at your good fortune – you’ve found not only your three sons, but three daughters-in-law as well.” (It’s a matter of further delight that the mother assents with a joy that few devout Hindus faced with the prospect of daughters-in-laws named Jenny and Salma – the sole Lakshmi happens to be a reformed confidence trickster – would otherwise exhibit).

In the bustle and relentless splintering and re-shaping of Mumbai's civic spaces, those on its streets – its ‘public’ – are always colliding in weak connections. Bombay is a city of commerce and inclusion, where alienation, quite literally, exists only in the imagination. Amar Akbar Anthony’s utter disregard of the divisive aspects of communal life in this space is, in many ways, also the solution to its problems. It builds a fluid, vibrant urban space held together by human links. The proliferation of action on its roads, beaches, places of worship and commercial spaces recalls Aristotle’s comment in the Nichomachean Ethics – friendships form the glue that binds a city together. The film holds up a mirror to the very best face of Mumbai, as a city that makes up in bonhomie and sentiment what it lacks in prestige, discipline and comfort. Chamak aana mangta, as the villain would say. Shakal dikhna mangta.

Make it shine; I want to see my face in it.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

spoils of war

On the disturbing poetics of international journalism's recent attempts to report on Africa. A version of this appeared in Verve's July issue, under a section entitled 'Morality,' part of their 75th issue special.

The United Nations’ Emergency Relief Coordinator called the decade-long series of wars in the Democratic Republic of Congo the most ‘neglected’ emergency in the world – in 2005. In the four years since then, the devastation of Africa’s third largest region has received closer attention; perhaps a little more for the fate of the endangered gorillas who used to populate the country’s once-forested areas than for the epic destruction of its human population, but attention, nevertheless. Ghastly aspects of the war, such as the mining mafia run by renegade Congolese troops to exploit Congo’s incredible mineral resources, or the issue of mass rape and sexual humiliation systematically perpetrated on civilian women to wear the region’s social fabric out and spread terror and disease, will not come as news to serious readers.

In fact, there is something about the news itself that makes it bleakly familiar, tormenting only in its certainties: a subscriber to The New York Times, for instance, finds these facts so recognisable that their presentation almost constructs itself: a kind of genre journalism kicks in and the characters play to type. Corrupt politicians and unhinged rebel army chiefs jostle for power, each leading their own supporting casts of bureaucrats and mercenaries, symbols of greed and arrogance. The landscapes are visions of fallen Eden; pristine landscapes, built vein and bone out of precious minerals, devastated by violence. Every story deemed worth recounting in the press is framed around Africans’ intensely personal, human grief. Every story inevitably appeals to the emotion and compassion, and sometimes the confused outrage, of its readers.

The ‘Africa stories’ are universally anchored to the darkness of the past, recalling the atmosphere of wars that have been waged since the beginning of time and whose essential conflicts have remained the same; the war of tribe against tribe and nomad against farmer, the strong versus the weak. Instead of the fantasy narrative that informed much of the Anglophone Right’s early rhetoric of the Iraq War – construed as a face-off between good and evil – the stories that come out of the Congolese wars, like those from Sudan and, some years earlier, from Rwanda, seem to follow an even older pattern; the repetitive, meticulous, hypnotic praxis of the pre-Christian Iliad, the fatalistic reportage of the victory of nature over civilisation.

This intense focus on the personal and emotional details has some credibility. Reportage of the Iraq war, for instance, has only grown more nuanced in its understanding of the minutiae of ground realities, and that understanding has cracked some of the falsified ethical framework that the war once occupied in popular imagination. But when we talk about warfare in Africa – at large – it seems as though the international narrative hasn’t yet moved in the opposite direction. We have details, should we want them, but the facts never expand to include or direct the larger questions about morality or humanity that war narratives otherwise drive us to reflect on.

All contemporary war journalism embroils us in an incomplete and imperfect narrative. Already heavily handicapped by the secrecy of the war machine and the ethical conflict of what is ‘good’ for civilians to know at a given time, there is something deeper and darker about the nature of modern warfare (or, perhaps, all warfare) that makes journalistic truth possible only in hindsight, if at all: the involvement of corporate interests. Some of the real story of Congo’s long, bloody relay race of wars has been surfacing in recent years, in general and sometimes self-flagellating terms, in English news media around the world. In October 2008, journalist Johann Hari wrote an article for popular liberal website The Huffington Post, in which he remarked, ‘Congo is the richest country in the world for gold, diamonds, coltan, cassiterite, and more. Everybody wanted a slice – so six other countries invaded. These resources were not being stolen to be used in Africa. They were being seized so they could be sold on to us.’ As far back as 2001, a United Nations investigation on the conflict in Congo identified that the war was being run by ‘armies of business’ who were angling for ‘access, control and trade’ of key mineral resources. In November 2008, The New York Times devoted a Sunday magazine cover to the plight of miners working in an operation run by a renegade general in Bisie, Congo, but went no further than highlighting the appalling ground conditions workers had to face.

There are still no names or faces – not even nationalities – to the controlling interests in these wars. There is even less mention of responsibility. Helped along by popular culture, an awareness of the human rights casualties of the international diamond trade has led to a growing demand for certified ‘conflict-free’ diamonds. The brutalities in Congo do not begin and end with jewels. They are also about coltan – a mineral that goes into practically every piece of modern technology, from video game consoles to cell phones. They are about cassiterite – a primary source of tin. The electronics industry appears sensitive to the issue, but even insiders admit that it is almost impossible to know if and how their supply chains might be contaminated by ‘conflict’ minerals.

5.4 million people have already died in the Congolese holocaust. An estimated 45,000 people die every month in causes unrelated to the general living conditions in sub-Saharan Africa. The dead are not just the foot-soldiers of fate in a savage conflict in what persists in cultural imagination as the ‘heart of darkness’. It’s true that considerable feelings of guilt and a growing awareness of the world’s complicity in the corruption of Africa exist, but the only part of the mainstream where expressing this is at all possible, seems to be in fiction. American and British literature and film have produced some punishing contemporary critiques of the plagues of modern Africa, in everything from Bruce Willis action films, (Tears Of The Sun, 2003) to political thrillers (John Le Carré’s moving The Constant Gardener, 2001, adapted to film by Fernando Meirelles in 2005).

There is always the sense that in their very form, the books and movies are actually all about, and speak almost exclusively, to the non-African audiences they are made for. The best fiction is consistently aware of its limitations. ‘...I came to realise,’ says Le Carré in his afterword to The Constant Gardener, ‘that by comparison with the reality, my story was as tame as a holiday postcard.’