Monday, July 24, 2006

An interview with Irrfan: "Yeah, acting doesn't count, actually"

Let's start with how you began.

I used to be very shy, very enclosed, but I had a passion for certain things, like cricket and patang-baazi. I used to go deep into it. I used to hate schools because we used to go at 6 in the morning and return at 6 in the evening. I wanted to grow and get away from school. I used to dream ki kab aayega woh din jab school khatam ho jayega. That's why I tried my hand at cricket, and took it seriously. But I realised that it needed more than just passion. It needs more support, a support system. I decided early not to waste time. And then suddenly there was this art movement where Naseer and Om came on screen - they were just mesmerizing. They just gave you a different definition of entertainment and performance. They instigated me to want to learn the craft. Then somebody told me about the National School of Drama (NSD).

You mentioned in an interview that NSD wasn't all that you hoped it would be. What were you expecting from it?

I was naive. I expected that I would go to NSD and they would teach me to act. But now I know that in any creative institution, there's no guarantee that they will teach you creativity. It's up to you to pick up things. It's a journey. I had so many questions for my teachers, but many didn't have any answers. Am I an actor? Am I decent? Is it possible for me to become an actor? There were so many doubts. Then I learnt that you can't learn from an institute. An institute can provide you with atmosphere and can give you facilities and expose you to new things. There could be one or two teachers with whom you can interact. But acting is an art that you have to do to learn. You can't think about it. It's like swimming. You have to get into water to learn it. But I was fortunate to get into NSD. It changed my perceptions about myself. Suddenly I had to see things objectively, from a distance.

Because acting requires an actor to let go of himself, does it also reveal him to himself?

Yes. There was a basic need for me to let go of myself. Acting requires that. It also cures you somewhere or the other. You try to deal with yourself. I have a hidden relationship with adulation. I want to be cured of the desire for appreciation. It's like a disease. It's not a good thing to get constant admiration. You should be able to live without it. I realise it's a need, but I'm not very easy with it.

Wasn't The Warrior something that lingered for a while?

Definitely. You're always on the lookout for an experience that will grab you. But those kinds of experiences don't happen all the time. There are very few stories, very few units, very few directors who can engulf you. And The Warrior was that kind of film. I was doing television at the time, and it was the first time I had done a film in one go. That film was shot in extreme conditions, and at the beginning I thought I wouldn't be able to take it. I had to wear a wig in 49 degree temperature, and there was the armor and the horses. But then the body adapted to it and it became an experience. And the kind of approach Asif Kapadia [the director] had was fascinating for me. I was bored to death with the kind of work Indian cinema demands. You have to say each and every thing. You can't live in the character's moment. And here was a director who said, 'Don't suggest what you're feeling, just be there. Don't indicate, don't demonstrate.' In our films we have to demonstrate what we feel. Even if the actor doesn't feel it but demonstrates it magically, they love it. I was looking for something deep, a connect, where I didn't have to show.

Is demonstration done because the audience demands it, or is it because of a preconceived notion of what the audience demands?

The demonstration is in the director's subconscious, because he depends on it - he doesn't explore cinematic language. Our industry has not evolved that much. We want to communicate through what an actor says, not through the camera or the language of cinema. There are very few directors who do this. Like Sriram Raghavan. He really knows the language. Most of us just put the camera somewhere and ask the actor to say what the story wants to say. But that's not cinema. I think they don't see the need to do otherwise. They accentuate everything: 'Actor ki aankon mein aasoon hoga, woh ro raha hoga, music bhi ro raha hoga, saamne waala bhi ro raha hoga.’ They hammer it in.

How is Vishal Bhardwaj's way of working?

Vishal is very good with scripts. He's good with atmosphere. He's a very fast learner and the kind of cinema he likes helps him grow. I've read other scripts with Vishal and they didn't have magic, but suddenly he comes out with a script that has this magic. Like Omkara's script. It's fantastic. The atmosphere was so entertaining, so real, so thick, that I don't think anybody else could have done that. He is special. He has a special knack about characters, and can tell a story in a different way, but he doesn't experiment with the language of cinema. He does it at the script level. He wants the cameraman to be his equal partner. So for him the cameraman is a very important person.

Is it difficult to make his kind of movies? They're not exactly Yashraj movies.

It's a new kind of cinema, a new kind of story, and has a different kind of impact. Yashraj films are made to please you, and make you feel comfortable about yourself and your values. That is where Yashraj's cinema dwells. It doesn't go beyond that and challenge the audience's sensibilities. But Vishal, I think, doesn't find that interesting enough. He goes beyond that. His heros don't have to be chocolatey, or good-looking. In Vishal's films it is his inner world that is fascinating.

2003 was an interesting one for you in terms of names. The Internet movie database has listed you as Irfan Khan, Irrfan, and then Irfaan with two 'A's. Were the name changes for reasons of luck?

It's a mistake. It was never Irfaan. I added an 'r', definitely, but not for numerological reasons. It was about phonetics. But incidentally Irrfan added up to a good number, and I'm not proud of it. Sometimes I don't like myself for doing this. I was trying to fool myself. My mother said it sounded correct, the phonetics were right.

Does someone like Om Puri, who seems to have found that middle path between performance and income, give you hope?

One thing I've realised is that no two actors can have similar track records. Every actor has his own journey. Om Puri was doing all kinds of cinema, every kind of film, small roles, guest appearances, B-grade roles, A-grade roles, and suddenly he started getting films abroad. People do get opportunities. I don't think you can base your journey on somebody else's. I think life will give me opportunities, but I have to keep working on my own convictions.

What are those convictions?

To work in projects that engage me, to become commercially successful in cinema. I don't want to just be an actor who's saleable in Indian cinema, but want to work anywhere.

People often talk of an actor's bankability, about whether he delivers hits or flops. But isn't an actor just one component of the project?

I think the actor gets undue importance. I think that's because storytelling is done through the actor. It's the director who should get that importance. He's the one telling you the story, he 's the one casting you. In Hindi cinema, actors are treated like magicians. People just write lines and expect actors to do magic. That's why it happens. Ek simple line hogi, Amitabh Bachchan will say it, people will be mesmerized. It's not an actor's medium, but if a film is successful the actor is given credit, and if it fails, the actor has to face the blame.

So an actor's just one part of the entire movie.

Yes, he's just one person. But our commercial cinema depends on personality. It doesn't have to deal with the truth of the situation. They depend on the charisma of an actor.

But then isn't a personality, in this sense, also a form of stereotyping?

Well, people do want to see them again and again because we don't have a culture of seeing different stories and characters. We don't have a culture of realism. We had a history of Parsi theatre. We had melodrama and jugglery. In all our folk forms there's no tradition of acting, although the Natya shastra has a method which people haven't practiced and evolved.

Would you consider yourself an instinctive actor?

I want to be. But at NSD I tried working out everything. I used to even track the thought process of the character. I never felt easy with it, I never enjoyed it. It was like a crutch. You couldn't leave yourself open to spontaneous things. But I used that crutch to not fail. It felt wrong, though. I felt I should just respond to things. Slowly, I began to rely on instinct. Now I don't want to work on something too much - I want to know the broad graph of the character. It has to happen that way, otherwise there's no magic, there's no fun. That's why people say actors should be brave. The actor must have courage to let go of himself, and to rely on his instinct. But that comes late. It is something you have to keep reminding yourself about and keep on practicing.

But you need a lot more than good acting to make it here.

Yeah, acting doesn't count, actually. But I knew that I didn't have anything else to fall back on. I had to rely on it to be successful. And I had this desire to learn. But here, you don't need to act, you're not required to be an actor to be successful in this industry. You learn this after many years. You have to become comfortable in front of the camera, you do whatever they want you to do, and you do it being yourself - you don't have to put on a character. You don't have to understand any other person. If the dialogue assistant asks you to say a line, you have to say, 'Okay, I'll say this line.' It really works.

Sounds just like television serials, especially the jaded parts.

I don't want to name people, but I've worked with certain actors who've done cinema for 15-16 years. I see their fatigue. As soon as they arrive on set they want to know the pack up time. Kab kar rahe hain pack up? Kab ho raha hai pack up? You know, I don't ever want to be in that situation.

What do you fear?

There's definitely a fear that you might become a machine who just... Look, it's a market. You're a commodity. There's a fear that you might start using your own image. You have to check yourself. The fear's there, but I'm sure I won't do that. I... I wouldn't be able to take the pain.

Is there someone who gives you feedback? Your wife?

My wife has been a very strong critic of my work. She never used to like my work at NSD. We used to have fights because I wanted her to tell me how my performances were, and she would avoid telling me. She used to find diplomatic ways of telling me this, and I would see through her. I'd confront her, 'Why aren't you telling me that I'm bad?' and she'd say, 'I'm not saying that.' I was in a hurry to become a good actor. I didn't realise that it takes time. You learn this craft through age. Your experiences are what you put in. If you don't have experience, what will you put in your work? And then there's the craft of using your experience. You might have a lot of experience, but how do you use it? How do you make it a performance?

You say you were in a hurry, and you've said before that you were ambitious then. Did you find the need to pull back and see where you were headed?

The journey would have been easier if I had done that. But I was adamant and too impatient. Things changed slowly. I don't enjoy television very much, but it gave me a chance to practice. Sometimes when you are bored with things, when there's a lot of preparation, you get stuck. But then suddenly you start flowing. You do a certain thing so many times that you don't think about it; it becomes second nature. That's what television did. I was so bored of acting that I didn't care. I then realised that since I had let go, I had begun to enjoy it.

Did you look for work actively when you graduated in 1989?

I tried. But whenever I met people and tried telling them that I'm an actor, I never got work from them because I couldn't impress them, or make an impression on them. I used to feel humiliated while talking to them. So I abandoned the exercise after a point.

How were you humiliated?

You call somebody, and expect him to talk to you properly, but people are busy. Then you have to introduce yourself. 'I'm Irrfan.' 'Who Irrfan, kaun Irrfan?' 'Main actor hoon NSD se.' 'Haan, toh?' It just puts you off, and you don't want to go through that humiliation again and again. I did try.

Was money an aim?

Definitely. I wanted to earn money. I wanted to live life with a lot of money. And I knew that if my work was noticed, I would get money. Even today I know that if a film works, I will be a viable actor and will be able to charge more, and I will have more choices. Money gives you freedom.

How do you prepare for you roles?

There are many ways. It depends on the role. For some roles, you need to know the physicality of the character. If he's a taxi driver, I should know how to drive a taxi. I should prepare the physicality of it. Then, you try and understand his emotional construction. What he wants, what his drive is, why he's there in the story. You should think of all those things. Think, what if he takes a different stance, what will it do to the story? I go according to the story, how he is placed in it, and what he's doing to it. But that's if I respect the story. If I don't, I try to entertain you. Like Gunnah. I knew it was for front benchers, so I tried to amuse them. With Maqbool, I know I don't have to supersede the story. I have to give myself in and be invisible, so that I don't distract the story, so that I carry the story. So you understand it bit by bit, scene by scene, and understand the bigger picture, the story, what the director's trying to do with it. Also, I learnt after NSD that when you read a script for the first time, it does something to you. You shouldn't lose that something. We used to kill that, the first instinct, by preparing and analysing it. Sometimes there are things you shouldn't talk about. If you start talking about those things you lose them. There are some experiences you can't formulate into language. If you do formulate them, they become something else. Language has its limitations because it can't match the experience. When you read something, it's not the real deal, it's a manipulated impression.

Let's say you were in love with someone. How would you deal with a role like that?

Over-analysing it would definitely kill it. Maqbool was a love story for me. I never thought it was like Macbeth. And there are perceptions of love that I've got from cinema only, perceptions which are not real. The concept of love, of loving somebody, of dying for somebody - I've never experienced that kind of love except through cinema. So there is an old picture of love that I have inside me, and what do I do with that? So I live that in a story, and I love it! I know it's not real, that it's romantic, that it's false, but there's some attraction in it. It's a perfect picture of love.

Would you opt to use that perfect picture of love instead of what love could really be?

Yeah, I would use that. What love could actually be depends on what you experience. I don't know what real love is. What we call love is an attraction between two people. But pictures, shairis, literature, have given it a different perception altogether. And you do enjoy it. Sometimes, when you want to cry, you listen to songs from the 60s and the 70s. What do you do with that world? I don't want to destroy it with my rational feelings. I want to believe in it. And I have experienced certain moments like those, in Maqbool, during Tabu's death. Although they didn't keep the shots, those takes were an experience for me. I have never cried with such feeling. These are experiences you relish. That's why you act.

Is there a danger that your worlds might overlap?

We don't have that kind of cinema. We don't give an actor that kind of a world to immerse himself in. We're almost detached. We don't want an actor to put himself in the line of fire, we just want him to perform. If we have those kind of films people will be affected. I heard Saif Ali Khan say after Omkara, 'When will I be over and done with this role?' Sometimes it does affect you. That's why after The Warrior I detested the idea of taking up Haasil. The Warrior's world was completely different. It was about fighting with his own past, it was a mesmerizing journey. And here, in Haasil, is Ranvijay Singh, a person who's trying to manipulate things, and there are so many negative thoughts. I didn't want to think like that, I didn't want to deal with that person. So it took me quite a while to get over The Warrior. I turned down every offer that came to me after it, saying that I wasn't ready for it. And it was good in a way because I wanted to elongate the experience.

You've said that when someone gives you too many instructions you tend to feel trapped. Would you prefer the director give you a sketch of the character, or a detailed account of the character's life?

Every director has his own way. There are some who want you to think the way they are thinking about a character. But I find that it's a trap. You should have the freedom to explore it on your own. If an action makes a difference to the story, then you definitely have to follow the director because he's trying to get an effect out of it. I would prefer a director tell me, 'I want this kind of effect from you'. But then sometimes a director gives you general instructions. 'Yaar, thoda zyaada ghussa chahiye.' That puts you off. What does 'zyaada ghussa' mean? It's too general. And generalities don't allow you to experience a true moment. I would prefer a director who lets me explore my own world.

In Naseeruddin Shah's movie, he really gave instructions. And I trusted him. If you trust a movie or a director, you don't mind doing what the director asks of you.

Tigmanshu Dhulia, Haasil's director, set you up with some locals at Allahabad University for a few days to understand student life and politics. What was that like?

It was really helpful for me. First we went to the Kumbh Mela, where we took atmospheric shots of the climax. Then we started shooting in Bombay. I could not get a hang of the character. Nobody knew it. Even Tigmanshu thought everything was fine. But I kept wondering when we'd go to Allahabad, because the way they think about violence there is so poetic, and it's completely different. I could only say my lines with such ease because I saw these people, I met them, I could see their world, how they reacted to violence, how they talked about it, what bravery was for them.

And Tigmanshu has this thing about being entertaining. I like him because he has this talent for making realistic things entertaining.

How do you perceive realistic acting?

First and foremost, the film and the actor have to grab the audience's attention. I could see Tigmanshu's approach, and I loved it. I find realistic actors boring sometimes. They equate doing mundane things with realistic acting. People become casual, believing that what they are doing is real. But that's boring. What you do in theatre and cinema is a very calculated, manipulative, thing. It has to have some meaning and has to add to the situation.

In Haasil, you complain to Jimmy Shergil: "What should I do? God has made my eyes this way." Was it reflective of the fact that in real life your eyes had acquired a reputation and life of their own?

They have acquired one, and I still don't understand why. People do react to my eyes like that, they say that they're special, that I act through my eyes. I haven't done anything like that. Maybe it's the physicality, or maybe there's some transparency in my eyes. I haven't yet understood. They look intimidating sometimes. They became a limitation before I got Haasil. I heard friends who were making a film discuss, 'Yaar, what will we do about his eyes? He doesn't look normal. He can't be a normal man'. Initially people used to say ki charsi hai, when I had no such habit. Sometimes I'd do it, but it wasn't a habit. I can't take charas much, I can't function. When Tigmanshu wrote the line, I realised that he found my eyes intimidating too. And you can feel the smile on my face when I say the lines.

How did Salaam Bombay! happen?

I was doing a production in NSD, Mira was casting, she came to see the play, and she called me. I was supposed to have a significant role. Finally they decided to chop off the role because I didn't look like I was one of the street kids, I looked older than them. That was the first jolt I got. I cried and cried and cried. Then Mira Nair called me for another, smaller, role - that of the letter writer.

How did Ashoke Ganguli in The Namesake happen?

I got a call from Mira's office, saying she wanted me to act in the film. There was no long-winded process. It was very smooth with her. When she read the book, she knew I would do this role. She didn't have other options for it. That was good because I'm not very good with auditions. I'm not very good when I know I'm being tested. I'm very bad at exams. I hate competition. [Laughs] I don't perform well in those circumstances. I'm fragile. So I do enjoy it when somebody says, 'You are doing this film.' I come with all my energy and spirit.

How did you research and approach the life of Ashoke Ganguli?

You had asked me if the experience consumes you. This film consumed me. It became an experience I almost wanted to get away from because it dealt with old age. And when you are about to touch old age, you want to push it away. But here I had to experience it. Here's this guy who's almost invisible, he doesn't have any presence. That was the most challenging thing for me to do - to do a role in a manner that you don't catch attention. Being that docile, that unobtrusive, really took some effort. And to go through the experience of old age was painful. It was taxing to experience it. For that I called my family to New York and spent all my time serving them. It helped me understand how Ashoke Ganguli dealt with his family and his own trauma through his family.

When you experienced old age, did it occur to you that you didn't want to be there?

I was never serious about old age and never thought it would come to me. I never realised that your body starts telling you that it can't move swiftly. That's the most painful part about old age. Although there are some good things about old age - you understand life better, you deal with yourself a little better - the physical aspect is a painful thing.

People often confuse a good physique and presence with good acting.

We don't have an understanding of characters in cinema. We see people who are larger than life, who do things that audiences would like to emulate. Someone who's not real, who's fantastic.

In that sense, are we looking at actors to fulfill the kind of stereotypes we've got?

Yeah, we do want stereotypes. Our audiences do want something that's not real, that has a dreamy quality about it, which has nothing to do with mundane life. Also, people confuse good acting with roles. If a person has a good role, they say he's done well. But it's the way the role was written that does the magic. If the character does something, they think it's the actor who's done it. It's actually the writer who makes the character do certain things.

A layperson can't tell where the role ends and where acting begins. But can other actors?

Yeah, one can make out when an actor's trying to supersede the story, or when he has underperformed, or how much scope the role had. Definitely.

Is knowledge of film history important for actors, to know where they come from?

No, although if you have information, somewhere it all adds up. But I don't think it's necessary. It's your understanding of the situation and human beings that counts. Otherwise I don't think an actor has to be intelligent or socially aware. Sometimes a dumb actor is better than an intelligent one because intelligence can be a hurdle in believing in an incredible situation.

I watched Rog over the weekend. It was a strange film. Not in a good way.

Yeah, it was supposed to be strange and mystical in a positive sense, but... [giggles].

On what basis do you select your films?

That was because of Pooja [Bhatt]. She tries a different kind of cinema. And when I heard the idea, it was okay, you know. I thought if it was done well... But the scripting was not proper. It was dated. Whatever element came in was because of Mahesh Bhatt. I kept telling him we couldn't shoot a whodunit in today's times. He kept saying it was a love story. I said where's the love? Initially it was a stone, it was dead. I got frightened when I saw the script, but Mahesh told me it would be fine.

How would you define a good role?

Something that gives you insight about a situation, about a character, about a different world, and is also engaging. The best role I have ever seen is Capote. He is manipulative, and he manipulates himself. He has his own world, his own pleasures, his own pain. Although he's doing all this he gives himself the impression that he's being faithful and doing good. In real life you don't notice many things, but when you're in the cinema, you notice them in the frame. It's about showing them something in a new way.

Are the actors you like watching the same ones you learn from?

I do. Sometimes. It's automatic. You like people who surprise you. You'd be surprised, but I like Deven Bhojani. There's a serial called Office Office. You should see how good he is. He's so entertaining, so fluent. Nowadays I don't watch DeNiro. He's done it all. Now acting doesn't mean anything to him. He's into something else. Towards the end I could see fatigue in Marlon Brando. He was tired of this pretending.

Every artist has a lifespan.

Yes, every artist does. After a point your priorities change. At a young age, you need that attention, your priorities are different. After a point age takes over and your concerns change. But then there's Anthony Quinn, there's Om Puri. Om's the same, he's so balanced! I tell him, 'Tum kya, sant ho?' He goes into any setup and it doesn't affect him! I think it's because he doesn't tax himself much, which is why it doesn't become a burden.

Is it tempting to give people that one great line, that one great scene, which they remember you by for ever?

No. I'd like to go beyond that. I don't want to be known for that one moment that I created. I do wonder when I'll get a script that will make people forget Maqbool and Haasil. It bothers me and depresses me when I think, 'Is there nothing beyond those two movies?' I want to keep doing things that become a rage. I don't want to look back at the past and say, 'Oh, those were the good times, that role back then was the one.' Now that would be a pathetic situation. I don't want to think like that. Never. Never.

This interview appeared in the Tehelka issue dated July 22, 2006.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The 5:54 Borivali fast

A panipuriwaala carrying a wicker basket disembarked at Mahim Junction on platform 2 moments before the 5:54 Borivali fast hurtled by a few feet away on platform 3. He worked between the two platforms, under a metal pillar that held up the roof. He made his way through the crowd and sat at his designated place. The Borivali-bound train came through. People on the edge of the platform took a step back, out of reach of travellers leaning out of the stuffed train. The force of the wind accompanying it pushed some back, and pulled some closer. A few cars behind the engine, near the center, was a compartment packed with people better dressed than those in most others, but as sweaty. Their next stop was Bandra, and before it came the Mithi Creek, which would bring a foul smell and a cool breeze. The inhabitants of compartment 528A could not have known of the incident at Bandra, and beyond it at Khar, as their car passed by little more than half the platform's length and would have, within a couple of seconds, traversed the rest too. They would have barely noticed faces on the platform at that speed, and among them the panipuriwaala, when there was a white flash.

The explosion blew the roof off the train as well as platform 3, and killed the panipuriwaala instantly. The compartment's left side was reduced to serated metal tatters, and at that instant a mangled door flew into the crowd. It rained glass, shingle, puris, spectacle frames, clothes, shoes, toes, legs, fingers, hands, bodies, heads. The green metal walls that seperated the doorways from the seating area tore away from the ceiling and bent backward in an instant. Chair frames, harder than flesh and bone, had their legs broken, and the chairs themselves leaned back, facing the source of their trouble. The compartment's right side was intact but blown outward, like an inflated tetrapak, and there was carnage there too. And the confusion. The train had not yet stopped, and with one side of the car destroyed, commuters jumped off in the opposite direction, on to the track by platform 4, where a train ploughed into them. 15 alone went this way, bodypickers said.

The intern from KEM hospital was on his motorbike with a friend in Matunga, heading toward Bandra, when he heard an explosion at 6:30. It was at the station, three kilometers away. He raced back to the hospital and wore his scrubs, and took his first breather at 3am the next morning, when he walked alone in the courtyard and stared past the fence at nothing in particular and then sat on a green stretcher with a touch of red on top. Outside the hospital were chalkboards with names of the admitted and the dead. A man speaking on a phone said, "We've looked everywhere." The woman beside him was shattered. By the hospital entrance a woman howled and buried her face in her husband's lap, and family gathered around them in vain. His eyes had glazed and he looked straight ahead without expression while patting her robotically. Behind his wife was another woman, sniffling. People stood in groups, saying nothing, too tired to break silences. They either waited, or they knew. Every now and then people would stride in purposefully, their calm countenances constructed solely on hope, and they would leave lost and defeated when yet another hospital told them that the person they sought to find was not there. Sometimes they would return, with renewed vigor, and leave broken again. A period of relative silence was shattered by the desperate wail of two poor women who emerged from the hospital hitting their head with their hands, and they left the premises with the urgency one leaves behind bad dreams. But they must not have gone far because their cries could be heard faintly for an hour afterwards.

The courtyard at KEM was filled with metal stretchers and wheelchairs touched with blood. A group of tired body transporters sat on these stretchers and joked with each other. At one point, one said, every bed in the courtyard had a body on it. There were forty or fifty lying about, piled up and on their side under two spotlights in the empty yard. By our approximation, he said, 45 people are dead, though the doctors have yet to declare it. He knew there was an emergency when taxis brought in three maimed people in quick succession. His shift had gone from being a regular eight-hour one into a nightmare. Just then, as he began describing where he was when the explosion happened, a woman's scream erupted from a hospital ward, and it went on, with a break of a second or two, for over a minute.

This is where they went: behind the main KEM entrance, if you take a long walk down a dark side path, is the morgue. Outside it, some were murmuring into their cell phones. Some were huddled together, wondering what to do next. Those who went into it held their nose and breath in anticipation of the stench. Those who came out held theirs for too long, wanting to never ever smell the smell again. Policemen held white plastic bags filled with identification. At the end of an endless sterile corridor was a large, thick door. Everytime it opened a gust of cold air swept down the hallway, bringing with it a smell that stopped you breathing. A group of men standing outside peered in with a kerchief held to the face, waiting for their turn to be called in. Inside, naked bodies were on the floor and on a platform. One's head had sunk in, a blow had smashed the bone structure beneath his face. It resembled a punctured football. Around another was a pool of blood, his brain spilled out from beneath a flap of skin above the ear. Another, a man with a moustache, had half-open eyes and a cut leg, and a slash across his chest that exposed the heart. Beside him was a body with no head. In another world, someone in the room said, "No, it's not him, he was wearing brown socks," or, "No, he had a ring." Where were they when it happened? Were they standing or sitting? Was their last conscious expression the one they wore here, on this morbid floor? How did this man call in people professionally to identify the corpses around him? Did he ever break?

Trains began to come and go at Mahim Junction at 4:30. Travellers looked tired and upset. Small bits of the damaged roof continued to fall. The debris was in a pile on platform 3. Among it were twisted metal spectacles without the glass lens. Workers sat around, their work not yet done, sipping tea and finally finding time to talk. One claimed he had found three headless bodies, and even more in the city's suburban stations. In a few minutes they restarted work. A policeman summoned a ragpicker to sort two piles of cloth. One was what people had donated. The other belonged to the people in compartment 528A. A wallet fell out when he picked up the second pile. He dropped the pile and opened the wallet. There was nothing inside. He flung it away forcefully, and it plopped on Tulsi Pipe Road, the road that runs beside the tracks. Picking up the pile again, he stepped into a moist puddle of blood at the station entrance and was on his way.

Elsewhere in the station there were tired firefighters from Byculla. The first call came in at 6:30, six minutes after the blast. But news had spread quickly, and the roads were jammed. We got stuck, he shook his head and said. The railway police were filing FIRs. They had arrived soon after the blasts. Now they dozed in their chairs in cramped offices.

In the distance the 5:54 Borivali fast flashed a yellow light. The train's drivers had spent the night at the station, and now, bolstered by piping tea, made their way to it. They climbed aboard and started the engine. The sound of that particular train was fascinating. People turned to look at it, more alert, shaking off the effects of the last 12 hours. On every platform there were people waking up in a new way as the sky turned blue.

Update (July 15, 10:12pm): Looking through DNA right now, I came across an article mentioning a panipuriwaala who was at Mahim Station, and on his way to elsewhere, when the incident took place. His legs were amputated. I wondered if I had got it wrong by saying a panipuriwaala had died. If I have, my apologies to readers. But people who worked at the station did tell me that the person who died worked at Mahim Junction.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

The invincible suicide attempter

(The hopeful, in other words)

A somewhat edited version of this article was published in this week's issue of Tehelka, titled 'Yama, interrupted'. Photo by Lakshman Anand.

If Arun Pathak really wanted to kill himself, people in Benares say, he should have tied a heavier stone to himself before leaping into the Ganges. He could have also consumed a more potent concentration of sulphas and then jumped. And if he truly, badly, wanted to sacrifice his life because Deepa Mehta just wouldn't stop filming Water, his friends who stood by should not have dived in a moment later to rescue him. But because Pathak chose a light stone, and swallowed a substance whose lethality is disputed, and especially because he remembered to hand his wristwatch to the person beside him before jumping into the river, people are not convinced that he wanted to die. Death would have meant martyrdom, and martyrdom is of no use to a politician-in-waiting.

Six years have passed and Water has been completed. Pathak is 31 now, and still a politician-in-waiting. He lives in a tiny blue room on the second floor in the Jain dharamshala near Assi Ghat, and sleeps on the floor on a thin mattress beside his wife and his young daughter, Rakshita. The walls have several photos of gods, and a large one of identical Chinese twin babies. "As you can see it isn't air-conditioned, and if the people have problems with anyone they can come to me straight away," he says. These are two of Pathak's examples of how the country's ruling class has become: they sit in chilled offices and are unaccessible. Pathak says that even though he has very little, he and his supporters ensure justice for the ordinary man. "For example, if the police are harassing someone unnecessarily we make it stop, and we often get medicines and food for people and their babies. No one should suffer unnecessarily, no one should go hungry. But do our politicians understand this?" He says that on some days there is no food to eat at home, so the family sleeps off their hunger. But on occasion his daughter cries from hunger, and he leaves home on his Bullet. It sounds like bad parenting, but Pathak says he can't bear to hear his daughter cry.

Pathak's father is a storekeeper in the dharamshala, and his mother is a housewife whose sole possession is a sewing machine. His friends say he had a normal childhood, like their own, but was better than anyone else at speeches. "On Republic Day every year, my friends would dance and sing, but I would give speeches in clothes just like Nehru's. Then one day my teacher told me that I would become a politician," Pathak says. He abandoned school at the age of 14 and joined the Shiv Sena because "the Hindutva wave appealed to me, and I was told that new recruits would get a Mauser pistol. I was looking for that protection because every month I earned 30 Rupees which locals snatched away from me." He says he told his parents that he would return home late on some days and might not even return some days, to which he says, "They were worried. But when my name began appearing in the news they felt I was doing something good, and they made me guardian of the house."

The grown-up Pathak has a heavier frame than the one in the middle of the Ganges in pictures from six years ago. He has a full head of hair, dark eyebrows, small eyes, and thin lips that rarely shape into a smile. His arms and legs are scarred from police beatings and self-inflicted wounds. There is a nasty gash that runs across the middle of his left forearm, and on that arm is a finger he can no longer straighten. Like Mel Gibson, he revels in violence inflicted upon him, certain in the belief that it is for a greater good. "For my first major assignment we were to pray at [a temple (ed. could not understand his shudh Hindi)] in Ayodhya in 1994," Pathak says. "Two weeks before us Ashok Singhal was allowed to do it, but we weren't. The police would not let us near the temple because they thought our presence would instigate riots. So I cut myself several times. Along the way I cut a vein and a lot of blood flowed. Only then did the police let us in. I required 28 stitches." Pathak likes his violence in a controlled environment, where there is no danger of dying. He won't die in a police cell, he won't be killed by a lathi-charge, and he certainly won't kill himself. But without friends around him, he is not secure. One morning we were on a boat on the Ganges, and he refused to disembark on one particular ghat saying he "had enemies there." Asked to explain, he said they were "people who don't like the good work I'm doing."

Pathak launched the Kranti Shiv Sena in 2003, shortly after emptying and blowing up a bus carrying Maharashtrians. After 14 years of work with them, it was the Shiv Sena's 'Mee Mumbaikar' campaign against north Indians in Maharashtra that made him leave.While he remains upset with his old colleagues, it was under the Sena's shield that he was first recognised in 2000. "The BJP and the RSS had been talking about Water for a month, and the prime minister and chief minister had approved the film, but I managed to get a copy of the script. I found it very offensive. There was a line in it that said, 'Narayan, don't you know that if a brahmin or a god sleeps with a woman, she is blessed?' I thought to myself, 'I'm a brahmin, and I want to bless Nandita Das'." He says about lesbianism that "it is not Indian culture. Like we have Indian culture, there is also lesbian culture." Pathak gave Mehta 48 hours to pack up. "She was lucky I survived. Had I died, people would have torn her to shreds."

Over the years Pathak has gained a band of loyalists who have stayed with him through his attempts on his own life. In 1997, he took up a campaign to prevent alcohol shops from opening near holy sites, just like it was in Ayodhya. He climbed to the top of a 300-foot tall water tank in the Sigra district and threatened to jump. He says a crowd of 10-15,000 gathered to watch. The police arrived and gave him a note in writing that they would not allow the shops to open. "When I got down they tried taking it away from me, but I pretended that I had explosives strapped to myself. The police took evasive action immediately and I ran away, staying underground for two days. Then the matter passed."

On December 5, 1998, Pathak set off to do the Sena's work: put up flags and posters for a hindutva-based festival the organisation celebrated on December 6, the Babri Mosque demolition anniversary. PK Singh, the police official in charge of one district, told Pathak he could not put the flags up. Pathak decided he would, and hung his material above the police station that night. The next morning, Singh pulled everything down and stamped on it, and then had it burnt. Pathak saw his opportunity. He demanded Singh's transfer. When it did not happen, he barged into Singh's office and swallowed 50 sleeping pills. He woke up three days later and found out that Singh was still there. Pathak then lay down in front of the chief minister's motorcade after swallowing 50 more pills. He woke up to find the local superintendant of police had been transferred, but not Singh. "Singh shouldn't have stepped on our flags," Pathak said. "He did wrong." He defended disobeying the police's orders: "Who are they to tell us where we can and can't put up our flags? It's within our rights."

Pathak has a loose grasp of the constitution. We were discussing Valentines Day, which he believes should be outlawed because it is a western influence and, like lesbianism, alien to the Indian way. "How would you like it if someone gave your sister a rose," he asked. I replied it was up to her. "Wait and see. See how you feel when someone really does it. It's like a drug. It messes your mind." I asked him if individuals could make their own decisions in this matter. He replied that if it offended the majority of people, which it did, it should be banned.

Pathak has a way of finding a cause to die for on a perfectly normal day. The police in his area say that Pathak does exactly what they tell him not to. "One day we had cordoned off a street," a policeman said. "Pathak and his men came along and just lay there. They didn't do anything, but just lay there. When we dragged them away the press took pictures and it suddenly looked like they had been protesting." He knows politics is one big circus, a policeman says, and he's more than willing to perform.

Pathak's new visiting card is a saffron colour with the Indian flag stretched along the bottom. In the center is a three-quarter profile of him wrapped in an orange shawl, with a yellow circle, representational of the sun, behind him. "Our time is coming," he says. "Our time is close at hand. When a hindu or muslim baby dies of hunger, do our leaders come to visit?" During one interview session his phone rings. He hears it out and threatens to smack a minister with his shoes. Another time he says several thousands will converge and give ministers a hiding. "They've grown fat in office," he says. It's time for a change. "We must bide our time," he tells associates, "because it is coming soon."

Talking to Pathak is like listening to the ordinary man's utopia of political India, where corrupt ministers are disposed of in ruthless ways. He says that if he is elected, he will be like Anil Kapoor in Nayak. There will be food on every table, no one will be sick, no one will be corrupt. How he means to implement it isn't clear. Asked for a financial plan, he said, "some of my friends run small businesses, so they can handle it." There is no solution except revolution, and beatings by hand and feet.

People recognise Pathak now, but it amuses them that he made a spectacle of suicide. Nobody believes that he ever wanted to die, and Pathak has decided not to put his life on the line anymore. "I have thousands of people ready to do my work now," he says. The police estimate that his party has about 200 followers. Everywhere people give him free boat rides, free tea, free hotel food. But these people who love him stay too quiet, too stiff, around him. "He's a good man," they say softly, and leave it at that. But some talk. One, who ferries people, says he has to be nice to Pathak. Another, a shopkeeper, says standing in the same picture frame as Pathak is like taking a picture with a thief. A policeman from his district described him as "not a criminal, and not a politician either. He's somewhere between the two, if you know what I mean."

There is little doubt that Pathak has been a showman so that he can enter politics. But if he does enter it, there will be little, in terms of ideology, to differentiate him from those in the BJP and the Shiv Sena. Committing suicide to get in is one thing, it's staying alive respectfully in politics that's harder.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Varnasi notes - Sati and staying alive

Come here, the guide says, let me show you something. There is a cow shed by the cremation ghat. It is dark, smelly, and the ground is slippery with urine. Look at that, he says, pointing to a staircase that leads into a black hole underground. A dim light is switched on to reveal a shivalinga in the middle of a small room. It is barely 3 feet wide and similarly long. When he took over the place, the guide points to the cow owner, he tripped over something. He dug and dug until he found the relic. He consulted ancient books which told him it was a sacred place where women threw themselves onto their husband's pyre.


The Nepali widows lay down a large bedsheet and talked in a jabber. Meri hindi khichdi, one said. Mine too, I told her. Using simple words, we talked about her life. She became a widow at 9, returned home to her mother who died 51 years later, visited Varanasi four times along the way and loved it. I used to feel so peaceful here, she said. And then I moved here for good. It was a terrible time. We cooked our own food if money was left after the rent. The rent was 300 a month. The Nepali government gave us 1400 for six months. Did I ever think of what? No, no, no, god forbid. Why sin that way? It's okay, you're young, you don't know better. But never ask a widow why she can't marry again. But I am happy now, all I want is moksha.

Varanasi notes - The death photographer

We were introduced to each other as the writer and the dead body photographer. He was a short and chubby man who worked out of a paan stall near the cremation ghat with a basic digital point-and-shoot and a very old SLR, the makers of which closed down long ago. His portfolio pictures included an old man with his eyes closed and mouth open with a backdrop of wood, and another man with his eyes open and a frown perhaps because the garlands around his neck were too heavy. There was another, of a bald boy holding up a lit torch beside a pyre ready to go. In the end, he said, there was no point in getting upset about your subject because it was all about business. "At first I used to be upset," he says with a smile, "because they were not alive. Gradually things changed, and I'm completely okay now." Besides these pictures he keeps no others for himself, or the police will take him away. But who needs pictures when moments stick? Once, a young girl was brought for cremation. She had an unhappy look. When he adjusted the lens, looking at her through the camera, he says she smiled. And then there are the weird ones: the man whose eyes popped out of their sockets ("I get those regularly"), the ones who were brought there by people unrelated. "With the way things are, you could bring the murdered here and nobody would ask you a question." Like others who deal with death regularly, he has overcome his initial hesitation by looking at things rationally. It's funny. When people can't handle something they usually find solace in God. But then presented with a side of God they can't handle, they often look for answers in rationality.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Varanasi notes - The woman who wanted nothing, and the man who lost everything

We expect many widows there but find only one. She sits on her haunches at the door to an open floor overlooking the cremation grounds. The floor has a thin mattress, a bundle of belongings, and a stick. We ask her age. Ten years over a hundred, she says. At eleven years of age she was married to a government man who handled four temples along the river. He died when she was a child, and she raised the children. Her children have not forgotten. They persuade her to return, and she refuses everytime. Why should I go there? I have my dharma, and all I need are prayers. Two weeks ago a cow tipped her over, hurting her arm and chest. It was my destiny, she says. It's all been written. Now I wait to die. My grandchildren and children visit me. I don't want to leave Kashi. I want liberation.


The tout sat beside us while she talked. He teased her. She smiled at him. You're lucky she's in good spirits, he tells us, because she uses that stick quite a lot. She has an evil temper. He asks her with the mock genuineness of a reporter: tell us, what do you ask god for in your old age? None of your business, she shoots back. Alright then, he tries, which god do you pray to? She catches on and smiles: no priest has asked me that question, so how can you? Alright then, he says again, pray to god that he takes you happily. Her eyes bulge upon hearing this and she looks at him in horror. He smiles and she erupts in laughter. He makes sure she wears old age lightly.


The tout was on everything you can think of. His forearms still have scars that testify to years of drug abuse. I've left everything now, he says. He used to have a house, land, and lots of money, my own guide confirms. He traded in everything for a prolonged high.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Varanasi notes - The river

Before we meet, the hopeful says, "Let us meet at the bank of the river. We will first dip our feet and then bathe there, and that can be the start of our relationship." My photographer has been near our proposed meeting point. You can go have a bath, he says, leave me out of it: I saw a dead woman floating there.


The next morning we get into a boat, tiptoeing over the green foam on the riverbank. The river smells stale, excrete floats by. Beyond the foam, a swimming instructor teaches students how to swim in water a solid shade of dark gray. In the middle of a monologue, the hopeful describes the spiritually purifying powers of the river. Merely taking its name is enough to cleanse you for seven births. He turns to wash his face with the river water, and then drinks it.


I cannot believe they swim in this.


Faith nearly kills. Three men from another state enter the river. They have sensitive skin. Two of them turn black, the third cannot move. He is rushed for medical care. None have recovered completely.


One man wants water purification through one system. The government wants it through another, and says the man's idea is too expensive. Authority has had a brainwave: let us release turtles in the river. There are two problems. Turtles consume only algae and seaweed. The town doesn't shit algae and seaweed.