Monday, July 28, 2008

To All The Girls I've Loved Before

And while I'm thinking about all the ladies from the past whose style I love - the Miss Johras and the Sulochanas and the Sandras from Bandra, here's a piece I wrote for Time Out's last anniversary issue where they'd asked some of us to write about an era we'd liked to have lived in in Bombay..


It’s the 1930s and freedom’s in the air. Not only because JRD Tata makes the first civil flight from Karachi to Bombay, or Gandhi issues a call to Do or Die from Manibhavan. Bombay in the 1930s is not a bad time and place to be a woman.

A Congress sub-committee on women draws up recommendations based on radical feminist ideas which see women as individuals with rights to work, property, divorce, and equality within marriage. Amid some shock, R.D. and Malati Karve start a family planning clinic with contraception counseling. The archbishop of Bombay suggests starting the Sophia College for Women.

An alluring magazine advertisement asks: “Have you a Telephone in your Home? If not you are denying yourself the pleasure of communicating with your FRIENDS and running the risk of being unable to call the DOCTOR or the FIRE BRIGADE in time of need.” A woman in fashionably striped sari and matching puffed sleeve blouse reclines on a sofa, a movie magazine in one hand, a telephone receiver in the other – the very picture of indolent seduction and modern facility. For 12 rupees a month, it suggests, a girl need never be lonely again and the lines between inside and outside could get deliciously blurry.

In fact on the other side of that phone line could be one of those new girls with a new type of job: telephone operator. And if that telephone operator was called Ruby Myers she could become Sulochana, heartthrob of millions, with her own Chevrolet, the handsome actor Billimoria for her reel and real life lover and, at 5000 rupees a month, a salary higher than the Governor’s.

Women emanated glamour, an eroticism and mobility as never before - and never again. It looked like a lot of fun – especially the crimped hair - and opened up a whole world of imagination and desire most visible in the movies of the 30s – Bombay ki Billi, Indira, M.A., Miss 1933. Female stars like Sulochana, Patience Cooper, Nalini Tarkhud, “the glamorous graduate” and Devika Rani guaranteed the success of a film – and so its primary choices -prompting a pained exhortation in Filmland that directors exert at least some care while casting male leads.

By the 40s, Chandulal Shah’s 1925 film “Gunasundari”, a dutiful wife’s journey to win back her husband from the venal world of clubs and cabarets had become the template for filmi femaleness and kissing on screen was banned. As for the Congress sub-committee: a 1970s study by women freedom fighters revealed the “brain shattering” fact that free India had not adopted or implemented most of these recommendation for free women. But the 30s had given us all sorts of desires. And telephones. That still counts and rings in change.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

zara hatke meri jaan

This is just a random associative post about words and language and life- one of those days when too many thoughts trip over each other in your mind without necessary developing into a big pattern..

Have been listening to Rabbi's new album. While much more uneven than his first - which I don't think people ever listened to fully - his big hit did him a big disservice - this album has a some really nice tracks and most of all, I think his ability to make very urban seeming songs and touch on some in between note of relationships is his strength. Another reason I like him is that he sings in Punjabi - a language I ought to know but don't, and now regret not learning. But because the jacket carries the translations of the songs, because they aren't the hey ho, let's bhangra type of thing, I can listen to the words and learn new ones and make pictures in my head. I think he's very good with grown up love songs (which means they contain an element of sexual tension and emotional ambivalence, guardedness). It is so also with the title song of the new album, Avenji Ja Nahi

I've been listening to this song over and over and learning the words some of which are lovely. You can listen to it here.

Tere larian ‘ch
Din kinney beetey
Kujh kat gaye
Kujh jamaa keetey

Ni maen akk gia
Bol chup teri parhda
Taenu parhna na
Sohnie hai mere vas da

I'll do my own translation as the official one appeals to me only in parts

Days passed, borne on your false promises
Some were spent somehow, some really added up
And now I'm tired reading your silences and words
Reading you, sweetheart is not something I'm up to now

And it goes on to roughly say - forget the words and silences, the direct and the oblique, just tell me if you're going to come to me or not and so on.

I think this is the sort of sentiment of course has completely vanished from Hindi film songs which were once so full of ambiguity and texture when it came to romance - and not only when they were written by poets. A lot of early Rajendra Krishan lyrics are the equivalent of the Ande ka Funda type song for the '40s, but they manages to evoke the nature of relationships while trying to be 'modern' (he used a lot of technological metaphor or reference- mere piya gaye rangoon, vahan se kiya hai telephone and those other C.Ramachandra songs.

And it was what I sort of meant when I was cribbing in my Sex and the City post - that even if a man has written the lyrics, somehow the song does not seem to exclude the woman or her experience or speak for it completely.

And then I saw the video which I have blanked out of my mind completely, unable to bear the invasion of this uninspiring girl, who is just a silly tease, rather than the complicated creature the song calls up (what are you scared of, someone should ask you/do you just hide, so someone can find you/so if i come to to find you/will you let yourself be found, or not, will you leave a clue on the road, will you leave your door open, will you come to me or not?).

Anyway - I learned a new word - lareyan, plura of lara which means false promises. I knew I'd heard the word before and it came back to me in a conversation I had with someone today - I knew it from that old 1940s song - Lara lappa lara lappa laya rakhda... Ooooo dekar jhoote lare. This song often came on Chitrahaar/Chhaya Geet and I used to be both entertained by it but mildly resentful because the heroine, Meena Shori, wasn't glamorous and pretty. But I used to laugh at the words - aaj kal ke gentleman, khaali jeb, matakte nain.

Watching it now I was charmed and excited as I often am when I see stuff from the 30s and 40s - because women have more to do in the film and the language of their songs is so much more active and their body language is so different! This song obviously has a kind of simple feminist message which makes it all the more fun. Apparently the song was a big hit. Interestingly it was composed by a Christian who used a Hindu screen name so all kinds of stories within stories.

But the most interesting thing about it is that it is sung by Lata Mangeshkar. Whodathunkit? I mean this is a different person from the sweetly suffering voice that has been fitting itself into tighter and tighter corsets with the passing years!

So I did a little research on Meena Shori (procrastination procrastination) and I found this:

"She was born in Raiwind near Lahore in a rural and poor family. She was totally illeterate girl and jumped to Bombay in late 30's and became silver screen temptress and happiest girl in the Indian filmdom from 40's & 50's."

What happened to the happiest girl afterwards?

"She worked in Indian films from Sikandar (1941) thru Shrimati (1956) and then moved to Pakistan and worked here in films till late 70's. Eik Thi Larki (1949) made by her husband Roop K. shorie (at the time of marriage with R.K. Shorie, Meena changed the relegion to Hindu and later after the seperation, again she entered to Islam), dubbed her as the sensational Lara Lappa Girl"

And then...

"Meena got married with R.K. Shorie, Zahoor Raja, Al-Nasir, Raza Mir and lastly Asad Bokhari."

Celebrations of a spunky babe, hold on...

"At the last and final part of her life story that was also too painful to be real. No one from them was around her and she also had no issue from them. A bright star in glaxy of filmdom in 40's and 50's was reduced to extremely destitude living by the end her life before the death in 1989. In late 80's when she was seriously sick having no money for treatment, former Prime Minister Nawaz Shareefhelped her out and one time late Mohammed Ali also gave her moral support when she had stood up in a function begging for charity money to marry off her sister's daughters. Once she told that she felt like a dried up tree in a grove of green saplings that everyone is out to chop down and burn. It is said that her burial was arranged with charity money. "

It is indeed "too painful to be real." Parveen Babi anyone? The stories of all these women who didn't just stand for something different - they were someone different, their every inflection and expression declared it. Zeenat Aman, Rekha, Parveen Babi... one has to wonder.

And that's why we end up with something like Genelia's character in Jaane Tu - a sweet little spitfire with not much but marriage on her mind, whose erotic framework comes from the guy being able to go defend her from the baddies. Because she can fight in playtime but not in real life - for that a guy, even one who doesn't want to be macho, must step in and be one. it's too depressing because it's all about zara hatke - but only zara, very very zara. We end up with grown up (but of course upper middle class) people thinking this is the coolest movie ever because it's full of negative choices - hardly any positive, assertive ones, where you choose because that's what you want, not because you were a moron and realised you ought to stick with your own kind in the end. Whatever, little women, whatever.

Meanwhile I got to wondering what was going on in Pakistan while our films were going steadily the long suffering way borne along on Lataji's high notes. It was this. And this is from a 1956 movie.

Ya ya I know -that was then. But stil...

Thursday, July 17, 2008

budding promises

Yes! There are buds on the chinese rose plant - I'd been losing hope. Meanwhile the mogra is sitting as sullen as a backbencher - I don't think it's grown even a leaf since it came. But the double jaswanti blooms and blooms and blooms. Each morning I get up and shuffle out of the bedroom and then I see a fat, showy red flower blooming with its chest stuck out and it wakes me right up.

I hope this lasts.....

Monday, July 7, 2008


Was talking to an unweildy writer friend about his chronic bad behaviour and inability to finish book. Was talking with knowing wisdom and the scolds prosaic intractability. When he pointed me to THIS PIECE

How accurate! How I laughed! But no, I did not write a word after, only this. But I did preen at the preening chinese rose and go out and scan a form.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

not a good day for the roses

Ever since I read Heidi (about a dozen times as a child) I've wanted a magical window - like her round one in the loft with its views of a starry night. I've been quite lucky to have a room with a view wherever I've lived. Even Baghdad where there was a panorama of the river Tigris (and the orange akak against a slatey dawn sky when the Iraninian Phantom planes raided). I struggled for a while with the balcony in PMGP, making a little seat there, but the shortage of space meant it was always getting used as a storage ground and was sat in very little. In this house the window sills are big enough to sit on. My dad, the only time he visited here, used to sit on the window sill and trim his moustache, read the paper, chill - the only time in my life I ever saw him so lazy and relaxed. He too reacted with childlike pleasure to the hidey hole feeling, that unexpected extra space the window sill yielded up and would like to put things there, neatly, as was his way.

Then one time when Samina and Imran came, Imran used to sit and play there, and make drawings. 

I've not been using it all that much because first I had put a chair there but it felt ridiculous. I felt like Naseerudin Shah with his gramophone in the desert, like some clueless overseer sitting on a chair on a window sill, drinking coffee. Plus there's my fear of heights which would come and go in waves. But the coming of Oberoi Mall and a Lifestyle store has (yeah yeah I shopped there, castigate me so I may be absolved!) resulted in me acquiring the correct height ka stool.

Once the stool came then it seemed like two plants (of which one is a lemongrass plant!) was definitely insufficient, so the family has been expanded to include - double jaswanti, mogra and (my favourite) chinese roses (they did not have tibetan, sorry, I tried).

This has resulted in new visitors, whose names I do not know, but whose songs are sweet. Pappu can sing sala.

And then, the rains came and blew the tops of the flowers off :( decimated the roses and turned the mogra flowers the colour of apples sliced a while ago.

I bloody hope some new ones grow soon or I am boycotting Lifestyle store. >:-|