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Screen + Sound + Stage
January 23, 2017

6 Most Moving Stories of 2016

Text by Simone Louis

From books and films to theatre and art, we evaluate the masterworks of 2016

1. Dear Zindagi
Director and Writer, Gauri Shinde

With a buoyant-sounding title and a few of the ingredients that make for a standard feel-good movie, one could, at the outset of the film, be anticipating a montage of fluff. Shinde, however, had other plans. Her signature mix of ineffable charm, humour and wistfulness aids in translating onto the screen a hard-to-pinpoint feeling of frustration and the dilemma caused by seemingly insignificant things that we tend to keep to ourselves. Kaira, the apparently depressed protagonist played by Alia Bhatt, is not a cliched girl next door but a gifted cinematographer with ambition. She’s very obviously unhappy for reasons that elude her, although some are quite evident to the people she surrounds herself with, including the audience.

The story is engaging because of its complex relationships, the personal journey that is visually represented in the shift in location from Mumbai to Goa, the manner in which Shah Rukh Khan as the therapist approaches Kaira’s temperament, and the captivating friend circle. The latter is an essential part of the plot because without a strong buddy system, like in most real-life cases, the situation would be a whole lot messier. The director introduces the audience to personal demons without demonising them — we accept that there’s nothing essentially malicious about Kaira’s parents or with the men she rejects — and sifts through inner turmoil without shaming anyone. (Also, hats off to Shinde for getting all of Bollywood’s hot young men in the same movie.) It’s also refreshing to see a woman voluntarily and enthusiastically seek professional help, in a society that often sweeps mental health and emotional problems under the rug. You may find yourself shaking your fist at the screen at times, exasperated at the girl’s indecisiveness and all-round emotional chaos — but that’s what makes it so relevant. It reminds us of all the times we’ve reacted the same way to a friend or vice versa. It convinces the viewer that sometimes it’s more than stress, or confusion, and that it’s not always possible to merely ‘shake it off’ or ‘get it together’.

2. Woven Chronicle
Artist, Reena Kallat

United Nations’ statistics suggest that 65 million people around the world are asylum seekers, refugees or internally displaced persons. Within this state of affairs, the concept of home is questioned because of this perpetual motion. Addressing these notions, Kallat’s work Woven Chronicle — displayed as part of an exhibition titled Insecurities: Tracing Displacement and Shelter at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), New York — is a literal representation of the contrast created by increased global movement and the simultaneous tightening of border security.

Kallat’s piece features a remarkable interpretation of the world map, comprising what looks at first like embroidery, suggesting the interweaving of cultures. Instead of thread, however, hued wires are used to represent a dual function as electrical transmitters as well as fences. Flight routes mark the historical movements of migrants while barbed wire outlines boundaries, reminding us that globalisation isn’t always as cheery as we sometimes view it to be. Speakers engulf the viewer with sounds of high-voltage currents, factory sirens, busy tones, birds, deep-sea ambient sounds, ship horns and slow electric pulses, completing the sensory experience. On account of the implications that new forms of cultural exchange bring about, the comprehensive installation is a thought-provoking piece within a larger discussion on displacement.

3. The Gene 
Author, Siddhartha Mukherjee

An expertly crafted blend of history, science and short stories, this book employs a vast amount of research in plotting the evolution of knowledge and more unambiguous theories about heredity. At first glance, The Gene throws up words like ‘embryology’ and ‘eugenics’, making it seem like a dry technical thesis, but Mukherjee’s flair for seamlessly interspersing anecdotes makes a potentially tedious subject become not only fairly easy to grasp, but captivating. A very personal prologue leads to an evaluation of the societal, ethical, scientific and political implications of new information on genetics as well as character sketches of the many scientists, like Darwin and Mendel, involved in its study. In Mukherjee’s second tome after the Pulitzer Prize- winning ‘biography’ of cancer, The Emperor of All Maladies, in 2010, the oncologist and Columbia University Medical School professor interlaces the story of the gene with his own family history of mental illness and offers up a chronological anthology of engaging stories which could’ve been dreadfully lacklustre under the authority of another essayist.

4. Pink
Screenwriter, Ritesh Shah

A well-connected male forces himself on a woman. When she hits back, what ensues is a scenario that we have somehow grown accustomed to. False accusations, character assassination, intimidation, harassment. Hearing of it on a daily basis has resulted in a numbing of sorts, which is what Shah — along with Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury and Shoojit Sircar — brought to the screens last year was so significant. Some films shock you out of your inertness; some question the very foundation of your conscience. This one does both, progressively and without being too self-righteous. Even though the film is set in Delhi, the characters are portrayed in such a way that the tale could be unfolding anywhere. The women could be any one of us, and what’s beautiful about them is that they don’t back down. Also inspiring is the man standing by them — a retired lawyer played to perfection by none other than Amitabh Bachchan. Together, they stand their ground against a corrupt system, making for a courtroom magnum opus that stays with you long after the credits have rolled… which brings us to another writing feat: we never actually see the original incident that spurs the whole battle for justice, until the closing credits. The script is sharp, highlighting issues like misogyny and entitlement in insightful ways while addressing the well-known ‘characterless’, ‘modern’ Indian woman stereotype that gets thrown around in relation to choices regarding clothing, drinking, partying and interaction with the opposite sex. The storyline and its execution give no one any room to hide upsetting thoughts or memories, anger, despair and excuses we habitually make to help us sleep better at night.

At a time when essays and open letters taking passionate stands on these topics are widely shared and quickly forgotten, Pink defiantly confronts you with a visual and enraging narrative. Most importantly, it talks about consent — a concept that most Bollywood movies have famously ignored for decades.

5. Gauhar
Director, Lillete Dubey

This dramatic retelling of the journey of a fascinating woman, the first Indian voice to be recorded on the gramophone (in 1902), was inspired by Vikram Sampath’s book ‘My Name is Gauhar Jaan!’ A multifaceted talent with an extensive repertoire, the protagonist had many layers to her persona, which Dubey skilfully manages to capture along with writer Mahesh Dattani.

Gauhar incorporates live vocals and instruments to aid in giving the audience a peek at the early days of the country’s music scene. The fact that the play’s namesake cut close to 600 records in her career further enables a sweeping soundtrack. Touching upon the advancement of the Indian recording industry and its impact on other art forms, the play highlights the socio-cultural setting within which the performer succeeded in making a name for herself. Credit also goes to the director for bringing together a star cast comprising Rajeshwari Sachdev as Gauhar Jaan, Zila Khan, Denzil Smith, Anuj Gurwara, Danny Sura, Gillian Pinto and Parinaz Jal. Together they succeed in portraying the social mores of the past while charmingly bringing a courtesan- turned-superstar’s complex story to light, within a production that leaves you convinced that Gauhar Jaan was ahead of her time.

6. All Quiet In Vikaspuri
Author and artist, Sarnath Banerjee

A brisk page-turner bursting with intermittent plots, eccentric characters and a ton of truth bombs, this is a book you want to take your time with. Girish, the Psychic Plumber from Banerjee’s previous graphic novel The Harappa Files, journeys to the centre of the earth in search of the legendary River Saraswati — the last glimmer of hope for bringing the vicious water wars of Delhi to a standstill. The provoking chronicle boldly illuminates a dysfunctional society in an unapologetic manner. So much so that this originally commissioned project was later dropped when the client saw the finished product and felt it was ‘too communist’.

The artist’s mordant sense of humour has always set him apart from others when it comes to tongue- in-cheek critiques of contemporary culture. The unrelenting derision and wit also give way to a strong narrative that uses mythical references to address real issues like human rights violations, poverty and fraud, to name just a few. Over and above the confident writing, the intelligent and understated illustrations in All Quiet in Vikaspuri signal for Banerjee, making the brazen social commentary effective without being too heavy.

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