MAMI Day 6

I wish a ghost would come to me and tell me to do something…something difficult. Dangerous.

Sanju, Shakespeare Wallah

Through this festival, I only managed two films a day. I say ‘only’ because I see folks averaging 20-25 films during a festival, but that’s difficult to do if you have to travel for 6 hours a day, like I did. And it’s difficult in general. Two films did feel like a lot at the end of each day. My emotional scalp peeled at the edges; the pleasure was shored up against an overpowering exhaustion and an infiltrated vulnerability. But I was aware, too, that the immersion I sought from four films a day was amiss. The allure of festivals for me is less the newness and topping/tailing of a filmmaker’s oeuvre—although it is partly that—and more just the comfort of being in one cinema hall after another, gulping in film after film, unrelated, scattered. I want that too. Maybe someday at TIFF. Maybe Cannes.


I watched, on the last day of the festival a restored print of James Ivory’s 1965 film Shakespeare Wallah, a complete marvel of a film. Think about the collaborators: Satyajit Ray with music, Ismail Merchant as producer, James Ivory and RP Jhabvala as writers, Subrata Mitra—best known for his work on the Apu trilogy—as cinematographer, Jennifer Kendal/Kapoor on costume, and Madhur Jaffrey, Utpal Dutt, nearly all of the Kendals and one very special Kapoor as the main cast. By the end of the opening credits, I was charmed.

Shakespeare Wallah narrates the love story between Lizzie Buckingham (Felicity Kendal), a theatre actress, and Sanju (Shashi Kapoor, resplendent). The Buckinghams and their (largely Indian) Shakespeare troupe travel across post-Independence India performing at schools, palaces and theatres. They’re not as much in demand as they used to be; Lizzie’s father Tony Buckingham (the very talented Geoffrey Kendal) mourns the (supposed) setting of the British empire as all his colonial friends/family leave but his wife Carla (Laura Liddell) insists that India is their home even as she wants a better life in England—Stratford, tellingly—for Lizzie. Sanju, meanwhile, falls easily for Lizzie without giving up on his occasional affair with Bollywood actress Manjula (Madhur Jaffrey), eventually placing the brushtrokes of his relationships on the older, broader—complicated but—binary canvases of white woman/Other woman, theatre/film, art/money, and indeed, Shakespeare/bollywood. I don’t know if Vishal Bharadwaj has watched Shakespeare Wallah, I hope he has for his sake, but I would love for him to remake this, instead of approaching the last tragedy left untouched on his repertoire of adaptations.

For a film that leans heavily on nostalgia for the British empire, Shakespeare Wallah is ridiculously moving because it boldly and continually undercuts that very nostalgia. The film treats Shakespeare as the focal point of all encounters but the affair between Lizzie and Sanju questions the cliches that have always trailed old Shax. His verse is powerful but can it overpower the power dymanics between a chic Indian man and a poor English—but English, regardless—woman? The troupe has always performed at schools in the hills, manned by Indian men with Oxbridge accents who say things like, ‘Now look here, old chap’, but there’s suddenly no room for the players to do more than one performance. Tony Buckingam muses on the fading plight of Shakespeare but with blackface on, fresh from a performance of himself as Othello, an ironic scene that reveals the profound colonial grip on Indian theatre and education. Manjula is stirred by Lizzie as Desdemona, but uses the emotional climax of the play to make her presence known, thus disrupting the on/off screen resolution—thus disrupting, in all her Othered glory, Shakespeare. Shakespeare is not quite a means to an end, but he becomes a colonial placeholder on which the premise of the film—the place of a white British actress in newly independent India—hinges. Ultimately, the head that lies uneasy in the film is not postcolonial India but Britain, for whom the last wrench of colonial dominance is a crownless bard.


When I walked into the art deco Liberty cinema at Marine Lines hours later for my last MAMI film, I was amazed. That I’d never been, as far as I could remember, but also just at the cinema itself. There’s so much I loved about watching a film there, as I told someone later, including the gentle lighting, the fact that you have to get your popcorn before you go in—I will never forgive how multiplexes have created and monetized in-film service at the expense of attention spans—and the way the exits are designed around the single screen. The film is what you depart with, and at this point in my cinema-going experience in Bombay, that’s all I want.

I showed up there to watch Jia Zhangke’s Ash is Purest White. By the time I’d settled in, I had been staring at the lush copper curtains draped over the screen and starting to feel a bit dozy. Sure enough, 20 minutes into the film, I dropped off, and when I awoke it had only been 6 minutes but it did feel like a lifetime, and the cloudy, metallic aftertaste of a brief nap coloured the rest of the film.

I was not unhappy about this. It’s not quite the Kiarostami thing, but my dulled subconscious only heightened the sensuality of Ash, which is one of the most elegant and devastating films I’ve watched in a long time. It tells of the long journey of a young underworld couple, Qiao (Zhao Tao—unforgettable, unforgettable) and Bin (Liao Fan, quietly capable) whose story begins in Datong at the turn of the millennium. Qiao is sassy, funny and unafraid. She wears a chic bob and slips into lamé with a self-possession that eventually evolves into heels and the blackest of leather coats. She silences a room full of men messing about with Mah-jong, snaps the plug on her drunken father’s rants over radio with silent compassion, and pulls Bin’s unlicensed gun out for him when he’s in trouble—the last of which lands her in jail for five years when she refuses to reveal whose gun it is. When she leaves jail, she seeks out Bin to pick up where they left off. What follows is the brutal unfolding of an affair in which one of the two is always missing.

What I recall about the film now, other than the sombre landscapes of rural China and Zhangke’s technicolour ability to expand claustrophobic interiors, is Qiao’s willingness to thrust herself into the world with her contours intact and shining. It was strange to watch a film without steeling myself for a woman’s death. I worried for her happiness instead. Qiao would be fine, more than fine, have you seen her take on the world? But her desires are unnoosed from the moment she steps on screen, and there is nothing the world fears more than a woman who knows exactly what she wants. In a scene that made me weep on the train afterward, Qiao—freshly released from prison, wearing the most unsettling pale yellow shirt—steals a man’s motorbike as he tries to proposition her during a downpour, and speeds off on it in search of Bin, arms withholding the weight of a wet brown jacket, eyes glazing over as the dark rain plasters her face. Something that burns at such a high temperature must be pure, she told Bin earlier, in what feels like another cinematic life, as they stood facing a dormant volcano. Qiao is comet-tailed, her compulsion to surge ahead of her desire streaking the film ablaze as her people watch, circling her at a distance.


Cotton Green one evening, from my seat on the train.

Cotton Green one evening, from my seat on the train.

The last film did not feel like the last film, and the day of the film festival did not feel like the last day. I don’t know what a last day is meant to feel like but I did expect a sense of closure. Never having to wear that ridiculous lanyard again—although, since they scanned it to let you in, it was the first time a lanyard had ever proven to be useful in my life—and not having to awake early enough to catch a slow website at 8:01am before the booking traffic picked up. Not having to ever go to either PVR in Andheri again. Being in unplanned proximity to those unreal sunsets over Mahim and Cotton Green, heralded by the head of the train snaking over bridges. In spite of knowing that all these facts combined with my own tendency to myth-make commonplace events as though they then assigned a greater worth to my cosmic existence, which is easy to believe of films anyway: catharsis, I did not find.

Just as well. If this week taught me anything, it’s that turning off all the lights in your room and your phone, and turning on your laptop so you can watch a two hour film uninterrupted should feel just how watching film after film felt in cinema halls. Difficult and dangerous.

MAMI Day 5

When you travel your first discovery is that you do not exist.

Elizabeth Hardwick, Sleepless Nights.

The flip side to having the last film of the day leave its taste in your mouth is the revelation that sometimes it is just the better film of the two. My last film of day 5 was Mia Hansen-Løve’s Maya. Earlier in the day, I had watched Jean-Paul Civeyrac’s Mes Provinciales (playing off Pascal’s Lettres Provinciales, a text which becomes a touchstone of sorts in the film which is otherwise also called A Paris Education), a sincere film about the making of a young cinephile who leaves Lyon for Paris. I was largely underwhelmed by its rendition in monochrome. The script is clever, but not funny—as these self-conscious films should be, I think perhaps unfairly—and the casting of Sophie Verbeeck and Corentin Fila as young idealists is inspired enough to merit a rewatch eventually, maybe. A sweet friend of mine who confessed to me that she dislikes sleeping through films—and whom I had tried to convince that she should think otherwise, telling her Kiarostami’s oft-quoted line about how he is happy when his films put you to sleep, linking her eagerly in a try-hard moment to a LARB essay on sleep and Kiarostami and Jonathan Crary—dozed off during A Paris Education too, waking up during a scene when Sophie Verbeeck’s activist character talked about falling asleep in films and how she was glad for that. I nudged my friend, trying not to laugh, and she smiled at me. The next shot in the film showed Jonathan Crary’s book on sleep lying creased, spine-broken, on a shelf in a corner of a bedroom. We both giggled. I will remember A Paris Education for this alone because as they say, you can’t make this shit up.


The last Mia Hansen-Løve (MHL) I watched in a cinema was Things To Come, the very accomplished film about a philosophy professor (Isabelle Huppert) emerging from her chrysalis in mid-life that Hansen-Løve made prior to her latest, Maya. It was spring in England, and I had spent all day anxiously waiting for a work-related email. Eventually, I couldn’t take the worry and had decided that only going to the cinema would take me out of myself. I had forgotten just how adept Hansen-Løve is at making this type of cinema, where characters spend the whole film settling and re-settling themselves through love—of oneself, of music, of another, of architecture—before pausing to gather themselves. Her films linger on this pause. It’s very difficult to pay attention both to yourself and another person simultaneously, and in a MHL film, you don’t exist because you cannot look away. I am grateful for this quality in her work. That spring evening, I was able to check my email one last time, and put my phone away.


A still from  Maya .  Source.

A still from Maya. Source.

Maya could have easily been little but a very cloying film. The premise remains vexing no matter how you summarise it: white guy goes to India to heal. Effectively, since MHL—a filmmaker personally very important to me—talks about the film in a way I don’t fully wish for, or recognise. The film exceeds her vision, and more context helps: Gabriel, a war reporter (played tenderly by Roman Kolinka) formerly held captive by an extremist group, is brought back to France along with one of his two colleagues also held captive. Gabriel suffers from PTSD, but is clear that ‘couch therapy’ isn’t going to work for him. He decides to go to India, where he grew up as a child, to take a break from work and recover while restoring the Goan house where he and his mother used to live. In Goa, he meets his godfather’s teenage daughter, Maya.

The film is by no means Hansen-Løve’s finest, but it is more than merely watchable. This continues to puzzle me. In spite of the hesitations in the script particularly towards the end, some tepid dialogue, and the potentially uneven terrain of the relationship between the lead characters whose age gap is over a decade even as the relationship is wary rather than predatory, Maya is stirring in the winding way that only MHL films are. One reason for this is that the landscape of Goa that MHL sees—the water, the nooks, the dullness of the evening beach, the disappearing paths between trees, the always distant lights, the way time drips even when nothing is still, the perpetually arriving nights—is one I recognise instantly as home. This thrills me, as I am unused to Indian cities being filmed with any degree of admiration or intimacy at all by white directors, who generously exoticise and caricaturise the country.

The other reason I continue to dwell on Maya is Hansen-Løve’s eye, and the way she takes in the world around her. The dispositions of her characters ooze out of their slightest movements, their habitudes, creating an emotional underbelly that continues to be hemmed in lightly as the films wear on. In Le Père de Mes Enfants, the father walking through ruins eagerly explaining them to his family fills up the screen as each member slowly leaves, bored, until he’s left talking, engrossed, to his wife, who is the only person who stays. It’s a rare moment of respite for him. Lola Créton placing a hat on her head, frowning, marks a woman who dreams uneasily all through Un Amour de Jeunesse. And in Maya, we watch Gabriel’s face contour with worry and then sickness, muscles tensing up, hands seizing air, when he can’t spot Maya in the sea at the beach where they have just arrived—until he does, and the camera tracks the arc of a man who was for several moments walking a tightrope of unimaginable loss.

Mia Hansen-Løve’s protagonists across her films walk this tightrope at some point, because they are all people coming to terms with their place in the world. We catch them attempting an arrival, an acquiescence. They never arrive. Instead, they find themselves elsewhere. They flounder, weep on beds, draw the curtains, gaze out of car windows. They lean against corners, filling them up with themselves, deferring moments of outside time where life continues to happen. They go on long walks or drives in silence. They spend time on their own, looking for notebooks or restoring old bedrooms. They fall asleep on others’ shoulders. Vulnerability is a hot, bright pulse, quickening around other people only when they are noticed.

MHL is interested in people who are always in the midst of searching, adjusting to the presence of those whose lives rub up against theirs in the persistent ways. One of most touching scenes I’ve watched in any film recently arrives several minutes after shy Gabriel is introduced to Maya’s pet turtle, Scooter, who is perched on the steps leading up to Maya’s room. In this blink-long scene, months later, Gabriel runs up the steps looking for Maya, who isn’t there, and spots Scooter sitting inconspicuously in his usual spot. There is no one else around. “Salut Scooter,” he greets the silent turtle, and continues up the stairs.

It’s another way to be.

The most absorbing parts of Maya are those where both Maya and Gabriel exist as fulcrums of comfort for each other. The sequence where they explore the temples of Hampi, each wandering off on their own, occasionally spotting the other through a crumbling window, or across a pillar, is an immensely delicate one that strings out the expansiveness of solitude within each character for the other to see. In a much later scene, when Maya and Gabriel go for a night drive on the wintry streets of Goa, we see that this companionship has evolved: she is cautious, he is visibly aching. Both hold on to their desolations more fiercely than ever, but his is outward-facing for the first time in months.

Arshi Bannerjee wears her restlessness to great effect through the film, even as she appears self-conscious with dialogue. It does still feel odd to me that the film is called Maya, when we never really learn who exactly the titular character is. But we learn enough to recognise that while Maya’s observant but unassuming presence grows to assume an immense importance to Gabriel as he learns to face the world again, she is also a creature of protected immanence whose shadows are cast widely across the film. ”I dream a lot,” she confesses to Gabriel, early on in the film. In a gorgeous Nick Cave song that Hansen-Løve layers unnecessarily but with a cognizant indulgence over an emotionally dense montage, Cave sings: “They told us our dreams would outlive us/ But they lied.”


Much of what I’ve enjoyed about this film festival has been the space. The space before films, in the darkness, and then emerging with yourself after with the unbelievable luxury of having lost yourself in a stack of films. Stuffed mouthfuls of narratives that quickly edge each other out. No room for anything but occasional retrospective discernment. I watched Maya with a friend, and we talked about it inadequately on our way out, as one does with freshly-exited films. It was curious though, because hurtling through the chilly night air towards the station in an auto minutes later, I was left with the same burning feeling that I have after every MHL film: that I’ve encountered myself for the first time. Like a shuttle re-entering the earth.

MAMI Day 4

Halfway through Olivier Assayas’s latest film Doubles Vies, which is also that rare film to have fully earned the ‘drama/comedy’ classification, a woman turns to the ‘auto-fiction’ novelist she’s having an affair with and demands to know why he has changed certain details of their affair in his latest novel Full Stop—never has an on-screen novel been more perfectly titled—and not other details. “For storytelling,” the novelist says, feebly. “I thought you hated storytelling,” the woman retorts. “Oh, I’m walking that back,” he replies, with no trace of irony.

I’m not sure if I’ve said too much already, or too little. Spoilers are inevitable, but how to narrate (the experience of watching) Doubles Vies is a challenge that is indicative of the particular preoccupations of the film. Storytelling is a quotidian concern in Assayas’s superbly straight-faced examination of the lives of two middle-class Parisian couples and all their friends and colleagues whose lives collide haphazardly with theirs. The couples, who variously work as a famous TV actress (Selena, portrayed with such ease by Juliette Binoche), a critically-acclaimed publisher (Guillaume Canet, whom I adored watching every second as Alain, Selena’s husband), a novelist verging on a failed career (Léonard, played by Vincent Macaigne), and a high-profile lawyer (Nora Hamzawi, as Léonard’s charismatic wife, Valérie), are more wary of what may be believed to be the truth of their lives than of the shibboleth of veracity itself.

We spend a fair amount of screen-time switching between households, dinner parties on friends’ sofas, cramped restaurants, and bedrooms, watching impeccably-scripted dialogue volley between people who, above all else, are skilled in the art of bourgeois conversation. They’re pathetic, but funny. The men wear tailored clothes. The women work most of the time, and they look good all of the time. The characters read Lampedusa—not carefully, though—they watch Haneke, they question authors at book launches and their post-coital routines include disagreeing over the impending extinction of print. They talk about the increasing digitisation of the world, they agonise over the rift between writers and readers, and they heatedly debate whether socialist politicians can be both in search of a career and also serve people honestly. It’s hard to take your eyes off the characters, obnoxious as they—we—are, because they are so sure of themselves, even as the camera playfully pans over whole rooms, reminding us of the unstable architecture of any argument, of how it unfolds—how you take or leave space during a conversation, where he moves when he’s restless, the corner of the kitchen where you’re likely to stop engaging, how she slouches when she’s about to concede a point, the motion you make towards unplugging your phone and tablet because a dwindling response is in sight, how he leans lightly against the window when he’s waiting for your comeback.

You’re as invested in these conversations as the characters are, because you’ve had probably had these arguments yourself, or you thrive on conversations like these—or, as the film wears on, you realise, perhaps you thrive on the rush of intimacy that enables these conversations in the first place and fogs them afterwards. Alain argues lightly with his wife about publishing Full Stop because he feels the women are objectified in a work of non-fiction but seconds later, a shadow crosses his face as he listens to her say, maybe the women like it, and in his slightest slump over the table, we are simultaneously embarrassed for and tender towards him. A hilarious break-up moment turns devastating when Selena interrupts the man she’s breaking up with by casually turning to the bartender to say that she wants another orange juice without the ice, please. Léonard argues passionately for a dematerialised literature culture, embodied by socialists like him who disdain the commodification and want the art back, and his publisher Alain, who has been listening as he packs up, stands at the door and says, “Your radicality is also narcissism. It’s the most valuable commodity.” He smiles. How you remember an argument is marked by how you feel, not by events. Assayas knows this.

While Assayas’s interest in the mundane ways in which technology affects us is long-standing, calling Doubles Vies a film about the perils of digitisation makes about as much sense as calling Personal Shopper a supernatural film, or Kiarostami’s Certified Copy—which, to me, is the older, bolder sister of Doubles Vies—a film about art criticism. In each of these films, la numérique, or haunting, or art is used as a springboard to ask more probing questions about storytelling, loss and authenticity respectively. Assayas’s talent for filming people in their element is terrifying only because when they are at their most engrossed, they are also at their most vulnerable—and therefore, at their most magnetic. What constitutes shakier earth than the potential of interrupted intimacy of any sort?

I realised only as the credits rolled that the french title of the film is Doubles Vies, or what I would have read as “double lives.” I wanted to re-watch the film immediately. All this time, I had been calling the film by its only too appropriate English title, Non-Fiction.


The 1992 poster for  Hyenas.   Source.

The 1992 poster for Hyenas. Source.

Fifteen minutes after exiting the Assayas, I seated myself in a packed cinema hall to watch Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Hyènes, a 1992 Senegalese adaptation of The Visit, a play by Friedrich Dürrenmatt, a German-Swiss dramatist. I went into the film without reading anything about it, as I’ve tried to do for most films during this festival, and so I was completely unprepared for the impressive but slow, horrifying transition that the film makes from light satire to dystopia. In an impoverished village named Colobane in postcolonial Senegal, news spreads that Linguere Ramatou (essayed by the stunning Ami Diakhate), a previous inhabitant of the village, has returned “richer than the World Bank” from across the Atlantic. Amongst the people eagerly awaiting the return of her—and her wealth, crucially—is a grocer named Dramaan Drameh, her former lover. Gradually, it is revealed that Ramatou is happy to use her money to improve the living conditions of the people of Colobane, but only if they are willing to execute Drameh, who she says abandoned her after impregnating her several years ago. Ramatou was then sent away from the village. A year later, she lost her daughter, and then many years later in an accident, most of her body. She has returned, having earned her millions through sex work, with a body of metal and an ironclad will to see Drameh lose his life, if the people of Colobane are willing to bloody their hands and consciences for material gains.

Hyenas is a sharp, dazzling critique of neocolonial Africa and the ‘development’ institutions associated with the continent, such as the IMF, and even is, as the critic Kenneth Tynan says of the play, “a satire on bourgeois democracy.” But what gripped me was the portrayal of Linguere Ramatou, a woman who possesses the ability to see through the hypocrisy of men and exploit the impulses of capitalist patriarchy (what we could also call a ‘mob’, in this case) because she understands the perversity of man so clearly. Ramatou spends most of the film watching the people of Colobane from her distant posts, all of which are lonely, God-like perches: by a sapphire sea, from the top of a hill, on sand dunes. She asks for the life of a man as compensation for the years that were taken from her, but in truth the situation that she creates goes far beyond the question of vigilante justice: she promises the hyenas of Colobane a life free of debt that they incur precisely because they desire the hollow promises of neoliberalism, as she knows they do. In other words, her revenge isn’t in facilitating an act of murder—that is a symptom—but in summoning the implosion of the place that once rejected her. Drameh may not survive, but he spends most of the second half of the film warning his friends not to destroy themselves.

Reading the film as a vicious critique of civic justice hastened under the demands of a neoliberal enterprise embodied by a woman who was once herself on the fringes (ah, the vengeful sex worker—not!) is only valid if we view Ramatou as a woman who has understood and been betrayed by the evils of capitalism so thoroughly that the scope of her revenge-plot exceeds far beyond the sacrifice of one man in order to control the ecosystem of the land. Hyenas appear through the film (from Uganda), as do monkeys, elephants (from Kenya) and vultures, in metonymic flashes.

Ramatou’s character is a powerrful articulation of the terror that neoliberal feminism enacts as/through patriarchy; her solidarity is not with the oppressed, and her interest is in turning oppressor. There is no triumph at the end for anyone except Ramatou, who knows this from the start. Before Drameh leaves, she tells him they can be together after he dies. It’s a bizarrely touching moment, because they are the only two people who understand the destruction that awaits Colobane.

Mambéty’s radicality also emerges through his film-making. While he rejected the idea of a “style” of film-making himself, he noted that “cinema is magic in the service of dreams.” The cinematic texture of the film evolves from a proto-realist, documentary style to one that is almost incantatory and surreal by the end. Colours are amplified, palettes distilled. A shot of Drameh driving a red car in circles around the desert on his way to face his sentence is extraordinarily chilling. Elephants morph into steamrollers. It’s the beginning of the end. If you weren’t breaking into a sweat before, you almost certainly are now.


I awoke this morning, feeling anxious at the prospect of no films today. You don’t go cold turkey on a film festival. I go back tomorrow to the calcified comfort of a darkened cinema hall but I want to say, as I look round my room now, that a little light isn’t all bad.

MAMI Day 3

I did not awake at 6:30am on Day 3 of MAMI expecting to be back home halfway through the day, mulling over my PhD thesis to see if there’s anything left to save in it.

But here we are.


Perhaps the most straightforward manner in which to convey exactly how delightful theatre director-turned-filmmaker Anamika Haksar’s Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Ja Riya Hoon (Taking the Horse to Eat Jalebis, a very literal translation and one that isn’t half as biting as the Hindi title) is to reveal that the title is an actual line from the last few minutes of the film that does in fact refer to a man walking his horse down Dariba Kalan, Old Delhi, for jalebis. You may laugh, but I have never taken a horse walking toward its dreams more seriously in my life.

Ghode is a film about walking in Old Delhi. By which I mean, the film is explicitly interested in walking as a social practice. I wish with all my heart the film had existed during my PhD years. Haksar spent 7 years documenting the streets of Old Delhi, so I like to think that we perhaps walked past each other at some point, video cameras in hand. I don’t know if I would’ve been equipped to write about the film then—I don’t know that I am now—but it would have made the landscape of the thesis a lot less lonely. Ghode is a film with a lot of heart about people who walk for their living in a city that wears its dreams more openly than any other I’ve known. Breathtaking, bold: both the city and the film inhabiting it.

Four men—a pickpocket, a snacks vendor, a labourer/communist activist and a conductor of heritage walks—comprise the end points of the character fabric of the film. The real locii, however, are the 350+ residents of Old Delhi’s streets, whom Haksar films with humour and camaraderie: actors from “night shelters, peeli kothi slums, sadar bazar workers, Jamghat” and other institutions, according to a film programme that we were helpfully handed before the screening. Patru, the pickpocket, realises after watching the middle-class obsession with nostalgia for an imaginary Chandni Chowk—one that is, for instance, built entirely out of the ‘river of moonlight’ anecdote, a lust for local architectural and culinary hearsay that lies on a continuum straight from Early Modern India, and weekend bite-sized dips into Urdu—that the business of heritage walks in the Old City is a ridiculous but easy way to make money. He and his friends start walks that involve what could be seen as the ‘underbelly’ of the city when juxtaposed with the sunlit heritage walks invoking Mughal ghosts, but are in fact the stories of their community and their daily lives: where they eat, laugh, work, sleep. And—by the end of the film—where they dream, because when the men find themselves in trouble for sharing too much of their world, they decide to conduct a “dream walk”, entering the collective dreamscape of the people whose stories are otherwise kept to themselves. “If I conduct walks in their dreams,” says Patru, “No one can come after me.”

In Ghode, the city glitters through the vortex of a collective consciousness; here, at last, people can dream openly again. Dreams that are frightful, ugly; dreams that bring people to their knees for good; dreams about warm feet and tailored cloth and the will to hide the smack; dreams of an arm around your waist at night and a way to lead your beloved back from death; dreams that medicate. People dream on their feet, as they walk from gali to gali, working, while the middle-class heritage walking crowd barely ever touches earth, always struck dumb on rooftops or on animated carpets zooming around the Old City, aerial views in sight.

Haksar whisks painting, animation and special effects together to convey what the most imaginative cameras can’t do on their own: line-drawings of snakes and oranges populate a child’s narration of its dream. Squiggly forests attack a woman, who cuts her way through them. Men doze on their hand-drawn carts, which float in an illustrated blue river. The sodium gold of the nightlamps on Chandni Chowk squeeze music from the shadows. Men talk in their sleep. Others sing. Fireworks fall like rain as musicians in an abandoned haveli assemble their instruments in soft focus. On the rooftops of Khari Baoli, colourful animated kites wink as the sun sinks. Hearts quicken when feet are at rest.

The truth about great cities is that it’s very hard to get their stories straight. The architecture of Old Delhi lies for the camera, which complies with close-ups that look like no earthly landscape. The lie of authenticity is more interesting than any fact that could ever match anecdote to architecture. Haksar recognises this, and so, keeps the camera on the move. It is never still long enough to document, but it testifies throughout. The old ghosts of the city are wily; they do not share their secrets easily, and what you see or hear once you will almost certainly never access again. Not places and names and types of trees, but the shade of the sky over the Jama Masjid shortly after dusk, or the shortcut that once connected three havelis, led by a grey cat whom you never see again. You can call it magic, or history. Calvino’s Invisible Cities is, if you must know, really about Delhi. This is also the worst kept secret in the world.

In Haksar’s Dilli, not everything is possible, or knowable—barely anything is. Streets remain unnamed and fates lie undetermined. People thread grains through needles to save food and summarise their tragedies as ‘subaltern histories’ briskly for tourists. But the potency of the desire for a better life that’s just around the corner from another day overrides the failure of all that is past. If a horse can have its jalebi in Dilli-6, so can you. The city survived 9 times over, it must wait a lifetime longer, even if Haksar’s oracle of the city is more uncompromising in its prophecy. “Can you rinse away this city that lasts/ like blood on the bitten tongue?” asks Shahid (‘Chandni Chowk, Delhi’). I am dreaming, again, of Delhi. I am dreaming of a walk.

A still from the trailer for  Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Ja Riya Hoon

A still from the trailer for Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Ja Riya Hoon


I went straight from Haksar’s gorgeous urban ode to a film I was happy to think of as a palette-cleanser that I remain grateful for, halfway into the film festival. Jean-Luc Godard is not a director I will write about at length here; for one thing, there’s enough academics employed to devote their whole lives to him, and for another, I’m not sure I have very much to say that hasn’t already been said, certainly about his earlier work. I approach Godard affectively because that is all I can bring with me to his work; the rest being the academic score that plucks my reading into context, I suppose. Godard was a touchstone in my undergraduate introduction to academic research and now it’s hard for me to think of him as someone whose films I watch purely for the love of them. This binary, you must know, is the real failure of auterism.

But I enjoyed The Image Book as one would enjoy an image book; my eyes flickered as the images—disjointed, spliced, chaotic, volatile, copies, original footage, archival selections, negatives—sprinted past me, layered with sounds—dialogue, music, silence. I felt myself zoning out of the cinema hall and into the space of a video clip on repeat in an exhibition at a gallery, except the clip is 85 minutes long and you don’t quite know if you will recognise an ending when it arrives. So you give into the images, to the ‘calm inside a representation’, as I’m certain a line from the film goes at some point.

Maybe I dreamed it.

A lot of what I recall about The Image Book is its sensuality. Aspect ratios changed continuously, the images glitched, and the voiceovers sounded like they were being played on the surface of the images. And yet, the experience of watching the film felt so smooth, like downing a cold, hard drink and feeling your throat burn only pleasantly. People walked out as the film wore on; this was distracting but also made me smile, as the disgust of incomprehension can betray a real anxiety in us about what we desire from a film when we say we want to ‘understand’ it. I was surprised to find that I wasn’t anxious about this. This realisation did not make me feel like a better person, which did not surprise me. Neither staying nor leaving is a moral decision—or it shouldn’t be; life is short—but I did find it interesting to think about why this film did not merit patience so publicly. I remember giving up on Gaspar Noé’s Love after 5 minutes. I have no regrets.

Blake Williams—whose honest and thoughtful review I enjoyed so much—writes very astutely:

“These are films that ignite every interpretative impulse in our brains without satisfying our desires to be passive, unproductive viewers; they do not give clarity or any obvious avenues through the deluge of information, even if they make us feel as though, were we smarter, more knowledgable, bilingual cinephiles, we would be able to do just that.”

As for why I stayed—since that increasingly and annoyingly seemed to be the question, given the way the film transformed into a silent endurance test of sorts for the room—I think I was tired, and easily pleased. But I was also interested. I remain curious about the film, and as I write this, the images flood over me. Hands, a variety of hands. There’s something—so much!—about hands. I was glad. An image breakdown would make for an excellent list of poetry prompts. Did I also see a reference to Chandra Mohanty?

Occasionally, I made a list of the sections, or sub-sections, or whatever I read as sections in the film:

  1. Remakes/RIM(AK)ES (note: I enjoyed the pun. I enjoyed enjoying the pun.)

  2. Petersberg Evenings (?)

  3. Those Flowers Between Rails, A Confused Wind of Travels

    [Under Western Eyes]

  4. Spirit of Laws

    [Les Signes Entre Nous]

    [Thirst for words, then the image]

  5. La Région Centrale

    [Archaeology and Pirates]

A woman sits across a baby antelope and caresses its nose. And then its face.

When the film ends, I walk into the blinding white afternoon. This is the last image I remember.

MAMI Day 2

An odd aspect of film festivals is that no matter how many films you watch in a day, and how entirely memorable they might each be, it’s always the last film that determines the note on which you end the day. Perhaps not unlike courses in a meal, where feeble desserts reverberate endlessly long after the plates have been cleared.

There is nothing feeble about Claire Denis’s latest, High Life, which, as you’re probably tired of hearing by now, is also set in space like so many other recent film offerings, but is unlike any of them in every other respect. This is to be expected because it’s Claire Denis, and we don’t have anyone else with her capacity to execute an image until its capacities have been exhausted, and it is turned inside-out with its face out in the world to see until you can’t see anything else. Take the closing scenes of Vendredi Soir and Beau Travail, or the dance sequence in 35 Shots of Rum, or Lola Créton walking in those heels in Bastards, or even the continual shots of Juliette Binoche’s face in Let the Sunshine In. Denis has always worked closely with the frays of loneliness in daily life, loneliness as a form of violence, and in that vein, High Life is about as far as she has gone, quite literally. It doesn’t get lonelier than outer space.

The film angered me when I first watched it this evening. I was simultaneously horrified and incredibly moved. Ostensibly, High Life is about Monte, a former prison-inmate-turned-space-experiment-guinea-pig, and his baby—eventually, teenage daughter—who are the only two survivors on a radioactive space ship in a distant solar system. Really, though, it’s about the perversities of the human body: bodies lactate, bleed, miscarry, tear, shit, spurt and give way, even in space. On a space ship where everyone is slowly losing their minds, both men and women are raped, inseminated and handled in equal parts with delicacy and hysteria. “Even here, black ones are the first to go,” says a black inmate on the ship. A mother lactates all over her naked body, crying, saying, “They got me, they got me”, over and over again.* (*-paraphrased)

I think I’m still angry. There’s an unexplained machismo to the sexual atrocities that feels like teeth being pulled off a bared jaw. Humans on this ship flatline from the moment they try to be anything other than human: they attack and rape each other, and then they all fall to their death, one after another like a stack of dominos. A scene involving Juliette Binoche and a “fuck box” is expertly filmed—never has a woman’s back been infused with more power—but Binoche’s Dr. Dibs is mostly a creepy doctor-turned-high-priestess who likes to harvest men’s semen for reasons that are inadequately explained by her quest for the “perfect being”.

After a while, it was wearying to watch them all go for each other the second they thought the others weren’t watching. I pulled myself back out of the film more often than not, because I couldn’t care about any of them. Giving up on the characters because you wish they’d all die sooner rather than later because isn’t it inevitable in another fucking solar system—that’s what nihilism feels like.

And yet, Denis does not make nihilist films. There’s much to appreciate in High Life about the clarity with which Denis addresses the complete loneliness of existing in a human body that knows its time is near. It was remarkable to watch, for instance, the violence of birth revealed so blankly. I was mesmerised by the dark emerald of the garden, where life seemed to return momentarily as the inmates worked their hands hard. The way the empty rooms glowed in red light, giving off the impression of a secret inner life that exists only when you aren’t looking, like a club lit up in UV light and shadows.

Most exquisite of all were Monte’s scenes with his child, and I cared about them to the point that I didn’t need or want the intense flashbacks that explained the history of the ship; these tender scenes with his daughter were almost (almost) an antidote to the spectacle of hyperviolent masculinity that characterises the rest of the film. He sews a broken arm off her red soft toy, he makes her laugh, he comforts her and he teaches her to walk, and he fears for her safety. When she gets her period for the first time, she is interested in the blood, but refreshingly not repulsed, as she has been socialised entirely around a single other human being—a man who is not repulsed either. A haunting scene involves father and daughter discovering their movement over another spaceship, hardly believing their luck at possibly finding human contact, only to discover howling dogs at the other end. “It would be cruel to abandon the dog,” says his daughter. “What do you know of cruelty?” asks Monte wearily.

These moments string up the film like fairy lights, because what Denis does best is help us remember that on the other side of an abandoned life is a parallel life that views human intimacy as desperately sacred. Denis gives us this, unfortunately with more restraint than ever before. I don’t know if I can bring myself to watch High Life again—the thought of it makes me sick, if I’m honest—but I know I will be thinking about it for a long while.


Rafiki, in heavy contrast to the Denis, is light, feather-shawl-falling-off-your-shoulders light, and so imaginatively edited as to let this lightness hover till the last frame. The film observes two young women falling in love in Nairobi as their fathers battle for the same seat in the local elections. Wanuri Kahiu’s world is made of teasing neon colours, a compelling all-female Kenyan soundtrack, lively feet and livelier glances. Women watch each other: at roadside shops, in courtyards, and in abandoned cars. I felt an instant, intense affection barreling towards Kena and Ziki, the two young women, from their very first encounters on screen. Their love is fierce, black, adoring; a dark rose perfume fading in a hot nightclub, bright fuschia flashes around a football game, kisses on upturned wrists, hair braiding in public. Their love is gracefully worn, in a land where it is granted no grace.

I can’t remember the last time I watched a romantic couple on screen enjoy their love so much. Ziki and Kena couldn’t be more different from each other; extrovert Ziki is doe-eyed, sharply dressed, distracted and moves like a dancer even when there’s nobody to dance for, while Kena skulks, shyly watching Ziki from afar, riding motorbikes with the boys when she isn’t playing a very good midfield. Ziki is openly demonstrative of her affection, whereas Kena wants only to touch her away from all prying eyes.

But Kahiu asks us to watch the two women through each other’s eyes. When wide-eyed Kena watches Ziki dance for her, we watch with her. And when Ziki tells Kena that she’s going to be a doctor, not a nurse, because that’s how good her grades are, nothing feels easier or more possible in the world. Their love feels effortless, until it doesn’t, but the film remains so throughout.

Amongst the many, many memorable scenes in the film, one in particular has washed over me all day. Ziki and Kena are on a date-ish excursion, which quickly turns into an all-night affair. They enter a club, laughing, cheeks flushed, and are suddenly cast in UV light. In the neon darkness, their world blooms instantly, and their love is suddenly visible. Kena and Ziki look at each other for a long while.

This time, I could not pull myself away. Later on the train home, I thought of Fred Moten in his poem “elizabeth cotten/nahum chandler”:

‘this is the music of my own head and you can hear it in the way I sound when I come away from that for you, twisted away in being folded up when I move away from that to turn my lines out for the other line inside. but let me stop beginning to let you come to this openness I hope for. hopefully it’s forming itself from behind against just about every other folding you could think of just for you.’

An ultraviolet love. The least lonely of them all.

MAMI Day 1

Film festivals are a competitive sport. I can’t believe I wasn’t told this before. I partly think this because of the particular situation at MAMI, where ticket bookings for the following day open only at 8am the morning before. It means, for one thing, you can’t always get what you want, which shouldn’t be a lesson I need to be reminded of at this stage of my life, but is regrettably so.

Mostly though, it’s the endurance of zapping oneself in and out of a litany of films that have just been strung together in accordance with screening protocols and film categories that make no sense to a certain viewer, who has long since wished for thematically-curated festivals over those peeled open along nation-state lines. Love is the worst competitive sport. Surviving the utter, bone-crushing sadness that accompanies spending a whole day in darkened cinema halls investing in alien worlds is only exciting if you don’t think too hard about it, and in any case, after a few days, I suspect you can’t. Badges out, heart—out. Like a match. A restlessness from waiting in line that only bloats through the day. Melancholia and practicality have never made for a good dressing, and they pair poorly when you’re trying to factor in slow/fast trains on the Western Line to see if you’re in the mood for a Bilge Ceylan—or something closer to home.


I barely recovered from two hours of inter-city travel when I found myself heaving in an overly air-conditioned PVR in Andheri ten minutes into Hong Sang-soo’s Hotel by the River. Entering the space of a film requires recovery time beforehand—a threshold between the screen and the world—and I bought myself none, because everything is expensive in Bombay. I realise now, of course, that I couldn’t have picked a better film to wade into the festival with because Hong Sang-soo’s meditative, meandering film about vulnerability and care between two young women, and a father and his two grown sons, all of whom happen to be staying at a snow-blown hotel by a frozen river, is a better endorsement for the luxury of keeping yourself warm than anything I ever saw at Zurich airport.

Zurich. It made entire sense that Roger Federer would endorse minimalist watches. The orange juice glittered needlessly. The local mobile network is called Salt. The rooftop of the airport is a sightseeing space. Mountains surround you like a goddamn film set. Everything looks like it should be CDG white, or wrong.

I thought of Zurich airport while watching Hotel by the River today, perhaps because Hong Sang-soo tracks the exact monochrome horizon where the physical comfort of friendship, or the solace of desperate, plain love dissolves into a human obstinacy for eeking out a mess from taking need itself too far. A poet father makes his older son jealous by discursing at length about how his younger son’s name was chosen with great care. It starts out as a moment of great frivolity, before settling into one of discomfort, because Sang-soo’s full-length shots—always keeping everyone accountable, documented—releases his older son into frustration. We all laugh; it’s funny. But the son’s fallen face continues to rankle. Soon, there are forlorn stuffed toys—white—on the table.

Or one of the women, who wears an oversized cowl neck jumper with white sleeves that hug her into the smoothness of the hotel bed when she lies beside her friend. The softness of the jumper is unbearable, I can feel it. Their conversations are restless and circular, the kind you have when you spend too much time in a strange, pristine room where you can only disturb the furniture of your feelings, with a person you love deeply but not enough—and not often enough. The woman’s jumper was cropped at her waist, a detail that stunned me, as it was only then that the margins of their respective self-preservation tendencies emerged. She couldn’t envelop her clever, caustic friend—her jumper wasn’t big enough, and neither was her heart. She could’ve been the face of a luxury brand, if her distaste for the world wasn’t so palpable. There is nothing clean or sparse about the mess of loving another person, even if capitalism does its best to convince you otherwise.

Later, the women put on long, black coats and go for a walk in the snow, and then again when they walk to a small restaurant near the hotel for dinner. They slurp from their bowls and argue about men. I stayed with them, watching, as though I were at a table nearby slurping my own ramen. Until I wasn’t anymore.


It was a day for transformative cinematography. I went on to a single-screen Bandra cinema hall—slightly distressed by the white marble floors and plush decor which, at one point, included hundreds of seemingly fresh blood-red roses stuffed into the walls of the hall—to watch Rima Das’s Bulbul Can Sing. I knew I was in Bombay when the filmmaker confessed, in an post-show talk, that she shot the film on her 7-year old Sony A7S and the cinema hall broke out in applause and low choruses of ‘wow’s.

That Bulbul can sing is evident—which I appreciated, as why must one watch one more film about a talented young girl who demeans and then recovers herself for the sake of plot—as is the fact that the film is as much a mood as it is a story about three teenagers in a small village in Assam, which is still difficult for me to grasp as the cinematography is simply overwhelming, in the most ordinary sense of the word. I can only summarise and remember the film in impressions; an effect that has so far remained for me the preserve of Chris Marker’s films and Frank O’Hara’s poetry, because the sequence of events, overpowered by images, begins to fail me. Take:

A dull red flower at the throat of a young girl

Cautious young hands sifting out the bark of a tree branch

A vermillion, stick-like insect being released

Circular, defocussed degree shots of a dangerous familial argument

Bulbul’s hip-length hair being gathered into a perfect bun by her best friend’s mother

A glance from Bulbul’s teacher that lingers for a second too long on the nape of her neck

A broken swing hanging limply from a tree branch on one end

Bulbul snacking candy by herself, lost in thought on the rocks by a river as the sky darkens overhead

Her gay best friend, the loneliest boy on earth, carving out a heart on a tree, his eyes narrowing over it, as a single white flower sits tucked on his ear.

The size of the embers bursting from a young girl’s funeral

Das’s film follows Bulbul and her two best friends, Bonnie and Sumu, as they navigate being teenagers in a world that isn’t fully ready for them, or their desires, or their joys. For so much of the film is about joy—long tracking shots of the friends chasing the rain, squeezing water out of their saris, waving sparklers through the streets on Diwali, huddled over a game of Ludo. Joy that is accentuated with spectatorship. A tally of synesthesia, without revealing itself to be one.

Bulbul Can Sing is a feast of intimately scripted detail and dialogue—not an indulgent line of dialogue nor a sentimental finish in sight—which is remarkable for a film that appears to have been largely unscripted, and improvised with an emphasis on character and mood-building alongside a community of children and teenagers, some of whom Das initially met for Village Rockstars. All the characters who emerge from the film carry it through to the end, right from the three teenage friends and Bulbul’s ageing father who continues to dream about a singing career, to the boys who bully Sumu and Bonnie’s affectionate mother. A note, though, on the flora-fanning that I remain struck by: there are enough memorable and genre-changing flower scenes in Bulbul Can Sing to put my beloved kaash flowers in Ray’s Pather Panchali to rest.


On the train home, I watched the sun turn back over Mahim. I could feel the tiredness bricking up in me. My eyes wouldn’t close; not-watching felt more exhausting. It’s only day 1, and my appetite is ruthless, but growing. The question of sadness in a film festival will persist, I expect. I can feel it biting its way back. This, I was told.

I didn’t write much this year: a recurring theme, it seems. Would a doctoral dissertation count? Perhaps. I finished writing, defending, and correcting one this year. It appears as a mirage; a parallel life, occasionally shimmering at the surface, where I crank away at academic pursuits, yearning for some sort of yield; I’m not entirely sure what. But to unpack that is a life’s work, and I don’t quite know how to talk about the infinite ways in which I have been changed by the thesis. No matter. We are here to play.

What, then, have I written: I do occasional essays for BLink, The Hindu Business Line‘s Saturday magazine. I reviewed Alexandra Kleeman’s terrifying and beautiful book,You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, and I did so at an odd time in life, when my conceived limits of edibility and appetite were perhaps carelessly extant. I wrote soon after–again, yes, again–about the Neapolitan quartet; it has taken a lot of writing about Ferrante to enable a coalition of my–you wouldn’t believe!–feelings about her, and I still don’t think I’ve said everything I’ve wanted to say. I had a lot of fun delving into a particular cyber violet, #663366, for WEBSAFE2K16, an internet memory project by the very lovely Jo Livingstone. The Cambridge History of Indian Poetry in English, for which I wrote a chapter on Melanie Silgardo and Manohar Shetty’s poetry, was also out earlier this year. I want to say so much more about that volume, most of all about how important it is as an introduction to Indian English poetry, that provocative category that we always seem to be settling for in want of a more suitable identity. May there be many, many more books recentering, let’s say it, Indian English. I’m currently reading Lauren Elkin’s Flâneuse, in dozy little gasps of time, and maybe I will write about that too.

It has been a year of learning to harbour suspicions against empathy, and empathy politics. I did not think it would be so hard, and I do not, still, hold it to be at odds with the perils of Sedgwickian paranoid reading. I trust her, and I hold that. Liz Kinnamon’s essay on ‘the male sentimental’ figure is one that I’ve re-read many times this year (I couldn’t watch more than five minutes of Love, as it was insufferable: full disclosure. What a contrast Verhoeven’s Elle–a film I hope to say much more about here–is to that). It cautions us of trusting the premise of empathy–via Saidiya Hartman, whom I am starting to feel indebted to–by flagging its cruel appropriations:

In 2008, Bush Jr. presented a Medal of Honor to the parents of a Navy Seal who died in Iraq during the War on Terror. After giving a brief overview of the Seal’s heroism, Bush paused, contorted his face, and made a clunky gesture for the parents to come onstage and accept the medal. He was attempting to visualize his grief in that delay and he continued to do so when the parents arrived onstage. As the mother stood next to him in a pastel pink suit and they waited while a female voice announced the award, Bush made a theater of empathizing with her. Within the space of a few seconds, Bush can be seen tapping her on the leg so that she turns to him to make eye contact. Directly after she smiles and then turns away to face the audience, Bush turns back and takes a finger to the corner of his eye in what looks like the wiping away of a tear (1:19). Bush had gotten her attention to flaunt his emotional reaction to the loss of her son. A few moments later someone hands Bush the medal, and when he passes it over to the parents, they look down soberly at the wooden box that now stands in for their son. These two brief anecdotes of U.S. presidential action by a father and a son call attention to the way in which a peculiar legacy of male sentimentality is woven into the fabric of U.S. Empire, colonialism, and war.

What is it they say? Never forget.

A Likeness of Wings

This year, I did not publish very much. In fact, I’m pretty sure I only wrote the one essay. The essay on the epistemology of hands, which has found a very good home at Adult, has been stewing in me ever since I did a university project on Alfred Steiglitz’s photography some five years ago. I did not realise quite how much I needed to get it written. I am surprised it got written. I still feel a faint jolt of shock–the ever reliable jolt–when I see it floating about on the web, perhaps being read, perhaps not. My disconnect with the published word, pushed out into the world, hardening into fact, is always deep.

There is still more to be said on hands. There is, one hopes, more time.


My reading and writing habits changed heavily over the past year. I’m not sure when and how, of course; as is the case with these things, you only notice at the moment of reckoning. I am not complaining. All I know is that outside of work purposes, I appear to have read more of what I want to read, which may overlap occasionally with but is still different from what I think I need to, or should read in the moment. I stopped trying to keep up with new books, although I read them unapologetically when I thought I needed to (and could afford to, we could do with acknowledging this more). I read a lot of British women: Penelope Fitzgerald, Barbara Pym, Nicola Barker, Kamila Shamsie, Sarah Kane, Agatha Christie. I enjoyed: Jenny Zhang, Zora Neale Hurston, Edith Wharton, Anne Carson, Alice Munro and Toni Morrison. Some of these are staples; it would be fair to say I did more re-reading than fresh reading.

I did not read many men. It is worth mentioning that I returned to James Baldwin and, to my utter chagrin, James Salter. They both write beautifully, but they are also very, very different writers, and sometimes I am disconcerted at how I could possibly like them both–or rather, how I could possibly justify liking the latter in the face of the former; although they are not directly opposed, Salter is so white. You couldn’t mistake it. I read a lot of Walter Benjamin for work, or rather, I ensured I could read him into work, and I am so glad I made that happen–I have grown into Benjamin, particularly his essays in One-Way Street and Illuminations, and the pleasure has skidded across days, even months. I binge-watched Jessica Jones like everyone else, and am still not over it, and do not want to be–but that is a separate essay, I think.

Writing from this year that I enjoyed to the fullest and even re-read, in parts: Jenny Offill, Durga-Chew Bose, Claudia Rankine, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Alexandra Kleeman and Elena Ferrante.  I mention them because of all the reading I did, their work springs to mind, which is a sort of sly test in itself, I suppose; those whose words, against all odds, press on the walls of your mind. I leave here extracts of works from two of these writers. From Elena Ferrante’s The Story of a New Name, the second of the Neapolitan Quartet:

My friend tugged her husband’s arm with both hands. She used all her strength, and I who knew her thoroughly felt that if she could she would have wrenched it from his body, crossed the room holding it high above her head, blood dripping in her train, and she would have used it as a club or a donkey’s jawbone to crush Marcello’s face with a solid blow. Ah yes, she would have done it, and at the idea my heart pounded furiously, my throat became dry. Then she would have dug out the eyes of both men, she would have torn the flesh from the bones of their faces, she would have bitten them. Yes, yes, I felt that I wanted that, I wanted it to happen. An end of love and of that intolerable celebration, no embraces in a bed in Amalfi. Immediately shatter everything and every person in the neighbourhood, tear them to pieces, Lila and I, go and live far away, lightheartedly descending together all the steps of humiliation, alone, in unknown cities. It seemed to me the just conclusion to that day. If nothing could save us, not money, not a male body, and not even studying, we might as well destroy everything immediately.

I have written about the quartet before, and will not say much more, only that I barely read fiction to affirm what I already know, or suspect, or at least I try not to, but the Neapolitan novels–because of world views crystallised to a sharp edge like this, both in style and thought–have affirmed in abundance a way of being with myself and feminist politics that I did not think I would be so grateful for. Life has been easier after reading Ferrante, even as circumstances themselves have become trickier, but the aftermath of the quartet is not so much a warm glow of undiminished selfhood as much as a dented armour of willingness to recognise and hold fort in one’s own way against the rabid unthinkingness of kyriarchy. There is also a tangible need to do more. This is a bonus of fiction, I tell you: one does not read to seek this, but now I think, why not?

Not coincidentally, then, I hugely admired Chew-Bose’s essay on Gus van Sant’s 1995 film To Die For. Two extracts I can’t stop thinking about:

At To Die For’s Cannes photocall, where the film was screening out of competition and ahead of its fall release, one picture in particular of Van Sant and Kidman comes to mind. I’ve always loved how directors appear unlikely-paired when standing next to their leads. How mutual respect between two people can, on occasion, look terribly awkward. Pasted together like a collage. While it’s usually a matter of height, clothes, gloss, grooming, there is, too, that quality movie stars possess: their very own aspect ratio. Luster sourced from some place secret. An exclusive deal with the elements.


In Joyce Maynard’s novel, Suzanne’s childhood dance teacher makes a point of noting that Suzanne had no rhythm growing up, characterizing her as a technician more so than a dancer: “Every step executed just right.” Harmless enough. However, when it comes to women who outrival, “execution” and “equipment” are terms that frequently crop up in an attempt to undermine. Precision is, in turn, code for not being a natural, yet that hard work is celebrated so long as it’s served seamlessly. More so, calling a young woman a perfectionist is sometimes backhanded praise, and accomplishments are provisional and contingent on one recurring phrase, popular in childhood and used, for example, by Suzanne’s mother: If she sets her mind to it.The idea being that if she focuses really hard and becomes, essentially, a human funnel of energy, wit, and emphasis, nothing is impossible.

The first extract I cite here because the glamour of her writing rivals in its attention and glitter, for me, the photograph she’s talking about. The second: again, that glimpse of women serving up a palatable form of labour, revealingly feminised in its utter defeminisation. It’s a quiet nod to the pitfalls of Lean-In feminism, which sits well with WASP-ish patriarchy’s code of ethics.

I want to round this year up with a passage from Marilynne Robinson’s Lila, which I am re-reading to undo knots that have emerged in my reading of her work. I am not sure why. This is a passage I can’t stop thinking about:

There were graves in Gilead with his name written out on them, and there was no one anywhere alive or dead with her name, since the first one belonged to the sister she never saw of a woman she barely remembered and the second one was just a mistake. Her name had the likeness of a name. She had the likeness of a woman, with hands but no face at all, since she never let herself see it. She had the likeness of a life, because she was all alone in it. She lived in the likeness of a house, with walls and a roof and a door that kept nothing in and nothing out. And when Doll took her up and swept her away, she had felt a likeness of wings.

A likeness of wings: I felt it in flashes, all year, sometimes because of reading or writing, sometimes because of people and places, in place, sometimes because the sea stretched out for miles and I could scarcely believe, in anything, and sometimes because the light in the room would be just right and the lifting was proof of life, of joy, in a way little else could be. Happy 2016.

On Three-Quarters of the Neapolitan Novels

I have some thoughts I want to put down quickly, mostly out of fear that I will forget. I am still reading the Neapolitan novels—I am nearly finished with book three, and slightly giddy at the prospect of book four—I am even considering an immediate re-read although I don’t think that is an indulgence suited for the moment. The Neapolitan quartet is, broadly, about the lives of two women, Lenù, or Elena, and Lila, or Lina to everyone but Lenù, from the age of eight to, I don’t know, sixty perhaps, and how they unfold in the city of Naples. It’s a saga, in the primary sense of the word, and Ferrante’s technical skill and the politics of her anonymity are more intricately noted here, and here.

I am not interested in that. But I hardly know where to begin. There is too much to say, with a great deal of both anguish and intrigue at the quartet prompting this impulse. Mostly, what I want to say is about care, I think, on this whole business of neoliberal self-care, which is an industry that I am increasingly viewing as serving to alienate various feminisms from each other to the point that after the kale, selfie and lipstick jokes are out of the way, we probably really should still be standing there in killjoy mode with our battered Lemys to ask what self-care means when it isn’t being co-opted by capitalism. I have no answers, but I suspect Ferrante does.

First of all—and I would like to extend what Dayna Tortorici has written about this with respect to Ferrante’s other novels here, to the Neapolitan novels—it is the premise of the place of work in the lives of both women, Lila and Lenù, and in the lives of the women they grow up around and engage with. Work is what saves them, even from themselves. “Work — routine — is a detergent for the mind, lifting the stain of another person’s unwelcome encroachment,” writes Tortorici. You see this over and over again with Lenù and Lila.

This work isn’t necessarily well-paid or skilled work, it is sometimes zero-hours-minimum-wage that may make rent. If for Lenù–and this is a reading I am reluctant to camp with–work is a manner of getting ahead of Lila, and it isn’t although she will have us believe so then for Lila it is the thing that keeps her alive, moving ahead, almost against life in order to feel it when she attempts to violate her everyday, if not with it.

This is not noteworthy in itself; others are better positioned to write about Italian feminist politics of the time; the changing nature of housework, feminism with, against or within fascism, etc. What is remarkable at least in as much as these are novels, works of fiction, is that this work is positioned to “lift” what Tortorici calls the “stain” of another person; these people are frequently men, men who treat women like scum, liberal educated men and illiterate gangsters and late-blooming communists and economic geographers who get away with all that violence: intellectual, physical, emotional. The men v/s work divide is pure genius in as much as the latter becomes essential by the middle of book two in a way that the former never has been to both women; if this wasn’t clear before in the diverging paths that Lenù and Lila took, it is clear as fucking daylight now, and we’d do well as readers to give in to it. Ferrante is clear: the work we do will save us from men, whom we are tricked into needing but don’t need, by the way.

This is the second fantastic aspect of her novels; from the very beginning, we are taught to eye these men warily. All of them. No exceptions, not even nice boy Enzo. This is some terrifyingly efficacious coaching in re-reading fiction, where the rug is pulled from under your little feminist feet because Ferrante quietly cultivates this storm inside you as a reader, so by the time you’ve finished My Brilliant Friend, and The Story of a New Name a few days later, and have nearly read all of Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay in one sitting the day after that, you are not reading against the novel, as Eve Sedgwick would caution you about, but, against all odds, with it. In other words, these are feminist novels, the protagonists are women, and a happy ending, should there even be one, will be about the women. And it may well be about them escaping men, and we would do well do know that.

It’s been a while since I trusted fiction so productively, held it close to my heart so keenly.

I want to acknowledge too that it is more complex than I seem to be allowing for here; Lila’s work at the sausage factory is literally a crash course in how patriarchy controls, sexualises and dehumanises labour, particularly women’s labour. You work for the men who will oppress you in order to escape the men who will oppress you, etc. Here is Silvia Federici on the intersections: “Though women’s waged work, housework, and (paid) sexual work are still studied often in isolation from each other, we are now in a better position to see that the discrimination that women have suffered in the waged work-force has been directly rooted in their function as unpaid laborers in the home” (2004: 94). But you root for Lenù and Lila, you worry about the men in their lives, as Ferrante has trained you to, because she is writing unabashedly with that very agenda. It is not an accident that these men emerge as cultivated monsters, it is Ferrante’s deliberate, ringing voice from page one of My Brilliant Friend asking that you recognise this, in the novels, in your friendships, around you, asking that you respect the value and place of work and female friendships in your life because they will—or can—save you when men cannot, or at least they will kill you in ways you prefer. Here is Lila on Michele Solara, a man who has pursued her since they were children (which is putting it mildly):

Once, she thought, he asked me to become his lover, But that’s not what he really wants, there’s something else, something that doesn’t have to do with sex and that not even he can explain. He’s obsessed, it’s like a superstition. Maybe he thinks that I have a power and that that power is indispensable to him. He wants it but he can’t get it, and it makes him suffer, it’s a thing he can’t take from me by force.

The question I found myself asking constantly, even as the days went by in the novel: what does it mean to be treated well by a man? That he doesn’t hit us, or abuse us in any form; yes, all that. But also perhaps that he doesn’t patronise us, that the emotional walls that he builds as a man for us to scale—this is literally a line from book 2—explode, like Lila’s boundaries, as soon as they are built? If I give him sex will he let me be, but equally, will he let me be, live, write, if I don’t? Are we all replaceable simulacra in the lives of a man, like the women are in Nino Sarratore’s life? Does abstaining from abuse mean we are being treated well, or that we are being treated as merely human? When our standards are so low, both in professional patriarchy and in our private lives, is there a difference?

Lenù and Lila don’t think so, and I’ll tell you why: it’s because they see, however dimly, how they can be valued, they see the magnificent potential that grows within them to realise their best self in treating a beloved with self-reflexive love, because they both treat each other like that. Solara is not alone in recognising that power in Lila, Lenù—and most of Naples, let’s be honest—knows it too. The difference is that Solara wants to harness it, like Lila were some kind of animal whose genetic and social properties are a cure for his eternal inadequacy. Lila and Lenù are the worst for each other, because they see through each other–or so Lenù writes–but they also treat each other better than any man could. Lenù knows this, Lila doesn’t, or she doesn’t explicitly according to Lenù as of book 3, a real fucking tragedy if you happen to be looking for one. Is self-care also about acknowledging care that arrives, bruised, having jerked itself out of patriarchy’s bloody hands? Is self-care about recognising how the power in a woman so beloved to you can be a safeguard for your own struggles with womanhood? I don’t say this as a logical extension of mere care, but without wanting to give away anymore, there is an essay waiting to happen on Lenù and Lila as lesbian lovers, naturally.

Which is possibly why, even as I devoured them, the novels have been so hard to read. It is easy to recognise some form of man or another in the books from literature, culture, the world around you—the names read off an endless scroll, I should think—but more importantly, it is easier to recognise the women friends, whom one has inevitably lost to men. Lila’s disappearance—which opens the series and almost justifies the telling of the story, oddly reminiscent of the disappearance at the end in Murakami’s Sputnik Sweetheart—is much more than a metaphor, it is a validation and reclaiming of the constant disappearing of women through history. I had to put the books down then, and think: What has Ferrante put her finger on that is unsettling me in this moment? And then, if I had the energy: How does she do it?

A third, brief point: most of Ferrante’s women in the Neapolitan quartet struggle with mental health issues. This isn’t surprising. What is surprising is how deftly and openly Ferrante works with this reality. No glamorising, no shame. Just the unnerving reality of having to endure, god, endure, will the triumph of having endured ever diminish? That it is frequently complicated by its intersections with patriarchy and sexual politics is not a coincidence, thank god. The novels are “realist” in as much as they aren’t fantasy, but Lila’s “dissolving boundaries”—which I have chosen to read as a kind of breakdown, especially by book three—mess with the question of autobiography and world-building, if not genre itself. Lila has breakdowns, then, but Lenù’s struggle against emptiness and her continuous anxiety are performative of this struggle too. The deceptive first-person that dictates the quartet: once you get past the guise of autobiography, you are left with the voice of a woman you cannot trust, even as you trust the stories being told by her.

A last, related, perhaps inadequate point to conclude this, to return to the neoliberal politics of care. Artist Hannah Black is spot on when she muses aloud, in an interview about self-care: “Don’t you think that is like, pure capitalist reification though, in the sense of like, making a thing of a thing that is just a thing?” Yes, indeed. We arrive at writing, particularly in the realm of women’s writing, as a form of self-care, matrixed within the neoliberal project of patriarchy but also slipping out of it ever so often. The Neapolitan novels are fundamentally about women who write. I would stack them up there right with Joanna Russ, bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Virginia Woolf, Kate Zambreno and Gayatri Spivak. Ferrante is part of that legacy; the books are about lots of things, but they are also mostly about what it means to be a woman who makes sense of the world through writing, for herself, for capitalist consumption, and how both can be redeeming and forms of complex, unrelenting care in their own ways.

I welcome this, and I hold it at an arm’s length because, well, no, it’s too much. Some of us are women who write for a living, it’s easier to deal with that when we pretend it’s happening to Lenù and Lila, not us. Lenù expands her world by making her way uncertainly through it; her writing enables her to stay on the supposedly ethnographic outside. For Lila, writing is a way through the world; writing the world out in her diaries and letters so that her disappearance is not just the absence of herself and every trace of her, but also everything that could have been known about her. The potential of it, because we cannot stop thinking of writing as holding the keys to understanding the (w)hole of someone. Lili Loofburrow, in a gut-wrenching essay about her sister’s suicide and how the Neapolitan novels helped her make sense of her sister’s absence: “Within the affective system Ferrante sketches out in the Neapolitan novels, erasure is an aesthetic as well as an intimate act.” Here is Lenù the narrator, in book three:

This may be the last time I’ll talk about Lila with a wealth of detail. Later on she became more evasive, and the material at my disposal was diminished. It’s the fault of our lives diverging, the fault of distance. And yet even when I lived in other cities and we almost never met, and she as usual didn’t give me any news and I made an effort not to ask for it, her shadow goaded me, depressed me, filled me with pride, deflated me, giving me no rest.

Today, as I’m writing, that goad is even more essential. I wish she were here, that’s why I’m writing. I want her to erase, add, collaborate in our story by spilling into it, according to her whim, the things she knows, what she said or thought […]

Perhaps it is testament to Ferrante’s writing that we forget that but isn’t this how we live our lives? I don’t know what book four will bring but Lenù’s desperate and skillful narration of chosen details of her friendship with Lila so the latter can be embalmed, in a manner of speaking, is self-care in the most basic sense; not the kind where a thing is made of a thing that is just a thing, but the thing that we have to remind ourselves is a thing so we can carry on doing it. And the difference is important. Lili is right, Lenù’s narration could be viewed as a kind of retrospective violence in so far as it is the opposite of what Lila so fiercely desired; it stops Lila from disappearing completely. A story narrated once, twice, eight times, to ourselves, to others: at what point does it stop being “true” and start being real? There are stories we tell ourselves in order to enable survival, which we sometimes call care, self or otherwise. Lenù’s story of their lives is one that is consistently generous and, at its best, demonstrates the ugly politics of care—and its utterly tender failures.