‘Looking for Miss Sargam: Stories of Music and Misadventure’ (Speaking Tiger Books, 2019) is Hindustani classical musician Shubha Mudgal’s first attempt at fiction. The book is a collection of seven heartwarming stories about Indian classical music set against a contemporary backdrop. In the acknowledgements, Mudgal summarizes that “humor camouflages the inevitable sadness that often casts a shadow over the lives of artists.”
While the stories talk about the music business from the perspective of the media, diplomacy and the diaspora, it also addresses it from the country’s heartland—its small towns and villages. The stories subtly delve into how classical music in India has evolved over the years due to various external influences and the struggle among its practitioners of traditional and modern schools of thought.
The following is a short summary of five of the vignettes from ‘Looking for Miss Sargam: Stories of Music and Misadventure’.
‘Aman Bol’ is a spoof on The Times of India’s real-life 2010 campaign with The Jang Group. This story involves musical collaborations between artists from two neighboring countries. The story presents a humorous side to all that went on behind the scenes to put together this publicity stunt–a ‘concert of peace.’
‘Foreign Returned’, on the politics of foreign tours in the music industry, shows how Indians living in the US perceive Hindustani classical music. The story also touches on some delicate, modern-day challenges that the art is facing, such as clashes between gurus and their shishyas.
‘Taan Kaptaan’ focuses on a small-town musician who gets into the big, bad world of showbiz once he enters a partnership with a big businessman during a musical talent hunt. When he is duped, he has to, literally, ‘face the music’.
‘A Farewell to Music’ is about a music label looking to reestablish itself as the country’s number one label. The story highlights how Hindustani classical music is being distorted in the present day, due to a conflict in ideologies between the traditionalists and young musicians, who are experimenting with music and altering it to fit the tastes of current listeners.
‘Manzoor Rehmati’ is a story revolving around an average harmonium player who meets an influential Ustad in a quest to receive a Padma Shri award. The story sheds light on the prevailing lobbies that act to push for the prestigious national honor.
While reading the book, it is evident that Mudgal is writing about so many people whom she may have possibly encountered and worked with during her long and illustrious career as a Hindustani classical musician. They all come together and make up an interesting cast of characters in this witty book that could even make for a fun Bollywood potboiler!
Neha Kirpal is a freelance writer based in New Delhi. She is the author of ‘Wanderlust for the Soul,’ an e-book collection of short stories based on travel in different parts of the world.
The first two months of 2019 are seeing the release of two films — Ek Ladki Ko Dekha To Aisa Laga and Evening Shadows that may just open up the conversation around same-sex relationships in Indian families. January 11 saw the release of Evening Shadows, a film that talks about a gay man coming out to his conservative family and the consequences of his decision.
Feb 1 will see the release of Ek Ladki Ko Dekha To Aisa Laga (ELKDTAL) that is strongly hinting at lesbian love and family acceptance. Could these films bring about a conversation between Indian LGBTQ children and their parents, many of whom find it hard to accept alternate sexuality?
Evening Shadows tells the story of Karthik (Devansh Doshi), a photographer who goes back to his home town from Mumbai and reveals to his conservative mother (played by Mona Ambegaonkar) that he is gay. The film is about the mother’s journey to come to terms with her son’s homosexuality. It’s also the story of a woman in a patriarchal set up standing up to her husband (Ananth Mahadevan) for herself and her son.
Evening Shadows released to mixed reviews from critics but has been universally acknowledged for its theme and intention. ELKDTAL is already creating a huge Twitter buzz thanks to its trailer that says #LetLoveBe. Produced by Vidhu Vinod Chopra and directed by Shelly Chopra Dhar, what’s getting the film’s trailer a lot of eyeballs is a mainstream actress like Sonam Kapoor playing the lead. The trailer shows Sonam speaking of a secret she cannot share with anyone and ends with her holding hands and sitting with another girl.
Films broaching the subject of homosexuality have rarely made noise for the right reasons in India. Film maker Deepa Mehta’s 1996 film Fire (1996) sparked a controversy; Onir’s My Brother Nikhil(2005) wasn’t noticed much. Aligarh (2016), based on a true story, was released in 2016 after Censor Board cuts. It was critically acclaimed but didn’t make an impact on a mass scale.
There are hopes for a change, though.
On September 6, 2018, the Supreme Court of India struck down Section 377, a colonial law that criminalized homosexuality. Despite the positive judgement and an emerging conservation around India on LGBTQ rights, talking about sexual orientation remains a taboo topic in India, especially among families.
Shelley Chopra Dhar, the director of ELKDTAL, hopes her film might be a catalyst in some people’s lives. In a voiceover to the film’s trailer she adds, “There is nothing, no problem, no issue, no entanglements in our brain that cannot be cleared by just changing our perspective.”
Evening Shadows’ director, Sridhar Rangayan, feels the film has already made a dent in some ways. “Those who have seen Evening Shadows in India and many parts of the world have said this film mirrors the kind of conversations that they have had with their parents already, or offers them hope to begin conversations. There has been a barrage of requests on social media for the film to be available widely so youngsters can show it to their families. Many want to come out to their parents by showing this film. Even non-LGBTQ youngsters have said that the film shows the divide between generations and the need for conversations.”
Saagar Gupta, creative director and dialogue writer of Evening Shadows, thinks such films could be the flashpoint in starting that dialogue of understanding and acceptance within families.
Queer representation in Hindi cinema has usually been more caricatures than sensitive — remember the shocked Kantabai from Kal Ho Na Ho (2003)? Despite occasional gems like Aligarh, movies focused on a queer theme have not made much of a social impact either. In a post-377 environment, the release of two movies focused on the queer theme and family acceptance could probably be a sign of times to come.
Rangayan, who with real-life partner Gupta, started writing the Evening Shadows screenplay almost seven years ago ends with a note of hope: “though the verdict regarding Sec 377 kept changing in between, but our film’s end remains the same right through as our intention was to bring forth the much-needed dialogue between Indian LGBTQ children with their families and vice-versa.”
Hindi films often act as a social impact catalyst for issues that Indians find difficult to talk about. They also have the power to introduce new ideas. Earlier in 2018, a Hindi film called Padman went a long way in starting conversations around menstruation. Perhaps films like Evening Shadows and ELKDTAL could work towards easing the conversation in Indian families around having same-sex partners.
Not an easy road yet
With 15 international awards and a 54 film festiva run, Sridhar Rangayan and Saagar Gupta thought there will be a beeline for distributing Evening Shadows. “But we realized soon enough that a LGBTQ feature film with no known star cast is a tough sell in India. The distribution system still goes by the book, as much as the Censor Board – only here the rule book is commercial viability. There are no risk takers,” says Rangayan.
Evening Shadows is directed by Rangayan and written by Rangayan and Gupta.They eventually released the film themselves by turning distributors with their company Solaris Picture. Rangayan adds, “We did a limited release of 15 shows in 6 cities and are now planning to release the film in Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities in India where such films can make a huge difference.”
The tepid reaction Rangayan and Gupta got from mainstream Bollywood producers and directors is probably reason enough to make more films that focus on taking the queer conversation forward.
Ek Ladki Ko Dekha To Aisa Laga (2019). Director: Shelly Chopra Dhar. Writer: Gazal Dhaliwal. Shelly Chopra Dhar. Cast: Sonam Kapoor, Anil Kapoor, Juhi Chawla, Rajkumar Rao, Regina Cassandra. Music: Rochak Kohli. Producer: Vidhu Vinod Chopra. Distributed by: Fox Star Studios, 20th Century Fox.
Reshmi Chakraborty is a freelance writer based in Pune. She writes on diverse themes and co-runs a startup for older adults. Read more at www.silvertalkies.com.
Photo credits: Solaris Films, Imdb.
This article was edited by Culture and Media Editor Geetika Pathania Jain.