The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

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Some books are meant to be savoured a few pages at a time. Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop is one of those. With her sparse unadorned prose and economy of words, it reminded me of Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending. I find it hard to believe that this was her second novel but it isn’t hard to believe that it was shortlisted for the Booker. She started writing after 60 and quickly became one of the forces to be reckoned with in British literature. It is one of the few books where I don’t mind having seen the film (brilliantly adapted by Isabel Coixet) first because it was true to the book, and left quite an impression on me.

When I got the book I was disappointed to see the shape the book was in. What did I expect of a copy that’s as old as me and was published in 1978! But instead of returning it, I started reading it that day itself, trying to read it at the slowest possible speed so as to absorb every little detail, every turn of the phrase. I could afford to do that because I had already seen the film, otherwise the book is quite compelling.

Florence is a widow, who plans to open a bookshop with the little money her husband left her, but the locals aren’t keen on it, particularly a high society woman (for the lack of a better word), Mrs Gamart, who wants to open an arts centre in the same place.

We all have that one bookshop in our city where we bought our books growing up, one which has stood the test of time. The place becomes a landmark and holds countless memories because of how it is linked to our formative years. Florence intends to build such a place in the hostile little town she resides in.

It is not a cheerful book but hard-hitting and incisive. It is about a community of people who are resistant to change. It is also about the nature of business and what goes on behind the scenes. Reading about arranging books and the working of the library made me feel a strange wistfulness which quickly gave way to relief. For those for you who have always wanted to open a bookshop or a library, The Bookshop would serve as a real eye-opener.

Understated, loud, quietly menacing, cowardly – all her characters are distinct, and in a slim volume without much background information we still get to know what these characters stand for. At the same time they remain an enigma and you can’t quite grasp why they do the things they do. The book is a masterclass in writing (of show not tell should be her middle name) and one, which will throw up new things on each reading.

Spoilers ahead.

Florence fends for herself and doesn’t play the part of a hapless widow, and that perhaps offends some people more than others. More importantly, she thinks she can do it all on her own because her intentions are good (ha!). Her outsider status adds to her woes. The question here isn’t how much time one has spent in a place but how well one integrates in to the community. To survive is a tricky business as it is.

It’s a peculiar thing to take a step forward in middle age, but having done it I don’t intend to retreat.

Florence appoints bossy Christine as her assistant; a 10 year old who speaks her mind (she more or less hires herself). Christine is outspoken and likes to do things her way. The third child in a household she learns from an early age to fend for herself. She gives the book some much needed comic relief by the way she sees life.

How Christine’s life changes due to working for Florence, and the direction her life took we can’t exactly say, but all deep associations change us, especially with people who are markedly different from us.

The two of them during the past months, had not been without their effect on one another. If Florence was more resilient, Christine had grown more sensitive.

Continue reading “The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald”

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Fitoor

As the movie began there was a wide smile on my face watching young Noor and Firdaus. The stirrings of first love. The awkwardness and the unexpected pleasures that lie ahead. Young love is so beautiful, the possibilities are endless but when it doesn’t work out which is inevitable because it is not made to weather the storms of the world, you get your heartbroken. It is a rite of passage. You feel as if you will never be whole again and your pain is unprecedented in the history of mankind. (Guess what it’s not and this one is practice for getting your heartbroken many times during the course of your life.) A door to a new world is opened and the universe is forever altered.

Mohammed Abrar as the young Noor is terrific as the vulnerable, shy boy who desperately wants to belong, and be a part of Firdaus’s world. Earnest and likable, I would have liked to see more of him. Watch out for the hole in the shoe moment; it is tender and heartbreaking.

The innocence is carried forth into adulthood by Aditya Roy Kapur splendidly. My eyes stay on Noor even when he isn’t shirtless. Katrina as Firdaus looks chic but not that big a departure from her conventional avatars. She looked better in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, if you ask me. Tabu is matchless as the Begum who plays Firdaus’s mother. No husband in sight, it’s just her and her daughter. It is her machinations which drive the plot forward, and it is her story which sets the tone for the characters.

He is thrust into the world of art after an anonymous benefactor recommends Noor’s name (it is not who you think it is) to an art residency in Delhi, a world far removed from his own. Here the adult Firadaus makes her first appearance in his life.

Unsure about his place in the world, making art is the only thing that makes sense to him. He doesn’t know why he loves Firdaus. He just does. This gravity defying love he feels for Firdaus I don’t understand (must read Great Expectations!) but I suppose that’s what great love stories are about.

His lack of sure-footedness is portrayed convincingly. A lost soul, a dreamy artist but chillingly aware of the harsh realities of life. He doesn’t quite fit into the unforgiving materialistic world he is a part of.

The scenes where he’s making art shine. He is perfectly believable as a tortured artist. It is not exactly a case of the artist and the muse but a case of unrequited infatuation. quite possibly love finding a vessel in his art and hence her serving as a muse first indirectly then directly. Watch the movie it will make sense to you.

Firdaus is a terrible beauty who feels but knows that she is not allowed to feel. Noor emotes with his eyes and carries his pain in his persona.

More than the lead characters the movie belongs to Tabu which is a shame because it was marketed as a love story. Slowly fading away in sadness and illness, the elaborate costumes make her look deranged. Never seen a character like this in Hindi cinema (or maybe I haven’t watched that many movies). Continue reading “Fitoor”

Lipstick Under My Burkha

The movie Lipstick Under My Burkha is a brutal attack on patriarchy. No wonder the CBFC had a problem with it. But thanks to the controversy it generated a huge buzz and many people are in theatres to see it (besides perverts that is), who would have otherwise missed it. It is doing good business even in small towns (How do I know? I live in one). The movie is exceptional because of the way it shows women as they are. Messy, emotional, pliable, virtuous, out of control, not always keeping it together, and certainly not perfect but beautiful, flawed creatures.

Four women in different stages of life. It is set in Bhopal though it could be any small town in India. Ratna Pathak Shah is outstanding as ‘Buaji’, an identity slapped on her for so long that she has forgotten what her name is. She rediscovers romance and wants to live and love a little but at her age it’s a taboo. A college student played by Plabita Borthakur, Rehana, longs to leave her burkha behind and dance with abandon. A beautician played by Aahana Kumra, Leela, wants to live life on her own terms unafraid of societal diktats. A tormented housewife, Shirin, played by Konkona Sen Sharma, is saddled with an abusive husband with no way out.

We see the different ways women are subjugated. It was depressing to see how they go about their lives trying to fulfill their desires in secret. The only way to live out their dreams and fantasies is when they are hidden from the world, their families, neighbours, everyone. If it is an inhospitable environment for their dreams imagine the world they are living in. They go to immense lengths to conceal their true selves just to live in this world without being ostracized.

It is always women who lead lives of quiet desperation. Mostly. There wouldn’t be a woman in the country who wouldn’t identify with at least one of the characters.

It’s that rare film where every actor is perfectly cast. Vikrant Massey (Leela’s love interest) and Sushant Singh (Shirin’s husband) are fantastic in their roles, especially the latter which could have easily been a caricature in the hands of a lesser actor. I’m yet to see A Death in the Gunj but Vikrant Massey is superb here as the on-again-off-again boyfriend. Continue reading “Lipstick Under My Burkha”