Nobody’s Daughter Haewon – By Hong Sang Soo (Korean, 2013)

Nobody--Daughter-Haewon-2012_18Warning: Spoilers ahead. It’s best to read this piece after having watched the film.


Nobody’s Daughter Haewon is a gently comic look at its protagonist, Haewon, a young acting student. Through the film, Haewon is shown sharing a warm relationship with her mother, being pursued by successful older men, being hated by her friends for being rich and aristocratic (neither of which she actually is, though she might wish to have been), while almost everyone repeatedly tells her how pretty, and what a good, brave person she is. Her married ex-lover and teacher Professor Lee still loves her, and throws jealous fits when he gets to know she has slept with others when they were not dating. (Professor Lee is the one who had broken off the relationship.) Eventually he is ready to leave his family for her, but Haewon, being wise, breaks it off, while he sheds copious tears.


She also somewhat ‘reluctantly’ lets out the secret of her affair with Professor Lee to her friends (in fact, she is dying to tell people about it; perhaps it feels claustrophobic to keep it to herself), and a miracle too happens in the course of the film with “mind control”, while her accomplished suitor has a chat with, implausibly enough, Martin Scorsese. Intercut throughout these scenes are shots of Haewon either sleeping or writing.


Most, if not the entire film, is Haewon’s daydream, or perhaps the class assignment to “prepare two scenes” that her fellow student informs her about. The hint, that Haewon is a compulsive dreamer, is given in the first scene itself, when, out of the blue, she bumps into Jane Birkin who, surprisingly enough, tells Haewon she resembles her daughter, the singer and actress Charlotte Gainsbourg. Haewon confesses she would do anything to be like Gainsbourg. In fact it’s as if Haewon wishes she were someone else, perhaps Charlotte Gainsbourg herself, while wishing Jane Birkin to be her mother. Once it’s made clear this was a daydream, we cut to the same location, the street where Jane Birkin walked, and see another woman, in similar colored clothes as Birkin. But this woman is Asian, shorter, different, and turns out to be Haewon’s practically estranged mother. (They haven’t met for five years.) Haewon’s idealistic fantasies explain just how lonely she really is — she is nobody’s daughter.


One of the best bits I liked about the film are the clumsy, amateurish, and at times rather randomly motivated zooms and pans. The film, as I said earlier, seems to be largely another film, set inside the aspiring actress Haewon’s head. There’s a running gag on smoking and unextinguished cigarettes lying on the road — perhaps a funny and rather pointless effort at symbolism by the young film school student. In between there are meditations on how all secrets are revealed by death, (“Death resolves all”), perhaps the kind of ruminations expected from a young artist. The film itself holds the opposite to be true — death only shrouds everything in secrecy. We know nothing about the lives of the men who built the fort Haewon frequents.


Only in the end do we realize that much, if not all, the film is a fantasy (or a film school assignment). And it would perhaps require a second viewing to see how the scenes, with all their carefully realized nuances, are actually in Haewon’s head. It is significant perhaps, that Haewon is an actress, someone who constantly needs to be somebody else. There is gentle, ironic comedy at her expense, and a sense of her loneliness and sadness, and one almost feels like patting Haewon on the head and saying, “There, there.”

India Today plagiarizes Playboy magazine’s center-spread

Here is a post I did for Faking News.

Fan page or outrage, anything goes! 🙂

The Age of Truth

This is a short story I wrote years ago. Reproduced here with a few changes.

It had been a long, hard day for Janki. She had had to sit in the Investigation and Examination Chamber at the Judicial Station, conducting examinations and filing reports all day.

Some of the criminals had tried to lie. Janki had felt scared, terrified, of their sheer stupidity. If they lied after having been administered the truth serum, it would obviously show up on the cerebra scan – and it did. Didn’t the crazy fools know they would be laid to rest for lying to the State?

But it was a good time to be living in. After having tried for millennia, Humanity had finally reached an era where the World was based on Truth. There was no place for lies anymore. This did not mean that there was no crime. It was in Human Nature to disturb, offend, and rob of materials or dignity, to kill. But you couldn’t afford to lie anymore. And if you did, you paid dearly. It was tough, very tough, if you had a secret from the State.

As she thought all this, Janki unzipped her work suit and went for a wash. The water felt cold for a split second but immediately adjusted itself to the temperature she wanted. The speed of Science! Till a few months back you had to think hard and concentrate on getting the right temperature. But now the faucet’s internal machinery simply gauged your subconscious levels. If you felt you wanted warm water, without even knowing it, you got it.

Aah… it felt good. So much precious time had been lost while commuting back home because of pro and anti-Spod demonstrations on the speedship’s way.

All of a sudden she remembered Bess. She had forgotten to feed Bess. Apologetically, Janki rushed to the next room, the ‘nursery’, where Bess had crumpled herself up. But she started to look better the moment Janki sprinkled some of the Methane Rich Space Mineral on her.

Bess was Janki’s pet Spod. Spods were extra terrestrial organisms from Titan, Saturn’s offspring. Astronauts who had apparently been cured of psychosomatic disorders by Spods in outer space had introduced them on Earth. They looked like a strange version of Earth plants. They had what one would call leaves, stems and flowers, but most came in shades of aquamarine instead of the earthly greens. They were usually kept potted, but some could grow to be strong enough to crawl and move about on their own. Spods reacted to their owners’ presence and voices. Perhaps even earthly plants did, but they were never as demonstrative as the spods were. There weren’t many earthly plants left to demonstrate their feelings anyway. Bess began to gently flap about and make tiny cooing sounds when Janki came in close contact. Eerily enough, it was also said that spods often absorbed and then reflected the very qualities of their masters. So far Bess seemed to have been just as gentle and quiet as Janki.

But despite being the enigmatic creatures that they were, some spods were also given to violent displays of behavior. In the next neighborhood, one big leafy spod had smacked a child hard because it didn’t want its ‘Mom’ to shower affection on her human offspring. Rumour had it that the spod was reflecting what its mistress herself secretly wanted. (The truth serum was to be administered to her soon). Some spods had even killed. And some were gradually found to be carnivorous. The Television news had reported that a jealous spod had killed its owner’s husband by spraying a strange liquid on him, and had spat out the mutilated entrails of the man. The family immediately had the shrieking spod exterminated. But the spod had become well known, almost an infamous celebrity, and its gigantic silky, striped, multi-hued ‘leaves’ were auctioned off to a well known fashion designer who crafted perhaps something more useful, like a rug, out of them.

That’s what the protests were related to. The spod lovers did not want spods to be slaughtered to make fashion statements. (Spod really was the new Leather!). There were the in-betweens, some of them wanting spods to be ‘harvested’ only for research and medicinal purposes, others who thought it was unethical to uproot them from their parental planet anyway. The Anti-Spods simply wanted the spods to be thrown out of the Earth. Studies were pointing that spods were damaging the ecosystem and had been partly responsible for the dying out of most earth vegetation through (perhaps deliberate) emission of certain rays. Not to mention, their violent responses to human beings at times.

Janki did not know what side she was on. All of them spoke the truth.

Janki looked at Bess. Bess could do no harm, she thought. She was such a petite, mild creature. At least Janki liked to think that Bess was a ‘she’. She had begun sprouting tiny, white and yellow and pink flowerets that would often change colors. In fact Janki noticed that they would blossom even more whenever Janki was menstruating.

All of a sudden Janki was afraid. She left the spod to flap about on its own as she left the room.

Janki went back to her bedroom and settled down on to the big cushion to entertain herself. A tiny chip lodged in the wall glistened in front of her. She put on eye gear, which in her great grandmother’s time would have perhaps looked like outlandish, or fashionable, sunshades, depending on the fashion of the times. As soon as she wore them the tiny chip seemed to liquefy and expand into a giant screen in front of her eyes. A mass of gigantic men and women appeared before her. But the stories were not ordinary anymore. They were your stories. You could now participate in the them, influence the plot, the characters, the atmosphere. Ah… the pleasures of the Age they lived in.

She knew that once upon a time people went into cinema houses to watch movies; big, dark caves where they would temporarily live other lives. Some wanted this paraphernalia back. They said it was like the ancient days when people would sit in the night, under a canopy of stars, and around a fire, passing a pipe, and telling each other stories. It was an almost prehistoric human instinct to share experiences with others. Strangers in cinema houses would get bound into communities for a short while. Then there were others who compared the experience of going to the darkened cinema with entering your mother’s womb again, of experiencing and knowing life through the consciousness of another. But in this day and age these setups weren’t commercially viable. There weren’t enough people left to fill up the caves anyway. Strange, how could they feel nostalgic for the times they had never seen!

For Janki it was impossible to imagine herself participating in such a thing. No, it wasn’t about the spread of infectious disease anymore – the Rages had finally been brought under control, and had paradoxically seen to it that only the healthiest (or the luckiest) would survive. Her fear was related to the “dark forces” — criminal, lurking humans, pretending to be ‘normal’. Although how could anyone be ‘normal’ if they dared to confront the truth sensors with secrets, lies and unlawful activities? There were anarchic, catastrophic possibilities. These people could completely disembowel your Truth. They could devise ways of hacking into others’ Self Identity chips. They could tamper with your entire history – all that had been recorded so far – major events in your life, your emotion graphs…! Your complete existence could be bared naked to them! Janki shuddered to think of the strange things that could start happening — they could erase events and memories belonging to your past, so you would be left feeling unexplained emotions for things you had no consciousness of. Or they could implant memories of events you had never actually been through, and you would be left feeling bizarre residues of emotions related to these false fictional experiences. You would be left encountering phenomena you would absolutely fail to understand, and which would probably drive you mad because you would keep wondering who you really were.

And nobody had a right to this information except for the State. It was tough, very tough to keep secrets from them.

Jealous lovers began killing people on Janki’s Television. She couldn’t concentrate on the TV anymore, so she decided to get a chilled OxySip from the fridge. As she walked into the kitchen the fridge had already laid its door ajar for her, anticipating her arrival. It followed it up with a “Bonjour Madame! Bon Appetit!” in a singsong recorded voice. Jan had installed that tacky device in the refrigerator. Initially it was funny, but now it was plain irritating. But she was hoping the refrigerator had sensed her mind and it wouldn’t bother her now. She opened the fridge panel and checked. She was right. The dial had moved on its own to ‘Mute’. Jan was Janak, after whom she, his daughter, had been named. He was the soft, maternal kind, always spoiling her. Tipu was the other Dad, rock solid and macho. There wasn’t any mother. She had been an embryo fertilized from the eggs harvested from an unborn female foetus. But she didn’t miss having a real mother. Jan was maternal enough.

She sank back into her cushion, this time thinking of Samudra.

It was common to love in groups. But a few people still preferred to be couples, like her parents. But normally three or four people loved and shared each other. And like almost everything else, she didn’t know where she stood.

Janki had met both Samudra and Disha when the two were together. For some time the three seemed happy together. But gradually there were anxieties, with the couple now having become a trio. Samudra and Disha fought and fought and shouted and wept, till Janki had had enough and threatened to slit her protective skin coating. It worked. She had brokered peace for some time. But what kind of peace? The violent outbursts were now followed by an uncomfortable silence. And one day Disha just got up and left. Or so it seemed. It was almost as if she had dissolved away. Nobody could make contact with her or her chip. Some speculated suicide. But Janki knew the Truth. The Identity Chips embedded beneath everyone’s skin were not entirely bio degradable. And Janki knew where Disha’s Identity Chip lay now, though the rest of her might be tiny atoms floating in the stratosphere. And that left Samudra and Janki alone with each other. A couple. Like her parents. No one else was needed. Yes, she knew.

It was tough – very tough, if you kept a secret from Your Self.

She couldn’t get through to Samudra. Oh, dear, dear, Beloved Goddess… is he leaving me… alone? Communication with his chip was blocked. Had he walled communication only with her? Samudra the Virtuous. Samudra the Pure. Had he found out a Truth about Janki which he shouldn’t have known? Was he worried about what people would say? Had he disowned her? Had he… contacted the State? He would… Samudra the Truthful. Was the State reading her Identity chip now?

She tried taking her mind off this, and replayed an older message from him. “Hi, Janki! You probably can’t get through. I’ve been deep sea diving out here. You’ll refuse to believe how divine this place is! This water, out here, is unbelievable! It’s so fresh; it’s out of this world! I even saw some fish in the deep waters. They were so colorful and exciting! But so shy and scared. And there are so many real trees. I can’t believe how Antarctica could have once been a snow and ice desert. This place is pure, Janki. You don’t even require to give babies a protective skin coating when they are born… And what was I going to add… Yeah… Brad gifted me a fossilized penguin egg. It had been in his family for generations. Now, that’s some gift! But it’s not the millions-of-years kind of fossilization. It’s that sped up process which took only a few weeks…you’ve heard of it, haven’t you…in our great grandparents’ time, whenever a species began to approach extinction, people would start making mementos out of them. I know you’ll say that makes the fossil unauthentic, right? But Brad’s parted with a family heirloom. You’ll like him, I suppose. You should love people, Janki. Look, don’t feel bad… … …”

Fossilizing was a useless attempt at preserving life, she thought. The egg and its embryo were dead already. It was just an inert object reminding you of a time when Life and Love were still alive. There was no Truth left in it now.

Sometimes Janki too would want to take her second skin off. You could only glimpse at your real self for a few moments in hospitals, if you had an emergency and they would have to cut you up. What was better? The freedom to feel, or the risk of immediate dissolution? Like … Disha. Like what had been done to no what she had done to what had happened to no they did it but she forced her she needed him the blood had squirted out of her coating.

Everyone knew your mind except for yourself. The TV knew. The fridge knew. The water faucet knew. The spod knew. The State knew. They all knew the Truth.

It was tough, very tough…

As she closed her eyes, she felt as if she were being pushed down by her own weight. Janki wanted to sink, sink down, go back and dissolve into the earth, with the ashes and the dust where she had come from. Like the woman she had been named after. To be finally laid to rest.

But she seemed to be strangely fished out of her depths by a strange dragging sound. She opened her eyes and was shocked to see Bess hovering around. Bess had dragged herself from the nursery to Janki’s room for the first time. The spod had never been like this before. Almost violent, beneath that silky, benign exterior.

…She just wanted to sink, sink down, go back and dissolve into the earth, with the ashes and the dust where she had come from.

The spod snuggled up to Janki and caressed her cheek with its flowerets. She was such a gentle creature, this Bess.


It’s (cough!) that time of the (ack! Ack! Cough!) season again. And perhaps it isn’t a huge co-incidence that my friend Dhanushka, unheard from in several months, chooses to call just now, out of the blue (Oh, ok, out of Sri Lanka, you reality freaks: that’s where he is from).

Now Dhanushka and I have a history together. No, no, absolutely not what your fertile imagination beckons you to believe. ‘Fertile’. You’ll soon get to know why I used that word.

Any how, it goes like this: It all began when I moved to Pune to study filmmaking at FTII. What all began, you ask? My Pune-origin sore throat and allergic cough problems. Maybe I was allergic to the pollution, or to Raj Thackeray, who knows? (Is there a big diff between the two? Yes. Pollution doesn’t drive a Land Cruiser, but the Land Cruiser that Raj T drives causes pollution. In fact Raj T just needs to open his mouth to cause pollution, but that’s another blog-post.) Anyway, so there I was, gaining experience in taking shots (film shots, not tequila, noble reader) and nursing perpetual throat afflictions. And after trying out several systems of medicine I came to the conclusion that Hamdard’s Unani cough syrup ‘Joshina’ did much to soothe the poor throat and resultant rankled nerves. (No, Hamdard isn’t paying me for this). You mixed some of the syrup in hot water and took a swig, and got a complimentary sugar rush, besides. Now, people are known to have got hyper-active and done weird things on a s-sh-sssugar rush, but believe you me, I have never really acted abnormal. And I’m not-not-NOT hype-hype-hyperactive either. (Wait, let me run up and down the stairs for no reason at all, and come back).

(Huff. Puff. Phew!) Now Cut To the location of my story. FTII Hostel. Interior. We had a co-ed hostel. Yes, you got it right, dear reader, men and women in the same hostel building. Please don’t widen your eyes so, gentle reader. You can’t expect budding adult filmmakers (not adult-film makers, noble reader) in their twenties, thirties and even forties to live like chastised children. Some of our batch-mates brought along their spouses and children as well. And obviously there were no timing restrictions et al. Well, what are you going to do if you have to shoot a night scene? Shoot in the day and pretend that the sun is a twinkling star? Yes, it is, in fact, a twinkling star, but so what? We were artistes. And we were not going to be treated like children. Wait a minute, my Mom’s calling out. Yes Mommy, I’ll drink my milk (but I wanna drink with a straw!) and I will wear my teddy bear pajamas and go to bed by 8, only if you read me Winnie the Pooh first!

Now, something about dear ol’ Dhanushka. He was a foreign (Sri Lankan) student, like I’ve already told you, and I believe he had a deep appreciation for Indian culture (more interested in watching Govinda instead of Godard, for instance). He did have a keen desire to learn Indian languages (apart from the abuses which he knew almost instinctively). Hell, he even adapted Rabindranath Tagore’s ‘Postmaster’ into a short film in Bengali without understanding a word of the language (this is hundred percent true!). Now the problem was that he looked as Indian as the rest of us. And several people, ranging from faculty members to waiters in restaurants would often start talking to him in Hindi. He wouldn’t know how to respond in what was a foreign tongue for him, and would just nod and smile and say ‘Haan’ (‘Yes’). Sample:

Befuddled Editing Professor: “Yeh kaisi editing kari hai? Film ka matlab kya hai?” (“What sort of editing is this? What is the meaning of your film?”)

Dhanushka: (Nod and smile) “Haan”.

Scandalized Lady Teacher: ”Yeh mahilaaon ka toilet hai, aap idhar kya kar rahein hain?” (“This is a Ladies toilet, what are you doing here?”)

Dhanushka: (Nod and smile) “Haan”.

Angry Batchmates (After Sri Lanka beat India in a cricket match): “Pakdo saaley firangi ko; aaj tera keema banaayengey!” (“Catch hold of the bloody Sri Lankan; we’ll make mince-meat of you today!”)

Dhanushka: (Nod and smile) “Haan”.

You get the gist.

So, one particular late evening, I was in my room sipping my regular dose of Joshina, and Dhanushka came in for a chat. Desirous of learning about Indian languages (especially after the aforementioned India-Sri Lanka mince-meat debacle), and about all things Indian in general, he asked me what ‘Joshina’ meant. I told him that it was a medicine I took regularly, and that Joshina, probably coming from ‘Josh’, literally meant Energy Producing or Vigour Inducing or thereabouts. As soon as he heard this his eyes grew as wide as saucers and he betrayed a strange expression on his face:  a mix of panic along with a broad grin. Well, I don’t know whether it was the sugar rush or what, but I gave him a devilishly evil look, flashed my devil’s teeth and laughed, “Guah-ha-ha!” He immediately turned around and bolted for the door. With the glass of Joshina in hand I ran after him. And for the next several minutes, we ran all over the hostel like that: Dhanushka in his vest, clutching his threatening-to-fall-anytime electric blue checked lungi for dear life, hawai chappals flapping loudly, while I chased him up and down the stairs, the corridors and the TV Room. Every now and then he would turn back to see if I was still following, and on finding that indeed I was close behind, he would scream “Bachao! Bachao! Meri Izzat!” (“Help! Help! My Chastity!”). (I guess these were the only other words he managed to learn after “Haan”. Obviously the Eighties’ Bollywood films influenced him more than the syllabus’s French New Wave cinema). And of course nobody ever came to his rescue; he seemed to be enjoying the run as much as I was! Why else did he have a grin that would give the Cheshire Cat an inferiority complex?

Soon, this sort of thing became a regular habit, with me chasing him all over the place, and at times with others joining the fray as well, running along with me, shouting “Pakdo! Pakdo!” (“Catch him!”) or simply : “Josheeeeeeeennaaaaah!” by way of a clarion call. These marathon sessions would end only when the terrified Lankan would have managed to enter his room and safely bolt the door while I would be out of breath from running and laughing uncontrollably. Though, I swear, at times I thought I heard him secretly giggling to himself inside.

So anyway, we passed out of FTII, having learnt a few lessons about life, the universe and everything else, and went our separate ways. And now I return to the phone call I mentioned at the beginning of this piece. Dhanushka had only recently got married.

“My wife and I are expecting a baby,” he said, a tad sullenly.

“So soon? That’s a surprise!” I said.

“Yes. And it’s all your fault!”

“Ekscuje me, but what do I have to do with your family planning?”

“Well, just after we got married, both my wife and I developed a throat infection… And I … er… we … er… aah… took a bit of …uhm… Joshina for it. And then, we don’t know what happened to us! I had never seen my wife behave like this before! We got all charged up for … uhh… you-know-what… And the scenario is that we turned into maniacs, forgot to use any …er…protection, and that’s how we are now about to have a baby! It’s all your fault! You introduced me to Joshina. And my wife…my wife…,” he said, choked with emotion, “she totally went crazy after having that Joshina. Just the way you used to, whenever you sipped it.”

“What utter bullshit!” I spoke through clenched teeth. “Didn’t you ever get it, you moron? Nothing ever happened to my… umm… appetite for you-know-what after having Joshina! I was always faking it! It was a grand joke! And I thought you had understood it then itself!”

“Whhaaat?!” he said almost disbelievingly, “All that chasing after me, shouting ‘Joshina! Joshina!’ and ‘Pakdo! Pakdo!’… You mean it was a joke?!! I used to be scared stiff! Petrified!”

“Don’t bullshit me!” I retorted. “You looked pretty happy, with that grin across your face, even as you tried running as fast as your Relaxo Hawai chappals would let you!”

“Oh, that! That was because… well… which man wouldn’t be secretly happy with a Punjabi Indian girl chasing him…?” he said sheepishly. “But I swear, the Joshina did have that crazy effect on me and my wife…especially on her, in fact!”

Now, dear reader, to conclude, you never know with Dhanushka Gunathilake. I mean, there are certain lessons of life you expect from a guy who escaped almost certain death in a bomb blast in his war-ravaged native country. Dhan tadaan! Presenting Dhanushka’s profound, life-altering observation for all life and death emergency situations: “If you don’t have the time to wash your undergarments and you have run out of fresh ones, just wear the used undies inside out.” Aaah… there’s so much personal, almost painful depth in that sage advice.

P.S.  Dhanushka’s wife happens to be a ‘Punjabi Indian’ as well. Uh…just thought I’d tell you.

P.P.S.  Creative liberties have been taken, and though some bits of this story are completely true, at least as true as India TV’s strict journalistic code of ethics, other bits are purely fictitious. Now I leave it to you, gentle reader, to decide which ones.

P.P.S.  On an unrelated note, Meri twachaa se meri umar ka pata hi nahin chalta. (You can’t figure out my age by looking at my skin.) Possibly my low IQ blog posts and tweets may give a similar impression. I know I sound 13. What a compliment, I’m 16 after all.