29 July 2016
AA Cinema, London
“Radha: Once the piggy-bank is ready, it’s just a question of designing a façade to hide the air conditioners.”
“In which Annie Gives it Those Ones” (Annie) is a film directed by Pradip Krishen with screenplay by Arundhati Roy. The film is about a group of architecture students in their final year of college.
Anand Grover, or Annie, as his friends call him, is repeating his fifth year for the fourth time. He spends most of his time “giving it those ones” which in Delhi University lingo means “does his usual act”. The best time of his day is spent in the hostel “indulging in daydreams of social uplift”. He is victimised by the head of the college. “Even his fiancée Bijli — a bar dancer — doesn’t think very highly of it.”
I first saw Annie in 1997, when I was a first-year student of architecture at the School of Planning & Architecture (SPA) in New Delhi. The film was released almost a decade before, in 1989, and was shot on location at SPA. Although the characters in the film were fictional, ‘the mileu and settings’ were largely based on Roy’s experience as a student at SPA. The cast was a mix of SPA graduates, and seasoned as well as aspiring actors. The film was first shown on Doordarshan, the Indian State TV channel, in the year of its release. Even though the film went on to win two national awards, it was not commercially made available. A few people recorded the film on the night it was telecasted and it was these early copies that were passed on from one person to the other. Over the years the film acquired a cult status.
As I moved through architecture school, some of the actors and personalities associated with the film came to life. Jagan Shah, who plays Medoo, was our second-year studio tutor. Golak Khandwal lectured us on semiotics. Roy had become an author and a political activist by then. She also came to lecture but chose to speak on nuclear non-proliferation and not architecture. Roy wrote the screenplay for the film and also played one of the central characters – Radha. In 1997, Roy won the booker prize for her first book ‘God of Small Things’. Professor Jhabvala (the inspiration behind the much feared Professor Billimoria/Yamdoot) had long retired by then. However, his portfolio of drawings was enshrined in the library as the touchstone of the art of pencil sketching. By the time I graduated in 2002, I had inherited a copy of the film – a grainy version on a CD.
Cut to 2012. During an animated discussion at a London pub on architecture related films, I was surprised that Annie was relatively unknown outside India. This gave me an excuse to look for my old CD. With fresh eyes and avoiding straps of nostalgia I watched the film again.
Krishen and Roy portray the life of an architecture student and weave a story around a group of endearing characters who come replete with their insecurities and care-free existences. As one enters this innocent world one is also introduced to the more harsh realities of life. The film has great humour; yet it is poignant and leaves one with a bittersweet taste. While the film has some rough edges in terms of technicality, the performances of Roshan Seth and Arjun Raina are stellar. Roy’s screenplay is humorous, witty, and brutally honest. She also acts in the film and is rather wise for her own age. She undoubtedly provides an outline of her future work. In today’s late modern capitalist world, where architecture seems to have abdicated much of its social agenda, the film is probably more relevant and hard hitting than ever.
In my own journey I went from being a student to being an architect. More recently I also became a visiting tutor and examiner. I have watched the film at various points in time. The film makes me reflect. Now that I have crossed over to the other side, it makes me sit up and realise that I am now able to see from both sides of the desk.
Early in 2014, I contacted Pradip Krishen with the aim of organising the first UK screening of Annie. Krishen is no longer film-making and is an eminent naturalist and environmentalist based in Delhi. One of the false rumours surrounding the film is that the original print was lost in the Doordarshan archives. To my great delight, I learnt that Krishen had recently accessed the original negatives, made a new transfer of the film, cleaned it, and made a master DVD. Krishen graciously agreed to lend a copy of the film and put me in touch with Ravi Kaimal, the Art Director of the film. I was also allowed to access the photo archive of the film.
The Architectural Association agreed to be a generous host. So, on a wet London summer evening, a few of us got together at the AA Cinema with beers and popcorn. Lights were dimmed and the tapes were rewound to the year 1974, “towards the fag end of beatlemania, bellbottoms and bumbolay”…