Thursday, June 04, 2009

Review: "Global Bollywood: Travels of Hindi Song and Dance"

Global Bollywood is an academic anthology, but it contains several essays that might be of interest to lay readers who are fans of Hindi films and filmi music. There are, admittedly, a couple of somewhat jargony essays in the collection, but they can be avoided for readers allergic to that sort of thing. Accessible essays that take on specific subjects, and present new and helpful information about them, dominate the anthology. As a result, I can recommend it alongside another book I reviewed some time ago, Tejaswini Ganti’s Bollywood: A Guidebook to Popular Hindi Cinema.

Defining "Bollywood"

Sangita Gopal and Sujata Moorti's thorough introduction to this volume is a pretty definitive survey of much important scholarship on Hindi cinema. Given my own background and interests, the sections from which I learned the most were probably the somewhat more 'marginal' sections, where Gopal and Moorti provided overviews of some slightly more obscure topics, such as the influence of 19th century Parsi street theater on the emergence of the Bollywood acting and musical style (they cite Kathryn Hansen’s work on this subject; also see Hansen's translation of Somnath Gupt's book).

Still, here is the definition of "Bollywood" with which Gopal and Moorti begin:

Frequently remarked upon by insiders and always remarkable to outsiders, song-dance occupies the constitutive limit of Bollywood cinema. It determines – perhaps unfairly but invariably – the form itself even as it frequently escapes the filmic context to inhabit other milieus. (1)

One could object that it's not just the song-dance that is distinctive about commercial Hindi cinema, but the particular stylization of the acting, which seems over-the-top and melodramatic to many viewers acculturated to the values of European art cinema. Certainly, it wasn't just song-dance that Satyajit Ray rebelled against starting in the 1950s – or, more recently, Aparna Sen, or Mira Nair. These art film directors were also interested in more naturalistic characterization, and in finding beauty in the everyday.

Gopal and Moorti are by no means the only ones to attempt to work out a theoretical definition of "Bollywood." I have been reading some of this rapidly proliferating scholarship for a project I have been doing on a non-Bollywood director, and this act of defining Bollywood "in theory" is quite widespread.

But I wonder whether Bollywood studies scholars might be over-thinking it. Does a particular national cinema need to be positively "defined" anymore? That is to say, can’t we simply say that commercial Hindi cinema is defined by its context and cultural norms, just as commercial American cinema might be defined?

Variations of "Censorship"

Another aspect that falls under context is the choice of topics and themes, and the censorship regime. Censorship in Indian cinema is a two-way street. On the one hand, there is the familiar figure of the censor board (CBFC), which has a very particular culture and history. It might be worth pointing out that all film industries have some form of this, for good reason, and it is therefore wrong to say that Indian movies are "censored," while American movies are not. American movies that get commercially released are also censored -- but differently censored, through the ratings system as well as through the big distributors, who rarely carry "NC-17" rated films.

But there is also a kind of self-censorship intrinsic to Indian cinema itself, as enacted by the makers of films, and even by the actors, which relates to the choice of topics. This self-censorship is often a rough mirror for the tastes of the marketplace; filmmakers and actors try not to do anything that will turn off a large number of potential ticket-buyers. However, there are times when there is a gap between what the censor board thinks is unacceptable and what the masses think. (An example of such a gap, referenced by Nilanjana Bhattacharjya and Monika Mehta in their essay in the volume, is the great “Kaanta Laga” Visible Thong controversy of 2003 [see the video on YouTube, if you dare].)

One place where self-censorship is a particular problem, in my view, is in acknowledging and representing poverty. I really don’t care that Bollywood doesn’t do female nudity, or that lip-to-lip kisses remain rare or are relegated to more adult-oriented films. What does bother me is when someone like Amitabh Bachchan objected, at least initially, to the non-Bollywood film Slumdog Millionaire purely on the basis of the fact that it represents the slums. Twenty years earlier, he objected to another film about slum children, Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay! (which is vastly superior to Slumdog, incidentally) using almost exactly the same language he used in 2008. It was irritating then, and it remains irritating today.

Is “Bollywood” an Insult?

Many people inside the Bombay film industry have complained, and continue to complain, about the term "Bollywood," just as some directors of Italian Westerns object to the term "spaghetti Westerns." Gopal and Moorti cite Amitabh Bachchan and Ajay Devgan as two examples of Hindi film stars who don’t like the term.

But of course if you don’t use the term, you also lose something; it’s possible that the objectors are being over-sensitive to an insult that is not in fact really there. (When Indians use the term, for example, they are suggesting the culture, the magazines, the fashion, and the glamor -- not necessarily a particular style of filmmaking.) Gopal and Moorti, always sensitive to nuances, work out a reasonable compromise:

We use the term Bollywood instead of Hindi commercial cinema to capture the global orientation of this formation. When we refer to Hindi commercial cinema in a primarily domestic or a historical context that does not include this global orientation, we use Hindi popular cinema or some variant thereof. Similarl, we use the term filmigit, film song, or film music to emphasize the aural dimension of the performance sequence. (4)

For some, non-Bollywoodized viewers, the song-dance in Hindi cinema is a turn-off. (I have many friends who, much to my irritation, like to fast-forward those sequences when watching Hindi films on DVD.) But for fans of the films, as well as closely observing critics, the song-dance sequences might well be the main reason to watch.

Noted documentarian Nasreen Munni Kabir describes Hindi film song as 'the only truly original moments in a Hindi film... I mean you couldn’t use the songs say from Border and put it in another film. Everyone goes on about the 00 or so films produced in India but 790 seem to have the same story. It is mainly the music that shows fantastic new energy and originality.' It is here that innovations in technology, allusions to sociopolitical realities, and aesthetic experimentation are most in evidence. Simultaneously, these picturizations code the inexpressible and the transgressive. (5)

At the end of the passage above, Gopal and Moorti are referring, I believe, to the way song-dance is often inserted as a cue for romance, allowing the hero and heroine to enact desire they could never directly announce in speech. Songs, in short, bring in encoded (and sometimes not-so-encoded) sexuality. (Someone once described to me a parlor game you can play when watching romantic songs from old films: if the song ends with a mountain, it signifies an erection, and if it ends with a stream, that's an orgasm.) Our guest blogger, Nilanjana, also talked about this, in an essay not included in the present volume:

In the absence of dialogue, music and song sequences and the mechanism of coitus interruptus have often been used to portray sexual situations, such as in the song "Chup Chup Ke" from the recent hit Bunty Aur Babli (2005). The song sequence depicts the lead characters’ first night together (suhag raat) after their marriage, where the first shot of the couple embracing each other in bed quickly cuts to shots of the characters dancing and singing in an otherwise uninhabited desolate mountain landscape. The lyrics describe the sky’s unfastening itself from the earth, which conveys the intensity of the couple’s physical passion while avoiding its literal depiction. (link)

71 Songs, in a single film. Really.

I suggested above that it may not be appropriate to define Hindi cinema by song-dance, but I’m not saying song-dance isn’t relevant. The history of song-and-dance in Hindi films is important, including the central role of music in the silent film days (when films would often be shown with a live band performing songs), as well as in the earliest "talkies," many of which were actually in operatic form – that is to say, they featured virtual non-stop singing, with dialogues sung rather than spoken. (One film that is often cited along these lines is Indrasabha, which is sometimes described with awe because it contained 71 songs; in fact, the entire film was probably more like one, continuous, operatic song.)

The Absence of Government Support

One of the great mysteries of post-Independence India is why the government took so long to recognize the cinema as a formal industry (it only happened in 1998), and further, that it imposed "luxury" taxes on commercial films. The fact that it wasn’t recognized as such for so long probably hurt the industry economically, as it led producers to raise money on the black market. But I think it also hurt the industry in some ways intellectually and aesthetically. Other newly independent nations would have died to have such a prolific source of national culture available. (Smaller countries, both in the past and today, generally screen imported films.)

But the cultural arbiters in the Indian government, including both Jawaharlal Nehru and Rajendra Prasad, saw it as a debased art form, which would be of no use in promoting the national goals of progress and development. Nilanjana and Monika Mehta talk about this in their essay in the collection, as follows:

Having already denied industry status to the commercial film industry, the state proceeded to define the film industry’s products as luxuries and imposed heavy taxes on them. In addition, the state emphasized commercial films' dangerous potential to corrupt so-called Indian culture. In the Constituent Assembly Debates, one member stated, 'I think that the greatest injury is being done to the nation by the cinematograph.' Another member lamented, 'these cinemas are doing a great injury to our old treasure of music, poetry, and art.' (107)

There was a similar disdain for the music, as Biswarup Sen points out in his essay, where he talks about All India Radio’s snobbish rejection of popular music in favor of Indian classical after 1947. Here is India’s first minister of information and broadcasting, Dr. Balkrishna Vishwanath Keskar:

The object is to encourage the revival of our traditional music, classical and folk. The Radio is fulfilling that task for the nation and I can say with satisfaction, that it has become the greatest patron of Indian music and musicians, greater than all the princely and munificent patronage of former days. (B.V. Keskar, Cited in Gopal and Moorti, 90)

And here is Sen’s account of what happened to Indian radio under Keskar’s direction:

Under his tutelage, the All India Radio (AIR) developed a list of seven thousand ‘approved’ classical artists, and he saw to it that classical music comprised fully half of all the music broadcast on national radio. Keskar, however, was not destined to win the culture wars. Unable to digest the AIR’s stern diet, the listening public defected to Radio Ceylon, a commercial radio station who broadcasting policy was far more in tune with consumer demand. In the end, the government bowed down to popular taste and set up a new channel designed to disseminate ‘popular music and light entertainment.’ Stated in 1957, Vivid Bharati would soon become the nation’s most popular radio channel, bringing to an end Radio Ceylon’s brief but significant period of broadcasting glory. (90)

(Bhattacharjya and Mehta also have an account of this episode in their essay.)

In Biswarup Sen's account, the rejection of classical was also instrumental in the rise of Kishore Kumar to superstardom in 1969, with "Roop tera mastana" and "Mere sapno ki rani." Before that, Kishore Kumar had already long established himself as a playback singer for Hindi films, but had remained in the shadows of classically trained singers:

It is somewhat of a mystery as to why Kishore would become a superstar so late I his career. The answer may lie, paradoxically, in what most would see as a serious lacuna in his musical education—of the male playback singers of his generation, Kishore was the only one who had received no instruction in classical music. Among his 'competitors,' Rafi had trained under Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. Manna Dey was trained by his uncle, the renowned K.C. Dey, and both Mukesh and Mahendra Kapoor were well versed in light classical music. Kishore, on the other hand ,was entirely untutored, cuasing him to be often neglected by musical directors—songwriter Kalyanji's comment that his skills lay more in 'mimicry than in technique' was typical of the musical establishment's reaction to his singing style. Yet it was precisely this lack of skill that proved to be Kishore's strongest selling point. Singers too well grounded in traditional music could, by the middle of the 1960s, no longer market their style of vocal delivery. To take the most obvious example, the great Mohammed Rafi, whose more classically inflected songs from the period are masterpieces of execution, proved insipid and inadequate when singing playback fro Shammi Kapoor, who more than any other actor in the 1960s symbolized what it meant to be 'modern.' (96)

Though he did have some training in Indian classical music, R.D. Burman never wholly gave himself over to the classical music mentality, and that freedom from the binds of traditional Indian music liberated him, making him the most effective maker of contemporary sounding Hindi film music starting in the 1960s.

Globalizing It

In their introduction, Gopal and Moorti cite at length a Greek scholar named Helen Abadzi who has studied the appearance of Bollywood film (referred to in Greece as “indoprepis”), as well as the advent of Greek music imitating Bollywood film songs, starting in the late 1950s. Luckily, the article they cite is on the web; readers might want to take a look at it: “Hindi Films of the 50s in Greece: The Latest Chapter of a Long Dialogue”.

Another site visited by the Global Bollywood anthology is Indonesia, where there is a hybrid pop music genre associated with Hindi film influence called Dangdut. Dangdut music is considered low-class entertainment by Indonesian elites, but since the 1980s and 90s in particular, Bollywood music has been immensely popular. (See Boneka Dari India by Jakarta born Ellya Khadam. It's a cover of the Hindi film song ‘Samay Hai Bahar Ka’)

A third site is Egypt, which might seem unlikely, since Egyptians tend to look down on Indians, as Amitav Ghosh documented in In an Antique Land. Walter Armbrust, in his essay for this volume, also talks about this as follows:

Egyptian filmmakers and most elites disparage Indian cinema, and this is consistent with the more generalized attitude about things Indian. 'Hindi' in everyday language labels things that are strange, silly, or just plain dumb. When someone acts as if you do not know what you are doing, you can say fakirni Hindi? (You think I am from India or something?). Film(i) Hindi means 'an Indian film,' but it is also synonymous with 'a silly thing.' Conceivably, the current linguistic usage of Hindi in the sense of 'strange' or 'stupid' came about at least to some extent through the introduction of Indian films and the eventually antagonist stance against it taken by the elites. (201)

Armbrust's essay does not really get into the particular careers of the Hindi films that have screened in Egypt over the years. Rather, looking at Egyptian film and arts magazines, he focuses more on how Indian themes and atmosphere have been invoked periodically (starting in the 1930s), often by Egyptian filmmakers with all-Egyptian acting crews.

It might have been nice to have essays on the use and adaptation of Hindi film in Africa or Latin America, though other scholars have certainly published articles on that subject here and there. (That India-themed Brazilian soap opera comes to mind...) Another topic that seems particularly salient is the way radical Islamists have gone after Bollywood films and music in places like Afghanistan (but not only there), as corrupting influences. Conversely, I'm interested in how places like Afghanistan have been represented within Hindi films like Kabul Express.

But there is quite a good amount here as it is, and I would happily recommend Global Bollywood to both serious film scholars and fans who want to gain a broader knowledge of the industry, both as it developed within India, and as it has traveled.

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Two "Lucky" Films

Since my son was born two and a half years ago, I have pretty much given up on staying current on Indian cinema. It's difficult to get out to the movies, and our local Indian store really doesn't seem to have a very good collection of stuff. I saw more Indian movies on the plane from Mumbai to Newark in January than I probably did in all of 2008.

On a recent day-trip to New York, we picked up two DVDs of what might be termed "anti-Bollywood" Hindi films that might get us back in the habit, Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!, and Luck By Chance.

By anti-Bollywood, I mean films that try to be "realistic" rather than sentimental, and that have limited use of songs to accompany, rather than interrupt, the plot of the film (the "diegesis," for you film geeks). Many conventional Bollywood films don't have written scripts, and star-power, branding, and memorable songs often have more to do with the success of those films than acting skill, or good, believable stories. In the old days, the emphasis on realism in Indian cinema was mainly the province of art-house directors, and mainly involved glum themes and a certain ponderousness (Mira Nair is a prominent exception, though she is really better thought of as a diaspora filmmaker).

Happily, in the past few years, with the rise of Indian multiplexes, a realist sensibility has started to take hold on the margins of Bollywood itself. To my eye, the movement started with gangster films, and directors like R.G. Varma. But now it seems like we're increasingly seeing a broader range of themes and styles of filmmaking in this space: an anti-Bollywood Bollywood. (Meanwhile, the same-old same-old of Hindi commercial cinema sputters along, effectively unchanged.)

Below are my brief reviews of Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! and Luck by Chance.

I almost don't need to say anything about Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!, since Jabberwock/Jai Arjun Singh has already said most of what I would want to say in his own review:

Dibakar Banerjee’s delightful Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! is a Delhi movie that doesn’t much linger on the city’s physical landmarks but captures many vital aspects of its mood and character. At a basic level, this film is about the (improbably) charmed life of Lucky Singh, a Sikh lad from a middle-class West Delhi household, who grows up to become a master thief and gets away with one audacious theft after another – often doing nothing more strenuous than sauntering into a house and sauntering out again with a TV set tucked under his arm. This makes for a lightheartedly amoral story, anchored by a superb Punjabi-rap soundtrack and by that earsplitting old song “Chahiye Thoda Pyaar”, but Oye Lucky! is also a film that understands the spiraling nature of class aspiration and upward mobility. It knows a thing or two about surviving in a dog-eat-dog world where the kindly, “God-fearing family man” who befriends you and encourages his little son to call you “maama” might well have a dagger ready to plunge into your back. (link)

Jai also goes on in his comments on the film to note some parallels with the upward-mobility plot and the "eat the rich" attitude of The White Tiger, which I think seem quite apt. (I have no idea whether Dibaker Bannerjee had read Adiga before making his film.) I also agreed with Jai on one of the best lines in the film: "Yeh Gentry log angrezi bolte hain par karte hain desi" (These elite people may speak English, but they act all too desi.) It's a brilliant reversal of the usual way of thinking -- the idea that wealthier, English-speaking Indians are somehow deracinated within their own society. In Oye Lucky, English-medium privilege, and the luxurious commodities associated with it, are part of a class struggle played entirely within the Indian frame.

As with The White Tiger, I do disagree slightly with Jai. With Adiga, I felt there was an element of fakeness in the construction of the character Balram Halwai, which I couldn't overlook. Here, I was a bit frustrated with how Oye Lucky! ends. The filmmaker really had two intelligent choices for this character -- go up, and actually join the wealthy Delhi society he has heretofore been preying on -- or go down, and end up in jail, or dead. I won't say how the film ends, but let me just say that I think Bannerjee makes a less interesting choice than either of those options. This film verges on being a hard-hitting satire of the Delhi bourgeoisie from a lower-middle class perspective, but it isn't fully committed.

Incidentally, the director of Oye Lucky!, Dibaker Banerjee, also made a terrific film called Khosla ka Ghosla, about the Delhi obsession with acquiring real estate and property. I would strongly recommend that film too...

Next up, Luck by Chance. Like Oye Lucky, it's not quite accurate to say that this film is really outside Bollywood. (Oye Lucky's star, Abhay Deol, is a nephew of retired Bollywood great Dharmendra -- hardly an outsider, though he has apparently made the choice to stay mainly with edgier, more marginal films.) For its part, Luck by Chance is a self-reflexive satire of the Bollywood system, which manages to have its cake and critique it too. The film satirizes the fakeness of the Bollywood star system and the romance/melodrama formula, but even as it does that, the filmmaker decides to enjoy some of the cheese too, by including, for instance, full romantic songs from the film-within-the-film. Also, the leading man, Farhan Akhtar, is in fact an established Bollywood insider, though he has generally worked behind the camera (as director) rather than in front of it.

Luck by Chance has dozens of cameos from big bollywood stars, many of whom show up to play against type, though Shah Rukh Khan does figure as an ultra-glamorous superstar who has managed to keep it real. It also has Dimple Kapadia, as the pushy and demanding mother of an emerging Bollywood starlet (Isha Sharvani).

People who liked Page 3 (2005) a few years ago will likely like this film as well, though I think, on the whole, Page 3 was a more provocative, riskier film. (Interestingly, Konkona Sen Sharma played a similar role in both films, though here she gets to glam it up in a few scenes.)

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

'King of Bollywood: Shah Rukh Khan'

Also out in the U.S. this week: Anupama Chopra's King of Bollywood: Shah Rukh Khan and the Seductive World of Indian Cinema. As the title suggests, King of Bollywood is a full-length book meant for a general readership, looking back at the life and career of Shah Rukh Khan -- aka, the "Badshah". Chopra traces the various changes in the Bombay film industry in the 1990s, and argues that Shah Rukh is in many ways the face of the new, Yuppified, transnational Bollywood. I know that some readers may be a bit sick of Shah Rukh, though I would argue that Amitabh Bachchan has been far more over-exposed in the past few years (Shah Rukh has been only doing about one movie a year). The question Chopra is interested in isn't "is Shah Rukh Khan a great actor," it's "how and why has Shah Rukh been such a success in the Bombay film industry given his outsider status?"

Derived nearly entirely from face-to-face interviews, there's a lot of factual material about Shah Rukh Khan in Chopra's book that I didn't know -- and I suspect that all but the most diehard fans won't know most of it either.

For instance, I found Chopra's account of Shah Rukh's early acting career particularly interesting. This is the period before 1988, when he landed a major part in the TV serial Fauji -- and became a star almost overnight. After graduating from college, Shah Rukh started work on a Master's in Economics, but his real energy was spent working on his acting with a high-brow theater group in Delhi called the Theater Action Group. This drama company was based at the prestigious Lady Shri Ram College, and was led by a British hippie named Barry John. For nearly three years, Shah Rukh played smaller parts in serious, avant-garde plays, while other actors got top billing. Shah Rukh was also somewhat overlooked in Arundhati Roy'sexperimental film, In Which Annie Gives it Those Ones (1988); he tried out for the protagonist role, but was only cast as an extra.

To me all this was surprising because I've always thought of Shah Rukh as a "fun" actor; I'm having a hard time picturing him doing -- or at least trying to do -- all all this highbrow theater work.

One of the strengths of King of Bollywood is the way Chopra casually slips in paragraphs of analysis as she tells the story of Shah Rukh's ascent. Though this is a book aimed at a popular audience, she manages to make many of the points an academic film historian might make -- with a much lighter touch. For instance, take the following paragraph:

A few years later, Shah Rukh would tell journalists that as an actor he had only five expressions but he was a success because his rivals had only two. From the time he started performing professinoally, Shah Rukh's acting was as much about charisma as craft. 'Shah Rukh may not have been the best actor of his period,' Sanjoy Roy said, 'but even then he was a star.' The debate about Shah Rukh's skills started during his TAG days -- when a performance when acutely over the top, his friends joked that Shah Rukh 'had broken the roof.' It continued long after he became a globally recognized actor. If Amitabh Bachchan was defined by a mercurial intensity, Shah Rukh's keynote was innate buoyancy. An energetic determination tinted every role he played.

Here, I like the way Chopra delicately acknowledges that Shah Rukh is, as she puts it, "more charisma than craft" -- that is to say, he's no Lawrence Olivier. But he nevertheless brings something uniquely appealing to the table, a "happy" quality that has carried him from one superhit to the next. At his peak in the mid-90s, Shah Rukh was never sexy (like the relentlessly shirtless Salman Khan); if anything, he was charming. (More recently, I've felt that he's been riding a bit on the fumes of his earlier success, though it looks like he's about to turn the page in his career, and actually act his age in the upcoming Chak De India.)

Another interesting chapter in Shah Rukh's career happened just after he started getting roles in big Hindi films. In 1992-3, Shah Rukh did a sexually explicit scene in an adaptation of Madame Bovary, called Maya Memsaab. The filmi magazines were all over it -- an anonymous article in Cine Blitz even went so far as to suggest that Shah Rukh and actress Deepa Sahi (both of whom were married at the time to other people) were having actual, unsimulated sex in the scene. Shah Rukh was, needless to say, mortified -- he picked a fight with a reporter at the magazine, which went on for months. Since that time, he's never even done a kissing scene in any of his films. To me, this is interesting because it suggests that censorship in Bollywood derives not just from the censor board and the presumed conservatism of the masses, it's also in a sense the media that covers the industry that polices it.

Anupama Chopra also addresses the rather tedious rumor that Shah Rukh Khan is gay. This is something I've heard many straight Indian men repeat, as if it were a known fact -- though as far as I know there's no shred of evidence whatsoever to support it. Shah Rukh isn't even particularly 'femme', in my view, though it's certainly the case that he's willing to be less 'manly' than either of the other two Khans. But there's more than one way of being a heterosexual man, isn't there?

Chopra does acknowledge that there's a special relationship between Shah Rukh and director Karan Johar, but her characterization of it is worth quoting:

This enduring professional and personal proximity led to rumors that Shah Rukh and Karan were lovers, to which Shah Rukh replied with his typical wit, 'So how did I have two children? Heavy petting?' In fact, Karan was closer to Gauri. Karan treated Shah Rukh with a near-fanatical reverence, but Gauri was his mate. Karan helped her navigate the treacherous shifting loyalties in Bollywood and adjust to her newfound status of superstar wife. 'It was easy for me because Karan was there,' she said. 'I didn't miss Shah Rukh at all. With Karan, time just passed.'

Chopra seems to be implying (indirectly, of course) that Karan is in effect Gauri's gay best friend -- and that they both worship Shah Rukh. According to her account at least, Shah Rukh has always had eyes only for his wife, Gauri, whom he married after overcoming her parents objections, as well as her own reticence. He fought to get her, and he's been a fiercely possessive husband and father ever since.

There's more interesting stuff in this book -- including interesting chapters about Shah Rukh's family background (his grandfather was a freedom-fighter), as well as his career after his mid-90s peak era (KKHH, DDLJ), including resounding flops like Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani. But I'll leave off, and let readers get the book...

People may know Anupama Chopra from her various articles in the New York Times and other papers. For one thing, she's director Vidhu Vinod Chopra's wife. Chopra has also written two earlier books on Bollywood-related themes, including a full-length study of Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, and another on Sholay. But King of Bollywood is different, in that it's getting released on a major commercial press; the DDLJ book was on a British academic press, while the Sholay book was on Penguin India.

UPDATE: Check out a great, group interview with Anupama Chopra at Filmiholic. Thanks also to Filmiholic for arranging for me to get an advance copy of the book.

Labels: ,

Sunday, April 29, 2007

"Reheated Naan & Curry" -- A Brief Review

In general, you shouldn't call your latest project something like Reheated Naan & Curry, because you're setting yourself up for some clever critic (or blogger) to take the reference and turn it into something ugly, along the lines of: "'Reheated Naan'? Sorry, Just Stale Bread." (This game could be extended -- if you wrote a highbrow novel called Ennui, a reviewer would surely title his or her review something like, "Ennui, Another Name For 'Boring'").

In this case, Deejay OM's new releasee, which is being released this week on the Galapagos4 label, should be safe from "clever" put-downs by the likes of yours truly, because it's pretty good. People who listen to a lot of retro Bollywood might in fact find the concept somewhat familiar (reheated, if not rehashed), as Deejay OM seems to be mining samples from forgotten scores from old Hindi films, and recontextualizing them with hip hop beats and looping. As such, Reheated Naan & Curry reminds me a bit of the 1998 CD by producer Dan Nakamura, Bombay the Hard Way -- but for most people the approach taken by Deejay OM may nevertheless sound pretty fresh.

The standout track on the record has to be "The Arrival," which you can hear at Deejay OM's Myspace (if that doesn't work, the song can also be listened to at NPR). You can also hear samples of other tracks at Amazon.

Of course, this music is just beats, and I'm often left thinking what these tracks could sound like with great rappers or singers on them.

One final thought: in case you were wondering, Deejay OM has no "substantial" connection to the Indian subcontinent -- as far as I can tell, he's an Italian American DJ and producer from San Francisco who is sampling the old Bollywood sound to create a particular effect. (That appropriation mostly isn't an issue for me, as long as the beats are interesting. Though I suppose one could object to the revealing use of the word "curry" in the title of the CD -- the incorrect western term for all Desi khana. And are there readers who also object to the use of the word "OM" in Deejay OM's name?)

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Aishwarya Marries Tree(s)--A Setback for Feminism?

Aishwarya Rai, who has been in the news lately because of her engagement to Abhishek Bachchan, has apparently been ritually married to not one but two trees before her real marriage (thanks, Antahkarana). The aim is to counter the astrological effects of being born a Manglik:

But Ash is reportedly blighted with what in astrological terms is described as “manglik dosh,” which means that the planet Mars (mangla) and possibly even the planet Saturn are in the seventh house. People with manglik dosh are prone to multiple marriages, according to San Francisco Bay Area Vedic astrologer Pandit Parashar. That means Ash’s marriage to Abhishek could either end in divorce or his death.

In Hindu tradition, in order to offset the evil influence of manglik dosh, a woman should marry a peepal or banana tree before she ties the knot with her fiancé. Or she could even marry a clay urn, which should be broken soon after the nuptial ceremonies, signifying that the bride has become a widow, and the manglik dosh problem has been solved.

It’s not known if Ash has married, or plans to marry, an urn, but she reportedly has married a peepal tree in the holy city of Varanasi, and a banana tree in the southern Indian city of Bangalore. (link)

The Indian media is reporting that a case has been filed against the Bachchan family by lawyer Shruti Singh to the effect that these types of practices promote untouchability. She has also suggested that it's offensive to women.

There has been some discussion of this event on the blog Feministing, and one commenter there points out that the practice of marrying a tree can also be recommended for men, though I haven't been able to confirm that. (If true, that would definitely weaken the case that this is a misogynistic ritual.) Other commenters have suggested that this is probably pretty harmless in the big scheme of things -- especially since honor killings, dowry killings, child marriages, and forced marriages are still problems in Indian society.

What do you think? Is this "backward" practice part of a slippery slope (only one step away from things that are much more problematic), or something basically harmless? What do you think of Shruti Singh's claim that this practice promotes untouchability? I must admit I don't know very much about Hindu astrology, and so can't say what role caste plays in these practices in general.

Labels: , , , , ,