Wednesday, October 07, 2009

New and Forthcoming Publications

I was happy to see that an essay I wrote for the journal Symploke recently became available via Project Muse:

“Anonymity, Authorship, and Blogger Ethics.”

[If anyone who doesn't have access to Project Muse would like me to send you a copy, please let me know by email; I would be happy to send it to you.]

This was something I actually wrote more than two years ago, not long after a series of panels at MLA related to blogging and public intellectual activity. The paper actually began as an MLA presentation, for a panel with Michael Berube and Rita Felski, in December 2006. In the essay, I bring together literary theory relating to authorship (Barthes, Foucault, and critiques of French theory by scholars like Sean Burke), with context from literary history (the 18th century broadsheet as a predecssor to blogging as a genre), in order think about how the possibility of universal, instantaneous publishability is changing ideas of authorship (not destroying it, but changing it).

I was happy to see that it appears that a student at West Virginia University is already using the article in a paper she's writing: here. (It's part of this course)

I have some other publications coming out soon as well:

"Veiled Strangers: Rabindranath Tagore’s America, in Letters and Lectures." Forthcoming from Journeys: The International Journal of Travel & Travel Writing, 10:1, 2009.

"Animating a Postmodern Ramayana: Nina Paley's Sita Sings the Blues" Forthcoming from South Asian Review, 2010.

"More than 'Priestly Mumbo-Jumbo': Religion and Authorship in All About H. Hatterr." Forthcoming from Journal of Postcolonial Writing, 2009.

Of those, the Desani article was the most difficult to write; it actually had its start as a blog post I wrote all the way back in 2005. I had submitted it for publication in 2007, only to receive a "revise and resubmit" that seemed very challenging at the time. For various reasons, between 2007 and summer 2009 the paper was simply in limbo. I attacked it again this summer, and sent it off, this time successfully. The version that will be published is much shorter than the original version. Some of the materials I referred to, such as Desani's columns for The Illustrated Weekly in the 1960s, are not easily accessible, and I'm toying with the idea of having them scanned and OCRed for the web.

The Tagore essay goes back even further. It had its seeds in the very first blog post I wrote for Sepia Mutiny, back in 2005. I had given versions of it (in a more scholarly vein, of course) as a talk a couple of times. When the invitation came to send it to "Journeys," I was happy to finally finish it.

Finally, the essay on Nina Paley and the Ramayana was written quickly this past summer, almost on a lark. It brings together scholarship on the diversity of the Ramayana tradition (especially in the two important Paula Richman anthologies) with Nina Paley's animated, postmodern appropriation of the narrative.

In other news, the project I have been doing on Mira Nair is approaching completion; I'm hoping to send off the manuscript this fall. I'm also presenting a paper on the Hindi writer Nirmal Verma at the upcoming Modernist Studies Association Conference in Montreal (early November). Finally, I'm presenting at the MLA Convention in Philadelphia at the end of December (a paper on the "open letter" as a literary genre in the era of globalization -- from Sa'adat Hasan Manto to Mohsin Hamid and Aravind Adiga).

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Wednesday, July 01, 2009

A Little on Gauhar Jaan

I was doing some research this morning on an unrelated topic, when I randomly came across the name Gauhar Jaan, one of the great recording artists in India from the first years of the 20th century. Gauhar Jaan is thought to have sung on the very first recording of a song ever made in India, in 1902. Here is what she sang:

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It's a kind of Hindustani classical song called a "khayal," sung, I gather, in Raag Jogiya. At the end of it she says, famously, "My name is Gauhar Jan!"

Who was Gauhar Jaan? Her background, from what I've been able to find on the internet, seems remarkable:

Gauhar Jaan was born as Angelina Yeoward in 1873 in Patna, to William Robert Yeoward, an Armenian Jew working as an engineer in dry ice factory at Azamgarh, near Banaras, who married a Jewish Armenian lady, Allen Victoria Hemming around 1870. Victoria was born and brought up in India, and trained in music and dance.

Within a few years in 1879, the marriage ended, causing hardships to both mother and daughter, who later migrated to Banaras in 1881, with a Muslim nobleman, 'Khursheed', who appreciated Victoria's music more than her husband.

Later, Victoria, converted to Islam and changed Angelina's name to 'Gauhar Jaan' and hers to 'Malka Jaan'. (link)

Through her mother, who depended on the patronage of wealthy Muslim noblemen (I'm presuming she may have been a Tawaif), Gauhar Jaan got training from the best classical music masters in Calcutta at the time. By 1896, she was a star performer in Calcutta, which is how she was able to charge Rs. 3000 in 1902 to have her voice on the first audio recording of an Indian song ever made. Later, Gauhar Jaan became a star all over India. She performed in Madras in 1910, and even performed for King George V when he visited India. She died of natural causes as the palace musician of the Maharajah of Mysore in 1930. (There is a fuller bio of Gauhar Jaan here, at the Tribune. Also, see this profile of Gauhar Jaan.)

Another song Gauhar Jaan was famous for was "Ras ke bhare tore nain," which I think many readers will find familiar for reasons that will become apparent below.

Here is a somewhat more recent version of "Ras ke bhare tore nain," sung by Hira Devi Mishra (from the 1982 film "Gaman"):

I'm finding the Hindi (Braj Basha?) a little hard to follow, so if anyone wants to help with translation, it would be appreciated. Here is the Midival Punditz' "Fabric," a drum n bass remix used by Mira Nair in Monsoon Wedding:

The neighborhood where she films those crazy wires is in Old Delhi -- the area around Jama Masjid. Nair also did her first, student film in that neighborhood (the film was her thesis at Harvard; it was a short, eighteen-minute documentary called "Jama Masjid Street Journal").

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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.)

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Thursday, January 08, 2009

Dabbling in Regional Indian Cinema on an Air India Flight

BakulaNamdevGhotale_acass_246x250.jpg People talk trash about Air India, but it has one distinct advantage -- if you're lucky enough to fly to and from India on one of their newer 747s, which are equipped with personal video screens, you have a wealth of Indian TV, movies, and music to entertain yourself with, while eating Chiwda (instead of peanuts) and not-too-bad shrimp curry. (You still have to sit in a cramped little chair for 16-24 hours without losing your mind, but that would be the case on Lufthansa too.)

Our son wasn't too much trouble on this flight (he slept through much of it), so I was able to sample a range of subtitled Indian movies in different languages that I otherwise might not see. In some cases, I didn't watch whole films -- sometimes just an hour or so -- but it was an interesting experiment to compare a group of films that normally are only seen by members of specific linguistic communities. People sometimes talk about Indian cinema as if the only films worth watching are made in Hindi and produced in Mumbai, but perhaps the folks who are saying that only watch those films?

The most entertaining, and highest production value film I watched was the Tamil film, Sivaji, The Boss, starring Rajnikanth (star of several YouTube "superhits," including "Little Superman"). I initially enjoyed the sense of Tamil ethno-linguistic pride in the film (Rajnikant's love interest is named "Tamizhselvi"), though it did start to get old after a little while (I did not see such an obsession with regional identity in the Malayalam, Marathi, Gujarati, Bengali, or Punjabi films I sampled on this flight. Is the Tamil-centricness of Sivaji, The Boss unique to this film?).

Rajnikanth's manic physical comedy and dancing, and the film's over-the-top sets and situations, are really why someone who is not a long-term Rajnikanth fan watches a film like this. I couldn't say that the anti-corruption plot made any narrative sense, though there were some powerful "crowd" moments here and there; there's just a whiff of the rough edges of actual Indian politics. More than anything else, it seemed like Rajnikanth's mission in this film is to entertain the audience as fast as possible, and continue doing so until every last bit of amusement is squeezed out of every damn frame of the film. (I wish I knew where he gets the energy.)

Incidentally, Sivaji, The Boss was the most expensive Indian film ever made, in any language, as of 2007. It was a super-hit in the South, and successful even dubbed into Hindi.

After Sivaji, The Boss, I sampled two Malayalam films. I watched most of a wonderful family comedy called Madhu Chandralekha, starring Jayaram and Urvasi. I have to say I definitely enjoyed the story about how the ordinary, unglamorous wife of a successful singer and composer becomes jealous of a glamorous young woman who comes into their lives. It felt very real and honest, and Urvashi (a regional actress who came out of "retirement" for this film) is convincingly unglamorous, if that expression can be permitted. (We have all seen movies television programs where an obviously incredibly beautiful woman tries to "frump" it as someone bookish and unpopular, but the audience knows it is only a matter of time before the Grand Makeover occurs, and Beauty Emerges Triumphant. Not so here.) Incidentally, here is a song from the film.

Also worth checking out is a Malyalam film called Smart City. Set in Cochi, a quick Google search revealed that this "honest man vs. the corrupt business establishment and gangster cronies" film seems to be based on a real, 2004 proposal in Cochi to build an "Internet City," where a multinational corporation based in Dubai would develop a whole region of the city as a kind of high-end Internet/IT/Multinational hub. Though it is by no means an art film or a work of political propaganda, Smart City is quite serious in its opposition to this kind of "think big/get a piece of the action" approach to development, and touches on a sensitive and important issue that is much broader than just Kerala (i.e., the controversies over "Special Economic Zones").

One small observation: both the Tamil film Sivaji and the Malayalam film Madhu Chandralekha had physical comedy about what happens when one eats absurdly spicy food. In Sivaji, Rajnikant coolly eats a plate of hot peppers to impress his love interest and her family, before allowing himself to spazz out in the bathroom. In Madhu Chandralekha, the jealous wife makes wildly spicy food for her husband to try and alienate him, because she doesn't feel worthy of his love. Comedy of course ensues when the wrong person eats some of the food. Just coincidence, or is there a tradition of comedy over spicy food either in South Indian movies, or even Indian movies in general?

The Marathi film Bakula Namdeo Ghotale was much smaller in terms of production values or professionalism than either of the Malayalam films or the Tamil film I watched, but it was still entertaining, if not exactly Cannes Film Festival material. First, Bakula Namdeo Ghotale features actors in starring roles who look convincingly rural (i.e., the male stars all have "bad" teeth, and are not conventionally good-looking; see what I mean in this song from the film). The plot is nothing too exciting (a conniving Sarpanch falls in love with the wife of the village idiot; the wife fends off his advances and protects her witless husband), but, again, the actors held my attention because they seemed "real" to me.

I watched a little of the Punjabi film Ek Jind Ek Jaan, but quickly got bored and quit. What struck me here, by comparison to the Malayalam and Tamil films in particular, was just how low-budget and uninspired the film looked, even with an "over the hill" Bollywood star as the leading man (Raj Babbar). I should point out that there are some higher-end and more ambitious Punjabi films out there, so this is not a comment on the Punjabi film industry in general, so much as Air India's particular selection. (That said, I have never seen a film that had Raj Babbar in a major role that I found watchable. Shaheed Uddham Singh, The Legend of Bhagat Singh, and LOC Kargil were all nauseatingly bad.)

I also watched a few minutes of a Gujarati film, but neglected to write down the title, and so can't say anything about it. Like the Punjabi films Air India was showing, it looked rather cheap and conventional.

While most of the other regional films being shown by Air India have been released in the past two years, their two Bengali selections were both "classics," from the 1970s and 80s. The one I watched on this flight was Aparna Sen's 1984 art film, Parama, about a housewife who has a flirtation with a young, avant-garde photographer. It was very well done; with the photography theme, it reminded me a little of Antonioni's Blow-Up, but with a nostalgic, Bengali high culture sensibility. The young actor Mukul Sharma, who played the photographer in the film, opposite Rakhee Gulzar, reminded me a little of Dustin Hoffmann in the 1970s.

Needless to say, making even half-assed comparisons between different regional cinemas would have been easier if Air India had been showing films comparable in scale and status. There would really be no point in comparing Aparna Sen's Parama to something like Sivaji, The Boss.

Still, here are some sketchy thoughts: though it makes a big fuss out of adhering to Traditional Tamil Culture, Sivaji, The Boss is as over-the-top and glossy as any big, loud, Bollywood movie. This is not terribly surprising; there is a regular exchange of ideas and talent between the Hindi and Tamil movie industries, and watching this film I felt as if I were watching a Bollywood film that happened to be in the Tamil language. The only major difference might be the presence of Rajnikanth himself, who has an utterly unique style and an iconic status that has no equivalent anywhere else.

The Malayalam films I sampled were smaller and less ambitious, but the trade-off is that they both had an honesty to them that I liked, even with dramatically different themes (married life/relationships on the one hand, and corruption/multi-national development on the other).

The other regional films I sampled were less compelling, though between the Gujarati, Punjabi, and Marathi films on offer, the only one I found watchable was the spirited Marathi film Bakula Namdeo Ghotale. I do not know if the naturalistic appearance of the actors or village settings is common in Marathi films; if so, it would have to be a reaction against the artificial sleekness and hyper-cosmopolitanism of Bollywood cinema -- and ironic, given that Mumbai is actually in the state of Maharashtra. And because not much is written about Marathi films in English (most of the links that turn up in Google are simply various options for illegal downloading), I have no idea whether this film is typical or not.

Are there other recent films in regional languages that readers would recommend? Also, any recommendations for off-beat, "multiplex" oriented Hindi films? (I have had my fill of Bachchans and Khans for now.)

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Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Kal Penn @ UPenn

This past Sunday I went down to the University of Pennsylvania for a rare, open Q&A session with Kal Penn. As readers may remember from Anna's earlier post on the subject, Penn is at Penn this spring, teaching a class on representations of Asian Americans in the Media. He's also shooting episodes of "House" (go, House), and stumping for Obama in his free time, though with that schedule I'm not sure how he has any.

As I understand it, there was initially some controversy about the class -- is this going to be a stunt, or a real asset to a the Asian American Studies curriculum?

If it were just about bringing a little glamor to campus, I would be skeptical too. But I think it's fair to say Penn is both an actor and a careful observer of the representation of Desis in both Hollywood and the Indie film world. If you listen to him talk, it's clear that he's thought carefully and self-critically about his experiences and choices (he's very aware that his role as a home-grown, Muslim-American terrorist on 24 might be seen as "problematic," for instance -- though he still defends the choice to take the role). He's self-conscious enough to know what a racist representation of a South Asian character is, and call it by that name. But at the same time, he's open about the fact that minority actors sometimes need to play ball to get an entree in Hollywood.

In response to one of the questions posed by a student at the Q&A Kal Penn effectively acknowledged that this was the dilemma he faced when he auditioned for his first Hollywood movie, "Van Wilder." Unfortunately, Penn also suggested, in response to another question, that things aren't all that much better even now, for actors who are just starting out:

"I think things for me personally as an artist have changed dramatically, but I know that overall, that change has been slow and incremental. There is no shortage of truly talented actors of South Asian descent in places like New York, Los Angeles, Toronto, and London. There are folks who majored in theater, studied film, and are experiencing the same struggles I went through when I was starting out. I think that was my main point: things for me have begun to change, but things for others are perhaps remaining the same." (Kal Penn, from an email)

For instance, Penn was asked not long ago to do an Indian accent for a small role he had in a big studio film, but the respectful rendition of an Indian accent he attempted on camera was found to be insufficiently comical by the studio. After the film was shot, the studio execs actually asked him to go back and re-dub his lines with a thicker, more comical accent. To his credit, Penn refused to do it -- and there wasn't really anything the studio people could do (the film was destined to flop in any case). As Penn put it in his answer to the question, "They were using racism to hide a bad script. Racism was their marketing strategy."

(That last comment strikes me as dead on, but still distressing. It's not that racism or sexism sneaks into scripts by accident -- it might be that in some ways studios know this is exactly what they need to sell product...)

Penn pointed out that part of the problem is with the writers and studios that make this stuff -- and note that the alternative to unfortunate images of Asians in the media is often the complete erasure of all people of color from the fantasy world presented on TV and in the movies. "Friends" and "Seinfeld" were both shows with all white casts, set, improbably, in New York, one of the most diverse cities in the world. In the Q&A, Penn asked, "How come there are no people of color in their
New York City?"

But of course, it's not totally irrelevant to this that most South Asians in the U.S. are professionally oriented -- there aren't many of us trying to be writers or media people. "We're too busy trying to be doctors and engineers," Penn suggested, to think of this as a serious career option. If more of us were in the business there might be fewer characters like Apu (or Taj Mahal Badalandabad), and more characters like Gogol Ganguli.

I also stood up to ask a question myself, about naming -- since this is one of the things that some readers at Sepia Mutiny have sometimes grumbled about vis a vis Mr. Kalpen Modi (not to mention, Piyush "Bobby" Jindal...). My question was this: I completely understand why you chose a stage name when you were first starting out. But now that you've achieved a measure of success as an actor, have you considered going back to your given name?

Some parts of the answer were expected. For one thing, quite a number of professional actors use stage names. Penn did recount that he had been advised by friends to adopt a more "Anglo-sounding" name when he was first starting out. But he also mentioned something I hadn't known about before, that "Indian uncles" had suggested that, based on Hindu numerology, it would be good luck for him to try and keep his real first name, but add an extra letter to it. And voila: Kalpen became Kal Penn.

As for whether Kal Penn might ever revert to his given name, not likely -- once you started getting credited under one name, he suggested, it's hard to change it. Still, on several of his recent films, he's lobbied to get his real name introduced on the credits somewhere, perhaps as production assistant. On "The Namesake," he was fittingly credited for Nikhil as "Kalpen Modi," and for Gogol as "Kal Penn."

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Friday, January 11, 2008

Mira Nair's "The Perez Family" (1995)

I enjoyed looking at some of the influences behind The Namesake last week, and I've started to look at some of Mira Nair's older films -- including one that I hadn't seen before, The Perez Family.

The Perez Family is a film adaptation of a novel by the same name by Christine Bell. It's the story of a family separated at the time of the Cuban revolution, which has the potential to be reunited because of the Mariel boatlift of 1980. The boatlift brought more than 100,000 Cuban refugees to the United States, with full approval of both Castro and the U.S. government.

Though Nair's Perez Family doesn't always work dramatically (there are some implausible elements in the story, and some of the actors struggle with their Cuban accents), the film does have some very smart moments, and a theme that resonates closely with Nair's other films, including especially Mississippi Masala and The Namesake. The connection is this: all three are in essence diaspora stories, about the trauma of leaving behind one life, and the excitement and ambivalence entailed in embracing a new culture. As with Mississippi Masala (and even The Namesake, to some extent), the moment of leaving is wrapped up in a historical (and personal) trauma -- a trauma named "Idi Amin" in one case, and "Fidel Castro" in another. In all three films (as well as Nair's adaptation of My Own Country, made for TV), that new country is United States, which is far less transparent to outsiders than Americans like to think.

In The Perez Family, the first film Nair made after the breakthrough critical and commercial success of Mississippi Masala, Nair does throw in some specifically South Asian elements as a running leitmotif in what is otherwise an essentially Cuban diaspora story. The most obvious of these is the immigration official in Miami, played by Ranjit Chowdhry, the actor who was also memorable as "Mundu" in Deepa Mehta's Fire. As a heavily accented immigrant himself, Chowdhry's INS official serves as a friend and guide to Marisa Tomei's Dorita Perez, as she learns how to adapt to American society -- a process that begins, of course, with navigating the immigration bureaucracy itself. There is something curious and strange about an Indian immigrant serving as the "model" for the Americanization of a Cuban ("I am going to have to tell you what to do!" he says, at one point), but it works quite well in the film, even when it's just there for comic relief. It's Chowdhry's character who has to reveal to Dorita (Tomei), for instance, that John Wayne, for Dorita the very embodiment of a sexy, heroic America, is in fact dead. It's also his "hint" that families will get sponsored more quickly than singles that leads Dorita to stick to Juan (Molina), and eventually also contrive a "son" (a street kid) as well as a "father" to move things forward.

There are some highly memorable, symbolism-laden bits of cinematography in the film. The opening shot is a slow pan across a beach in Cuba, pre-revolution. Elegantly dressed men and women in white suits sit at tables, drinking cocktails, as a waiter (again, formally dressed) makes his way through. The music, traditional Cuban Son (the music for the film as a whole is done by the excellent Arturo Sandoval, incidentally), adds an air of "Old Havana" nostalgia. The pan ends on the headlights and grill of a Studebaker-type car -- symbolizing, without a single line of dialogue, the way in which the Cuban story was in some sense always about the United States, even before the Cubans left home (i.e., the Revolution was in some sense a reaction against the American economic exploitation of the island...). After the Studebaker, Nair cuts to Alfred Molina, who is watching as his young wife, Carmela, wades into the water with their daughter. She's leaving -- this is a dream sequence -- but he'll be left behind. The film doesn't provide too much by way of backstory, but there is a hint that Molina's character, Juan Raul Perez, was a sugar plantation owner who spent 20 years in Castro's prisons, while his wife and daughter were able to escape to Miami. (Perhaps Christine Bell's novel spells out in greater detail how they were originally separated. The only lines that makes their way into the dialogue of the film are things like, "I burned my sugar plantation, rather than give it to him [Castro]"; and "I sent her away for the weekend, and it turned into 20 years.")

The shot of the young Carmela wading into the water is echoed nicely a bit later in the film, as Alfred Molina and Marisa Tomei's characters, who meet one another on the boatlift to Miami itself, approach Key West. Tomei's Dorita is thrilled to be reaching the U.S. -- she is the kind of immigrant who embraces with gusto the new, while Molina is too traumatized by the past to let go of it -- and dives into the water, fully clothed. Molina, again, is left behind, watching.

I won't say too much about the plot of the film as it goes forward for fear of spoiling it for those readers who might not have seen it. Suffice it to say that it follows the drift of other diasporic/immigrant stories: Juan Perez (Molina) has to find his wife and daughter in Miami after 20 years of separation, overcoming certain obstacles, while also making sense of his new relationship with the sensual, adventurous "Marielita" Dorita (Marisa Tomei's performance is turned up to "11" in this film; she owns every scene she's in).

Though it tilts too far into melodrama at times, The Perez Family is worth seeing, especially for Nair fans, who will certainly appreciate the overlaps and parallels with her other films here. (I might also add that fans of Cuban music will enjoy the excellent soundtrack, as will fans of Marisa Tomei, who gives one of her best performances here.)

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Wednesday, January 02, 2008

The Art Behind 'The Namesake'

I've been watching Mira Nair's Director's Commentary on The Namesake DVD, and it's been surprising to see how much of the film was inspired by other film directors and visual artists' work. This was a film I liked quite a bit when I first saw it, and it had the unusual distinction of being a film my parents also liked. (I also liked the book, though I know from earlier discussions that a fair number of readers did not.) Watching the Director's Commentary I realize there was a great deal in Nair's film I had missed earlier.

Despite the immense amount of craft that went into the making of the film and the strong performances by Irfan Khan and Tabu, I doubt that The Namesake will get much attention come Oscar time. Why not is an endless question; one might point out that the Oscars don't really award the year's "best" films so much as the films the major studios feel are at once somewhat "serious" and "commercially viable."

Still, the nice thing about writing for a blog is, you can pay tribute to the films that caught your attention from a given year, even if no one else agrees with you.

In the post below, I explore some names from among the large array of people who inspired Nair and collaborated with her as she put together the visual and aural elements of the film. The artists are both Desi (mostly Bengali) and American, though it's really the former group that makes the biggest impact on the film aesthetically.


Like Monsoon Wedding, The Namesake is in a sense a "milieu" film. In the first film, Nair used many members of her own family in the smaller roles; in her adaptation of Lahiri's novel, it's Jhumpa Lahiri's family, for the most part, that gets the bit parts -- Jhumpa herself shows up, at one point. Nair does use her niece, who was raised in the U.S., to play Gogol's sister.

Nair also uses an Indian film critic named Jaganath Guha in one bit part, and the famous historian Partha Chatterjee, in another.

One surprise: I didn't know that Irfan Khan (who plays Gogol's father, Ashoke) had actually had a small role in Mira Nair's earlier film, Salaam, Bombay, when he was just eighteen years old, and a student at the National School of Drama.

Bengali Artists and Filmmakers

At one point Ashima's father is seen painting while sitting back, with his knees up. This apparently is an homage to Satyajit Ray, who painted in a similar posture. Nair also mentions that the sequence where the relationship between Ashoke and Ashima starts to develop (i.e., after they get married and move to the U.S.) is inspired by Ray's Apur Sansar ("The World of Apu").

Nair also uses Bengali actress Supriya Devi in a bit part, as another homage to Bengali art cinema (Supriya Devi acted in a number of Ritwik Ghatak films, including Meghe Dhaka Tara).

Asian Underground Musicians

The film's music is done by Nitin Sawhney. It's really pretty, understated music that has some powerful moments. Nair also uses State of Bengal's "Flight IC 408" at one point as the Ganguli family is en route to India.

Baul Singers

In addition to cutting edge Brit-Asian musicians, Nair brings in traditional Baul singers, Lakhan Das and Bhava Pagla.

Indian photographers and Design Artists

The idea for the changing fonts (where the lettering goes from Bengali calligraphy to Roman) in the opening credits comes from Mumbai-based design-artist, Divya Thakur. In her commentary, Nair calls the idea "brilliant," and I tend to agree (it produces an interesting visual effect, and the symbolism of a transition from one font to the other parallels the idea of cultural transformation that is at the core of both the novel and Nair's film).

The photographs of the famous Indian photographers Raghu Rai and Raghubir Singh inspired a number of the Calcutta shots, including the image, early in the film, of Durga being carried on a wagon on the street in the early morning.

The Taj Mahal

The greatest work of art used in Nair's film is, of course, the Taj Mahal, and Nair films it from some unusual angles. The most interesting might be her use of the interplay of arches and domes (as in, the view of the splendid domes of the Taj through the arches of an auxiliary building).

Western Artists

The look of the paintings used in the opening credits are to some extent inspired by Mark Rothko. Nair says she wanted a "handmade" look, and the paintings do work that way -- the texture of the canvas is visible, as are the brush strokes of the paint within the big swaths of color filling up the screen.

Nair used an installation by Diller and Scofidio at JFK ("Travelogues"), which features images relating to travel using a neat optical effect (produced by "lenticulars").

The visual style of the whole sequence where the Ganguli family is at the beach in winter is inspired by Chris Marker's art-house classic, La Jetee.

Quite a number of Nair's shots at the airport were inspired by photographs by Garry Winogrand.

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Sunday, December 16, 2007

Documentary: "I For India"

I recently got a chance (thanks, Kate) to see an excellent documentary called I For India. It's a kind of family documentary that spans nearly forty years. When Yash Suri moved to England, in 1965, he decided to buy two Super 8 film cameras, two tape recorders, and two projectors. One set he kept, the other he sent to his family in Meerut. He filmed and recorded his family's life and growth through the 1970s and 80s, and his family in India did the same -- and they sent each other the tapes, as a way of staying in touch. The result is an amazing archive of what happens to a family when one part of it goes abroad. Yash's daughter Sandhya Suri assembled and edited the material into a unique 70 minute statement. Here is a brief clip:

(You can also supposedly see a clip from the film at the BBC, though when I tried it I couldn't get the video to play.)

For me, I For India captured a lot of the strangeness of the diasporic experience, including the parents' constant and nagging sense of displacement, the parent/child generation gap, and above all, the difficulty in returning home -- even when "home" might be all you think about. The Suris aren't the only family to keep planning to return home, only to keep delaying the plan by a few years (my father, for instance, used to say this for years; eventually, he dropped the plan). In the late 1980s, the family actually did try to move back to Meerut; Suri, a doctor, thought he could set up a clinic there, but it didn't take. (There's no ruby slippers; home always changes when you leave it.)

On the purely visual register, it's interesting just to compare what the Suri family in Darlington, England chooses to film against what the Suri family in Meerut films. In the English footage, you see the nuclear family, various tourist excursions, snow, railroads, the Buckingham Palace guards. In Meerut, the footage Sandhya Suri uses is almost entirely of extended family gatherings. The family in England is effectively alone, which means it is sometimes painfully isolated -- but it also enables them to go off and have certain kinds of adventures. The extended family in India has a very different kind of experience.

Often, in diasporic novels like The Namesake, for instance, the center of the story is the part of the family that leaves -- usually because the writer comes from that background herself. What's unique about I For India is the way the old film footage allows the director to in some sense tell both sides of the story at once: we have the point of view of the family that left (and constantly mourned what it had left behind), but also that of the family that stayed behind (and mourned the loss of the ones who left).

I For India has been reviewed positively by virtually everyone who's seen it, including The New York Times and The Guardian. One company is distributing it on DVD in the U.S., though it's very expensive (you might be able to track down a copy from Amazon Canada). If anyone knows of other ways to get access to this film, I'm sure readers will be grateful.

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Saturday, September 01, 2007

"Vanaja" -- a Telugu Art Film in New York

After running at myriad film festivals all over the world, the Telugu film Vanaja is opening as a commercial release in New York this weekend; it will be opening more broadly around the U.S. in the next month.

Vanaja an art film, which is to say, the director, Rajnesh Domalpalli, doesn't come out of the "Tollywood" world of commercial Telugu cinema (he actually has an M.F.A. from Columbia, and the script for this film was submitted as his Master's Thesis). Domalpalli's primary actors are nearly all amateurs -- people he found on the street. Carnatic music and Kuchipudi dance play important, but not overwhelming, roles in the film, and even there, it appears the characters actually spent months training in these rigorous arts.

This is a film about caste and class relations in a village setting, but Domalpalli doesn't take the familiar route seen in many other films about village life (i.e., villagers are exploited, landowners are inherently evil). Here, the rich people, though they do not always behave sympathetically, are as human and complex as Vanaja herself. I don't want to get too bogged down in plot, but suffice it to say that the romance in the film follows a surprising course.

Throughout, Domalpalli pays very close attention to details, including sets and staging, and the result is a film that feels very natural, yet is full of visual pleasures. The colors are rich, though not unrealistically so, and the acting is much better than one would expect from an all-amateur cast and a novice director.

I'm very curious to know how this film might be received in India, in particular in Andhra Pradesh. Unlike the films of, say, Deepa Mehta, who I've now come to feel makes her movies primarily for western audiences, Domalpalli's Vanaja might actually be popular with Desi viewers. (My mother-in-law, who is visiting us from Bombay, liked it.)

One other thing, the set of cymbals on the right side of the photo above is called a Nattuvangam. (The word of the day is Nattuvangam. Say it. Good.) Though I'm a little confused, because this site defines Nattuvangam a little differently; I gather that "Nattuvangam" refers both to the cymbals and to the act of conducting the dance by playing the cymbals?


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.

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Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Ingmar Bergman -- clip from "Wild Strawberries"

As has been widely reported, the Swedish art film director Ingmar Bergman recently passed away.

From Bergman's Wild Strawberries, a psychoanalytically supercharged dream sequence:

Everything means something.


Monday, April 30, 2007

"Matrubhoomi" -- Brilliant, Flawed

It took us a long time to get around to seeing the film Matrubhoomi -- it didn't screen in many theaters in the U.S. when it first came out in the U.S. in 2005, and it just generally looked a bit depressing. For those who haven't heard of it, Matrubhoomi takes the severe gender imbalance in certain Indian states (including Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, UP, and MP), caused by sex-selective abortions and female infanticide, and takes it to an extreme level. The result is a dystopian future village environment -- where there are no women at all.

Jai has a smart review of the film at Jabberwock, where he admires the brilliant concept and accurately notes the film's flaws. Jai finds that the film's actual plot ends up failing despite a provocative concept, because it's dominated by "cardboard cutout stereotypes" of rapacious men. One woman, played by Tulip Joshi, is "bought" by a wealthy Seth with five unmarried sons. She ends up being handed off from one son to the other each night, with the father sleeping with her on the other two nights of the week.

I did want to register a minor defense of an admittedly flawed film, precisely over the way in which Tulip Joshi's character is treated in the family after her marriage. Instead of treating her as a valued member of the family, the men in the household only intensify her suffering and subjugation, which is consistent with the misogynist logic that has produced the gender imbalance to begin with. The fact that she is purchased by her husbands (bride-price) rather than subsidized by her family (dowry) doesn't improve her status, since the patriarchal structure in which the "traffic in women" is conducted is controlled by men purely out of a twisted concept of self-interest. It isn't important whether a woman in this system is understood as an "asset" (bride price) or "liability" (dowry); as long as they are traded (like farm animals, the film repeatedly suggests), there can be little respite.

In real life, one has to wonder whether the current cultural norms preferring sons to daughters present in states like Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, and Haryana will start to shift as the gender imbalance becomes an entrenched fact of life -- and the number of men living lives without women continues to grow.

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Sunday, March 18, 2007

The Namesake

When you have a five-month old at home, you watch most of your films on DVD.

This weekend, though, we were able to arrange in-family babysitting (thanks, Abhit) so we could go see The Namesake.

We enjoyed it. I don't have too much to add to what Cicatrix and Sajit have already said at Sepia Mutiny, except that it makes sense to shift the center of the story from Gogol to his parents, as Nair does. For one thing, it fits Mira Nair's profile a bit more: she herself is a first-generation immigrant and parent whose kids grew up primarily in the U.S. (Indeed, she talks about how she only heard about the actor Kal Penn through her children, who had watched Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle.) But possibly the greater emphasis on Ashoke and Ashima also just makes the story more broadly appealing -- and it certainly doesn't hurt to have really talented actors playing the parents. Tabu and Irfan Khan are both terrific; they've left bollywood far behind in this film.

As for the commercial prospects of The Namesake, I'm not sure. I do think it could be pretty broadly appealing, though it's not quite as much fun as Nair's own earlier hit, Monsoon Wedding, nor does it have the same warm and fuzzy vibe of Gurinder Chadha's crossover, Bend it Like Beckham. The Namesake is great, but in my view it is more strictly an art film.

See my earlier comments on Jhumpa Lahiri's book, The Namesake, here.

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Monday, January 29, 2007

"Children of Men," anyone?

I don't have time to do justice to Children of Men, but both Joseph Kugelmass at The Valve and Mark at K-Punk have written long, excellent posts on the film, and I would recommend you to them.

The film is, visually, extaordinary -- it led to one of those rare nights where I couldn't sleep, not because the baby was waking up every couple of hours (though there was that), but because I was haunted by the film's spectacular cinematography.

My one reservation with Children of Men comes from the slightly-too-heavy Christian flavor of the humanism in the film. The filmmakers definitely distance themselves from fundamentalist Christianity (the ‘repentance’ cult is seen as deluded), but it’s very hard not to read the Birth of a Child as enabling the Redemption of the Human Race in anything other than Christian terms.

Perhaps it’s possible to deemphasize this because the film brings in so many secular progressive/liberal themes-—the totalitarian overtones of the War on Terror and the Department of Homeland Security, the persecution of immigrants/minorities, and the potentially devastating consequences of pollution on both the environment and on human health.

But all that couldn’t help me from feeling a little confused during the scene where Kee and Theo were walking down the street and soldiers were making the sign of the cross—as if the film’s ideology was shifting under my feet, and I was being offered a Communion wafer when I had thought I was eating Junior Mints.

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