Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Magic Realism on TV: "Heroes" vs. "Midnight's Children"

Am I the first person to think of shows like Lost and Heroes as the television equivalent of "magic realism" in the novel? These shows have elements of science fiction and fantasy, but remain grounded in realistic narration and human relationships. As a result, they can achieve mainstream respectability and broad popularity, while true Sci-Fi remains somewhat of a smaller, niche market.

This is going to sound blasphemous, but Heroes in particular actually reminds me a little of Midnight's Children in some ways. Remember this passage from Rushdie's novel:

From Kerala, a boy who had the ability of stepping into mirrors and re-emerging through any surface in the land--through lakes, and (with greater difficulty), the polished bodies of automobiles . . . and a Goanese girl with the gift of multiplying fish . . . and children with powers of transformation: a werewolf from the Nilgiri hills, and from the great watershed of the Vindhvas, a boy who could increase or reduce his size at will, and had already (mischievously) been the cause of wild panic and rumors of the return of Giants . . . from Kashmir, there was a blue-eyed child of whose sex I was never certain, since by immersing herself in water he (or she) could alter it as she (or he) pleased. Some of us called this child Narada, others Markandaya, depending on which old fairy story of sexual change we had heard . . . near Jalna in the heart of the parched Deccan I found a water-divining youth, and at Budge-Budge outside of Calcutta a sharp-tongued girl whose words already had the power of inflicting physical wounds, so that after a few adults had found themselves bleeding freely as a result from some barb flung casually from her lips, they decided to lock her up in a bamboo cage and float her off down the Ganges to the Sunderbans jungles (which are the rightful home of monsters and phantasms); but nobody dared approach her, and she moved through the town surrounded by a vacuum of fear; nobody had the courage to deny her food. There was a boy who could eat metal and a girl whose fingers were so green that she could grow prize aubergines in the Thar desert; and more and more...

Ah, Rushdie: the old passages don't disappoint. Of course, the different magical powers don't map precisely to the characters in Heroes, but there are certain overlaps:

Claire Bennet (Hayden Panettiere), Mr. Bennet's adopted daughter, who lives in Odessa, Texas, and has a healing factor.

Simone Deveaux (Tawny Cypress), an art dealer and gallery owner whose skepticism and complicated romantic life are tested. She was killed by Isaac, who was trying to kill Peter and hit the wrong target.

D.L. Hawkins (Leonard Roberts), Once an escaped criminal, he has the power to alter his physical tangibility and phase through solid objects, both inanimate and organic.

Isaac Mendez (Santiago Cabrera), An artist living in New York who can paint future events during precognitive trances. He also writes and draws a comic book called 9th Wonders! which has also been shown to depict the future.

Hiro Nakamura (Masi Oka), A programmer[7] from Tokyo with the ability to manipulate the space-time continuum.

Matt Parkman (Greg Grunberg), A Los Angeles police officer with the ability to hear other people's thoughts.

Nathan Petrelli (Adrian Pasdar), a New York Congressional candidate with the ability of self-propelled flight. He is Claire Bennet's biological father.

Peter Petrelli (Milo Ventimiglia), A former hospice nurse and Nathan's younger brother. He is an empath with the ability to absorb the powers of others he has been near and can recall any ability he has used in the past by focusing on his feelings for those from whom the abilities originate. He has shown that he is capable of manifesting multiple abilities simultaneously.

Micah Sanders (Noah Gray-Cabey), D.L. and Niki's son and a child prodigy, Micah is a technopath, allowing him control of electrical signals, which gives him control of machines and electronic devices.

Niki Sanders (Ali Larter), The wife of D.L. and mother of Micah. A former internet stripper from Las Vegas who exhibits superhuman strength when her alternate personality, Jessica, surfaces.

Mohinder Suresh (Sendhil Ramamurthy), A genetics professor from India who travels to New York to investigate the death of his father, Chandra. Through his investigations, he comes into contact with people his father listed as possessing superhuman abilities. link

Mohinder Suresh, oddly enough, resembles Saleem Sinai, in that he is the person who ties it all together. And Cihlar, as the villain, resembles Rushdie's Siva. Perhaps Clair Bennett as Parvati-the-Witch? Niki Sanders as a less villainous "Widow"?

I'm not saying the quality of the show could be compared, even remotely, to Rushdie's novel. It's more the idea of a large group of people who have supernatural gifts whose broader function isn't entirely clear. In Rushdie's novel, it becomes clear that the disintegration of the M.C.C. is a metaphor for the challenges to Indian nationalism -- and Saleem Sinai's special humiliation might be the humiliation of the first generation of India's ruling elite. But what social or political message is Heroes trying to convey? It hasn't become clear yet.

Labels: , , ,

Thursday, February 15, 2007


Back in 2005, I mentioned, with some excitement, the advent of MTV Desi, a channel geared to NRIs and Second Generation South Asian American youth. Now there are news reports that MTV Desi is getting axed, along with its sister diasporic channels MTV Chi and MTV K, as Viacom is undergoing a restructuring. Hollywood Reporter has an MTV executive making the following statement:

"Unfortunately, the premium distribution model for MTV World proved more challenging than we anticipated in this competitive environment," the company said. "As a result, MTV has decided to shut down its linear MTV World operation. However, we remain steadfast in superserving multicultural youth, and we are continuing to investigate ways to integrate the MTV Desi, Chi and K brands online and on our other screens." (link)

Well, duh, if it's only available on premium channels on from one Satellite TV company (DirecTV), you can bet people aren't about to go out of their way to get it. I'm actually the only person I know who subscribes to the channel -- and it's only because my in-laws came to stay with us for a few months, and the channel came packaged with the channels they really wanted -- Star One, Star Plus, Star News, and NDTV. Still, I've actually spent some hours watching the channel, so it might be worth doing a mini-elegy.

First, the positive. The best thing I ever saw on MTV Desi was the following inspired rant by Parag Khanna.

There are some statements he makes that miss the mark (India isn't the poorest country in the world by the indices I've seen), but I appreciate the energy. Instead of being the embarrassed, cautious ABCD -- do we really know enough about India to comment on corruption? shouldn't we stay "positive"? -- he's taking a strong stance. (Parag Khanna might make a good blogger.) If MTV Desi is really dead, it's too bad we'll get less stuff like this.

But it should also be admitted that the channel currently plays far too much repetitious programming. The repetition factor can be especially bad when the old programs are tied in with a particular holiday -- as of last week, you would still see the occasional VJ wishing you a "Happy Diwali!" That's pretty lame, considering it's February.

Second, while I love having a TV channel that plays both cool Bollywood and Bhangra tracks and bands like Jahcoozi and M.I.A., far too many videos on the regular playlist are crass booty-shaking exploitation. I have a kid at home now, and while he's too young to understand why there are all these scantily clad blond women shaking their hips while a brown guy lip syncs about his adoration of "Paisa," it's still faintly embarrassing. In an ideal world, I would take the Kailash Khers and the sweet A.R. Rahman songs, and leave the Bollytrash out.

Third, MTV Desi has some pretty lame skits. The "F*#@ing with Eames" skit never made much sense to me -- why is it Desi? Who cares? The parody "Deep Throat" commercial was funnier, and it's too bad Viacom has had it pulled from Youtube.

Most of the music videos one finds on MTV Desi can readily be found on Youtube. And they aren't likely to be pulled for copyright reasons, since most of them derive either from Indie bands like the brilliant King Khan and BBQ Show, who actually want the potential for free publicity online, or Indian music companies, who simply haven't been putting very much effort into that sort of thing.

So really, at the current moment there isn't truly a need for a channel like MTV Desi, especially if you have to pay for something a dedicated blogger/video podcaster could do in her basement for free. Most of the music content could be aggregated, and original content (like the Parag Khanna rant above) could be generated by enterprising college students with video cameras, again for free.

Labels: , , ,

Monday, February 12, 2007

Begum Nawazish Ali Running For Parliament in Pakistan

So, there was a big article in the New York Times recently (thanks, TechnophobicGeek) about how Indian TV is supposedly entering this golden age of innovative programming. Some of the shows mentioned have actually been talked about before at Sepia Mutiny, including "Galli Galli Sim Sim." There's also an interesting segment on a new reality show oriented to teenagers, called "Dhoom Machao Dhoom," about four girls who want to start a band. One of them is a "returned" ABCD from New York, which makes for interesting drama when she says they should write their own songs instead of just doing Bollywood numbers (the other girls refuse, saying "Only Bollywood works here").

Anyway, it's a decent read, but it strikes me that Indian TV remains a narrow-minded backwater as long as Pakistan has Begum Nawazish Ali. Via 3 Quarks Daily, I came across a new profile at MSNBC of Pakistan's famous celebrity drag queen and talk show host. Among other things, the Begum freely admits her "bisexuality," though I'm not sure she means it the way we might think she means it. (Venial Sin, as you may remember, wasn't thrilled about her performance: "I mean, kudos to Begum Nawazish Ali for getting to pull a tranny routine on TV, but how necessary is it to reiterate the stereotypes of a gay man as an effeminate 'woman stuck in a male body' or as a hijra?")

But now comes the news that she plans to run for Pakistani Parliament:

Then Saleem dropped a bombshell. "You are the first person I am announcing this to, but I have decided to file my papers for the upcoming general elections," he exclaimed. "I am going to run for a parliamentary seat as an independent from all over Pakistan and I am going to campaign as Begum Nawazish Ali!" The note of triumph and excitement in his voice is unmistakable.

"I want to be the voice of the youth and for all of Pakistan," he continued. "The idea was always to break barriers and preconceived notions, of gender, identity, celebrity and politics and to bring people closer. In any case, I think Begum Nawazish Ali is the strongest woman in Pakistan!"

Whether Pakistanis agree or not, the elections at the end of the year are likely to be one of the most uproarious in recent times. (link)

Interesting -- we'll see if her political career (is she really serious?) is going to be as groundbreaking as her showbiz career has been.

There are many theories about how it is the Begum can get away with it in conservative Pakistan. She's been careful not to be crude in the Dame Edma vein, but still -- there are some serious social taboos being transgressed here. What do you think?

In case you're wondering what the fuss is about, I might recommend this 10 minute Youtube clip of the Begum doing her thing. The jokes are corny, but the sari and make-up are exquisite.

Labels: , , ,