December 27, 2011: Déjà Vu All Over Again

We are back (somewhat) from our holiday break, and we’ve been puzzling lately on one of our favorite filmi topics:  Hindi remakes of American films.  So far we’ve brought you quite a few, like Kaante and Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander.  Tune in to our latest discussion of three more…

 

Julia M:  My weekend library haul this time includes Shaurya (Valor, 2008) with Rahul Bose.  I am determined to try and like him!  If you’ve not seen it, you can catch Shaurya free on YouTube with English subtitles:

 

Jenny K:  I keep trying to think of a film of Rahul’s that has the other, more manic side of his personality, but the two that I am thinking of are so bad that I can’t recommend them. I’ll keep trying.

[a few days later]

Julie M:  Shaurya was clearly inspired by A Few Good Men. More than, since it’s the same plot with a couple of twists. But it’s not as interesting as the original, not even close. Rahul Bose displays an actual personality, though, and some animation, so it’s worth watching. And Jaaved Jaffrey is pretty good as the prosecutor/Rahul’s best friend (love his deep sexy voice).

Jenny K:  Does anyone say “Such…you can’t handle Such” [ Such “truth” hai]?  Now, who is it who plays the Jack Nicholson anyway?

 

Julie M:  Yes indeed–KK Menon plays the Jack Nicholson character’s analogue in Shaurya and he does say that. It’s not translated very well, and he doesn’t yell it like Nicholson did, but it’s said. I was looking for it and was very proud that my rudimentary Hindi skills overcame the inexact subtitles in that instance–enough so that I recognized the quote.  Here’s that scene (start at about 6:00 in for the full effect).

And KK was really good as Brig. Gen. Pratap. It’s more of an extended cameo appearance rather than a role, just two or three scenes, but he totally nailed it without Jack’s histrionics.  Here’s the scene where he’s first introduced.  No subtitles, but he’s doing some golf practice at the border and knocks one into enemy territory, then makes an underling go and retrieve it.  Totally creepy. 

[about a week later]

Jenny K:  Okay, I’ve now watched Shaurya and then A Few Good Men again after, and am ready to voice a more informed opinion. The director of the former definitely used the Aaron Sorkin/Rob Reiner film as a template, no doubt about it. The basic plot of the maverick outsider lawyer in the military played by Rahul in Shaurya is, of course Tom Cruise in the earlier film, and KK Menon takes on the Nicholson role. Once again the bad guy is a superior officer with aims at a high office and a feeling of absolute godlike correctness in anything he chooses to do. They meet in a semi-friendly fashion at the Brigadier’s base, over a meal and discuss the case. There are in both films an innocent victim murdered and an innocent murderer, depending on your side in the argument. There’s lots of researching done by Rahul’s helpful co-workers, and a nifty if unlikely courtroom triumph for the underdog at the end, where Rahul, like Tom Cruise, is up against his best friend as prosecutor. Even the courtrooms look vaguely the same…old fashioned military decorum with lovely big windows. But there is definitely more than a few differences that make the Indian film its own take on the shared themes.

The first thing that I find different is that Rahul’s co-investigators are outsiders, journalists, and would in no way be allowed or even encouraged to help with a military case. Rahul’s job was to keep all of this out of the press, and he even got in trouble for it…yet here’s Minissha, practically in the next scene being let in on all the dirt…yet she doesn’t feel the need to print it. All her earlier ambition chucked out the window, it seems. Highly unbelievable on all fronts. I guess things couldn’t be stretched so far as to allow a mere woman to be an equal legal partner as Demi Moore was in AFGM.

 

Julie M:  And yet, Nargis was a lawyer, on her own, 60 years ago in Awaara…no problem there…nouvelle prudery?

 

Jenny K:  And then, there is the change in motive for the case. Instead of pondering the nature of power and how a bad job can make a military hero a villain by what he’s asked to do (Jack’s Colonel truly believes he’s doing right by his men and the country by defying the orders of his higher ups about Code Red prohibition), the Hindi film has to make all the bad guys explainable in their motives and much more sympathetic. With ethnic bigotry as the focus of the piece, the defendant was perfectly justified shooting his superior, who was about to kill a local child. He was also right to take his punishment, as he saw it. Further justification is needed when you learn that the Brigadier isn’t an out and out rotter…his wife, child and, don’t say it, his mother have all been killed by a native boy who he took into his home and trusted. Well, no more Mr. Nice Guy! He’s going to wipe out the whole race, so this kind of thing can’t happen to anyone else. Makes Nicholson look downright simple in his monomania..”I’m right and everyone else can just fall in line or get out!”

All in all, though Shaurya had some nice moments and some nice performances from Rahul, Jaaved and KK, I’m always going to choose the Reiner film, because it’s an almost perfect film. Stands up and salutes as well today as it did when it came out in ’92. Hoo-Rah!

 

Julie M:  You expressed almost perfectly my sentiments about Shaurya vs AFGM, right down to the ridiculousness of Minissha’s character Kaavya being able to be as much help as she was (although truly, how much investigating did she actually do?).  I too felt that the racial/ethnic/religious angle was uniquely Indian–maybe because they don’t at bottom believe their public fiction, like we do, that race (or caste, in their case) no longer matters, they can get away with it in a film whereas we can’t here, not in big-budget Hollywood films anyway. My big surprise at this film was that Rahul was so much less low-key than he usually is–almost manic–and his character is given a simplistic, yet highly effective reason for all the high-danger sporting activity. Since Indian films don’t get into the dark side of psychology very much, I found it refreshing.

[several weeks later]

Julie M:  Hum Kaun Hai (Who Are We? 2004) is an almost identical remake of The Others (2001), except without the atmosphere and with very weird, wholly Indian “explanation” scenes tacked in that inexplicably reunite Amitabh Bachchan (as the main character’s missing husband) and Dharmendra (as a totally new character not in the original).

First, the similarities. Basically, everything is the same. Dimple Kapadia takes on the role that Nicole Kidman portrayed in the original film, and does an excellent portrayal of a deeply religious (Catholic) woman trying to deal with a beloved husband missing in the war while faced with circumstances which seem to indicate that her house is haunted, or that her servants for some reason are making her think it is. Two cute kids (Hansika Motwani aka Baby Hansika, Master Aman) with a disease that renders them unable to be in bright light; three servants who appear out of nowhere to take care of them; the need to lock doors and keep curtains drawn to keep the kids from inadvertently stumbling into daylight; a mom plagued with migraines. Photos of dead people in a creepy album. All the same from start to finish. In fact, if you squint you could swear that Fionnula Flanagan, who played the matronly servant in the original, had reappeared in the remake and was speaking Hindi.

Now, the differences. First, the quality of the film stock was very bad—or maybe it was just the print that the DVD was taken from—it had color problems, jarring jump-cuts and bad sound. Looked very low-budget. (OK, had to get that off my chest) Where the original took place on a dim, misty remote island where the viewer could really believe that the house was haunted (and there was some meaning to the fog as well), HKH takes place in a sunny, park-like estate with the merest wisps of fog floating in and out, and it looked at times as if the fog was digitally added. The dimness of the original is replaced throughout by bright light, even in the “candlelit” scenes, which was jarring. The original took place in the 1940s, whereas the remake takes place in the present day (there are mentions of television, for example), removing the otherworldly quality that made the original so creepy. Dimple Kapadia seems very strong and capable, in dramatic contrast to Nicole Kidman’s ethereal fragility, which actually made her descent into screaming panic so much more scary (you kind of expect Kidman to fall apart, based on her looks). HKH had multiple flashbacks to the married couple’s love for each other, setting up the totally weird ending where we get an explanation of the husband’s strange reappearance that is totally different from the original film’s. (won’t go into details because it’s a major spoiler) And a final scene that is just really, really stupid.

In general the 2nd half was much, much better than the first half, which unfolded at a breakneck pace and with as much drama as reading the newspaper. And I was just as freaked out with what was the second-to-last scene in the original (but ended up as perhaps the third- or fourth-to-last scene in the remake). But then they had to ruin it with the last two scenes.

If you’ve not seen The Others, you will like Hum Kaun Hai just fine as it represents a genre rarely seen in Indian film (a creepy psychological story with ghosts—but maybe this is a growing trend, because 2007’s Bhool Bhulaiyaa entered into that genre as well). But if you have seen and loved the original, you’ll spend a lot of time rolling your eyes at Hum Kaun Hai.

 

Jenny K:  You make Hum Kaun Hai sound like a fun watch. I had seen The Others, but just when it originally came out, and I don’t have many clear memories about it, so I may be safe. And I love Dimple.

 

Julie M:  Well, I’ll make it easy for you to see it.  The film is available free on YouTube. I saw it on DVD where the running time was just over 120 minutes; online the running time is about 106 minutes, so there may be some missing scenes.  But I checked—the “added” scenes are all there, in all their ridiculous glory.

[a week or so later]

Julie M:  As a follow-up to many discussions, I’m finally watching Pyaar To Hona Hi Tha (Love Had to Happen, 1998), even though I know it’s a remake of French Kiss (1995), but since I haven’t seen FK I figure I’m safe.  I’ll watch FK after, in order to give this one a fair chance. After a disastrously farcical first half, it’s settling down into a decent movie.  Here’s Part 1: 

It’s nice to see Ajay help the girl he loves connect with the boy SHE loves, just like in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (although this is an earlier film). And he and Kajol have nice chemistry in this. Not as much as in U, Me Aur Hum, but they are cute. She more than he, although he got much cuter once he shaved off his mustache.

Oh, and BTW, what is UP with Indian movies and the first half/second half dichotomy?

 

Jenny K:  You know, until this past year, I’d have said that it was always a first half strong/second half fizzle out tendency. This year, not so much. And I always felt that Ajay and Kajol’s chemistry in this was much stronger than in U Me Aur Hum. In that one, he was such a conceited guy in the first half, and then he was so concerned in her care and worried, that chemistry didn’t enter into it, at least in the traditional way. Interesting that you got it completely differently.

 

Julie M:  Here’s my take. (it only applies to masala or romances) If the first half is really stupid, the second half is strong. If the first half is great, the second half falls flat. Examples that come to mind right away are K3G and KHNH. Great first half, overly melodramatic 2nd half.

 

Jenny K:  But we must note that that’s coming from the point of view of a die hard non-sentimentalist.  I will grant you that K3G goes a bit too far in it’s emotional histrionics in the second half, but there are enough good moments in it (especially that dance number with Hrithik and Co. in those GORGEOUS sherwanis!) that I still enjoy it.  And KHNH is supposed to be an emotional love smorgasbord…so you must be prepared to eat a full gut-wrenching load, or you just skip it altogether.  I love it.

Oooh…that reminds me.  I just watched Affair to Remember, that transatlantic smorgasbord with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr.  Wish I had put in the Indian match-up of this one, Mann with Aamir and Manisha.  It takes all the emotional fluffery and pads it out to double its length with much anguish and gnashing of teeth and even more silly songs than the original, which were very silly in the first place “Tomorrowland” being the most unlikely choice for a nightclub song that one could think of.  It’s free on Youtube as well, with subtitles.  Aamir is young and peppy, and Manisha smiles more than once or twice, Rani does a cute item number early on, but I can’t even go into the grandmother’s shawl scene at the end because the translation of that one into an “Indian version” had me rolling on the floor with it’s unintentional hilarity.  You just have to see it.

 

Julie M:  But back to the films at hand.  The setup is standard rom-com fare: the male half of an engaged couple leaves for a business trip to a different country and falls for another woman, prompting the female half to follow and try to win him back. En route she meets a native of the country she’s going to, and circumstances force them to be together unexpectedly. They get to know each other, become friends, and he helps her with a plan to win back her fiance by pretending they are lovers. Pretense turns to reality, and at the end the fiance is overthrown in favor of the new romance.

The plots of the two movies were, with the exception of a couple of added scenes in the Indian version and a slight adaptation to make it more desi (changing the setting from Toronto/Paris to Paris/India; and some details, because I somehow don’t think India is big on vineyards) exactly the same, with key scenes absolutely shot-for-shot identical–down to the female character’s wardrobe. The Indian version adds terminal clumsiness to the female character who is already afraid to fly, occasioning much (to my mind, unnecessary) slapstick in the first half of PTHHT; but that’s balanced by the FK subplot where the female character is American trying to get Canadian citizenship, which is jeopardized by the trip. In FK there is a language barrier, which is very funny, and is absent in PTHHT. And of course, the Indian version adds musical numbers, only one of which was at all memorable.

I think Ajay made a better Luc/Shekhar than Kevin Kline, and, much as I love Kajol, I think Meg Ryan made a better Kate/Sanjana. I could believe Ajay as both a thief and an ordinary village boy with dreams of land, but Kevin always had the thief about him–the vineyard scenes fell a little flat. Meg Ryan…well, she pretty much invented, for the late-80s and 90s, the cute-and-bewildered rom-com heroine with questionable taste in men, and even Kajol can’t compete.

 

Jenny K:  I’d agree that Meg slightly edges Kajol out, as she is the prototype and does that type of role (cranky/cute) almost better than anyone. I’m sorry she’s sworn off. I have always described Kajol to people as a sort of Meg Ryan type…even physically, with those big eyes and killer smile…and the coloring differences just give you great variety. I do agree with you that the clumsiness thing was rather unnecessary.

 

Julie M:  Frequently the reasons for remaking a Hollywood movie for Bollywood audiences are unclear, and the remake falls flat. FK was a great choice for an Indian remake: it has all the elements of comedy, romance and drama built right in, and obvious points at which a song would underscore the plot or action. Comparing these two versions is also instructive, for newbies, in the differences in pacing between American and Indian movies. American films move right along, with no wasted plotlines or introduction, whereas Indian films take more time on the setup and draw out the denouement, sometimes excruciatingly long, to wring out every drop of drama and sentiment.

 

Jenny K:  I actually liked the longer format for PTHHT, and think it works well for the story. The ninety minute format for French Kiss always left me wondering why, in that short a time, Kate fell for Luc…Kevin Kline or no Kevin Kline, who has always been a favorite of mine. So, with the longer time spent at Ajay’s home, etc, that all makes more sense to me.

 

Julie M:  Me too, having seen FK second.  But if I had only seen FK, then I’d put it down to “movie convention.”  Of COURSE she’ll fall in love with him once he demonstrates his knowledge of wine, because THAT’s what’s important in a relationship.  Oh, and that he knows his diamonds.  But in PTHHT I must tip a hat to this song,  which shows to best advantage the chemistry between Ajay and Kajol in this film  (sorry for the bad quality and no subtitles).

Overall, I’d say that if one hadn’t seen FK then PTHHT would be 100% satisfying, adorable, and stand-alone excellent—ranking among the best of Indian romance films. But for American audiences, FK is going to win out, if you like that kind of thing (I’ve seen way too many and am jaded on the genre).

PTHHT is available in one link, free on YouTube, with subtitles.

Dec. 13, 2011: Sham & Dev: The ‘60s — Mod to Mysticism

Julie M:  In memory of the great Dev Anand, who passed away recently, we should talk about one of his films that we both liked, Guide (1965).

Jenny K:  I’d be happy to—I like it without reservation. I’d also like to talk about the latest in our foray into Shammi Kapoor’s video vault, An Evening in Paris (1967), as he’s so recently left us, and both Dev and Shammi were such a focus in that era of Hindi cinema.

Let’s start with Paris, shall we, so as to go from the ridiculous to the sublime, for a change.

Julie M:  Saw Evening in Paris (Shammi Kapoor, 1967) this afternoon, free on YouTube. A cute rom-com romp in the first half and kind of a thriller in the 2nd half when Shammi has to rescue Sharmila Tagore from the bad guys who have kidnapped her. Lots of fun and 60s music. Also, lots of ridiculous plot lines to mock.

Jenny K:  Ooof…don’t want to read this yet…I have it in the pile on my dvd player. Perhaps I can see it and then comment… eyes closed, eyes closed.  Don’t get too far ahead of me…

Julie M: Brief plot: Deepa (Sharmila) is spoiled, rich, lonely and bored. Her dad wants her to get married, but all the Indian boys are only interested in her money, so she goes to Paris to try and pretend she’s poor and hook someone who’s interested in her as a person. Enter Sam (Shammi), whom she instantly hates, but then he very sweetly and comically pursues her all over the world and hate turns to love. As it happens, Shankar (Pran) is an evil retainer of her father’s who is in money trouble and schemes to marry Deepa for her riches; this turns into a kidnap/ransom plot by the mob to whom he owes the money.

Jenny K: Oh yeah, Pran is a professional villain.  299 films on IMDb, and all of them various layers of slimy, from nasty to pure evil.  His orange wig is very oddly hypnotic, though, “poisonously permanent waved” might be an apt descriptor of Pran in this film.

Julie, I think I’m losing my touch…I tried again to finish Paris last night and fell asleep again. I think it’s the plot. Why does Shammi seek Deepa out? Just because his friend wanted her? Doesn’t seem enough impetus. Chase-chase-chase, nahi-nahi-nahi, sing-sing-sing, maybe-maybe-maybe, chase-chase-chase again…blah-blah-blah. I’m rapidly losing interest in Paris, even with the kidnapping.

Julie M:  I think he went to meet her first to see if he could help his friend, and then his eyes went BOINGGGG and he fell in love with her himself, and basically stole her away.

The mob boss has a moll, a cabaret singer named Suzy who is Deepa’s double (yes, the obligatory dual role for Sharmila), so Shankar plots a switch to hide the fact that Deepa is kidnapped. It goes on from there.

May I entice you with this campy number?

Jenny K:  Why, may I ask, does Suzy make her entrance on a Webber kettle grill rack?  Is being presented as a tasty morsel or is she just being roasted??? Or are we?

Julie M:  There’s also lots of beautiful Paris, Switzerland, Niagara Falls and Beirut (Beirut? yes, the Paris of the Middle East in 1967) scenery.

Jenny K:  I am finding all this “oh, by the way, meet me tomorrow evening on another continent” stuff rather, shall we say, implausable, and highly “yeah, right!” if you know what I mean.  Too distracting outside a fantasy item number, IMO (example, “Suraj Hua Madham” from K3G, not exactly necessary, highly unlikely, but deliciously “right” because it was a fantasy scene).

Julie M:  Here’s another number, where Sharmila looks like Kareena Kapoor? (hey, maybe that’s why Saif likes Bebo!)

Did you get to the part yet where the fact that he stole her from his friend bites him in the butt?

Jenny K: I did finally finish Paris this morning, (Paris in the Morning…sounds like a song title) but I must have missed the part where he got bit in the butt?? Lot of odd stuff going on in the film but I didn’t pick up on that.

Julie M:  She finds out that he stole her from his friend, and she pouted at him for a while (this was just after she admitted that she loved him), but it disappeared quickly in the kidnapping plot.

Jenny K:  Ah, yes, but all complications to romance cannot last longer than the next love song…or subsequent kidnapping by thugs from your backstory.  It’s in the masala handbook.

And though I have just finished complaining about the needless side trips from France, I did like all the nice camera work on actual location on Luna Island? at the top of the Falls, even if the handy security railing made it a bit less imminently dangerous.

So, I guess, my final verdict is okay but not as charming as some of Shammi’s other vehicles, say, Professor which we reviewed earlier, or Kashmir Ki Kali, also with Sharmila…they were both better in that one.

 

Julie M:  I agree.  The cute first half is just not cute enough, and the action-y second half not exciting enough.  Maybe if her clothes were better it would have distracted me.

 

[A week or so later]

Jenny K:  And now, for the more serious part of our double feature…Guide with Dev Anand and Waheeda Rehman.

Julie M:  I never read the novel that it’s taken from, The Guide by R. K. Narayan (but it’s on my list now!) as it struck me as something I might not like, but Dev Sahib’s version got me interested.  It’s a long, complex story about sacrifice and fulfilling one’s destiny. A number of commentators rank it as Dev Anand’s lifetime masterpiece–he produced and starred in it, and it was an early example of an Indo-American co-production, shot in both English and Hindi, with the Hindi version directed by his younger brother Vijay (who also directed another favorite of ours, Teesri Manzil).

Jenny K:  I haven’t watched very many of Dev Anand’s films, but this one struck me as very atmospheric, almost something out of time, especially as Dev’s character progresses toward the climax.

Julie M: Dev plays Raju, a tour guide in the historic city of Udaipur, who initially protects a histrionic client (Waheeda Rehman) from her distant and borderline abusive husband, then falls in love with her himself, encourages her to divorce her husband (!) and helps her achieve her goal of international dance stardom despite the rather unsavory reputation of her art. They move in together (!!) but just when he ought to be happiest his life starts to fall apart as he self-sabotages spectacularly (!!!). Ultimately he finds redemption in a peculiarly Indian way, and proves himself to be a “guide” in several senses of the word.

Anand gets to do everything in this film. He’s a handsome romancer, a dutiful son, a savvy business manager, and a spiritual leader (albeit reluctantly). The camera loves his good looks, and I fell in love with his easy patter and jokey demeanor (he never crosses the line into sliminess). I’m sure there’s a lot more to the philosophical angle of things that one who was raised in Hindu tradition would understand, but most of that whooshed right over my head.  And Waheeda Rehman, a frequent co-star, was simply brilliant in what I consider a fairly negative role.

Jenny K: I found this film after having seen Waheeda in a couple of Guru Dutt films, Pyaasa and Kagaaz Ke Phool, specifically.  She was so luminous in them, that I had to find out if it was just working with Guru Dutt or if  it was a quality she had in all of her movies.  Needless to say, I found she had it in almost every film, and still has it, today, evident in Delhi 6 and Rang de BasantiKagaaz Ke Phool is an interesting one to compare Guide to, as it’s also set in a showbiz arena with managers and stars, etc, though that one is more about actors and directors than this foray into the dance world.  Guide is almost a better showcase for her, as she’s the fulcrum the whole film winds around.

Julie M: Oh, yeah, that WAS her in Delhi-6 as the grandmother.  I loved that character. Interestingly, the soundtrack for Guide ranks #11 on this list of the 100 Best Movie Soundtracks  (although I don’t know how reliable it is…Dil Se… only ranked #46, and it is my absolute favorite; your favorite, Lagaan, was #34)  I wasn’t really enamored with the music.  Unfortunately the videos of the Guide songs available online are such bad quality I’m not sure it’s worth posting them…but “Aaj Phir Jeene Ki Tammana Hai” was my favorite.

Jenny K:  Nah…that list doesn’t have any of my favorite three albums on it, Taal and Meenaxi by Rahman and Omkara by Vishal Bhardwaj.  It is rather skewed toward “classic” Bollywood.  To each era, their own, I guess.

My favorite number in Guide was always the snake dance…I had seen the parodies like the one the sister does in Bride and Prejudice, but hadn’t seen the real thing, as it were, until this one. She just totally wowed me. 

Julie M:  I liked the snake dance too…her face while she was doing it was amazing to watch.  I should have said that Raju was a CHATTY tour guide. I mean, he never stopped talking!!

I was curious to see if the English version was as good so I went hunting.  Difficult to listen to, but here’s a clip of the beginning where he’s doing his guide patter.    It’s not a shot-for-shot duplicate, which is odd.  Pearl S. Buck wrote the dialogues.  I wish the sound was better so I could compare better.

Jenny K: It’s odd…sounds a bit like his patter is written in verse…but not.  Made me think of Shakespeare for some reason.  Waheeda’s so lovely, even when she’s severe like in this scene.  Always reminded me a bit of Jean Simmons.  Here’s a clip of Jean around the same time in Spartacus, to show what I mean. That whole era of film in the ‘60s could be so iconic.

When the film started, I didn’t want to like Raju, with all the advice and help he was giving Rosie to dissolve all her traditonal ties to her old life and husband.  Becoming Nalini was important to her self image, but was it important to her true self?  Maybe that’s why Raju finally chucked it all in for a new path, maybe he saw that he had been leading them both away from deeper truths.  Devsaab managed in this film to show all the layers of bravado, doubt and self sacrifice that made it a really nuanced performance.  Perhaps the best I’ve ever seen him do. Wish this had subtitles, but it was not to be.  Don’t watch if you don’t want spoilers.

Julie M:  I found this clip of an interview with Dev Sahib where he talks about his long history in film:  No wonder they call him “evergreen.”  I also couldn’t resist watching this clip of Aamir Khan’s remarks   about him  (it’s about half in Hindi, half in English).

I hope nobody succumbs to the temptation to remake this classic film, as they did with Devdas. It’s perfect just as it is.  And Dev Anand…what a star.

December 1, 2011: A Suitable Boy suits me fine

I just spent the last month reading Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, 1400+ pages long, ten years in its writing and finally published in 1993.  I selected it because a) although not an award-winner it’s an English language classic  b) I love epic novels and c) it’s about India.  As a piece of literature it is unparalleled for both its scope and characterizations, and for Bollywood addicts it will seem both familiar and highly explanatory.  A novel like this can provide insights into culturally-driven motivations that no film, even the most melodramatic ones, could handle.  I simply adored it.

The time period is 1951-52 and the setting is (primarily) the fictional state of Purva Pradesh, in the the fictional city of Brahmpur, a large university town along the Ganges that seems to be a couple of days’ train ride to both Lucknow and the “big city” of Calcutta.  The story centers on three extended and interrelated upper-middle-class families–the Mehras, the Kapoors and the Chatterjis–and their friends, the family of the Nawab of Baitar (the Khans).  Every character in every family, as well as several of their friends, acquaintances and bosses, gets a narrative arc.  Some of the tales are poignant, such as feckless and citified Maan Kapoor’s sojourn in a rural village where he learns some key life lessons, and a tragedy that befalls a young character during a religious festival.  Some are joyful–I loved the story of Savita Mehra Kapoor’s pregnancy and birth experience.  And, frankly, some of the narratives, particularly those discussing finance, verge on boring.   Seth even inserts himself, as a character writing a very long and meandering novel.

Although the thread tying the novel together is Mrs. Rupa Mehra’s search for a suitable boy for her youngest child, Lata, to marry, it

Author Vikram Seth

actually ranges very widely from city to rural village, from politics to academia to industry, to religion and cultural customs, to fashion and movies and literature and food and gardening and law enforcement and astrology and…you get the picture.  In fact, I can’t think of anything that isn’t addressed in some form in the novel.  Love, or rather, marriage, is the book’s central theme, with Lata accumulating no less than three suitors and proposals and trenchantly observing several other marriages for clues as to which choice will be best for the life which she intends to lead.  (interestingly–the choice of no-choice does not occur to her despite several unmarried-woman role models)  Who will she choose?  Will it be Amit Chatterji, the published writer ten years her senior but with whom she has so much in common?  Or will her mother’s preference prevail–the up-and-coming shoe executive Haresh Khanna who has not a few personality flaws?  Or will Lata follow her heart and marry Kabir Durrani, a fellow college student who is the one boy her family has deemed completely off-limits to her because of his religion?

Calcutta, c. 1950

Even though translating this novel to the silver screen would be absolutely impossible, I could see it done on television as a mini-series.  In fact, it was released as an episodic, five-hour  BBC radio play in 2002 with some actors Bollywood fans might recognize:  Boman Irani, Roshan Seth, Rahul Bose and Ayesha Dharkar.

But as a novel it’s as entertaining and diverting as Bollywood’s best.  Described by most readers as “Jane Austen meets Tolstoy,” A Suitable Boy will likely excite devotees of the Yash Raj imprimateur, stuffed as it is with cultural mores, wicked characterizations (Meenakshi Chatterji Mehra is hilarious in her social-climbing vacuousness, a perfect match for her husband Arun Mehra’s Anglified snob), oh-no-she-didn’t gossip, affairs, secret identities and several instances of unrequited love (some of them hideously tragic) before the inevitable happy ending.  There are even song interludes–or rather, poetry interludes that serve the same purpose as filmi songs.  One can have a great deal of fun casting the novel as a film from among current stars, and in fact I would encourage it to make the book come even more alive.  There is even a bit of film fandom:  the characters are obsessed with the current film release, the Nargis/Dilip Kumar starrer Deedar, which has been showing to packed audiences for months and its songs are on everyone’s lips.  This movie is described in the novel as being so emotional that it makes grown men sob uncontrollably, and has “…an unusually tragic ending, but one which did not make one wish to tear the screen apart or set fire to the theater.”  In fact, it is so popular that the ticket-buying queue retaliates on an annoying woman by blurting out the ending, spoiling it for her.   In short–it’s the perfect movie. (watch it online free here, unfortunately without subtitles)

And for those who completely fall in love with A Suitable Boy and want more, rest assured that Seth is working on a sequel called A Suitable Girl, set in modern-day India and nominally concerned with 80-year-old Lata’s search for a match for her grandson.  Even though it’s set to publish in 2013, look for it in…oh…2020 or so.  (I’m so mean)

Calcutta beauties, c. 1950

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