October 6, 2014: Burma and beyond

What is an “epic?”  A book that is long and big?  A film that is intense and all-encompassing (and also long)?  A story that teases out anything and everything about the human condition?  Amitav Ghosh’s The Glass Palace (2000) is an epic, but it is not long (less than 500 pages in the paperback edition) and it is not all-encompassing.  It is the very intimate story of three intertwined families representing three Asian cultures, Indian, Burmese and Malayan (Malaysian), and their individual and collective fates from 1885 to 1996.

glasspalacebook

 

The story begins in Mandalay, when Rajkumar, an orphaned Indian street kid, glimpses Dolly, a young servant in the household of the Burmese royal family, as the latter is being escorted out of Burma by the British.  Their brief interaction burns in his mind and he structures his entire life from that point on assuming that they will meet again and join their fates together.  He becomes a teak baron and boldly sets off to India to find her and bring her back to Burma.

Photographer:  Felice Beato, c. 1885

Photographer: Felice Beato, c. 1885

 

This romantic tale is the foil to the story of Uma, a Bengali woman joined in a proper, practical marriage to an Anglo-Indian civil servant sent to watch the Burmese royal family in their exile; her life and that of her birth family makes the Indian side of the story.  The third side of the triangle is the tale of Matthew:  he is the son of Rajkumar’s Sino-Burmese business partner and mentor, who returns from his American education with a Scandinavian wife and sets himself up as the owner of a rubber plantation in Malaya.

 

A Malayan rubber plantation, c. 1930s

Teak harvest using elephants, 1925

The second generation of these absorbing families is where the real meat of the story comes:  their friendships, romances, business alliances and decisions set against the backdrop of two world wars tell you everything you need to know about the human condition.

It is epic because it is the story of ordinary people caught between cultures and nationalities, defining themselves by their economic pursuits and their relationships with each other, being buffeted by decisions made endless rungs above them, and never losing hope or confidence in their own lives and futures (well, one does, but even that makes some weird sense). But The Glass Palace is no potboiler:  what in lesser hands could be just another tale of love and loss set in an exotic location (one from column A, one from column B) becomes truly glorious in the hands of a gifted storyteller.

 

Indian army troops in Burma, 1944

 

In trademark Ghosh style, each detail is meticulously researched and all historical facts are unerringly accurate.  If you want to learn about how teak is harvested or how rubber is grown and tapped, this is the place to find out.  If you want to understand the precise workings of a small Malayan village, you’ve got it here.  If you rub your hands thinking about precisely what sparked the revolt of elite Indian army units against their British masters, go no further.  It is the delicate balance struck when the realistic detail of everyday life meets sweeping historical saga, when the view from a hospital window is described more precisely than the fall of an empire, that creates the drama and pathos of a true epic.

The Glass Palace, Mandalay, Burma, c. 1885

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September 22, 2014: A plea for realistic South Asian voices

Julie M:  I don’t usually reprint others’ work without comment or context, but if you like the Indian literature posts on this blog you should check this essay out.

http://lareviewofbooks.org/essay/brown-south-asian-fiction-pandering-western-audiences/#

Now I need to go back and look at my literature posts to make sure I as a reader am not falling into any of Ms. Akhtar’s listed traps and tropes.

Author Javeen Akhtar

June 21, 2014: Amitav Ghosh’s “The Ibis Trilogy” (or the first two-thirds of it)

Summer is the time when I go on reading jags, sucking in mainly historical fiction involving India that I don’t dare tackle during the year lest I lose control of my daily obligations.  It’s so pleasant to spend long days stretched out on the wicker sofa on my screened porch, drinking iced chai and imagining myself elsewhere and elsewhen.

 

Amitav Ghosh was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2008 for the first book of the tsea_of_poppies2rilogy, Sea of Poppies.  Ghosh’s 2000 blockbuster The Glass Palace had not been on my radar because it is set in Burma, a country and region that does not interest me; however, I have fallen so in love with Ghosh’s approach and style that I will also suck in Palace before the summer is out.

 

SoP is set in 1838 and is, as you might expect, about seafaring and opium and the wide variety of people involved in one or the other (and sometimes both) just before the First Opium War (1839-42).   The range of action is the well-traveled route between China, India and Mauritius, which at the time was a relatively new territory gained by the British from the French as a result of the Napoleonic wars and mostly consisted of sugar cane plantations worked by convicts and indentured servants from India.  However, the strength of the book is not its history (although it is impeccably researched and evocatively presented), but the characters who bring it to life.  Make no mistake:  despite what seems like  soap-opera plot twists this is not a potboiler—it is Literature.

 

We meet Deeti, an illiterate sharecropper in the poppy fields of Bihar; Zachary Reid, a mixed-race American ship’s carpenter promoted by necessity to second mate of an incomparable long-journey vessel, the Ibis; Neel Rattan Halder of Raskali, a Calcutta raja/zamindar made wealthy by acting as a middleman in the opium trade; Paulette Lambert, a French orphan raised in Calcutta by her botanist father; Jodu, her childhood brother-friend; Ah Fatt, half-Indian, half-Chinese and condemned to death; and my favorite character, Serang Ali, a crafty lascar (Indian sailor) who is the benevolent puppetmaster to all the other characters.  The importance—and, according to the evil British characters, the necessity—of the opium trade with China is what binds these characters together, and as their individual stories come together we get a holistic view of history that nobody learns in school.   An un-put-downable narrative ends with a cliffhanger of an action sequence; I recommend that you waste as little time between Sea of Poppies and the next installment, River of Smoke (2011), as possible; this is only so that you can successfully stay in the idiom and milieu of the period and not because the action is continuous in any way.

map_OpRoutes

In reading SoP I got an entirely new perspective on the region.  The first thing that comes out is that the early 19th century merchant culture was remarkably ethnically mixed and polyglot.  People in SoP converse in a mashup of Indian languages with French, English, Chinese and Portuguese thrown in the mix, and everything from food to clothing to ship parts has at least four different names, all used interchangeably depending on who is speaking. Ghosh even includes a glossary to help us figure it all out, and simply reading it from A to Z is worth an hour of your time.  Second, social position is everything to everyone in all cultures, always has been and always will be.  Ghosh is excellent at teasing out the nuances of who can talk to whom in what tone of voice in a way that goes beyond mere caste indications, and brings in details of everyone’s backstories to precisely place each character in their proper relationship to one another as a way to explain why things happen the way they do. Finally, why India meant so much to the British finally dawned on me:  probably because it’s an episode most historians of the 1970s and 1980s wished to skip over, it was never much talked about that opium truly financed the entire British Empire—India was turned into its (pardon the pun) cash cow.

River-of-Smoke-cover-682x1024

This theme was brought out even further in River of Smoke, which annoyingly ignores 90% of the characters so brilliantly drawn in SoP in favor of new characters who are, sadly, more one-dimensional for all that they are largely historically documented.  The action shifts to China, to the environs of Canton (including Hong Kong and Macau), from where the opium is smuggled into China and sold at exorbitant prices.  (oh, yeah, opium is illegal in China, as it is in the British empire as well)  Only two main characters from SoP reappear in RoS—Paulette and Neel, whose stories don’t overlap—but we meet an engaging new main character in Seth Bahram Modi, a wealthy Parsi trader from Bombay and Ah Fatt’s secret father.  Neel becomes his munshi (secretary) and through the pair we see the horrid (and rather dull) politicking among the British, who have been stopped from transporting their opium by the Chinese and are wracked with worry about the end of their world.  Good and evil are more carefully delineated in RoS but they are the inverse of traditional history:  the British and other Europeans are evil, Bahram is good, and Paulette’s sassy gay half-British artist friend Robin Chinnery is the only one who has any respect for the Chinese who, by the way, OWN THE FREAKING CONTINENT.  (sorry)

 

RoS is a story of men—it has to be, because China has prohibited any non-Chinese woman from setting foot on the mainland and keeps the fanqui (foreigners) penned up in a small ghetto in Canton, where they squabble and pose endlessly to the point where I hated them all and begged for their come-uppance.  Paulette, after showing herself to be a satisfyingly sparky heroine in SoP, is distressingly given very little to do in RoS and the female voice in this volume belongs to Chinnery’s stereotypically breathless manner.  A good half of the story’s unspooling is provided in the form of exhaustive letters from him to Paulette, which contrivance quickly grows annoying.  The only three-dimensional man in RoS is Bahram:  he is a man of strong Zoroastrian faith, looking for clear definitions of good and evil to guide him and not finding them; torn between his duty to his Bombay wife—knowing that all he is he owes to her family—and the freedom of living among men on the other side of the world; loving his half-Chinese son but ashamed to publicly claim him, to tell him or even find him; a shrewd businessman nevertheless socially beholden to the British, who are unaware of how much they owe to him and others like him, and scrambling for the smallest indication of their respect despite his immense wealth and indispensability.  Bahram is a metaphor for India itself.

 

Fort William, Calcutta, 1735

Fort William, Calcutta, 1735

I didn’t find RoS nearly as fascinating as SoP, but as a bridge volume to what I hope will reunite SoP’s characters and tell us how they manage in Mauritius (another locale that was never on my radar but is now fascinating me), it is still engaging.  The British get theirs (temporarily), at the beginning and end we get a peek into some of the original characters’ futures, and we continue to gain a much more nuanced understanding of global trade and its effect on ordinary people.  And once the trilogy is finished and if someone decides to approach filming it…hoo boy, with the right team it would be the accomplishment of a lifetime.

April 25, 2012: India saves publishing?

I haven’t done a book review for a while, mainly because I’ve been working through Paul Scott’s The Jewel in the Crown in order to determine if I want to make The Raj Quartet my summer reading project.  I’m halfway through and still haven’t made a decision.

Meanwhile, I came across this article, by Neha Thirani of the New York Times, about the huge growth in English-language publishing in India.

A bookstore in Mumbai

“With the printed word considered an endangered species in much of a rapidly digitizing world, India now represents one of the best English-language book markets in the world…As the India publishing industry matures, a rising number of literary agencies are emerging that are cultivating a new generation of writers in a wide range of genres.”

I find that exciting, since some of my favorite English-language writers are Indian, and I would love to discover new ones.

But the article then throws a bit of cold water on this rosy picture, mentioning by name the Chetan Bhagat phenomenon and ending with this:

“If anything, the industry’s biggest problem may be producing mediocre books in the race to feed such a fast-growing market. ‘There are some publishers who are happy with the growth in the market, but some are concerned about what this will mean for literary writing,’ said Ms. Malhotra of Full Circle Publications. ‘Is it all really about the sales and figures?’ ”

Check out the article and be sure to read the comments.

February 17, 2012: Your Chetan Heart

“I have so much love from my readers that other writers cannot even imagine it. However, I don’t get literary praise. It’s ok.”  — author Chetan Bhagat

A few weeks back I was reading all the news about His Awesomeness Salman Rushdie’s absence from the Jaipur Literary Festival (in person and virtually) and I came upon this article about the fiction writer Chetan Bhagat, India’s best-selling author writing in English.  He’s a literary rock star in India, and apparently the more popular he gets among the country’s readers, the more critics and other writers hate him.  I figured it had to be more than just sour grapes, so I set out on a quest to learn why.  I opted to read his first two (of five) books because both had inspired mainstream Bollywood movies, one of them being one of my favorites.

Five point someone:  what not to do at IIT was Bhagat’s first book, published in 2004 when he was just 30 and after years of writing on the sly.  Bhagat had attended IIT Delhi from 1991 to 1995 and majored in mechanical engineering, just like the three protagonists of FPS, Hari, Ryan and Alok. They meet on their first day at IIT and instantly bond.  IIT (Indian Institutes of Technology—a national series of independent institutions, each specializing in specific curricula) is a pressure-cooker where grades are everything–they literally determine your future. The closer your grade point average is to a full 10 points, the more success you will find in life. Or so goes the common wisdom. Our anti-heroes find, to their horror, that after topping all their high school curricula and mugging (grinding) as much as is palatable, at IIT they can manage no better than a five-point-something. So they decide to roll with it, and proceed to have as good a time as possible in their college years without flunking out. Although there are some amusing incidents, overall things go from bad to worse as they cut classes, drink on the roof, pick up a girlfriend (Hari), ignore their homework in favor of a personal research project (Ryan) and prioritize their family’s happiness over their studies (Alok).  They fight with each other and have repeated run-ins with their department head. Will the guys pull things out by graduation with their friendship intact? Or will their eagerness to have a good time ruin their lives forever?

The book is written in a breezy, colloquial style with a slang-y Indo-English flair that I found charming, and I thought the characters of the three heroes were well-drawn.  I learned a lot about IIT’s place in India’s cultural consciousness.  However, I found it lacked that certain out-of-control-ness that makes popular fiction truly fun (American authors who have mastered this are Carl Hiaasen and Janet Evanovich), and at times the wackiness he seemed to be striving for came across as forced. Several entire segments of the boys’ lives were skipped over—whether as a deliberate literary device or because he didn’t feel like making up more story, we’ll never know—but I really felt the interruption.  And the novel’s technique did nothing more than just get the action from scene to scene; it was strictly utilitarian. Apparently FPS was rejected by the first nine publishers to whom Bhagat submitted it, and judging by the immense amount of money the book is earning for the publisher who accepted it, they are likely kicking themselves and looking hard for an appropriate copycat author.

Five Point Someone was the inspiration for the phenomenally popular (and one of my personal favorite films) 3 Idiots (2009) which had the same basic premise—three slackers at IIT—but went far beyond it, turning it from a college-antics novel into a strong bromance with a rom-com thread and megawatt star power.  Aamir Khan played the Ryan-analogue character, called Rancho, an unconventional thinker with surprising technical gifts.  Kareena Kapoor played his out-of-reach love interest.  Sharman Joshi and R. Madhavan also starred, with Boman Irani playing the nemesis-professor and a fun cameo by Javed Jaffrey.  The book was not followed closely although certain key events in the novel did reach the screen more or less intact, and each 3 Idiots character seemed to have attributes of all three of the FPS protagonists as well as quite a few original aspects.  Suffice it to say that one can safely read the book without spoiling the movie, and vice versa.  For a point-by-point comparison, check out this article.

3 Idiots was, like the book, monstrously successful in India; unlike the book, which took a while to circle the globe, 3 Idiots was even more of a juggernaut abroad and they’re now talking a Hollywood remake.   Bhagat was upset after its release that the credit to him and FPS appeared in the end credits rather than the opening ones, and expressed shock that so much of the book was used in the film, which he was led to believe contained mainly original material.  My feeling is that although 3 Idiots acknowledges FPS as its source, and Bhagat was paid for the film rights to his book as if it was to be a faithful adaptation, the film is completely different in tone and intent.  No matter—to my mind the film has rightly become a cultural touchstone and, as Bhagat is the first to admit publicly, so has the novel it was based on. Nobody should be unhappy here, but Bhagat remains bitter.

At this point I moved on to Bhagat’s second book, One Night @ the Call Center (2005).  As can be expected from the title, the novel’s entire action takes place in the course of one night shift, and all the characters work in the same group at a call center in Gurgaon.  All are in their early-to-mid 20s and each has unhappy aspects to his or her life, which they all feel they are powerless to change.  Numerous flashbacks illuminate the backstory of the romantic relationship between two of the characters, and pop-culture references abound in the exposition during the first two-thirds of the novel.  Amid all of this young-person rhona-dhona a “defining incident” happens, and the Voice of God (!!) comes to the characters, inspiring them to believe in themselves in order to change their fates.  The last third of the book has them doing just that.

In contrast to Five Point Someone, which I at least enjoyed despite its flaws, I found little to enjoy in One Night…  I thought it was more than a little boring, and Bhagat’s attempts at philosophy failed preachily for me. The vociferous anti-American sentiments were cute at first, but then got vicious and lost my sympathies.   Nevertheless, it remains as popular a read in India as Five Point Someone, if not more so because of the call-center setting.

If Bhagat’s goal at the start was, as many say, to create books that Bollywood movies could be based on, he succeeded.  In 2008 the film Hello* was released–before 3 Idiots, it should be noted–and Bhagat wrote the screenplay.  Not surprisingly, the film follows the book almost exactly and even has the same 3 Idiots actor, Sharman Joshi, as the narrator/main character.  I found Hello equally as boring as I found the novel, with low production values, comatose acting (with the exception of Sohail Khan as the volatile Vroom; Joshi’s valiant attempts at main character Shyam were obviously hampered by the inadequate script) and cheesy pseudo-philosophy. Obviously lots of people agreed with me, because it did terrible box office and was uniformly panned by critics who called attention to its weak script. Everyone learned something, particularly that writing a novel and writing a screenplay are two very different things.  Maybe that’s why 3 Idiots was the bigger hit—Bhagat’s role was limited to script approval, which he gave wholeheartedly, and I think having that emotional remove allowed the professionals to do their job.

Chetan Bhagat—a former investment banker based in Hong Kong, now a full-time author living in Mumbai—is not as terrible a writer in English as the critics would have us believe, although he certainly isn’t literary. But that’s beside the point.  People like me are not Bhagat’s target audience, and neither are the literary critics. He does a good job writing for those for whom he is writing–the youth of modern India–and they respond. The critics are used to dealing with someone who is writing for them, and writing also for older people educated in a different time when the use of English was a social marker. Bhagat is not out to improve everybody’s English literacy, he is out to reflect what’s going on now.  I have satisfied my goal of figuring out why they are so popular:  they incorporate the lives and experiences of the vast majority of India’s young people who are fluent English speakers and enjoy the toys and values of a very contemporary lifestyle.  If theirs is the “New India,” Bhagat is both their mirror and their standard-bearer.

So if Bhagat has aspirations to penetrate the youth consciousness of India (and if you read interviews with him, he clearly has those aspirations), he should continue to write his immensely popular books and the shorter newspaper commentaries and do his college lecture tours, and let someone else make them into films that people will go to see. Last year’s Rascals paid tribute to his cultural impact by naming its comic lead characters Chetan (played by Sanjay Dutt) and Bhagat (played by Ajay Devgn).  And audiences will likely get at least two more opportunities to see a novel of his adapted to film:  his fourth novel, 2 States:  The Story of My Marriage, is in the works with Karan Johar’s Dharma Productions, and his fifth, Revolution 2020, has been picked up by UTV.

*Hello is available free on Daily Motion, in parts, with very confusing English subtitles

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

Nov. 20, 2011: Wives, Widows and Wanton Women

Recently we’ve been watching a number of Indian films that center around women, ones that show them as fully rounded characters in situations that are far from the romance-movie norm. Please come along with us and join in on a fascinating subject for conversation.  It’s a long one, but well worth the time.

 

Julie M:  Tonight’s feature was Deepa Mehta’s Water (2006). What a film–so beautifully shot, yet so sad and made me angry at the same time. You know I love “issue” films, and this film raised enough issues to keep me musing for days.

Set in 1938, Chuyia (Sarala Kariyawasam) is a rural girl, age 8 and recently widowed–according to tradition her parents take her toVaranasi to live in a widows’ ashram. Chuyia must adapt to a life of faith, austerity and begging with her new “family” of much older women. She doesn’t fit in at all, but she does befriend Kalyani (Lisa Ray), a beautiful young widow who is shunned by the other widows because she is routinely sent out as a prostitute to make money for the ashram. Another widow, Shakuntala (Seema Biswas), takes Chuyia under her wing. Chuyia and Kalyani meet Narayan (John Abraham), a wealthy recent graduate and a Gandhi follower.  Narayan and Kalyani fall in love and plan to marry, but there is a major roadblock that leads to tragedy. Chuyia is next in line for “the life,” but Shakuntala intervenes and in a very nice parallel, Chuyia’s chances for a better future end up linked with the Gandhian political movement.

 

Jenny K:  I saw this movie more than once in the movie theater, and once I was lucky enough to see it with the director there to talk about it.  I got a much better feel as to what went on with the original filming, and how it was stopped due to protests over her controversial subject matter.  What perseverance! 

The elements of the plot reminded me a lot of Gloria Whelan’s book, Homeless Bird which won the National Book Award in 2000.  It details the life of a thirteen year old child bride as she is widowed and left in Varanasi to die, but who gets a second chance making her own way in the world.  Lovely book, don’t let the children’s book status warn you off.

 

 

Julie M:  I read that the original cast, before the film was shut down for five years because of the protests, was supposed to have Nandita Das as Kalyani, Akshay Kumar as Narayan and Shabana Azmi as Shakuntala: my mind reels at the thought of that combination!!  But this cast was awesome too.  John Abraham was excellent (and hot hot hot in a dhoti!), best I’ve seen him, and Sarala was fantastic as Chuyia. Seema…well, Seema is always wonderful, but her portrait of a woman caught between tradition and common sense is heart-rending.

 

Jenny K:  Oh, my gosh!  Seema blew me away.  I cried like a baby just from the expression on her face at the end of the film as she puts Chuyia on the train.  Actually, hers is the only performance that I cry at, every time.    Didn’t you like Raghuvir’s performance, too?  What a hoot!

 

Julie M:  It took half the movie before I recognized him as the eunuch/cross-dresser Gulabi, who assists the ashram by pimping out the widows.  Great performance but wrapping my head around what he (she?) was doing was hard.  The nature of the time period, the status of widows in Indian society (somehow I feel that not much has improved in the rural areas since 1938), the clash between the educated/literate and the not-so-educated, class and caste differences, and the attribution of misogyny to religion when it’s simply a product of ignorance…  But this film was so atmospheric, and the Rahman music so stunningly integrated, that it’s entirely possible to just enjoy it without thinking about its more serious side.  Truly one of the best films I’ve ever seen. Even though it was a bit slow in spots, and didn’t have Aamir, I think I liked it better than Earth.

 

Jenny K:  I can see how you’d say that, but I think that, for me, Earth still had the most impact, if only for the scene where Aamir meets his sister’s train.  Shudder…made me feel a bit more identification with Ice Candy Man’s situation.  In Water, except for Seema, I watched them, but didn’t really connect.  Perhaps Lisa Ray was just too cool for me.  She was, however, much better than she was in Bollywood/Hollywood, if that can actually be compared.  Deepa’s never been that good with comedies, if you ask me.

 

Julie M:  Well, just look at her.  I’ve never seen Deepa laugh, even in an interview.  She’s just so intense and focused.

 [a few days later]

Julie M:  Saw Chameli (2004) last night. Plot-wise it falls into the genre of “guy gets caught up with the denizens of the night where he is a fish out of water” film. I have not seen the type in English as anything other than a comedy, or something that purports to be a comedy, most recently Date Night which, although I love Tina Fey and Steve Carel individually, I could not bring myself to see. My favorite was 1985’s After Hours, less comic than most, probably due to the direction by Martin Scorsese.

 

Jenny K:  Maybe, I’ve just not seen enough of this genre in our films.  Can’t think of any I’d compare it to…certainly not Pretty Woman, which is the only “pro/john” kind of film that jumps to mind.  And non-sequitur, you should give Date Night a chance; it’s fun!

 
Julie M:  I will if you give Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle a chance—I thought it would be dumb but it’s hysterically funny. 

 

Jenny K:  Ooof…that might be too steep a cost, even for Kal Penn.

 

Julie M:  Anway. The plot revolves around Aman Kapoor (Rahul Bose), a successful Mumbai businessman whom we meet over the opening credits schmoozing at a cocktail party. Nice suit on him. We are also simultaneously introduced to Chameli (“Jasmine,” Kareena Kapoor), a prostitute, getting ready for a night of work. Aman leaves the party and finds himself stranded in the red-light district in a heavy downpour, which has literally flooded his car. It is, of course, Chameli’s corner where his car breaks down. Here’s the scene where they first encounter each other.

They talk for a while, get to know one another, and he becomes involved in her typical working night. We also learn that Aman has a tragedy in his past that rainy nights like this make him think about. Chameli’s matter-of-fact outlook on life (and apparently very salty language–occasioning the only bleeps that I can recall in a Hindi film) causes Aman to brood a bit less on his own troubles.

 

Jenny K:  Yeah, you don’t hear things bleeped much in Hindi cinema, do you?  Though I do remember that people said that the dialogues in Omkara was considered very vernacular and quite uncouth; it caused a good bit of scandal at the time it came out.

Julie M: She also displays a softer side, seen in the pretty number, above. Then events transpire that get Aman and Chameli into some trouble with the police, which he uses personal connections and not an insignificant amount of cash to get out of, and as dawn breaks Chameli goes back to her dump of an apartment and he goes back to his life. You see a quick but very nice scene that indicates her influence on him, then in the last scene (the next evening?) he shows up at Chameli’s corner, and there is a quick scene indicating his influence on her.

Rahul Bose displays his typical low-key, indie-film style to portray the brooding Aman, but the true star of the film is Kareena Kapoor. Having only seen her in ingenue roles that do not require nuanced performances, I thought she was marvelous as the hoarse-voiced, ribald Chameli, slouching up and down the street in her bright sari, dozens of bangles and overly made-up face.

She speaks of her business very casually and explicitly, sometimes to shock Aman but more often, it seems, to remind herself that she can have no other hopes and dreams than what her life actually is.  And she teases Aman by displaying herself and saying (paraphrased), “we’re not all Umrao Jaans and Chandramukhis.” But she tries her best to help others, and we find out that her connection to her pimp has a strong element of genuine friendship rather than purely his exploitation of her. So while she is not exactly the “hooker with the heart of gold” of more fantasy-like films, we definitely get a more complete picture of her as a woman than we do with portrayals of prostitutes in other films, like the character played by Preity Zinta in Chori Chori Chupke Chupke. And as a romance, much more satisfying than films like Pretty Woman, which was a fantasy all the way.

 

Jenny K:  I keep meaning to see Sushmita Sen’s film about the life of a village girl of questionable morals, Chingaari (2006) which got very mixed reviews.  I love her presence on screen and wish she’d get more lead roles.  No subtitles in this confrontation scene with the village priest (Mithun Chakraborty) but you get the gist…she reminds me so much of Shabana in this scene.

 

Julie M:  Chameli was kind of a cross-over film–not quite a realistic Aparna Sen-style film but definitely not mainstream Bollywood despite three song numbers and very high production quality. Having seen Tabu gloriously portray the life of a pay dancer in the gritty Chandni Bar, I was derisive of this overly glamorized number showing a Mumbai dance bar.

The writer/director, Sudhir Mishra, also directed one of my favorite films Haazaron Khwaishein Aisi, and bravo to him for getting more out of Kareena than I thought possible. I enjoyed Chameli, but only because it was an attempt to get a real female character into the Bollywood mainstream. Overall it was kind of slow and I am not enough of a Rahul Bose fan to see this much of him without being surrounded by extra characters to take the edge off his blandness.

 

Jenny K:  Hmmm…I thought she brought quite a lively quality to the film and I liked their chemistry.  Not as much as I liked his chemistry with Konkona in Mr and Mrs. Iyer, another Aparna Sen film that I will send in the next big shipment.  Now that I think of it, Rahul seems to gravitate to films where he doesn’t really interact physically with his lead actresses, here and in The Japanese Bride and M&M Iyer.  Curious.

 [about a week later]

Julie M:  Laaga Chunari Mein Daag (My Veil is Stained, 2007) is a fairly old-fashioned potboiler about honor, duty and sin–with the “modern” twist that the main characters are all female. “Modern” I say in quotes, because although it is set in contemporary Mumbai, it seems to have always been that women bear the brunt of whatever actions are deemed sinful at the time.  Here’s the trailer.

The plot involves a pair of happy sisters, Vibya (Rani Mukherji) and Shubya, called Chutki (Konkona Sen Sharma), who spend their time skipping around Varanasi (yes, the same Varanasi where the widows of Water live, except 70 years later) and raising heck..

They live with their parents (Jaya Bachchan and Anupam Kher) in a grand but decaying old mansion and we find out that they are quite poor.  Things go from bad to worse, and in order to save the family Vibya decides to take drastic actions that also lead her into a life of sin. She lies to her family (sin #1) that she has a job offer in Mumbai and leaves Varanasi, but finds nothing.  Desperate, she sleeps with a prospective employer (sin #2), who then flings money at her and denies her the job. She realizes that the only way she can make enough money to send home is to sell her body (sin #3), and she transforms herself into an alter ego, Natasha, a high-class, high-priced “escort.” This song indicates her state of mind as she practices walking in high heels and divorcing herself from her occupation as she thinks of home.

Of course she is deeply shamed and stressed, despite the fact that she becomes very wealthy and in demand.  Trying not to blow her cover while she falls in love with a nice man (Abhishek Bachchan), pays blackmail to her evil cousin (sin #4), and supports her executive-trainee sister (who has moved to Mumbai and also fallen in love with a nice man (Kunal Kapoor, mmm) stresses her out even more.

All seems lost when Chutki figures out her Natasha identity.  Then it is revealed that Abhi and Kunal are brothers.  I won’t spoil the ending, but suffice it to say that at the end the truth is revealed, and the fallout is not what Vibya expects. And there’s a cute final dance number (here, with German subtitles).

Great performance by Rani Mukherji as the torn Vibya, albeit a bit overblown.  The sisterly love between Rani and Konkona was very sweet and natural.  And Rani and Abhishek have great chemistry together:  nice to see them again after Bunty aur Babli.  Plot-wise, amid all her moaning and groaning about the “stain” she brings to the family, it seems that all is in Vibya’s head. Also, a plot point is that Vibya and Chutki are friends with a “courtesan” (Hema Malini, in a wonderful cameo role), an Umrao Jaan-like mother-figure whom they admire for her artistic skill despite the fact that she sleeps with men for money.

So why doesn’t anyone care that Vibya is selling her body?  Maybe ultimately it’s the difference between being a streetwalker like Chameli and being an escort like Natasha–i.e., the amount of cash changing hands. Or maybe it’s because did it all to support her family, which makes it okay.

 

Jenny K:  I saw this film in the theater when it came out, and though I liked all the performances, I didn’t have much of a fondness for it.  Maybe it was how easily Rani got to the top of her “profession”.  I think in real life, she’d have had a more depressing life path.

 

Julie M:  Overall, I thought that this film was much ado about nothing considering it is the 21st century already. All the drama seemed to be a relic of the past, and people were upset because they thought they were supposed to be.  A plot like this might have been impressive in the 1950s, but considering the family in all other ways seemed to be quite modern, the quandary Vibya was in rang hollow.

[a few days later]

Julie M:  Mrityudand (Death Sentence, 1997) is an interesting take on woman-power, Hindi-style. Not what you’d expect from a mainstream film.

Plot:  the (fictional) village of Bilaspur holds traditional values, particularly when it comes to their women, who are expected to remain chaste, keep their place and allow the men to run roughshod over them. Town-bred Ketki (a surprisingly unglamorous Madhuri Dixit), arrives as the bride of Vinay (Ayub Khan), a young businessman. She is quickly absorbed into his family, consisting of his father, brother and brother’s wife Chandravati (Shabana Azmi). Shortly after her arrival, Vinay’s brother leaves Chandravati, who is barren, to head up the local monastery. Tradition demands that Chandravati act like a widow; however, a deep depression combined with the intense pressure to conform to social norms makes her gravely ill. Then Vinay falls into business problems with the local bully, Tirpat Singh (Mohan Joshi)–he as well cracks under pressure and starts to drink and beat Ketki. Here’s a scene as he deteriorates. 

 

Jenny K: Madhuri’s wonderfully tough in this, and almost almost as surprising as she is in Lajja, but I never recommend that one unless you speak Hindi, because the subtitles are almost non-existent.

 

Julie M: Ketki leaves Vinay but after he apologizes and quits drinking she returns home and figures out a way to solve his business problems. Chandravati finds true love with an old family friend (Om Puri) and becomes pregnant, proving that her infertility was not her fault; however, a pregnant widow is in a difficult situation socially so she hides in the house. Meanwhile, their servant girl is having money problems with Tirpat Singh, and he forces her to sleep with him to pay off the debt. Ketki learns of the situation and convinces the girl to refuse Tirpat; when she does, Tirpat comes after her and beats her, but the village women under Ketki’s leadership save her, driving Tirpat away.

Ketki’s ideas turn Vinay’s business around and he starts to best Tirpat. Tirpat, upset with his loss of power, contrives to have Vinay’s motorcycle explode and the troublemaking Ketki is now a “defenseless” widow.  Then Tirpat rounds up Chandravati’s monk-husband and blackmails him into accusing his wife of adultery.  [Spoilers, highlight to read] The village men arrive to hound Ketki and Chandravati out of the village (and kill them en route); however, the women come to their defense and attack the men. In the ensuing melee Ketki grabs Vinay’s rifle, drives Tirpat out of the house and shoots him dead.[end]

Madhuri Dixit was stellar as the smart, fiery Ketki, and Shabana Azmi was softer than I’ve ever seen her as the depressed, then joyful Chandravati. Om Puri was great as Chandravati’s savior-turned-lover—this was the first time I saw him in a romantic role.

 

Jenny K:  He can do it, if he sets his mind to it…and he’s often cast as a protector of women. I recently saw him as the old factory manager, Chowkidar Abu Miya, in Mirch Masala (1987) where he barricades himself with all the female factory workers to keep Smita Patil safe from the evil, lecherous local boss, played with moustache twirling glee by Naseeruddin Shah.

 

Julie M:  What I liked was how under Ketki’s influence the attitude of the village women changed from the early “this is how men are, it’s the women’s role to shut up and take it” to one of self-empowerment, realizing the importance of sticking together and not letting men’s’ ideas of what is appropriate female behavior rule their lives. And, in an interesting cinematic turnabout, the female characters in the film display complexity and depth while the male characters are one-dimensional stereotypes. It was an excellent combination of a typical “entertainment” film (the love story between Vinay and Ketki is explored with the usual array of songs) and a realistic treatment of an important social issue.

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