Oct. 20, 2011: On The Table ~ The Middle Age Spread

Jenny K:  Since we had been talking literature adaptations recently, I ran across and decided to watch Such a Long Journey (1998) on Netflix the other day, an adaptation of Rohinton Mistry’s (author of A Delicate Balance) 1991 novel. Frankly, I picked it out for the cast; Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri and Roshan Seth. Even a young Ranjeet Chawdhry (The Last Holiday, Bollywood/Hollywood) has a great cameo as a talented street artist. Yet with all that talent, the actors seemed to have been encouraged not to shine, to be as ordinary as possible.  Here’s a typical scene, with Roshan Seth and his family not really relating.   

If they wanted to show the dark and dismal everyday side of contemporary Indian life…this movie has it in spades. Poor Gustad (Roshan Seth). His life is one long frustration. He works at a drab bank, with drab people, they have ordinary drab conversations. He and most of his friends have everyday hopes and dreams for their families and lives, but none of them seem to come true. His wife, Dilnavaz (yes, the Ice Candy Man’s name in Earth…which kept throwing me off… I thought it was a man’s name), played by Soni Razdan is faded and almost drab, too.  She’s worn out by how hard they have to work for so little…and her husband’s optimism just irks her when it shows up, as in the episode where he brings home a live chicken, so she can cook it “fresh” like his grandmother used to do. His son, Sohrab (Vrajesh Hirjee) hates his life and how his family is pushing him to be an engineer…and that’s the upbeat part of the film. Really, here’s another typical clip…at least he’s getting out a bit with a co-worker.

Julie M:  From what I know about Mistry as a writer, he idles at dark and dismal.  There are particular political backdrops in his books that are important to know about, and the whole point of his books seems to be the extra chaos politics causes on regular people who are just trying to live their lives amid all the other non-politics-related stuff that happens.  Such a Long Journey is from the time period of the big India-Pakistan war—same war as in Border—and although I’ve not read it (I’m going to have to now, though) I can bet it’s a similar “you are there” total-immersion experience like A Fine Balance was for the Emergency period.  The clips at least show it to be highly realistic.

Jenny K:  Yeah, he’s a one-man antidote to the Bollywood feel-good film glut.  But the way films are going these days, there’s a shortage of those films now.  Pessimism is the new Peppy in film USPs. 

But back to the film, to put a cherry on the top of my disappointment, Naseerji’s character (my main reason for watching) is just there peripherally.  He’s an almost mythical character who rescued Gustad from a car accident (that we see in flashbacks) and involves him with Om and some probably fictional espionage dealing with the Bengali Resistance, Indira Ghandi and the Pakistani problems of the 1970’s.  So, the big guns are there for so few scenes (except Mr. Seth, of course) that it scarcely merits their being in the credits. The plot twists about this resistance movement are really convoluted, too and neither Pat (my co-pilot in tedium) nor I really understood all the nuances of it in the first place. So, in spite of the cast, and the atmospheric cinematography, I can’t really recommend it…even if Roger Ebert really liked it.

Julie M:  Actually, from your description and the clips this seems like something I might like.  It’s a Canadian production, so it seems designed for Western audiences.  The big question is:  book or movie first? I probably shouldn’t have looked at the clips…now I’ll imagine Roshan Seth instead of whoever my brain chooses to put there…

Weird that while you were watching Such a Long Journey, I also watched a film about a drab man, but mine was much more uplifting than yours seems to have been.  Khosla ka Ghosla (“Khosla’s Nest”, 2006) is a low-key, low-budget dramedy about working together as a family to achieve your dreams.

K.K. Khosla (Anupam Kher) is a fairly milquetoast, middle-classDelhi salaryman, close to retirement, who has just spent his life savings to buy a plot of land on which to build a dream house for his family. His family is a tad dysfunctional—I would say more disconnected than an actively bad family—the film opens with K.K.’s dream sequence that he has died and his family barely notices, being tied up in their own concerns literally over his white-wrapped and flower-bedecked corpse.  But they grudgingly humor him in his obsession with the plot and the dream house.  His family is his wife, older son Bunty (Ranvir Shorey), younger son Cherry (Parvin Dabas), and an unmarried adult daughter. Bunty is of an entrepreneurial temperament but hasn’t seemed to actually start a business yet, while Cherry is a gainfully employed software engineer who, unbeknownst to his family, has arranged a new job in New York and is about to emigrate.

Jenny K:  This is a complete non-sequitur, and I don’t expect an answer, but…was Anupam Kher ever young?  I’ve been watching for almost ten years now, and have gone a ‘fer piece back in my viewing, and he’s always looked the same.  Villain or nice guy, lawyer or teacher…always with the balding head and the lovely warm, weary eyes.  The portrait of perennial middle-age.  I wonder if he regrets never being thought of as a bankable romantic lead in a film?  I mean, without it being a comedy riff, like in KKHH.  He’s such a good actor; he could probably pull it off creditably.

Julie M:  On the day the plot is to be consecrated, the family discovers that a squatter has walled it off and claimed it as his own. Here is that scene, which beautifully shows the characters of K.K. and his sons (no subtitles, sorry):

[The writing on the wall means “Don’t pee on the wall!”]

The squatter is Kishan Khurana (Boman Irani), a wealthy and powerful developer. K.K. returns to the property agent, who encourages them to visit Khurana to clear up the “misunderstanding.” Khurana offers to vacate the land upon payment of half the Khoslas’ purchase price, which the Khoslas cannot afford. They complain to the police, who are in Khurana’s pocket and merely laugh off the complaint. Trying to resolve the situation through the legal system only leads to more frustration. 

Having exhausted standard methods to resolve the situation, the family turns to more creative ideas. Bunty’s brute-force plan ultimately lands K.K. in jail, so Cherry (on very short time due to the impending emigration) reluctantly gets involved. He comes up with an idea featuring his friend Meghna (Tara Sharma) and her theater troupe: con Khurana with a fake land deal and use the mobster’s own money to pay him off. There are of course complications, mainly resulting from the nervousness of the con’s star character who must play a wealthy and sophisticated NRI. Here’s a clip of one of many moments where the con almost falls apart:

I’m not going to spoil the ending but, since it’s billed as a comedy, you can generally assume that things don’t end up worse than they started out.

The acting in Khosla Ka Ghosla is wonderfully underplayed. The comedy aspect is gentle and subtle where it could have been played for huge laughs, and is the result of the viewer’s knowing people in their own lives exactly like the characters in the film. Relationships are developed in such a way that the viewer ends up loving all the characters equally, making it a true ensemble piece although the Cherry character is pretty much the focus. The family drama aspect derives from typical intergenerational conflicts: Cherry is embarrassed of his given name and his father’s traditional values, hence his desire to emigrate to a more “modern” culture (it is telling that he cuts his face out of a family portrait to use it for his US visa application), and K.K. is reluctant to rock the boat or do anything shady despite the insistence of his family that he shouldn’t stand by and be taken advantage of. Watching this family eventually pull together in the face of corruption on every level to make the patriarch’s dream come true is exceedingly charming.

Jenny K:  That last bit with Cherry’s situation reminds me a bit of the father/son dynamic in The Namesake, down to the name issue.  A universal theme, I guess.

Julie M: If I had any complaint, it is a typical one: the female characters are heartbreakingly undeveloped. We never even learn the names of K.K.’s wife and daughter, they are used so little. Meghna fares better as a character, probably due to the need for a love interest (it IS an Indian film, after all!) but given that she is supposedly an accomplished actress, it is strange that they do not think to use her at all in the con, falling back on her nervous director-boss as the ruse’s central figure.

Jenny K:  It was the same with the female characters in Such a Long Journey!  Dilnavaz was a one-emotion portrait, almost, and the only other female characters, the sweet little daughter, the sexy co-worker, the cranky upstairs neighbor, all were drawn with a very hasty brush, there only to convey their points through visual shorthand.  And don’t get me started on the little girl’s missing doll…there’s a symbol that I can’t even begin to translate, or even think about. Shudder.

Julie M:  Anupam Kher and Boman Irani turn in typically excellent performances, with Irani’s tendency to go overboard nicely held in check by the director. Parvin Dabas’ performance as Cherry was beautifully nuanced–you could tell the moment when he decided to throw his lot in with the family he thought he hated. It took me a while to place him, but eventually I recalled that loved him as the handsome NRI groom in Monsoon Wedding.

Verdict: if you love small indie American and British movies you will love this.  I sure did.

Khosla Ka Ghosla is available on YouTube with English subtitles:

Jenny K:  And Such a Long Journey will be much harder to find, unless you have Netflix, it’s only on VHS, I think…but, now that I think about it, maybe some Journeys are better left untraveled.

October 12, 2011: Books for Bollywood Lovers

As you may have realized by now, I am a geek and therefore a reader.  In fact, following Indian films for the past six or seven months has seriously cut into my reading time.  But as a literary fiction addict and a new inductee into the world of Indian film, I was particularly thrilled to notice that three Man Booker Prize*-associated novels are perfectly compatible with film enjoyment and over the past couple of months I have eagerly devoured them.

If you are in love with the beautiful Himalayan setting of films we’ve discussed in this blog like Professor, Barsaat Ki Ek Raat, The Blue Umbrella, Jab We Met and Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander, as well as in the hundreds of other Bollywood productions and item numbers filmed there, try reading The Inheritance of Loss by Indian-born, US-based novelist Kiran Desai (Man Booker Prize winner, 2006).  Set on the India/Nepal/Sikkim border during a Ghurka uprising in the mid-1980s, Loss is simultaneously a girl’s coming-of-age story, a meditation on the changes time has wrought to a particular Anglicized lifestyle, the plight of the not-well-educated NRI in America and the horrors of political turmoil, all with loving descriptions of the gorgeous local landscape and buildings.

Sai Mistry is 16, a British-educated Indian girl living with her retired grandfather in a crumbling yet still elegant house outside of Kalimpong. She is in the flush of first love with her tutor, a local Nepalese youth sympathetic to the Ghurka cause. Her grandfather is very bitter, raised to expect certain things as a Cambridge-educated man in pre-Partition Delhi but having had to settle for the life of a rural judge in the Himalayas. Lack of funds has led them to dismiss all but one servant, their cook, whose life savings has just been given to his son Biju so he can emigrate to a better life in New York.  Unfortunately Biju, with little education and virtually no English, can only find hard labor in the city’s ethnic kitchens for minimal wages as he moves about evading the INS and learning that America is not the land of opportunity it’s cracked up to be. As the novel progresses, its chapters alternating in perspective between Sai and Biju, we learn about the grandfather’s upbringing and early adult life, the circumstances under which Sai came to live with him, and the lives of other village denizens, all of whom have in common a reduced quality of life, shattered dreams and uncomfortable reactions to the swift changes Indian culture is undergoing.

I found Loss beautiful and touching, not a little sad, the language at times a thicket of imagery requiring some time to penetrate, but ultimately a testament to the human spirit.  To my (admittedly little) knowledge there are no plans to turn the novel into a film, but if there were, I can easily see Sanjay Leela Bhansali, with his love of rich fantasy-like detail as is evident in films like Devdas, as the perfect director.

If you enjoy the reality-based, epic-feeling films of Deepa Mehta or the intimate characterizations directed by Aparna Sen, you might enjoy Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance (Man Booker Prize shortlist, 1996).  Between the main characters’ detailed backstories (often including those of their parents as well!) and the epilogue, the novel encompasses episodes, often horrific, of both village and city life from the 1920s to the 1980s.  However, the main action takes place in the course of about a year starting in 1975, at the beginning of the Emergency declared by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi that had the unintended consequences of terrible human rights atrocities.  Mistry himself was born and raised in Bombay, and emigrated to Canada as a young man in 1975 during the Emergency.

Dina Shroff Dalal is a middle-aged, middle-class Parsi woman, tragically widowed in her youth, who takes in a college-student boarder and runs a small (two-worker) garment factory in her house in order to make ends meet and stay independent of her controlling older brother.  Her boarder, Maneck, is the son of a fellow Parsi school friend, the friend having moved to the mountains upon her marriage and reluctantly sent her son to the “city by the sea” (never named, assumed to be Bombay) to get a certificate in the up-and-coming field of refrigeration and air conditioning. (remember: 1975!)  Her workers are Ishvar and Om, a Hindu uncle-and-nephew pair, who have been ostracized from their village for having dared to independently upgrade their caste from cobbler to tailor.  They are also suspect among their fellow Hindus for their utter lack of hatred towards Muslims.  All of the main characters are emotionally damaged but they have inner strength; the tale of how they live (the Ishvar-Om sections are heartbreaking), learn to trust and even love each other, and rely on each other to survive a politically, economically and socially difficult historical time, is ultimately uplifting and the stuff of the serious end of Indian films.

AFB is very easy to read, with clear language that is nevertheless evocative, a tight plot and familiar dialogue.  Since this is literature, astute readers will notice certain minor characters and devices that form circles and arcs, teach lessons and support the main story in exceedingly artistic ways.  A warning:  if upon reading this book you internalized the characters and the time period, and understood (if maybe not liked—I guarantee that you will experience some anger) the incidents which came upon them at the close of the main action, you might want to skip the epilogue, which looks in on the characters in the year 1984.  It is very difficult to read.  I admit that I cried a little.  The novel has been adapted into a play, but I think it would work extremely well as a film.  If I were casting it, I would tap Shabana Azmi to play Dina, Imraan Khan as Maneck, Naseeruddin Shah as Ishvar and for Om…well, find me a scowly teenager, nothing remotely chocolate about him, with a flaring anger and resentment of the world.

If you like smart-mouthed and cynical modern heroes (and anti-heroes) such as those played by Shah Rukh Khan, check out The White Tiger by Anglo-Indian novelist Aravind Adiga (Man Booker Prize winner, 2008).  A present-day, first-person narrative written as a series of letters to the Chinese president by a snarky youth, Tiger details the pervasive corruption, casteism, and just plain lack of funds that combine to block a young man’s entrepreneurial dreams.  The ways he uses his wits and a willingness to break longstanding cultural taboos in order to get ahead are as entertaining as they are shocking.

Balram Halwai, who we learn on the first page is an admitted murderer, begins his autobiography as a clever boy living in a village in rural Bihar, nicknamed “White Tiger” by his schoolmaster for the way he stands out from the other children yet unable to camouflage himself and his gifts within the prevailing culture.  Poverty forces him to quit school, and he uses his imagination (and not a little fakery) to upgrade himself to the job of driver in the household of a wealthy landlord.  The landlord soon asks him to drive for his son, who is moving to New Delhi, and this wider view of the world both intrigues and disgusts Balram.  The resourceful Balram becomes even more aware than he was of the extremes of Indian society and the causal relationship of corruption to wealth and power.  Ultimately, he realizes that the only person looking out for him is himself and if he wants a piece of the “new India,” he has to let go all of his previous assumptions about morals and do whatever is necessary to achieve his desires.

Those whose tastes run to the appreciation of traditional Indian family values as promoted in Bollywood films might find Tiger’s narrative arc and irreverent tone fundamentally distasteful.  However, I found Balram’s voice funny, satirical and refreshingly real in a world that still has illusions about what modern India is like.  Smuggler Films’ John Hart (The Revolutionary Road) has acquired the film rights to The White Tiger, Mukul Deora (Bheja Fry 2) is one of the producers, and Haneif Kureishi (My Beautiful Laundrette) is set as the screenwriter.  The Chennai-born Adiga has jokingly said that he has in mind the perfect actor to play Balram…Rajinikanth.  (he goes on to say that there is “only one” actor in Hindi cinema who could play Balram, and we can probably guess who he’s thinking about.  Another “dream cast” can be found here)

And there you are.  Three literary novels that may deepen your appreciation of Indian films–or that your love of Indian films might excite you more about.  In a way I hope none of them make it to the screen—I much prefer the scenery in my head as I read than to subject my vision to that of someone else, no matter how excellent it might be.  I have several other works in a similar vein scheduled to read and comment on, so consider this the first of a (mercifully short) series.  Jenny and I have also vowed to read (or in my case re-read) Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and comment on it before it comes out as a film towards the end of 2012.

*The Man Booker Prize is a 43-year-old, annual and very prestigious award for contemporary fiction written by citizens of British Commonwealth countries plus Ireland.  The selections are known for their high literary quality as well as their accessibility to general audiences.  The 2011 award should be announced soon.

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