Friday, October 31, 2008

Navrang by V Shantaram

The story of Navrang, like most other Indian blockbusters which came later in the 70s and the 80s, is centred on a man and his family. Cultural and family ties, and the emotions they evoke, run deep in India. Any film which reinforces these in an entertaining way finds its way into the hearts of the masses.

Navrang is a kaleidoscope of songs and set pieces. Directed by V Shantaram after recovering from his loss of sight, the film is a saturated celebration of colours. One can almost imagine the audience of the film talking animatedly about it afterwards, gushing over its luscious compositions and recommending it to their friends and family.

The film is extremely colourful. But that is only as far as the palette is concerned. The name of the film, Navrang or Nine Colours, belies its characters, which are singularly black and white. As expected of a new medium, the film tries to familiarize its audience with the unfamiliar: the royal courts, the fantastical locations and costumes, the intrigues of rulers, the mind and the muse of a poet.

Modern literature and cinema is, in contrast, a tool to de-familiarize us from the mundane, to point at something that we have experienced, and to present it at a depth which we haven’t.

The film was panned by critics when it was released, but the masses loved it.
Navrang is, experientially and analytically, a superficial film. It won’t win any prizes for profundity or for exposing any troublesome predicaments of life. The central story of the film is almost laughable in its silliness. A poet composes and sings songs for a glamorous version of his frowning domesticated wife. And why is wife so unhappy in the first place? Well, because of those very songs! She thinks he composes those songs for someone else.

If the poet Diwakar, played by Mahipal, is too highbrow for his wife, the wife, played by a siren-in-her-day Sandhya, may be called too thick-brow. To be fair, there is another character in the film that beats her in having facial hair above the eyes, but one might add, only by a whisker. She looks pasty in her excessive make-up, and tries too hard to dance, whereas all she succeeds in is gimmickry. I am sure it is hard to balance seven pitchers on one’s head, and it may be exciting to see four differently-coloured saris being pulled off her, but is it dance?

A secondary narrative in the film relates to the overthrow of the local ruler by the British East India Company. Of course, the British acquired their political power in India through violence or the threat of violence, but that shouldn’t come as a surprise. The history of politics is mostly a history of overt or covert violence. Whether they are Aryans, the Mughals, the European or the current crop of “democratically elected representatives”, rulers have always used violence, coercion and divisive manipulation to maintain or extend their power.

The film banks on a cheap form of nationalism in which the West is evil, whereas the local rulers are just (even though historically the native rulers were at least as corrupt as the British. The Nizam of Hyderabad, for example had five hundred wives.), the local culture sacred (despite the regressive traditions and even though historically the Vedas and the later scriptures were written by the Aryan invaders), and where milk is Indian but alcohol is from the west.

The hero, Diwakar, has his day when he is granted the status of the Raj Kavi (Poet Royal) by a whimsical king. The king decides on this award after being impressed by a rather churlish song. The king is in general a bad judge of people, and receives his comeuppance one day when he is dethroned by the British. This was just the day destiny had in store for Diwakar. After composing endless love songs, he reveals himself as a courageous patriot of the highest order. No matter that till then he was not known for any inner life apart from his dreams of the dancing and strip-teasing wife.

Things follow in quick succession. Diwakar loses his job, a son (conceived immaculately perhaps) is born, and Diwakar’s father turns ill, pressing the household into recession. The frowning wife finally starts frothing at the mouth, takes a short position on her husband’s stock futures, and makes short work of leaving the home.

After a lot of half-hearted efforts at reunion, they are finally united through the unlikely intervention of a corset-wearing courtesan, whose drinks and advances have earlier been refused by our highbrow poet. Well, such is life. Pension-plan saving bailouts by federal authorities is an old story, it seems.

However, the film does have some saving graces.

Some facets of Indian family life are unintentionally revealing. Echoing a distant tradition of bi-generational polyandry, Diwakar calls his mother Bhabhi, or sister-in-law. And the father of the bride is distinctly poorer and malnourished as compared to the father of the groom.

Some of the set pieces, e.g. in the final song, are quite exquisite.
There are faint hints of Mirza Ghalib in the protagonist. A poet of the highest order, Mirza too was honoured by a king who suffered ignominy and defeat at the hands of the British. Mirza died a poor and disillusioned man, likewise Diwakar is shown begging during the chronological end of this film.

It is also interesting to note that Navrang, even though admitting political defeat at the hands of the British, proclaims that India’s culture and traditions will never be vanquished. Whereas, today it is those very traditions (some of them healthy and worth preserving) which are in the danger of imminent extinction. There is something tantalizing in the dream of “more” which the so-called “West” promises. And can it be really said that Diwakar, the hero of Navrang, was immune from dreams?

More than that, what is the audience realizing and enjoying in the song-and-dance sequences of Navrang, and in its technicolor palette, if not the dream of something “more” than its sordid existence outside the cinema hall?

Sunday, October 19, 2008

In the Mood for Love by Wong Kar-Wai

Those familiar with Indian romantic cinema will hardly find the emotions expressed in this film as novel and enchanting, but the formal dexterity of the director is something to marvel at.

Looking at two people from a voyeur's eyes, from behind doors and through windows, Wong Kar-Wai creates a mood of unearthly love from scenes of mundane, crowded spaces.

The interpretation that I have for this film is not that of social repression killing the expression of love, I think the film can be considered more transcendental than that.

I think the theme of the film is this: To preserve the purity of love means to shield it from the corruption of gossip and carnality. But this preservation also means a frustration to find intimacy. This quest of forever guarding one's desire for oneness to slip into a desire of physical union is a spiritual one, hence the final, absolutely breathtaking montage at Angkor-Wat.

The quest for transcendence, and to have something not of this earth, is what a temple signifies. And what better place to bury an uncorrupted secret than that!

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Mother Teresa

Ms Agnes Bojaxhiu, better known as Mother Teresa, needs no introduction. But her epitaph would be more informed if some excerpts from Christopher Hitchens' The Missionary Position were to be included.

... I began the project of judging Mother Teresa's reputation by her actions and words rather than her actions and words by her reputation.

For just one example, Ms Bojaxhiu's charitable organization was the recipient of 1.25 million dollars (of other people's money) in charity from a convicted fraudster, Charles Keating. She wrote a letter to the judge presiding over his trial, and I quote:
I do not know anything about Mr. Charles Keating's work or his business or the matters you are dealing with.

I only know that he has always been kind and generous to God's poor, and always ready to help whenever there was a need.


Whenever someone asks me to speak to a judge, I always tell them the same thing. I ask them to pray, to look into their heart, and to do what Jesus would do in that circumstance. And this is what I am asking of you, your Honor.

The reply from one of the prosecutors is perhaps more interesting:

You urge Judge Ito to look into his heart - as he sentences Charles Keating - and do what Jesus would do. I submit the same challenge to you. Ask yourself what Jesus would do if he were given the fruits of a crime; what Jesus would do if he were in possession of money that had been stolen; what Jesus would do if he were being exploited by a thief to ease his conscience?

I submit that Jesus would promptly and unhesitatingly return the stolen property to its rightful owners. You should do the same. You have been given money by Mr. Keating that he has been convicted of stealing by fraud. Do not permit him the `indulgence' he desires. Do not keep the money. Return it to those who worked for it and earned it!

If you contact me I will put you in direct contact with the rightful owners of the property now in your possession.

Ms Bojaxhiu did not reply to this or return the money.

Another excerpt sheds light on the way her organization refused strong analgesics to terminally ill patients:

She described a person who was in the last agonies of cancer and suffering unbearable pain. With a smile, Mother Teresa told the camera what she told this terminal patient: `You are suffering like Christ on the cross. So Jesus must be kissing you.' Unconscious of the account to which this irony might be charged, she then told of the sufferer's reply: `Then please tell him to stop kissing me.' There are many people in the direst need and pain who have had cause to wish, in their own extremity, that Mother Teresa was less free with her own metaphysical caresses and a little more attentive to actual suffering.

On a side note, Raghu Rai, a noted photographer from India has eulogized Mother Teresa in a photo-book named Mère Teresa (Mère means Mother in Italian) with enough pictures of her wizened face, and her reputed humility and compassion, though it is an interesting question as to why a humble person would allow her humility to be marketed in photo books.

A picture may say a thousand words, but sometimes, a researched footnote is infinitely more useful than a long poem.

(Mother Teresa holding hands with one of the most corrupt women of the twentieth century, Michele Duvalier. Mother Teresa received the Legion of Honor for her visit. She never denounced the Duvalier regime or its corruption and atrocities, or returned the award.)

Thursday, October 09, 2008

On Mr Neale Donald Walsch

Mr Walsch is the author of the "Conversations with God" book series. Many of my relatives find his books enlightening and full of insights about human nature.

I find it strange and inexplicable that such blatant charlatans are eulogized by otherwise sensible people because they offer soothing explanations and feel-good prescriptions for living a moral life.

In his "Conversations with God" series, Mr Walsch purportedly listens to God talking about various subjects. And it is not metaphorical or a literary device, Mr Walsch claims that he genuinely listens to God speaking in plain English.

On his website, he offers the subscription of a mailing list, and offers to join him in various expensive "retreats".

A suitable example is here. Complete with offers of staggered payment plans and whatnot, ...

Admittedly, he is no more of a charlatan than, say, Deepak Chopra or Yogi Bhajan, but the sheer blatant-ness of his marketing left me gasping.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Le Sang des bêtes (Blood of the Beasts) by Georges Franju

An almost unbearable poem contrasting the banal by nature and the banal by habit, on the iron curtain between horror and civilization that exists in everyday life, this is a meditation on Man, and not a treatise on the innards of his fellow creatures.

Who says concentration camps weren't there in 1949 (when this film was made), or aren't there today?

Desolation in India

There is a quality of silence in lifeless desolation, where a sense of the primeval in nature makes one a part of this universe, rather than the center of it.

One of the biggest drawbacks of city life is the absence of absences. In a city, desolation is nowhere to be found, untrammeled beauty is impossible to imagine, and solitude becomes a retreat rather than an expanse.


In desolation, there is no noise, there are only sounds. And there is no dirt, only soil. In nature the colors always blend well, no matter how different or incongruous, ..., the jarring notes occur only in human habitations.

We just finished a marvelous trip to one of the most desolate regions in India: the Spiti Valley at the Indo-Tibetan border.


Starting from our home in Chandigarh, we traveled to Manali, and from there, we proceeded to the so-called headquarters of the Spiti region: the town of Kaza.

Our plans to explore the villages around Kaza came to naught because of the unseasonal snow which plunged the entire region into stasis. It took us ten days to finally leave Kaza and get back to Manali, and the many deaths of heedless trekkers and incidents of frostbite were sobering reminders of human limits.


But we did manage to visit Kibber, have a trek or two, and see the astonishingly situated monastery at Ki.


I have come to the conclusion that people who live in sparsely populated regions are gentler, kinder and happier. They have a quality which can only be called innocence. They still laugh at nothing, have smiles on their faces in the morning, and are generous despite their relative poverty. In the villages of Rajasthan, in the villages near the Great Basin National Park in US, and in the mountains of Himachal Pradesh, innocence survives.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Elippathayam (Rat Trap) by Adoor Gopalakrishnan

A great film about the various responses to life: inaction, escape, rebellion and suffering. Each of these responses is expressed by different characters in the film. The film is a marvelous portrait of the village life in Kerala. The performances, and the music, are consistently remarkable.

The film makes one uncomfortable precisely because one knows that what one is condemning on-screen is not far from what one has been guilty of oneself at times: Avoidance of Reality.