Friday, April 30, 2010

Rescued by Bollywood: Or How I Learnt to Stop Worrying and Love Kathak

The thing about being out of India is that the moment I hear of anything even remotely connected to India, I feel I must experience it. Yesterday, I actually found myself considering attending some loud, over-the-top Baisakhi festival at Trafalgar Square -- the kind of affair I would have certainly turned up my nose up at, when living in India. Academics would call it my search for identity in an alien land or some such.

What else but my "search of identity" could have led me to Sadler's Well theatre last Tuesday for a Kathak performance by Akram Khan? After all, hadn't I decided early on in life that Indian classical dance and music was not for me? So, naturally, as I sat down on my seat, I nervously wondered whether I had signed myself up for more Indian culture than I could take in one evening.

I tried to take courage from Akram Khan's impeccable reputation - a dancer of Brit-Bang origin (my short form for second-generation British-Bangladeshis), who has not only mastered classical Kathak, but also modern dance, and by combining the two has apparently breathed new life into Indian classical dance in the West. I hoped to find solace in his modern-take on classical, if not classical dance itself.

I needn't have feared. Just because I never actually attended Kathak performances myself, doesn't mean that all along Kathak hadn't been visiting me. It had - through all the Bollywood films I had grown-up watching. As I saw Khan sway and twirl elegantly, I found myself revisiting the dance sequences (particularly, the infamous mujras, come to think of it) of so many films through the '50s and '60s, and found myself absorbed by the performance. Heck! At some point, I even felt tears well up in my eyes. Nostalgia - we are all such suckers for it.

In fact, at the end, I actually enjoyed the first half more, which was entirely in Kathak than the second-half, in which he performed Kabuki-style modern dance.

I don't know whether it was Khan's best performance or not. Maybe, he missed a beat or two here or there. Maybe, he didn't. Who cares? I was just happy to realise that I had known and loved Kathak all my life, thanks to Bollywood.

Watch Akram Khan talk of Kathak:

And here's a Bollywood version:

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Such twits!

 So today, I finally got around to finding details of Tharoor's resignation and reading reports about what a blow it was to new-age politics in India. And the evidence of Tharoor's new-ageyness was of course his ease with new media, mainly twitter.

Naturally, as a critic of the general workings of the Ministry of External Affairs, I couldn't help but be amused that it was finally a tweet by Lalit Modi that precipitated Tharoor's journey downhill.

My problem with Tharoor's new-age twittering self was that his tweets never amounted to anything more than self-promotion. For days I followed his twitter account hoping to find some genuine debate or discussion on it. Majority of his tweets were links to flattering media reports on himself and his activities, a commentary of his daily activities, and rather high-minded opinions on any and every subject that caught his attention during the day. Genuine debate requires dissenting opinion, which was curiously absent from his twitter profile. I refuse to believe that people were only sending him flattering messages. I, for one, sent him my critical views of how the High Commissions outside of India performed, or didn't perform. But it disappeared into a twittering black-hole. In contrast, Tharoor would promptly retweet the flattering messages. It is more likely that he simply chose to ignore the critical comments and keep-up his popularity myth rather that engage in debate . The tactics were those of a wily, old-world politician, only the medium was new. 

Besides, in his short-lived tenure as deputy minister of external affairs, for all his erudition, Tharoor didn't actually make any radical policy or make us think of our international relations in any new, visionary way. Instead, he spent most his time building his persona. And the same middle class that laments that the poor fall for the superficial promises and saddle the country with bad politicians proved themselves to be twits by falling for Tharoor's surface smoothness.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Bollywood musicals?

Years ago, I read an article by Rachel Dwyer – a western academic and champion of Bollywood – asking the scoffing audience in India or elsewhere to compare Bollywood films to modern day musicals. After all, they are both replete with music, dancing, action, high emotions, spectacle and melodrama. Only when we saw Hindi films through the lens of musicals, she argued, would we really appreciate the true value of Bollywood’s offerings. Unfortunately, never having seen a musical, I was rather hampered from taking her advice then.
So once in London, I decided to fill this lacuna in my cultural education, and Sid and I started logging in the musicals: Phantom of the Opera (high emotions and great, great music); We Will Rock You (terrible, terrible, terrible); Thirty-nine Steps (Comical with great light and shadow effects); Billy (fabulous dancing and social commentary); and finally Enron (intelligent, incisive, and contemporary), which we caught last week.  
I still have a hard time appreciating most Bollywood films.
To begin with, most musicals tend to maximise the audience experience by putting the stage to new and clever use; whether it is through silhouettes, clever lighting, puppets, or clever platforms that seem to appear and disappear at will. It works because we know the limitations of a single stage, and hence can appreciate it when someone puts it to particularly innovative use.
Bollywood films on the other hand rarely experiment with the tools of their trade – the camera, the editing machinery, the studio space – to give us new experiences.  
Even when it comes to storytelling, watching Enron made me think why should incorporating music, dance and high emotions require sacrificing complexity at all. The musical is based on the rise and fall of the energy company Enron: one of the biggest corporate scams ever perpetrated. It is hardly a subject that renders itself to music and dancing. And yet, the musical manages to tell the story with ease, style and heavy doses of black comedy. After all, the idea of a musical or a film is to put a story forward – draw certain characters, delve into their psyche, recreate the mood and atmosphere of the environment in which they existed, and explain what they did. And in case of Enron, the music and dancing heightens our experience of the characters and their motivations, the headiness of the rollick’ 90s, and that curious mixing of testosterone and greed that fuelled the whole episode. And it does so without sacrificing the complexity of the financial shenanigans that lead to Enron’s downfall.
You see, my quibble with Bollywood has nothing to do with singing, dancing and high emotions. It is that that most films do not use them cleverly enough to accentuate the story-telling. And that they almost never use the tools of their medium to create a new visual experience – unless you consider a 100 dancers behind Shah Rukh Khan a spectacle.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Name Game: Or is it goodbye Ms Mahadik?

 It is a truth universally acknowledged that teenage-hood brings trauma in its wake. For girls, it is usually connected to breasts, bras and boys. I must be the only girl in the world for whom the trauma related to a dick – a big dick at that.

I was in eighth grade when the attention of my hormone-charged class of 36 boys and girls suddenly fell on my surname: Mahadik. With “Maha” meaning big in Hindi, I was a sitting dic.. sorry duck! I faced the vicious teasing with a stoicism and non-violence that would have put Gandhi in shadow. As I kept telling myself – it could have been worse, my surname could have been “Harddik”. But secretly, I vowed to get married and change my surname as soon as possible.

The vow took 17 long years to materialise. But the strangest thing is that when finally the moment arrived to rid myself of that blighted "Mahadik", I felt an immense spurting of affection for it. For better or worse – mostly for the worse – it was my name. All my certificates, my degrees, my email addresses, my facebook name, my skype ID, and all the hundreds of articles I had written over the last seven years carried that name. Even my bills came under that name. All my friends knew me by that name. All my long, lost friends probably remembered me by that name. What if they googled my name and couldn’t locate me?

But Sid was adamant. As Mr and Mrs Prakash, we were a unit. What if someone wanted to send us a wedding invitation? Would I really want the invitation to come in the name of Mr Prakash and Ms Mahadik? Wouldn’t that be absolutely outrageous?

Faced by such impeccable logic, I quelled. Kicking and screaming, I decided to change my name.

And this month, I finally had the honour of getting my first few articles published in the name of Chetna Prakash.

One for the website Mumbai Boss, which funnily enough is about another famous name change and ensuing identity crises: that of the city of Mumbai.

Open Magazine, which is my revenge against Shashi Tharoor, ha ha ha!!!

And finally in Crest, the Saturday paper of The Times of India on art and culture.

I eagerly sent the article to a friend in Mumbai. And guess what? She replied, yah but who the hell is this Prakash woman?


Monday, April 12, 2010

Mumbai vs Melbourne

Do the cities we grow up in continue to live inside us, long after we have left them?
Sid and I just returned from a trip to our respective homelands: Mumbai and Melbourne. And if the answer to the above question is yes, our unborn children are in trouble. 
Were there ever two cities more differently conceived? It was schizophrenic travelling from Mumbai’s crowds, claustrophobia, chaos, and perpetual panic to Melbourne’s order, antiseptic emptiness and overwhelming leisure. Perhaps, that is why I am so impatient and rushed all the time, and Sid so calm and zen.
I remember the first time I had visited Melbourne, I had kept complaining to Sid that the silence was buzzing in my ears. Wisely, he hadn't revealed to me then that Richmond, where his house is, is one of the busiest neighourhoods of Melbourne. Coming so soon, it would have certainly marked the end of our fledgling relationship.
Perhaps, London marks a happy medium for both of us. It is nice to be home.
It is also nice to return to a new job– my first in London – with a documentary filmmaker.Let the adventures begin....