Friday, June 15, 2012

Sanjay Leela Bhansali vs Wes Andersen: Or A Comparative Analysis of Little Consequence.

It was after watching Wes Andersen’s The Life Aquatic of Steve Zissou that I first found myself questioning whether I was being too hard on Sanjay Leela Bhansali for his movies set in never-never India. 

After all, both Andersen and Bhansali set their characters in unlikely settings that disoriented our sense of time and place. Both prefer exploring the the lives and times of the priviledged upper classes. Both are acute aesthetes with a particular love for all things vintage. And finally, both litter their creations with myriad references drawn from unlikely sources. 
So why is it that while the sibling protagonists of The Royal Tenenbaums and The Darjeeling Limited and the father-son explorer duo of the Life Aquatic of Steve Zissou absolutely charmed me, the heros and heroines of Black, Guzaarish and Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (particularly the first two) left me a little irritated and confused? 
Was I - horror of horror - one of those people who immediately accepted the pretensions of foreigners but played-down the works of her compatriots? 
It was after attending a talk by Sabyasachi Mukherjee - the costume designer of Black and Guzaarish - about his work in the two films that the deceptively simple answer dawned on me.
Andersen succeeds while Bhansali fails because he makes comedies whereas Bhansali tragedies. 
ANDERSEN'S characters and settings are eccentric, if not outright outlandish. The Tenenbaum family is characterised by its dysfunctionality. Steve Zizou is the last of the seafaring explorers out to discover the mysterious murderous fish that ate-up his friend (I kid you not). And the three foppish American-Jewish brothers of The Darjeeling Limited go on a spiritual journey across India in a Palace-On-Wheels-like train hoping for a life-changing experience. And he gives them all kinds of aesthetic quirks: the clothes, the accesories, the sets, the music hark back to many different eras and cultures at the same time. 
But here’s the thing. Andersen doesn’t ask us to or identify with these weirdos or find them believable. He merely wants us to be amused by them. If there is an emotional quotient to his films, it only ever hovers on the surface ready to recede instantly in favour of the next eccentric twist. The highly stylised sets, clothes and ambience only add to the characters’ alienness. And we, as audience, remain amused observers of these curiously aesthetic, dysfuntional beings throughout the length of the film.  

Andersen doesn't take his characters or his audience too seriously. 
ON THE OTHER HAND, Bhansali demands that we as audience immerse ourselves into the raw emotional experiences of his characters: the deaf, dumb, blind Michelle McNelly’s struggles to express herself, Nandini’s determination to realise a pre-marital love affair, and the quadraplegic Ethan Mascarenhas’ desire for mercy-killing. All this darkness is overarched by a theme of everlasting love. There is nothing remotely amusing about these characters or their situations. 
Yet, Bhansali refuses to give them a recognisable backdrop. All throughout Black, I kept struggling to place McNelly in a specific time period. There was a lovely vintage quality to the clothes, sets and backdrop that pointed towards a rich, Anglo-Indian family living in pre-Indepedence Shimla. Yet, the references limited themselves to cold, inanimate things. There were no British people intermingling with Indians in saris or nehru topis, no references to the political turmoil: anything that clashed with the immaculate European aesthetics of the setting was cleansed-off the frame. The McNellys were basically European, accidentally being played by Indian actors. Ditto, the Rajasthan-Italy combo of Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, and the Goa of Guzaarish (which somehow seemed closer to the crumbling Colombia of One Hundred Years of Solitude to me). 
Unfortunately for us, the audience, we are then asked to become one with these outlandish creatures: to cry in fury, misery or sadness with them and for them. But how? All through Black, I kept getting distracted by the unlikely but overpowering sets. And I kept feeling manipulated. Bhansali wanted me to feel urgently for McNelly, but at the same time maintain an aesthetic distance from her life. One minute I was invited in, the other minute decidedly booted out. At least, McNelly shared her ordinary looks with us. The Sofia of Guzaarish in her garters, gypsy skirts, aprons and faux-European demeanour didn’t even offer us that. In fact, my mind absolutely refused to interact with this alien creature. Let Bhansali and Mukherjee cry for her, it said, since they thinks she is so fantastic.  
If you want to evoke human feelings, you have interact with the ugliness of our human lives, right? In fact, some of the world’s most raw, emotional artworks - think The Scream, Guernica or Francis Bacon’s works - are ugly. It is a precarious aesthetic ugliness however, and for that reason, they are deemed masterpieces. 
So tell you what, Mr Bhansali. You give me a character decidedly rooted in a reality (ugliness and all), and I will give you one whole bucketful of tears in return. 
And let’s leave the bohemian aesthetics to Andersen. 

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Guzaarish & Black: Or a tale about Sabyasachi Mukherjee, Bohemia and Films

A tale from never-never Goa
Dear Sabyasachi, 
I don’t normally write to fashion designers. But I lost my way around Melbourne Central pondering over your unsatisfying answer to my question at the masterclass yesterday. It was most annoying and I missed feeding my 5-month-old baby girl. After that I felt I owed it to myself to demand a debate. 
My question related to your and Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s inspirations and references to the two films you discussed: Black & Guzaarish. Why were the inspirations and references so decidedly European? And if the characters were based in never-never land where to do you begin building a costume language for them? 
You began by saying that this was a tiny sample of your huge body of work, and was not representative of your myriad inspirations and references.  
Then you added that you consider yourself a global Indian, who draws inspiration from anywhere and everywhere and your life and work reflects that. And that if I visited a friend’s house and found his life, travels and inspirations decorating his walls, wouldn’t the resulting bohemia enchant me?
I guess, you were saying that the characters of Guzaarish and Black were a result of your inspirations. And you reserve the right to draw your inspiration from anywhere. And the resulting bohemia is enchanting.
At first, I loved your answer. Mainly because after five years of living in five different countries, I am finally moving into my own home. My thoughts are consumed by how do I use this empty space to create a story about my life, thoughts, inspirations and passions. And your comment encapsulated my feelings.
But then, as soon as you moved on to the next question, I realised that your answer called for a counterquestion. 
Isn’t bohemia for the sake of bohemia meaningless? Bohemia, more than anything else, is interesting if it is organic but not if it is overly-constructed.
I would love my friend’s house if I found that the memorabilia decorating the walls truly reflected his or her experiences, travels and passions. But if they were there merely for aesthetics and effect, I would find it pretentious. Like when a friend, who generally disliked Bollywood and didn’t get irony, suddenly placed a 1980s Bollywood poster on her living room wall. It looked fashionable and arresting, but was it interesting? I thought not because it said so little about her. 
Sure creating a gypsy skirt for a nurse in never-never Goa - as you and Bhansali did in Guzaarish - is fashionable and arresting, but is it interesting? 
Sure putting a Parsi lacing on a Michelle McNelly in never-never Shimla - as you did in Black - is fashionable and arresting, but is it interesting?  
Sabyasachi Mukherjee at Hoyt's Melbourne, June 13
And while films belongs to its creators - and I count you among the creators of Black and Guzaarish - doesn’t it equally belong to the characters of the film? 
I felt that while you and Bhansali were true to your own bohemia, the bohemia of the characters of Guzaarish and Black was constructed, stylised and somewhat meaningless. So while you were true to yourself, you failed your characters in the film.
Why would putting-on a garter on Aishwarya Rai in Guzaarish help her get into her character of a Goan nurse more - as you asserted? No Goan nurses wear garters - regardless of whether they are victims of domestic abuse or not. Most wouldn’t even have access to garters.
Now you’ll say that I am over-intellectualising the costume design. I am not. I am telling you exactly why I couldn’t enjoy the two films with such compelling storylines because try as I might, I just couldn’t lose my way into the character’s lives: they were so alien. 
I’ll end this letter now because my baby girl is crying again, and I am sure you wouldn’t want to be responsible for more of her misery. 
But a debate I demand. You name the place and time. 
Curiously yours
Chatnoir: A Mumbaikar in Melbourne
PS: Feel free to pass-on my questions to Mr Bhansali.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

From Supriya to her Grandparents

Dear Dada & Dadi, 

How are you? Mummy says you have just been to Scotland and are planning to visit Vienna. How can you do this to me? I demand that you come back right now and play with me. How can travel be more fun than sitting next to me and going "agooo, abeee, agooo". 

I don't want to admit it but I think I miss the two of you. Mummy is alright, but she keeps busy most of the day (I don't know what she keeps typing on that silly computer of hers). It was so much more fun when the two of you were around - all I had to do was cry "baiiiinnn" and one of you would come running and play with me and my lovely talking dog Violet. 

Did I tell you that I have graduated to the stroller from my bassinet? Yes, I did. I took Mummy and Papa out for a walk this Sunday on my stroller. We went to a cafe, and it was so much more fun to sit face-to-face with them on the table. I was really getting sick of lying in that bassinet of mine. 

Last week, I took Mummy out for a walk with my friend Thomas and her Mummy. We walked all around North Balwyn until that Thomas started crying. Then, I had to send them back home. But I think we are going to make it a weekly affair - that is, if it ever stops raining.

How is Akshay? Mummy, Papa say that he is turing into a nice, big baby just like me. I hope to meet him soon and play with him. I might even share Violet with him... or maybe I won't. I need to think about that a bit more. 

Anyway, I better run. Mummy has just made a cup of tea for herself and looking forward to enjoying it. That is not a good sign. I think I will poo, then cry, just to ruin her tea. 

Lots of love - and hope to see you soon.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Bollywood Star on SBS Australia: Or why the project is doomed from get go.

The much-hyped Bollywood Star show on SBS channel Australia - which hopes to find, groom and lauch the Bollywood career of six Aussies - is doomed to fail. 

Here’s why.
Because this should be a geneology hunt, not a talent hunt: Whoever came up with the dumb idea that you need talent to make it in Bollywood? 
The most reliable and sureshot way to make it into Bollywood is to possess the right genes. Nearly 90 per cent of the current crop of top Bollywood actors have taken this tried-and-tested path to Bollywood stardom. Think Abishek Bachchan, Hrithik Roshan, Farhan Akhtar, Abhay Deol, Imran Khan, Kareena Kapoor, Sonakshi Sinha: all made it, thanks to the right sirname and familal connections. 
Even a B-grade actor such as Emraan Hashmi had to find a geneological relation to Mahesh Bhatt before he got casted to his first film. 
So if SBS genuinely wants to help these poor sods become a Bollywood Star, it should be sponsoring a find-your-ancestors show not a talent hunt. The six winning finalists can be the ones who find the closest geneological connection to any of the film families: the Khans of all varieties, Chopras, Deols, Kapoors, Bhatts, Roshans et al.
Because this is not a beauty contest: If genes are not very obliging, the next best way to Bollywood is winning an international beauty contest. Think Aishwarya Rai, Sushmita Sen, Priyanka Chopra, Lara Dutta and Dia Mirza. All of them beat some seriously white skin to get a crown on their head. 
So another option SBS has is organising a seriously ambitious sounding beauty contest. As you must have noticed, any title with “India” in it doesn’t make the cut. (Sorry Ms India-Australia). It has to be more than that. (Now the titles of Universe, World and Earth are already taken, but Galaxy, Milky Way and Solar System are still available for SBS to cadge). 
Because foreigners have no place in Bollywood: Name one foreigner who has had a successful Bollywood career. 
If you have a white skin, you can only graduate to villains or vamps, no matter how much you profess to love dancing, colours and curries. Why? Elemetary, Mr Watson. Bollywood films are about how great Indians are, and having a white-skinned hero or heroine would defeat the very purpose. 
But... but... what about Katrina Kaif, you’ll say? What about her? She didn’t make it into Bollywood on the basis of being a beautiful Brit of Indian ancestry. She made it purely on the strength of being Salman Khan’s girlfriend - she piggybacked on him in all her initial films. 
Because Mahesh Bhatt is the chosen producer/director to launch the six finalists and Mahesh Bhatt has not made a decent film in more than a decade. In the last five years, he has made three films - all flops. He is also disgustingly sensational. These days he is busy launching the career of Sunny Leon, an international porn star trying to gain respectability as a Bollywood star (Yes, indeed, our six finalists will be joining such elevated company). 
Because one episode down, we are already scraping the bottom of the barrel: Any talent hunt which is reduced to selecting three contestants out of the last six - after going through some 300 contestants - is seriously in trouble. 

Friday, June 1, 2012

Supriya Pari Prakash: Or why we decided to give a middle name to our daughter.

It is only your spare name, darling!
I always thought that middle names were silly. They added unnecessary length to the name. They served no real purpose in modern life where our efforts and not our pedigree took us forward. And they sounded pompous. 

In fact, I earned my middle name quite by accident. My 10th grade teacher took it upon herself to tack my Dad’s middle name to mine before sending off the list to the High School Board. My high school degree arrived in the name of Chetna Rao Mahadik instead of a simple Chetna Mahadik. Having insidiously imprinted itself on this critical document of my life, the “Rao” then made its way to all my subsequent degrees, bank accounts and passports. 
Seventeen years on, I am still trying to get rid of it. 
Which is why, when Sid and I started thinking of names for our daughter, a middle name had no place in my plans. 
It was a chance discussion with friends that first got me thinking that middle names made little sense for my generation, but could be critical for my daughters’. 
You see, my daughter belongs to a generation whose life and actions will be imprinted all over the internet. From this blog, to her blogs and whatever other social media that takes over Facebook and twitter: her life, photos, opinions and actions will be played out in public. And with that public life will come the very possible risk of public embarassment. 
I think a lot of my child’s peers will look back at their teenage years and wish that they could somehow distance themselves from those internet words, images and personality attached to their names. And since they'll be unable to change the internet, many of them will change their names instead. 
And frightening as it seems, my daughter could be one of those wanting a new name. 
Taking this possibility into consideration, suddenly a middle name sounded not pompous but practical. It acts as spare name, waiting in reserve if someone found their first name too internet-tainted. If Supriya had an official middle name, a name change would not involve crazy and painful paperwork. It would simply mean dropping her first name, and adopting her middle name for most public purposes. 
So it is that a tiny, innocuous “Pari” made it between the Supriya and Prakash of my daughter’s name. 
And I sincerely hope that she never finds any use for it. 

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

My 32nd birthday: Or why I have only turned 26 today.

On my 26th birthday - six years ago - I hit rock bottom. 
According to the “plan”, I should have finished my studies, gotten married, travelled a bit, and had my first child by then. Instead, I was still stuck in Mumbai, single as hell, and had been struggling for two years to get a good scholarship to cover a masters somewhere outside of India. Obviously, there was no child in the picture (much to my parent’s relief I might add). 
It was then that I first considered the possibility that I may never get married, never have children, never travel the world and never do that blasted masters in some vague liberal arts subject that I so dearly wanted to do. After all, just because I wanted those things didn’t mean that the Universe in any way felt obliged to give them to me. 
Funnily enough, it was between that birthday and the next that I finally cadged a scholarship to an arts master’s programme, got my first passport stamp (to Switzerland) and most importantly: met Sid. How far could that baby be?
Six years afar it seems. On my 32nd birthday today, I can finally say that yes, I have finished my studies, gotten married, travelled a fair bit, and yes, yes, yes, I am the mother of a two-month old baby girl. 
No wonder, I feel have finally turned 26 today. 

Happy Birthday to me!

Friday, March 16, 2012

Catch 22: Or Why I Can't Finish Reading A Food Review

Guess the taste: raw beef, eggs and potatoes
In my entire life, I have never been able to finish reading a food review. Sorry Naresh, sorry Iain, sorry Guy (the food reviewers that I worked with) - not even yours, not even the ones that I may have joined you for the food to. 
It is not because I don’t care for food. I do. I really do. Bad food upsets me. Bad service upsets me. Bad ambience upsets me. Which is why I was permanently upset in London - the food quality was so poor in general. 
Today, while reading a review in the toilet of a seafood restaurant Dimitri’s by some Mr Michael Harden in the latest Melbourne Weekly, I finally figured out why. 
It is because most of the review is just gibberish to me. 
Here’s a line out of the review. “There will still be the superb spakonita made with wild greens, the semonila-dusted calamari served with auso aioli, French toast made with baklava and the brilliant gigantes - large tomoatoey baked beans served with poached eggs, loukaniko sausages and feta, all examples of the modern Greek approach that owner Jim Karabagias does with intuitive flair.” 
To begin with, I find my comprehension hiccuping four times in that one sentence - at “spakonita”, “auso ailoi”, “gingates” and "loukanikos”. And each time I hiccup, my interest in the review falls a few notches unconsciously. (In all, I hiccuped nine times in the tiny half page review). 
Besides, even when I do recognise all the ingredients I find it tough to imagine them together - French toast made with baklava? Now there are people who can simply put unlikely ingredients together in their minds and conjure up the taste. They are usually contestants in MasterChef. To the rest of us, the words describing the dishes are simply gibberish until we actually taste them. And if we can’t imagine the taste, how will be know that we will like the taste? 
The only time a food review comes to life for me is when something goes wrong with the service - the staff is rude, or the food comes too late or the bill contains an unexpected charge. Because human F-ups are something we all can relate to. 
The problem is that food reviewers want to bring to you interesting new restaurants offering interesting new foods in interesting new ambience. But newer the foods, ingredients and atmosphere, the more I hiccup, and the more I lose interest. 
And that is what I call a Catch 22.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Clarkson goes potty over India: let's be outraged but for reasons other than the HCI's

Here's why I can't agree with High Commission of India, London's, demand that BBC apologises for Top Gear's offensive portrayal of India on their 90-minutes Christmas Special.

If we don't give others the right to make fun of us, we must also give-up the right to make fun of others. And I dearly don't want to lose my right to make fun of the British: their terrible food; their inability to hold down a drink (evident in the all the puke you see on the streets on Saturday and Sunday mornings); the Katie Price-inspired fashion that dominates Picadilly Circus; the quixotic British train system that breaks down at the mere mention of snow, rain or autumn leaves; the famous British bureaucracy and the mad Prince Charles.

Remember, if we don't want the British to laugh at the Top Gear episode, we have no right to laugh at this scene from our own beloved Kabhie Khushi Kabhie Gham.

This, after the British Government so kindly allowed us to shoot half our film in their country!

Besides, here's something I don't get about stereotypes? Is a depiction still a stereotype if it is true?

Ok, so the Top Gear showed street dogs and Indian men pissing on the streets of Mumbai, long queues in front of Railway ticket counters, they talk about tourists in India getting the trots (or diahorrea), the dangerous highway between Delhi and Jaipur. But aren't they true depictions of our lives. I can't remember a single day in my fifteen years in Mumbai (or 22 years in India) when I didn't see street dogs and men pissing in the open. And yes, public toilets in India are a shame. I challenge the High Commissioner of India to England to use the public toilet at Kurla Terminus in Mumbai. These are not generalisations, these are the realities of living in India. It is just that the Top Gear depicts them in their standard cheeky style.

The Top Gear team also showed the lively street stalls and enterprise of Mumbai (in fact, Clarkson and team come sloppy seconds against the dabbawallas), Delhi's glitterati in their incredibly expensive cars and the beauty of the Himalayas.

The show hosts also constantly make fun of Britain. The whole exercise shows the British products as awful and poorly constructed, and themselves as buffoons in the garb of Britain's representatives. And they are happy to make fun of themselves. (In fact, over the years, they have made more fun of Britain than of any other culture, country or people).

If I do have a quibble, it is this. Their's jokes - whether on us or themselves - were so contrived. The Top Gear humour is at its best when it is spontaneous and full of surprise. But over the years, the character of the three hosts has become so fixed and the dynamics between them so predictable, that one can foretell the result of all their pranks before they have played themselves out. That is just bad television.

If we must protest, it is over this. That even with all the chaos, crowds, surprise, and fodder for humour that India provided them: Clarkson, Hammond and May couldn't really give us a genuine moment of spontaneous humour. We deserved better!

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu: Or the new-found zaniness of Bollywood's heroines

Oh God! Not another "zany" Bollywood heroine!

It was sort of fun when Kareena played the exuberant, irrepressible, rebellious (read: zany) Geet in Jab We Met in 2007. But the success of that film led to an avalanche of bordering-on-mad heroines, almost all of them coupled with long-suffering but essentially sensible heroes.

  • Think Aditi from Jaane Tu... Ya Jaane Na (2008) who Wikipedia describes as "a highly aggressive, impulsive girl. She abuses. She scratches." In other words, zany. 
  • Think Aaliya (Deepika Padukone) from Break ke Baad (2010). She was loud, unpredictable, smokes, get drunk and is generally impulsive. In other words: zany. 
  • Think Dimple (played by Katrina Kaif) from Mere Brother Ki Dulhan (2011). Again bold, mischievous, impulsive and good at keeping her hero in a permanent state of alarm. What's that word again: yes, zany.
  • And then there was Tanu (Kangana Ranaut) from Tanu Weds Manu (2011) who was practically bordering on psychotic, as far as I am concerned. 

And now, there is Kareena Kapoor in Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu, due to release in February 2012, threatening us with her "zaniness" again if the trailer is anything to go by. 

Apart from extreme loquaciousness and boundless boldness, the heroines' "zaniness" also tends to include smoking and getting dead drunk at some point in the film (give or take a few films). Luckily, our long-suffering hero is always near by to rescue her when she passes out. Rebelliousness doesn't include rescuing yourself, it seems.

Our hero, in contrast, is sensible, responsible and generally good at toeing the line. This, we are supposed to see as repressed. Our heroine's zaninesss, then, is really about releasing the inner Marlboro Man in the hero. So while our hero rescues our heroine from drunken scraps, our heroine rescues him from life itself. (Also for some reason, it is a role Imran Khan is determined to colonise, playing it in four of the five films I mentioned above).

In most parts, I don't mind the zaniness, except in three respects. 

First, why is it that so many rebellious heroines seem to have no careers or jobs. Geet, Aditi, Dimple and finally the horrifying Tanu: none of them showed any interest in gainful employment. They were all just waiting to get married, hoping to bag a guy through their exuberant personality alone. Between Aaliya and Kapoor (in Ek Main...), one wanted to become an actress and the other a hair stylist. Obviously, careers like law, IT, journalism etc are not zany enough.

Second, zaniness and all is fine but I do mind watching smoking as somehow being emblematic of rebelliousness. It is a generally accepted as a harmful and somewhat disgusting habit and is becoming increasingly unfashionable in the West, from where we picked up the notion that it is fashionable in the first place. In fact, I can't remember the last Hollywood Rom-Com, in which the heroine smoked. Do we always have to remain a step behind the West all the time? Can't we just buck the trend for a change. 

Third, after so many films, zaniness is turning into a bore. 

Let's hope, Kareena Kapoor, who started the trend with Jab We Met, will bring it to an end with Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu.

Here's a previous blog, I wrote, about the Bollywood heroines: Dil Chahta Hain: Or Where Have All the Bollywood Feminists Disappeared.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Granta 112: Pakistan - or does Pakistan have a literary scene?

Voices from Pakistan
Reading the Granta Publication on Pakistan - a collection of fiction and non-fiction works by Pakistani writers - I was reminded of an event on Pakistani literature I attended a couple of years ago. It was a talk at the Asia Society in London with three new rising literary stars from Pakistan: Nadeem Aslam, Kamila Shamsie and Daniyal Mueenuddin.

At one point, the moderator commented on the recent rise of the Pakistani literary scene. The garrulous Ms Shamsie pounced excitedly on the subject stating how and why it was Pakistani-English writers' time in the sun. After she had gabbed on for a while, Mueenuddin, who had been remarkably taciturn throughout the evening, suddenly quipped that to say Pakistan had a literary "scene" was an exaggeration. If it existed, he certainly hadn't come across it. The room erupted into embarrassed titters and Ms Shamsie looked decidedly put-out.

After reading the Granta collection, I am inclined to agree with Mueenuddin.

The first sign of a lack of a vibrant literary scene is that all the three above-mentioned rising stars appear again in the collection. Obviously, the editor of the collection wasn't exactly spoilt for choice.

But more curious is the strange uniformity of voice that emerges from the collection. Barring two pieces - Leila in the Wilderness by the British-Pakistani Nadeem Aslam and Butt and Bhatti by Mohammed Hanif - the rest seem so stridently liberal. Don't get me wrong. I have no sympathy for fundamentalists. But how can all the writing arising out of a country so steeply diving towards fundamentalism sound so confidently, one-sidedly liberal?

Of course, the writers acknowledge that Pakistan is the gripped by a violent Islamization movement. But they can clearly see whose fault it is: Zia, America, Jinnah, military and ISI. And they can clearly see who all are affected by it: everyone. But how have the writers remained untouched by the phenomenon? Are they untouched by it? It is the absence of the voices from the middle that strikes me as strange.

Could the uniformity of voices be a result of the rather similar background of all the writers? Either, they moved to Britain or the US early on in life (Nadeem Aslam, Sarfraz Mansoor) or they all seem to belong to the incredibly privileged Pakistani elite. Ms Shamsie writes of visiting her cousins in London every summer and Aamer Hussein of spending childhood summers at Hyde Park. Daniyal Mueenuddin's family still owns huge farmlands in Pakistan. And Fatima Bhutto, well we all know where she stands in the Pakistani social hierarchy. Almost all of them have had long exposure to Western universities and cultures.

How representative are they of the culture they write about? Moreover, do the writers in such a collection need to come from diverse backgrounds?

Either way, writers with very similar backgrounds and attitudes becoming representative of the country's literature reek more of a clique than a literary scene. Of course, if you are inside the clique, it often appears like a scene to you, which may explain Ms Shamsie's enthusiasm.

Here's an interview with Daniyal Mueenuddin in which is comments on how most of his peers do not have access to rural Pakistan, where his own stories are set. Perhaps, that is why he holds different views on the existence/non-existence of a Pakistani literary scene.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Don 2 or MI4: Which is a more Indian experience?

Last night, in a bid to introduce Sid and my very-soon-to-pop-out baby to some Indian culture, we went to watch the super slick Don 2: The King is Back.  Unfortunately, culturally and aesthetically the film was so derivative of Hollywood that we would have been better-off watching MI4: Ghost Protocol, the twenty minutes-climax of which is set in squalid Mumbai and even features one of its famous traffic jams.

The film reminded me of a corny dialogue from a late-80s Bollywood-starrer Jamai Raja. It had Shakti Kapoor eulogising a prospective son-in-law with: "woh breakfast London me khate hain, lunch Paris mein, aur dinner New York mein. Bus su-su karne India aate hain". (He eats his breakfast in London, lunch in Paris and dinner in New York. He only comes to India to pee). Don doesn't even dignify India with his precious pee.

Everything about this super-villain is foreign: his empire, his clothes, his cars, his toilets, his targets and his ambitions. Only, the language in which he operates is clean, unaccented Hindi, which in turn forces the film to place Hindi-speaking Indian characters in unlikely settings: as Interpol officers in Malaysia, heading German banks, or as computer hackers or contract killers in Berlin.

There is a lot of talk of how the film can match any Hollywood thriller in its production values. Yes, it can. But all of it is great imitation at best: Don 2 never uses the foreign locales, settings or aesthetics to say anything original or authentic. But then again, Bollywood film-makers rarely use Indian locales, settings or aesthetics with any imagination so why should they accord the respect to foreign locales.

The good news for us is that it doesn't matter. Western film-makers are slowly discovering India as a possible setting for its films. (MI4 is the latest example). Once, they discover us and find an aesthetic language to cinematically represent our strangely ugly-beautiful cities, I'm confident we'll quickly rediscover our streets. After all, it only took Farhan Akhtar two years to recreate Bourne Supremacy's (2004) fabulous car chase in Goa for his 2006-film Don: The Chase Begins Again. Others will take even less.

Here's a great spoof of MI4 featuring Anil Kapoor. I couldn't resist...