Thursday, June 29, 2006

Writer's blockheads

Some of the features in our city supplements, much like the great classics of literature, are worth revisiting - you discover something new each time you read them. With minimum comment, here are excerpts from the lead story in today’s HT City. It’s about...well, actually I’m not sure what it’s about, judge for yourself:
Gone are the days of the kurta-clad, jhola-sporting writers, who carried a sordid expression on the face to justify their ingenuity. The 21st century writers are a dynamic lot, who pursue writing as just another indulgence.
And ask them about their writing skills, [Ira] Trivedi says, “Writing is my forte, so writing a book for me isn’t completely out of the blues.”
Most perplexing of all, in a story that focuses on people who have day jobs as bankers/doctors etc and who don’t treat writing as a serious pursuit, is the sudden reference to Upamanyu Chatterjee (name misspelt, of course):
Anil Arora of Book Worm bookstore concurs, “Code Name God has done well for us and Upmanyu Chatterjee’s book is still selling even after years of publication.”
And here’s how the piece ends:

So got any idea? Get cracking on it, may be you end up being a millionaire!

(bold marks mine)

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Recos: Woody Allen stories

Via PrufrockTwo, here’s a new short story by Woody Allen, “Thus Ate Zarathustra”, which takes the form of excerpts from a little-known work titled Friedrich Nietzsche’s Diet Book.
No philosopher came close to solving the problem of guilt and weight until Descartes divided mind and body in two, so that the body could gorge itself while the mind thought, ‘Who cares, it’s not me’. The great question of philosophy remains: If life is meaningless, what can be done about alphabet soup?
There’s a notable tradition in modern American humour writing of the “what if” story, spun off from a real-life personality or event – S J Perelman for instance would often use a stray line in a newspaper report as a starting point for his stories. Likewise, Allen is very funny when he’s weaving hypothetical tales around famous historical figures. Some of his earlier short stories in this vein:

Yes, But Can the Steam Engine Do This?” – a short chronology of the life and struggle of the Earl of Sandwich, “inventor” of the now-ubiquitous snack.
1745: After four years of frenzied labour, he is convinced he is on the threshold of success. He exhibits before his peers two slices of turkey with a slice of bread in the middle. His work is rejected by all but David Hume, who senses the imminence of something great and encourages him.
If the Impressionists Had Been Dentists” – letters written by Vincent Van Gogh (who defied his father’s wishes and became a dentist instead of a painter) to his brother Theo.
Dear Theo,
Toulouse-Lautrec is the saddest man in the world. He has real talent but he’s too short to reach his patients’ mouths and too proud to stand on anything…Meanwhile my old friend Monet refuses to work on anything but very, very large mouths and Seurat, who is quite moody, has developed a method of cleaning one tooth at a time until he builds up what he calls “a full, fresh mouth”. It has an architectural solidity to it, but is it dental work?
A Giant Step for Mankind”, about the three forgotten scientists who almost beat Dr Heimlich to the patent for what became known as the Heimlich Maneuver, a method used to aid people who are choking on their food.
January 7: Today was a productive day for Shulamith and me. Working around the clock, we induced strangulation in a mouse. This was done by coaxing the rodent to ingest healthy portions of Gouda cheese and then making it laugh. Predictably, the food went down the wrong pipe, and choking occurred. Grasping the mouse firmly by the tail, I snapped it like a small whip, and the morsel of cheese came loose. If we can transfer the procedure to humans, we may have something. Too early to tell.
Wonderfully funny stories all, and these, along with many others, can be found in three collections: Without Feathers, Getting Even and Side Effects. But try to get your hands on Woody Allen's Complete Prose, which includes all three books.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Random thoughts on Krrish

I have no problem as such with astrology and don’t think it’s all bogus; in fact I enjoy listening to the good and bad things that will happen to others. But I’m just not very keen to have my own future told. When people wave copies of my horoscope excitedly at me and begin to mouth words, I have a standard response ready. “But I don’t want to know that I’m going to spend six years in a coma in my pomp, or have an extra-marital affair at age 84, or win a Nobel at 32,” I tell their gaping faces, “for without suspense, life is barren.”

This has nothing to do with anything, except that (minor spoiler alert) there are two separate scenes in Krrish where a character looks into a future-seeing machine and sees another character holding a gun to his head. This sets off a frenetic (since in each case the future is a mere 10 minutes away) chain of events where pointless attempts are made to prevent the inevitable. Much energy is expended in deputing henchmen when the person in question should just have resigned himself to his fate and spent the 10 minutes checking to see how many Grand Slam titles Roger Federer will end up with, or whether cockroaches really will survive the holocaust. But ideally, he shouldn’t have looked into the future-seeing machine in the first place. No good can come of these things. Interpreting the present is a tricky enough business for most of us.

– One of the common questions raised by superhero comics/films is how no one manages to figure out that (for instance) Clark Kent and Superman are the same person – especially since the only form of disguise is a pair of glasses, a nervous speech pattern and the ability to put on the inner garments before the outer ones. The women in these movies can be anything from intrepid reporters to upwardly mobile corporate types, all very smart within the confines of their profession – but when it comes to cracking the superhero’s identity, they don’t quite have all the cubes in the icebox. Priyanka Chopra nearly ruins the first half of Krrish with her shrillness and her misguided attempts at slapstick comedy, but it’s in the second half of the film that her character really outdoes herself. Such is the coruscating acumen of this girl that when young jungle boy Krishna (who she already knows is endowed with extraordinary powers) disappears and in his absence a leather-clad dude who looks exactly like Krishna (except for a mask covering his forehead) shows up, rescues children from a burning building and proclaims himself to be “Krrish”, her reaction is to furrow her brow and say:

“Mujhe shaque ho raha hai ke yeh Krrish apna Krishna hi hai.”

And later, when Krishna gets his friend Christian to pretend that he is the superhero:

Priyanka (slapping her forehead): "Main bhi itni paagal hoon. Maine socha hi nahin ke Krrish ka asli naam Krishna hi nahin, Christian bhi ho sakta hai."

Uh yes, or maybe he could have consulted with Rakesh Roshan’s team of numerologists and worked out a new superhero name that wasn’t at all similar to his own. I mean, how would fun come if Clark Kent called himself “Super-Clark” or Bruce Wayne “Batty Bruce”?

In short, Lois Lane 2, Priyanka 1.

– Hindi film sequels do tend to be bummers. In at least one that I can think of from the 1980s (Nigahen, the sequel to Nagina), we learn that the happy couple who frolicked around tree and lake in the first film ended up dying young and tragically soon after. Revisiting Koi Mil Gaya may no longer be so much fun once you know that the loveable idiot Rohit will eventually spend 20 crucial years of his life held captive in a suspension chamber. Tch.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Bapsi Sidhwa's Water

Novelisations of film scripts tend to be assembly-line ventures meant to capitalise on a successful or high-profile movie. The authors usually don’t have much artistic control and rarely do the books even enter a second print run, let alone make for literature of notable quality. Bapsi Sidhwa’s Water, based on the script of Deepa Mehta’s controversial film about the lives of widows in 1930s Benaras, is an exception. This is a powerful, moving book that complements the film but also holds up well as an independent work – with quite a few passages that are more compelling than their cinematic equivalents.

It couldn’t have been easy for a writer of Sidhwa’s stature to work on such a project: “I was hesitant because I had never written within the confines of a structured story before,” she admits in her Acknowledgements. One wonders if Deepa Mehta should have been given co-credit – after all, the story and the dialogue are mainly by her. But somehow (and is this because Mehta herself has been influenced by Sidhwa’s previous work, or because the two women’s styles and thematic concerns are naturally similar?), Water has the trademarks of Sidhwa’s finest writing, most notably her book Ice Candy Man (which was the basis for Mehta’s last film, Earth). Those trademarks include nuanced but economical characterizations and the infusion of gentle humour into even bleak situations.

With a quietude that’s unsettling, Water introduces us to eight-year-old Chuyia, transported from a child’s carefree life and a loving family to a widows’ ashram on the fringes of society. Still years away from a proper understanding of the ways of the world, she is told that she no longer exists as a person
all because of the sudden death of a husband she had barely even met. (“Once widowed, a woman was deprived of her useful function in society that of reproducing and fulfilling her marital duties.”)

Slowly, Chuyia overcomes her sense of dislocation, makes friends with other women in the ashram and stirs a few hackles with her directness in situations where others simply follow the letter of the ancient texts. “Where is the house for the men widows?” she innocently asks at a gathering, producing instant shouts of outrage: “God protect our men from such a fate!” However, the child’s words have an effect on the middle-aged Shakuntala, who tries to conquer her own inherent conservatism by questioning the scriptures. Meanwhile, a progressive-minded young idealist named Narayan falls in love with Chuyia’s friend Kalyani, a beautiful widow whose earnings as a sex worker help in running the ashram.

One of Sidhwa’s strengths is the ability to make a point without underlining it. She does over-stress the irony in a couple of places – for instance when Madhumati, the ashram head who has forced Kalyani into prostitution, says, “We must live in purity, to die in purity.” But the overall restraint with which the story is told helps strengthen the impact of the more disturbing moments. By drifting almost unnoticeably from the commonplace to the horrific, Water implicates the reader: when the widows celebrate Holi, for instance, one is temporarily lulled into thinking that they have their own self-sustaining little community, that maybe their lives aren’t so bad after all. But then something happens to demonstrate the spuriousness of this thinking and remind us that circumstances have forced them into a life of compromise.

Despite the fact that the ashram has its own internal politics, and that we are constantly rooting for some characters (Chuyia, Kalyani, Shakuntala) against others, we are never allowed to forget that all these women are victims of a cruel, unthinking tradition which exists for no better reason than that “it has always been so”. Even Madhumati, variously compared to a “beached whale” and a “satiated sea-lion”, and despicable in her treatment of Kalyani, has a human side. She too was once a young girl with dreams, and in the parasitic monster she has become, we can see how one evil begets another. Elsewhere too, Sidhwa does a fine job of detailing the contradictions and layers of intolerance in society; on hearing the news that Mohandas Gandhi has proclaimed the Untouchables to be children of God, a eunuch wonders aloud “if hijras can be considered God’s step-children”.

The growing influence of Gandhiji does in fact seem to indicate a better future for tradition’s victims, and Water ends on a tenuous note of hope. But the story is still just as relevant; the violent protests that nearly aborted Mehta’s film are a reminder of how unthinking adherence to tradition can lord it over reason and humanity.

[A slightly shorter version of this appeared in today’s Indian Express.]

I wasn’t too impressed by the film – it was way too static and didn’t seem to recognise the difference between being restrained and being lifeless. I got the impression that Mehta was too consciously eschewing anything that would have opened her film up to charges of melodrama/other ills associated with Indian cinema. Scene after scene just went by flatly and a couple of the key moments cried out for a more vibrant treatment (and by that I don’t mean they should have been accompanied by flashes of lightning and loud background music). One crucial climactic scene – the moment of revelation on the boat – fell flat partly because of the limited acting abilities of John Abraham and Lisa Ray. But Abraham and Ray are the most obvious soft targets, and this film is problematic for other reasons too.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

New things I've discovered... checking the Google searches that direct people to this site:

If you want to know “How to get a friend to wank with you”, Jabberwock is sixth on the search results. For “What does Chook Chook Bong Bong mean?” I rank third and fourth, and ditto for “sexy aunties of Lahore”. But for “how many times did jayaprada had sex”, I come in a meagre eighth.

enizens of the Internet. What a delightful lot. And going by those search results, what a very disappointed lot as well.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Our times, their times

One thing I find moving about some older people – grandparents especially but increasingly even people who are only in their 50s or 60s – is how convinced they are that no one from my generation knows or cares about what life was like when they were young. I'm not talking here about Golden Ageism, about elders who declare that everything was so much better in their day; quite the contrary, my grandparents are so awed by things like the Internet, iPods, even laptops and digicams, and so conscious of their own lack of understanding of these things, that they never dare to say anything bad about modern-day technology. What I'm talking about is more wistful and vulnerable. It's a feeling that a lot of older people seem to share – that with the world changing so rapidly, the past is becoming irrelevant and so are they.

Personally, I manage to relate to a lot of my grandparents’ reminiscences because much of it ties in with my interest in 20th century history – and of course the reading habit. And I see immense surprise on their faces when they start talking about the old days and realise that I actually know enough to participate in the conversation. Small example: both my grandmothers spent years in Lahore before Partition, and their eyes light up when I nod along or complete sentences for them (having read books like the ones by Bhisham Sahni and Pran Neville, and the recent Bapsi Sidhwa anthology). "How do you know about that?" they ask, and the expression of wonder is truly childlike. It's almost like they had believed that all knowledge of the world as it used to be would vanish when they passed on.

My nani told me about her old Urdu books recently, some of which she still has with her, though they are torn and fading – she spoke of them in the fond but resigned tone people reserve for something that means a lot to them but that no one else could possibly be interested in. It was startling (and, I hope, reassuring) for her to learn that I have friends who have studied the language and are interested in rare books from the past, and that I might be able to pass them on to people who can appreciate them - thus keeping them alive, so to speak, after she’s gone.

Hell, at a whole other level, even my dad was surprised when I offered to lend him DVDs of old concerts – Woodstock, Jethro Tull, The Yardbirds etc – the day he bought a DVD player. In him and in others of his generation, I see a different, more aggressive brand of vulnerability - an almost proprietorial attitude to the past, a defensiveness born of the belief that today’s youngsters are just too sure of themselves and contemptuous of times gone by. It’s a bit depressing to think that there might be a basis for these fears - that many youngsters are indeed dismissive of, even callous towards, the old; that the Hindi-movie cliché of "Dadi ma, yeh toh purane zamaane ki baatein hain" is grounded in real life.

[A related post on grandparents and the Internet here.]

P.S. In a lighter vein, one of the first times I became conscious of this phenomenon was while working at Encyclopaedia Britannica a few years ago. A middle-aged lady (she couldn't have been more than 48-50) was on the copy desk with me and one day, while we were tracking changes on a cinema-related article together, she suddenly started talking about the mid-1960s, specifically about actresses like Jane Fonda and Julie Christie. After going on for a while, she snapped out of her reverie and laughed self-consciously. "Why am I saying all this to you?" she said. "It's all so far before your time."

"Actually," I replied, "the reason I've been quiet all this while is that Jane Fonda is way after my time – though I do know pretty much everything there is to know about her father's career." (I was in my 1930s-1940s Hollywood phase.)

She giggled uncertainly, then realised I was serious and regarded me with a worried expression for a while afterwards, like she was afraid I might attack her with a curtain rod or something. But subsequently we had some nice conversations about the good old days, including Hindi cinema of the 1950s (it was always a source of immense surprise to her that a born-yesterday twerp could actually have opinions on Dev Anand and Dilip Kumar and so on, instead of just dismissing them as old fogeys from another world). However, she did find it hard to catch up when I got started on Paul Muni, Spencer Tracy, Carole Lombard etc – they were so much before her time.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Cinefan 2006 preview

Just a few teasers for this year’s edition of the Osian-Cinefan film festival, which is being held in Delhi between July 15-23. The Cinefan guys usually don’t make the full schedule available until 3-4 days before the event begins and there’s always a bit of last-minute chopping and changing, but here’s some of the info I’ve been able to gather so far. If you’re a film lover and in Delhi at the time, prepare to camp outside the Siri Fort Auditorium.

– Around 110-120 films from 43 Asian countries will be shown, mainly at the three auditoria in Siri Fort and the one at Alliance Francaise (Lodi Estate). The opening film is expected to be Pan Nalin’s Valley of Flowers, though this hasn’t been confirmed yet. As usual, the films will be divided into sections like Cross-Cultural Encounters, Arabesque, Indian Competition, Asian Competition and so forth.

– It’s likely that this year, for the first time, the tickets will be priced, though it should be a token amount (Rs 20 or thereabouts).

– A highlight of last year’s fest was the Satyajit Ray retrospective. This year it’s the turn of another Bengali great, Ritwik Ghatak (Megha Dhaka Tara, Ajantrik, Nagarik). I’ve been told that seven Ghatak films will be screened (these specifics might change slightly as the event draws near), which should be quite a treat since his films are not as easily available as Ray’s are, at least in Delhi. [Also, the Ray films shown last year were mostly good prints – better than one usually gets on DVD – and if that’s the case this year as well it’ll be a bonus.]

– There will also be a tribute to Hong Kong director Stanley Kwan (Rouge, The Actress, Everlasting Regret) as well as a special four-film screening to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Calcutta-based New Theatre.

– In honour of the 2550th anniversary of the birth of the Buddha, an eclectic section of 12 films on Buddhism from different countries and eras have been put together – including the 1925 Light of Asia by Himansu Rai and Franz Osten, and Bernardo Bertolucci’s Little Buddha. Cinefan’s Latika Padgaonkar tells me that the films aren’t necessarily based on the life of Buddha, “but they do deal with Buddhist themes, directly or obliquely”.

– As in previous years, a Lifetime Achievement Award is being given to an author/critic/scriptwriter for Distinguished Contribution to Asian Cinema. Film scholars Donald Richie and Chidananda Dasgupta were the winners in 2005 and 2004 respectively. This year the recipient will be Taiwanese film critic Peggy Chiao, who will also deliver a talk at some point during the fest.

– If you have fond memories of the many vintage film posters, lobby cards, paintings and photographs on display last year, you’ll see all those this time as well.

Updates should soon be available on the Osian-Cinefan website and when I get any more information I’ll put it up here. Meanwhile, here are the posts I wrote about the festival last year: General thoughts on Cinefan, Rants about Siri Fort Auditorium 1 and 2; the Donald Richie lecture; the Ray films 1, 2 and 3.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Of torpors and stupors: the Byomkesh Bakshi mysteries

If you’re looking for some cosy, reasonably undemanding detective stories to fill a lazy summer day, do pick up The Menagerie and other Byomkesh Bakshi Mysteries, a new translation (by Sreejata Guha) of four of Saradindu Bandyopadhyay’s stories about the popular amateur detective: “The Menagerie” (which was filmed by Satyajit Ray under its original title Chiriakhana in 1967), “The Quills of the Porcupine”, “The Jewel Case” and “The Will that Vanished”. The first two are novella-length, the others are short stories, and they’re all engrossing and fast-paced – though personally I much preferred the two longer ones.

Bandyopadhyay created Byomkesh Bakshi in 1932, which makes him a forerunner by several decades of that other famous fictional Bengali sleuth, Ray’s Feluda. Inevitably, these stories have dated to an extent; some of the deductions will seem slightly naïve if you’re an experienced reader of detective fiction. (A letter written in invisible ink is the earthshaking plot twist in one story. In another, Byomkesh lies sprawled on an armchair looking up at the beams on the roof and thinking for 15 minutes before making a fairly commonplace inference.) But on the whole the stories are well plotted, there is an eye for detail and for nuances of character, and some of them are sinister in a way that seem quite at odds with the comfortably bourgeoisie south Calcutta setting. I was particularly taken by the narrative structure of “Quills of the Porcupine” (“Shojarur Kanta”), which intercuts the mystery with observations on caste differences, the alienation inherent in big-city living, and the dual natures of people.

Won’t make this a long post (a sluggish Sunday afternoon being better spent in reading the book than writing about it) but another reason I find these stories appealing is that they evoke a very particular mood and milieu, a style of living that I haven’t encountered firsthand but have heard a lot about (thanks to a preponderance of Bong friends). I’m talking about the indolence that one typically (stereotypically?) associates with Bengali intellectuals who prefer to flex their cerebral muscles rather than engage in much physical activity. The sort of lifestyle where one might spend the entire morning playing chess with a friend (as Byomkesh often does with his friend Ajit babu, who narrates many of the stories) or leafing through the newspapers, then take an afternoon siesta and later wander across unannounced to a friend’s house for tea and conversation.

Conservation of energy is the key: it’s no coincidence that words like “torpor” and “leisure” run through many of these tales. Here is an account of a particularly stressful day for Byomkesh – it’s right in the middle of one of his most eventful cases:
The morning crept in slowly. Putiram came in with the tea, but Byomkesh didn’t touch it. Neither did he light a single cigarette. He lay in the armchair as if in a stupor, a hand sheltering his face.

At noon he got up in silence and had his bath and his lunch. Then he switched on the fan and stretched out on the bed. I knew he hadn’t done so for a quick nap. He held himself responsible for Panugopal’s death and needed solitude so he could come to terms with it. Moreover, he was desperate to unmask the shrouded assassin who had removed two people in quick succession from the face of the earth.

That evening, we sat and drank our tea together. Byomkesh’s face continued to look as menacing as a newly sharpened razor blade.
And soon after, night comes and it’s time for dinner and another bath... and so it goes. You get the idea. Lots of internal tension and deep thought, but nothing that would justify expending too much energy.

Okay, I’m being unfair – there’s at least one story in here that has a spectacular denouement, and another that involves the detective wearing a bulletproof vest to foil the plans of a porcupine-quill killer. Also, the reference to indolence isn’t a dig at Byomkeshbabu, just an expression of envy for his methods and his lifestyle (and probably the era he lived in). I wish I had a similar talent for doing the things I like doing while at the same time just lounging about for long hours at a stretch and not appearing to do very much at all.

: Non-Bengali readers, also look out for an earlier collection of Byomkesh Bakshi stories titled Picture Imperfect and other Tales.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Cinema and the blogosphere

As anyone who’s read this blog for some time will know, I write many ponderous posts on the nature of reviewing/blogging/the writing process (a few examples here, here, here, here, here and here). It’s often a tiresome, self-defeating thing to do because there’s just no way to say everything I want to say, even in a long post; and anyway, I keep changing my mind about these things. But here’s another one - a post on movie-blogging that I was asked to do for DesiPundit’s first birthday.

[Also see Falstaff’s excellent post on creative writing in the blogosphere.]

Monday, June 12, 2006

Nyagrodha, the tree of stories

Nyagrodha: The Ficus Chronicles came so enthusiastically recommended by the chaps at Penguin that I was prepared for disappointment. But any misgivings vanished a couple of chapters into the book. There was nothing too special about the first few pages, wherein three unhappy, runaway children wander deep into the woods together and come to a large banyan tree “that shakes down stories” when you call out its ancient name, Nyagrodha. However, the whole thing comes alive when Hanumanta the Langoor starts telling the children tales about the forest and its inhabitants.

This is a wonderfully imaginative retelling of the Panchatantra stories that many people of my generation first came across in the Amar Chitra Katha comics. Nyagrodha is coauthored by Kalpana Swaminathan and Ishrat Syed (who use the pseudonym Kalpish Ratna for their collaborative writings), and their framing device is an interesting one. What the authors have done here is to use one story – about Simha the young lion king, his friend Jeev the bull, and two crafty jackals Charak and Tarak, who conspire to turn the two against each other – as the anchoring narrative and to build the Panchatantra tales around it. The way this typically works is: one animal tells another a story in order to illustrate a point (about friendship and betrayal, for instance, or the importance of counselors, or how the weak can overcome the strong).

In places, the structure gets delightfully complicated. Sometimes the creatures in the stories-within-the-stories tell each other impromptu stories in turn, and so it goes – until the narrative approximates the Tree of Stories itself, with its gnarled roots and entwined branches. Interspersed with the text are charming little illustrations of the various creatures and of elements from each story.

But best of all is the authors’ treatment of the Panchatantra tales. They’ve spruced up the language, made it snappier and more irreverent. Some stories are presented in the form of clever little rhymes, the characters’ names are changed (a goat becomes Roghan Josh, a sweet-talking jackal is named Jalebi, an acid-tongued crow is Karela) and there’s plenty of neat wordplay (an astronomer owl discovers a red star and names it paan cheent, which translates into English as “betel juice” – but scientists will naturally want to spell it in a way that makes it look more learned, hence Betelgeuse!).

Revisionism has its own little snares; it’s easy to get carried away by your own cleverness and disregard the spirit of the original story. So it’s important that Swaminathan and Syed have retained the gist of the tales – their delicate humour, their ability to trade in morals without being cloyingly moralistic. I especially enjoyed the way the title of the story “The Nature of the Beast” comments not just on animal behaviour but on human whimsies as well. And the smartness of the exchanges between Jenny and Bosco Braganza, a pair of kingfishers whose eggs keep getting smashed by the wicked ocean.

There are also tongue-in-cheek asides about how seriously human beings take themselves. This dialogue between Simha and Jeev, for instance:

“What are they like? Humans?”

“Nice. But limited.”

“Limited to what?”

“When a thing is uncomfortable, they prefer not to think about it. They invent an explanation that makes them more comfortable.”

“For instance?”

“Take the constellations. You’d think they’d be comfortable knowing there was a lion twinkling at them from the sky? Or a bull, for that matter? Not to mention a ram, a crab and a fish! But they can’t bear it. So they draw complicated pictures to tell themselves it’s all imaginary.”

“A stupid race,” Simha said dismissively.

The outermost story in this book – the one about the three children Aman, Lily and Vicky – is a little weak; I couldn’t work up much interest in their personal problems, which are sketchily dealt with anyway. The effort to make the Panchatantra tales relevant to youngsters who have serious real-world issues to deal with (parents getting divorced, the insecurity of moving to an unfamiliar country, the inadvertent betraying of a friend) becomes self-conscious in places. (This kind of thing was more successfully done in Swaminathan’s Ambrosia for Afters, where the Red Riding Hood tale was placed in the context of the sexual abuse of a young girl.) But fortunately the animals hold the stage for most part, and they make this one of the most enjoyable books you’ll read in a long while.

Nyagrodha is not meant for very young children. Some of the content, like I mentioned, is clearly targeted at mature readers, words like “sybaritic”, “diaphanous” and “prescience” are scattered through the text, and there are some scary passages (e.g. a reference to a tigress eating her prey’s eyes for dessert – “popping them like grapes”). If I worked at Delhi Times I’d say something fancy like “Get this one for the tiny tots and for the child in you”. Instead I’ll make do with “get this just for yourself and don’t lend it to anyone, including your own children”.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

To Marilyn on her 80th

[When Baradwaj Rangan of The New Indian Express asked if I could send in a quick, impromptu piece about Marilyn Monroe – the peg being that her 80 birth anniversary went by recently – I forgot all about my phobia of short deadlines and made a beeline for the laptop. Not because I’m a big MM fan, but because it gave me an all-too-rare opportunity to write something about Old Hollywood – which was the one subject I could comfortably have done many long theses on in my adolescent years. This piece, especially the snippets on some films at the end, was a happy change from some of the writing I've recently been doing.]

Marilyn Monroe's many early films, one that deserves to be revisited is Howard Hawks' Monkey Business. In this madcap 1952 comedy, Marilyn – no longer an ingénue but not yet a star – played second fiddle to a baby chimpanzee as well as to the human leads, Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers, but she was both wide-eyedly endearing and arrestingly sensual in her short role – a combination that set the tone for the rest of her career. The movie never became part of the Marilyn cult and for that reason it's refreshing to watch today – a reminder that there was more to her than the scenes that have been so widely referenced and parodied over the decades: "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friends", the skirt billowing up over the New York subway grating, the movie stills with the femme fatale posing languidly against the background of the Niagara Falls. In Monkey Business one can see the rough outline of the image that would make MM one of the icons of 20th century popular culture, without being overwhelmed by the image itself. Somehow, even the fact that the film is in black-and-white helps; it defies the gorgeous Technicolor poster stereotypes one normally associates with the actress. Here, it’s possible to see Marilyn as just another attractive young supporting actress, albeit one with that most elusive of qualities: it’s difficult to keep your eyes off her when she’s on screen, even when she’s sharing space with the great Cary Grant.

The threadbare plot of Monkey Business involves a scientist trying to develop a "fountain of youth" potion. Marilyn, being forever young herself, wouldn't have needed it – she died at 36, quickly becoming one of the many celebrities whose mystique partly lies in the fact that we never saw them old and wrinkled, complaining curmudgeonly about how much things have changed since their day, muttering platitudes about “the pictures getting smaller”.

On June 1 this year she would have turned 80, an idea that's as hard to process as, say, a pot-bellied, 65-year-old Jim Morrison croaking out verses from "An American Prayer" on the David Letterman Show in front of a bored young audience. Or an aged Madhubala being cajoled into playing a silly role in Dev Anand's latest ego project. Cruel as the thought might seem, Marilyn's iconic status probably hinges on her sad early exit. It's hard to imagine her sustaining her stardom past the mid-1960s. Hollywood became leaner and meaner as that decade progressed and despite her latter-day resolve to be taken seriously as an actress, and the Method-acting grit on view in her final film
The Misfits, it's unlikely that she would have been able to effect a 180-degree turnaround in her screen image.

Nor would it have been easy to simply vanish into oblivion.
Greta Garbo managed it, but that was in a less celebrity-obsessed age, and besides Garbo really did "want to be alone". Marilyn probably wouldn't have had the willpower to drop out of sight for good. She was famously insecure, famously needed to be loved and sought after; chances are she would eventually have been sweet-talked out of retirement and made to parody her own screen image in some B-grade summer comedy – perhaps as Britney Spears's hep grandmom in a teen-movie turkey. What better way to shatter the fond memories of millions of film buffs.

So happy birthday to Norma Jean, and may her star shine evermore – even as we allow that had this been a real birthday rather than a birth anniversary, the celebrations may have had to be muted.


Some Like it Hot
Billy Wilder's acerbic comedy with smashing performances by MM as singer Sugar Kane and by Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis as murder witnesses in drag. A pox on those who thought Curtis looked hotter than Marilyn!

The Prince and the Showgirl
Not a top-notch film but one that's worth seeing just for a demonstration of the
unfathomable mysteries of Star Quality. This was largely an ego project for director-actor Laurence Olivier, trying to show he could step out of Shakespeare mode and make a (relatively) contemporary film opposite a leading Hollywood actress. By all accounts Marilyn, though initially keen to work with one of the world’s most respected classical actors, felt very uncomfortable and out of place during the shooting. Watch the film today, however, and none of that shows; all you see is the Floozy stealing every scene from right under the nose of the Great Actor.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
The classic musical about two gold-diggers, played by MM and Jane Russell. Some fine setpieces including the career-defining "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friends" and quite a few breezy comic scenes. However, it’s difficult today to see why this was her vehicle to stardom: most people now prefer Russell’s knowing performance as MM’s wisecracking friend. And she was a brunette.

Bus Stop
MM’s first attempt at being a "serious actor" – by toning down the make-up to appear unglamorous for her role as a melancholy saloon singer, and more importantly, by turning in a thoughtful, poignant performance. Unfortunately, it still isn’t among her most widely seen films.

P.S. I always thought MM was devoid of mystery thanks to all the hype, but one time I found her genuinely alluring was in that small role in Monkey Business. It’s an avowedly silly film and has dated in some obvious ways, but I recommend it to anyone who likes any or all of the following: Cary Grant; Ginger Rogers; screwball comedies; chimpanzees; and of course, Marilyn.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Freelancing pitfalls

When I started freelancing, I was told it would be difficult to abandon the comforts of a routine and manage my time in the best way possible. For the first few months of "self-employment", this wasn't much of a problem – my schedule was so packed that the question of what to do with free time never arose (there wasn't any). But in recent weeks, having cut down on assignments (and thus scaled my workload more or less back to the level where it was when I was a regular employee), I find new psychological barriers to be overcome.

The weekday-weekend divide, for instance. In my first job in journalism, I regularly worked Sundays (including graveyard shifts from Saturday night-Sunday morning) and quite enjoyed it. And after that, even when I wasn't officially working on weekends, I managed some of my most relaxed, productive writing on Sundays. This attitude seemed to fit in with the requirements of freelancing, where the line between weekdays and weekends either completely disappears or blurs significantly. Depending on my deadlines, the way I schedule my assignments and my other plans for the week, it's theoretically possible to spend most of Saturday and Sunday working and then take it easy on Monday and Tuesday.

But that's theoretically. In practice, this is what happens: an atavistic voice in my brain whispers, "It's Monday afternoon, how can you not be working?!" Even if I stay up till past 3 AM writing (which I often do, the world and its Pomeranians being asleep at that hour), then rise at 7 AM to go swimming and then put in another session of work between 10 AM-1 PM, my reptile brain rebels against the idea of even a short afternoon nap to compensate for lack of night sleep.

So one frets instead. And snaps angrily when friends calls up, hear the dispirited "Hello" and go "Oh sorry, were you sleeping? I keep forgetting that you no longer work." No longer work! Like a toy bunny without a Duracell in its belly.

And if it's a weekday afternoon and nothing demands my immediate attention for the next 2-3 hours, do I pick up a book or play an unwatched DVD? NO, shouts the primitive voice, you can't do something like that at a time of day when friends and ex-colleagues are toiling away in their offices! It's just wrong. (Never mind that given the nature of my job, watching films and reading books count as value addition. Never mind too that even while I struggle with this profound ethical dilemma, the friends and colleagues in question are more likely taking hundreds of tea and cigarette breaks and bitching about who got what increments.)

Other hazards –

Relatives. I've spent most of my adult life avoiding all but the most necessary ones. Now it's impossible to escape them. I open my door and step into the living-room unaware that there are visitors about, and there they are sitting in a row – numerous fond faces that chant, "Ohh, Jai baba ghar pe hai?" Then one must sit and smile while wedding talk commences and they wonder aloud what good can come of sitting at home and how will bride be obtained when I don't have a job.

Power cuts. I used to think journalists were omnipotent. Now I find to my dismay that brandishing a press card and demanding immediate restoration of power fails to impress the people at the Electricity Board office. Instead of genuflecting and pulling at levers that will get transformers working again, they look at each other, roll their eyes and laugh like Gabbar's sideys. Meanwhile my laptop continues to discharge, the Tata Indicom beeps frantically, the cellphone says Battery Low, and ex-colleagues in office are still bitching and drinking tea – and they have the air-conditioner on as well.

(To be continued)

Monday, June 05, 2006

How superheroes fade: Alan Moore's Watchmen

Trying to formulate the many things I want to say about Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons's magnificent graphic novel (or comic book, take your pick) Watchmen, it occurs to me that it's so much easier to review a book that's all text. When both the subject of the review and the review itself deal entirely in words, the process is more straightforward: among other things it's possible to indicate what an author is trying to do by quoting passages from his work in context and commenting on them. But it's a very different ballgame reviewing a work where words and images act in conjunction (or in contrast) to create a very particular effect, or where multiple narratives converge in a single panel. Just describing some of Watchmen's denser passages can be twice as hard as reviewing a difficult novel.

Not all top-quality graphic novels pose this problem. Art Spiegelman's Maus, for instance, is easier to discuss because it has a fairly chronological narrative structure – and also because the visuals usually take second place to the writing (even though the simplicity of Spiegelman's drawings is often deceptive). But Alan Moore's major works (of which Watchmen and From Hell are pre-eminent) are much more complex beasts. Here is an author who delights in making all sorts of connections, both visual and textual, between seemingly unrelated things: running two or more narratives together, intercutting scenes so that the dialogue from one scene provides a voiceover for a panel that depicts another event. There’s a lot of prefiguring in his work, the casual incorporation of phrases and images that will acquire a deeper resonance later in the story. Moore has used all these devices in his collaborations with artists like Gibbons (who drew Watchmen), Eddie Campbell (From Hell), David Lloyd (V for Vendetta) and Kevin McNeil (The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) and these books demand to be experienced firsthand. The most effective thing a reviewer can do is to grab the potential reader by the scruff of his neck and drag him to the comic. Describing their effect can work only up to a point.

So now I’ll try to do just that.

The plot

Watchmen, originally published in 1986-87 in the form of 12 comics of approx 30 pages each, is among other things an inversion of the standard superhero comic format. It's set in an alternative America where real-life costumed heroes succeed in tackling minor crimes but find themselves becoming increasingly irrelevant in the face of the world’s more complex problems (most of the story is set against the background of the Cold War and the nuclear race between the US and Russia).

The story isn't chronologically told but here's a simplified synopsis: The novel's "present" takes place over a few days in October-November 1985 with a vigilante crimefighter named Rorshach investigating a murder and reestablishing contact with his former colleagues, most of whom retired eight years earlier when costumed heroes were outlawed. But we also learn of related events going all the way back to 1939, when the first band of masked adventurers (collectively known as the Minutemen) came together to fight crime. Through flashbacks and other expository devices such as excerpts from books and articles written by and about these characters, we learn of the tragedies that struck the original group and about their eventual disbanding; the formation in the mid-1960s of a new group of Crimebusters who, among other dubious achievements, helped the US win the Vietnam War; and the Keene Act which banned these crimefighters from operating independently though allowing some of them to work as government agents.

And we meet the protagonists, each with his or her own set of personal demons – including the amoral Edward Blake/The Comedian (a character about whom I would have liked to learn more) whose death sets the plot in motion and the two erstwhile Nite Owls who meet on Saturdays to reminisce about glories past. The only character in the book who actually has supernormal powers is Dr Manhattan/Jonathan Osterman, who developed extraordinary control over matter following a laboratory accident. While the classic superhero comic might have used Dr Manhattan to great effect in action scenes, his function here is different: he serves as a dispassionate observer/commenter on human affairs. (Of course, he is also being used as a weapon by the US – a dubious move, since his very presence in the world encourages the possibility of mutually assured destruction.)

One of the most interesting narrative devices is to include a comic-within-the-comic in the form of a story titled "Tales of the Black Freighter", being read by a young boy sitting outside a newsstand: this is a pirate thriller told in the voice of a man who encounters a ghost ship and hurries back to his hometown to warn his friends and family of impending doom. Though my first instinct was to not pay too much attention to this embedded narrative (so much concentration is required for the main story alone), I gradually came to appreciate the ways in which it comments on the main plot and helps us understand the personal conundrums of some of the characters. (Incidentally, I enjoyed the way the line “I will give you bodies beyond your wildest imaginings” in a bodybuilding advertisement on the back cover of the comic acquires a dreadful new meaning in the final chapter. Just one of the many blink-and-you’ll-miss-it tricks on view here.)

As usual, Moore repeatedly references works of literature and popular culture. Each of Watchmen’s 12 chapters has as its title a phrase or quotation that is placed in context at the end of the chapter. Among these are “At Midnight All the Agents…” (from Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row”), “Fearful Symmetry” (from William Blake’s “The Tyger”) and “The Judge of All the Earth” (from a line in Genesis) – each title alludes to at least two or three separate things mentioned or depicted in the chapter.

Watchmen is a very complex work that needs to be returned to at least 3-4 times before you can fully appreciate the wealth of detail on each page and the magic jointly woven by Moore's writing and Gibbons' illustrations. It addresses too many issues for me to take stock of here, but a notable recurring one is that all idealism is eventually corrupted, or at least diluted. We've all seen examples (in every sphere of life) of how groups or organisations, even the ones that begin with the best of intentions, gradually change as they become bigger, more mainstream. Ulterior motives enter the picture and equally importantly there is imputation of ulterior motives where none might originally have existed – which creates a never-ending cycle of distrust and misunderstanding.

But what's even more poignant is the loss of idealism in individuals, which can be seen in the personal stories and disillusionments of many of the aging, pot-bellied "superheroes" in Watchmen. As youngsters they had fixed notions of right and wrong, they were clear in their minds about what they would and wouldn’t stand for. But as time passes they understand the importance of compromise, become more aware of their own failings and latent hypocrisies. Like most of us, they eventually become content with doing the best they reasonably can in a world where too much idealism is not just impractical but dangerous. (It’s interesting to note that Rorschach, the only crimefighter who continues to see things in strict black and white terms, is more unstable than any of the conventional “villains”.)

These themes repeatedly crop up in Watchmen - as in the scene where the aging Sally Jupiter (who masqueraded as the glamorous superheroine Silk Spectre decades earlier) is touched when a fan sends her an old porno-comic featuring her character. In her own younger days Sally would undoubtedly have knocked the "perv" out with a swift left hook if she ever ran into him. But to the lonely old woman that she is now, this reminder of her fame is something to be cherished. “Laurie, I’m 65,” she tells her indignant daughter, “Every day the future looks a bit darker. But the past, even the grimy bits of it…well, it just keeps on getting brighter all the time.” (Here the visual synchronises with the words "keeps on getting brighter" as the panel depicts a camera flash going on - the cue for a flashback to a superheroes' photo shoot from the good old days.)

A closely related theme is that each idea (and perhaps each manifestation of idealism?) has a short life-span, that it must eventually be replaced – and that the people who pave the way for a new world often find that once their part is played they themselves have no further place in it. (This is also explored in Moore's V for Vendetta, about a Guy Fawkes-like anarchist spreading terror in a totalitarian Britain. "Anarchy wears two faces, creator and destroyer," V tells his protégé Evey at one point. "Thus destroyers topple empires, make a canvas of clean rubble where creators can then build a better world. Once the rubble is achieved, away with our destroyers! They have no place within our better world.")

Everything is transient, Watchmen reminds us; it’s no coincidence that the most important character of the final two chapters gets his name from Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias”, about the temporariness of power and hubris. But also, as Dr Manhattan cryptically says to Ozymandias in the closing pages, “Nothing ever ends” – which can be taken to mean that no one ever has the final word on anything. The two ideas are not as contradictory as they might appear to be, and both are vital to the Watchmen universe.

End of blah blah
Reading the last few paragraphs, I realise they make the book sound preachy and provide little sense of how dynamic it is – above all, what a great comic book it is. I’ve also probably focused too much on Moore’s writing without discussing Gibbons’ contribution. But then, like I said, I have no real idea how to review a work like this.

So to wrap this up let me just mention one captivating sequence among many: the passage where Dr Manhattan (who can simultaneously experience the past, present and future) reflects that the world is a clock without a craftsman. In a good novel this thought, not in itself exceptional, would be given weight by the context and the treatment, by the quality of the words used to describe it. But here it develops gradually over a number of pages where words and images combine and collide to create meaning. Dr Manhattan/Jon reflects on various incidents in his past, on the permutations of events that brought him to this moment – and all of this leads up to a crescendo at the end of the chapter (which incidentally is titled "Watchmaker" – derived from Albert Einstein's remark that if he had known about the consequences of atomic power he would have chosen to work in a watch manufacturing plant).

It’s a brilliant segment and a fine example, one among many in this book, of how visionary and far-reaching the comic-book medium can be. Like a watchmaker’s most intricate creations, Watchmen is greater than the sum of its interconnecting parts.

Links: The Wikipedia entries on the book and some of its characters are among the most comprehensive and incisive that I've read on that site (an indication of how intense Watchmen's following is). Do read these articles for a much more wide-ranging analysis (though preferably after you've read the book – there are quite a few spoilers). Also, this excellent piece by Curt Holman for – mainly a review of From Hell but also a part-profile of Moore. And this dissenting essay from Slate magazine where the author, even while acknowledging that Watchmen was “unquestionably a landmark work, a masterpiece even”, asks the question: “Did the comic book really need to grow up?”

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Interviews with bloggers

First City magazine has a very readable section on blogging in its latest issue, featuring snappy interviews with some practitioners of this fine art – including yours truly. I’ve been part of blogging-related stories before, and have read quite a few others, but most of them were uninformed and dealt in the most awful clichés. This one was among the few that didn’t make me cringe. (I was a bit sceptical when they told me the interview would be in the form of a Gmail chat – it seemed to tie in with preconceptions about blogging being a forum for socialising – but it was very nicely done in the end. The presentation is quite neat and they managed to use most of what was a very long chat session.)

Other bloggers interviewed: eM, Anand, the War for News guys and a blog I hadn’t heard of before, called Smell My Undies. [The magazine cover has “Smell My Undies” written just above “Jabberwock”. My grandparents must be so proud!]

P.S. This issue also has some decent profiles of young authors, including Samit, Altaf Tyrewala, Sarnath Banerjee and Gautam Malkani. The literary coverage is very extensive, which is good to see given what short shrift books get in most publications.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Shine on you dumbass copywriters

Many years ago I buried my resident bleeding-heart 40 feet under, with a stern admonishment never to darken my door again - but ever so oft something makes him tunnel out of his grave and then I have to bury him again (like Groucho does with his ancestors).

The latest provocation is this new shoe polish ad where a dapper-looking Mahendra Singh Dhoni turns to the camera and tells us, “I decided not to be ordinary. I chose to shine.” Cut to close-up of shoe-polishers looking up at Dhoni in adoration and subservience; looking, essentially, like buffoons who have “chosen” their lot, chosen to be “ordinary”.

Arguably, the young cricketer’s decision to take part in this vile ad was more ill-advised. No point in being too hard on him - the early months of being a celebrity can be difficult for even the most level-headed people and he’s bound to do stupid things in the first flush of stardom; almost everyone does. But hopefully, as he matures he’ll understand that it’s poor taste to take cheap digs at the less fortunate, to participate in the grand (and grandly puerile) conceit that people can just choose to be whatever they want to be - all you need is the Will to Succeed, the Ambition, the Drive, or the Cover Drive for that matter. (After all, isn’t life scripted by Deepak Chopra and Paulo Coelho?)

I’m sure Dhoni has worked very hard to get where he is, and yes, there is a genuinely inspirational element in the stories of many sportspersons like him. But there are other equally important factors at work in any of those stories - sheer luck being foremost among them. So hopefully he’ll also eventually learn something about the phrase “There but for the grace of God go I”. (Substitute God with Random Selection if you prefer.) Even though that doesn't make much of a punchline for a shoe-polish ad...

P.P.S. Bleeding-heart successfully reinterred.