Sunday, April 29, 2007

Liberty of the Seas - photos and notes

Don’t have pictures of some of the most exciting things on the cruise, such as the theatre events, the ice-skating show and most importantly the FOOD, of which shameless quantities were consumed all day long (at one point I had a beef steak, a salmon sashimi, a slice of turkey, a shrimp cocktail and crispy duck-in-pancake on my plate all at once. We are very catholic). These pics will have to do for now. (Click to enlarge)

Just before boarding.

It would be stretching things to say I felt like Kate Winslet but it was still quite impressive. Also funny – given that this ship is basically a 14-storey, 7-star floating hotel – that we had to walk through a dingy passageway dripping with muddy water and climb up a flight of very rickety steps to get in.

Some of the water bodies on the 11th floor.

Spent some quality time on the deckchairs one afternoon when the sun was out; was reading a book about the world’s grisliest serial murders and it had a gratuitous and eye-catching cover so people looked at me askance, but the weather was nice.

The mini golf course on the 13th floor.

Morning view from my balcony.

I went up on the deck shortly after this, but a strong and chilly wind was blowing so came back down in a hurry. Nothing can intimidate you as much as the ocean can, or make you feel as powerless and insignificant. Not even air travel (and I speak as a nervous flier). I kept thinking about Melville’s line about the waters around Noah’s ark not having receded, because most of the planet is still covered by water.

Executive chef Johann Petutschig of Austria took us on a galley tour. It’s fascinating to hear about the logistics of running a ship on this scale, the under-the-surface activity that keeps the vast machinery humming. On this liner for instance, over 250 people work round the clock in the galleys, preparing meals for 4,000-odd people. More than 80,000 plates are used up every day, 8,000 lobsters meet their maker every week, and 86,000 eggs and 13,000 pounds of beef are consumed. There's a long list of such statistics.

The chef referred to the table on his right as “the most important table on this ship”. It’s here that every single dish is inspected both for taste and to ensure that it looks exactly the same as the picture on the brochure/menu-card. Perfection taken to crazy extremes.

The impressive Royal Promenade, spanning the midsection of four of the ship’s 14 decks. It was done up to resemble a little street, with lots of shops, cafes and eating joints.

The skull-and-crossbones flags on top are in preparation for the “Pirates’ Parade” that took place one afternoon on the promenade (see pic below). A bit strange to see Jack Sparrow-types strutting about in front of branded cosmetics stores...

In which Cary Grant examines the fabric of my jacket while Alfred Hitchcock looks on approvingly.

Couldn’t resist getting this picture taken in the ship’s sprawling casino. To the right is Mr Grant again, with Grace Kelly in a scene from To Catch a Thief. The expression on my face can be explained by several hours of imbibing alcoholic items. The shirt can’t be explained.

A view of the theatre, where we watched a couple of very nice shows - one featuring the Tenors Unlimited (otherwise known as "the Rat Pack of opera") and a cheeky musical updating of such stories as Hansel and Gretel and Jack and the Beanstalk (in this version Jack is - literally - an upwardly mobile singer who climbs the beanstalk and gets corrupted by a corporation called Giant Records).

What the captain sees; the view from the bridge. I think that girl standing on the deck in the far distance is doing the “King of the World” thing, arms spread out and all.

The captain at his controls.

It was fun to watch him delicately twist a joystick-like thingie to the left or to the right to change the direction of a 1,60,000-tonne ship. So much for all the old ideas about Ahab and his crewmen grunting and heaving as they struggle with their boat’s controls during a storm. Our lesson for today is that technology has made the species less hardy than it used to be.

Tolkien's unfinished chairs

The story of Frodo the hobbit and his plucky band of companions, who undertake a dangerous voyage with the One Ring of the Dark Lord Sauron, is among the most beloved books ever published. Inevitably, for most of its readers the enormous body of lore behind it is nothing more than a colorful backdrop, full of incomprehensible genealogies, invented languages and unpronounceable names. Yet as the universe of hardcore Tolkien fans is well aware, the author had imagined and examined every detail of his creation… No author in fantasy or any other genre has ever constructed a world of such linguistic and historical density; it almost seems that this immense architectural work exhausted Tolkien, and with the sole exception of the "Lord of the Rings" narrative he had no energy left to tell its stories...
An outstanding review of The Children of Hurin by Salon's Andrew O'Hehir, complete with the back-story on J R R’s long and complex writing career (which I briefly covered in this post).

Saturday, April 28, 2007

DVDs acquired

We disembarked from the ship around 8 AM yesterday (more on the cruise later) and since the flight home was in the evening I figured I’d have a few hours in town once we reached London. Unfortunately it didn’t turn out that way. First the coach drive from the Southampton port to Heathrow (where I wanted to dump my bag with “left luggage”) took three hours because of an accident on the motorway, detours etc, and then the train journey from Heathrow to Bond Street took longer than I’d figured – over an hour. With the schedule thus thrown out of gear plus some work I had to do in town, this left me with a grand total of…four minutes in my favourite DVD haven, the HMV store on Oxford Street. So I steeled my heart, looked away from the World Cinema section in the distance and concentrated on the Special Deals and Box Sets section near the store entrance. Didn’t do too badly given these constraints. Here’s what I picked up:

- Michael Haneke’s Hidden (Cache) and Fernando Meirelles’ City of God – I have pirated Palika Bazaar DVDs of both films but the discs are heavily scratched and don't have much of a future and the special features weren’t working, so…

- The rotoscope-filmed A Scanner Darkly, based on the Philip K Dick novel. I first heard about the movie from Space Bar and am looking forward to seeing it. (More on the film and the animation technique used here and here.)

And three fine box-sets:

- Fred & Ginger – four Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers films: Swing Time, The Gay Divorcee (smirk smirk), Flying Down to Rio (I think this is the one with the immortal shot of RKO’s chorus girls dancing on an airplane wing in mid-flight) and The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle. Super films all, full of those wonderfully elegant dances, but I also love the DVD packaging – lots of great stills of Astaire and Rogers as well as a few colourful postcards. I’ve written before about my love for well-packaged DVDs; buying discs from Palika, no matter how cheap and how good the prints, can never quite measure up.

- Jean de Florette and Manon Des Sources – two of my favourite French films, marvelous human dramas directed by Claude Berri and performed by some great actors – Gerard Depardieu, Daniel Auteil, Yves Montand and Emmanuelle Beart among them. These are strong morality tales about guilt, greed and retribution (the story involves a farmer drawing his simpleton nephew into a scheme to cheat their neighbour, and the repercussions of these actions), but they are made with the gentleness, empathy and quiet instructiveness that marks the work of Kieslowski. Worth watching back to back if you have four straight hours to spare.

- A long sought-after Werner Herzog box set featuring Aguirre, Nosferatu the Vampire, Fitzcarraldo, Woyzeck, Cobra Verde and My Best Friend, Herzog’s documentary tribute to his favourite actor and muse Klaus Kinski. This set came so cheap that it didn’t matter that I already have Aguirre on DVD separately.

The Astaire-Rogers and Claude Berri box-sets mustn’t have been selling too well because they were part of HMV’s “3 DVDs/DVD sets for £20”, which made the purchase dirt-cheap by Brit standards. Usually if I’m shopping in London I avoid doing the mental currency conversion thing, because in that case you may as well just not buy anything – if you have money to spare and you're planning to do even a limited amount of shopping, it's much more practical to think of one pound as being the rough equivalent of Rs 20-25. But these discs were reasonable even considering the real currency rate: 15 films for under £50 all told. Original prints, proper packaging and special features all intact (there are some great features on the Scanner Darkly disc, including audio commentary by Philip K Dick’s daughter and a couple of documentaries about the rotoscoping process).

Sunday, April 22, 2007


There’s many a slip between the dock and the ship. I’m going to Southampton for a few days, for a cruise on this here boat. Should be a good experience and so on but the itinerary involves a lot of travelling in a relatively short span of time, and I tend to get crotchety and headache-y when that happens. So fingers crossed etc. Also, there will be lots of things to do and see on board (rock-climbing and surfing demonstrations?! And *groan* a media conference), and little hope of lounging about on deckchairs like people do in brochures (not that I’m the deckchair-lounging sort anyway – way too restless).

Back by the 28th. Till then.

Viewing updates: films, tennis, homicidal vegetables

Uncharacteristically, I’ve been watching quite a few movies on TV. There’s been plenty of good stuff on SET PIX – some solid films from the 1960s and 1970s including Jules Dassin’s heist comedy Topkapi, the prescient TV ratings drama Network, and The Great Escape, all of which I first saw years ago. Also some cheesy little oddities such as Jack Cardiff’s The Mutations/The Freakmaker, which features a man transformed into a giant cauliflower or something such, and a scene where, in a nice subversion of the food chain, a quivering little bunny rabbit is fed to a giant Venus flytrap plant. I like to think the Message of this film is that vegetarianism is evil. Any work of art is what you make of it.

(All films should have Messages. For instance, recently Aishwarya Rai taught us that women should stand up and fight for their rights after their husbands have abused them for 10 years. You’d be surprised by the number of people I know who were deeply impressed/moved by this radical idea – apparently it occurred to them for the first time only after Ms Rai enunciated it in this film.)

A few nights ago I stumbled on a nice little made-for-TV film on the History Channel: When Billie Beat Bobby, a dramatization of the famous 1973 “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match when 55-year-old former champion Bobby Riggs challenged the leading women players on the circuit to play him and was eventually beaten by Billie Jean King. The encounter was seen as striking a symbolic blow for the women’s lib movement, but the story is equally about the envy of old age towards youth and about generational friction.

Very engaging, deft and lighthearted film, shot in a pleasant cinematographic style that simulated the 1970s news footage look (in fact, I briefly thought it was a documentary when I came in) and with great performances by Holly Hunter as King and Ron Silver as the blustering Riggs. I liked that it didn’t oversimplify the central issue: although Riggs initially comes across as an obnoxious, patronising chauvinist, one also sees the poignancy in his desperate attempts to court the limelight one last time, years after he passed out of the public glare (his career was interrupted by World War Two just when he was peaking, and this must have caused a degree of bitterness later in his life). And though King is focused on being a role model for women (she closely studies videos of Margaret Court’s loss to Riggs, noting that Court “gave it up” by curtsying daintily when Riggs presented her a bouquet of flowers at the start of their match), she isn’t above clowning around with her nemesis – indulging him at a flexed-biceps photo opportunity, for instance.

Meanwhile Live tennis continues, and posterity demands a photograph of Roger Federer stroking Rafael Nadal’s flexed biceps. They meet in the Monte Carlo final later today, which was so predictable – the tournament has been a two-man show and no one else has even looked like they belonged in the same arena. I’m hoping Nadal keeps his erratic fitness levels up through the clay season because Federer will be more focused and dangerous than ever after his losses at Indian Wells and Miami. If he’s ever going to win the Rome Masters and the French Open it should be this year.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Bose on Bollywood

Two photographs of Rekha that have been used on the cover of Mihir Bose’s Bollywood: A History. One went on the Indian edition, the other on the UK edition. Identify which went where.

Incidentally Bose’s book is being promoted as “the first comprehensive history of India’s film industry that now rivals Hollywood”. This is a very large claim: Bollywood: A History is hurriedly (and often shabbily) thrown together. It's episodic, gossip-laden, repetitive, random in its choice of subjects and also very much a secondary-source work, full of references to and quotes from earlier books on Hindi-film actors and directors (for instance, almost the entire “Great Indian Curry Western” chapter is derived from Anupama Chopra’s delightful book on the making of Sholay). Of course, the secondary-source bit won’t make much difference to a reader who hasn’t read any literature on Bollywood before and is looking for anecdotes and pen-portraits.

The worst thing though is that it’s poorly edited and littered with typos, at least in the Indian edition. It’s common to find paragraphs such as the one where, in the space of just three sentences, we are twice informed that Raj Kapoor used “an actress from the south, Vyjayanthimala” as his lady in white in the 1960s. (Her name is spelt differently in the two sentences: Vyjayanthimala and Vyjanthimala.) On the very next page we learn that while Lata Mangeshkar was once in the Guinness Book for having sung 30,000 songs, her sister Asha Bhonsle later took over the record, with 7,500 (sic) songs recorded as of 1989.

And when a book that claims to be a comprehensive study of Bollywood uses the iconic image of Amitabh waiting to take on the bad guys in the warehouse in Deewaar and pronounces that it's a scene from Zanjeer...that’s a definite no-no.

(Here's a short interview I did with Mihir Bose a few years ago)

Tolkien's The Children of Húrin

Like any other Tolkien nerd I’ve been tracking the worldwide release of The Children of Húrin, one of his oldest stories – J R R began writing it as a young man, during the First World War, and now it’s been published as a complete narrative for the first time, more than 30 years after his death. This is the latest in a series of projects by Tolkien’s son Christopher (an octogenarian himself), who’s been collating, editing and publishing versions of his father’s unfinished manuscripts for decades.

To understand why so much of Tolkien’s work has been published posthumously, one needs to understand his tortuous writing career, which spanned over 60 years, and to realise that the stories told in the 1,200-odd pages of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were mere fragments of a much larger picture: a collection of myths and folktales that described the creation and long history (over many Ages and thousands of years) of an invented universe.

Anyone who’s read The Lord of the Rings will know that much of that book’s charm comes from the many nebulous glimpses of a distant back-story: frequently, characters stop to tell each other about lore from the past, recite songs and seek inspiration in the lives of heroes from a much earlier time. In fact, Tolkien had already written detailed versions of many of these back-stories long before he wrote either LOTR or The Hobbit. He began working on these tales in the army barracks of WWI, and he worked on them throughout his life – continually revising them, often preparing alternate versions of each tale, changing the names of characters and dates, but never completing them to his satisfaction. After his death Christopher collected the hundreds of pages of manuscripts that his father had left behind, ironed out the inconsistencies, and published a series of books including (most famously) The Silmarillion and the 12-part The History of Middle-earth. The Children of Húrin is the full version of one of the many stories included in those works.

Set during the First Age of the Sun, roughly 6,500 years before the events told in The Lord of the Rings, this is an account of the struggles of the Eldar (a race of Elves), the Edain (a race of Men) and others against the tyranny of Morgoth, the first Dark Lord. (Morgoth, originally known as Melkor, was the Satan figure in Tolkien’s invented universe, a fallen God and a much bigger bad-ass than Sauron, the villain of LOTR.) The protagonist of The Children of Húrin is the anti-hero Turin Turambar, a conflicted young man whose internal nature combines tragically with his circumstances; he’s one of Tolkien’s most abiding creations, and his story is as compelling as many of the mythologies it was inspired by (such as the Norse and Finnish myths).

The Children of Húrin isn’t a previously unpublished work. I’ve read most of it before – the bulk of it can be found in the “Narn I Hin Húrin” section of Unfinished Tales, published in 1980. This new version has an extra chapter or two and slightly more risqué language (at one point, Turin “sets the point of his sword in [an enemy’s] buttock” while pursuing him; this wasn’t in the earlier version), as well as new illustrations by Alan Lee. Also, the version in Unfinished Tales was interspersed with editorial commentary and footnotes, while the form it takes here is of an uninterrupted narrative.

Inevitably, there’s going to be some scepticism about the timing of this release. With the new Harry Potter just a couple of months away, it’s difficult not to see this as a marketing strategy – remember that the film version of The Lord of the Rings brought Tolkien’s works to a new, younger market that might be eager for more of the same. However, readers who are only casually interested in Tolkien are unlikely to develop a taste for this book. Also, before you pick it up and toss it to your younglings, a word of caution: small children will struggle with the language, which is in the dense, archaic style one associates with myths. (Personally, I enjoy the repeated use of such words as “verily” and “smite”!) There are many character and place names, which can be confusing. And some of the content is adult: there’s a subplot featuring incest, with shades of the Oedipus myth and the Kullervo story from Finnish mythology. That said, it’s definitely not “X-rated”, as an article in the Sunday Times suggested.

P.S. For the patient reader The Children of Húrin can work on its own terms as a high tragedy, full of interesting characters and twists of fate, but it’s much more satisfying and contextual if you’re already familiar with – or willing to become familiar with – Tolkien’s mythologies. Suggested supplementary reading: The Silmarillion and The Book of Lost Tales, Vol 2. Also see The Encyclopaedia of Arda, an exhaustive and ever-growing online resource on Tolkien’s world.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Preserving identity: The Reluctant Fundamentalist

A few days ago a colleague told me about one of her friends who had spent the last two years working in the US and had recently visited India on holiday. “I was stunned by the change I saw in him,” she said, “We were bantering, as one does in these situations, and someone made the usual flippant remark about sexual promiscuity in the West and asked him how many flings he had had so far. And he snapped back that he wasn’t ‘that sort of a person’ and even gave us a minor lecture on moral values and our culture. It was bizarre because he was quite chilled out about these things back when he was staying in India.” The implication was that though her friend was fairly liberal and “westernised” to begin with, living in a foreign land had made him acutely conscious of his own background and the need to preserve and assert it.

This conversation made me think of some of my own experiences while traveling abroad. On a coach tour of Britain once I bristled inwardly when my dining companions – a south African couple and an elderly Australian, all polite and well-meaning but also largely uninformed about the world outside their backyards – made a stereotypical remark about Indians. I don’t even recall the specific point (it was probably something innocuous like one of them being surprised that I could speak fluently in English) but I remember the brief, intense feeling of indignation. It was unnerving to experience this, because I’m not patriotic in the way the term is normally used, and I’ve been dissociated from many of the important elements of Indian-ness: religion, rituals, strong family ties among them. But there was clearly something at work under the surface. (Of late I've felt similarly when a foreigner who has no understanding of the evolution of Indian cinema and the function it serves for the country’s mass audience makes a disparaging remark about Bollywood; never mind that I enjoy making fun of it myself.)

Mohsin Hamid’s powerful novella The Reluctant Fundamentalist is the story of a man who is surprised by the intensity of his reactions when he perceives a threat to his cultural identity. Changez is a young Pakistani who graduates from Princeton University and then gets a job working as a “fundamentalist” at a prestigious valuation firm named Underwood Samson. The company shares more than its initials with the United States: from the moment Changez begins working there, and living in New York, he feels like he is part of a great melting pot. When he first speaks of this, while describing a “new-hire induction” celebration, there is a mixture of pleasure and unease in his tone – happiness at being accepted combined with apprehension about the subsuming of his individuality. Even as he and his colleagues toast each other, something inside him rallies against being homogenised, and it’s interesting that he expresses this in military terms.
I looked around as we raised our glasses in a toast to ourselves. Two of my five colleagues were women; Wainwright and I were non-white. We were marvelously diverse…and yet we were not: all of us, Sherman included, hailed from the same elite universities – Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, Yale; we all exuded a sense of confident self-satisfaction; and not one of us was either short or overweight. It struck me that shorn of hair and dressed in battle fatigues, we would have been virtually indistinguishable.
“Beware the Dark Side, young Skywalker,” a colleague tells Changez at the induction party. This is said in jest, but the Star Wars legend of a youngster who betrays his own kind for an evil Empire, in the process losing his soul and turning into a mechanical man, will uncomfortably resonate with Changez’s own integration into American life. Later in the narrative, he will hear about the janissaries, “the Christian boys who were captured and trained to be soldiers in a Muslim army, at that time the greatest army in the world…they had fought to erase their own civilizations, so they had nothing else to turn to”. These analogies will tap into his deep-rooted fears: the fear of contributing to the wealth-generation of the most powerful empire in the world even while his own country languishes in poverty and he feels like a stranger on each successive visit to Lahore. The fear of a shrinking “global world” where “global” is defined in terms of the US model. The fear of becoming, inadvertently, a foot-soldier in America’s march of progress.

It’s important to note that Changez doesn’t hail from a very orthodox background. His family is part of Lahore’s old rich, now struggling to keep up with the times, and most of them, the women included, are working professionals. At one point his mother, worried about his refusal to get married, asks him if he’s gay: it’s a hesitant question, not indicative of complete openness between mother and son, but in more traditional Pakistani households it would not have been possible to even broach such a topic. And nothing in Changez’s own attitude suggests the sort of conservatism that might lead to a reflexive hitting out against the Western way of life: he has an easygoing relationship with his colleagues and friends in New York, he has “experienced all the intimacies college students commonly experience”, and American pop-culture references come naturally to him, as they do to most urban youngsters around the world. **

And yet this young man, who would certainly at some point have thought of himself as a citizen of the world, unconfined by narrow domestic walls, slowly becomes defensive about his identity. Early on, he has already been discomfited by little things: watching his colleagues part with large sums of money, for instance, reminds him of the poverty in his country, and on a business trip to Manila he is mortified to discover that even this (Eastern) city is so much wealthier than Lahore: “I felt like a distance runner who thinks he is not doing too badly until he glances over his shoulder and sees that the fellow who is lapping him is not the leader of the pack but one of the laggards.” But after the 9/11 attacks and the racial profiling that accompanies it, he becomes ever more conscious of the need to define himself, and this leads to disaffection with his adopted country.

Changez’s dilemmas are complicated by his feelings for a girl named Erica, a fellow Princetonian; they become close but she is haunted by her memories of a deceased boyfriend, and an awkward lovemaking scene shows us that Changez’s relationship with her mirrors his relationship with the US – he can possess her only by pretending to be someone he is not, by relinquishing his own sense of self. However, Hamid is too sensitive a writer to use the relationship as a mere symbol. It’s a movingly explored subplot in its own right (seen in isolation, it reminded me of the central relationship in Murakami’s Norwegian Wood) and it gives us crucial insights into Changez’s character in emotional rather than ethnical terms. There is more than one indication that if this relationship had worked out it would have been easier for him to resolve his other conflicts.

But this is not to be, which is why we get Changez’s story in the first person a few years after he left the US for good and returned to Pakistan. In a charming narrative device he doesn’t directly address us; instead he’s talking to an American tourist whom he encounters one evening in Lahore and has a long conversation with over tea and dinner (we never hear the tourist’s voice, only Changez’s). His general tone is deferential and hospitable, but there are traces of bitterness, even sarcasm, when he speaks of America. And though Hamid ends the book on an ambiguous note, refusing to divulge the extent to which Changez has traded one fundamentalism for another, we understand how an unbridgeable divide, an atmosphere of mutual distrust, can be created between cultures. That the protagonist here is a “normal” young man, easy to identify with (and not the fundamentalist suggested by the menacing close-ups on the book’s cover and its green-and-white colour scheme), makes this understanding even more potent.

** Significantly, though Changez relishes the symbolism of the 9/11 attacks and the way they brought a mighty power to its knees, he admits to being moved by the deaths of beloved characters on American TV shows. Don’t we all know of people who, despite having been weaned on American pop-culture (Hollywood films, music, sitcoms), felt a peculiar sense of vindication about the events of September 11?

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Sunny Deol as God: the ultimate vigilante

Another wonderful piece by Baradwaj Rangan:
There’s a strange purity about films like [Big Brother], where the director says, “Look, I’m making my movie for the truck drivers in Ludhiana, and you multiplex types can sod off and go to hell.” At a time every filmmaker shoehorns in sops to audiences from ages eight to eighty, and in every city from Mumbai to Manchester to Melbourne, these are the films with zero compromise…

…part of it is perhaps the Grindhouse effect, with so much recent press about that loving homage to shlock from Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez. (In a way, this is our schlock. And we watched these movies in our equivalents of the grindhouse theatres, in the pre-multiplex days.)
For anyone who grew up with Bollywood in the 1980s, this sort of thing is so much more interesting to read than those one-dimensionally dismissive “reviews” by our big-paper divas (check today’s ToI for instance), which seem founded on the idea that everything about the Shiny New Bollywood is unequivocally superior to the films of the 1980s. (While on that, see this earlier post – Bollywood: what’s changed?)

Monday, April 09, 2007

On Stanley Kramer and Judgment at Nuremberg

In the heftily titled but excellent book Conversations with the Great Movie-Makers of Hollywood’s Golden Age at the American Film Institute by George Stevens Jr (himself the son of one of those great directors), I came across an interview with producer-director Stanley Kramer. Kramer was known as a maker of “socially conscious films” – in the 1950s and early 1960s he directed a number of solid dramas that dealt with such issues as racism (The Defiant Ones), nuclear fallout (On the Beach) and the Scopes Trial (Inherit the Wind), in addition to producing such classics as The Caine Mutiny and The Wild One. [Later, taking a break from all the seriousness, he also made the overblown slapstick comedy It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World.]

Like many other independent-minded directors working in the US at the time, Kramer didn’t have the freedom to be an auteur in the true sense of the word. Given that he wanted his films to reach a wide audience, his goals had to be realised while working within the constraints of the studio system. This often meant populating his films with well-known actors (some of whom were, in the Hollywood tradition of the period, Star Personalities – associated with a certain type of role in the average moviegoer’s mind). And though the scripts that he worked with were weightier and more nuanced than those in the typical studio film, critics haven’t always been kind to him – his work has sometimes been dismissed as bloated and self-conscious, with contrived resolutions and simplistic treatment of important issues. In short, “Hollywoodised”.

In the interview I mentioned, Kramer himself shows humility and introspection about these aspects of his career. An excerpt:
“When I began work as a filmmaker I wanted desperately to be an artist. From my standpoint, I never came close. The reason was that I was born into film at a time when to make my mark and to do what I wanted to do, I had to take on the establishment within the Hollywood firmament…To get On the Beach made, I made a deal with United Artists that I would use two stars and UA would finance the picture. This has happened to me twenty times. I always had to work on such large canvases to get the film made at all…

I didn’t want Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner in On the Beach because they made it much less realistic for me. The presence of the stars made the film less powerful, less to the point…For me, a film like Hiroshima Mon Amour which was about being able to sustain life on a planet faced with atomic warfare, was more powerful than On the Beach. The difference is that I’m an American [studio director]. I made On the Beach and it was seen by millions of people. Hiroshima Mon Amour got a limited release and was seen by a select audience.”
It’s commendable that Kramer could make these self-critical remarks, but I think he’s being hard on himself. His best work still holds up quite well today (unless your idea of good cinema is restricted to indie films that are entirely uncorrupted by studio money). Among the movies that he directed, the one I’m fondest of is Judgment at Nuremberg, his stark three-hour epic about the Nazi war trials shortly after the end of WWII.

I first saw it as a 14-year-old when I was trudging from one video library to another with the Leonard Maltin Movie and Video Guide in my hand, picking up any pre-1970s movie that the reviewer had given a rating of 3 or more stars (how strange this seems, given my supercilious attitude to the rating system now). I loved the film unqualifiedly back then. Watching it allowed me to combine two seemingly irreconciliable interests: a) the historical period in question – WWII, the Holocaust and its aftermath, and b) the careers of actors such as Spencer Tracy, Marlene Dietrich, Burt Lancaster and Montgomery Clift.

Shot in austere black and white, Judgment at Nuremberg opens with the ageing Judge Haywood (Tracy), an American freshly arrived in Nuremberg, being driven to his quarters. Haywood looks around him at this wasted city that hosted grand Nazi rallies at the height of the Third Reich; later, he will go for a walk in a deserted quarter, observe the wary quietness of the few people around, and imagine hearing Hitler’s rabble-rousing speeches – the sense of decay is almost palpable, and resentment and guilt seem to exist side by side.

But most of the action in this fictionalised version of the Nuremberg Trials takes place in the courtroom, where Haywood is presiding over the trials of four Nazi judges, men of influence and high standing during the Nazi regime but now war criminals being asked to account for their actions. Among the accused is the solemn Dr Ernst Janning (Burt Lancaster), a respected figure in his day and central to the film’s theme that in times of severe political change and uncertainty, even well-intentioned people can end up doing things foreign to their essential natures. Other principals include the attorneys for the defence and the prosecution, and witnesses such as a baker who was forcibly sterilised by the Nazis and a hausfrau whose elderly Jewish friend was put to death on the charge of having an “improper” relationship with her.

There are no villains in Judgment at Nuremberg, or rather, there are no individual villains: as screenwriter Abby Mann says in an interview on the DVD, “the film’s real villain is patriotism” – that is, people believing that they needed to do certain things collectively for the good of their country or state, without examining their consciences. And the idea of shared guilt is central to the script. (Some scenes reminded me of the great ending of Alain Resnais’s Night and Fog, where people at different levels – concentration camp guards, commandants, generals – shift the responsibility for the Holocaust on to someone else, and the narrator asks plaintively, “Who is responsible?”)

But the film doesn’t cop out when it comes to fixing responsibility. In what may seem a contrived resolution, the courtroom drama climaxes with Ernst Janning responding to the call of his conscience and making a tidy little speech condemning himself and his associates for complying with events that they knew were wrong. Some critics have suggested that this scene, involving as it does one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, Burt Lancaster, is a sympathy-generator. But this is a ludicrous allegation, for just a few minutes earlier we have been shown documentary footage of the brutalities of the Nazi regime (this is hard-hitting stuff straight out of the concentration camps – certainly not something you’d expect to see in a mainstream Hollywood film of the time). Though the film has sympathy for people who were swept along by the dark current of history and made momentary decisions that they would regret for the rest of their lives, at no point does it suggest that the guilty mustn’t be held accountable.

What the script does manage to convey is the ambiguity surrounding the actions of practically everyone involved in the rise of Nazi Germany. When Judge Haywood pronounces his verdict at the end, we agree with his insistence on making individuals accountable for their acts; but at the same time we never lose sight of the points the defence attorney makes in his closing speech – about moral relativism, about Churchill’s praise of Hitler while the Third Reich was building its strength, about American complicity in the growth of industrial Germany, about the long and complex series of events that allowed the horrors of Auschwitz to take place.

Today, more than 15 years after I first watched Judgment at Nuremberg, it’s easier for me to see the flaws – for instance, that some scenes are static and heavy-handed. But it was very courageous for the time, and it certainly didn’t pander shamelessly to the box-office or attempt to spoon-feed a mass audience. And while some of the courtroom scenes are clumsily shot (you can almost sense that the cameraman was running out of places to put his equipment in this claustrophobic setting), it still looks good as a whole and its most powerful moments haven't dated at all.

Star power

Kramer says in his interview:
Do you think United Artists wanted to make Judgment at Nuremberg, the story of a Nazi trial? They weren’t at all interested in those people in the ovens and the crooked judges. I studded it with stars to get it made as a film so that I would reach out to a mass audience.
Given those conditions, I think he did extremely well. It’s all very well to condemn a film for having too many big names in it, but why not simply judge the performances on their own terms? Watching Judgment at Nuremberg, hardly ever does one get the impression that star power is intruding on the film’s basic function. Spencer Tracy, that master of understatement, is the anchor here as the old judge, showing as he so often did that great acting doesn’t have to be about flashy, attention-grabbing moments (the sort that run with the nomination announcements at award shows) or playing a variety of characters with different looks and accents. In Tracy’s best work, everything could hinge on a single glance, or on the way his character listened to and responded to something said by someone else – and there are many such moments in this film; the moral dilemmas Judge Haywood faces give the actor a lot of scope for internalising his feelings.

There isn’t a major weak link in the cast. The prosecuting attorney is played by Richard Widmark, another consummate professional, the fiery defence attorney Hans Rolfe is played by Maximilian Schell (who won the best actor Oscar for this role despite being the least-known member of the cast – or perhaps because of it). There are short but very effective cameos by Judy Garland and Montgomery Clift as Nazi-regime victims who testify in court. (If you’re at all interested in acting styles, it’s fun to contrast Clift’s attention-grabbing Method performance with Tracy’s naturalistic one.) And on the sidelines is the magnificent Marlene Dietrich (all of 60 at the time but looking ageless as ever) as a German general’s widow who forms a wary friendship with Judge Haywood.

Burt Lancaster is the only member of the cast who seems out of place to me, but even his casting wasn’t simply a means of adding star value to the film. Around this time Lancaster had in fact started branching out into character roles – something he would do very successfully in films like Birdman of Alcatraz, The Leopard and The Swimmer. (That said, it would have been brilliant if Kramer had got Laurence Olivier – his first choice – to do the role.)

P.S. I have conflicting views on this idea of star power undermining the credibility of films that deal with social issues, or that are “realistic” in the usual sense of that word. In this post, I mentioned that the non-mainstream Amitabh Bachchan starrer Main Azaad Hoon, his honest attempt at doing something different, didn’t work for me because much as I adored AB, I could never see him as John Doe or Everyman. The quality of Amitabh’s performance was beside the point, since his reputation and screen image would be a mental block for a viewer regardless: for the film to truly achieve what it wanted to achieve, the lead role would have had to be played by an unknown actor, or at least someone who didn’t have iconic status.

However, attractive though this idea is – that star personalities shouldn’t be allowed to mix with Serious Cinema – it’s also very exclusivist, besides being impracticable of course. Another post on that sometime.

Friday, April 06, 2007

The Pitamah and the Apsara

Two consecutive Google searches that brought the Curious Disappointed to this blog:

“Was Bheeshma Gay?”

“Was Simi Garewal Nude?”

(To which may I respectfully add, “Is there a connection?”)

Notes on The Namesake (film and book)

Was pleasantly surprised by Mira Nair's film of The Namesake. I read the Jhumpa Lahiri book years ago and though I liked it (in a languorous, Sunday-afternoon-read sort of way), I found it difficult to imagine a successful film version. For starters, this is a slice-of-life tale, and not a very obviously cinematic one – in essence it’s a series of vignettes from the lives of Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli, a Bengali couple who settle in the US in the 1970s following an arranged marriage, and their son Gogol, who grows up between two cultures.

From the point of view of plot development, nothing extraordinary happens. Ashima settles into her new life in an unfamiliar country with her husband, even growing to love him over time (though she would never use that word; "I love you" is something Americans say to each other). The years rush by, they go on annual trips to India with their children. Gogol (so named because of Ashoke's admiration for the Russian writer) has trouble relating to his name and is teased about it in college, but after his father's sudden death he starts feeling closer to his roots; this eventually leads to his breaking up with his American girlfriend and marrying a Bengali NRI – which doesn’t turn out to be the best decision. And that's about it. The book doesn’t tie up the loose ends in its protagonists' lives – when it finishes we have the sense that Gogol still has many things to come to terms with, and more growing up to do.

At one level The Namesake is the archetypal book about the immigrant experience, the adjustment problems of the diaspora and the generation gap between traditional Indian parents and their foreign-born children with "strange accents" (in short, the type of book that gets bad press when critics/readers complain about NRI writers' obsession with the Dislocation theme). But there's more to it than this limited vision would suggest. Much of its power derives from Lahiri's examination of the relationship between parents and children who are emotionally close to each other but whose lives have had completely different cultural signposts. The refrain "Get out and see the world" is first used in the context of the young Ashoke being encouraged to travel to another country and culture (at a time when it wasn't easy for a middle-class Indian to do so), but it acquires deeper resonance later in the story – Gogol's attempt to understand his parents' early life and what made them the people they were amounts to a different sort of "getting out and seeing the world" (perhaps it's better described as "looking inward and seeing the world"). The idea that children can find affirmation and a sense of self in the spaces that their parents once occupied, even when those spaces don't have a direct connection to their own lives, is movingly explored here.

But coming back to why I was surprised by the effectiveness of Nair's film: apart from the fact that the book doesn't have a clear-cut narrative arc, it has surprisingly few conversations. Mostly, an omniscient narrator tells us about the thoughts and feelings of the characters, and the reader is gently swept along by Lahiri's lucid writing. And though this is a valid enough approach, it's a bit problematic that we rarely get to hear the protagonists speaking in their own voices - at some level they remain distanced from us. Gogol in particular: intellectually, we understand his confusion, the shifts in his feelings over time, and especially the effect his father's sudden death has on him, but we never completely get into his head.

A frequent criticism of movie adaptations is that where the book allows us to participate in the creative process (using our imaginations to fill in the characters and settings, for instance), the film by its very nature makes everything explicit, closing the door on imagination. But I thought Nair's film was more satisfying than the novel precisely because these characters are presented to us in specific terms, we see them talking to each other, and most importantly all this is done extremely well. The casting is near-perfect – Irfan Khan (who's excellent), Tabu and Kal Penn bring an immediacy to the characters of Ashoke, Ashima and Gogol that I sometimes missed in the book.

Nair's direction is economical and understated, and not a scene feels out of place. I especially like the way she shows different cultures inhabiting the same space, often knocking awkwardly against each other. In Ashima's earnest recital of William Wordsworth's "Daffodils", a performance intended to impress her potential parents-in-law, we see the use of an iconic English poem (with phrases like "o'er vales and hills", which are hardly easy for an Indian reader to relate to) in the most traditional of Indian contexts. And when Gogol makes the personal decision to get his head shaved as a mark of respect to his deceased father, there's a very striking scene in the barbershop – a gangsta-rap score plays in the background, reminding us that in the country where Gogol has grown up, the image of a young man getting his head shaved can carry very different associations. (I don't remember this passage in the book too well, so I'm not sure if the contrast was Lahiri's to begin with.)

There are many subtler moments scattered throughout the film: the uneasy look on the conservative Ashima’s face when she visits a laundromat in NY and sees an old man undressing casually before putting his clothes into the washing machine; Gogol's refusal to sit in a rickshaw in Calcutta with his mother and sister because it's being pulled by a fellow human: "it's totally feudal"; his American girlfriend at the prayer service, genuinely concerned and interested in the proceedings but looking distinctly out of place in her black skirt and stockings; and Gogol’s quiet hostility towards her.

On the whole this is a gentle feel-good film, full of well-meaning characters, and one that could be accused of "playing safe" (there's almost nothing here that might make a viewer uncomfortable – it's hard to imagine anyone disliking this film). But it’s honest and uncontrived in a way that many feelgood movies aren’t. You believe in these characters, their feelings for one another and their personal struggles, and this gives the film conviction where it might otherwise have turned into a compendium of NRI clichés.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

A "self-styled" responsible newspaper?

Talking about hysterical media and Sachin, here’s another priceless addition to the canon: in the latest issue of Tehelka, the photo caption with the main cricket story goes: “Fans burn posters of the self-styled god of Indian cricket, Sachin Tendulkar…”

Self-styled god. This is the sort of thing that would be irresponsible in a tabloid. And Tehelka is supposedly a flagbearer for responsible, courageous journalism. Oh well, it's the "people's paper" after all, and you know how people behave when it comes to this sport and its players. (Maybe they should just start commissioning articles from the creatures who comment on's message boards?)

Monday, April 02, 2007

For Shakti

I was shocked to hear about Shakti Bhatt's passing away; it really is difficult to believe. We first met around a year and a half ago (she was working with Random House India at the time), though it seems much longer; since then we'd corresponded often on email and met frequently at book events. The last time we met, a few days ago, she jokingly rebuked me for reneging on a promise that I would give her feedback on a manuscript she had sent across – but she was, as ever, very good-natured about it. She was always warm and friendly, very easy to talk to, and this was tragic, completely unexpected news. Deepest condolences to her husband Jeet and to the rest of her family.

Anything I say here would be too little, but here’s something about Shakti’s professional life: she became the editor of IBD’s newly launched Bracket Books a few months ago and was very excited about the role she and the new company could play in what is a dynamic time in Indian writing and publishing. Some time ago I did a quick, informal Q&A with her for the Sunday Business Standard. As a testament to unfulfilled dreams and also as an indication of her informed-yet-inclusive, warm-hearted attitude towards writers and readers, here are excerpts from that interview:

About IBD's new publishing division: do you think the market in Indian Writing in English is large enough to accommodate more publishers?
IBD has been publishing for a long time, but Bracket Books is a more concerted and focused effort to publish books for a new generation of readers, and to try and do this in a way that is innovative and relevant. I think the market for Indian writing in English is large but not large enough for publishers to be complacent about it and take it for granted. It is now more challenging than ever for a book to be noticed, much less picked up.

On what scale will Bracket Books publish? What kind of writing are you looking at to start with?
We are looking at everything. We are starting without pre-conceived notions – for example, that short stories don't sell. What about Jhumpa Lahiri and Lavanya Sankaran? In the end, there's good writing versus bad writing, and good marketing versus bad marketing. We want to start small and slow, and we will take up only those projects that excite us, projects we can commit all our resources to in terms of editing, production, marketing and sales.

How do you decide whether or not to take on a manuscript? If the quality of writing is middling but it contains the seed of an interesting idea, would you be willing to take it on?
The first chapter of the manuscript is probably the biggest test. Is there a hook? Is the writer saying something new or is it trite? Is he talking about a situation, about a character, in a way that is appealing or tedious? I believe that anything good can be marketed, so the big worry about whether it will sell or not usually comes later. We would certainly consider a book with an interesting idea where the writing can be improved.

What according to you are the gaps in Indian publishing today?
Well, for one thing, we need to appreciate the diversity in Indian publishing at the moment. There's Rupa, Roli, Penguin, Harper Collins, Picador, Permanent Black, Zubaan and Women Unlimited, and many, many others, bringing out a range of interesting books. Every time I go into a bookshop I notice innovative titles. The gap seems to be in the field of editing. I think editors and publishing houses should adopt a zero-tolerance policy for errors – typographical and others. It's the least we can do for our readers. Maybe you could start a blog to document these errors (and god knows there are enough) so editors and publishers can be called on it.

What genres of writing need to be encouraged?
I'm not the first to say that we could do with more narrative non-fiction. It's easier said than done, because writers need advances for research and travel, and few Indian publishers are willing to fork out that kind of money. One can argue that it would be money well spent, especially if they have a marketing plan to back it up, and that bigger publishers should be more open to taking a risk, if there is one. It is a genre that deserves to be encouraged also because of the scarcity of creative journalism in India.

Following Chetan Bhagat's example, there's an emerging trend of mass-market writers – young authors who are providing easily identifiable characters, familiar settings and conversational prose. Will you look at that market or will your publishing be more niche?
Of course we will look at that market, why not? I was surprised at the widespread criticism in literary circles about Bhagat's book. Yes, it could have been better, but there is no denying the enormous connection it made with young people across the country. I happened to be travelling at the time and I would hear his name come up in coffee shops across Delhi, Bombay, and Bangalore. That to me is exciting and not something to be taken lightly. You can't be in this business and be snobbish. Anything that makes people read a book is a good thing.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Altoo does the Caribbean

More political correctness and all-round politeness from the revered TV journalist and anthropologist Shamya Dasgupta (known to close friends as Altoo). Currently in the West Indies and closely examining the human condition, he dissects little children and their parents (not literally, though he’d like to):
Indian kids are particularly noisy because Indians, as parents, aren't particularly great. And they allow their little assholes that much more room to misbehave.
They cried. Loud and strong. Their parents paid not a heed. Obviously, mothers across the world work on the same philosophy: I went through nine months of hell for this piece of shit; I don't care who you are, but you're going to have to go through at least ninety minutes of the same shit.
Full post here. Uncharacteristically, it ends with a description of a beautiful little girl-child, which makes me think Shamya is at last ready to be a father himself. And don’t miss the last sentence.

Also, from this post on Guyana:
The colour of people here varies from a terrible dirty off-white to a beautiful chocolatey dark brown. And while some people look like Oliver Kahn, a lot of the people are very good-looking.
We eagerly await new breakthroughs in studies of the species.

Obligatory ramble about Sachin

I promised myself I wouldn’t blog about Sachin Tendulkar again (especially after writing this long personal post last year), but wouldn’t you know it, I’m breaking that promise now. Here’s an expansion of some of the things I said in a comment on Amit’s blog.

Looking at a couple of the other comments on that post, I’m astonished by how many people think SRT has an obligation to be the Best Batsman in the World for all time. This for instance:
Expectations are always from Sachin Tendulkar because he is Sachin Tendulkar. Because he is one the greatest ever. Because he can make a bowler ask this question to his mother “Why was I even born?”.

However, time and again, it has been noted that he has not delivered when it mattered the most and when people looked up to him to save the matches. India has failed miserably every time he has failed. And of late, he has been failing continuously when we need our best batsman to give his best.
Look at that chest-thumping first paragraph and then the shrill second paragraph, and see if you can reconcile the two opinions stated. Assume for argument’s sake that everything said in the second para is true (at least over the past 2-3 years). In that case, wouldn’t this be the logical conclusion to draw: Sachin is NOT the best batsman in the world anymore and it isn’t fair to keep judging him by that standard.

In fact, as any balanced observer of the game (even his biggest worshippers, like yours truly) would know, SRT hasn’t been the world’s leading batsman for at least six years now; he hasn’t even been India’s best batsman for at least four years, going back to roughly the time when Rahul Dravid had those great series in England and Australia. (For much of the period since, he wasn’t even India’s second-best batsman, at least in Tests – Virender Sehwag was.)

There’s a delicious irony in the nature of Tendulkar-directed criticism. On the one hand, people lament that SRT is in the team solely because of his past achievements and the weight of his reputation, and that he should instead be judged strictly by his current worth. This is fair enough. But on the other hand, these same people use those very past achievements as benchmarks to condemn him.

The real question to be asked (as Amit does in his post) is: Is he still good enough to be in the Indian side? Forget about what he once was and what we wanted him to be, and think about the here and now. As I’ve said before, back in 1989 when that 16-year-old kid walked into the Indian squad, he did NOT sign a pledge to the entire Indian populace that he would be The World’s Best Batsman and the sole repository of all their hopes and ambitions for the next 20 years, and that those were the only terms on which he would play cricket. In the history of sport, great champions have suffered far stranger and more dramatic declines than what has happened to Tendulkar in the past 4-5 years. Deal with it.

Amit’s answer to the question “Is Tendulkar good enough on current form?” is “Yes”. I’m not so sure myself – I don’t know enough about India’s bench strength and to what extent promising young players have been kept out in the past few years because the middle order has been so established and so “untouchable”. I also think there’s some merit in Gaurav Varma’s comment that with an eye on building a team for the future there’s a case for dropping SRT even if he’s good enough to figure amongst India’s top six batsmen.

But my concern here isn’t the “should he be dropped” debate, it’s the very ugly nature of the criticism directed at SRT over the years. I’m aghast at the irresponsibility of most of India’s sports media in this respect. Through discussions with sports-journo friends and acquaintances, I know that there’s a strong current of anti-Tendulkarism in these circles – has been, in fact, for several years, even going back to the days when he was the country’s best cricketer. And given the way many media insiders really feel about him, it seems like a diabolical conspiracy that newspapers and TV channels have continued (with a subtle mocking undercurrent) to refer to him as “the world’s best batsman” in reports, long after that label ceased to be true – using it to repeatedly pull him down and gloat over his failures. Whenever India suffers an embarrassing loss, don’t we all know what photographs we’ll see blown up on the front page of every newspaper the next day? Tendulkar getting out bowled. (Admittedly, that is an enticing photo option, especially when he’s down on his haunches.) Tendulkar walking forlornly back to the pavilion, a huddle of excited opposition players in the background. A beaten/dispirited Tendulkar, used as a symbol of our supposed National Failure. The Man Who Let Us All Down. Once again.

And when he plays a good innings in the next match, every TV channel will dig up at least one idiot ex-cricketer (Kris Srikkanth, anyone?) who’s willing to come and say something like “see, this is why he is the best batsman since Bradman”. And the cycle is perpetuated all over again.

There’s also the persistence of the ridiculous hype around “Tendulkar and Lara, the two best players in the world”. To anyone who actually knows their cricket, this idea has been irrelevant for years. In the last 3-4 seasons Lara has performed much better than Sachin has (and equally importantly, avoided injuries better), but even he hasn’t consistently been among the top 3 batsmen in the world during this period. And yet the media continues to sustain this grand, 10-year-old fantasy of “Tendulkar vs Lara” and fans continue to fall for it. (I can’t help wondering what youngsters aged 12-13 or less must make of this hype, since they wouldn’t have seen either of these greats back when they were indisputably the best batsmen around.)

From a selfish point of view, as a Tendulkar loyalist, I wouldn’t at all mind seeing him removed from the team. Apart from sparing him further humiliation, it would (at least temporarily, till a new icon is found, built up and torn to pieces) end this malicious voyeurism we see every time a hero fails. It would also force our indolent, feeble-brained sports-page editors and reporters to find new clichés for their match reports (instead of the sneering “once again, the world’s best batsman failed when his team needed him the most”) and to look for new photo options for the front page when India next suffers a humiliating and unexpected loss. And rest assured, the humiliating losses will continue, even after this “non-performing, overrated, national disappointment” has been ejected from the team: for if 75 years of Indian cricket history has taught us anything, it’s that this country, for whatever deep-rooted reason, is never going to produce a team of consistent world beaters like the Australians, or the West Indians of the 1970s and 1980s, or even the South Africans. Maybe there’s something to the idea that the national character just isn’t suited to a high level of sporting achievement.

(Did I say “world beaters”? Sorry! This is a sport that only 8 or 9 countries play with any measure of seriousness – and moderate success in it somehow becomes a salve for all our frustrations and personal disappointments. Maybe we’re just a nation of masochists.)

A couple of previous Sachin-related posts here and here.