Thursday, December 29, 2005

Cowards around the corner

As you all have no doubt heard, a cowardly terrorist opened fire on a group of academics at a conference at the Indian Institute of Science. IISc is a few hundred meters from where I live, and an acquaintance is among those injured (Vijay Chandru). He was hit by two bullets, but is recovering after surgery.

Nothing concrete has emerged from investigations thus far. The only thing everyone I've spoke to agrees on is, this is as much a cowardly attack on defenceless people as an assault on the spirit of innovation that IISc and Bangalore has come to stand for.

New Year Wishes

Wish you all a happy and auspicious new year!

I pray the new year is one filled with much happiness and success for you and those close to you; peace and prosperity to those in conflict-ridden lands; relief, optimism, and a new life to those who have had to face tsunamis, hurricanes, cyclones, and earthquakes; and homes and new families for children orphaned by wars, riots, and natural disasters.

p.s. I also wish the new year is an auspicious one for all who have a stake in Bollywood (yes, that includes my dissertation!).

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Contentious Traditions - from Sati to Spirituality

“So much of human suffering lies not in the circumstances in which we find ourselves, but rather in the nature of our response to them.”

How do you react to a thought such as this? Raise your eyebrows and dismiss it as one of many vapid lines from some new-age guru? Wonder if the person writing this has ever thought about or understood how structural inequalities determine lives of millions around the world?

The sentence I quote above is from the second half of a book. Now what if I add that the first half is a brilliant first-person account of the social construction of illness. Consider that this author has also written, in another life, a highly regarded book that analyses the debate on sati in colonial India? Would it influence your opinion if you knew that the author was, in a previous life, a postcolonial-feminist scholar who taught in the Women’s Studies program at UC-Davis? Would you then be willing to read the quote above without smirking or dismissing it as new-age drivel?

I am talking about Interleaves: Ruminations on Illness and Spiritual Life, written by Lata Mani. Lata Mani, while commuting to the UC-Davis campus, was hit by a stolen Pepsi truck traveling at 100 mph. After several years spent in coma, and many painful years of gradual recovery, she decided to write.

Interleaves explores my mind’s disintegration as the result of brain injury, and my baptism of fire into a new status as a disabled person. Like others who have faced catastrophic health crises, I learned more than I would have cared to, about the social construction of illness.

Interleaves is also a chronicle of my awakening to God, in the form of Devi, the Divine Mother, who came to fetch me from the debris in which I had crash-landed. I am immeasurably grateful to the Divine Mother for rescuing me into her arms and for pouring into my consciousness instruction in the art of living” (p.7).

I had read about Interleaves in The Hindu several years back, but never managed to find a copy. Two days back, I found one in Lawrence Liang’s ALF office. And I agreed with Lawrence when he said it was very difficult to come to terms with a book like this. It is not so much that Lata Mani’s writings on spirituality are radically new – she says in the very beginning that the “instruction she received” is nothing new, that it is in fact, “ancient truth.” The difficulty lies in coming to terms with vocabulary that academia shuns, particularly those who are wedded to a left-secular worldview.

Needless to say, I would not have bothered to give this book a second glance had I not known more about the author, her previous life as an academic who wrote very knowledgeably about power, colonial discourse and the agency of the colonized. I would have also, perhaps, tossed aside the book if it was only about spirituality. I will admit that what drew me in was the first half of the book, a wonderful first-person account of the social construction of illness.

In one chapter titled “Surreal Stories: on Yogis, Dentists, and the Art of Listening,” she writes about her visits to various medical practitioners.

“I am sitting in the dentist’s chair…he is compassionate. He seems to understand, at least, that I am in physical distress…just as I am settling into something resembling comfort, he says, “Can you go jogging, or does it make your brain jump up and down?” And I wonder if he has understood a single word that I have spoken. But he is smiling, and the kindness in his eyes is genuine. I simply say, “No,” and he begins to drill” [p.47-48].

When I read these lines, I was immediately reminded of an article that Lata Mani had written in which she narrates another encounter in a doctor’s office.

"I am lying in wait for the complex verbal negotiation that attends each visit to my acupuncturist. I want a diagnosis--a definable illness, a definite cure...he asks the dreaded question: 'Well, what is your Ph.D. thesis about?' I blurted out what I consider my minimalist 'no-nonsense' description: 'I am working on the debate between colonial officials, missionaries and the indigenous male eite on sati (widow burning) in colonial India'."

At this point he turned away from my foot, into which he had just finished inserting needles, and asked, 'So, how do you understand widow burning?' I felt myself stiffen. He had thrown me a challenge that would require a command performance in colonial and post-colonial history and discourse, one that I did not feel equal to at the time. So I said evasively, 'It's a long story and I'm trying to sort it out'.

'Good', said the genial man in the white coat tapping my arm. Not waiting for a response, he continued. 'Of course, you are Westernized and your ideas have probably changed from living here. I wonder what women in India feel about it?' So saying, he left the room." [Rest of the thought-provoking article here]

From sati to spirituality – both highly contentious traditions in everyday life in India, and in the world of the Western academy. Positioned as a graduate student in the U.S., but as someone who grew up in homes and neighborhoods in parts of Chennai and Bangalore where “spirituality” was always the subtext to religious ritual, I am not at all sure how to make a book like
Interleaves a part of what I would naturally read. But then, I am also reminded of Milton Singer’s term – compartmentalized identities – to describe Brahmins in Chennai who are equally at ease performing their daily morning rituals (that are seemingly irrational/pre-modern) and going to a workplace that values all that is rational and modern. Like A. K. Ramanjan’s father who was both a mathematician and an astrologist!

Friday, December 23, 2005

Reading, Listening

Mulk Raj Anand's Across the Black Waters. The blurb said this was arguably the best war novel written by an India, and for Rs.30, quite a steal.

A. R. Rahman's latest - Rang De Basanti. The title track sung by Daler Mehndi is fantastic. And overall, what I really enjoy about Rahman's music is the arrangement. What's more, Rahman's music almost always begins narrating a story well before the film hits the screen. By the time you're done listening to the entire album, you have some sense of the narrative high points of the film.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Filming the Gods

That is the title of Rachel Dwyer's forthcoming book on religion and Indian cinema. She was in Bangalore a couple of days back, talking about this book at a lecture organized by CSCS. Religion, she pointed out, has been a topic that has largely been ignored within film studies. Surprising, no doubt, that scholars working on Indian cinema have also tended to stay clear of issues pertaining to religion (be it at the level of representation, industry practices, or audience reception). She also suggested that her work might push those working on questions of modernity to think critically about religion. Given that many of India's experiments with modernity are taking place in the mediascape, broadly speaking, this book seems well-timed.

While the talk was well-received overall, there were two important problems that were brought up during the Q&A session. One pertained to the genre definitions that Dwyer was using. She divided her films into two broad categories: mythologicals, and devotionals. She defined devotionals as films with devotees as central characters. Ashish Rajashyaksha immediately pointed out that another way of thinking about devotionals is through the kind of spectator position that a film creates. In other words, if a film manages to construct a spectator as a devotee, it could be termed a devotional.

Two, and more important perhaps, was the question re how a study on religion in Indian cinema could focus only on Hindi cinema. Srinivas pointed out that a study that makes claims about religion, cinema, and Indianness could ill afford to ignore Telugu and Tamil cinema. For a good 40 years (from the late 40s to the 80s, and revived again in the 90s), religion has been a defining element of Telugu cinema in very explicit ways. Dwyer got a little defensive about this, and asked why those who understand Telugu and Tamil (she doesn't) aren't writing about those cinemas. But she missed Srinivas' larger question - given the Bollywoodization of Indian cinema, isn't this as good a time as any to regionalize (I'd prefer the term provincialize) Hindi cinema?

Is it difficult to learn a formula?

Yes, if you consider Rohan Sippy's efforts in Bluffmaster. With terrible, terrible writing, the film fails to leverage more than decent cast and music. And after all the wonderful promos across radio, TV, and the Web, it was a crushing disappointment. Having grown up observing his illustrious formula-filmmaker dad (Ramesh Sholay Sippy) has clearly made no difference to Rohan Sippy's own craft.

Wait for the DVD. And that too, only if you're curious to see how a filmmaker can squander all his resources.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

The Discreet Charms of Filmi Love

I think discreet charms captures very nicely how Hindi film songs are what made the expression of love both discreet and charming for several generations of Indians for whom film songs constituted popular culture. This is what a friend and I talked about in last night in a lounge bar in Bangalore as we wondered about how different we are compared to an entire generation of school kids whose experiences with the opposite (or same) sex includes the danger of an MMS clip circulating around the world.

(apologies to non-Hindi/Urdu speakers - I don't think I can do justice translating the lyrics that follow).

Well into the second bottle of wine by this time, my friend smiled and began talking about how he dealt with his first crush in school. “I still remember, I’d lie awake on school nights waiting for All India Radio’s Chaya Geet, waiting for Kishore Kumar’s voice to waft in from the living room…all with the fond hope of hearing a song like:

Aap ki aankhon mein kuch, mehke hue se khwab hain
Aap se bhi khoobsurat, aapke andaaz hain…”

“And all next day I would steal glances at her, sitting diagonally across from my desk, and wonder how wonderful it would be were she to respond:
Aap ki baaton mein phir, koi shararat to nahin
Bewaja tareef karna, aapki aadat to nahin
Aap ki badmashiyon pe ye naye andaaz hain…

He went on. “Or, if I was in a more peppy mood, I’d want a song like:

Dil deke dekho dil deke dekho, dil lene walon dil dena seekho ji...

“I’d dream she’d ask coyly: kaise?
And I’d continue: Dil deke dekho…dil deke dekho…”

I had my own little story, but by this time my friend had moved on to unrequited love. “Hemant Kumar man, I tell you. Such gham. I listened to his song for a whole week after she told me off in front of I don’t know how many kids in the school playground.” He began singing in a low voice:

jaane who kaise log the jinke pyar ko pyar mila

Moved (and a little sozzled), I joined him:

humne to jab kaliyan maangi… kaanton ka haar mila

“I’m telling you yaar, I was too young to drink then, but that didn’t stop me from imagining a glass of juice to be whisky.” We smiled, and didn’t say a word for a good ten minutes after this, both lost in our own worlds.

The evening wore on, and on the way back home in an auto, I began thinking about how I came to love the person I do now. When friends ask me who proposed and what happened, I am at a loss. None of that seemingly romantic and tension-filled proposal for us. I honestly don’t know how and at what point we decided we were "together." But I do know that these words make sense:

Jaane Kya Tune Kahi
Jaane kya maine suni
Baat kuch ban hi gayi...
Jaag uthe khwab kai
Baat kuch ban hi gayi

And this, my fellow cinephiles, is why I agree with folks who do not quite connect with contemporary Bollywood’s language for romance. Like the Bheege hont tere…raat bhar tujhe main karoon pyar song from Murder. Seems like softporn compared to the older stuff, no?

p.s. The title for this post is a shameless lift from Ashis Nandy’s essay titled “The Discreet Charms of Indian Terrorism.” In the essay, Nandy narrates a hijacking incident in which one of the terrorists, during the long process of negotiation with State authorities, grows melancholy and begins singing. And he chooses to sing Hindi film songs, not jingoistic anthems that most passengers expected. Some passengers, when questioned about their experience, mention that the songs moved them and helped them see the terrorist in different light. This is one among many other startling stories that Nandy draws on to reflect on some of (Indian) terrorism’s discreet charms.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Remake the "Kashi Yatra"

The Kashi Yatra is a wedding ritual that I've grown up observing in most south Indian (brahmin) weddings, and yesterday was no exception. My friend, the groom, announces that he has decided to take up a life of sanyas (penance) and will depart for Kashi (another name for the holy city of Banaras, on the banks of the Ganga). He was attired in a dhoti and a pair of wooden sandals, and carried a walking stick in one hand and an umbrella in the other. I'm no longer interested in entering the householder phase (grihastashrama) of life, he says, and begins walking out of the marriage hall. Quite a lot of fun when this begins!

So what happens next? A horde of relatives from the bride's side follows him, and pleads with him to change his mind. And if the bride has a brother (which was the case yesterday), he holds the groom's hand and attempts to change his mind. He feeds him sweets, talks about what a wonderful thing it is to be married, gets him to sit down and re-consider. The groom relents, and is led back into the marriage hall by his to-be brother-in-law and parents-in-law. Fun, no?

Here's the catch. At the wedding, I didn't meet a single uncle or aunty who did not have sons/daughters opr nephews/nieces studying or working in the U.S. The entire wedding reminded me of the story Appadurai narrates in his book Modernity at Large where his wife goes in search of a temple priest in Madurai only to be informed that the priest now performs his pujas in Houston, Texas!

Anyways, as I watched the Kashi Yatra yesterday, I wondered if it wouldn't make more sense to substitute Kashi with some city in the U.S. The religious significance of Kashi aside, imagine how much fun it'd be if the groom announced he liked his bachelor lifestyle in the U.S .way too much, and would rather go back and enjoy himself for a few more years. He could carry his passport and flight ticket instead of a walking stick, and perhaps the bride's brother could plead and then threaten to tear up the ticket? And when the groom agrees, he could be presented with two flight tickets (thrown in a honeymoon package if the family can afford it...)? Just a thought. On another note, I'll be back in Bangalore tomorrow morning and I promise to blog more often...

Monday, December 12, 2005

Multiplex Dis/pleasures

I spent nearly 8 hours at a mall in Delhi this past Saturday! After two movies (Harry Potter, Apaharan) and two trips to the food court, I came out feeling very ambivalent about the entire movie-going experience. This was my first time watching films in a multiplex in India, and as anyone who has grown up watching movies in single-screen halls will agree, the multiplex is a completely different experience.

Let me talk about the nice aspects first.

Toilets: Sparkling clean! Not the stinking mess they used to be in the single-screen halls.
No Smoking: Earlier, you would step into the foyer during intermission be enveloped in cigarette smoke. And the only escape would be the nasty loos!
Seats: All the push-back seats work, no torn cushions, no bugs and rashes to deal with at the end of the movie!
Seat numbers: throughout the hall and not just in the balcony section. Which means you don't have to deal with all the pushing and pulling to enter the hall, or pick a fight with folks who've reserved entire rows of seats with their handkerchiefs.

All this and more is supposed to give you, as the IMAX staff announced before the movie began, an "immersive movie experience." The screen sure was impressive, as was the sound. But what does "immersive" mean to contemporary exhibitors and audiences?

Here's what failed to make the experience immersive for me:

Disappearance of the Gandhi Class: The gandhi class refers to the first 3-4 rows in a hall, patronized by members of the working class and students (mostly male). Folks in these rows believe that the only way to watch a film is to make it a collective and participatory experience. Whistle, hoot, throw flowers and coins, deliver dialogues in sync with characters on the screen, sing along, and of course, pass comments throughout (some hilarious, some lewd, and some deeply sentimental). The multiplex audience is quiet, atomised, and BORING!

The Interval: Interval conversation is a sacred ritual. You step into the foyer, smoke (or inhale second-hand), and talk about the film. You discuss the first half, speculate on the second half, there is quick round of appreciation/anticipation of a "hot" item number (song performed by a sexy, scantily clad woman is usually not the heroine), and weigh the possibility of coming back to watch the film a second or third time.

Cell phones: When you hear a fancy ringtone, you assume that the person in question will quickly silence the thing with an embarassed/apologetic smile. Heh, nothing doing. People were merrily chatting away on their phones, irritating me no end. But others around me were seemingly not bothered.

Nostalgia aside, the multiplex is easily the most visible representation of transformations in urban India. And where the politics of the multiplex - both in terms of the industry and the audience - is concerned, there are several questions to be asked. Go here if these questions interest you:

"From its present shape, there only emerge more queries than any concrete predictions. Will the rapid spread of the multiplex and its concentration in particular zones with audiences constituting existing and potential markets for the retail entities supporting the multiplex, emerge as the dominant trend, and push doors for further segregation and institutionalization of segmented audiences, leading to branded multiplexes? Or will encouragement from the various governments drive away the multiplex, aiding its penetration into other urban and semi urban, non-affluent territories? Will the multiplex alter existing film form so as to align with its own plush and colourful appearance? Or will it encourage alternative films?" (Aparna Sharma, Seminar, May 2003)

Friday, December 02, 2005

baroda, delhi, hyderabad

After three weeks of calling, meeting, and interviewing media folks in Mumbai, I've decided I need to step away for a bit. I've had very little time to organize my notes and listen to the interviews closely, and I feel I need to do that before coming back for a round of clarifications and some more interviews.

I would even say that under slightly different circumstances (if I had more money), I would take 2-3 days off after every 10 days of fieldwork. You really do need that time to read through hastily scribbled notes, organize interview material, listen closely for clues that will lead to better questions during the second round of interviews, hints for who else to speak with, and so on. And, perhaps most important, I need some time to go back to my dissertation proposal and read it keeping my interviews in mind. What core ideas remain intact? How well are some of my hypotheses holding up? What evidence do I have now which sheds more light on/challenges some of the claims I made in the proposal?

So, my dear readers, I'm off to Baroda (called Vadodara these days) to spend the weekend at a cousin's place. From there I proceed to Delhi, where I plan to eat lots of good chaat and go shopping (parmesh - anything I can pick up for you from Dilli Haat?)! A week in Delhi, and I move on to Hyderabad to attend a friend's wedding. Stay tuned for all this and more...