Nov 30, 2008

Notes on Yuva

There are some films that u remember not quite liking when u first watch them but which take u completely by surprise on a diff occasion. Some films that come to mind are lagaan, badiwali & yuva, the last of which I watched today after a gap of nearly 4 yrs. While I can’t remb the exact reasons why yuva made no impression on me in the past, I can clearly discern the elements that worked for me today. Of course a big reason could be that I haven’t watched any hindi film in the past 2 yrs that left me absol speechless, with the possible exception of bheja fry. When u tie this with the prevailing mood in Mumbai today, it doesn’t take much to see that I’m pbably making too much out of an ordinary film. Whatever…

For starters I can’t recall another film that has captured the spirit of Calcutta so accurately & made it sing on the screen. Its heavy, sensual beauty captured through the lens of cinematographer --- leaves u so smitten that it almost gags u with a feel of the smog that rises from the ganges over the new vidyasagar setu. In fact, all the setu scenes are beautifully shot & communicate the contrasting languorousness & vibrant activity that is so much a part of the city. Contrast the way vivek woos kareena with desperate shyness against a backdrop of speeding trucks & bikes & u will know what I’m referring to. And the fact that there are no rosogolla gulping babumoshai’s is enough to grant this a three star rating. Instead we have a glimpse of Someplace Else, Victoria Memorial, the city's ubiquitous fuchka (paani puri) vendors & its firebrand idealist college leaders.

Liked I have never ajay devgan & I still maintain that he’s 1 of the most overrated actors but I feel that yuva is one of his finest films; at least he manages to largely control that irritating smirk (save in the scenes with om puri.) for once his age doesn’t work against him coz he isn’t a 40’ish aamir khan playing a DU graduate student in rang de basanti (RDB). In fact he reminded me so much of my own seniors in JU like bata da, swagata di & arnab who continued to be an integral part of campus politics long after they’d passed out or even started pursuing their professional interests. That is the thing about Calcutta, or it was when I lived there eons ago. There is a madness, an irreverence & a joie de vivre in the city that I have witnessed in only another, completely different place – las vegas. Also, if you’ve been shot in the chest & thrown in the river, chances are it’s only in Calcutta that a stranger will jump off the bridge to save u. notice the way vivek first tries to garner help & support from outside before realizing that if smthing has to be done, it has to be done NOW & that waiting for someone else, will result in just that – a long eternal wait. Note the way he utters an encouraging military marching chant kind of call before he finally plunges into the water. Probably that is what touched me deeply about yuva today, plus the obvious fact that it is targeted at a very clear audience, much like RDB. Even as I was watching it I was mulling how a national political party comprising solely of people in the 20-50 year old bracket with no political or criminal connections would work out in today’s india? Till date I don’t know of any political party that screens its members on the basis of educational qualifications or age or criminal history. It would also help if all members would be at least college graduates. Sounds elitist? Darn right. I am tired of the socialism crap & I don’t care if I don’t drag my billion plus garib brothers & sisters out of the ‘darkness’ as long as I know what I am doing today will inevitably lead to light for everyone tomorrow.

Anyway to return to yuva again, kareena & vivek deliver 1 of their best performances here & I wonder why they didn’t go on to become 1 of bollywood’s hottest pairs. Recall the scene where a lovely kareena clad in a maroon chiffon saree comes to bid goodbye to an injured vivek & holding her hand he beseeches, ‘mat jao’. As he begins, ‘mai tumse..’ she cuts him off with, ‘kuch mat kaho. Mai jaanti hu.’ With the orchestra playing a slow version of the ‘fanaa’ piece in the background & the expression on these two actors’ faces doing all the talking, this is definitely one of the best romantic moments in celluloid history. Somehow I was reminded of emma thompson in ‘Carrington’ holding jonathan price in her arms & soothing him to sleep even as she clearly understands that there are limits to the ways in which she can reach him because of his sexual preferences. That anguish, that utter despair will be forever etched in my memory.

Rani is her usual splendid self & to write anything about her performance would be facetious. After all who can combine that degree of absolute bliss & despair that every married woman must know in her life when she’s madly in love with a man who never really grew up. Also, I cannot recall another bollywood actress who plays a married woman with such sensuality. As I write this I remember she was exactly the same as kamal hassan’s wife in ‘hey ram’. That big red bindi, that oiled hair & that loosely draped cotton sari have surely set many hearts afire. ‘kabhi neem neem’ easily goes down as one of rehman’s finest compositions & I’m glad he didn’t use his usual band of favourite south Indian singers like chitra or minmini. To hear madhusree in this song is to be assured perfection exists.

That’s it I guess. I think I must revisit some of the hit films I didn’t like at all, like iqbal or chak de india, & see what I make of them a 2nd time. but that would also mean that I have to sit through laga chunri mein daag & u me aur hum’ again. Nahiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii …

Nov 18, 2008

Thoughts on A Reluctant Fundamentalist

The protagonist of Mohsin Hamid’s impressive Booker nominated second novel –- The Reluctant Fundamentalist -- reminded me of those women who upon finally deciding to ditch their childhood sweethearts for traditional grooms who’d been chosen by their families, suddenly find everything about the old boyfriends either wrong, offensive, duplicitous or morally reprehensible. Oh, not to forget, they’d been merely infatuated before. That is Changez’ story too, only it is his infatuation with America that he elaborates upon here.
Compared to his debut work Moth Smoke, The Reluctant Fundamentalist seems both artificial, as well as less absorbing. Perhaps the only positive thing I can say about Hamid’s work is that it is timely, especially since there is no doubt that America has no intention of curbing its annoying interventionist foreign policy, given its hawkish stand on Iran and Russia. Though he poses questions that are relevant in an increasingly intolerant world, Hamid does not possess the subtlety or the power to accomplish this in a way, say, a much superior writer like Nadine Gordimer does when she probes the whole issue of apartheid, another cursed phenomenon, which though much reviled operates at various levels of our shared experience and does not offer any easy resolutions.
The novel is set in an old cafĂ© in Lahore where as dusk gives way to night, our Pakistani narrator Changez shares the story of his life in the U.S with an unnamed American businessman. Since, the listener is never allowed to speak we are left to form our own opinions about him from the way Changez responds to him – ‘A flower-seller approaches. I will summon him. You are not in the mood? Surely you cannot object to a single strand of jasmine buds.” We learn that Changez hails from an old Lahore family whose fortunes have since declined. The gradual erosion of his family’s wealth echoes those of his unfortunate nation and this in turn is contrasted with the wealth and well being of his Princeton classmates and the country they hail from. All of which is fine but inherently meaningless for Hamid never allows Changez to reflect on the diverse and complex causes that have brought about this contrast. Instead, Changez speaks in a steady mix of sarcasm, hostility and forced politeness and seems to take no account of the larger historical and social conditions that shape a nation’s destiny. At least, the protagonist of Moth Smoke was honest enough to acknowledge the corruption and indifference which crippled Pakistan.
After having finished his studies at Princeton, Changez joins the prestigious valuation firm of Underwood Samson where the mantra of success is to ‘Focus on the Fundamentals’, one which we gradually learn he has always been ‘reluctant’ to embrace. In America, Changez befriends other outsiders like Jim and Wainwright and even has a doomed affair with the beautiful Erica whose sanity gradually unravels as her affair with Changez progresses. Post 9/11 he starts to feel all the more resentful of America’s retaliatory attacks on Afghanistan and her single minded pursuit of her ‘fundamental’ interests at the cost of all else and he decides to return to his homeland and becomes an activist of sorts who dedicates his life to spreading awareness and raising questions regarding the imperialism of powerful western nations like America.
The question of identity and assimilation is at the heart of the book and as we plough on, it is not merely Changez’ identity that is probed and tested but also Erica’s, the silent businessman’s and the readers’. Early in the novel Changez tells us how “I attempted to act and speak, as much as my dignity would permit, more like an American. The Filipinos … seemed to look up to my American colleagues, accepting them almost instinctively as members of the officer class of global business and I wanted my share of that respect as well,” and when he is stopped by the concierge of Erica’s posh Manhattan apartment, he retorts in a “cold and rather imperious tone.” However, despite his best attempts at merging in, he does possess an outsiders’ perspective which finds his ‘upstart’ classmates’ wasteful spending and offensive manners most disturbing, “I ... found myself wondering by what quirk of human history my companions ….. were in a position to conduct themselves in the world as though they were its ruling class.” Though bothered by certain aspects of American life, Changez is still another cog in the nation’s great capitalistic machine and is in Manila on business when he watches the twin towers collapse on TV and smiles. This smile is the pivot of the novel for it at once tells us several things about Changez that he has only hinted at so far. Though it may not reveal anything as significant as a rabid fundamentalism, it does tell us about his desire for vengeance, a kind of smug satisfaction at the tables having been turned so abruptly. Nothing has happened till then to warrant that smile and yet it’s chillingly familiar to many of us if we allow a little honest introspection. And that’s one of the points of the book, that even when we think nothing has happened, there are things that have already taken place, the shared weight of history that shapes our perspectives and what we finally choose to be.
On his return to the U.S, he is viewed suspiciously as he’s waiting in line at Immigration and slowly it is not only his relationship with Erica which starts to decline but also that with America and its institutions of power. Unable to concentrate on work he is increasingly discomfited by the idea that by embracing America he is also embracing a certain world view. When a client slyly tells him the story of the janissaries -- Christian youths captured and brainwashed into fighting against their own people -- his transformation and self loathing are complete, “I resolved to exorcise the unwelcome sensibility by which I had become possessed.” As mentioned before, it is in areas like these that Hamid’s amateur skills are most obvious for he never allows Changez any of that inner debate or doubts that must surely have assailed this intelligent Ivy League graduate. I think this is a very dangerous way of looking at things and artistic license notwithstanding what does this say about the thousands of Afghani restaurateurs and Irani and Bangladeshi storekeepers who have escaped their repressive and poverty stricken homelands in hopes of a better future? Surely Changez cannot really imagine that working in a foreign nation implies you’re a henchman in its strong-arm tactics?
Where the novel does sing is in the depiction of the romance between Changez and Erica. Even though this like much else in the book can be explained as a pure allegory for his uncertain, shifting relationship with America, it is interesting to note how much Changez challenges Erica’s identity, thereby pushing her into her vortex of guilt and despair. When he visits her at the Clinic he’s told by the nurse, “…. right now you’re the hardest person for her to see. You’re the one who upsets her most. Because you’re the most real, and make her lose her balance.” He and the scope of what he represents threatens Erica’s ideal picture of the adolescent, selfless love that she shared with Chris, her ex-boyfriend. Similarly, immersion in America’s materialistic culture, threatens his identity and his selfhood. Both derive their selfhoods from the roles they see themselves as living up to; in Erica’s case that of Chris’ ever faithful girl friend, and in the case of Changez, the prodigal son who has to eventually return home.
Hamid is very good when he describes the language and mannerisms of characters like Wainwright or Erica. This is where he scores above many other authors writing about the diaspora. Hearing Erica discuss her novella, one is reminded of another young, budding writer, Heather in the film ‘Starting out in the Evening’.
He also powerfully taps into the immigrants’ guilt and doubt when wondering at the threat of war with neighboring India, Changez muses, “What sort of man abandons his people in such circumstances? And what was I abandoning them for? ……….. I grappled with these questions again and again.”
I think it would be safe to say that The Reluctant Fundamentalist raises interesting questions without always probing them adequately and perhaps a little less of the neat explanations that he offers would have made the novel more satisfactory. As the narrative ends we are left uncertain regarding Changez’ story and do not know whether he is an activist or a terrorist out to kidnap the nervous American businessman or whether all he wants is for the American to give him, a voice that has been suppressed for ages, a fair hearing. Nor are we told if the silent American is really as innocuous as he seems or if he is an undercover CIA operative with more sinister intentions. The answer is not so important but our preoccupation with neat answers is. The Reluctant Fundamentalist will work best if it is read as testament to the infallible truth that simply demonizing those who hold a different world view from our own is neither helpful, nor desirable and only breeds contempt and mistrust.

Nov 4, 2008

Thoughts on A Thousand Splendid Suns

There is little wonder that Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns stayed on the New York Times’ Bestsellers top spot for well over three months. Even though critics have been quick to scoff at his melodramatic set ups and starkly etched black and white characters, ultimately it is his gift of telling a story well, in a way that is meant to arouse powerful emotions in his readers and remind them of those things that they cherish and value above all else, that saves the day. As in his debut novel The Kite Runner, in this novel too he takes us on a journey to his unfortunate homeland Afghanistan, a nation that has been torn asunder not only by war, foreign invasions and internal factions, but also by a steep decline in its moral and cultural values. The Afghanistan of yore who’s surrounding mountains and green valleys nurtured poets, musicians, scholars and mystics gradually metamorphosed into a hostile nation where women were forced to wear the burqa and hide upstairs when their husband’s friends visited in the evening, where the quality of hospitals was so wretched that women were forced to undergo c-section deliveries without the necessary anesthesia and where a man could beat his wife to death for no apparent offence and get away with it. Spanning several decades, his story charts the history of two exceptionally resilient women as the nation reels under one assault after the other, first the Soviet invasion, then the nightmare regime under the Taliban and finally, the recovery of some measure of harmony under the leadership of Hamid Karzai.
A Thousand Splendid Sun shares several features with his first novel -- the almost invincible villain who goes about doing evil with impunity, an odd friendship between two people who have almost nothing in common and belong to different social strata, the sacrifice that one of them makes for the other and the final hope of redemption that allows a glimmer of hope to pierce these heartbreaking sagas of lives destroyed, loves lost, hopes dashed and aspirations betrayed. It tells the story of two women, Mariam and Laila and their life-affirming love for each other. Having told the story of brothers in The Kite Runner, he pays tribute to the strange rituals of empathy and sacrifice that is the domain of these oppressed women.
We meet Mariam at the novel’s opening, the illegitimate child of a rich Herat merchant who lives somewhere on the outskirts of the city with her neurotic, bitter mother whose generalizations regarding ‘our lot in life’ would seem straight out of a B grade film were it not for the fact that she has indeed paid a high price for being born with a double disadvantage, that of being poor and a woman in a world where the only identity that affords any measure of security and respect to a woman is that of the legally wedded wife. Mariam’s joyless existence is punctuated with weekly visits from her weak and insincere father Jalil and the Koran lessons that she receives from Mullah Faizullah who dotes on her. Circumstances conspire in the teenaged Mariam’s being married off to the middle-aged Rasheed, a cruel, vicious and petty monster who’s behavior plumbs new depths of depravity as Mariam suffers one miscarriage after another and is unable to bear him the mandatory male heir. Few passages in the novel are as moving as those describing the newly wedded Mariam’s eager thoughts that despite the difference in their ages, for the first time in years, she hopes that together they can build a contented life and share a home that she could call her own. She silently accedes to Rasheed’s order to wear a burqa, though the “padded headpiece felt tight and heavy on her skull and it was strange seeing the world through a mesh screen.” It is this loss of clear vision, the lack of choice and clear alternatives that is the curse that women like Mariam and Laila have to bear when they are thrown at the mercy of misogynists like Rasheed who derives his boundless power from a social order that does not allow women do go outdoors without male presence, where women were denied any education beyond the rote learning of Koranic verses and where a woman’s sole preserve in life was the appeasement of the different masculine relationships she had acquired over a lifetime, at the cost of an almost deathlike annihilation of her individuality. Not surprisingly when Mariam fails to provide Rasheed with a son, he starts treating her with cruel disdain and beating her savagely without the slightest provocation. Hosseini paints a dark portrait of a patriarchal despotism where women are completely helpless and the bearing of male children being their sole path to social status and recognition.
As the years pass, so do Mariam’s hopes for any love or understanding and she loses a lot more than her teeth in the daily bouts of physical violence that chiefly comprise her life – “his shifting moods, his volatile temperament, his insistence on steering even mundane exchanges down a confrontational path that, on occasion, he would resolve with punches, slaps, kicks..”
Many years younger to Mariam, it is not only Laila’s rare beauty that contrasts with Mariam’s plain, coarse looks. Laila is the daughter of a university professor and his educated wife who not only holds strong political convictions but has never been asked to not speak her mind. In fact it is in the details of Laila’s early life that we glimpse the complex nature of Afghan society. Laila’s parents and lover Tariq are a foil against the other boorish, insensitive and hypocritical male counterparts who populate the novel. It is most notably in the portrait of her disjointed yet happy family life that Hosseini shows how it is individual families who made the choice, not society, to follow a particular path of liberty and emancipation or suppression and tyranny. This is an issue which those writing about the Arab or Muslim world must address repeatedly as many Islamic nations come under the sway of fundamentalists and narrow minded religious fanatics.
As fate, once again, conspires to deprive another young woman of her dreams and Laila is forced to accept Rasheed’s offer of marriage, the novel begins its journey of healing and recovery, of course not before much has been laid waste forever. What is interesting is to note Hosseini’s depiction of Mariam’s initial anger as she forced to accept the presence of the younger, more beautiful Laila as her husband’s second wife. It is not jealousy that Mariam feels for her marriage has long become a miserable drudgery of neglect and abuse. Western readers are unlikely to understand her reaction and may argue that given the fact that Laila’s presence actually mellows Rasheed, why is Mariam so hostile toward her? It is difficult for many to comprehend Mariam’s jealousy as its deeply rooted in a social system where only a man’s wife is accorded respect, status and security, much of which will be compromised if she has to share it with another. Mariam is especially aware of how important it is to be rightfully attached to a man because of the murky circumstances surrounding her own birth. Illegitimate and a female to boot, it’s only natural that she will do anything in her power to prevent another from usurping her rights as Rasheed’s wife, despite being treated worse than a stray dog. Similarly, it is but natural that it’s Mariam who becomes a second mother to Aziza, Laila’s illegitimate first born, for who better than Mariam can intuit her vulnerability as a girl child bereft of the protection of a father.
As the novel proceeds, a tentative bonding develops between the two wives. It is through Laila that Mariam derives some measure of validation and affection. It is through Laila’s eyes that we see what the young girl whom we’d first met at the novel’s beginning has become and “For the first time, it was not an adversary's face Laila saw but a face of grievances unspoken, burdens gone unprotested, a destiny submitted to and endured…”
It may seem that the novel is without any light moments or redeeming male characters. It is not so. Hosseini’s descriptions of the ‘Titanic’ film malady that afflicted the people is hilarious when one imagines them hiding their television sets underground for fear of the Taliban fatwa which forbade such licentious pleasures as films or music. It recalls to the mind another story of oppressive regimes and the extraordinary resilience of people who survive and fight them – Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis.
Laila’s fiancĂ© Tariq and her father Hakim, Aziza’s teacher at the orphanage where she is later sent are all portraits of men who are truly the upholders of others’ dignity and honour. For these men the pashtun code does not consist of beating one’s woman into submission but of behaving honorably towards those whom they had pledged to protect and love.
A Thousand Splendid Suns occasionally suffers from the kind of excesses that we have witnessed in Hossseini’s debut novel too. The scene where Laila visits Mariam’s childhood home in Heart is imbued with all the trappings of Bollywood sentimentalism and could have been avoided. After all there is no doubt in our mind about the great and enduring love these two women shared; milking it for all its worth certainly does not earn any extra brownie points. Also sentences like, “Once again Mariam did, what she was asked” as she is about to be executed seem overdone and gratuitous.
One of the chief reasons for Hosseini’s success stems from his choice of subjects who though victims of circumstances far removed from anything we have ever known, share the same hopes, values and dreams that do the rest of us. In fact Mariam’s and Laila’s lives of abuse and horror find echoes in the lives of petrified American wives married to drunk and abusive rednecks whose only hope of salvation comes from a system that recognizes a woman as an individual and offers her the same rights as a man; it is this alone that separates them from the two women of the novel. What is truly poignant about Mariam and Laila’s lives is not the violence or indignity they suffer but the complete lack of hope that the outside world affords them. Hopefully as more and more readers become aware of this magnificent book, this too will someday change.
I havent had time to blog for a while. Am gonna add a few articles & book reviews that i'd done earlier in the year for a diff site but which i have been permitted to reproduce here only now. This was one of them.