Archive for June, 2013

June 11, 2013

Bulletpoints: Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani

I blame Suba for my continuing to do these bulletpoint things, and this anonymous friend for this particular one. Anyway:

  • I watched two Hindi films in theatres in May. Both featured main characters called Bunny. The other one was better.
  • Is Bollywood still in the middle of its meta-, pay-tribute-to-other-bollywood phase? I’m not complaining, because I find all the self-referentiality charming, but still. So naturally, in a movie that talks about the superiority of Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge over Phantom of the Opera (an entirely reasonable point of view) we have the sheltered, bookish heroine going off on holiday with the irresponsible young man, and then falling in love with him. Complete with visual references to certain iconic train scenes (sadly no mustard fields).
  • Another of the movie’s charmingly retro features is the idea that Deepika Padukone with glasses on is somehow bookish and unnoticeable. Fair enough, Bollywood- (or Hollywood-) pretty isn’t the same as regular person pretty. But one of the many excellent things that has happened since the eighties is that we have fashionable glasses, and entire subsets of the population who think people are more attractive with glasses than without. Even the movie is unable to commit more than half-heartedly to the idea that Padukone’s character is magically prettier after she takes her glasses off. Which she does, from the end of the first half. Presumably in the eight years between the first and second halves of the movie she gets contact lenses.
  • What with this, Gippi (which I haven’t seen yet) and Student of the Year, that’s three movies Karan Johar has been involved in that have featured a major character who is lonely and unpopular at school as a plot point.
  • This is interesting, I think, because one of the things the first half of the movie does well is Padukone’s character Naina. Naina is all bottled up and awkward, has very little idea how to connect with these new people yet feels terrible about being left out. This almost makes her feel like a real person– until a few days in the mountains with new people turn her into a new person. Suddenly she is no longer wearing glasses, initiating songs, and apparently forgetting that she’s religious. We will never see this awkward, likeable person again.
  • Everyone in this movie is a child. Grown men keep getting into fights until the women around them force them to say sorry to one another (at one point Ranbir Kapoor’s character Bunny accepts an apology but refuses to offer one in return, whereupon Aditya Roy Kapur’s character (Avi) whines at Kalki Koechlin’s character until she makes him). Padukone’s character throws a hissy fit because Evelyn Sharma’s dance at a wedding is good and she wanted hers to be the best (remember when this woman was all awkward and shy about being around people?). (This situation leads to this song, and how anyone permitted Kapoor to wear those shoes is beyond my understanding) Men order other men away from the women they are attracted to, because we’re all toddlers here and not afraid to show it.
  • And yet. Occasionally the film takes the trope and undoes it. Bunny sees Aditi (Koechlin) and her husband arguing and assumes that Taran is jealous of his wife’s close friendships with other men. No, it turns out, he’s telling her not to be so hard on a (close, male) friend with a gambling problem. Aditi was in love with Avi in school; but this isn’t Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, and normal people don’t stay hung up on their school crushes for decades after. And so she’s stopped, and they’re best friends, and it’s fine. At one point I almost wondered if these characters were going to be mature enough to admit that their goals and worldviews were incompatible and part (or have lots of sex then break up) regretfully, but sensibly.
  • LOL no. Because this may not be Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (though the movie begins, like I think all films from this stable do, with some of the KKHH music) but it’s still a tribute to DDLJ and all its genre. Aditi may not spend her life pining after the guy she had a crush on years ago, but Naina, being the heroine, must get the guy, even if it’s years after and she could do better.
  • Before the interval, the movie switches between Naina and Bunny’s perspectives, though it mostly stays on Naina’s. At the end of the first half this changes–so we know that Bunny goes to college, becomes a photographer, eats exciting food in French restaurants, dates attractive women. We presume that Naina becomes a doctor, but we know nothing about her life in this eight year interval. There’s nothing to suggest that she’s done anything at all -had career highs and lows, men, women, heartbreak- other than keep herself unmarried and unattached enough that Bunny can come and claim her without too much difficulty.
  • And I wonder how much of that is due to the fact that the film sees her character arc as having ended in the first half itself. Naina’s “problem” is that she’s not bright and friendly and outgoing, her trip with her newfound friends fixes that, problem solved. Bunny doesn’t really have problems in the first half, so the movie kills his dad (poor Farooq Sheikh!) because Daddy Issues are the most reliable problem there is. Bunny’s problems are solved by his coming home, realising that he’s willing to give up his big, see-everything dream if it means he can have the woman he wants, and resolving his guilt over his father’s death.
  • And I find myself uncomfortable with both of these arcs. The first, because it suggests that awkward, bespectacled Naina is broken and outgoing, wanting to be the centre of attention at weddings Naina is fixed. I’m an awkward bespectacled person who is bad at connecting with people, and it frequently sucks, and I’m sure the world would be much easier if I were none of those things (if I danced at weddings, or indeed at all). And I can’t demand that Naina (were she a real person, which she’s not) not want to be the sort of person for whom the world (and particularly the world of Bollywood) is easier; yet I don’t like the implication that there’s something wrong with those of us who don’t fit that particular pattern.
  • As for Bunny’s arc. There’s a moment towards the end of the film where Bunny finally goes home and speaks to his stepmother, she assuages his guilt and tells him that his father was always proud of him for uncompromisingly following his dream–even if it was a dream that meant being constantly uprooted. Of course, Bunny’s dreams as they stand are incompatible with the happy heterosexual couple ending that the movie needs, so they must “change”. The movie ends with the happy couple having just gotten together so we don’t see the years ahead of them; the toll Naina’s constant extrovert face (or the horror of calling her lover “Bunny” in the throes of passion) might take upon her, or Bunny’s thwarted need to be moving. But it feels like a betrayal of both characters–and surely love shouldn’t be that.
June 9, 2013

Pede Hollist, “Foreign Aid”

In Pede Hollist’s “Foreign Aid“, a young man named Balogun moves to America, reinvents himself as “Logan” and returns many years later to his family in Sierra Leone for a short visit.

When you title a story something as blatant as “Foreign Aid”, you’re already signalling something about what it’s likely to be, what it’s likely to mean, in this case what Ben refers to here as the “relationship between the individual/humanistic and the systemic”. And so Logan’s interactions with his family and other countrymen (and I’m using that word here only to deny it later) are framed as if to be read as some sort of analogy for the relationships between nations, and a reader ends up looking for what the story has to say about that. When the answer is “not much”, it’s too easy to entirely write it off as a disappointment.

Reading this story as an Indian reader is interesting because we (like most other postcolonial countries, I assume) have our own narrative of the NRI (Non-Resident Indian). I’ve never actually met someone who has changed the name Krishna to Chris; if I’m sure these people exist it’s because I’ve read countless books and seen countless movies in which they are either comic (look at the entitled idiot from abroad who doesn’t know how things work!) or tragic (look at this poor person caught between cultures!) figures. It’s a stereotype to me, and I suspect to anyone reading from a similar context.

And possibly to Balogun/Logan himself. Frequently in the story I got the impression that Logan was playing a part, that of the magnanimous visitor from abroad:

“Get us some drinks, Bro.” Logan dipped his hand into the fanny pack. Eyes trained on him and a hush descended on the gathering.

Ohmos, Sa?
“Two dozen beer and two dozen sodas.”
Soda wata, Sa?
“Naa, meh. Soda is what we call soft drinks back in the States.”
“Why, Sa?”
“Er … er … we do things differently in America, dude.” And with a flourish, Logan whipped out different-colored bills, fumbled with them for a bit—feigned exasperation when one dropped to the ground—and finally slapped a fistful of notes into Tunde’s waiting hand. The boy and his friends bounded off.

(Emphasis mine)
That’s a very tiny moment, and I don’t know if it needs to mean anything beyond the fact that obviously Logan is enjoying showing off how much money he has in the role of rich relative from abroad. The role that he thinks he’s playing and the role the reader thinks he’s playing need not necessarily be the same. But there’s a need to have his part acknowledged constantly- “I’m from the States, bro?”. Most of his setbacks seem to come from the fact that other people (perhaps they’ve been watching the wrong movies) don’t seem to recognise their parts in the story: his parents should have needed a little less money, his sister been a little more excited at the prospect of a trip to America, her friend Tima a little more willing to sleep with the exciting America-returned cosmopolitan. Ali Sayyar is the worst of all–not only does he not have the courtesy even to be properly foreign so that Logan can despise him on that count, but he’s also fulfilling his responsibilities towards Ayo and doing more to help Logan’s family than Logan could indignantly demand. And it’s funny, and it’s a tiny victory every time Logan’s vision of Sierra Leone is disrupted–when people argue with him instead of being grateful, when his suitcases are returned.

Read from this perspective, this becomes a story about thwarting the narratives placed upon it–by Logan, by the title, by its readers. And if I’m not sure it entirely works that could be because some of those narratives (like that title, again) are things it brings upon itself. Or because I’m completely wrong, of course.

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Other people’s thoughts:

Kola Tubosun
Beverley Nambozo Nsengiyunva
Veronica Nkwocha
Aaron Bady
Kate Maxwell
Scott Ross
Ben Laden
June 6, 2013

May Reading

It’s been a slow reading month. Then again, it’s been 42-47 degrees in Delhi this month, so I count my mere survival as a resounding success.

 

Antonia Forest, The Thuggery Affair: Wrote about this at length, and with pictures of wildlife, here.

Sheela Chari, Vanished: A proper post on this soon–it’s a children’s book about a missing veena, set in America and India, and I quite enjoyed it.

Sofia Samatar, A Stranger in Olondria: I think I have an essay about this book (and why it doesn’t work and why, somehow, that means it does) brewing. I say that all the time and somehow these essays never get written, so I’m hoping someone will hold me to this one.

Rumer Godden, Kingfishers Catch Fire and Breakfast with the Nikolides: I’m working on a longer piece about some of Godden’s India novels, of which these are two. There’s much that’s objectionable about their politics; even as a relatively pro-India and pro-Indians (for her time) white British woman, Godden has some very fixed notions about the temperament of the Indian (a biological species, much like the slow loris). And yet the characters, the descriptive prose, the sheer life in the text blew me away. The introduction to these lovely new Vintage reissues says of one of the books that it “thrums with sex”; I snorted when I read this, but it’s all true.

Carl Wilson, Lets Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste: Written about in the column, here.

Uday Prakash, The Walls of Delhi: Written about in the column, here.

Frederic Tuten, Tintin in the New World: Written about in the column, here.

Jaishree Mishra (ed), Of Mothers and Others: Written about in the column, here.

Matt Fraction, David Aja, Javier Pulido, etc, Hawkeye 1-10: I very rarely read comics. I know a bit about comics (by the standards of someone who barely reads them), but this is because I’m surrounded by people who are real, informed fans. I know enough to pass, mostly. I think I may be a Fake Geek Girl.

But everyone I know has been gushing about Hawkeye for a few months now, and now that I’m finally reading it I see why. I share this concern about the disconnect between its Hawkeye-as-everyman (empathetic, understanding what people’s lives mean to them) and Hawkeye-spreading-destruction (because things have to go boom and ordinary people end up being collateral damage) narratives, and I’d like to see future issues do more to address that. But on the whole it’s gorgeous– it’s stylish and funny, I love the art, the people look and act like people. And there’s Kate Bishop, whom the series has so far managed to resist slotting into potential girlfriend or smitten protegee roles, to the extent that the friend who nagged me into reading the series insists that she is its hero.

(I can live with this)

Plus there’s naked (Clint Barton) Hawkeye. And a really cute dog.

 

 

June 5, 2013

Carl Wilson, Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste

I think I first heard of this book in an interview with Mark O’Connell, author of Epic Fail. Which makes sense because they’re both very personal meditations on how we interact with particular forms of art; almost interactive themselves in the way the reader (for values of The Reader equalling me) is implicated and forced to reexamine her own position. I really enjoyed it, anyway.

From this week’s column:

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Among the most chilling final lines in English literature are those of George Orwell’s 1984. “But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.” It’s the ultimate negation of both free will and the self—the power (that of the state, in this case) to not just make people bend to one’s will, which only needs force, but to control what they love or hate.

In Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, Carl Wilson attempts a similar, sinister thought experiment—upon himself. Can he think himself into a position where he can love the music of Celine Dion? Dion is the sort of singer who shows up on “most annoying song” lists all the time; when an elevator full of strangers begins to play “My Heart Will Go On” we silently bond in our disgust. And yet this highly successful pop star must have fans; so who are they?

Wilson examines the context from which Dion’s music emerges and interviews fans for a fuller understanding of what there is in her music that draws them to it. But more importantly he asks questions about his own dislike of her music, the factors that form his aesthetic judgements, goes as far as re-examining the whole of the aesthetic framework within which he judges things. As a result Lets Talk About Love becomes a meditation on taste, and one that is both incisive and deeply personal.

Because these are personal questions, particularly to those of us who make artistic judgements for a living. We’ve (mostly) as a culture outgrown the notion that our aesthetic standards are completely objective and universal, that there exists some platonic ideal of good art. Yet we continue to write reviews and columns (like this one) that rely for their very existence upon the idea that such a thing as critical judgement can exist and can have meaning—that some things are ‘better’ art than other things.

But the personal nature of our tastes isn’t confined to professional critics. Our tastes are more malleable than many of us are comfortable admitting; they depend in large part on things like class, exposure, our peers. A column in this paper last week discussed the new Daft Punk album and the critical to-ing and fro-ing with which it had been greeted as people waited to work out what opinions they could be seen to have. This is a particularly visible example, but we live in a time when a new album is immediately available to us along with the hype leading up to it and the reviews that follow it. If our tastes, in music, movies, art, are one of the ways in which we signal who we are and what identities we wish to construct for ourselves, I don’t know if it’s possible in the twenty-first century to divorce personal taste from social dynamics. I don’t know if it ever was. Wilson’s discussion of taste here moves from Kant to Bourdieu to the trend of reclaiming and finding value in music that was dismissed by critics when it was first released.

Perhaps the sentimentality of “schmaltz”, as Wilson categorises Dion’s oeuvre, is its biggest strength and its critics’ biggest weakness: “isn’t it equally plausible that people uncomfortable with representations of vulnerability and tenderness have emotional problems?” Wilson is able to squeeze out a few tears during a Dion concert, but the most emotionally powerful moment in the book concerns the use of “My Heart Will Go On” in an episode of Gilmore Girls. It’s when Wilson is twice removed from the song (analysing its use in a programme that also comments on its use) and the reader thrice removed (we’re reading Wilson’s commentary on the show that also comments on the song) that for the twenty-first century writer and reader it has most meaning. And perhaps we finally love Celine Dion.

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June 3, 2013

Tope Folarin, “Miracle”

I’m supposed to be blogging the Caine Prize along with a number of people, links to whose (considerably more worthwhile) thoughts can be found at the end of this post.We start this year with Tope Folarin’s “Miracle”, which can be read here. Unfortunately I’ve been rather out of it this week, so consider this post (which is late, anyway) a placeholder, with some unconnected thoughts that do not do anything like form a coherent thesis.

As pretty much everyone else has said, the pronouns are important here. “Miracle” is set among a congregation Nigerian Christians, gathered to see a “prophet”.  The first third (or so) of the story is full of “we”: “our heads move simultaneously”, “we echo his defiance”. These are not just shared actions, but there’s a sense of shared thought. That the narrator, whoever he is, is somehow tuned in to exactly what everyone else is thinking.

We have come from all over North Texas to see him. Some of us have come from Oklahoma, some of us from Arkansas, a few of us from Louisiana and a couple from New Mexico. We own his books, his tapes, his holy water, his anointing oil. We know that he is an instrument of God’s will, and we have come because we need miracles.
We need jobs. We need good grades. We need green cards. We need American passports. We need our parents to understand that we are Americans. We need our children to understand they are Nigerians. We need new kidneys, new lungs, new limbs, new hearts. We need to forget the harsh rigidity of our lives, to remember why we believe, to be beloved, and to hope.
We need miracles.

 

And then the “we” turns into “I” as the prophet singles out our narrator; young, bespectacled and asthmatic (he seems more concerned about the asthma). A miracle is promised, and it might be delivered.

 

He shoves my head back until I fall, and the attendant behind me eases me to the floor. I finally understand. I remain on the floor while his attendants cover me with a white sheet. Above, I hear the prophet clapping his hands, and I know that he’s praying. The fluorescent lights on the ceiling are shining so brightly that the light seems to be huddling in the sheet with me. I hug the embodied light close.

 

It is not, or at least in any direct way. Our hero chooses to pretend it is, though, and the story explains that “a community is made up of truths and lies. Both must be cultivated in order for the community to survive”. This seems rather ham-handed and obvious for a story that has, until this point, been composed of really lovely (if not very subtle) prose. But why is our narrator willing to go along with it?

 

I think part of this has, again, to do with pronouns. I think the narrative shows a visible, deliberate discomfort from the minute it goes from the “we” to the “I”. In addition, there’s the extent to which our narrator is doubled with the prophet. They both have sight-related problems (and there’s the whole tradition of the blind prophet who nonetheless has insight that is being drawn upon here), breathing problems. And since if anyone here can be sure of the extent to which the miracles work (or don’t) it’s the prophet, both prophet and narrator are tied together in their shared deception. Because apparently they know what communities need and communities sometimes need lies, and that’s just how things are.

 

But there was that moment of disorientation, when our narrator was singled out:

 

We remain standing because we don’t know to whom he is referring.
“YOU! You! You! YOU! Come up here!”
We begin to walk forward, shyly, slowly. I turn around suddenly, and I realize I’m no longer a part of the whole. I notice, then, that the lights are too bright, and the muggy air in the room settles, fog-like, on my face. Now I am in the aisle, and I see the blind old man pointing at me.

 

That first “we remain standing because”, like the “we”s that came before it, presumes shared thoughts and understanding. But with “we begin to walk forward, shyly, slowly”, we’re immediately proved wrong. Our narrator’s wrong about what’s going on in the heads of the people around him; this is what makes the glib “truth” about communities palatable.
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Other people’s thoughts on this story: