Archive for February, 2014

February 27, 2014

Two posts about Courtney Milan

I’ve said in the past that I like to think of the regency romance as being set in a sort of fantasy world where things like the slave trade and gross economic inequality don’t exist—because if they do, our protagonists are thoroughly implicated in them. Even if they’re the ‘nice’ ones who think that small poor children should not be forced up chimneys, or that one should be kind to one’s servants, or at least learn their names, or that the slave trade is maybe not that good (standards for ‘nice’ being pretty low here), it’s hard to think of them as sympathetic in any way. Romances that draw our attention to these social realities as part of their elucidation of their protagonists’ characters manage to annoy me far more than ones that don’t mention any of this.

Courtney Milan’s books, though, are in one sense set firmly in the past of the real world. Recently I’ve been reading her Victorian-England-set Brothers Sinister series—I cringe a bit (a lot) at this title, but at least Oliver, Sebastian and Robert (none of whom are actually brothers, though they are related) are left-handed. And also these books are kind of great.

It’s obvious that there’s research involved; specific parliamentary reform acts, medical and scientific developments, social history, all of these are placed at the centre of the various stories in ways that ought to jar with the genre-romance format, but usually don’t. There’s an amusing moment in the afterword to The Duchess War where Milan, describing the radicalisation of workers in 1860s Leicester, admits that they really did not need a pamphlet-writing duke to stir them up, since they were managing quite well on their own. Why is Robert there, then? Because romance novel. It’s a concession I’m willing to grant her (though unlike pretty much every other minor historical change she makes, it doesn’t make 1800s England a better place). Apart from stray moments like this, though, it’s fiction that is solidly grounded in the material reality of its time. More realist than most realist fiction then, despite its basis in a genre one of whose strengths is a frequent departure from reality.

But then there’s the science thing, and I think it might be the most important of all. A minor character in the first few books in the series is Sebastian Malheur, the most reviled scientist in England, a Darwin supporter and a scandalous discusser in public of the sex lives of plants. These minor references are more serious than they might at first seem. As Milan herself says in the afterword to The Duchess War, “[e]very piece of historical fiction alters history in at least some tiny regard”. But this is more than a minor change; putting a geneticist in the same time and place as Darwin (Milan’s drawing on a lot of Mendel’s work, as she explains) could have enormous consequences.

Then in The Countess Conspiracy (spoilers all over this, sorry) we discover that what has been presented as Sebastian’s work so far has been that of his friend Violet Waterfield, who was in no position to publish (or be read, or taken seriously) because she’s a woman. This particular book has Violet discovering the chromosome, considerably earlier than was done in our world. Milan has already suggested, as I say above, that the minor changes she makes in her universe could have larger consequences, and this one is pretty huge.

So that’s where we end the series (I think there is to be one more book, but I’m not sure how far into the future it takes us), with scientific knowledge considerably further advanced than it was at this stage in our own world’s history. And while I’m not convinced that this makes The Countess Conspiracy science fiction (it is definitely fiction about science), I’m willing to argue for it, and I’m pretty sure that any sequel to it would be at least alternate history. Can SF claim Courtney Milan? Probably.

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In The Heiress Effect, we are introduced to Anjan Bhattacharya, an Indian student in England. Particularly in the years since RaceFail, I’ve seen a lot of Writing The Other conversations in my various corners of the internet– why it’s important, how to do it, how to react to criticism of how one is doing it. I don’t know if Milan hangs out in the same parts of the internet as I do, but in many ways she’s done everything right; she’s read first-hand accounts of Indian students in 19th century Britain (including Gandhi’s, but she names a few less obvious ones at the end of the book), the 1857 war is namechecked*, there’s even an almost-reference to the Bengal Renaissance. Anjan isn’t only an angry freedom-fighter, though there’s plenty of anger there, he recognises that his own presence in England, studying law, requires a certain amount of complicity; his relationship with Britain is as tied up in his class position and family (and caste, though the word isn’t mentioned) as it is in the fact of being a brown man in 19th century England.

Here’s the thing, though. When Milan writes about, say, anxiety disorders, as she does with Oliver’s aunt Frederica, she doesn’t feel the need to have the character speechifying about it. I assume that this is in part because none of the characters is in a position to speechify; normally, when the books deal with historical fact that doesn’t commonly show up in romance novels there’s a note in the afterword. Anjan, on the other hand, is constantly explaining himself–to Emily he explains that brown people can have complex feelings towards their colonisers, that the British Empire is kind of bad, and that vegetarians exist; to her uncle Titus he explains that Indians don’t all force their wives to commit sati and that Hindus are generally monogamous. 19th Century English people had a number of fascinating ideas about Indians and I’m well aware of this, but underlying all of these authorial choices is what feels to me like an assumption that Indians in books still need to be explained, that their literary presence is an opportunity for a teaching moment. And I’ve read historical novels whose authors have clearly done no research at all into India (*cough Libba Bray cough*) and as long as that sort of thing is seen as normal and acceptable perhaps we do need to be explained (no wonder Anjan falls in love with the first person who bothers to learn to pronounce his name). And perhaps posts like this are proof that You People Will Never Be Satisfied. I’m not, though.

 

*I know Emily is very sheltered but the only way in which I can account for her not having heard of the ‘Sepoy Mutiny’ at all is that her uncle is deliberately keeping the newspapers away from her. Which is plausible, I suppose, but it seems unnecessary unless as an excuse for Anjan to also explain that conflict; another teaching moment.

February 21, 2014

Rakesh Khanna and Rashmi Ruth Devadasan (ed), The Obliterary Journal Vol 2: Non-Veg

When I reviewed the first installment of the Obliterary Journal a couple of years ago, I described it as (among other things) “spectacularly ill-conceived”. To my amazement, Blaft have chosen not to put this on a blurb anywhere.

Last weekend’s column, on meat, literature of, and also emus.

 

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Consider the first war of Indian independence, commonly associated with angry sepoys protesting against being forced to consume cow and pig fat. In the aftermath of the recent events in Khirki, a local man explained to a reporter that he had heard that African immigrants ate all sorts of meat, even human. Consider the ways in which racists justify their dislike of people from the North-East of the country by claiming that “those people” eat dogs. Consider the ways in which the question of what forms of meat one does or doesn’t eat is used to keep neighbourhoods free of particular communities. And also, I suppose, consider the uncle downstairs who was always cooking fish, and the smell floated into your bathroom so that you were never rid of it. Meat is inherently political as well as emotive.

Blaft’s second, meat-themed, Obliterary Journal recognizes this. Its portrayals of meat are delicious and disgusting, exploitative and egalitarian. Ali Sultan’s photo-essay “Butcher, Butcher: Lahore” and Somdutt Sarkar’s infographics about animal slaughter (interspersed with pictures of PETA protests) provide some of the realities around the meat we eat, while Madhurya Balan’s “Livestock” and Appupen’s “The Hunters” are among a few pieces that imagine what it might mean to be prey. Nazeer Akbarabadi’s “Mouse Pickle”, translated here by Musharraf Ali Farooqi and illustrated by B. Anitha, Anil Kumar and Michelle Farooqi, is comically gross.

On the other hand there’s Meena Kandasamy’s “How to Make a Bitch Give Up Beef”, with art by Samita Chatterjee. Kandasamy collects some of the personal attacks employed against her in the wake of the 2012 Beef Festival in Hyderabad. There’s occasional lightness in the wordplay (“Plan Nine” is followed by “Plantain: Promote Vegetarianism”, for example) but since the “strategies” enumerated include threats of rape and acid attacks, it’s hardly a pleasant piece, made worse by the fact that it’s true.

Tarun Padmakumar’s “Jamalpur” has friends coming together over a shared love of meat, and the brilliant Prabha Mallya in “On Making Wet Food at Home for Your Growing Kitten” chronicles the lives and loves of four people with completely incompatible food choices. Nochikuppam Fisherwomen Comics, by Ratzzz and X. Kumar and starring Ilavarasi and Kala, is wonderful, with its two fisherwomen turned into superheroines and vengeful goddesses.

“The Legend of U Thien” (Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih and Aratrika Choudhury) and “The Stepson’s Meat is in the Kitchen” (Dukhushyam Chitrkar and Megha Bhaduri) are both translations of folk stories; a Khasi legend and a tale from Bengal. Women do not come out of either of them well, as is the case with far too many folk-tales, but I particularly liked Chitrkar’s Patua-style art and the fact that his story is clearly meant to be recited, not read, and thus particularly relevant to this collection.

The standout of the collection for me remains Aneesh K.R’s “The Past and Future History of the Emu” which begins with the bird’s evolution and traces it through the emu farming bubble in 2000s Tamil Nadu (and surely there are entire books about that just waiting to be written?) and continues into a plausible future in which only the combined efforts of India, Pakistan, China and Nigeria stand between the human race and a cyborg emu apocalypse.

In both volumes of this journal Blaft have tended to prioritise idea over execution and while this can be a problem (though perhaps this concern with execution is another of those things the obliterary journal is supposed to obliterate?) it is better than the alternative. Blaft continue to provide one of the few venues in which one can write emu-centric SF or Star Trek fanfiction (in the form of Gurjot S. Mamik’s “They Came From the Stars”) and this collection is a useful reminder of the important space that they are.

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February 12, 2014

The Krum Theory (or burblings about fanfiction and authorial … authority?)

J.K. Rowling said the end of Deathly Hallows was about “wish-fulfillment” and I had some thoughts. Again, very sparse; I’d love to hear of more examples of authors who have written fanfiction set in their own universes.

From this weekend’s column.

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One of the difficulties of a book or television series that generates a great deal of fanfiction is the possibility that while we wait for the next installment, the (unpaid, non-professional) fan writers are doing it better. I spent much of the most recent series of the BBC’s Sherlock series comparing it (usually to the actual show’s disadvantage) to other, fan-produced works. But this is hardly the only instance in which a ‘real’ author’s work has reminded me of fanfic.

The last of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, came out in 2007. Like what felt like most of the world at the time, I read it the day it was released. It was all going so well until we came to the book’s epilogue. Here was a piece of writing that had all the characteristics of a particular sort of fanfiction, the kind that generally isn’t very good. The neat pairing off of everyone with everyone, the weird and wonderful names given to the characters’ offspring; it was uniformly dreadful. Years later, the movies would drive this point home further by fake-aging their actors to film this scene, thus making of it something truly unsettling.

I reread this unfortunate chapter recently, after Rowling herself admitted to the wish-fulfillment nature of it all. More importantly, she suggested that having her character Hermione Granger end up with the gormless Ron Weasley may not have been the best idea, and that Harry Potter himself might have made her happier.

Naturally this has pleased a section of her fans who always thought that Hermione and Harry were meant to be, and others who simply thought she could do better. Some of us grumpily asked why she needed to be paired off with a man at all when there were so many other options available to her. She could be Minister for Magic. She could be queer. She could have a torrid affair with Bulgarian Quidditch player Viktor Krum, before choosing career over personal life and inventing something world-changing. She  could work towards the inevitable house-elf revolution and be reviled among polite wizard society for her supposed treachery.

But that is one of the things fanfiction allows us to do—to take characters, and imagine that they have an independent existence outside the text, and explore the possibilities they offer us. It’s one of the luxuries afforded to fans of a work, and I’m sure that all of these (and thousands of other) potential futures for Hermione have been explored by writers who are more willing to put in the effort than I am.

But Rowling isn’t a fan of the Harry Potter books, or at least not a typical one, and I find myself intrigued by the implications of an author thus elaborating upon or rethinking events set in the world she created. If Rowling reveals ‘facts’ about the characters that were not stated in the books (as with her assertion some months after the series ended that Professor Dumbledore was gay), are they necessarily more canonical than my own belief that Luna Lovegood is right about the Nargles (admittedly, there’s more textual evidence for the first of these theories than the second)? If Rowling were to write a ‘corrected’ version of the final book with a very  different version of that last chapter would we accept it as the ‘real’ sequence of events? What are the limits of story, to what extent do the millions of people who have already read the book own the plot, so that it cannot now be changed?

All this is hypothetical, since Rowling has shown no sign of wanting to correct her books. And while her pronouncements on the series will presumably always be listened to more seriously than those of her fans, I suppose it would be unfair to ban her from playing with her own creation.

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February 9, 2014

Two hair stories

When I wrote this, about ten days ago, I was also following a number of twitter conversations around hair (sparked by Laurie Penny’s rather too universalising piece about the politics of short hair on women), and contemplating a haircut myself. And had just bought the first of these two books (as readers of this blog know, I acquired the Aiken collection through a criminal act more than twenty years ago). Hair seems to have been a theme of this month.

A slightly longer version of last weekend’s column.

 

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I spent most of my childhood alternately wishing for straight hair and defiantly proclaiming the superiority of curls. As an adult I’ve become reconciled (and quite proud of) hair which when caught in a strong wind has been known to accost strangers in the street. I still grit my teeth when shocked hairdressers suggest straightening it (or refuse to cut it as short as I would like) but I’m aware that my hair-related troubles are much less strenuous than those of thousands of other women.

Because hair is an intensely political issue; whether it is long or short, allowed to turn grey, dyed (and what colours of dye are allowable is another issue entirely), left natural or artificially treated, even the sorts of hairstyles we choose; all of these have wider ramifications that we cannot entirely control, and work together to affect us in ways that are both far too common and intensely individual and personal. Black women in particular all too frequently come up against racist assumptions around what is and is not acceptable hair. Your hair can be something you take joy in; it is also often a catalyst for angst, worry, exhaustion.

Parineeta, the princess in Komilla Raote’s The Princess with the Longest Hair (illustrated by Vandana Bist) takes very little delight in the beauty of her hair. It is her parents who engage a hundred maids to oil, wash and make it beautiful. For another long-haired heroine of fairy-tale, Rapunzel, long hair proves the method of her rescue; for Parineeta this is not the case. When she sits at the window of the topmost room of the palace and lets her hair down, it is not escape but further entrapment that is inevitable—when her hair grows long enough to touch the ground the king and queen will choose a prince for a marriage Parineeta doesn’t want.

Joan Aiken’s collection of short stories, The Last Slice of Rainbow, contains another instance of a princess whose hair is more curse than blessing. “The Queen with Screaming Hair” introduces us to Christina, princess of Laurestinia, who in a fit of childish mischief snips off the whiskers of her fairy-godfather. Disappearing until he can grow them back (a process which will take nine times nine thousand hours) he curses Christina; until he returns her hair will scream and taunt her constantly. Attempts to cut it all off prove futile as it immediately grows back, and so Christina must live with a perpetual chorus of voices belittling her; voices that almost no one else can hear. Worse, her parents’ ship has hit an iceberg and to the ordeal of merely getting through the days is added that of running the country.

But Christina uses her hair for good. She donates her hair to the citizens of her country; it is used to make mats and hammocks for those who have to live in the marshes, and to save her people from rampaging bulls and icebergs bigger than the country itself. Parineeta, when she finally escapes the palace, also uses her hair well. It provides a blanket for a nursing mother and her freezing child, nets for fishermen, and a woven roof for a cowshed.

Both stories have the advantage of fine illustrators—Bist and Margaret Walty (illustrator of my edition of Aiken’s short stories) both produce delicate, detailed art that seems to give us every strand of hair. And then Bist and Raote do something that shouldn’t be unexpected but somehow has so much visual impact—they show us Parineeta, bald, walking out of the story and into her future.

“Without the burden of her heavy hair, Parineeta felt as light as the rays of the morning sun that were turning the sky blue. She hurried towards the mountains.”

Growing up in India, most images of bald women one sees are sanyasins. And Parineeta gives up everything (even her body, it seems, as she disappears into the distance) to her kingdom; the last few pages of the story suggest that her absence has become a kind of constant presence, that she’s in the trees and the river (as in the illustration above). I’m sure you could make an argument that teaching young girls to renounce things is not the greatest idea, but there’s something powerful and spiritual about this picture.

Aiken also ends her story by rewarding Christina with a voyage of discovery (and a potential partner to share it with) but Parineeta, lightened of her worldly duties and walking lighthearted into oblivion, is perfect.

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Perhaps it’s a little worrying that two of my favourite Indian children’s books in the last few years have ended in the protagonist’s noble death?

February 5, 2014

January Reading

I spent the second half of January being thoroughly on holiday, much of it in a garden overlooking a lake. Much of my reading this month has been holiday-ish (the first half of the month was spent producing many thousands of thesis words and I read very little as a result) as a result. It has been a good month.

 

Mhairi MacFarlane, You Had Me At Hello: There’s so much about this book and its characters that is charming and likeable, and then there’s the thing where grand romances are easier if the wife of your beloved is a bitch.

Alison Lurie, Foreign Affairs: I read this on a plane. It begins with a children’s literature scholar travelling to England, on a plane. And having a relationship with England and English literature that is  uncomfortable and familiar. And some other stuff happens, but the real point is this is my future and that is terrifying.

Georgette Heyer, The Reluctant Widow: Not one of her best, but I found myself appreciating it more on this read than on previous ones.

Shoma Narayanan, The One She Was Warned About: Wrote about this here.

Elinor M. Brent-Dyer, Redheads at the Chalet School: Which is actually a meta-commentary on fictional worlds including but not limited to Brent-Dyer’s own. I can totally prove this.

Adam Roberts, The Riddles of The Hobbit: I don’t plan to list things I read for academic purposes in these posts, and I’m quite sure I’ll be citing this particular book a few times because there are parts of it that are very useful to me. But I’d have read it even if I was studying something completely unrelated because I enjoy Roberts’ criticism and I love The Hobbit. I have a whole rant about What’s Wrong With Tolkien Criticism (it is full of generalisations but I am willing to perform it for anyone who will listen) and I read this book during a month when I was drowning in it, and it was exactly what I needed. Sometimes I need to be reminded of how much criticism allows you to do with a book. This was a good reminder.

Anna Katharine Green, The Affair Next Door: Wrote about this here.

Patricia McKillip, The Forgotten Beasts of Eld: I seem to remember thinking that the Riddlemaster books were great and find that I remember nothing about them. This book has made me think they need a reread; not much happens but it’s very good anyway.

E.J. Swift, Osiris: I feel like I need to think about this one a lot more, but I also think I liked it.

Edmund Crispin, The Glimpses of the Moon, The Long Divorce: The Long Divorce contains possibly the least convincing romance I’ve ever read—shy, attractive man and reserved, attractive woman’s eyes meet across a murder (in a manner of speaking) and they Just Know. But there is a crime that is vaguely solvable for once (I can never solve a Gervase Fen mystery, and hours after reading one have usually forgotten who the criminal was and how they did it and that’s okay) and there is a cat who sees Martians and everything is delightful. Glimpses of the Moon is one of the weaker mysteries, but it’s hilarious. With this I’ve read all the Fen books, and I am rather sad about this and I wish there were more.

Anoushka Ravishankar, Jerry Pinto, and Sayoni Basu, Phuss Phuss Boom: Three excellent short stories about farting. I was a little concerned, reading Jerry Pinto’s introduction to his story, that he thought some creatures were more deserving of having their eyes farted out ( … spoiler?) than others; I was happy to find that that was not the case.

Courtney Milan, The Governess Affair, The Duchess War, The Countess Conspiracy, The Heiress Effect: Reread The Heiress Effect for a post I’d been wanting to write for a while (coming soon, hopefully, along with another post about Milan I didn’t think I was going to write), and therefore read the others in the series for context + completion. Milan really seems to like pitting her hero and heroine against one another in situations where their aims come directly into conflict: see Selina’s attempts to bring down the Duke vs Hugo’s need to keep the Duke afloat for his own payoff, Robert’s inciting the workers vs Minnie’s hiding her past, Oliver’s political aims vs Jane’s need to remain oblivious for her own (and her sister’s) protection. A thing that is good about this: Milan’s characters are always people with lives and concerns outside of their romances. A thing that is annoying about this: if you read them all at once it’s hard not to notice their sameyness of plot.

Nadifa Mohamed, The Orchard of Lost Souls: I read this for a review, which I should maybe get around to writing.

Nicholas Blake, The Sad Variety: I think I’ve also read all the Nigel Strangeways books now, and while some of them have made me angry or unhappy, I’m genuinely sorry I’ll never have another. This one is very much Of Its Time—published in 1964, with frequent references to the revolution in Hungary, the horrors of communism (the villains are communists—though when Blake has characters argue its benefits he generally comes down on the leftier side of things), nuclear fission. There is not enough Clare, there’s one tragic Motherhood Is Everything figure who the other characters seem to think belongs in Greek tragedy but to me belonged in Agatha Christie, and there’s a precocious child with adorably bad spelling. It’s also not so much a detective story as a thriller; Nigel does very little detecting. I enjoyed it anyway.

Shalini Srinivasan, Vanamala and the Cephalopod: This is so good. It reminded me a bit of Valente’s The Girl Who books, a bit of China Mieville’s Un Lun Dun, even a bit of Kipling’s Just So Stories. There may be an H.P. Lovecraft reference. Our heroine calls all older people mama or mami, whether they be god, underwater dictator or local grocer. I’m still not entirely sure what a Boopy is.

Jeanette Winterson, The Daylight Gate: This is awful. It’s not Winterson-y at all, which is fine, there’s no reason why she shouldn’t branch out into other things. But it is actively, (objectively?), bad.

Beatrice Alemagna, A Lion in Paris: Gorgeous, though I find myself wanting to read it alongside a mummy story I read in December. Which is not something I was expecting.

Geeta Dharmarajan and Wen Hsu, How To Weigh an Elephant: Is a Women in Science book, and I think I must write a column about it sometime. This, and the books above and below it on this list, were the result of a visit to the children’s sections of various bookshops to see what I’d missed. A lot, apparently.

Komilla Raote and Vandana Bist, The Princess with the Longest Hair: Lovely, and I’ll put my column that is mostly about it on the blog soon.

 

February 3, 2014

Bulletpoints: Dedh Ishqiya

 

  • There’s a moment in the second half of Dedh Ishqiya where Arshad Warsi’s Babban drags Huma Qureshi’s Muniya into a corner to discuss their future (travelling the world, apparently). Babban has so far failed to grasp the obvious–that Muniya has no interest in sharing a future with him– and so she makes it clear with some well-timed shaming. These men keep confusing sex for love, she says; she slept with him, but that was it. It’s funny for a moment because it’s a reversal, because so often in stories like this it’s the men for whom casual sex is casual, the women who are portrayed as clingy and over-attached. But then Babban, rejected and humiliated, reacts by beating her, shoving her against the wall; her sounds of protest become increasingly panicky, and we’re shifting uncomfortably in our seats.
  • It’s a scene that is all the more striking because we know that violence isn’t that serious in this film. Babban may be at the mercy, temporarily, of a gang lord; Khalujaan may be shot while escaping with the jewels, Jaan Mohammed’s men may occupy our heroes in a standoff that lasts all night but most of these have no real consequences (and the last ends in comedy). Violence takes place in a sort of golden world where nothing truly bad can happen, and where we can guiltlessly enjoy the picaresque adventures of the main characters without feeling uncomfortable about some of their crimes. Even the film’s title, which to me echoes the dhishkiaaon of the overexaggerated bollywood bullet, signals this. It comes as a shock, then, to realise that there are forms of violence that are violent and I like the film better for subjecting us to it, and for making one of its loveable heroes the perpetrator.
  • Gender isn’t the only source of violence though. The villain of the piece is Jaan Mohammed, the local MLA who is in love with both Madhuri’s Begum Para and the life that she represents. But he is also unfitted for that world–unlike Khalujaan, who seems to have the sort of background that allows him to believably fake “nawabiyat”, Jaan Mohammed has to kidnap a real member of that class to write his poetry for him. But Nawab Italvi escapes and now the law (in the form of honest Malayali cop and his minions) is on his side, as indeed it should be on the side of kidnap victims. But once the force of the law has been brought to bear upon him we see Jaan Mohammed stripped of his shirt, beaten and bleeding as Italvi viciously reminds him that he’ll always be an outsider to Italvi’s own world.
  • The world Jaan Mohammed so longs for is a romanticised version of that inhabited by upper-class Muslims decades ago–I’m not sure it even exists anymore. There’s been some fantastic commentary on the ways in which Dedh Ishqiya uses Urdu not just as a language (though it is a film that revels in wordplay) but as signifier to a whole culture. We’re encouraged to view the haveli through a haze of romance. It’s almost a fairytale.
  • And if it’s a fairytale, Madhuri Dixit is its princess. There’s something fairy-talish anyway about the idea of the swayamvar, princes competing to win the hand of the woman they all desire. One of my favourite things about Dedh Ishqiya is the way it uses the iconography of Madhuri Dixit almost as much as it uses the actress herself–when she appears to greet the participants in the mushaira she’s lovely and remote and gracious and unattainable, more symbol than person.
  • Except of course that she is a person, with a life and love that none of her admiring suitors expects. Begum Para in her private life is worried and nervous and affectionate and physically close to Muniya. Late in the first half of the film Khalujaan/Iftekaar convinces Para to dance again, as she used to when she was younger (and how nice to see multiple, untroubled references to the fact that a beautiful woman is growing older). It’s all a pretty blatant excuse to give us Madhuri dancing onscreen, but while it happens we see a series of men watching through windows: Iftekaar and Babban in the present, Iftekaar’s younger self in flashback. They are all on the outside; it’s to Muniya that Para turns to share her joy in this gift that she has got back.
  • By now it’s not a spoiler that the film features what is pretty evidently a queer romance. There’s a direct reference made by one of the characters to Ismat Chughtai’s “Lihaf”, but the film also borrows from that story for the histories of its own characters. Para is the beautiful Begum, married off to a Nawab who much prefers the company of young men; Muniya is the faithful servant who nurses her back to health. Chughtai’s story is told from the perspective of a child who finds the whole relationship sinister, and there’s an incident where the Begum appears to take an interest in the child. I love many things about “Lihaf” (most of all the mere fact of its existence) but this moment in which same sex attraction is shown to be predatory has made me uncomfortable since I read it. (Here‘s a piece that goes into some of this, and that also provides a translation of the story) Dedh Ishqiya strips these aspects of the story away, and substitutes Rabbu’s jealousy with Muniya’s demonstrative protectiveness, and leaves us with a loving, joyful relationship between two women.
  • I think it’s that joy that makes this film feel *important* — independently of the ways in which it is otherwise smart and funny and happy-making. I have friends whose reaction to the film was to be thrilled at seeing people like us onscreen and happy; that’s not really how I react to film, but I know that it matters. And it’s just thrown out there and accepted immediately by at least one of our main characters (I don’t think Babban has read Chughtai) and Khalujaan continues to treat the Begum with the same almost courtly love as before.
  • My screening of Dedh Ishqiya did not have subtitles as I’m told others did; it did have an interval during which one of the two trailers (the other was for something titled One by Two) was for Gulaab Gang. My feelings about this movie are more wary than anything else (though I hadn’t realised how much my 90s-Bollywood-watching childhood self craved evil Juhi Chawla) but I was rather pleased by how neatly some of the scenes in the trailer echoed others in the second half of the film I was watching. I’m now convinced that having driven off in their car and started a dance school, Begum Para and Muniya turn her students into a militant feminist group.
  • I do miss Vidya Balan though.