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Film Review: 3 Idiots

Posted by anandrr on January 17, 2010

3 Idiots starts swimmingly, a gentleman on an Air India flight gets a call that his friend Rancho whom he has not seen for almost 10 years has recently been found, this new information causes him to fake a heart attack thus forcing the plane to head back and he then scurries away from the emergency personnel as soon as he is on solid ground. It ends quite beautifully, set against the shore of a clear blue lake with the Himalayas for a backdrop, it seems like cinematographer heaven. Between these bookends, the film is filled with such fetid garbage that one wonders what the film makers were thinking. It reminded me of those not-so-rare piles of garbage on Indian streets that one walks past and struck by the sudden stench of the situation, one walks past again wondering if it really stank as much as it did, and yes it stank, in fact it stank worse than it just did a moment ago. Every successive scene in 3 Idiots is like that: can it really stink any worse, why yes it can, just wait for them to serve it up to you.

Superficially, it is a movie about one Rancho a smart student at ICE, India’s best engineering college, and his two friends who are less smart but at the same premier engineering college, trying to get through their four years as best as they can while at the same time having fun. It is supposedly a jolly ride through college, nostalgic scenes about hostels and dorm rooms abound, but it is also a vain attempt to take the education system to task for taking some of our best people and turning them into something they would never have wanted to be.

Spoilers after the jump!
Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Education, Films, Reviews, Showbiz, wtf | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

Film Review: Incarnations

Posted by anandrr on January 2, 2010

Avatar is the unfortunate consequence of taking a large dose of white liberal guilt and adding half a billion dollars overseen by a master of visual style who couldn’t write to save his life. The story deals with humans out to plunder a new found utopia (named Pandora) that is full of a great new mineral, Unobtainium. This name is announced to us very early in the movie, perhaps we are to realize now that Cameron doesn’t really enjoy writing so we should give up now and just sit back and take in the luscious special effects. But this is a long film, and we movie watchers do not live by special effects alone. You cannot help but hear nails on the blackboard every time you hear people say the word with reverence, “Unobtainium!”

The “avatar” in the movie refers to a trance-like state that humans enter when they are asked to “drive” laboratory-made specimens of Pandora’s native people. When they enter this trance, their avatar wakes up and “lives” in the “outside world,” when the avatar goes to sleep, the humans wake up out of the trance and live in the “real world” inside the lab. Pandora is a beautiful world full of lush greenery, wonderful animals, pretty blue people, and plants and trees that are all connected to each other via their roots. It is a wonderfully imagined world in which one can lose oneself, one imagines repeated watchings of the movie would reveal new rich detail that one had previously missed, the effort that went into the design of this world is obvious. The viewer is easily lost in this beauty, almost trance-like one might say, until he hears a clunker of a line and is jarred back into the harsh reality of an especially poorly written Hollywood blockbuster.

We recommend that this movie be watched in Imax 3-D, preferably with the sound turned off. As a spectacle this movie has no peers. It reminded us of the first time we watched Toy Story, or the Matrix, or even, Terminator 2, each of those times we left the movie theater feeling as if we had just participated in a very moving experience, but even those movies are not a scratch on Avatar’s beauty. With a less obvious plot and better writing, Avatar could have made our list of greatest movies of the decade, as it is, it makes the grade of movies that must be watched, but once only.

Many people have written quite eloquently about the obvious anti-imperialist white-guilt message of the movie. We have but one thing to add. Not all societies plundered by the white man were like the native Americans. That is all.

Sita Sings the Blues is available for high quality download on a Creative Commons license on the film maker’s website. In a world of poor-quality torrents downloaded by eager yet thrifty flat-screen-TV-owning movie buffs, that alone would qualify it for a dekko. Of all the characters in the Ramayana, Sita cuts the most tragic figure. She loves deeply and is married to God-incarnate, the most just and pious man as well as one of the greatest archers in the history of the universe, and yet she is always forsaken by Rama, until she finally takes matters into her own hands and leaves him (and the Earth) forever. This movie is dedicated to telling Sita’s story, as a universal story of womanhood. The movie is animated by Nina Paley who inserts her own story in parallel, one of having her heart broken by a man who leaves her for good when he gets a job in India. The animation is of varying quality, sometimes it is represented by Mughal-era and other ancient Indian paintings speaking the lines of Rama, Sita and so on, sometimes in crude drawings of a South Park like quality, and at other times by an impossibly curvy Sita and equally impossibly muscular Rama doing their Bollywood-inspired movie singing to the backing blues-vocals of Annette Hanshaw. But at all times the animation works. All along, the story of Sita (and Rama and the rest of the Ramayana cast) is told by apparently India-born youth trying to recollect as best as they can the story of the Ramayana, interspersed with musings on a childhood story by adults as they try to mine hidden-depths and back-stories of an ill-remembered epic. A certain irreverence pervades the movie, but it never descends to crude parody or atheistic preaching. Mostly it sounds like the story of the Ramayana as would be discussed by Indian youth today when they are sure their parents are out of earshot. The movie comes with an incredibly beautiful soundtrack. Almost all the songs are by Annette Hanshaw whose turn of the early-20th-century songs seem to have been written precisely for use in this movie. One of those that are not by her, the Rama-praising song sung by Lava and Kusha is comedic genius. We hummed it for days afterward.

For those of us of a certain age, the Channel-V promotions featuring Quick Gun Murugan hold a special place in our hearts. The 30-second parodies of Westerns, Rajnikanth, and south Indians in general made in the service of our MTV variant captured perfectly the adolescent zeitgeist of early 90s India. We were very excited when Quick Gun the movie was released and finally got a chance to watch it recently. The film delivers on every count: as a rich parody of Tamil and other South Indian films, as a parody of Westerns and most of all as a way to lose yourself for an hour and a half in well written and almost always well executed comedy. Dr Rajendra Prasad is brilliant as Quick Gun Murugan, he even manages to parody himself very effectively. Both Sita and Quick Gun are well-timed reminders that one does not need a lot of money to make a great movie just good writing, good acting, and a lot of imagination.

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Film Review: Star Trek

Posted by anandrr on June 2, 2009

I had the misfortune to watch the new Star Trek flick over the weekend. Normally I would write a long essay on the many ways I didn’t like it. Works as a camp movie, but not as a good movie. But why waste precious pixels when Antony Lane has already covered it all in the New Yorker? The bit about not wanting to have my hero origin myths explained to me was particularly on-point.

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Film Review: Anvil

Posted by anandrr on May 11, 2009

I watched Anvil over the weekend. Going into the movie, I had not heard about the rock band, and had no idea what the movie was about. Only the sub-head on the marquee gave me any idea what I was getting into. “This is not Spinal Tap,” it read. But as the movie opened to shots from a rock festival held in Tokyo in the mid-80s where the performers included the Scorpions, Metallica and Anthrax all of whom went on to sell millions of records and also Anvil which went on to oblivion, and then moved to interviews with Lars Ulrich from Metallica telling us how the sound of Anvil was the best sound he’d ever heard and Slash telling us that Anvil practically invented metal, it was hard not to imagine that far from not being Spinal Tap, I had indeed walked into a This is Spinal Tap tribute, another mockumentary only this time the band recedes into oblivion instead of making it big. It only gets worse from here: the drummer is called Robb Reiner, and the equipment that their album is being recorded on has dials that go to eleven. Could I be faulted for thinking that this was not a documentary but a work of fiction?

The story picks up in the present where the principals behind Anvil, Robb Reiner and the lead singer Lips Kudlow (both Canadian Jews one of them with an Auschwitz history concerning his grandfather), are consigned to the dustbin of metal history, both of them in their 50s, the former involved in manual labour of some kind with power tools, the latter a catering service delivery man. They have been together for 30+ years, and still meet to rock together. The documentary follows their story arc over the next few months, and the comparisons to Spinal Tap don’t end. The band goes on a tour of Europe, and their manager can never manage to book their tickets, or get to the railway station on time, or even get to the gig in time. On the tour, they play to a lone rocker sitting in a lazy-boy and banging his head, to a meager 170-odd audience in a venue that can hold a couple thousand, and wait eagerly back-stage to meet with Ted Nugent. Eventually the manager marries one of the band members (and we’re told at the end of the movie is now arranging a tour of the Scorpions and wishes to move on to the opera). But throughout, Kudlow stays optimistic. He throws out such Zen as, “at least there was a tour for things to go wrong on,” and, “at the end of the day after all has been said and done, I can say that all has been said and done.”

And it is that which makes Anvil so likeable and human. Both Reiner and Kudlow have been together for a long time. They agreed when they met as teenagers to keep rocking, and they do keep rocking. They are supported (financially and otherwise) by family most of whom also want them to finally make it big, they are devoted family men, sometimes rockers have to play badminton in the backyard with their little children too you know.

Sacha Gervasi who made the documentary has made a masterpiece of a documentary. You might go in not caring for rock or metal, you might even go in thinking Anvil is a poor poor band, in no way comparable to Slayer or Anthrax, or what have you, but even the most hard hearted person will melt a little by the end. As I read a little about Gervasi, it was quickly obvious where his empathy for the underdog comes from: Gervasi started his career as a musician, he founded a band with his friend, then left it because he thought they had no talent, his band then renamed itself to … Bush, he then became a screen writer and turned down a Warner Bros opportunity to adapt a screen play about a young wizard named … Harry Potter.

But in a real life documentary, there can be no redemption. Life sucks. And Anvil’s does too. The tour of Europe is a disaster. An album is recorded, nobody will distribute it, many days will be spent meeting with record execs and such, but a 50+ year old rocker is an old rocker, whichever way you cut it. The film reaches its slow climax when a tour opportunity arises in Japan butwhen they get to the Tokyo venue, the scene of their last big success 20+ years ago, their show is scheduled for 11:30 in the morning. Will anyone come to a metal show at 11:30 am? We know what the answer would have been if this were a Hollywood fantasy, but how will it play out in real life? We also know that Kudlow won’t much mind either way, but we want him to succeed, we want to will the Japanese to show up for their act.

And ultimately that is why this documentary wins. Two old rockers, their long hair barely covering their bald spots, leading sad lives, and yet continuing to live the dream, and as it happens, still making good music, and we care about them. We want the dream to succeed. This is probably the best documentary you will watch this year. Which means that with Kanchivaram earlier this year, I should probably stop watching movies altogether for the year.

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Film Review: Kanchivaram

Posted by anandrr on March 25, 2009

I first watched a Priyadarshan movie when I watched Kilukkam back when I was a young college-going lad. My room mate had convinced us Bangaloreans that this was an awesome movie and took us. Kilukkam was quite a revelation, it was funny, it was extremely well made, it had a good story and plot, and finally it looked different. Kilukkam looks most like a Mani Ratnam movie, but that is not giving Kilukkam enough credit. The Mani Ratnam look of course refers to the generally dark, back-lit/side-lit cinematography that lends the movie a sensual look. But the difference is that Kilukkam was shot in Ooty, and the director did use that to his advantage by framing the shots to include the green beauty of that fine hill-town. It also helped that Ooty is a generally foggy city, see earlier note about lowered lighting in the shots. Kilukkam was also that rarest of Indian movies: a comedy feast. Historically, Indian comedies may be classified into: i) Movies that are tight, intelligent comic movies, they start as comedies, stay that way, and end that way. These are rare. Hrishikesh Mukherjee used to pull it off quite consistently in the 70s. This has recently come into vogue again, now that movies are not afraid to last two hours or less. ii) Movies that start with a comic premise, but quickly morph into a drama/tragedy/something else equally abhorrent. These are sadly quite prevalent. A subset of this type of movie is of the Chandni Chowk to China variety. Movies that could be good comedies if only they had had the sense to hire an editor and snip out the middle 1.5 hours. iii) Movies that are indeed comedies through and through, or would be if they were actually funny. This includes movies that at first blush might appear to belong in the first category. Two Kamalhassan movies illustrate this dichotomy nicely. Pushpak, that landmark silent movie of the 1980s today appears to be a movie with an interesting gimmick but a very poor, cringe-inducing comic style, firmly in the third category. Michael Madana Kama Rajan, the quadruple-role Kamal feast, on the other hand seems to belong to the first variety. All in all, I had marked Priyadarshan as a director to watch. Soon after, I left India for foreign shores and didn’t really follow his work. I was therefore quite pleased when I saw that The Asian Film Festival in San Francisco last weekend screened Priyadarshan’s latest effort, Kanchivaram.

Kanchivaram is a set in the mid-late 1940s in the Tamilnadu town of Kanchivaram. The town is the origin of the famous Kanchivaram silk sarees, intricate hand woven sarees of such incredible beauty, woven by artisans who are so poor that they cannot afford their own creations, indeed have probably never seen their sarees worn by anyone. They work for the local landlord who owns the means of production, and naturally this sets the stage for a gradual awakening of Communist spirit among the weavers. The story deals specifically with one weaver who wishes that by the time his newborn daughter is of marriageable age, he will be able to marry her off in a silk saree. This is is an admirable pursuit in one so poor of course, but the futility of a poor person’s existence in India will grind him down, it is really only a matter of time. No Slumdog Millionaire this, there are no fairy tale endings to be had. The system is stacked against a simple poor weaver, and he has to fight it every step of the way. Communism makes its appearance via an idealistic writer, but pre-war Britain banned Communism, and eventually even Communism can’t help, it is but an ideology. Ideologies can’t put food on the table. Very quickly, idealistic communist protestors turn into run-of-the-mill politicians and yet another source of hope disappears. Hope keeps springing eternal, but reality catches up very quickly eventually leading to a heart-rending dénouement. As Slumdog would say, “It is written.”

Don’t let all of this get you down, the story is outstanding: it has all the right touches to make it incredibly real and it is very well edited to tell that story tightly. This is also the best looking movie I’ve seen in a long time. It isn’t just the back-lit/side-lit scenes that are enjoyable, there are many deep-focus shots of the kind I haven’t seen in a long time. When he turns these on, the scene just pops like on a digital hi-def screen, and the collective audience’s jaw drops. The Kanchivaram village doesn’t just look lovely, it looks like an Incredible India tourist brochure come alive.

A Western audience might find a couple quibbles with the movie. The lone “British” businessman speaks an English that is painfully un-British, indeed un-anything, but one imagines that if he spoke perfectly, it would make him very hard to follow for a Tamil audience. Also the San Francisco audience that I watched this with twittered quite audibly when the Communist sickle made its appearance, this might be camp for an American audience, but the rest of us know that it is indeed quite real.

As I left the movie theater (Castro theater, about which a word, I had no idea the ceiling had all these lovely Indian/Asian motif paintings), I felt like I’d seen the best movie I’ll see all year.

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Book Review: Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra

Posted by anandrr on January 27, 2009

My relationship with Vikram Chandra goes way back. Back when he was a young novelist who had just completed his debut novel and I a callow youth, I read about Red Earth and Pouring Rain and knew that I had to read it. Unfortunately I was but a college student low on funds, so I had to wait around until I won a gift certificate to the local book store and then I pounced. My expectations were sky high, the reviews had been glowing, they were sent higher still by the fact that I was spending precious book store gift coupon currency for which I had had to win an inter-college quiz competition or some such and they were sent into the stratosphere by the fact that I count among my prized possessions a copy of the Panchatantra (translated by Ryder) gifted to my brother and I by our parents and that translation of the Panchatantra had taught me that the Amar Chitra Katha variant of the Panchatantra was a sham, a mere trifle, and the Panchatantra far from being a mere Indian version of Aesop’s fables were much much more, a massive work of art and literature. From those sky high expectations, there was only one direction: down. And Red Earth disappointed me. It had started off strong, I had loved the way it moved, but somewhere along the way he lost me and I lost him. And that was that as far as Chandra and I were concerned.

Until 2007, when he wrote Sacred Games. This time I had a secret weapon. Bookmarks magazine (Bookmarks review of Sacred Games) gets truck-loads of books every year and surely this had to be among them. It was, and I was saved. Risk-free Vikram Chandra enjoyment. I started in on it right away, but my return to India interrupted my reading. At 900 pages, a hardbound edition took up too much valuable space and weight to make the top list of things that returned with me. So it sat (marked at page 150 or so by a sad letter from State Farm telling me that it was my fault not their customer’s that my car had a dent (it was entirely his fault, you jerks, and you can’t even spell my name right, so what kind of investigation did you do anyway?)) in storage patiently awaiting its turn. Which turn came on my last trip stateside, so as soon as I was done with our new President, I was ready to continue where I left off.

Sacred Games appears to be a companion volume to Maximum City. But that is doing Maximum City too many favours, and Sacred Games a grave disservice. Games is the book that Maximum City should have been, indeed could have been, but thank God for Games, it does Bombay credit. Chandra is still playing with form, half the book moves forward in time, the other half is told in flashback by a man who kills himself in the first chapter, both stories moving forwards of course, but interwoven beautifully without making it seem like a gimmick, and there are insets: little bits of back story, seemingly without much relevance to the story, a little gimmicky but you sense Tarantino beaming in approval.

Ganesh Gaitonde is the mafia don found dead, of apparent suicide, early in the book by police inspector Sartaj Singh (whom Gaitonde has called to his hideout), this death precipitated by Singh’s decision to take Gaitonde’s nuclear-bunker-like building by force. The rest of the book chronicles the story of Gaitonde’s rise from a small-time assistant on a smuggling boat to the man who runs the G-company, Bombay’s biggest mob. This is the first thread, narrated by an omniscient Gaitonde in first person. The second thread is a police procedural as it follows Singh, an unambitious cop in Bombay, investigate Gaitonde’s death (and that of a woman found dead with him) and why he was in the bunker. The investigation is mostly above his pay-grade, there are forces operating here over which he has no control and sometimes even less understanding, but he is diligent and eventually ends up wanting to do the right thing.

Gaitonde appears truthful to a fault, a dead man has nothing to lose; Singh has his vices, he is not above an occasional bribe, and will happily beat up innocent people if it will further his investigation. But between the two of them, Chandra has written up a terrific piece, L.A. Confidential can suck it. It has the grandeur of an epic: the partition and the Indo-China war get a look-in as do the ’93 Bombay riots. It has the elements of a pot-boiler: plenty of sex via aspiring Bollywood starlets, plenty of blood, and sudden and incongruous twists that suddenly tie up loose ends. Religious tensions simmer, the ISI is of course involved, and a sadhu does the Indian rope trick. But like a well-made Bollywood thriller (ha!), when Bombay is your backdrop anything will work!

Every story about Bombay (shout out to Slumdog), has to revel in its extremes and Games gets it just right. But the other finely calibrated thing in Games is the language. When Rushdie writes, he captures a certain English that belongs to the English-speaking classes of India, a Hinglish that is not so much a mixture of Hindi and English as a direct translation from Hindi. When we speak informally among brothers and cousins we affect an English that traslates directly from our mother tongue and yields a language at once funny and inventive, the language comes alive as you listen to it. Chandra goes in a different direction, but it is just as effective. He is also translating, but not with a wink and a nudge, but quite truthfully. And the untranslateable words are, well, not translated. The result is that as you read, you can hear the characters say it in the original Bambaiya Hindi down to the mandatory curse word.

The book isn’t unputdownable: both its size and scope demand that you put it down every now and then and take a rest. From the way the flow sometimes ebbs, one senses that Chandra did the same as he wrote it. And it does have a fault: I was promised the end of the world in the last chapter, I did not get it, what’s worse some villains got their just desserts at the end but by handling that backstage, the climax left one feeling a little limp.

Posted in Book Review, English, Literature, Reviews | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Book Review: Maximum City by Suketu Mehta

Posted by anandrr on January 3, 2009

I first visited Bombay as a young teenager, and it was a case of love at first sight. There is an energy to Bombay that other Indian cities can only aspire to, indeed the only other city anywhere that seems to have a similar energy is New York. There were many other things that were unique and lovable about the city: it never seemed to sleep, people were going about their business and shops and restaurants seemed to stay open late late in to the night; the people I was visiting with lived in (compared to Bangalore) cramped flats but this seemed to foster a much greater sense of community among the families who lived there; the Bhel puri was a revelation; and I didn’t look at the generally run-down condition of the buildings and cringe, like an infatuated teenager I only thought it made it look more beautiful. When I visit Bombay today, almost all of that is still true, of course I continue to love the city, it is still one of a select few that I could imagine living in, the huge piles of garbage do make me cringe, but I’ve learned to ignore that in India, I continue to be amazed by the vast slums, and the most amazing thing about Bombay is that the taxi/auto drivers don’t seem to want to fleece me and people stand in line to get into a bus (but not to get into a local?). There are times of the year when I hate the weather there, but I’m beginning to learn that there are few places in India that a Bangalorean can go to and not complain about the weather.

This general love-affair with Bombay was why I was rather looking forward to reading Maximum City. I was eager to learn a lot more, I had only glimpsed Bombay in brief 1 and 2 day stints, what was I missing? And more importantly, make me love it more. The title aptly captures my concept of Bombay, it is truly a maximum city, not only is every thing bigger and better: they have the largest slums and Ambani’s $1B home, more people migrate there than anywhere else, every form of industry known to man seems to operate in some corner of Bombay, some of the richest Indians live there and certainly some of the poorest, they have more gangs per capita than anywhere else, and more ingredients in their melting pot than the rest of the country.

And so it was that the book itself fell short of my expectations. The biggest problem with the book was that it felt more like a buffet than a banquet. You get to pick and enjoy your dishes, but there is no unifying theme, you don’t come away with any greater appreciation for Bombay and what makes it tick than what you already imagined.

There are three distinct voices in the book: immigrant Mehta, literary journalist Mehta and ironic Mehta. Immigrant Mehta gets us kicked off with a personal note about his return to Bombay after an absence of some 20 years during which time he has lived around the world. This is of course an experience I appreciate myself, and his visceral notes about Bombay (generally true of any where in India, natch) ring very true. He neatly and concisely captures the culture shock of a returning Indian and continuing amazement that the “system” works nevertheless. Bombay (as the rest of India is also) emerges as the city of No, a city where change is the only constant where even the footpath today is not what it was last week, and will never be a usable footpath.

Literary Mehta disappoints. This section of the book comprises long (think New Yorker length and more) essays about different facets of the city: the 93 riots, the beer bar dancers, the gangs and so on. Mehta’s method here is to immerse himself in the lives that he wishes to document and then write about them in mini-novellas. But this leads to three problems: first, and somewhat trivial perhaps, his is not a writing style that lends itself to such long pieces. His writing style feels Economist, his writing length says New Yorker, this often left me tired as I reached the end of a marathon that I had expected to sprint through. Second, this method has an inbuilt shortcoming: there are only so many lives you can document, and you come away feeling that you have not had a complete picture, what about the lives of the local train engineer, the taxi driver, the stock broker, the high flying industrialist, the iron smelter in Dharavi, all of these people contribute to making Bombay maximum also, but they are conspicuous by their absence. Finally, by insinuating himself into their lives what starts as an apparently journalistic investigation of someone’s life and work quickly turns gushingly sympathetic, all Mumbai cops are corrupt and immoral except the one whom Mehta has chosen to portray, all Bombay beer bar dancers are really just looking to swindle their next “boyfriend” except the one Mehta befriends (and I’m so not buying the chastity of that relationship), and on and on.

Finally, we read Ironic Mehta. When he turns a detached (and somewhat snobbish perhaps) eye at Bollywood, his school, the Jains in search of salvation, Mehta turns the irony dial to 11 and doesn’t disappoint. He is unfailingly energetic throughout the book but now he channels it well showing us how few things in India are what they appear to be on the outside. This turns out to be especially true in that city of dhandha, and Mehta documents this exceedingly well. A different Bombay comes together at this point in his book, it might or might not be the real Bombay, but is certainly the most credible portrait, and it is as well that he leaves us with this picture, a little something to wash down the earlier silliness.

Posted in Book Review, Capitalism, Literature, Reviews | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Quickie Film Review: Sarkar Raj

Posted by anandrr on January 1, 2009

We watched Sarkar Raj recently. We waited so long because we had watched Sarkar and had been rather unimpressed. We are not big fans of derivative movies. Except when we are, of course. But Sarkar Raj was good! We enjoyed it thoroughly.  Watching it, we were struck by two things: First, an open-collar-black-jacket, clean shaven Abhishek could stand in for Obama in the movie version of 2008. Second, as often as Abhishek utters the word “change” (except he calls it badlav) in Sarkar Raj, heck, he probably is Obama. I doubt that the word change has ever been uttered more pointlessly and vacuously anywhere else except in the Obama campaign?

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Book Review: The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie

Posted by anandrr on December 28, 2008

I first read an excerpt from The Enchantress of Florence in the New Yorker many months ago, it was the part of the book that describes Akbar, his capital at Fatehpur Sikri, his “invisible wife” Jodha, and Akbar’s battles with his self and his sprituality. The essay represented the Rushdie writing that I love best, his beautiful English describing with loving care an apparently faraway land and time, the characters surprisingly life-like (even Jodha), the writing was fluid and evocative, and most of all it held out a promise of much much more in the real book. Then the book came out and I heard someone (possibly Krasny) on KQED talk about it as East meeting West, and I dismissed it as the book I certainly didn’t want to read. There the matter would have lain, and I would have gone through the rest of my life describing the book as one of Rushdie’s minor works, until on one of my recent trips to the US, I spent a couple days at a friend’s place, and this friend had this book lying around the house. The time that we didn’t spend walking the streets, discussing alternative energy or reliving the Republic of Mysore, I spent reading the book.

Needless to say, Rushdie had me at the dedication. The pages turned quickly and I hated that I was having to leave before I got to finish the book.  Never mind, as soon as I was back in India (always respect the cost arbitrage on books) I got myself a copy and a week’s worth of night-time reading later, I was a happy and contented man.  Enchantress is perhaps not as great as Midnight’s Children but it marks a return to form from Ground Beneath Her Feet which had  rather disappointed me, even Bono couldn’t rescue it. Enchantress is of course very beautifully written, Rushdie has such a remarkable facility for English, he seems to write with such ease that reading his work is extremely pleasurable. His choice of subjects also lend themselves to such description, Akbar, his harem, his court, his city and medieval India; Italy, medieval Florence, great sea voyages, pirates, and more, all of these make for an enchanting backdrop against which to tell his tale.

And what a tale! At one level, it is of course about East meeting West, Machiavelli, master political strategist, meets Akbar, emperor, philosopher, spiritualist. And hovering behind them all, Qara Koz, the “Enchantress,” a lady in the west of incredible and unsurpassed beauty, but as it turns out a not-so-distant cousin of Akbar’s. But these are set in a time when it seems entirely unremarkable that the emperor has an invisible wife, an even more invisible distant cousin, herself constantly accompanied by her “Mirror,” a maid who mirrors her mistresses’ own feelings (and as it turns out plays a non-trivial part in the raison d’etre for the book). Back then, these were common we’re told, the fantastic always mixed with the real unlike our heretical lives now. This is of course a recurring theme in Rushdie’s books, the fantastic always play a part in our reality.

At another level, this is a story about women. The Enchantress is a woman who moves from man to man using her incredible beauty to exercise great power over men and history. Eventually she exercises her power over Akbar entirely remotely, from the great beyond as it happens, and his courtiers look on helplessly. Jodha also holds the emperor in her thrall until Qara Koz arrives in his life, at which point she finds herself relegated. This leads to one of the funnier scenes in the book, where Akbar’s real harem finally find that they can make peace with the imaginary Jodha now that
they are all part of the sisterhood of Akbar’s past affections.

But most of all, it is a book about religion and spirituality. Akbar is searching for an answer to religion’s ills. He believes that God far from providing us a moral anchor, has given us a reason not to create such structures for ourselves.  His quest for this human-created morality dominates his life. It finally fizzles out of course, as does Fatehpur Sikri, and as we’re all aware the Mughal Empire went downhill from then on.

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Film Review: Slumdog Millionaire

Posted by anandrr on November 14, 2008

We got to watch Slumdog Millionaire recently, and we liked it quite a bit. It is set largely in Mumbai (some diversions to Agra), and chronicles how a little kid from Dharavi (Jamal) grew up to win it all at the desi version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire and also finally reunited with the love of his life. He is not particularly interested in the money, just the girl.

By itself, that’s a very conventional story line, there are probably a hundred Bollywood movies that cover the same basic storyline: Young kid from the slums gets rich on his wits alone and also gets the girl. What makes Slumdog different is how well it works as a movie. From the first scene, it establishes that the fairy tale you’re about to see is grounded in reality: Jamal is being interrogated at a police station (Enhanced Interrogation Techniques, naturally) because after all, there is no way that a “slumdog” like him could know enough to win it all in the quiz show. From there the movie begins to run. As Jamal tells us the story of his life in flashback segments, one thing is apparent: to live and make it in Mumbai is always to be running. The camera work is astounding, it brilliantly captures the frenetic pace of the movie while not forgetting to emphasize the color and variety all around it, not to mention the little ironies that surround life in India. While the boys are running the soundtrack keeps pace: A.R. Rahman scores the music and M.I.A supplies vocals (Paper Airplane and damned if I can find the other song).

All of the movie is grounded in the “real India” (and by extension the “real Mumbai”). Slums, rampaging mobs, kids picking around in huge piles of trash, an “orphanage” running a beggar business, guides ripping off foreign tourists, call centers full of young people selling the Family and Friends plan to unsuspecting foreigners and ugliest of all: the slums turning into the Hiranandani towers. It is this connection to the real India at once visceral and beautiful that sets the movie apart.

There are a couple false note in the movie: Anil Kapoor as the oily host of the Millionaire show. I can see why his character had to be dirty, but it’s unclear to me why he had to be unlikable. On the real show, he would have lasted less than a whole episode as host. The other of course is that fairy tales don’t really happen in the seamy side of Mumbai.

Also, Frieda Pinto: Beautiful!

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