A great song for great democracies.
A great song for great democracies.
This has been said by someone else, but I will repeat it anyway: if the new ‘Indian’ craze in the West, Slumdog Millionaire, wins one (or possibly more) Oscars, it will be due, to a large extent, to one particular scene in the movie. After the protagonist plays foul with an American (actually the US, lest we forget altogether) tourist couple and is being beaten brutally by an Indian, the American couple rescues him, only to get the retort that ‘you wanted to see a bit of real India’. And the lady’s answer is to get a hundred dollar note (we don’t call it a ‘bill’, nor a ‘bank note’) from her husband and hand it to the offending boy with what we call a dialogue in Hindi, ‘well, here is a bit of real America, son’. As the person who mentioned this scene earlier (although I had thought of the scene in more or less the same way) also pointed out, this American lady (that’s what we now call a woman in Hindi) is shown to be the only really good person in the whole movie.
But the movie is supposed to be all about Indians, so there are no real people other than Indians except this lady. The only Western (White and presumably Christian) person in the whole movie can hardly not be a representative of the average Westerner (let alone the US Americans) as opposed to the wretched, written-to-be-wretched, Indians, especially when she makes such a grand gesture accompanied by a solid dialogue.
Since there still are people out there who are going to (or already have) criticize this movie for some crappy reason like selling India’s poverty to the West etc., one has to give out the mandatory disclaimer that one is most certainly not against this movie for any such reason. In fact, one is not really against this movie at all.
I most probably wouldn’t have commented on this movie had it not become such a sensation and also given that a lot of insightful commentators have already written about it. But now it looks very much likely that the movie is going to get that most-prestigious-in-the-globe-but-actually-the-US-American movie award named Oscar, and probably more than one. This means that the movie will be taken seriously by a lot of non-Indians and perhaps even by some Indians. And, as I indicated earlier, it is not really such a bad movie. The problem is that it is not a great movie at all, which is what it is being made out to be outside India.
And like one other commentator (pardon me for not giving references, but I am tired right now: though I can provide them on need), I find it hard to believe that it is directed by the same person who directed that movie which is in my list of Very Good Movies (in the company of movies by Bergman, Fellini, De Sica, Kubrick and the like), namely Trainspotting. Whereas that movie was exactly what it wanted to be, this movie almost fails completely, although it is still entertaining.
There are so many things which are fundamentally and very clearly wrong with this movie. Accent is, of course, one of them. I wonder whether Danny Boyle knows that the knowledge of English (and even more so its use with a particular accent) is the single most reliable indicator of one’s socio-economic status in the Indian subcontinent. And the movie shows the ‘slumdog’ using the highest caste accent whereas the elite TV show host using a pretty low caste accent (yes, Anil Kapur’s accent is not very ‘good’ and he would usually be looked down upon among a circle of people speaking in almost British accent, as does the protagonist).
I would urge Danny and his crew to go and see Tashan, which has some similarities with this movie and also stars Anil Kapur.
The movie could have been so much better if it was made in Hindi and had better casting and had hired some accent tutors like they do in Hollywood even for the all-(US)-American movies.
The second big problem is that the novel on which it is based doesn’t talk Karma-Varma at all. And the movie resolves everything at the end by saying ‘because it is written’. And Danny Boyle himself in an interview (roughly) said that you simply can’t resolve the complexities of India: they are just there. Then he said ‘they even have a philosophy for this’, which says to me that he seems to know very little about India. Yes, there is a philosophy of that kind, but there are innumerable other philosophies too.
Come on, Danny, no one in India actually says ‘I don’t know, I have got a sort of Karmic feeling about this’ or something like that (as the TV show host does). This Karmic terminology is more used in the West, than in the ‘real India’. No one really talks about ‘Karma’ here. (Even when they do, they don’t do it in this way). Though they do talk of Bhaagya and Taqdeer and Maathe Ki Lakeer etc. Which is not the same thing. And which is the reason this movie can be accused of being indulgent in post-modern Orientalism (someone else said that too).
In many parts of India, if you spoke out the word ‘Karma’ in the way Danny Boyle (or any Westerner talking about India) does, people would think you were talking about a patriotic movie starring an old Dilip Kumar pairing with one of my favorite (favourite for the less dominant party to which Danny belongs) female actors, Nutan. This ‘Karma’ is, of course, not the same word. In fact, it’s not a word at all: it’s a name.
It’s an ambiguous Named Entity that I would classify as either a Person or as an Object-Title, depending on the context.
In the same interview, Danny Boyle says about Mumbai (which we still quite often call Bambai – बंबई in Hindi and Bombay in English) that ‘they call it the Maximum City’. Well, it’s actually Suketu Mehta who calls Mumbai that. A lot can be said about that book too, but I won’t say it now.
Now the music. Well, the simple and solid fact is that A. R. Rehman has given much better music before, right from his very first hit, Roja. If some Indians start respecting him now because he wins an Oscar or two, I can only pity them. And I pity the non-Indians too: for being completely unaware of such great music even in this .mp3 era. Music which has been heard and liked by hundreds of millions of people for more than one and a half decade now.
But let me reiterate. This is not such a bad movie. Your money won’t be wasted if you go and see it. But it is definitely not ‘a gritty and realistic’ movie about India, except in some ways which are of no use to an Indian and could be misleading for a non-Indian.
Let me reiterate something else. The Indian ‘reality’ is much worse than what is depicted in the movie, which is basically a lived-happily-ever-after fantasy.
And featuring the US American lady in the movie with her fictitious hundred dollars is a cheap (pun intended) trick to win over the Western (especially American) audiences whose senses will be offended by what is shown in the movie (for the dummies: this is a deliberate but slight exaggeration). Because if the truth were told, a big share (not all, of course) of the responsibility of this worse reality of India (as of other colonized or near-colonized countries) rests with the West.
Overall, Slumdog Millionaire is in the same league as Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge. Both movies are inspired by the ‘Bollywood’ style of film making and both have directors who seem to know precious little about India but who wanted to pay some tribute to the country and its films, just as the earlier Orientalist artists paid their own tributes to the seductive, exotic East as imagined by them with their artistic temperament. But as an Indian I feel that the latter movie has a definite edge. That could be partly because it doesn’t pretend to know (and, therefore, tell) much about India.
Slumdog Millionaire’s only connection to Trainspotting, ironically, happens to be a scene that was hard to watch even for the hardened Indians: the jump in and out of the shitpot. And even this scene was done much better in Trainspotting.
There is also a serious matter that is concerned with both the style as well as the content. It’s a very tricky matter to mix realism with fantasy, which is what Slumdog Millionaire tries to do. And it does quite a bad job of it.
As it happens, Danny Boyle came and lived in India for some time for making this movie. One gets the impression that he was overwhelmed by what he saw and didn’t quite know what to make of it. And in such cases the easiest resort is to the Karmic poppycock that the movie ends at. Small mercy that it is done with the tongue at least lightly in the cheek.
P.S.: Also for the dummies, the word ‘caste’ above has been used metaphorically, not literally. Knowledge of English and the accent is a big (perhaps the biggest) determinant of the metaphorical caste in India. Even in the India of Call Centres. Or should it be ‘especially in that India’?
I once mentioned the incredible diversity of Hindi film music. This is one stream of music that has absorbed musical waters from all around the world: from country to classical, from rural to urban, from eastern to western, from ancient to modern, and pretty much everything in between.
However, after I mentioned Bob Marley in the last post, I realized that there are some things that Hindi film music simply doesn’t have.
In fact, even if we consider music that can be seen as somewhat independent extension of Hindi film music, there is still no one like the two Bobs. There are a few like Jagjit Singh who have carved out a niche for themselves more or less outside the Hindi films, but they are not really outside the stream of Hindi film music by parameters like their musical and lyrical characteristics, amazing as they are. Even after the coming of the Music Video era, popular (urban) music in India is still mainly film music.
That’s an interesting question. Why has there been no Bob Marley or Bob Dylan in Hindi film music or in Indian popular music?
Yes, I know there are people like Gaddar, but they are in a different category. And they never achieved the kind of popularity that Dylan or Marley achieved even among the apolitical.
One reason that could be given is that it is due to the way Hindi film music works. Someone (the lyricist) writes the song, someone else (the Music Director) composes the music, and someone else sings them. In most cases, there are three different individuals or teams for these three aspects of the creation of what is called Hindi film music (which is actually Hindi film *song* music, as background score is not really given that much importance in Hindi films and is usually taken care of by someone less important). The Bob Marley or Bob Dylan kind of music can’t be produced under such conditions, as the two Bobs are present in all aspects of their music, like the movie directors who are honored (honoured for the non-dominant party) by the term ‘auteur’. Moreover, the songs have to fit in (in the Hindi film kind of way) and be approved by the movie director and the producer and perhaps even the financier.
The explanation given above may be a good one, but I still wonder whether there is something deeper that has prevented an Indian Bob Dylan or Bob Marley to appear on the musical scene and become popular.
I strongly suspect there is.
Conspiracy theory! Conspiracy theory!
Conspiracy of silence?
I can’t resist sharing this legendary song by a legendary singer. It’s possible for you to watch him sing this song which was introduced by him a long ago but has since been sung by innumerable singers, including his mentor Edith Piaf.
It’s called ‘Les Feuilles Mortes’ (‘Autumn Leaves’ in English) and is based on a poem by Jacques Prévert and has music by Joseph Kosma. I am sure a part of the tune has been used in an old Hindi song, but I am just not able to place that song.
This is also a gift from technology. There are people who, over the decades, have helped in the development of technology for this. And there are people who have helped make something like ‘precision’ (and/or) cluster bombs.
Perhaps the intersection between the two sets is quite large.
Did they have to? Necessarily?
By the way, here is the link for the residents of IIIT, Hyderabad who won’t be able to see the video above as the youtube site is banned there.
I mean here.
Too dangerous a technology.
But the in.youtube site (which was inaugurated with news stories in the national mainstream media) is not banned so far. I hope nationalism ensures that it remains unbanned. It should be of some use. Nationalism. Earn its keep. If it works hard enough.
Unfortunately, WordPress doesn’t recognize the in.youtube site.
But nationalism has not saved the India Together site from being banned. And the funny thing is that I am perhaps the only person on the campus who tries to access this site.
While I am at it, I may as well share a song by Edith Piaf.
As I promised, I am going to write about the movie ‘La Môme’, also known as ‘La Vie en Rose’ (‘The Life in the Pink’). The movie is about the legendary French popular singer Édith Piaf, real name Édith Giovanna Gassion, but earlier known as La Môme Piaf (The Little Sparrow).
For the last many weeks, I have been soaking myself in her songs. Not her alone, because I am never ever an exclusivist, but my playlist during this period has been almost half full of her songs. Or songs related to her, i.e., songs sung by her which were later also sung by others. As far as music is concerned, this has been one of the major obsessions so far. And it doesn’t look like I am going to get over it soon. I don’t mind it, of course.
I even found some notes and tunes familiar from Hindi film songs, which are the true melting pot of music like nothing else.
Did I say I will talk about it later?
Let it be said that I have listened to a very wide variety of music from around the world and claim to have a very good musical sense. So, now that you know about my qualifications for writing about her and the movie based on her (I guess you already know that I also claim to have a very good cinematic sense), I can get on and you better take me seriously.
Heh! Heh! Where is your degree?
First, I will say what has already been said by all. Marion Cotillard has given a great performance in this movie as the legendary singer. It’s hard for me to forget that she is not really Édith Piaf.
By the way, she became the first actor (or actress) to “ever win an Academy Award for Best Actress (“Oscar”) for a performance entirely in French”. Given that winning an Academy Award is considered the height of achievement for people working in the movies, doesn’t it sound a bit strange? I mean French directors (along with directors from other countries from Europe and Asia) have been making movies and setting the standards for others for a long time now and French actors have been acting in them. Well enough to deserve world class awards.
How easy it is to forget that the Oscars, the Academy Awards, are mainly meant for English movies. There is just one magnanimous (or guest, if you like) category for ‘Foreign language movies’. But everyone behaves as if the Academy Awards are equally for all movies of the world.
Can we expect globalization of the Academy Awards? I won’t bet on it.
Except that I have never bet.
The spell checker has identified ‘globalization’ as an invalid word. I am adding it to the dictionary. The spell checker also doesn’t recognize ‘exclusivist’ as a valid word. I am adding this word too.
I have heard the term ‘Artificial Intelligence’ somewhere. I also heard a rumor (rumour for the non-dominant party) that computers now have some of it. Why do I feel a bit relieved that it is just a rumor?
Coming back to the movie, it is about a singer who, as someone said, “belts them out, doesn’t she?”. She does indeed. And she does just great. I have become her lifetime admirer. For whatever is left.
She was a born singer. She started on the street. She was the daughter of an acrobat and a street singer. For some time she lived in a brothel managed by her grandmother, where she was treated very well. One of the prostitutes became so fond of her that she was heartbroken and hysterical when the father came back for his daughter. With her father, she (the singer to be) lived in a circus. Later she accompanied her father on his acrobatic (contortionist) street shows and started singing. Then she sang on the streets with her half-sister, who remained close to her till her death, except for some time when she felt ignored and abandoned by the star singer.
She was discovered by a nightclub owner. She was suspected of involvement in his murder, but was cleared. She denied that she had anything to do with that and I would prefer to believe that. I would rather give her the benefit of doubt than to Henry Kissinger. Or so many like him, even if not his equal in douchehood.
She sang under the protection of local mafia men, who took their share, obviously. She met a composer, Marguerite Monnot, who also became her ‘most loyal friend’ for the rest of her life. Then she was mentored by a composer who was also a poet and a businessman. She became popular on the radio as well as on the stage. She became a star. Actually, in France, she became a super star. She mentored many people and helped them launch their career. And ‘dropped’ them when they became successful and no longer needed her mentoring. She helped launch many careers, including that of another legendary singer Yves Montand. Jean Cocteau wrote a successful one-act play ‘Le Bel Indifférent’ specially for her and she acted in it.
She was severely injured in a major car accident. Then she suffered more car accidents. Partly because of injuries from the car crashes, she got into addiction and suffered more. She fell in love with a married French boxer (who was a star in his own right in France) …
Well, according to the ethics of movie reviewing, I shouldn’t divulge too much. Suffice it, as the phrase goes, to say that if there was anyone whose life was the stuff of legend, she was the one.
I would say even more than Howard Hughes.
So much about her, what about the movie? It is one of best biopics I have ever seen. It is better than ‘The Aviator’. It is better than ‘Capote’, even though I have more than a soft spot for movies made about writers or about literature. It is better even than ‘Gandhi’. More about that last movie later.
Now the reasons why it is better. First is simply that I like it more. But more specifically, everything is almost perfect in this biopic. Direction (Olivier Dahan) is really good without being pretentious or stiff. Screenplay (Isabelle Sobelman and Olivier Dahan) is as it should be for a biopic. Realistic but still interesting. Not over the top. Neither starry eyed, nor of the kind which seems to be declaring ‘I will (academically) judge this person’s personal life and cut him or her to size’.
Marion Cotillard actually became The Little Sparrow. I don’t know whether it was with or without Method Acting. The rest of the cast also gave very convincing performances, including the actress who played Marlene Dietrich. I should make special mention of Sylvie Testud who played the role of Mômone (Simone Berteaut), Édith’s half-sister and her lifelong friend. Her lifelong partner in mischief.
For now, I will stop talking about the movie here as I intend to write a second installment of this post.
I would be proud to have lived a life like the one she lived. With warts and all.
Even now, as I write, she is singing in the background. Literally.
In the words of the movie’s Marlene Dietrich, she is taking me on a voyage to Paris. Where (unlike Marlene Dietrich) I have never been, except for half an hour at the airport when I had to keep sitting in the plane as there was a strike at the airport. So I have yet to set my feet on the soil of Paris, but The Little Sparrow, who really belts them out and who embodies the soul of Paris, has flown me around there plenty of times now.
P.S.: The strike in the above paragraph doesn’t mean terrorist strike. It means labour strike. Just in case.
And yes, labor for the dominant party.