अनिल एकलव्य ⇔ Anil Eklavya

November 17, 2010

So Dissent is Just a Disease After All

If you are even a little bit well read, you might have come across the name of Bertolt Brecht, even if you don’t recall it now. He is well known as one of the most important figures of twentieth century theatre (theater for the more dominant party). But his influence goes far beyond theatre. It extends to movies, literature, poetry (he was also a poet), political thought and so on (not excluding the Monty Pythons). It even goes beyond the boundaries of the East-West or the North-South divides. I wasn’t surprised at all when I read yesterday that there are ’30 something’ MA theses in South Korea alone (written in Korean) on Brecht. In India, he has been widely written about and heavily quoted by intellectuals, especially those writing in Indian languages. One of the most respected Hindi poets, Nagarjun, even wrote a poem about Brecht. I would have loved to provide a translation of that poem here, but I don’t feel equal to the task as the poem uses words whose equivalents in English I am unable to think of. Some poems are translatable, some are not.

Brecht has been on my mind these days as I have translated some of his poems (from English) into Hindi in the last few days. This excercise included a bit of surfing the Net for his name too and as a result, I came across something that made me write this. Or, at least, acted as a catalyst or the precipitating agent for writing this.

I don’t mean to present a brief bio of the man here. You can easily find plenty of material about him on the Internet and in any good library. I am not even a minor expert (in the technical sense) on him or his works. But I might mention here that some of the things he is known specifically for, include these:

  • His plays and his active theatre work (in particular the ‘epic theatre’ works like The Life of Galileo, The Threepenny Opera and Mother Courage and Her Children)
  • His theory about theatre, which is centred around the idea of the ‘alienation effect’
  • His poetry
  • His affiliation to Marxism (though of the dissident kind)

It should not be hard to guess now (if you were unfamiliar with him earlier) that it is the fourth point that would get most people interested, either approvingly or otherwise. You write plays, you do theatre, you pen poems, that’s all quite alright. No problem. Have your fun. Let us have some too. We can spend time discussing and arguing about it too. But being a Marxist is taking this business to a different territory. That’s politics. That might lead to talk of revolution. Or, at least, to that of radical change.

And so it does. Intellectuals, artists and activists around the world who are not satisfied of being a real or potential (‘wannabe’) Salman Rushdie or V. S. Naipaul and who want to do or say something more about the injustices in the world, in the society, in the institutions, have almost all paid at least some attention to this guy. Some disagreed and turned away, some agreed wholeheartedly and became loyal followers and some agreed partly and adapted his ideas and techniques according to their own taste and their own views about things. One from the last kind is also someone with whom I have happened to be concerned recently. That one was Fassbinder, a prolific filmmaker from the same part of the world as Brecht. Another filmmaker (from India) of this kind was Ritwik Ghatak. But about them, later.

Brecht’s ideas about ‘epic theatre’ (the quotes are there because it is a specific theory or a specific kind of theatre, not necessarily what you would guess from the words: it is a technical term) were a result of synthesizing and extending the ideas of Erwin Piscator and Vsevolod Meyerhold.

About the alienation effect, this excerpt from the Wikipedia article on Brecht gives a fairly good introduction:

One of Brecht’s most important principles was what he called the Verfremdungseffekt (translated as “defamiliarization effect”, “distancing effect”, or “estrangement effect”, and often mistranslated as “alienation effect”). This involved, Brecht wrote, “stripping the event of its self-evident, familiar, obvious quality and creating a sense of astonishment and curiosity about them”. To this end, Brecht employed techniques such as the actor’s direct address to the audience, harsh and bright stage lighting, the use of songs to interrupt the action, explanatory placards, and, in rehearsals, the transposition of text to the third person or past tense, and speaking the stage directions out loud.

But more than this somewhat technical aspect, what attracts me to the ‘Brechtian’ art, was expressed extremely well by Erwin Piscator in 1929:

For us, man portrayed on the stage is significant as a social function. It is not his relationship to himself, nor his relationship to God, but his relationship to society which is central. Whenever he appears, his class or social stratum appears with him. His moral, spiritual or sexual conflicts are conflicts with society.

I read this only today, but as my (few) readers might have noticed (which I explicitly expressed once), almost all of what I write here is about ‘Individual and Society’ (which is also one of the most common tags that I use). For me, the above is the crux of the Brechtian enterprise. But I should add that in my opinion the Brechtian technique, along with its variants, is not the only technique for achieving the goal (for expression in art as well as for scholarly investigation) outlined in the above quotation. Still, I can’t resist saying here that it is the key to understanding Fassbinder. Many a reviewer of Fassbinder movies has made a fool of himself by ignoring this.

Having provided this little context, I will move now to the thing that precipitated this article. Yesterday, after posting one more of the translations of his poems on a blog, I came across a post that pointed me to a news story from Reuters. Since it is from Reuters, it has been carried by many other news outlets.

The story reports that a researcher from the University of Manchester “has uncovered the truth behind the death of German playwright Bertolt Brecht”. It goes on to say:

Professor Stephen Parker … said the playwright died from an undiagnosed rheumatic fever which attacked his heart and motorneural system, eventually leading to a fatal heart failure in 1956.

Previously it was thought his death in 1956 aged 58 had been caused by a heart attack.

So far, so good. But here is the precious bit:

Parker said the playwright’s symptoms such as increased heart size, erratic movements of the limbs and facial grimace and chronic sore throats followed by cardiac and motorneural problems, were consistent with a modern diagnosis of the condition.

“When he was young no one could get near the diagnosis,” Parker, 55, told Reuters. “Brecht was labeled as a nervous child with a ‘dicky’ heart, and doctors thought he was a hypochondriac.”

Brecht’s childhood condition continued to affect him as an adult, making him more susceptible to bacterial infections such as endocarditis which affected his already weakened heart, and kidney infections which plagued him until the end of his life.

Parker believed that his underlying health altered the way the playwright felt and acted.

“It affected his behavior, making him more exaggerated in his actions, and prone to over-reaction,” he said. “He carried the problem all his life and compensated for this underlying weakness by projecting a macho image to show himself as strong.”

I have quoted at this length because I didn’t want to lose anything in the paraphrase. So this researcher is a medical doctor? Wrong. He is an expert in German Literature. And he derived all these conclusions from Brecht’s medical records. The report ends with this gem:

“Going into this project I felt I didn’t really fully understand Brecht,” he said. “This knowledge about his death opens a lot of new cracks about the playwright, and gives us a new angle on the man.”

As the Americans (and now even the Indians) say, Wow!

The Superman might have been fictional, but we now have a Super Researcher. Nothing short of real superpowers could have made him achieve this amazing feat: “his underlying health altered the way the playwright felt and acted”. Felt and acted! That is a nice summing up of the whole business of existence. The key to all this was rheumatic fever! This would make a nice present to an absurdist poet looking for ideas. An expert in German Literature goes through the medical records of a man who was born in 1898 and died in 1956, having lived in various countries during one of the most tumultuous periods in history (when there were no computers: well, hardly). He (the Expert) felt “he didn’t really fully understand” Brecht and by going through these medical records (one of the key exhibits being an X-ray) and found out that all this ‘epic theatre’ and the ‘alienation effect’ and affiliation to Marxism and his poetry and his immeasurable influence on a large fraction of the best minds of the world for the last three quarters of a century was just the result of his rheumatic fever. All his politics was just a simple disease.

As if this wasn’t enough, there is something else that would have caused cries of “Conspiracy theory!” if a different party was involved in the affair. His research shows that the 1951 X-ray report, which showed an enlargement to the left side of Brecht’s heart, was never shown to the playwright or known about by his doctors and it may have been (emphasis mine) held back by the German security services, the Stasi, who had a grudge against the playwright.

So all of you loony lefties, you commie fairies, this idol of yours was just a sick man. And if he was not, well, then he was at least (indirectly) killed by a communist government. So wake up, man! Give up all this talk about the individual and the society and injustice and imperialism etc. Get back on track and let’s live up the market dream together. We can change things. Yes, we can.

To be fair to Professor Parker, he has written a ‘literary biography’ of Brecht and it might be that he is not really claiming all of the above. However, what matters in the world outside the closed academic circle of experts on German Literature, is the effect of the reports of this study on the common readers. And what appears in these reports is, to use a word from the report itself, quite a sinister subtext. The Indian media right now is full of such reports (often of a much cruder, laughably cruder, moronically cruder variety) with similar, barely concealed subtexts, with obvious relevance to the current political situation in the country.

The ‘study’ apparently says nothing about the effect that his blacklisting in Hollywood might have had on him. Did the FBI (or any of the other agencies) had a grudge against him? Here was one of the most admired and influential playwright who had sketched notes for numerous films, but he got to write the script of only one movie that was directed by Fritz Lang. He was interrogated by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and decided to leave the US after that. He lived during the period when his country went mad and so did the world, with millions upon millions dying. He saw Germany descend from relative decency into barbarism. He later also saw the degeneration of the revolution in the Eastern Block. Did all that have anything to do with what he was and may be even with why he died relatively young? Parker doesn’t seem interested in such trivialities and externalities. At least Reuters doesn’t, because I don’t have access to the complete and original ‘study’ as written by Parker.

Very long ago, I had read one of the novels by that great favourite of those looking for gentlemanly humour, P. G. Wodehouse. In that novel (whose name I don’t remember), one of the main characters (Jeeves, perhaps) decides to go, for some reason, on a kind of fast. And from the time of the very next meal, his whole personality starts changing. He becomes dissatisfied with lot of things. He starts finding faults in everything. His good nature is all gone. In short, he becomes the caricature of a dissenter.

Finally, when things go beyond a point, the plot has him give up the fast, may be with some persuasion from others. As soon as he has had a good meal again, he reverts to his usual self. The dissenter is gone. Then comes an editorial comment from the narrator which goes something like this: If only Gandhi (no ‘Red Top’, as you probably know) were to give up his fasting antics, he won’t be creating so many unnecessary problems. As far as Wodehouse is concerned, he has won the argument against the whole idea of Indian independence and whatever else Gandhi said he was fighting for.

But we shouldn’t be too hard on poor Wodehouse, as cautioned by Orwell in his defense, because, for one thing, the humourist was just too innocent of political awareness.

A scholar of Brecht and one of the biggest news agencies in the world, however, belong to a different category.

But this is not such a unique event. Parker has just given a new meaning to the idea of pathologizing troublesome people. To the idea of ‘finding dirt’ on people who don’t follow the rules of the game. It is just a sophisticated version of the understated witch hunt against Julian Asange. A small attempt at rewriting History in somewhat Orwellian sense. The motivation is all there, as more and more people start talking about the ‘churning’ and ‘renewed stirrings’ for a more fair world. Yet another facet of the psychological operations (psyops) in these times of the gold rush.

(Using Bob Dylan’s words, we could say that Professor Parker is perhaps just a pawn in their game, but of a different kind than Wodehouse was for the Nazis.)


One of the significant influences on Brecht was Chaplin’s movie The Gold Rush.

Life is full of poetry and drama.

And melodrama.

October 16, 2010

Indifferent Rebellion – I

Growing up with Hindi books and, to a lesser extent, Hindi movies, I was constantly (but silently) enraged at the way certain characters in many of these books and movies behaved. These characters were usually women: unmarried, married or widowed. They lived with extended families or ‘joint families’. The behaviour that enraged me involved silently tolerating all the wrong that was continuously done to them by family members, by neighbours and acquaintances and even by strangers. The reasons why they were singled out (though ‘singled out’ is not a very accurate phrase as we will see) for tormenting ranged from their being dependent on others, say, because the parents had died, to simply because they were women. You can still see these characters (in some form or the other) in the soap operas of 21st century T.V. and even in occasional Hindi movies, though these movies now avoid such things: they now focus more on the brighter side of life, which their target multiplex audience is more accustomed to as well as more comfortable with.

To take a typical case, you would have this joint family where there were at least two brothers with their parents and at least one sister. Both brothers are married, one from the beginning of the story and the other usually during the course of the story, possibly after a courtship. The courtship would serve the purpose of providing a happy prologue (which could be quite long) before the sad, tragic body of the story. The end might be happy too, but I won’t go into that. Instead of a courtship, you could have a happy growing up of the younger brother’s would be wife in her loving parents’ home, followed by an arranged marriage.

So this new member of the extended family would join with as great expectations as an Indian woman of her time could. See a few old Indian family dramas if you want to know what that means as I won’t go into that either. Soon she would realize that her expectation were ill founded. All the other members of the family (except usually her husband) would start going after her like proper sadists. It would be very misleading here if I don’t mention that ‘all others’ is not the right way to put it as the members who would really do most of the tormenting would be the other female members of the family: the mother-in-law and the sister-in-law. I might note here that the Hindi words for the mother-in-law and the sister-in-law of a woman evoke the image of most likely to be unpleasant relationships. Hindi has a different word for sister-in-law for men, which doesn’t evoke such an unpleasant image. In fact, the word evokes quite a naughtily pleasant image.

I didn’t create that image, so don’t go after me on moral grounds. Or nationalistic grounds.

The expectations were ill founded and instead what would happen is that the new member would be required to do all the dishes, to wash all the cloths and to cook all the food and more. Then she would be viciously targeted for all her mistakes in everything that she did. The mistakes, in most cases, won’t even be her mistakes. She would framed repeatedly.

The husband, the younger brother (or younger son, if you like), might not participate in the tormenting, but he would either not come to her defence or would be very unwilling and ineffective to do anything. More usually, he might not even notice what is happening. And here comes the starting point of the behaviour that enraged me: the victim would not even tell him about the ways she is being tormented.

She would not tell and she would not protest. She would quietly tolerate (possibly with some meek protest initially) everything that is done to her. And I would be shouting to myself (silently) why the hell is she not saying anything. Why is she not protesting. Why is she not hitting back.

And so on it went for a very long time. Then I understood something and it made sense. At least it made some sense, even if making some sense is not the same as being completely justified or being the right thing to do. But then who am I to definitely say what would have been the right thing. I was not that woman.

Let me remind you here that this particular woman is just an example of the characters I am talking about. And let me also clearly state that they are not just (at least not completely) the product of pulpy and bad writers or writers of the Sadist school. These characters were found very commonly in the Indian life and they still are (I hope to a lesser extent).

These characters, dear reader, were some among your ancestors, whoever you might be, in whichever country. That is, if you yourself are not one of them.

I have been aching to write about this, but (to borrow a phrase from Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant) many things between the heaven and the earth came in the way. Till a few hours earlier when I read the story The Road by Vasily Grossman.

Let me also clarify that these characters are not of the slave-girl category of the Fassbinder film-play. They are not of the ascetic-hermit variety either. Nor are they Gandhian satyagrahis.

Nothing like Mel Gibson’s Passion, so don’t accuse me of blasphemy. Passion is being used here just as an English word (in its older sense), not a religious concept.

Vasily Grossman was called the Tolstoy of the USSR by Martin Amis. The Road is about (and from the point of view of) a mule being driven on the way to the Battle of Stalingrad. Robert Chandler, who has translated Grossman novels, mentions ‘evocations of the horror of war and the miracle of love’ all appearing in this universal story. But as the introduction to the story (not written by Grossman) says, it is about a ‘mule wrestling with Hamlet’s dilemma on the long road to Stalingrad’. This is the part that concerns us here because the dilemma is not just the mule’s (or even Hamlet’s). It is the dilemma of the characters I have introduced above.

And just like the mule in the Grossman story, these characters of real life and pulpy Indian stories resolve the dilemma by becoming indifferent:

It was impossible now to tell him apart from the old mule walking beside him, and the indifference each felt towards the other was equalled only by the indifference each felt towards himself.

This indifference towards himself was his last rebellion.

To be or not to be – to Giu this was a matter of indifference. The mule had resolved Hamlet’s dilemma.

Having become submissively indifferent to both existence and non-existence, he lost the sensation of time. Day and night no longer meant anything; frosty sunlight and moonless dark were all the same to him.

Indifferent not just to others but also to oneself. Indifferent to being or not being. But this indifference was not the result of conscious thought and analysis. It was spontaneous and instinctive. And, arguably, it was almost the only way to survive the life one had landed in. Survival by being indifferent to survival. It was not stoicism, just as it was not masochism. It wasn’t even necessarily the lack of courage or of any other abilities. But with some lexical license, we could call it The Passion. Think of Tarkovski’s Andrei Rublev or Dreyer’s Joan of Arc. So what if it has nothing literal to do with Christianity. So what if they are not painters or warriors but just ordinary mediocre people. As the hunchbacked sexton Algot says in Bergman’s Winter Light, he too in his own humble way has suffered a lot. And so what if they have been portrayed a lot in pulpy Indian stories without even Grossman’s (or, to be impudent, my) insight.

Let’s call it The Passion of the Mule. Or, to be a bit discreet, let’s call it The Passion of Giu. Does it ring a bell? Let it ring. No harm is intended and none is being done.

There is another candidate. We could call it The Passion of Balthazar. How could we forget Bresson in such a context?

At this point, if you are familiar with the Hindi-Urdu literature, you might mention Krishan Chander’s talking donkey (Ek Gadhe Ki Aatmakatha: The Autobiography of a Donkey). But I don’t think that is an appropriate comparison and bringing it in is probably an unacceptable and irrelevant digression. Premchand’s Hira Moti, the oxen, are only a little more closer, but not quite.

There is, of course, the difference (though not always) of degree between real life and fiction. The scale of suffering could be smaller in real life and its manifestation might be different too. I would give you a very common scenario: a frequent motif in real life. There is a woman who is either living with or is visiting her extended family. She has a child. Something happens that is not very unusual in her or the family’s life. She feels that she has been unfairly treated. The matter might involve her child, perhaps vis-a-vis other children in the family. What does she do? She roughly goes to her child and starts beating her or him. Sometimes right where the row took place and sometimes after first taking the child to her room (if she has a separate room). She might or might not shout while she does that. And, more likely than not, she would cry while she does the beating.

This reaction to (quite often justifiably) perceived injustice seems on the surface to be not the indifference of that mule or of the more archetypal characters. But it is just an emphatic display of that same indifference. I have mentioned this particular behaviour just to prove that this instinctive indifference is actually a kind of rebellion, even if she herself is not explicitly aware of this. The only thing this woman cares about more than herself (and may be her husband) is her child. By unjustly punishing that child (and thus punishing herself: more than she could have done by directly punishing herself) she is only showing that she has been treated unjustly. The child too seems to understand this.

How do I know all this? I could tell you, but I won’t. At least not now.

If you want, you can go ahead and laugh at these characters, real or fictional. I don’t feel the inclination to join in. I would like to better spend my time laughing at some other characters.

Before continuing, I would just add a confession (to avoid misunderstanding and silly allegations) that I have only read this one story by Vasily Grossman, though I have read (in translation) other, mostly pre-Soviet, Russian writers.

(To bo contd.)

October 14, 2010

खुश हुआ खुश हुआ

[ये श्री अनिल एकलव्य जी के एक विद्वतापूर्ण शोधपरक लेख का खड़ी बोली कविता में अनुवाद है। मूल लेख बिजली के खेल में हुए हार्ड डिस्क क्रैश के कारण खो गया है। उसे रिकवर करने की कोशिश चल रही है। तब तक यही सही।]

जंगल-जंगल पता चला है
धोती पहन के मोगैंबो खिला है
पगड़ी पहन के गब्बर सिंह सजा है

पिछली बार जो लठैतों-डकैतों ने
तोड़ा-फोड़ी और पिटाई की वो याद ही है तुम्हें
तो ये मसला अब बहुत लंबा खिंच गया है
जज साहिबान, अब इसे लॉक किया जाए

अबकी अगर शामत न आई हो
तो समझ से काम लो और चुप बैठो
हमने रियायत कर दी है तुम्हारे साथ
पर लठैत-डकैत अभी संत नहीं हो लिए हैं

ज़रूरत पड़ी तो जो कहा गया था
वही होगा
तलवारें निकल आएंगी म्यान से
और जो भी करेगा विरोध
वो जाएगा जान से

हाँ, ये ठीक है – अबकी कोई शोर नहीं
बड़ा डिग्नीफ़ाइड रिस्पौंस रहा है
लगे रहो, जमे रहो, सीख जाओगे

खुश हुआ, मोगैंबो खुश हुआ
गब्बर सिंह को ये शरीफ़ाना नाच
ब-हु-त पसंद आया
ये परिवार के साथ देखने लायक है

परिवार समझते हो ना?
क्या करें
आजकल के बच्चे परिवार संस्कार
सब भूलते जा रहे हैं

उसके बारे में भी कुछ करेंगे
सर्च एंजिन वालों से भी बात चलाई है
पर फिलहाल तो इस फिल्म को
अगले साल ऑस्कर में भेजेंगे

[कविता में किए इस अनुवाद में घटिया फ़िल्मों का ज़िक्र आने का ऐसा है कि अनुवादक बेचारा खुद एक भयंकर घटिया फ़िल्म में एक ऐक्स्ट्रा है। दुआ कीजिए कि इस नई फ़िल्म को ऑस्कर मिल जाए। तब शायद अनुवादक को भी इनाम में माफ़ी मिल सके।]

February 6, 2010

The Elite Strikes Back, Fetishiously

From right after the transfer of power from the British to the local English Elite (the Babus in the broadest sense), one recurrent theme in the Indian ‘National’ press, which translates as the English press, has been to come down like a 16 ton weight on anyone who so much as mentioned the case of the Indian languages and the extraordinary privileges enjoyed by the English speaking Elite in the country. So, for example, if any politician of the Hindi belt suggested that students should be allowed to write some important exam in Indian languages or that English should not be compulsory at the primary level or even something much less radical-revolutionary and world shaking, there would be (without fail) editorials in the ‘National’ newspapers about how the language chauvinists are going to lay waste our great democracy.

With the changes that have happened in the last 15 years or so (some for better and more for worse), this trend became less common. But now the lumpen antics of the Thackerays have given the Elite a golden opportunity to come back with a 32 (or is it 64?) ton weight on the ‘language chauvinists’.

The way the Thackerays have been able to carry on their thuggery (in the Hindi as well as the English sense of the term) is so absurd that only a few things can compete with it. And one of those things is the fact that the English Elite of the country have been so amazingly successful in summarily suppressing all Indian languages including the legally National Language (Hindi), the language that has the most chauvinistic support from its speakers (Tamil) and the language of the most intellectual community of the sub-continent (Bengali). These and many others are not endangered languages (at least not yet). Most of them can be called mega languages in terms of the number of speakers. All of this is so well known and so often repeated that I feel weary of having to write this. Also equally well known is the fact that only a very small fraction of the Indian population is comfortable with English. However, as India is a society whose structure is mainly defined by the caste system, no one except the top caste wants to remain in their own caste. They all want to make the transition to the higher castes, even as they list the reasons for the greatness of their caste. And the highest caste now effectively is that of the English speakers, who have replaced the (literal) Brahmins from their perch at the top (I know, ‘replaced’ is not a good term because a large fraction of the Elite is Brahmin). Naturally then everyone wants ultimately to make the transition to the top caste. This has lead to an extremely comic and absurd fetish about any language anywhere in the world. It is the fetish for the English language. This fetish too is a well known, though rarely talked about in the English media. A recent issue of the Outlook magazine was an exception. (The issue was the exception, not the magazine). The ‘language media’, of course, used to talk about it. Innumerable books have been written about it. Movies have been made about it (a recent one being Tashan, one of whose stars is now living out his character’s fetish in the real world). And sometimes politicians have talked about it for electoral purposes. But most of them have learned that it doesn’t pay much as the Indians (especially the North Indians) are not very keen to be seen speaking their own languages when in respectable company. They don’t even want it to be known to anyone that they are not good at English. Parents who can’t speak the language will parade their English learning children in front of any visitor and have a little performance of nursery rhymes being chanted in English, even if the visitor as well as the child feel tortured. They will also mention with pride that their child is very poor in Hindi (or any other Indian language).

It’s not that no one in the English speaking community has noted this. Even Nayantara Sehgal had mentioned this in one of her novels long ago. More recently Arundhati Roy had written about the oustee villagers from the Narmada dam site being scolded by Maneka Gandhi for not writing their petition in English, after they had travelled all the way, enduring hardship and hoping to save their lives. There have been others like Namita Gokhale among the (English speaking) writers and artists who have at least hinted at the absurdity of the situation.

But, by and large, the Elite has managed to suppress all talk about any fairness with regard to Indian languages which account for the overwhelming majority of the population of India. They have used diversity as an argument for maintaining the hegemony of English. They have used chauvinism as an argument. They have pitted one big language (Tamil) against the other (Hindi). They have pitted small languages (the so called dialects of Hindi) against big languages. They have pitted Dalits against the upper castes: no matter that most of them belong to the upper castes themselves. They have used linguistically spurious claims about the superiority of English over the ‘less developed’ Indian languages. They have steadfastly refused to concede even a pinhead worth of territory to the Indian languages.

Talk of divisiveness.

Unfortunately for them, The Market (whose praise they are now singing, be they from any part of the political spectrum) may be a brutal place, but it has allowed the Indian languages to gain some territory. As had the linguistic reorganisation of the states, which also (like the demands for linguistic fairness, not like The Market) they have always kept riling against.

When Pepsi and the others came after The Reforms, they didn’t give a damn about what language can get them more customers. Before that, big companies in India preferred to make commercials in English, unless their product was some low brow thing that no one would want to talk about. It is understandable why: the top advertising agencies are mostly dominated by the elitest of the Elite. It must have been hard for them to get used to the presence of Indian languages in their midst. To give the devil his due, they have managed the transition quite well, at least on the public front. It has turned out that these underdeveloped languages can be used ‘creatively’ after all, whatever may be the purpose. I don’t know what to feel about this.

The people may be ashamed of their own languages and of being seen reading books in them (chauvinism indeed!), but they are hooked to the movies and T.V. serials in those same languages. The movie scene is not any less hilarious either. The people involved in these movies may be making their career, earning huge amounts of money and generally being the gods of urban life in India (along with the cricket stars) through Indian languages, but they too are equally ashamed of the languages they make movies in. The scripts of Bollywood movies are written using the Latin alphabet. More than one big Bollywood Hindi movie star has been on record saying he hates Hindi. One of them said he didn’t want anyone around him speaking in Hindi. Offscreen, all they want is for their lives to be copies of Hollywood stars. And they are prepared to pretend that their mediocre work in ‘foreign’ English movies (to the extent they get such work, the chances of which are increasing now as the real superpower focuses a little bit more of its attention eastward this side) is by far better than their best work in Hindi movies. They will tell you the reason for this too: English movies give them far more exposure than Hindi movies (if they do, what does quality matter?). As for the criticism which suggests otherwise, well, ‘it will die its own death’.

Another of the cards the Elite uses against any demand for linguistic fairplay is that of communalism. The fact that the Jan Sangh/BJP and the Sangh Parivar in general have been shouting the slogan of ‘Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan’ has been used time and again to put down (and discredit) any such demand. This time they are vehemently talking about how the ‘Hindi fetish’ of the BJP and the Sangh Parivar has brought about the Thackerays’ Marathi version of the same. One of them has grudgingly noted, though, that there are differences between the two.

The only part of the slogan in which the BJP and the Sangh Parivar are interested in is the Hindu part, and they have made a travesty of even that. The preferred name for India for them is Bharat, not Hindustan. India is referred to as Hindustan (or Hindostan) more in the Urdu literature than in the Hindi literature or in the literature of these right wingers.

As a person whose mother tongue is Hindi (standard Hindi, Khari Boli) and who wants to write in Hindi, I refuse to surrender all the rights of this language or the terms Hindustan, Parivar, Sangh (or even Hindu) etc. to the Sangh Parivar conglomeration. The Elite has done its best to give exclusive rights for all these to the conglomeration. I keep the rights to these as an individual, not as a member of a group. I also keep the rights to contribute and participate as an individual, without being a member of any group.

The plain fact is that injustices are committed on a large scale every day in this huge country in the name of languages. However, there can be no doubt that the largest number of these injustices are in the name of English. Time and again I have seen (first hand) how careers of even brilliant students go the steep downward path because they are not so good at English. And careers are a just small part of the picture. If you are involved in a court case, you are unlikely to be heard if you use an Indian language.

I am not talking about a polish person’s case not being heard properly in France because he can’t talk in French. Even that, as a lot of the members of the Elite perhaps know, can be a valid grievance.

The plain fact is also, as a prominent Hindi writer said in an interview on Doordarshan, that ‘we’ (the people talking about the Indian languages) have accepted English as an Indian language and as our own: the question is whether ‘you’ (the English Elite) are prepared to accept the Indian languages as Indian and as your own.

She said this when the first great lit-fest was held a few years ago at a former royal palace near Jaipur where the guest of honour was V. S. Naipaul, who came with all his knightly glory. And where hardly any Indian language author was invited.

If you don’t listen to people like her, then some day you might have to listen to people like the Thackerays. And you might have to pretend that you like what they are saying.

Another plain fact is that most of the mainstream literary writers in Indian languages (whatever might be their other shortcomings) are neither chauvinists nor communalists. In fact, they are the most committed opponents of the right wing politics of the BJP and the Sangh Parivar. And hardly any of them has ever been able to survive from literary writing alone, except perhaps those whose books become textbooks, which is itself a long story. Dismissing the whole idea of linguistic fairness by waving the communalism card is something that we usually expect from unscrupulous politicians, but the Elite (especially of the Left variety) has been doing exactly this ever since the transfer of power to them. Absurd as it may sound, one can understand this if one realizes that they have always felt threatened that some day the vernacular hordes will take the power away from them. There is a great deal they have at stake. I suspect part of their initial vehement opposition against the BJP was motivated by this. And the BJP saw this and made good use of this: they started talking about political untouchability being practiced against them and they gained a lot of sympathy votes on this point alone. The same Elite later became much more tolerant of the BJP once it came to power. Perhaps they accepted it as the fait accompli.

Fait accompli is another card that is heavily used by the Elite. English is the most powerful language that can give you any chance of a decent career and the possibility of some kind of justice so just shut up and try to improve your English. As one strategic think-tanker recently wrote about the Taliban, if you really want to get something done, then you have to go and talk to the people who have power.

As a not so irrelevant aside, consider the paid news affair, which is causing quite a stir these days. Newspapers have been always been used as weapons by both small and big power mongers. While the big newspapers are used more subtly, the smaller ones (with exceptions and to varying degrees) have either been directly owned by the powerful political and corporate people or have been available for hire. But after the Great Indian Reforms and Liberalisation, some big newspapers like the Times of India started the business of paid news quite openly. Till recently, however, there was only a little murmur of protest from the rest of the English Media. Then the ‘vernacular’ newspapers (for whom it is much harder to compete as they get less advertisements and at lower rates) started following the example of the TOI, but they did it more crudely. Suddenly it became a big issue, with even Dilip Padgaonkar telling us what a scourge paid news is.

Why would the editor of a National daily spend the time and effort to write an editorial about every non-committal language related statement from every two penny politician?

The Left part of the Elite is prepared to talk about all kinds of injustices except those related to language. Except when it is Indian language vs. Indian language. In that case it’s great fun for them.

What we actually have is a strange kind of fanatic language chauvinism practiced by the Elite against all Indian languages: more than just fetishist chauvinism. It’s so real that you only need to walk the roads of any Indian city and read the posters (among other things) of English teaching joints.

Not that there are no injustices in the name of Indian languages. The situation very much fits the big-fish-small-fish metaphor. There is also the infinitely indecent situation in Indian villages of there being separate upper caste and Dalit languages. The Dalits are not allowed to use the ‘upper caste language’. Language is used as a tool for domination, oppression and daily humiliation. In this language-eat-language world, the biggest fish by far in India (as in most parts of the world) is English. Even if it is spoken by a miniscule minority.

Trying to cover up this situation with slick diatribes about chauvinism and communalism might go on paying for a long time, but it might also lead to more dangerous situations than what we already have.

I really haven’t believed for one moment that the Thackerays have any love for Marathi. It’s their only possible ticket to power as of now. If they find some other better ticket, they will gladly drop the whole Marathi Manoos issue. The BJP and the Sangh Parivar are a bit more serious about the Hindi part of their slogan, but as their conduct while in power has shown, they care about Hindi only as much as the Bajrang Dal cares about the Indian culture. And everyone knows how much and of what kind that is. I abhor all kinds of chauvinism, but I still think it is an insult to the real chauvinists (like the ones who took part in the anti-Hindi riots a few decades ago) to call the Thackerays (or even the Sangh Parivaris) language chauvinists.

(1) What people like the Thackerays say, goes something like this:

  • Give licenses to taxi drivers only if they are Marathi speakers.
  • If the above is not done, we will get us some North Indian migrants kicked.
  • We will not allow anyone to do whatever we might decide they shouldn’t do.
  • We will thrash anyone who doesn’t agree with us.

(2) Here is what a real chauvinist might say:

  • Marathi is the greatest (or one of the greatest) language(s) in the world.
  • No Marathi speaker should use any word borrowed from any other language.
  • Hindi is actually a corrupted version of Marathi.
  • There is some evidence that the languages of Central Asia are derived from Marathi.

(3) A Marathi fetishist (if there are such people) might say this:

  • I am afraid to read English (or Hindi) books because they bring bad luck to me.
  • I must have a temple in my house to worship Marathi.
  • If my son doesn’t speak Marathi, I think he will become a pervert.
  • The captions of the Playboy centerfolds should be pasted over with Marathi ones before one looks at them.

(4) Then there could also be demands like:

  • English should not be compulsory at the primary level. It should be left to the parents to decide.
  • Students should not be punished for speaking in Marathi.
  • Knowledge of English (or Hindi) should not be compulsory for certain jobs.
  • Marathi writers (and newspapers, magazines, books) should be treated in the same way as English (or Hindi) ones.

There can’t be any debate about (1), (2) and (3), but as far as I can see, the three still have to be treated differently (say, for moral, psychological or political discussion). But there can (and should) definitely be debate about (4). That is, if by democracy you mean something substantial, not just a protective shield to keep your hold on the power indefinitely. If you put all four in the same group and dismiss them all, then there is some chance that this might lead to some bad things, even if Indians are ashamed to use their own language for higher purposes.

To touch upon another taboo topic, a great great deal has been written about Bombay becoming Mumbai, but I don’t remember anyone pointing out that Bombay had already been Mumbai for the Marathi speakers (not to say that it was and is Bambai for Hindi speakers), just as Calcutta had been Kolkata for Bengali speakers and Delhi has been either Dilli or Dehli for Hindi speakers. Is that completely irrelevant?

If we were to take the English Elite’s rhetoric about chauvinism seriously, one would have to call even Orhan Pamuk a language chauvinist. And Satyajit Ray. And Tolstoy. And every French writer. And so on.

In many places in his books Tolstoy resentfully showed how French was treated as the superior language among the Russian Elite and how no one among them wanted to be seen speaking Russian. Except may be when talking to the inferior people: servants, peasants etc.

As one member of the Elite (in a moment of frankness) living in New Delhi narrated in a ‘middle’ in The Hindustan Times several years ago, she was embarrassed when a foreigner from the West came to visit them and tried to talk to them in Hindi. Because for her and for the people in her class, Hindi was a language to be used when talking to vegetable sellers.

Most members of the BJP would love to make a transition to the same class. Some have already done that.

There are schools in India where students are punished for using an Indian language. Not in the class room. Not just for any formal or academic purpose, but even in their private conversation, say while playing in the playground.

So much for chauvinism.

Not to mention the Fetish part.

As for the Thackerays, I wonder why they don’t write their surname as Thakre.

They are defiling the name of one my favourite writers.

February 23, 2009

Hundred (Fictitious) Dollar Oscars

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’?

October 4, 2008

What Hindi Film Music Doesn’t Have

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?

August 30, 2008

Security Alert – 1

The Marx Brothers were two brothers.

The younger of them was Karl Marx.

The older, well, we don’t remember his name.

But he was called the Crouching Tiger.

That’s why some people call their movies Croucho Marx movies.

It doesn’t matter.

He wasn’t like the younger one.

At least he wasn’t as bad as the younger.

But they did work together.

And since the younger didn’t earn any money from his movies, the elder kept providing financial support to his brother till his death.

He also tried to get those movies shown at exhibitions.

And introduced the younger to other subversive movie makers in Paris.

They even started a movement called Insurrectionism.

Anyway, this younger one, Karl, was a communist.

We think he was a Maoist.

A Naxalite, you know.

A dangerous criminal.

A terrorist.

But he was hunted down by the security forces of the free world in…

… We think it was in the forests of Argentina.

In his later years, he had gone underground.

That’s why he was also known by the alias Hidden Dragon.

The Marx Brotherhood was also known to attack their victims with swords.

They called it fencing.

They also dabbled in making movies.

In our country hardly anyone knew about their subversive movies.

The Marx Brothers movies.

But now it seems some troublemakers are trying to use the Internet to see those movies.

Right here in our country.

Where we are fighting the Great Threat of Naxalism.

Which our honourable (former) President as well as our honourable Prime Minister have labeled at various times as the single greatest threat facing our country.


Never mind poverty, hunger, fascism, casteism, inequity, corporate crimes, social injustice etc.


(Honorable for the dominant party).

This is why we are now forced to ban the websites from which such dangerous movies can be procured.

We are issuing a security alert to all institutions and recommending that they ban all such websites.

This is a serious matter.

We will be following up this matter closely.

Severe action will be taken against those who violate the security regulations.

Karl Marx was a terrorist and his movies shouldn’t be allowed to create a security threat to the citizens of this country.

May 6, 2008

Mr. Harvey, I Presume

I have been wondering for a long time who it is that keeps pitching in with some (written) comments (in italics) in the middle of my blog posts. The fact that I usually ignore him doesn’t seem to have affected him.

The consolation is that at least someone is reading what I write.

But still, I wanted to know who it is. And I think I might have the answer now, after watching the movie ‘Harvey‘ starring James Stewart, an actor with one of the most likable screen presences. He doesn’t play Harvey, by the way, he plays a person (Elwood P. Dowd) who was “oh so smart” till he was thirty five, but who recommends oh so “pleasant. And you may quote me.” after that, in the company of an invisible friend called Harvey, who is a six feet three and a half inches tall rabbit, visible only to Dowd, but occasionally also to his sister, and finally even to the top Doctor of the ‘sanatorium’.

At the end of the movie, he (Dowd) is saved from being given a serum that will “stop him seeing the rabbit”. He is saved by the mouthing of the experiences of a cab driver who warns Dowd’s sister, who wanted him cured so that she and her daughter could have a social life, which is denied to them due to the craziness of her brother. The cab driver says that Elwood will become “just a normal human being. And you know what stinkers they are.”

A lot goes on, obviously, between the beginning and the end of the movie. But I am not going to talk about that right now.

Self indulgence! I, I, me, me, my, oh, my!

So what I thought after seeing the movie was that perhaps this commenter-in-italics is Harvey. Not the same Harvey, of course. A great deal of water has disappeared from the rivers of this planet since that movie was made. The political and other maps have changed a lot. The Big Weapons have spread around some more. Newer kinds of wars have been invented and still newer may be on their way. Lots of us are working hard towards that. More jungles have been cleared for the onward march of the civilization. ‘Battlegrounds’ is now an insufficient term as real battles with weapons can now be fought far above the grounds, up among the stars. People have become much more polite and they now know how to be racist, sexist, fundamentalist, Fascist etc. without saying any bad words. So the progress goes on.

Naturally, then, the Harvey that is appearing on my blog is a different version. He’s is not even similar to the one that was seen in Donnie Darko. He seems to be of a post-modern (or perhaps a post-post-modern) variety.

I must confess that I don’t like this Harvey as much as Dowd liked that Harvey. But there he is. And I have to bear with him.

As I said, at least someone is reading and even commenting. So I dedicate this post to the post-modern Harvey.

Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce you to my not-friend, Mr Harv…

Quick! Someone call the sanatorium!

April 26, 2008

A Tryst with the Soul of Paris (1)

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.

April 5, 2008

Screwball Horror

This movie is supposed to belong to a genre called ‘screwball comedy’. Well, there was some comedy in it, of a very black sort, which is fine with me because I like black comedy. It is the kind of comedy found in the real world in the most abundant quantity.

However, what I felt most while watching the movie, especially after the first twenty minutes or so, can only be described by the word ‘horror’. Screwball horror.

The movie I am talking about is called ‘His Girl Friday’. It is a story about an unbelievably unscrupulous newspaper man and another newspaper ‘man’ who is actually a woman and who was previously his wife and his primary reporter. His Girl Friday, as the title says. She is almost equally unscrupulous, but this we find out a bit later into the movie.

Since she is just a bit less unscrupulous than him, she got fed up at one point (before the movie starts) and divorced him to go and become ‘a human being’. At the start of the movie, she seems to be on the way and has found a human being (an insurance agent) to marry (who loves her) and comes to the office of her former husband to inform him of the news.

But her former husband has other designs. He is determined to not let her go. As we find out later, not because he ‘loves’ (whatever that means) her, but because she is too good a reporter (of the kind shown in the movie and of the kind often found in real life) to be let off and also because, as a person, she is of the same flock, and would have been much better off had she stayed married to the reporter.

As it happens, a man is going to be hanged the next day and there is great news capital that can be made out of that. The man happens to be a poor man who was fired after a long spell of loyal service, who started getting drunk and started attending some union meetings just because he had nothing else to do. Then something happened some day and he shot a cop. He says accidentally. The cop happened to be a colored man and the colored vote is important in the locality concerned. So, the governor doesn’t want to give him a reprieve as the elections are coming.

So far so good. But, as the reporter (editor? owner? all in one?) tries every trick in his morally anarchic bag, and after he has got his former wife to stay for a few hours (he has a plan) and interview the convict (which she does) for a great story, the convict escapes during his ‘psychoanalysis’ by a shrink from New York.

The Wikipedia page says this is where the fun begins. I don’t think the statement is accurate. Actually, this is where the little bit of fun (as I understand it) that was there ends and true horror begins.

I don’t have the patience (or the stomach) to describe everything that happens after this. We begin to really understand the distinction made by the screenplay writer between newspaper men and human beings (which a notice at the start of the movie indicates doesn’t apply in the ‘present’ times).

Basically, what we see is almost everyone (newspaper men, cops, politicians etc.) behaving like monsters, except that there is no (visible) blood and gore. Without batting an eyelid. Or bowling an eyelid for that matter.

The game of the hanging to be (which later becomes shooting to be) gets dirtier and dirtier, till we realize that the director is not just showing us a screwball comedy, or a satire, or a black comedy. We realize that the genre to which the movie belongs is that of the blood and the gore which flows thick through the stream of rapid fire dialog but is not directly visible to the eyes.

Because it is not directly visible to the eyes, some people (who don’t look at such things very hard as it might upset their constitution or their life) can understandably call the movie a screwball comedy.

The director has to be given credit for sticking with the idea throughout and not giving us a falsely feel good ending.

Almost all the characters in the movie, who all belong to a particular class, are not bothered, even superficially, by such trifles as deaths of human beings. Even when they might be causing it. They are not shaken even by the most moving emotional outbursts by one of the few ‘human beings’ in the movie who had talked kindly to the man to be hanged and is therefore branded a murderer’s girl friend.

So there is enough horror in the movie to make it feel more like amplified (albeit sanitized) ‘Clockwork Orange’ than, say, ‘Some Like it Hot’ or ‘It Happened One Night’.

But there is some more horror off the film. Like in the movie, this horror can also be seen in the trivia:

  • The director Howard Hawks, who could be perceived to be a closet commie (by many) in this movie, was known to make anti-semitic remarks. Ben Hecht, whose play was adapted for the movie, was Jewish and is known for his anti-Holocaust activism.
  • Rosalind Russell, who played the female lead (the newspaper ‘man’), hired her own writer to ‘punch up’ her dialogs to make them as good as that of Cary Grant, who played the male lead. Did she mean her dialogs were not as horror inducing as that of the Hero?
  • The man to be hanged is white (even if trash) and he had shot a colored cop. Not vice versa, which would be much more likely given the demographic and other statistics.
  • The fact that I mentioned earlier. That this movie is considered to be a screwball comedy. Not even a black comedy.
  • The corollary to the fact mentioned above. That horror can be mistaken for fun and enjoyed accordingly.

I won’t accuse the director for giving us some escapist fare. Not even of making a feel good movie.

Nor of making a comedy.

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