La la Land

Why am I constantly wondering? Why can't I just observe?

Location: Singapore, Singapore

Looking to learn, to explore and to imagine possibilities......

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Bollywood :“ A trilogy on the questions of parenthood”

I saw three Bollywood films recently, which, in my view dealt with the same theme. Now Bollywood films are much maligned, and rightfully so, for being a song and dance about nothing. Time and time again, I am torn between throwing up in exasperation at the hundreds of dancers who descend into cinematic space, out of nowhere, to bring us feet tapping numbers and campy choreography, which, I am not ashamed to admit, does get me quite happy, by its sheer mindlessness.

To critics of Bollywood films, (even as part of my split personality quietly stands with them) I have one single request. To understand Bollywood, and to truly appreciate it, one has to experience folk theatre, much like “Jatra” (Bengal) “ Nautanki” (North India) and mythological dramatizations like Ramleela (plays involving stories from Ramayana, part of Dussehra celebrations) Raas Garba (dance forms involving the Krishna cavorting of young men and women), which have been performed for hundreds of years. These forms represent a dramatic form, which thrive on melodrama, songs, and folk music to illustrate a theme, which may range from a social message to a spiritual exploration. Bollywood is hence a unique art form, in my view, for the common person, and not the Westernised Indian, who can never ever recognize that art is a collective and social expression and not merely an individual form of artistic achievement. Coomaraswamy refers to this huge distinction between the way art is viewed in the West and East. He would have been happy to see how Bollywood unashamedly sticks to its kitschy form. Hence, even though cinema is a modern technological art form, in India, it has followed the same patterns of music, drama and entertainment which connect, collective, social, inspirational themes to create a whole. To criticize Bollywood, without understanding its simple social uplifting experience for its “common” audience is to view this form with a Western eye, and not recognize the folk dramatic forms that preceded this form of entertainment.

The simple messages of “family relationships”. “good overcomes evil” “all live happily ever after” “deviation from social norms brings tragedy” are all common themes and provide simple uni-dimensional clarity for audiences oppressed by moral relativism of modern lives. Is watching narratives like these a simple case of escape of a higher desire to connect with themes of meaning which integrate the heart and mind? The very fact so many enjoy these films at a simple level of experience is of value. To over-intellectualize it and expect the sophistication of intellectual discourse is to not recognise the very valid need for this clarity of role models in social discourse.

I recently watched three films, all equally silly, full of silliness of the sublime kind, and exaggerations that will make many of us cringe in discomfort. These films were: “Bunty aur Babli, Waqt, and Salaam Namaste” There was a common thread running surreptitiously through all these films, aimed at the masses and severely criticized by the intelligentsia. The central theme in all these films is of the role of parenting in creating self awareness and hence growth. In this, what stood out for me was the central sacredness of the family as a unit of social structure, something a traditional society like India at the crossroads of modernity is grappling with. These films, all examined in their own pathways of exploration, the conflicts inherent in modern and traditional ways of living and their bearing on the creation of family. All three emphasized, in different ways, what being responsible for a young life can do to the ways young people make choices in life. If the form of making these very esoteric and serious explorations about the nature of family and parenting takes Bollywood form, I’d say, more power to it. However, let me illustrate further.

Bunty aur Babli’s central premise is finding a common ground between the two worlds of youthful ambition and sense of adventure with a sense of purpose in life. The two protagonists flirt with the edge of law and lose every sense of proportion in indulging their sense of fun and youthful energy which finds little expression in traditional oppressive social structures. In the form of capers and humor, this anguish takes the form of comedy. The small town meets city life through the eyes of small town ambition gone awry in the face of frustrating experiences. What brings balance and meaning to this craziness is the birth of a child which compels the pair to recognize consequences of what seems to be entertainment. Is it pedantic? Not really. Is there is a question about responsibilities and finding a meeting point between adventure, ambition and responsibility? It may not succeed stupendously, but there is a definite attempt to address these issues. In this, a silly film rises above empty song and dance fare and provides a practical approach to youthful angst.

Salaam Namaste
is a remake of the film “9 months” which was a comedy. The essential difference is Salaam Namaste is not a comedy in the Bollywood world, even if it attempts at it through the silly character of Javed Jaffrey mouthing “eggjactly” at every given moment and disrespecting a white dumb woman who is his wife(?) Is this a post colonial fantasy of subjugating the white woman who has no brains? What I found interesting is not much outcry was visible at this portrayal, while I could imagine how audiences would remark if the reverse were true. Is this the crass level fantasy of the oppressed? It left a really bad taste. However, an unplanned pregnancy did not leave many feeling as sorry for Preity Zinta as they would have for Julianne Moore. However, to its credit the film does examine the reckless actions of a young couple with empathy, even as it leaves viewers thinking, “ What did people expect would happen if one had sex in a no commitment relationship?” I definitely do not see people in middle India sympathizing with such issues, although in the urban world of sexual experimentation, these become good questions. Why would a woman expect support from a man who clearly states he doe not want to be tied down? The film stood out in the way both protagonists step outside their own mental boundaries to examine how the other person feels, a true human achievement. In this element, the film stands out as it brings a human ethical question to the forefront, rather than getting entangled in unnecessary moral debates. Twenty years ago, such a film would have no place in popular cinema. That is does today, and finds an appreciative audience too, is a wonderful thing. That it comes to the conclusion, that irrespective of moral approaches to sex, parenting is about human ethics towards each other and towards a young life, is the film’s sole achievement.

“Waqt” was the weakest of this parent trilogy in my view. It took the traditional family and the overprotected son who knows no sense of responsibility and continues in adventures and actions that border on pure idiocy. There was nothing humorous in the silly escapades in the beginning and Akshay Kumar’s marriage to Priyanka Chopra who makes the big (?) sacrifice of giving up her heated swimming pool to marry a guy who has a normal pool. There are many other such retarded attempts at humor in the film. Then the clichéd cancer situation for an indulgent dad, played by a completely ridiculous Amitabh, creates the necessary filial responsibility to effect change. It showed that the love of a father can change the most wayward son in a crisis as there have been huge deposits in the bank of love. The film in not recommended at all, but it did well commercially and redeemed itself through this one message. Of course, this message is not meant for the conscious sophisticated urbane viewer, but it had its place and found a value for parental love and family duties in the web of madness that constitutes the film. That was encouraging.

Films of this kind are not philosophical investigations of the relativistic kind. Sometimes the ethical certainty of the issues of parenthood are probably best addressed in such simplistic modes. In these non –intellectual approaches to big questions of life, I feel Bollywood sets an example for other kind of media. Its even full of song and dance, which I like.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Book Review: Mediocre but Arrogant

Before anything, a necessary admission must be made. I started reading the book with the attitude that I read the handouts and literature in XLRI, the business school both the writer Abhijit Bhaduri and I got our dubious distinction of being “Mediocre but Arrogant” in.

This attitude, in one word, is flippant.

Therefore, my surprise at the journey Abbey, the protagonist, embarks on in the book, deftly and sensitively portrayed by Bhaduri’s skillful narration, has the power to jolt the most cynical ones among us into at least one moment of thought. Each of those possible thoughts though, hide behind funny encounters, and matter of fact incidents that have never given us pause before. In that, Abhijit has succeeded in examining what exactly is the role of higher education in a society that values material success of exterior kinds, involving degrees, wealth, corporate positions, and fame. And he does it while making one laugh and cry, in a world that is funny, erotic, irreverent and colorful in ways we have never viewed it. Yet, these lovely memories haunt all of us, who have been through any kind of education.

The labyrinths of succeeding in corporate world is a topic done to death before, but here one will find insights, specially in the form of a character called Rascal Rusty that gives new face to what it means to be Darwinistically ambitious. He has the capability of finding resonance and empathy with our dark sides which desire to be successful, not knowing how to reconcile it with the “nice” image we also aspire to at the same time. Abhijit has created an amazingly real character with public and private sides that exist but not acknowledged before.

The part which might create controversy in India is Abbey’s sexual adventures. The younger generation will identify with how real the dynamics of his multiple loves and numerous women portrayed in the book is. I do see however, the parents (and teachers) uncomfortably squirming at the prospect of amorous sides of students being discussed as openly as it has been here. From some reports, I believe this discomfort at “good students at good educational institutions do not indulge in these escapades” has already been expressed in the media by one of the directors of a prominent management institute after reading the book. This educator may be clearly uncomfortable with the sensitive and erotic side of a normal young student, but no-one will dispute that this has to be the most real account of student life one has read in contemporary times. Even if some of it leaves a questionable taste in one’s mouth, as reality does too. This exploration is wonderful and younger readers might find things there that may be of myriad values.

The book has illustrations that give it a distinct flavor and create images that Abhijit intends to share. Its acronyms, a part of student life, may sometimes get a little difficult for non XLers to follow, even though each and everyone has been painstakingly explained. A ready reference would have helped. It does create a real environment of school life though even in this. For readers who might complain about this, it might serve a good reminder that any kind of literature is set in a time and place and cannot be completely understood without understanding the details of that temporal reality. It does not affect one’s ability to enjoy the book though.

The story and its conclusion, or lack thereof, is not important. We all have heard it before, even lived it in our experiences or in another’s. It is the process, the journey that Abhijit narrates with a flair of a wonderful travel writer in images and descriptions that transport us elsewhere through words, is what stands out. The only difference is, the journey is not in any geographical place, but Abbey’s mind and his being. Anyone interested in such journeys will relish the nakedness of thought and feeling in this book, even while squirming uncomfortably at seeing how it is laid out for all to know and read. It is intimate, vulnerable and yet not unnecessarily emotional, something that is a difficult balance to create. It is deliciously funny and irreverent at the same time, an astonishing feat.

The larger setting that stood out was how the threads of exploration in this book relate to greater realities of outsourcing, globalization and transformation of identities. Not that the book deals with any of this directly. It might, if Abhijit writes a sequel, which I sincerely hope he does. A non- Indian reader, for instance, may be struck by what goes into the people who are challenging established meritocracies globally through outsourcing and global movement of talent. Is the professional who emerges out of a country like India merely struggling to survive, or is there greater questioning of education, identity, self and all these concepts in this process? Does this process have any implication on how things will be shaped in future? Many XL students, like their counterparts from other similar institutions in India have gone through Abbey’s journey. This may create an impact on where they end up in life, something Abhijit has left undefined, in this book. Well, the imagination is endless and its only when reading the book, will these possibilities emerge.

Book: Mediocre but Arrogant
Author : Abhijit Bhaduri.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Sexual adventures in "Chitralekha"

Chitralekha (for those who do not know) is a hindi novel by Bhagvati Prasad Vajpeyi.
It examines the role of sex in spiritual journeys.

It is a story of two friends who study in a gurukul together. One of them is a brahmin's son and seeks the path of the ascetic. His friend is a prince and goes back to his life of sensual gratification and action.

Chitralekha is the gorgeous courtesan who lives in the kingdom the prince rules over. They enter into a sexual relationship, which for the prince is a natural way of living.

The ascetic comes to visit his friend and admonishes his friend on sensual excesses. However, once exposed to them, he falls to their charms, including Chitralekha.

Its is from Chitralekha that he learns what true detachment means. She loves the prince and he shows no attachment, while enjoying her company as part of his natural life. the ascetic on the other hand, while claiming to show detachment cannot stop thinking about her physical charms.

The book examines the man who is driven by his passions and one who is driven by his intellect and contrasts different approches to sexual motivations as part of the greater framework of desires and senses.

They made a film on this a while back which did not do it any justice. It had a lovely song though. This line always haunts me:

" sansar se bhaage phirte ho
bhagwaan ko tum kya payego"

(How can you find God if you run away from the world?)

I was reminded of this book which deals with these isues with great openenss and maturity. It flays the puritan image of Indian literature in contemporary times. I wish there was a translation more could read.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

The women of bengal: A look at films

Sharat Chandra and Tagore need no introduction. The recent movies made on their works stood out in their portrayal of women. I refer to “Chokher Bali,” “Devdas”, and “Parineeta.” For those not familiar with the stories, here is a little synopsis of each movie

Chokher Bali: This is based on Tagore’s Binodini. Binodini is played by Aishwarya , a widow who was turned down by two educated city men, before she married someone from a village and became a widow soon after. Circumstances bring her to the home of the man who turned her down, and her desire to live a life suitable to her education and brains creates ripples in everyone’s life.

Devdas: Devdas lacks the strength to claim his childhood love Paro, who gets married. A heartbroken spends his life getting drunk, and is unable to accept the love of Chandramukhi, who loves him deeply.

Parineeta: Who is a married woman? The one who has taken the “saptapadi” (the seven steps around the fire) or who loves from her heart? This question forms the theme of this beautiful love story.

The women are all beautiful, intelligent and sensitive. They love deeply, and openly. There seems to be a touching directness in their actions. Paro goes to Devdas in the middle of the night, asking him to elope with her, Lolita garlands Shekhar in Parineeta on an impulse, not considering the consequences and Binodini embarks on an affair with one man and eventually proposes to the other, choosing to remains alone in the end. They take bold steps but the men find it hard to keep up with their courage. This is definitely not the world of “knights in shining armor” and any gallantry seems to be faded and lackluster. As for the women, here is no beauty versus brain stale dichotomy here. These women challenge their men, overshadowing them easily. Their strength as well as their vulnerability seem natural, and add to the depth of the characterizations. The men are weak and yet the women accept them as they are, not questioning their perfection or their ability to protect them. There is a touching humanity in these charaters.

These portrayals are at sharp contrast with the popular view of traditional Indian women being invisible in social realities. Is this relegated only to the literature that came out of colonial Bengal? Early 20th century Bengal was the vista where education as well as social reforms became the windows for women to look outside and find forms and faces that went beyond physical beauty? Did the land of the “mother goddess” in conjunction with western intellectual traditions create these literary characters? If yes, why did that trend fade away and not continue?

A very interesting common theme in all these stories is the weakness of the male protagonists. Is there a hint of intellectual impotency evident here, a result of being subjugated by foreign forces? Is there a desire for the satisfaction that comes out of being an “object of affection,” hidden in the men in these stories? They revel in the women loving them and the pain they go through due to that pain. There seems to be some reflection of a political reality there. The strength they lack in the social or the political realm is exercised in their power play with their women. Do Tagore and Sharat Chandra see that weak men subjugate their women? Satyajit Ray has dealt with these themes in his classic “Charulata” and “Ghare Baire,” both based on stories weaved by Tagore.

Suppose these stories were written today, would these women still love the way they did?
Would men get away with the transgressions they commit in the stories? Probably not. There have been definite changes in social realities.

Wheel of time

“Documentary film about the largest Buddhist ritual to promote peace and tolerance, held by His Holiness the Dalai Lama in Bodh Gaya, India and Graz, Austria in 2002, including exclusive interviews with the Dalai Lama, access to secret rituals for the first time on film as well as footage of a pilgrimage to the Holy Mount Kailash in Tibet.”


I had the amazing privilege to see this film yesterday. It was a piece of cinematic integrity. I have been to Bodhgaya, and some of the first photographs I took in my life were of the temple and the bodhi tree there. However, I have never considered it to be a place of cinematic material. I realized after watching this film, how uninformed we are of the depth and nuances of the religious traditions we take so much for granted. This film made me wonder, think and maybe created a longing to visit the places shown.

The film starts with showing tents and hundreds of thousands of Buddhist monks and followers who gather for the “kaalchakra” ceremony. The kaal chakra is the “ Wheel of Time” a symbol of the universe. It is created with colored sand, in three dimensions, through days of painstaking and precise effort on the part of the monk. Its creation is an act of artistic and spiritual unity.. Buddhists believe that its creation will bring peace and unity to the earth. Herzog, brings us frames of those who make the journey to Gaya over thousands of miles on foot, those who serve others, the Dalai lama. His ability to take us into the moment without any provocation or unnecessary emotional comments is exemplary. His respect for the event shows in his sensitive handling of shots, many of which stay with the viewer long after the screen turns dark. He is consistent in this even with his other films. The ceremony eventually gets cancelled after all preparation, and yet the serenity never leaves the film.

He then takes us to Mt Kailash, where believers circle the mountain and hoist prayer flags in a Saga Dawa ceremony. The landscape is beautiful and this is authentic filming at its best. Herzog, maintains a distance, observing and asking questions, that never cross over to the barrenness of the irreverent, neither does he show any propensity to get entangled emotionally. His artistic integrity is immense, even in depicting a spiritual ceremony.

In the final piece of the film, the kaalchakra ceremony takes place in Austria, and the contrast between the people and the culture is highlighted, without making a big show of it. There are bodyguards, Western clothes, an auditorium, and in all the atmosphere is very different from that in Gaya where the other ceremony was aborted. Is it possible to show contrast and compare without judging? I always thought this was an impossible feat, but Werner performs this amazing tightrope walk with amazing dexterity.

A must watch, if you ever get the opportunity to see it.

Prozac nation:some thoughts

This is a movie based on a true story and novel by Elizabeth Wurtzel. It’s the story about a young girl who wins a journalism scholarship to Harvard and her descent into the depths of depression. This is not a review, just some observations on some pertinent issues the movie highlights.

The film’s story, the characters, and acting are realistic enough, while not deviating from stereotypes of broken families, self-absorbed father, over indulgent mother and adolescent girl struggling with self-identity. Her therapist seems to be the only cool voice of sanity (?) who prescribes Prozac to give the protagonist “space to breathe.” Lizzie protests, saying that this cannot be a solution, if her sanity depends on a pill. Does that not make her doctor a dealer and the pharmacist a pick up spot?

Lizzie’s issues are to do with love, rejection, excess empathy, inability to deal with pain which are all human emotions, that everyone has felt in some degree at some point in time. Why does her life then spiral out of control, leading her to seek the highs of sex and X (ecstasy), while in college? There are obvious real difficulties to do with her life here, none of which become the focus of the story. The onus on the individual to handle her failings is complete, even to final moment of choosing between suicide and Prozac.
Her epiphany lies in realizing she is a broken human being, and a pill is her only path to freedom to live.

There are social questions, subtlety raised, even as the story relies on a personal account. The book has been criticized as self-pitying description of the horrors of depression. The reason I find this criticism interesting is a teacher of “directing actors” mentioned today in a class that audiences do not sympathize with self-pitying individuals, as they feel the pitying is over done. Apparently this has basis in some philosophy that those who are deep in despair and are aware of it need no empathy. Empathy should be limited to those who are not aware of their own weaknesses. The film highlights this point too.

If you can’t fix it yourself, get help who will legally give you a pill. Lizzie seems to echo this viewpoint repeatedly in the film. Its an interesting view on what modern society can offer those who find life’s burdens a little too heavy to bear.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

The Music of thought

“Uttering a word is like striking a note on the keyboard of imagination”


When words need no explanation, it’s a point of integrity. Thoughts behave like notes, playing along joyously; to create coherence…When the heart seems to be laid open.., its natural nakedness and the response it elicits is in the nature of the reader, not the writer.
Is there a purpose to this? Or is it just the impulse of a dancing mind?

When the writer and reader are one, perfect music is born. The flow becomes a river, trickling, gurgling over little pebbles, sometimes roaring as it falls from a height to depths, and then after the storm has passed, becomes quiet again, just flowing as it has it flow. Nothing else is important.

I read to experience the love of the writer, in sharing thoughts as symphony. A little idea,
another one , and yet another weaved together in a tune , that grows in its depth and beauty , slowly reaching a crescendo., that gives way either to the exclamation to allow a pause for reflection , or slows down to the joy of afterglow. To know the joy or the anguish of careful thought of one who has written is to find the intersection of our waves, a point of true happiness.

The concert is never-ending