Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Unbearable Lightness of Being - Milan Kundera and Hindi movie Pankh

I must confess, I love it when Bollywood goes artsy, despite my love for colour, masala and song and dance routines. I am proud to be one of the 39 people on the planet who love Meenaxi, and movies like Chameli and Raincoat just make my day.

So of course I was willing to forgive a lot of "Pankh", despite the fact that this was the only good review I read about it, just because it dared to bring surrealism into Bollywood just like Meenaxi brought post-modernism. But this post is not about the virtues of the movie, nor is it a review. This post is about its tagline: "The Unbearable Lightness of Being".

Borrowed from Milan Kundera's best-known novel, Pankh's tagline must be trying to tell us something, so I set out to find what connects the two pieces of art that couldn't be any more different. And I will make this analysis a little anti-climactic by warning you from the get-go that I don't really see what the connection is, if it even existed. But as I was digging deeper and deeper for meaning, I was surprised to find many shared themes, though the approach is miles apart.


Like many other movies that deal with projections and imagination, Pankh has the difficult task of transitioning between reality and fantasy, while still keeping the visuals flowing logically. And it manages beautifully through various devices like doors opening up into enchanted worlds of dream-like creatures, or circular trolley shots where what was hidden before can always make an appearance on the next turn. There are no dreams, but much like Tereza's dreams in Kundera's novel, these projections are symbolic bearers of the character's fears and doubts.


This was one of the themes that surprised me by appearing in both the movie and the novel in completely different get-ups. In Kundera's novel it plays a central part in the doctor's life because of a misinterpreted essay that he writes "comparing" communists with Oedipus. Without going into details, the most important point that the book makes is that Oedipus may not have been guilty of the sins he commits, but he still owns up to his actions and punishes himself as if he had been aware of what was happening all along. Who, if not ourselves, is really responsible for our destiny, Kundera makes us wonder.

In Pankh, the theme comes about in a more clinical way, in the form of a dominating, alcoholic mother that Jerry has a love-hate relationship with. She has shaped his destiny from early childhood, and continues to do so, even when Jerry rebels. And just like Kundera we wonder again: who is in control of Jerry's destiny? Is it his mother? Is it his muse? Is it himself? Or is it some higher power? And when the movie ends, can we say that he also, like Oedipus, took his destiny into his own hands? Or did he shift the blame back on his mother?


Funnily enough, the most blatant similarity between the book and the movie comes from the two gender-confused characters: Jerry, a boy forced to play a girl's roles in Bollywood movies during his entire childhood, and Karenin, the dog. Both are forced to exist as the opposite sex for reasons that in the long run turn out to have no weight or reasonable justification. But while the dog Karenin assumes his/her new identity with no repercussions, Jerry's life is forever scarred by this.


We come now to the very essence of the title of the book. Without going over the philosophical concepts of what gives weight and what gives lightness to life according to Kundera, I want to focus more on his characters' idea of what gives weight to their own lives. And in this respect, Sabina, the painter, stands out as the one character who cannot bear any strings and who repeatedly abandons everything that could weigh her down. Ironically enough, she is also the one character in the book whose life will continue to mean something to the world after her death, through her art. So her existence is at the same time the most weightless and the heaviest.

Similarly Jerry wills himself weightless, wishes for wings to fly out of his own life, and refuses to acknowledge any mark he may make or may have made on the world. Fame and talent, he thinks, are not important, and his acting is irrelevant. Do his actions in the end give his life any weight? Probably not, and again, ironically, the only thing that will be left of him after his death will be the films he had made as young baby Kusum, a legacy he spends his entire adolescence trying to refuse.


The one quote that will likely stay with me whenever I think about "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" is "Einmal ist Keinmal" (which roughly translates from German as "what happens once may as well have not happened at all"). Going back to the more philosophical part of the book, Kundera does a brief analysis of Nietzsche's doctrine of the Eternal Recurrence, but unlike Nietzsche he focuses on its negative effects. He concludes that the world could not bear the weight of a history altering event, like the French Revolution, happening over and over again because time is the only reason why we are able to see the benefits of such a blood-thirsty affair. On the other hand, having occurred only once, parts of it (namely the bloodshed) have been forgotten as if they had never happened. Thus the conclusion that what happens only once may as well have not happened at all.

This is another point where the movie differs from the book, at first sight, because we know that the abuse that Jerry goes through in his childhood is not an einmal type of situation. In fact, the movie being inspired by real life, we know it has happened to other children as well. Could it then be the type of event that Kundera would deem too heavy a burden for the world if it were to reoccur eternally? Or, since it is a truth so obscure, so little known, and so meaningless to the history of the world, isn't it safer to assume that no, it carries no weight after all, even if it were to happen again and again and again?

Other parallels can be drawn between the characters of the book and those of the movie, the philosophy of the book and the events in the movie, but everything that brings the two together, also seems to set them far apart. As I stumble in the dark still looking for that one convincing argument, I have to wonder: did I miss something?

Monday, July 19, 2010

Bollywood Is Finally Getting This Electronic Music Right!

I'm no great music reviewer, which is why you will never see a soundtrack review on this blog. I couldn't tell instruments apart if my life were hanging on the last bass guitar chord, and I don't have particularly refined tastes in music. I like it, or I don't. It's up my alley, or it's not. But since Bollywood is finally discovering my favorite genre, electronic music, after flirting disastrously with hip-hop, disco and bad dance music, I will use one post to express my gratitude for living in such exciting times.

One of the first "modern" soundtracks I heard out of Bollywood was Dhoom 2. And even now I wonder how I managed to keep the faith... Then, not too long after came Kismat Konnection. Wow, that took weeks, nay months to grow on me (and Shahid's dancing did help a lot, I can't deny it)! Then... it only got worse! After going through everything else that was "hot" around that time in the fateful year 2008 (Race, Cash, Dostana, Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na, etc.), I decided that I'd better join them if I don't want them to kill me in a slow, painful, brain-freezing way. So I started dancing merrily to the silliest beats and singing the lyrics to the most appalling songs (yes, including Move Your Body Now), and decided that I will continue to love my Bollywood, damn it, I will!

Even though that became increasingly more difficult, the likes of AR Rahman, Shankar Ehsaan Loy and Vishal Shenkar did manage to shine some magic under the door whenever they came up with a new, more traditional sounding soundtrack.

But on the "modern" music front, I was stuck in the early 90s and it didn't seem like there was any way to crawl out of there! Until one day...

... One wonderful day I got the soundtrack for Luck By Chance. And once I managed to get past playing Baawre on repeat, I discovered my first ever piece of Bollywood 21st century electronic beats:

Why this actually sounds... electronic! Somewhere halfway between drum&bass and dubstep? Go figure! Plus the lyrics are fabulous!

Then for a long while I went on thinking that was just a fluke. It was back to disco beats and 90's euro-trash for another few dozen soundtracks (and don't get me wrong, I love what I call euro-trash just as much as the next kid in my generation who grew up with 2 Unlimited, Snap and Technotronic, but I love it where it belongs, and that place is not Hindi movies).

Then this year, I was rewarded with not one, not two, but three songs that can hold their head up high and say "Yes, I was born in 2010!".

First it was this piece of awesomeness:

which I'll admit, sounds very much like the above mentioned veterans from Technotronic for the most part, but check out the bit in the middle starting at 0:50! Do I dare call that "almost dubstep" again?

Next up it was this song from Ishqiya:

which also has a strong electronic vibe to it, I can almost picture some underwater house dance steps to it.
It's too thick to flow like a house song, but speed it up a bit and you get this:

which starts off sounding like trance, and then... then it just goes haywire, but heck, it's good haywire!

And finally my year was made by Ishq Barse, from Raajneeti. The first song that indubitably mixes house (my favourite music genre) with just a wee bit of hip hop and something that sounds almost traditional but I can't quite place it, all tied together by some sweet, smooth flowing vocals that belong on a beach far away, in a Roger Sanchez song...

And it helps that the lyrics are in a place where love pours like rain and we dance and spin around, in a state of bliss. Such a shame the movie didn't have the full song picturization, and instead teased us with the first few dance steps and some sexy poses by the, granted, very photogenic Ranbir Kapoor and Katrina Kaif, to then cut to some more scheming and killing scenes. Well, I'm grateful for the song nonetheless!

ETA: Finally stumbled upon the song that Ishq Barse reminds me of: Take a Chance. And I also recently noticed that the version of Ishq Barse that they used in the movie was not only chopped up, but also a slightly different tune, so just for the record, this is the version of the song I've been going gaga about.

"4 songs over 3 years and you call that progress?", I see you raising an eye brow in disbelief... I know, I know... it's not a lot... But it's a damn good start. And if I have to go through another 50 so called dance songs to uncover another 3-4 evergreen gems like these, I'm happy to do that. Though I do hope Bollywood will speed things up a bit going forward...

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Boy, Oh Boy, These New Bolly Boys!

My inner fangirl has been neglected lately, I feel, so it seems like it's time to give her her due. And what better way to do that than a rant about this new generation of Bollywood actors that consistently blow my mind in the best ways possible!!

It's pretty funny how my favourite young man in Bollywood, Shahid Kapoor, at 29, is not even part of the new generation anymore. With over a dozen films, he sure seems like a veteran by now. So I guess I can't squeeze him on this list as much as I would love to. But that's ok, as they say, plenty more where that came from! Let's see...

Technically not a newcomer since the boy has been making movies since the turn of the century (I love how big that sounds, even though it's only 10 years!), and definitely not a boy since he's actually 36 (and a Capricorn - big yay for all the Capricorns in the film industry! Another one coming up in this list, there's just something about them...). But since his proper acting debut wasn't until 2 years ago, I consider him very much a newcomer. And since he's only done 3 movies, I have no problem picking my favourite one: Luck By Chance! One of the best Bollywood movies of all times, one that I will never get tired of recommending!

So what's there to love about Farhan? For one he has a killer asymmetrical smile that crumples up his whole face in the most adorable way, then he has that raspy voice that is to die for, he is incredibly funny in his talk-show "Oye, It's Friday!", he's subtle and brilliant in his acting, and the cherry on the cake: he wrote and directed Dil Chahta Hai, the movie that brought Bollywood romance into the 21st century, when he was only 26! Talented you say? I say: proof that there is no justice in the universe!

Also, the fact that he is now shooting for Zoya Akhtar's next movie, Zindagi Milegi Na Dobara, with the next yummy Bolly boy on my list increases his appeal exponentially. (As does the fact that he's grown his hair longer again.)

I confess I still have difficulty pronouncing his name right, even after extensive research down to the Devanagari script of his name (which no one seems to pronounce the way it's written), so hopefully I'll never run into him on the streets of Toronto and have to shout after him to get another look at his larger than life dimples. Oh who am I kidding, the day I saw him from relatively up close at the Toronto Film Festival in 2009 my hands were shaking so badly that I didn't even manage to get a good picture of him until he turned around. I got this boring guy instead, and a good shot of Abhay's shoulder and cheek... What an epic fail!

But all that drama aside, like all the other newcomers it seems, Abhay took his sweet time to grow on me, but grow he did. In fact he grew on me so much that I was even digging his mustache in Manorama Six Feet Under. And yes, that was before I got into South Indian movies and started seeing the light about mustaches altogether.

Abhay is what we would call the anti-hero of his generation. He doesn't do the song and dance routine (though sadly that seems to have become the norm, instead of the exception), he doesn't do loverboy roles (except for Ahista Ahista and Socha Na Tha, his first two movies), he hates to promote his movies, and get this one: he's smart! Whoa!

His choice of movies has always been on the eclectic side, and despite having seen them all, I have trouble naming a favourite. Maybe Road, Movie? Maybe Dev D., his brilliant take on the done-to-death (and horribly done at least in this century) Devdas? The dark drama Manorama Six Feet Under? But then he's so adorable in Socha Na Tha! See, I just can't decide! Maybe Road Movie after all...

Abhay for me is for the new generation what Aamir Khan is for the old one: the pathbreaker, the thinker and the only one whose movies I will reserve the entire opening weekend for, because no matter what movie it is, there is no doubt in my mind it will be brilliant enough for me to want to see it at least twice in the theatre. A random guy I met at the Film Festival last year said it best: "Abhay Deol is the only actor whose movies I have no problem showing to a Westerner, even to a Bollywood-hater-by-default, because I know I can't go wrong with them."

Ahhh... Ranbir... This one took the longest to dig the tunnel to my heart, but now that he's there, there's no removing him. What took me so long? I'm not going to lie, it was his looks. He just didn't appeal to me. And I am convinced the only reason I find him appealing now, 6 movies later, is because he's become like an old friend. My opinion of people's looks always reflects what I think of them: the people I dislike look ugly to me, while my friends all seem damn good looking. It's perhaps my way of solving the cognitive dissonance created by liking someone as a person and disliking their looks (call me shallow, it's ok, I know it). Ranbir just fit into that pattern: it got to the point where he felt so familiar in his movies, like I should know what he's going to do next (and I mean that as a compliment), that my brain just confused him for a friend, and ta-dah... made him good looking! Go figure...

Looks aside, clearly there must be something to him if I was watching all his movies even when I was comparing his charm to that of a vacuum cleaner. Well there's no denying he's a wonderful actor, but there are some things he positively excels in. He's energetic, he's full of life and most importantly he feels real. On top of that no one does confused better than Ranbir, no one does bemused better than Ranbir, no one does hurt puppy better than Ranbir and definitely no one in the new generation dances better than Ranbir. Give me ten movies in a row with him playing a good for nothing, a la Wake Up Sid! and I will not even require popcorn to watch them all!

And because this one is better seen in action than in pictures:

If I hadn't written this list in alphabetical order by last name, Imran would have probably been first, because right now, I am crushing on him a little too much for decency. Not enough to make me forget his lack of dancing skills (I have definitely been spoiled by Allu Arjun's mad energy and talent), but enough to make me forget that I was not going to buy any more new movies at least until next month. Kidnap had better be worth it, or rather, I know it's not worth it, but Imran had better make it worth it!
Somehow after seeing this:
I think he'll manage just fine!...

As the huge Aamir Khan fan that I am, I was so happy to discover just how much of uncle Aamir's features Imran has inherited (physically but also acting-wise). Which makes me think that maybe Bollywood did get it right: maybe acting talent IS genetically ingrained. When he can sell me a bad movie like I Hate Luv Storys (sic), I simply must bow to his charm and screen presence.

I do have a soft spot for actors with good facial expressions, the ones that no frame is wasted on because their face is never idle (Shahid is the other one at the top of this list for me), so I suspect that's what won me over about Imran. He seems so spontaneous in his acting, and he puts the fun back into watching Bollywood. Not fun the opposite of boring, but fun the opposite of serious. All that on top of the fact that he is ridiculously good looking and he has the perfect body (ok, maybe he shares that title with Ranbir). What more can a girl ask for? Did I mention he's also a Capricorn?

My favourite thing about this new generation is that I get to love them all! Unlike the Era of the Khans where fans were polarized (myself included: out of the three, I can't stand two of them), this new generation is the Love Generation, where no rivalries have shown their ugly faces yet, and comparisons are useless because these guys are so different in their range that they CAN each have their own place without outshining one another.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

2 Degrees of Separation – The Iliad and Tollywood Dishoom

Hm... This post turned out much more serious and definitely longer than I had intended. I promise some much lighter fare in the next one.

I've heard the comparison between Bollywood and Greek tragedies more than one time, and I certainly agree there is much to be said about their similarities, especially if we're talking epic love stories. But since Tollywood seems to value its fighting much higher than its love stories, I feel that a more apt comparison for Tolly dishoom (action) movies would be with the Greek epic poem The Iliad, which recounts the ninth year of the siege of Troy and every single one of the battles that took place, not only between the two armies but also between the Gods on Mount Olympus. (The link is really only provided to refresh your memory should you want to, it's definitely not a summer read I recommend.) Looking at it now, I realize The Iliad is a little like a game of Killer Bunnies: you can fight and struggle all you want, in the end it's still luck (or Fate) that dictates whether you win or lose.

I hated the dreadfully boring Iliad with every fiber of my being when I was forced to read it at 15. But I have always had a weak spot for the Greek/Roman gods and their foolish, immature ways, so read it I did. And some of it managed to stay with me enough to pop into my head when I was struggling to find the European artistic equivalent of Tollywood dishoom. The great thing is Tolly did away with all the bore, kept all the fun and gave us a modern day, evergreen Iliad.

## The first thing that I remember vividly about The Iliad is not the poetic descriptions of the weapons (though there are many of those), not the hilarious fights between the Gods (that's second on my list), not what I took away as the general message of the poem (which is that not even the Gods can change what was written for a man, but there can certainly be many ways to get a man there) and certainly not the epic scenes of battle (which really make up pretty much the whole book), no, it's none of that. It's the trash talking! Which is what initially prompted the comparison. Nowhere else have I seen so much blabber and disses before a fight as in Tollywood. Until I remembered fragments such as this from The Iliad:
Thus, then, did the battle rage between them. Presently the strong hand of fate impelled Tlepolemus, the son of Hercules, a man both brave and of great stature, to fight Sarpedon; so the two, son and grandson of great Jove, drew near to one another, and Tlepolemus spoke first. "Sarpedon," said he, "councillor of the Lycians, why should you come skulking here you who are a man of peace? They lie who call you son of aegis-bearing Jove, for you are little like those who were of old his children. Far other was Hercules, my own brave and lion-hearted father, who came here for the horses of Laomedon, and though he had six ships only, and few men to follow him, sacked the city of Ilius and made a wilderness of her highways. You are a coward, and your people are falling from you. For all your strength, and all your coming from Lycia, you will be no help to the Trojans but will pass the gates of Hades vanquished by my hand."

And Sarpedon, captain of the Lycians, answered, "Tlepolemus, your father overthrew Ilius by reason of Laomedon's folly in refusing payment to one who had served him well. He would not give your father the horses which he had come so far to fetch. As for yourself, you shall meet death by my spear. You shall yield glory to myself, and your soul to Hades of the noble steeds."

Let's face it, we can call it by any other pompous name, the Iliad remains one long diss-fest. Not very different from say... this scene in Bujjigaadu

Or how about these two:

Thus did they converse, but the other two had now driven close up to them, and the son of Lycaon spoke first. "Great and mighty son," said he, "of noble Tydeus, my arrow failed to lay you low, so I will now try with my spear."
He poised his spear as he spoke and hurled it from him. It struck the shield of the son of Tydeus; the bronze point pierced it and passed on till it reached the breastplate. Thereon the son of Lycaon shouted out and said, "You are hit clean through the belly; you will not stand out for long, and the glory of the fight is mine."
But Diomed all undismayed made answer, "You have missed, not hit, and before you two see the end of this matter one or other of you shall glut tough-shielded Mars with his blood."

## The Iliad consistently sees, in gory detail, might I add, the heroes defeat dozens of opponents on their way to victory (or to death). As do most dishoom movies. Except it's easier to keep track in movies because the hero, thankfully, is only one, whereas the Iliad still makes my head spin with its ever bountiful crops of heroes and their fathers and forefathers. Just give Book V a look-over and then lie to me that you were able to follow who was killing whom without a diagram! And then to cleanse your brain, enjoy this scene from Magadheera where our brave warrior does away 100 enemies in about 5 minutes.

## And if you thought Telugu masala movies invented the winning concept of repeating everything at least twice, especially scenes that just happened, for added emphasis, guess again. This is only one of the many dialogues that, if cut, would make the Iliad half its length. And I don't believe for a second it's there for poetry's sake! If only they trusted the reader to remember the previous sentence...

And Juno said, "Sleep, why do you take such notions as those into your head? Do you think Jove will be as anxious to help the Trojans, as he was about his own son? Come, I will marry you to one of the youngest of the Graces, and she shall be your own- Pasithea, whom you have always wanted to marry."

Sleep was pleased when he heard this, and answered, "Then swear it to me by the dread waters of the river Styx; lay one hand on the bounteous earth, and the other on the sheen of the sea, so that all the gods who dwell down below with Saturn may be our witnesses, and see that you really do give me one of the youngest of the Graces- Pasithea, whom I have always wanted to marry."

## For the longest time I avoided South Indian movies because I had heard they were violent, and violence is just not my thing. Little did I know that while being gory and bloody, they manage to keep it at the cartoon level most of the time, so surprisingly, reading something like this:

Patroclus went up to him and drove a spear into his right jaw; he thus hooked him by the teeth and the spear pulled him over the rim of his car, as one who sits at the end of some jutting rock and draws a strong fish out of the sea with a hook and a line- even so with his spear did he pull Thestor all gaping from his chariot; he then threw him down on his face and he died while falling. On this, as Erylaus was on to attack him, he struck him full on the head with a stone, and his brains were all battered inside his helmet, whereon he fell headlong to the ground and the pangs of death took hold upon him.
makes my stomach turn just a wee bit more than seeeing something like this: 

## One last observation, though I am leaving many unaddressed. I was very amused to discover that while my entire Telugu vocabulary consists of about 20 words, among these, I happen to know pretty much all the jungle predators: tiger, cheetah, lion, etc, just from movie titles (or words repeated enough times during a movie for me to figure out what they mean). The reason why I find it amusing is because almost 3 years into Bollywood and I still don't know some of these words in Hindi. Coincidence? I think not! Telugu movies don't bother with glossy, subtle metaphors like Bollywood. They embrace their earthly, untamed nature and their references are not surprisingly from the animal world.
In this fight from Yama Donga, NTR junior gets juxtaposed over a cheetah hunting an antelope, to metaphorically show him as the invincible predator that he is.
And of course, here is one of the equivalent quotes from the book, relishing the description of the powerful beast, though funnily enough Greece doesn’t even have jungles, leopards and lions, to my knowledge:

Menelaus heeded his words and went his way as a lion from a stockyard- the lion is tired of attacking the men and hounds, who keep watch the whole night through and will not let him feast on the fat of their herd. In his lust of meat he makes straight at them but in vain, for darts from strong hands assail him, and burning brands which daunt him for all his hunger, so in the morning he slinks sulkily away- even so did Menelaus sorely against his will leave Patroclus, in great fear lest the Achaeans should be driven back in rout and let him fall into the hands of the foe.

At the end of all this I am left with one question: who are our Gods in dishoom movies? Our playful, often logic-defying but ever powerful Gods? Why... the action choreographers of course! Who else protects and saves our hero from the most unlikely situations and allows him to perform death-defying stunts and come out in one piece at the end? And who else guides his machete through dozens and dozens of enemies who fall at his feet like grass under the scythe? Could our heroes still be heroes were it not for these Gods of Creativity and Awe? 
So, in the end, allow me to give a shout out to these unseen magicians of the silver screen and wish that their madness never cease to amaze us!