Sunday, July 30, 2006

Omkara - Shakespeare will approve

Shakespeare's Othello is an outsider - culturally and racially, that is - and that adds the flaw of 'insecurity' to his already complex character. Vishal Bhardwaj's Omkara too suffers the agony of being reminded of his blood being 'impure'. And, like Shakespeare, Vishal merely alludes to this fact rather than bringing it centrestage and making it a significant plot device.

Othello's fate is driven not by his obsessive love for Desdemona, but by his own insecurities and the eternal conflict between the toughness demanded by his vocation, and the softness expected in love. He is exploited by Iago because of weakness in his character: despite his tragedy, that elicits sympathy from the audience. In Roger Eberts's words "(Othello is) a hero brought down by his own flaws." Omkara's predicament is the same.
It's not Iago, but Barbantio (Desdemona's father) who sort of warns Othello of Desdemona's potential infidelity; and possibly strengthens the insecurities in Othello's mind, though it isn't until Iago starts playing his game that the seed of mistrust sown into Othello's mind by his wife's father starts blooming. Vakil Saheb does the same to Omkara.

Barbantio to Othello:

Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see:
She has deceived her father, and may thee.
(Act 1, Scene III)
Vakil sahab to Omkara:
जो लड़की अपने बाप को ठगे, वो किसी और की क्या सगी होगी?
Vishal's Omkara ranks among the best adaptations of Shakespeare's work in India. With this he proves that "Maqbool" was no flash in the pan. And mind you, if he calls his films 'adaptations', they're precisely that. With both his films based on Shakespeare's tragedies, he has painstakingly - and successfully - captured the plot and essence of the Bard's work and put it into a context that's Indian to the core: he has adapted the plays, not simply translated them to the medium of film. Adaptations invariably calls for realigning the original plots in the new cultural milieu; and Vishal seems fairly adept at that. It is easy to give all the credit to Shakepeare for the universality of his theme, but you have to the see other 'adaptations' or 'inspirations' of his work to realize that writers and directors can go horribly wrong even with such universal themes. Vishal deserves the credit for getting it! And, getting it right for the second time.

Vishal is the real hero of the film - he's the director, screenplay co-writer, dialogue writer, music composer, and even singer. And he excels in every single of these departments. He is in complete command here, never letting the performances or any other aspect overshadow the film. If Saif as Langda Tyagi and Konkana as Indu do a fabulous job, it's as much a tribute to Vishal's pen than their own performances.

While adapting Othello, Vishal has taken a few liberties, but given the final result, there's no reason to complain. Shakepeare's Iago is a heinous villain, who is ambivalent about his true motivations. Vishal, on the other hand, paints his Langda Tyagi with a slight sympathetic tinge, without compromising one bit on his vile and evil core. Saif does a marvelous job at portraying this, especially in the scene where Omkara anoints Keshu as his successor. In trying to make Langda Tyagi a shade more human, Vishal has avoided one aspect of Shakepeare's Iago. Iago wants to destroy Othello, not only because he's not made his lieutenant, but he also suspects Othello of an affair with his wife, Emilia. This makes Iago a person sure of his ultimate aim, but unsure of his motivation...and that, in a way, makes him more black than grey. He kills his own wife when she comes in his way. Langda Tyagi wants revenge only because he's been treated unfairly (and he doesn't kill Indu)...Vishal makes you empathize with him. This is probably the only place where Vishal has deviated from the original. Otherwise, he's remained completely true to the spirit of Othello, despite shuffling and altering a few events here and there.

Truth be told, Ajay Devgan and Kareena, who have pivotal characters in the film, fail Vishal. They aren't bad, but somehow their portrayal of their characters needed more sincerety. Ajay Devgan's character graph is fairly flat, although there are flashes of brilliance in a few fleeting moments, but you can't help but get a feeling of deja vu. He's done all this before; there is no innovation. Kareena is normally BAD, but here she is bearable. It's to Vishal's credit that he understood her limitations and didn't make her do anything she couldn't, even if that meant making the character a little sketchy. However, one character that sticks out like a sore thumb is Billo Chamanbahar, played by Bipasha Basu. Forget her acting skills, she looks just too refined for the role she's playing. Her character demands gaudy make-up, garish clothes and a coarse tongue. But what we get is perfect make-up, designer clothes (despite an unsuccessful attempt at making them look garish) and someone you can expect to start talking in English anytime.

A word of acknowledgement for newcomer Deepak Dobriyal - his portrayal of the bumbling Rajju, is so real that it hardly seems like an act. Quite an achievement for a newcomer who could easily have got lost amidst the galaxy of stars.

Technically, the film is top-notch. Tassaduq Hussain's brilliantly non-intrusive cinematography captures the mood of the film with some breathtaking visuals. Some of the shot compositions are truly remarkable. So is the editing and the background score that heightens the tension.

I must talk about the film's soundtrack. Vishal is essentially a musician who became a filmmaker by default. He impressed me a great deal with his divine score in Maachis. He is one of those music composers who would never compromise with their convictions. He didn't get much success as a music composer, because he refuses to work like other composers. He demands more involvement in the process of film making, so that his music blends with the film rather than stick out. That's just not the way our industry works, is it? That's why, Vishal only composes for himself these days. His scores always go with the theme of the film. His songs do not have an instant appeal, rather they always fit seamlessly within the context of his films. The beauty of his compositions is that they blend so well with the film that they have limited appeal outside the context of the film. That's the irony - a composer needs to compliment the mood of a film, but he's not considered 'good' till he's had a chartbuster to his credit. Omkara can be seen as a compromise by Vishal in that he's produced two 'item' numbers for this film. Yet, the structure of these compositions is very much rooted in authenticity and thematic veracity. The entire soundtrack of Omkara ranks highly amid Vishal's magnificent, though non-prolific, oeuvre.

Talking of songs, how can I avoid mentioning my favourite lyricist and poet - Gulzar. Vishal and Gulzar are a package deal - if Vishal makes a film, Gulzar writes the lyrics and if Gulzar makes a film, Vishal has to compose the music. Gulzar's brilliance lies in his use of simple words, but profound imagery and meaning. I call him a visual poet - his words form an instant image in your mind. Even when he has to write a pedestrian 'item' number, he manages to leave his indelible mark. Listen to the lyrics of "Beedi" and "Namak". They are naughty and saucy as intended, yet uniquely Gulzar. Can you imagine any one else writing these lines (notice the imperfect spellings and pronunciations)?

न गिलाफ़ न लिहाफ़, ठन्डी हवा भी ख़िलाफ़
जबाँ पर लागा लागा रे नमक इस्क का

My favorites, however, are these line

1) आँखें तेज तत्तैया दोनों, जीभ साँप का फुँकारा ;
बिजुरी सा कौंधे सर पे जिसकी तलवार का झँकारा- ॐकारा

2) नैनों की जुबान पर भरोसा नहीं आता;
लिखत पढत न रसीद न खाता … नैना ठग लेंगे

One of the complaints that I expect from people is that Omkara moves forward at a leisurely pace. I think that's precisely what gives the film its dark and brooding character, which was so essential to this theme. The other would be the strong language. The language used in the film , liberally interspersed with expletives in hard core Hindi, is authentic: that's exactly what you would expect these characters to speak. The film sets the tone and expectation right upfront in the very first dialogue, which made many people in the theatre very uncomfortable, even some sniggers and nervous laughs.

As a final note - I thought that Maqbool was a cool Indian name for Macbeth. Vishal takes that a step forward in Omkara. All the main characters in Omkara share the same starting alphabet or sound as their counterparts in Othello. So Othello becomes Omkara, Desdemona is Dolly, Cassio is Keshu, Emilia is Indu, Bianca is Billo, Roderigo appears as Rajju....but why is Iago Lagda Tyagi?

Well, Langda Tyagi's real name is Ishwar, though he's always called Langda all through the movie....and, don't you think Tyagi has a phonetic affinity with Iago?

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Knowledge and Poetry

Appreciation of poetry is a complex process, especially in the context of Urdu poetry. Besides a good understanding of the language, it is important for a reader to understand the cultural backdrop and conventions of Urdu poetry. Many metaphors used in Urdu poetry will make no sense to a person who has no knowledge of the culture, myths, fables, conventions and the context that cause these metaphors to resonate with inherent, at times obvious meaning. That's what makes translating Urdu ghazals in English (and consequently their appreciation by non-native speakers) such an arduous task.

Let's take a very simple example - if you've had any exposure to Urdu poetry, or for that matter even Hindi film songs, you would have heard the word 'jigar' (जिगर) very often, too often in fact. (this word has been abused so badly by many of our Hindi film lyricist, that I consciously refrain from using it in any of my poetry... I have probably used it only in one or two of my couplets)

'Jigar' is normally used in the context of love. Now, what is 'jigar'? It means, liver i.e. lakht-e-jigar (लख़्त-ए-जिगर) or jigar ka tukda (जिगर का टुकड़ा), literally meaning piece of liver and hence someone extremely dear. Liver and love - what's the connection? A person exposed to English poetry, or even Hindi poetry, would always associate the heart with love. Even in Urdu poetry, the heart is associated with love, but so is liver. Why? This is brilliantly explained by Frances W. Pritchett in the following lines:

"In ghazal physiology, the liver is the organ that makes fresh blood; thus it's an emblem of fortitude, steadfastness, endurance over time. The heart, by contrast is always consuming blood: bleeding constantly, pumping blood to the eyes so the lover can weep tears of blood, and then tearing itself into fragments as a sign of its proper lover-like self-destruction. For the heart to be done for is an initial state of passion, since more blood can be sent for from the liver. But when the liver is finished, the game is up."
In other words, the association of love with liver implies greater depth.

This example is very basic. Once you understand the 'ghazal physiology', the association is complete and there's no need for any further exposition. 'Jigar' now finds a place amongst the accepted conventions of Urdu poetry. The next time you hear the word 'jigar' in a poem you don't need any explanation or background information.

Yet, there are many great examples in Urdu poetry where knowledge of history and myth is so essential that you just cannot understand a verse without that knowledge. And in many cases you will probably not come across the same imagery again for it to become a 'convention' of poetry, like the way 'jigar' has become. Let me take the example of the opening verse from Diwan-e-Ghalib (collection of Ghalib's verses). It is a particularly interesting verse because the entire meaning of the verse rests on the knowledge of a quaint custom in Persian history, so much so that many commentators have declared this one to be a 'meaningless verse'. No other verse in Urdu poetry has been the subject of so much debate and analysis as this one. Here it is:

नक़्श फ़रयादी है किस की शोख़ी-ए-तहरीर का
काग़ज़ी है पैरहन हर पैकर-ए-तस्वीर का
(about whose mischievousness of writing is the image/painting a plaintiff?
of paper is the robe of every figure of the picture)......translation by Frances W. Pritchett.

If your really look at this verse, it seems completely meaningless. It's not only the typical Ghalibian complexity and abstruseness that makes this verse seem meaningless. This verse demands a certain basic knowledge. What's this stuff about a plaintiff, a picture and a paper robe!!! Now let's see how Ghalib himself explains this verse. (There are very few verses that Ghalib has explained in his own words. The fact that he chose to do that for this one, makes it obvious that people called this particular verse 'meaningless')
[Writing in 1865:] First listen to the meaning of the meaningless verses. As for नक़श फ़रयादी : In Iran there is the custom that the seeker of justice, putting on paper garments, goes before the ruler-- as in the case of lighting a torch in the day, or carrying a blood-soaked cloth on a bamboo pole [to protest an injustice]. Thus the poet reflects, of whose mischievousness of writing is the image a plaintiff? --since the aspect of a picture is that its garment is of paper. That is to say, although existence may be like that of pictures, merely notional, it is a cause of grief and sorrow and suffering. (Arshi p. 159)

Now that you know about this Persian custom of a plaintiff putting on a paper garment, doesn't this verse suddenly resonate with meaning? Read a delightful collection on commentary on this verse (Frances W. Pritchett).

I am very tempted to quote one of my own verses, where knowledge of ancient Persian myth is very essential to understanding it. How can I even think of quoting Ghalib's most intriguing and, in my opinion, the most brilliant verse in the same breath as one of my own? Before someone gets offended and accuses me of blasphemy, let me clarify that I'm just trying to make a point... anyway, here's my verse:

मेरी तक़्दीर पलटने के भी दिन आएँगे
मेरे सर पर भी हुमा बालफ़िशाँ होता है
(one day my fortune too will turn
on my head the 'Huma' spreads its wings)

I don't blame you if you don't get this. If I tell you that 'Huma' is a mythical bird, does it make you any wiser about this verse? Probably not. Now if I were to tell you that Huma is "the king-maker bird of Persian story tradition: anyone upon whom his shadow falls is destined to wield royal power", isn't the meaning of the verse crystal clear?

To be honest, I don't really like this verse of mine - primarily because once the 'secret' is revealed, the thought is quite run-of-the-mill. Moreover, the verse smacks of self-indulgence! But it does prove my point about the importance of 'knowledge' in understanding poetry.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

At your service, Uncle Sam

"A key Bush administration official on Monday advised India to rely on hard evidence before drawing conclusions in the Mumbai terror attacks, while obliquely criticizing New Delhi for implicating Islamabad in the blasts and calling off talks."

Sure, Uncle Sam. Your 'advice' is our command. You, after all, have the onerous responsibility of being the benignly just guardian of this world. You lead by example, and we, your subjects, must follow. If my memory doesn't fail me, you had incontrovertible evidence before you drew your conclusions about Iraq and pushed almost the entire world into a war. How does it matter that nobody could find any evidence of the WMDs that you said Saddam possessed? Your word was the evidence - so strong an evidence that the war became a necessity.

What evidence do we have? We only 'suspect' a Pakistani hand in the Mumbai blasts. But, Uncle Sam, even though it's just a suspicion, wouldn't it be better if we held off for a while before continuing the so-called 'peace' talks? We haven't gone on an offensive, it's just that the 'confidence building measures' have been deferred. Or do you think we should follow your example, manufacture some 'hard evidence' and launch a full-fledged offensive?

We're too inexperienced when it comes to terrorism, right? What is 20+ years of ceaseless terrorism compared to just one spectacular act on your land not even 5 years ago? So why don't you let your 'experienced' hand guide us?

We're at your service, Uncle Sam.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Caché - A Hidden Gem

Those who know me are well aware that I'm a complete movie buff. I simply love the experience of watching a film, no matter how good or bad it is. Of course watching a good film is satisfying, but I 'enjoy' watching bad films as well!

My problem is that when I go to watch a Hindi or an English movie, I always go in with an expectation. By the time I get to see the film, I would already have read or heard enough about it or would have some preset notions about the cast and crew, etc. etc. This leads to a situation where my opinion about the movie is influenced by my expectations. In many cases this might happen completely at a sub-conscious level, but it does happen. Very rarely does one get a chance to watch a film one has never heard of - rather a film that hasn't registered in one's memory more than a casual reference in a list of films having won a major award.

I got this chance when I was flying to London last month. The in-flight entertainment was playing a French film on one of the channels. It was only in the last leg of my flight that I tuned in to that channel. Thank God I did.
The film in question is called Caché (Hidden). Never before have I been so enthralled by a film where the characters live in a milieu I can't relate to and speak a language I don't understand. I was so impressed by what I saw, that I bought the film's DVD at the very first opportunity (two days later from Heathrow).

Caché is an intelligent thriller. True to its title, it hides more than it reveals. At one level it's about a family that's terrorised by a faceless person, who keeps sending them hours of video footage of their home - an indication that they are under surveillance. Expectedly, this creates havoc in the lives of the family. As the film unfolds, you realize that this is much more complex than it sounds.

Caché is intricately layered, with each layer revealing itself just at the appropriate moment and with just the right amount of emphasis. As the minutes pass by you realize that there's a lot that is hidden - the most obvious thing being the 'hidden' camera. Within the first 10 minutes, you get a feeling that all's not well between the couple - what exactly, you don't know: it's 'hidden'. You could dismiss that as an obvious result of the discovery that they're being watched, but it isn't really that....the sub-text remains 'hidden', yet makes its point. Then, the husband's hidden past, and the consequent guilt, is carefully and subtly revealed - the director is in no hurry, and that actually makes us empathize with the characters on the screen.

The film also has strong political undertones - strong in terms of implication, rather than depiction (Paris massacre of 1961). At the most obvious level, it's about a man's guilt about a seemingly innocuous act as a kid. The director, however, uses that as a metaphor for a nation's guilt about ill-treating its immigrants, without explicitly stating it anywhere. Everything here is implied - or in other words, 'hidden'. That's where the brilliance of the film lies - in subtlety.

I was completely blown away by the final scene. OK...let me admit it. When I first saw it on the flight, I did not realize how important this final scene was. I thought that the director wanted to end the film just the way with he had started i.e. with a prolonged, distant video shot. At first look it seems that there's nothing going on in the scene except for a crowd of people just moving haphazardly across the screen. It was after a few days when I watched the film again on DVD that I realized what a masterstroke the final scene was. Careful viewing of this scene opens up completely new possibilities for the resolution of the film. Again, the director leaves it 'hidden', completely open to many different interpretations. (I could explain this scene, but let it be 'hidden'. Watch the film to understand what I mean!)

The story doesn't lead to a resolution (which one surely expects in a thriller), but it is the lack of resolution, and the countless possibilities it consequently opens up, that makes Caché one of my most satisfying movie experiences in recent memory.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Weekend at Agra

I love to travel. And I love history. So when I got a night's stay at a hotel in Agra as the prize for winning a quiz, I was ecstatic. While I had been to Agra before, this would be my wife's first visit. Obviously then, she was as excited as I was. For me it was an opportunity to get a 'refresher course' in Mughal history, while for her it was the excitement to finally get to see the Taj.

Anyhow, we went to Agra over the weekend. Needless to say, we had a great time. My intent here is not to give a description of our itinerary or to go gaga over the beauty of Mughal architecture. There are two things that I want to write about - one quite serious, and the other quite funny actually.

Let me start with the funny bit. I found the tourist guides in Agra quite amusing. Forget the fact that they try to impose themselves upon you (they're notorious for that anyway). What is truly amusing is their twisted version of history, which they narrate with truly remarkable conviction. In their accounts, history seamlessly integrates with folklore, myth, and even outright lie. This can be a cause of concern when they dish this khichdi out to unsuspecting foreigners, but I take great delight in it. When we visited any of the historical places at Agra, I made it a point to hire a guide just to get a thrill out of it - to compare my version of history with theirs, and at the same time have a good laugh!

Somehow these guides have the uncanny knack of getting into the minds of their 'preys' and presenting a version that would be most appealing to them. If you appear to be someone who loves drama, you will get just that. If you want straightforward facts, you'll get them plain and dry. Only, the facts, in most cases, can hardly be called facts. Sometimes, two guides can present the same fact in diametrically opposite contexts.

Sample this - it's a fact that Akbar had a wife called Mariam. Now let's see how this was told to us by two guides. Guide-1 - Akbar respected all religions; he had a Hindu wife, a Muslim wife and a Christian wife (Mariam). Great...the guide was talking about Din-i-Ilahi, the religion propounded by Akbar, and this fact perfectly exemplified his secular beliefs. Now let's see what Guide-2 tells us - Akbar didn't have a Christian wife; Mariam was another name given to his Hindu wife - Jodha Bai, Jahangir's mother. The point here being that Akbar's Rajput wife also embraced Islam. It's interesting to note that whether 'Jodha Bai' was indeed Jahangir's mother has always been a point of dispute among historians, but that Jahangir's mother was a Rajput (possibly given the name of Mariam-uz-Zamani) and a practicing Hindu is a well accepted fact.

At the Taj, the guide 'informed' us that the Koh-i-noor was broken by the British - one piece adorning the queen's crown, and the other kept in a museum. Again, a preposterously twisted fact. Actually, it is the queen mother's crown, adorned by the Koh-i-noor, that is on display at the museum at the Tower of London - there simply aren't two separate pieces, the original stone was 'cut' to increase its brilliance.

Interacting with these guides also reinforced my belief that history is all about interpretation. We've had enormous debates about how historians have tried to promote their own ideologies through their versions of history. To a certain extent it is plausible, it just depends on how you portray a particular fact.

The Mughal history I know portrays Aurangzeb as a tyrant, anti-Hindu, and a plunderer. My guide at the Taj 'enlightened' me to the fact that Aurangzeb actually cared a lot for his people and didn't want to waste money on expensive monuments. Facts can be emphasized or underplayed to present any of these two contrasting pictures. I don't think it's ever possible for historians to completely divorce their personal biases and ideologies while interpreting history. A good historian, in my opinion, is one who does not let personal agenda hijack the interpretation.

Abraham Eraly, in the preface to his book Emperors of the Peacock Throne - The Saga of the Great Mughals, observes:

"Every retelling of history, if it is anything more than a banal catalogue of events, involves ideation, if only because, even at the primary level, a process of selection and evealuation of data, a pattern-making, is invloved. The historian might not be overtly judgmental, but judgement is implicit in the very telling of the story."

Now let me come to the more serious observation. Looking at these priceless gems of our heritage, I felt quite sorry at the state of the various monuments. All the monuments in Agra are either World Heritage Sites or come under the aegis of the Archeological Survey of India. Yet, their maintenance and upkeep is seriously sub-standard. I wonder where all the money pumped in by the government goes! I was particularly saddened by state of affairs at Akbar's tomb at Sikandra and Itimad-ud-daulah's tomb. These monuments have been around for almost 400 years, but if the current sorry state of maintenance (rather the lack of it) continues, I seriously doubt if they will survive another 100 years. The blame for this lies not only with the authorities, but also with us, the common people.

When will we learn to respect our heritage and stop defacing our monuments? Missing stones, graffiti on the walls and everywhere else, pollution everywhere, trash all over the place - I find all this quite revolting. The signage on the Taj lawns say "Walking and photography on grass prohibited", yet that's exactly what I found people doing there. And there was no one around to stop them. I even saw a family enjoying a min-picnic, with food stuff and all, on the lawns. The waterways of the garden had mineral water bottles and polythene bags floating all over And there was no one to stop the people from doing that. Agreed that the Taj is the 'monument of love', but why do people have to use the walls and benches to profess their love in the form of graffiti?


Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Barcelona - Una Ciudad Interesante

Estaba en Barcelona la semana pasada. Había ido allí para trabajo, pero tuve algún tiempo libre en mano para explorar la ciudad. Yo me enamoré de la ciudad, especialmente su arquitectura.

Well, enough Spanish! Let me continue in a language I know…

I was in Barcelona last week. I had gone there on work, but had some spare time on hand to explore the city. I fell in love with the city, particularly its architecture.

At one level, the architecture of the city is so diverse that it almost gives it a confused character. That's what my first impression also was. But as I explored the city more, I realized that it is the diversity of its architecture that gives the city its unique character. From Medieval to Renaissance to Modernisme/Art Nouveau to contemporary – the city has it all.

I was particularly impressed by Antoni Gaudi's work. Whether it was the surrealistic and seemingly 'deformed' Casa Mila or the extremely ornate and colorful Casa Batllo, or his magnum opus – La Sagrada Familia, one couldn’t help but get awestruck by the magnificence and brilliance of his work. His style is very different from anything I’ve ever seen. It breaks every single convention of architecture that I know of. What you finally get is not a building but a piece of Art. The two facades of Sagrada Familia are a study in contrast. While the Passion façade is characterized by strong angular images (very uncharacteristic of Gaudi's style), the Nativity façade is very typical of Gaudi – heavily inspired by nature and its undefined forms.

I find it strange that the Sagrada Familia has been under construction since 1884 and is not expected to be completed before Gaudi's death centenary in 2026. Now that's one helluva slow work! I'm sure there is a strong reason for this delay, but I fail to comprehend it.

The other thing I loved about Barcelona was the food. From usual stuff like prawns and fish to more exotic octopus and mussels, and even rabbit – I tried everything I got there. And of course, how could I forget the sea food Paella? No Spanish meal is complete without the paella. I loved it but after having paella for six consecutive meals, it just about started getting on my nerves.

I was in Barcelona during the world cup fever, and it was unfortunate that the match I saw in a pub with the Spanish people was the one where Spain lost. But the excitement in the air got me hooked on to the match, even though I know very little about football.