Monday, April 30, 2007

Water of Life

Mohammad Hussain Azad's Aab-e-hayaat (Water of Life) is regarded as the first documented 'history' of Urdu literature. It is a book that has shaped and influenced the thoughts of the Urdu literary community all through the 20th century. I'm not much of an on-line reader, so while a link to the online version of the English translation by F.W Pritchett and S.R Faruqui figures prominently in my IE favorites folder, I desperately wanted to own a copy of the book. So you can imagine my delight when I found an old copy of this translation at a bookshop last week.

As I opened the book, I was quite amused by the very first line. The translators try to warn the reader –

"Āb-e ḥayāt is not a trustworthy history of Urdu literature. It cannot and should not be read as such."
Now, this is interesting… the first documented 'history' of Urdu literature is not 'trustworthy' after all. As I dived deeper into the initial chapters – the translators' introductory notes – it became obvious to me that the translators felt very strongly about what Azad had written in this seminal book.
"The unique power exerted by Āb-e ḥayāt is what made us decide to translate this exasperating, moving, wrongheaded, fascinating, all-too-persuasive text."
As I moved further along, I understood why FWP and SRF used these words to describe the book. While theorizing on the history of Urdu literature, Azad starts off with a critique, going completely ballistic in condemning the stagnation that had crept into classical Urdu poetry. Given the influential status of Azad's book, generations of critics that came after him perpetuated the same thought process, so much so that classical Urdu poetry (ghazal in particular) lost its stature in the eyes of the people. It's quite common to read points of view that condemn the ghazal as 'decadent' or 'immoral'.

Azad's main concern, however ill-founded it was, was that by drawing Persian imagery and metaphors into Urdu poetry, and then by holding on to it, the Urdu language was stagnating. His point is that many of the conventions used in classical Urdu poetry are alien to the Hindustani milieu and no efforts were made to lend vibrancy to the language by indigenizing or even widening the scope of these metaphors, or for that matter exploring new themes. He had a problem with ghazal restricting itself primarily to themes of love and sensuousness, which is thought of as 'immoral'.

This is how Azad puts it:
"Those same fixed things! Here and there we move the words around, here and there we do some substitutions--and we keep on composing with them. As if they're morsels that have already been eaten--or at least chewed--by other people. We chew on them, and we're happy. Think about it--what relish do they still have left? Beauty and love--marvelous!--very fine! But for how long? Whether she's a Houri or a Pari, once you're stuck with her, she becomes sickening. How long can it be till you get fed up with beauty and love? And by now she's become a hundred-year-old crone!"
Azad was not alone in this thinking. Altaf Hussain 'Hali', who was even more vitriolic in his diatribe against classical Urdu poetic traditions, went on to say the exact same thing in his critique. I have read Azad and Hali only cursorily, so I can't really comment on the validity of their attacks, but it sure makes for some very interesting reading.

Interestingly, both Azad and Hali, and many others after them, start their histories with scathing attacks on the quality of Urdu literature. The work of their successors compelled Ralph Russell to write a brilliant piece called How Not to Write the History of Urdu literature. His point – "if you don’t think much of Urdu Literature, please don't go to the trouble of writing a history of it"

The bigger problem with Azad's and Hali's views is that they take their Anglophilia to ridiculous heights by proclaiming Western poetry to be much superior to classical Urdu poetry because it was based on 'nature' and things 'real', whereas Urdu poetry was prone to extreme exaggeration and 'unreal' themes. They prescribe the adoption of 'natural' poetry, like - say - Wordsworth. They even urge – at least Hali does in no uncertain terms – that poets should look at the West for inspiration.
'हाली' अब आओ पैरवी-ए-मग़रिबी करें
बस इक़्तिदा-ए-मुसहफ़ी-ओ-मीर हो चुकी

'Hali', come now, let us follow the West;
Enough of the leadership of 'Mus-hafi' and 'Mir'

What? An urge to imitate the West? As FWP would ask: What next? Wordsworthify Ghalib?

I need to read more of Azad and Hali before I can comment on this aspect of their critique, but from the face of it they seem to ask poets to strip the ghazal of its inherent charm, which comes through exaggeration and abundant use of metaphors.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Sorry State of Film Criticism

Criticism: "the act or art of analyzing and evaluating or judging the quality of a literary or artistic work, musical performance, art exhibit, dramatic production, etc."
"There's a common fallacy that anyone can review a film. But how can you do it if you don't have the proper tools to 'read' a film?" - What Every Film Critic Must Know by Ronald Bergan

Today's episode of Koffee with Karan had an interesting debate about the role of film critics. Kunal Kohli and Rakesh Roshan were expectedly very emphatic in their view that they have no respect for most film critics. What else do you expect from directors whose films have been thrashed by most film critics. On the other hand, the other directors on the show - Rakeysh Mehra and Raju Hirani, whose last films have met with almost universal critical acclaim, were less derisive. One point where there was some unanimity was the fact that the quality of film criticism in India is not up to the mark. Anyone who has even the most basic writing talent can pass-off as a film critic these days. Come to think of it, you don't even need any writing talent to become a film critic. Anyone who's read film reviews by the likes of Taran Adarsh would know what I mean.

I write a lot of movie reviews on this blog, and people have often suggested that I should start publishing my movie reviews in newspapers and magazines. I don't give any thought to that suggestion, because I know that I have no qualifications to become an official film critic. While it is true that I have watched a lot of different kind of cinema, I still do not have a solid understanding of the craft of filmmaking to pass judgments on the quality of films.

Film critics have a huge responsibility because sometimes what they write can make or break a film. Big films have enough marketing muscle to push their films to the realms of success and are hence less dependent on what film critics have to say, but relatively smaller films sometimes need favorable reviews for their films to be seen. And if critics trash those films, they better have a solid reason for doing so!

Personally I have no respect for Kunal Kohli because he was also a film critic once and did exactly what he accuses other film critic of doing now (he's at the receiving end now that he has taken up film direction). However, I can't agree with him more when he says that:

"I have very little respect for most of the critics today because I don't think their knowledge of cinema is deep enough. Their passion for cinema is not deep enough and I think critics need to have a great knowledge about cinema. He or she needs to have no agenda, needs to be absolutely unbiased and I don't see that in most of our critics."
The reality today is that most critics approach film criticism with a clear bias and personal agenda, they have no respect for research and their knowledge about cinema is shockingly shallow. I have read many reviews where the critics have lambasted a particular movie based on a fact that is not even true.

At the same time, I do not agree with film directors who equate commercial success with quality. One very common argument put forward is that if the audiences have liked their film, they have definitely a 'good' film. Now this argument is extremely fallacious. On the one hand they rightly say that the reviews of film critics who do not have a good understanding and knowledge about cinema cannot be expected to have a fair assessment of their films quality. In the same breath they say that they respect the judgment of the audience, and the acceptance of their film by the audience implies that they've made a 'good film'. Do they think that the audiences in general have that understanding and knowledge of cinema that they demand from film critics? So, why use an argument against the critics when they go against you, when you conveniently ignore the same reasoning when the audiences are in your favor. If this is not hypocrisy, then what is?

It must be obvious by now that I don't think too highly of most film critics in India. Still, I read the reviews of most film critics - all for different reasons. I read Khalid Mohammad and Raja Sen for their humorous writing style, Nikhat Kazmi because my opinion matches with hers most of time, and Taran Adarsh just so that I am constantly reminded what 'bad' writing is all about. Taran Adrash, like many other critics, doesn't even take the pains to put the story of the film in his own words - he just reproduces the film's marketing material verbatim. That is particularly irritating when you suddenly see a few well-written paragraphs, sandwiched between utterly amateurish writing. He also seems to know nothing about what 'spoilers' are. His reviews shamelessly reveal all the key plot elements, showing no respect for the readers' right to discover those on their own. I can go on and on about Taran Adarsh, but that's not the point here (and I shouldn't impose my personal bias, should I?)

However, there are two film critics I have immense respect for. One is Roger Ebert, who needs no introduction and it widely acknowledged as one of the best film critics in the world. Unfortunately, his health condition has kept him away from film criticism for almost a year now. The other critic I absolutely adore is Baradwaj Rangan, whom I have discovered only recently. He usually writes for Indian Express in Chennai. Ever since I discovered him a few months ago, I have been following his online reviews very religiously. What I like about him is the fact that he is absolutely unbiased and takes great effort in analyzing a movie in extreme detail (he never seems to be in a hurry to end a review). You might disagree with his assessment of a film, but you can never find fault with his arguments. He always provides solid reasons behind what worked for him in a film and what not. And he never approaches his reviews with the intention of either extolling or trashing a film. Read his review of the recently released Sunny deol Starrer Big Brother to understand what I mean. This is a film that's universally trashed by everyone - even Rangan doesn't like it - but see how unbiased his review is!

Till the time I can boast of knowledge like Roger Ebert and unprejudiced writing style of Rangan, this blog will be the only home for my film reviews.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Ghalib's Meaning Generator

The other day I had an intellectually stimulating discussion on literature and poetry with an office colleague. That made me realize that I've been neglecting poetry for a while now. Take this blog for example. When I started this blog, my intention was to write about my two major passions - poetry and films. While I have written about films consistently and diligently, I have not written much about poetry.

So for a change, I want to write about poetry. And what better way to do that than returning to the unfathomable depths of Ghalib's poetry?

In the context of ghazals, one characteristic that provides an enjoyable multivalence to a couplet (she'r) is called Ma'ani-Aafrini (म`नी-आफ़िरीनी) or, in other words, 'meaning-creation'. Simply put, this refers to a situation where a single couplet or she'r can have more than one meaning. If one were to go by S.R Faruqui's definition: 'meaning-creation' refers to a style of expression in which in a single utterance a number of kinds of meanings are manifest or hidden.

Mind you, this multivalence of meaning does not come merely by some clever punning of words; in many cases it can come from varied emphasis on different words or sometimes even by calculated omission of the 'subject' in a sentence - leaving the field open for varied interpretations.

Ghalib's poetry has many instances of 'meaning-creation'. In one of his letters to his friend Tafta, Ghalib says:

भाई शा`इरी म`नी-आफ़िरीनी है क़ाफ़ियह-पेमाई नहीं है
(My friend, poetry is meaning-creation, it's not the measuring-out of rhymes)

Some of Ghalib's verses are deceptively simple, yet contain such "bizarre multiplicity of meaning (that can make) your head spin" (quote: Frances W. Pritchett). One such verse - one of his most famous ones - is:

न था कुछ तो ख़ुदा था कुछ न होता तो ख़ुदा होता
डुबोया मुझ को होने ने न होता मैं तो क्‌या होता
(na tha kuchh to khuda tha, kuchh na hota to khuda hota
duboya mujh ko hone ne na hota maiN to kya hota)

I can't even dare to put all the different meanings that this verse can generate. In fact, Frances W. Pritchett, in her commentary on this verse, calls it a 'meaning machine' or 'meaning-generator'. You can read the detailed commentary on this verse here, but let me just put the various meanings that emerge from the first line due to the omission of subject.
  1. when there was nothing, then God was; if nothing existed, then God would exist
  2. when I was nothing, then God existed; if I were nothing, then God would exist
  3. when I was nothing, then I was God; if I were nothing, then I would be God
As you would notice, depending on where and what you want to put as the subject, the tone of the verse changes from being reverential to almost blasphemous. And I'm not even getting into the varied meanings the second line presents. This is how Frances Pritchett ends her commentary:
"Is this not a two-line complete portable library of possible existential speculations? That's why I consider it a 'meaning machine' or 'meaning generator'-- because of its radical undecideability."
Amazing stuff.

Friday, April 06, 2007

The Namesake: Mira's Triumph

There's a scene in Mira Nair's The Namesake, where Ashoke Ganguli tells his teenage son- Gogol, "we all came out of Gogol's Overcoat". This seemingly simple utterance resonates with profound meaning in light of the theme of the film. This is a very famous quotation that has been attributed to a number a Russian authors including Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, and highlights the fact that Nikolai Gogol's short story 'The Overcoat' has played a defining role in influencing the course of Russian literature. When uttered by Ashok in the film, it takes on a completely different meaning. It underscores the reason of conflict in young Gogol's mind, it justifies the title. At the point when this scene appears in the film, we do not know (unless we've already read Jhumpa Lahiri's eponymous book) what Ashoke means till a crucial scene between the father and son in the car much later. Suddenly, we know the reason behind Gogol's name – it's just not what you (as well as the protagonist – Gogol - in the film) thought all along – his daaknaam (pet name) is Gogol not simply because Nikolai Gogol is his father's favorite author…

Jhumpa Lahiri's Gogol Ganguli suffers from a strange identity crisis because "not only does (he) have a pet name turned good name, but a last name turned first name". Mira Nair's Gogol has the same crisis, but we don't witness that as explicitly. In Mira Nair's world we don't see Gogol's parents having a tough time trying to explain to his teacher why he should be called by his bhalonaam (good name) in school; we get only a brief glimpse into his frustration when he finds out that his namesake almost fits the definition of a 'loser'; and we don't see the delightful moment when the adolescent Gogol first introduces himself to a girl by his 'good name', which infuses in him a curious sense of courage to experience his first kiss. The beauty, however, is that though Mira Nair had to omit a lot of events from the book and change a few, she has brilliantly captured the spirit of the book, thereby making her version as heart warming as the book.

Scriptwriters Sooni Taraporewala and Mira Nair deserve the credit for writing a screenplay that falls into that so-very-rare category of adaptations that do complete justice to the original book. I would go a step further and declare that the film is slightly better than the book. If the book was primarily about Gogol, the film is about the Ganguli family. One gets so involved in the trials and tribulations of the Ganguli family that one doesn't mind the length of the film. In fact, one almost wishes that the film could go on a bit more so that we could see what happens next in Gogols' life, or Ashima's or Sonia's...

Yes, it wasn't possible for Mira or Sooni to capture the entire book on film. So you do have some things that are omitted, or presented cursorily in the film. In one of the scenes early on in the film, Ashima is shown preparing a snack by mixing some peanuts, salt and chilly powder with rice crispies. It's an interesting scene, but we miss an important aspect that what she is preparing is "a humble approximation of the snack sold by pennies on Calcutta sidewalks..." i.e. Jhaalmuri. The line in quotes is from the book. How does one translate that on screen?

And yes, there are also some minor changes. One that works wonderfully is the scene where Gogol gets his head shaved off after his father's death. The barber dances to rap music while shaving Gogol's hair. This accentuates the theme of culture clash that runs all though the film. For the barber it's a sort of fashion statement, whereas for Gogol it's a life changing moment - "his atonement". In the book, Gogol doesn't shave his head. The other significant change is the setting of the film itself - changed from Boston to New York for purely cinematic reason. New York's Queensboro bridge, when contrasted with Kolkata's Howrah bridge, symbolizes Ashima's quest for settlement in a foreign land.

As Mira has herself admitted, this is her most personal film. And that, in my opinion, makes this her most accomplished film yet. Since she could herself relate to the story and the characters of the book, she has successfully captured the essence of the book on film. Also, she has been able to lend some extremely fine directorial touches by adding the scenes with small elements that do not necessarily appear in the book but add more weight to the depiction of cultural differences. For example, the uncomfortable twitch that glides through Ashima's face when Gogol's girlfriend, Maxine, addresses her by her first name. Or when during Ashoke's eleventh day mourning ceremony, Maxine dressed in black stands in stark contrast amidst all other mourners who are dressed in white.

What makes The Namesake work is not only the script or Mira Nair's warm direction, but also the strong performances by the main actors. Irrfan Khan as Ashoke Ganguly gets under the skin of his character and it's difficult to imagine that he's not a Bengali, so perfect is his accent and body language. Tabu struggles a bit with the Bengali accent, but her knock-out performance more than makes up for it. In my opinion, it's a truly Oscar-worthy performance. Watch her in the scene where she finds out about her husband's death - absolutely heartbreaking!! Kal Penn as Gogol is a revelation. So far one has only seen him in some goofy, eminently forgettable role in utterly forgettable comic films. This is the film that gives him an opportunity to show his dramatic side, and that side, mind you, looks quite promising.

What I found most interesting was the point the book (and also the film) alludes to quite subtly: that cultural affinity is not enough for a relationship to work. Gogol marriage to Moushumi - a Bengali - collapses, while his sister Sonia finds an almost perfect partner in Ben - a half-Jewish, half-Chinese. This by itself can be the theme for a whole new book and a film. Will Jhumpa Lahiri and Mira Nair oblige?

P.S: How can I resist from my usual nit-picking? In the scene at the Kolkata railway station in 1974, a hoarding of IndusInd Bank sneaks into the frame from behind the luggage on the coolie's head. Isn't it true that IndusInd Bank started exactly two decades later in 1994?

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Water - Unsatisfying

It took me two viewings to make a definitive opinion about Deepa Mehta's critically acclaimed Water. After the first viewing I was terribly disappointed. This was certainly not the movie I had expected. It didn't engage me, it didn't move me, and worse, it had some glaring lacunae and inaccuracies in the script. Quite a pity, because after Deepa was forced to "abandon" this film way back in 2000 due to the outrageous display of intolerance and anarchy by religious fanatics, I was rooting all out for her to rise against all odds and come up with a fitting reply with a hard-hitting and powerful film. But I still wanted to give Deepa Mehta the benefit of doubt and watched the movie again, just in case I missed the point the first time around.

Sadly, the second viewing didn't change my opinion much. It was still a disappointing film, but this time I could relate to the constraints Deepa was working in by choosing not to shoot the film in India. She had to make some compromises with the setting of the story, which becomes a severe drawback to this new "revised" version,. To be fair to Deepa, there was nothing much she could do about it. The blame for this lies squarely with the right-wingers of our beloved country. Yet, when I sit down now to pen my thoughts about the film, I don't want my opinion to be clouded by the past events. If there are some elements that don't quite gel within the film I must put them across. The blame for that might not always lie with Deepa, but these things severely hamper the quality of the film.

Deepa Mehta's new version gets rid of an important character from her original script – the city of Varanasi. Any film about the plight of widows has to be set in Varanasi or Vrindavan – there's no alternative to that. So when Deepa changed her setting to the fictional town of Rawalpur she lost the essence of the film. It doesn't stop here. While the setting was changed, what she couldn't change was the fact that the town of Rawalpur had the river Ganges running through it. Water – Ganga in particular – is a recurring metaphor in the film and had to stay. The real problem comes when you see coconut trees lining the Ganga, distinctly Dravidian temples and idols in a few important scenes, a town that doesn't quite look like a town in UP-Bihar (the bananas hanging outside the road-side tea stalls is an unmistakably non-North Indian setting). What's unpardonable is that Deepa did not get rid of an important piece of dialogue that clearly talks about Varanasi. In order to emphasize the prevalence of prostitution, one of the characters says,

राँड, साँड, सीढ़ी, सन्यासी; इन से बचो तो भोगो कासी

Quite an interesting and, of course, true way to describe Varanasi, but it had no place in Water since the film was not set in Varanasi.

A subject of this nature definitely requires a director who has more knowledge of India and the Indian ethos than Deepa Mehta. In order to make an effective film, the director has to have a thorough understanding of the background in which the theme is set. Deepa Mehta was born and brought up in India, so I'm sure she knows Hindi, but she has been living away for far too long to retain what she might have learnt during her growing up years in Delhi. Certain pieces of dialogue and the way they're delivered clearly show Deepa's lack of understanding of the nuances of the Hindi language. It's easy to pass the blame on to Anurag Kashyap who wrote the Hindi dialogue or the actors, who clearly don't know the language well, but Deepa Mehta was after all the director! It was her job to correct that.

Let me take one specific example. When the protagonist, Chuhiya (Sri Lankan kid, Sarla, in an outstanding performance), says that she doesn't want to become a widow (mujhe vidhwa nahin banna) it exemplifies her innocence and ignorance about what a widow is – she probably thinks it's a role one plays- likely out of choice. But when an educated character like Narayan asks Kalyani, 'aap vidhwa kab bani' instead of 'aap vidhwa kab huyin', it makes you wince. In Hindi, one doesn't "become" a widow, one "gets" widowed. Only a native Hindi speaker would be able to appreciate the subtle difference between the two words.

There's another example, just before the Holi song we see Chuhiya dressed up as Nand Gopal and a voice calls out – "Chuhiya come fast, you were dressed up like Nandlal for this, not to sulk". Notice the emphasis on 'Nandlal', the right meaning of this line would come across only if the emphasis is on 'this' instead of 'Nandlal'. Again, only a native Hindi speaker would be able to appreciate this.

Here's another example of inappropriate use of language - Narayan's father tells him that he can keep Kalyani as his mistress and can sleep with her as and when he pleases. In Hindi, the dialogue talks about 'sona' which in my opinion is a very modern, literal translation of the English phrase 'to sleep with someone'. I doubt if this phrase had entered the vocabulary of Hindi speaking people in the 1930s.

Lack of a deeper undestanding of the subject lends to some problems in the art direction as well. At many places, we see the appearance of the left-facing swastika on temple walls, etc. While one does find some usage of left-facing swastika in Hindu religious symbology, the swastika in most temples in the North (where the film is based) is mostly right-facing than left. Left-facing swastika is more prominent in Buddhism. Was it the choice of Sri Lanka (a Buddhist country) as the location for this film that led to this glaring error?

Then we have certain historical inaccuracies. Narayan keeps talking about how Raja Ram Mohan Roy is supporting the idea of widow re-marriage. Two problems with that – one, it was Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar who was the main person behind the widow-remarriage law. Ram Mohan Roy was no doubt a prominent social reformer who was instrumental in banning the practice of sati, but it would be more than 20 years after his death that the widow re-marriage movement would gain momentum under Vidyasagar. Secondly, for some strange reason Narayan always refers to Raja Ram Mohan Roy in the present tense, whereas he had died more than a century before the time depicted in the film.

An element of anachronism also crops up when Gulabi, the eunuch pimp, is shown singing a thumrisaiyan bina ghar soona. The song he hums is from the film Aangan Ki Kali that was released almost four decades later (in the late seventies). I am yet to do some research to check if this could be a well known thumri in the 1930s that Bappi Lahiri took inspiration in the 1970s, but it did seem odd to me in the film.

The biggest problem with Water lies elsewhere though. John Abraham and Lisa Ray are horribly miscast as Narayan and Kalyani, whose love story is pivotal to this film. It is evident that they've worked hard on their characters, but there's no way they can be the characters they're meant to. They're too westernized and contemporary-looking - in terms of their looks as well as their diction – to play a Gandhian lawyer and an illiterate widow from the 1930s. Deepa might have had her own reasons for choosing them, but they surely stand out like a sore-thumb.

All the faults that I've mentioned above can only be seen by an Indian, which is why I wouldn't question why a large majority western critics has given this film glowing reviews (and the film earned an Oscar nomination). The Western audience just doesn't have the wherewithal and the knowledge to judge the authenticity of the film. I must also admit that I wouldn't give these faults much weight for any other film by any other director. But coming from an intelligent film maker like Deepa Mehta this is simply not acceptable.

It's not that Water is a complete downer. It certainly did have many good points. Seema Biswas' performance as a stoic middle-aged widow in the ashram would certainly rank among the best performances one has seen in films of late. She doesn't need words to convey her emotions. Her immensely expressive eyes and facial expressions convey the emotions of her character quite lucidly. It wouldn't be wrong to say that it is she who saves the film. She is ably supported by Sarla, who is quite a find. Scintillating is probably the word to describe her performance. On their part, Manorama and Raghuvir Yadav do complete justice to their interesting cameos.

Water is also very beautifully picturised. The picture postcard look and feel of the film is in stark contrast with the overall grimness of the theme, but works well to highlight the pathetic conditions of the widows. Giles Nuttgen's camerawork is top class with almost all scenes wonderfully lit and composed. Michael Danna's background score is also outstanding - particularly noteworthy are the evocative strains of Raga Kalyani that play as Kalyani (the character) has a tryst with destiny in the final moments of the film. The songs composed by Rahman are real gems and play an important role in defining some crucial moments in the film.

Finally, while I appreciate Deepa Mehta's resolve to get Water made against all odds (it is a story that had to be told), the film left me largely unsatisfied.