Monday, June 30, 2008

Vamos Espana!

From Rafael Nadal's blog on Times Online, a post titled "One of the best days of my life!" Nope, he didn't just win Wimbledon, beating Federer in an eight-hour final: this is about the Spanish football team's Euro 08 win. As anyone following Rafa's progress at Wimby will know, he's spent more time in his press conferences talking about the football than about his own matches. From the post:

"I have to admit I was very nervous before the match. I didn't want to speak to many people, it was like if I was going to go on-court to play a big match."

I also like the way he mentions finding little ways to distract himself in the hours leading up to the Euro final - playing darts and playstation, "just to make the time go by fast". I've occasionally felt the same way on the day of an important Rafa match (like this one), and it's fun to see players who have so many KADs/fans of their own getting just as frazzled about their favourite teams in other sports.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Cyberspace and movie-love

[From a column I did for Business Standard]

I recently realised that this month marks 10 years since I first got an Internet connection at home. (I was a Net user for a year or so before that, but only sporadically, at a tech-savvy friend’s house – it took me a long time to overcome my diffidence about being alone with the monster.) This led to speculation about the role the WWW played in my development as a movie-lover – even to the point where it helped me transfer a personal obsession to a professional sphere.

For a youngster living in Delhi, the early 1990s was a lonely time if you were interested in something other than mainstream Hindi cinema – for me, it was marked by solitary treks to the video libraries of embassies, a copy of my thick movie guide in a polythene bag. As a teenage Indian who became inexplicably and unreasonably passionate about (for example) Hollywood films of the 1930s, it was unthinkable that I would ever be able to discuss these interests with anyone else; it had to remain a privately pursued hobby and there was certainly no future in it (assuming of course that I wasn’t going to move to the US and become a film historian).

When I got my first personal computer in late 1995, a precious side-purchase was a CD-ROM titled Cinemania '96, a collection of film reviews, essays, movie stills, biographical details and – most fascinatingly – short clips from around 25 seminal American and British films. Articles on the CD were “hyperlinked”, which meant that clicking on an actor’s name in a cast list took you straight to his biography page – it was a wondrous discovery and my first (relatively primitive) experience of something that I today take for granted on the Internet. Back then, being able to watch short clips from films like Taxi Driver (the tense two-minute scene with Martin Scorsese in a cameo appearance as a paranoid husband who makes Travis Bickle park outside his wife’s apartment) on a PC, without having to go out and rent a videocassette, seemed like the apotheosis of technology’s marvels.

But after the Net made its advent, the parameters changed forever. In the months and years that followed, I spent a large amount of time on movie websites, sometimes contributing short pieces to them. My first paying assignment as a film writer came not for a print publication but as a moonlighter for the now-long-defunct website Cafedilli, which – the nature of the Internet being what it is – had no problem with a Delhi-based writer doing articles on international cinema. And though I was never too keen on online forums, it could be a stress-buster to occasionally log on to a site run by people with similar interests and take part in a short, intense discussion about Cary Grant or Preston Sturges – if only to remind myself that the world did contain other nutcases obsessive about the same things (some of whom, it turned out, were actually Indians, based in my city) **. All this, incidentally, was before blogs became popular and the real explosion of opinion pornography began.

Even knowing how the Net has mollycoddled our generation – turning what used to be arduous, hard-won research into a matter of a few well-chosen search words and mouse-clicks – one never ceases to be surprised by how much is available online. Recently, while writing a piece on Hitchcock's Vertigo, I decided to see if YouTube had any material – interviews, commentary - on the film. Among the goodies I found was an alternate ending that had been shot for European audiences (and which I had never seen before, even though my DVD of the film has a good collection of special features) as well as valuable information about the restoration of the film’s negative. Each time I make serendipitous discoveries like these, I marvel at my naiveté in thinking that the Cinemania CD-ROM was the best that it could get. On the Net, I’ve watched documentaries and behind-the-scenes footage that there would be little chance of getting hold of anywhere else; all of it contributes in an ongoing way to my movie-love and helps me grow as a writer too. And who can even begin to guess what the future will bring?

**
It turns out that the nutcase factor works both ways. One of the recent pleasures of Net-surfing has been the discovery of excellent Bollywood blogs created by non-Indians who have a fascination for Hindi cinema – such as such as Beth Loves Bollywood, Filmiholic and the Post-Punk Cinema Club blog, a treasure-trove of posts about Shashi Kapoor films of the 1960s and 1970s (even a Bollywood historian would be astonished by some of the detail). More on these in a later column.

[Related nostalgia posts here, here and here.]

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Persepolis, the film

The movie version of Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel Persepolis is playing in a couple of theatres in the city, including the PVR in Saket’s Select Mall and the pointlessly named PVR-Europa in Gurgaon. (I think Europa was originally meant to screen non-mainstream European films, but those plans were quickly discarded.) I saw the film last week and enjoyed it. It’s a joint adaptation of Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood and its sequel Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return – the first book tells the autobiographical tale of a young Iranian girl growing up in the shadow of the 1979 Islamic revolution; the second is about Marjane’s stay in Austria, where her liberal parents sent her at the age of 14, her return four years later to her home country, and the difficulties she faced as a young woman dealing with repression and social hypocrisy.

The film is co-directed by Satrapi herself and voiced by the likes of Catherine Deneuve, Sean Penn and Gena Rowlands. (I saw the English version. In the original French version, incidentally, the role of Marjane’s grandmother was voiced by the veteran French actress Danielle Darrieux, who is well into her 90s now.) Satrapi has done a fine job of transferring her drawings and script to another medium, but a word of caution for viewers whose expectations may have been heightened by the advances in movie animation: Persepolis – in both its written and filmed avatars – is driven more by content than by form. In the books, Satrapi’s drawings are simple, black-and-white woodcuts that are mostly concerned with advancing the narrative. They also follow a conventional rectangular-panel arrangement, rather than the complex, multi-layered storyboarding that you’ll find in many modern graphic novels. The film has a similarly uncomplicated structure.

But this also means that the carefully selected occasions when Satrapi does experiment with style are all the more effective. The books pick their dramatic moments very well and I thought this translated to the movie, which has moments of inventiveness that are very forceful: for instance, a key scene from the first book, where young Marjane sees a disembodied foot in the rubble of a neighbour’s bombed house, has been given an Expressionist twist here, with Marjane’s features – her face frozen in a silent scream – melting until she resembles the screamer in Munch’s famous painting. This is followed by a very slow fade to black, perhaps indicating that the episode marks the end of innocence for this young girl, the beginning of a new chapter in her life.

There is also some interesting use of charcoal drawings (which weren’t in the books) for backgrounds. And certain elements of the story are more effective in movie form than they were on the page – such as the use of western pop songs like “Eye of the Tiger” as a pointer to Marjane’s rebellious nature, and the burlesque series of panels that depict the physical changes in Marjane (giving us a short-cut for her metamorphosis into a young woman).

Naturally, the 90-minute running time means that a few sub-plots have had to be sacrificed, but nothing of great significance has been cut out. A certain amount of simplification was inevitable. Perhaps keeping in mind her global viewership, Satrapi has made the cultural references more accessible in places: in one scene, after Marjane returns from Austria, a wide-eyed family member mentions The Sound of Music and the Von Trapp family, and asks her if she met Julie Andrews; in the book, the question involved the Austrian actress Romy Schneider.

The darkness of its subject matter and the relative simplicity of its animation necessarily means that Persepolis won’t be to all tastes. (I also think this film might have greater appeal for viewers who haven’t read the books. For those who have, it can get repetitive; a faithful animated movie version of a comic book can’t bring too much new to the table.) Also, Persepolis tends to drag a little towards the end – the story of Marjane’s unsuccessful marriage and the events that led to her leaving her country for a second time were never all that exciting in the book either.

But there’s nothing to fault in the first three-fourths of this film. Like its source material, this is a work of intelligence, sensitivity and humour, driven by a very likable protagonist. Before our eyes, Marjane moves from being a confused girl to a headstrong young woman – occasionally too impetuous for her own good, but always learning from her experiences, and willing to see the lighter side of a life lived in painfully exciting times.

[A version of this appears in Tehelka this week. An earlier post on Satrapi’s Embroideries here]

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

"Down with atheist values"

Predictably, religious leaders in Kerala have got their knickers in a knot over the contents of a school textbook that apparently “tries to inject atheist values into young minds”. And why? Well, because the textbook 1) encourages children not to flaunt their religion anywhere, 2) asks rhetorical questions such as “which religion would be worst hit in the event of a drinking water crisis, epidemic or earthquake?”, and 3) includes a story about parents telling a school headmaster that their child will be allowed to choose his own religion when he grows up.

Personally I’m impressed by this textbook – it makes a heck of a lot more sense than most of the ones I grew up with (which admittedly isn’t saying much; I did Commerce and Accounts in 10+2). But I can’t understand what the protesters are so vigorously objecting to. Let’s momentarily forget the whole hyper-sensitive religious-irreligious divide and simply examine each point on its own merits.

Point one. I propose that it makes perfect sense to ask children not to go about flaunting their religion. Unless you’re a closet child-hater who wants to see younglings killing each other in riots (since we all know what the eventual consequences of flaunting can be). I say let the poor dears grow up, suffer through at least 12 years of formal education and then kill each other in riots. It should be an informed adult choice.

Point two. The implicit answer to the question asked in the textbook is that all religions would be equally badly hit in most such cases: natural calamities don’t make the distinctions that human beings do. In my view, the question is a sensitive and genuinely secular one that has the good sense to place basic humanity over religion. It’s also a fine counterpoint to the vile suggestions often made by people looking to promote their own agendas – that such-and-such disaster was “God’s way of punishing the wicked” (for more on that, see this post by Amit).

But point three is the one I’m most interested in. In The God Delusion, a book that is much more temperate and restrained in tone than its reputation suggests, the one time Richard Dawkins gets really angry is when he discusses the near-universal practice of labeling children with the religion of their parents; he points out that in an ideal world there would be no such thing as “a Christian child” or “a Hindu child”, just as there is no such thing as a Marxist or Libertarian child. The idea might instinctively make many people uncomfortable, but think about this: though most of us associate the term “child abuse” with sexual abuse or violence, it basically applies to any situation where children are attributed motivations or emotions (or expected to display behaviour) that they are too young to understand the implications of. Why should religion be given a green chit in this context?

(It’s important to note that in the story provided in the textbook, we are not told the child’s birth-religion. If it had been specified that he was from a Muslim or Hindu or Christian family, it would be possible to see the story as having a hidden, proselytizing agenda or displaying prejudice against a particular faith. But that isn’t the case here.)

Speaking pragmatically, I know that in the real world it’s futile to expect most parents to be so liberal – too many people want their children to be miniature versions of themselves, complete with all their beliefs and sacred cows neatly preserved and passed down till Kingdom (or Oblivion) Come. But I wish more parents – even the ones who shudder at the dirty word “atheist” – could see that there is merit in at least some atheist values.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Opium, giant whales and khidmatgars: a conversation with Amitav Ghosh

[Long, freewheeling interview with Amitav Ghosh, which I’m posting here pretty much as I transcribed it from the tape recorder, along with some commentary. Apologies for lack of structure, etc, but I’ve done this on limited time alongside writing a feature-style version for official publication (which I might put up later, at risk of repetition). Most of this conversation has to do with Ghosh’s new novel Sea of Poppies, which I wrote about in this post.


Ghosh’s reputation for being serious and scholarly precedes him, so I was relieved to find that he’s very relaxed, very easy to talk with. As readers of his work would know, his fiction combines the novelist’s imagination with the anthropologist’s meticulous attention to detail and curiosity about people and places. During our conversation it became quickly obvious that he’s interested in a wide range of subjects and willing to hold forth – often very enthusiastically – on them. He was most animated when discussing language, as you can see much further down in the discussion.]

Like much of your fiction, Sea of Poppies uses imagined characters and plots to illustrate a historical period. Do you find this easier to do than writing non-fiction?

First and foremost, I’m a novelist, which means that my basic interest is in stories and in different characters. The rest of it is almost accidental. You start with the characters and the story, and the historical part of it is sometimes a setting or a backdrop. In The Hungry Tide it was different, perhaps, because in a way the environment was itself a character, a protagonist within the story – the Sunderbans is such a powerful and elemental kind of landscape. But in Sea of Poppies, it’s about the characters; the characters realise themselves through their unique predicaments.

Characters like Deeti and Zachary in this book, or Rajkumar and Dolly in The Glass Palace, aren’t used to embellish the setting – it’s really the other way around. Within any sort of background there are so many destinies that are possible, and for me, that’s the most interesting possible thing. It’s not that I’m mounting the character in order to illustrate the history – that’s not it at all. My primary interest is in the lives and fortunes of these people.

When it was announced that you were working on a trilogy, I was surprised – because as a writer you’re interested in so many different subjects and settings; you’ve written books about Burma, the Sunderbans, Egypt. What was it about this subject that compelled you enough to commit to a three-book project, which would take up so much of your time?

As I said, a book always starts with characters and when I thought of Deeti, Paulette, Zachary, they became so compelling to me that I knew I wanted to write not only about them but about their families, their children – I wanted to see them growing old, I wanted to explore the relationships between their children and grandchildren. And I realised I couldn’t do that in one book.

I was about a year into writing Sea of Poppies when I realised that it would take me a long, long time, and I wanted to devote that time to it. As for diverting me from other things, there’s nothing else I want to write. I don’t feel afraid of the commitment at all, I feel a great reassurance that I’ll be working on this for years.

So writing a trilogy wasn’t part of the original plan?

No, not at all. It only happened as the book progressed. And well, I’m calling it a trilogy now, but who knows, it might turn out to be two trilogies. Also, I don’t think it does commit me to the same setting anyway – these characters are people who are going to be traveling a great deal, who knows where they’ll go!

I feel, at my age, that I have a depth of experience that I’ll be able to pour into this book. It’s an exciting thing to be able to do that. Like Herman Melville said, unless you have a very broad vessel, you can’t really pour yourself into it.

MELVILLE

One of the outstanding scenes in Sea of Poppies is a long, richly descriptive passage where a village-woman named Deeti enters the cavernous opium factory in Ghazipur, where her husband works. The scene, which adeptly merges fiction with research and scholarship, made me think of a similar tradition in American fiction, going back to the early masters and often continuing to this day (a contemporary example being the detailed scene in a glove-manufacturing factory in Philip Roth’s American Pastoral).

I read something you wrote where you mentioned your love for Melville’s Moby Dick – a behemoth of a book where so many chapters are about aspects of whaling or life on the sea, rather than about carrying the plot forward. Were you strongly influenced by the early American novelists?

It’s interesting that you’ve read Melville in detail, very few people do. He’s been a huge influence in my work, going back a long way. One of the reasons is that for him the novel is not a small thing. He has a wonderful quote, give me a second, I have it here with me (goes to his desk and brings back his notebook), it goes: “To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea.” It’s from Moby Dick, in fact.

Melville was quite inspirational for me, because of the breadth of his view of the novel. But actually, if you look at it, there are many other novelists, especially in the 19th century – George Eliot for one – who also took a very expansive view of the novel. And Dickens – so much observation and detail, about factories, about London street life! And I think in a way, historically, one of the great things about the novel is that it’s reported on real life. This is also what I enjoy doing. I began my career as a reporter and I like to be there with a notebook, to examine something, to figure out how things work. It’s pleasurable to write this way.

So the fiction writer in you isn’t locked in a painful struggle with the historian/scholar, during the writing process?

No, not at all, they are completely complementary. I never have a situation of conflict between one and the other. For me the research part is fun and easy, because I enjoy looking at documents and things.

For all the information that I try to set down in my novels, I’m happy with them being classified as fiction. It IS fiction – I made up the characters and all that stuff. I try to be faithful to the historical setting, but I never for a moment would confuse what I do with what historians do – I’m not making the truth-claims that historians make. It’s important to acknowledge that.

I mean, if you went away from here and made up everything I said, I wouldn’t like that one bit! (laughs)

Incidentally, another Melville quote which I think applies a lot to your work is “It isn’t set down on any map; true places never are.”

I didn’t at all plan it this way, but there are so many parallels between my work and Melville’s. You know I wrote that book about the Sunderbans – well, Melville has a wonderful book about ecology, it’s about the Galapagos Islands, a very short but marvelous book, and he wrote it before Darwin went to Galapagos. And in that book you really see the sense of what he says in the quote you just mentioned, because the Galapagos becomes for him a sort of dreamscape – not so much a place with a fixed geography but an idea.

Also, so much of his work is founded on historical research. There’s a short story, “Benito Cereno”, a very evocative story about a slave revolt. It was founded on a travel narrative written by a famous sea captain, Andrew Delano – who incidentally was an ancestor of [the US President] Franklin Delano Roosevelt. And (chuckles heartily) Delano was also an opium trader, as it happens, on his way back from China!

You certainly do enjoy pointing out how much of what we call civilisation has been founded on the opium trade!

Yes, people are very uncomfortable bringing up the role of opium in India’s past. But you really can’t escape it, it was so central, it was the export commodity that led India in the 19th century. There’s a prominent historian, Amar Farooqui, who teaches in Delhi University, who says that Bombay would not exist if it weren’t for opium – the British were about to close down Bombay when they started exporting opium from there (laughs).

What kind of research did you do for the opium factory scene in Sea of Poppies?

It was just pure luck – I was looking in the British Library one day, looking at their archives and collections, and suddenly I found this very rare book, published in the 1860s in Calcutta (though I’m sure it doesn’t exist in Calcutta anymore). It was called “Notes on an Opium Factory” and it was written by the superintendent of the Ghazipur Opium Factory. He wrote it as a kind of tourist guide – he wanted to attract British tourists to the place, and he described the place in great detail!

Nothing in that passage in my book is made up – nothing about the factory, that is; Deeti of course is a fictional character. You won’t believe how amazing it was to learn about how the opium was processed: the directors of the East India Company, sitting in London, would send directions about how every ball of opium had to have so many chittacks, how there had to be just so many leaves...it was a completely industrialised process. We talk about Henry Ford rationalising the industrial process, but these guys were doing it much earlier.

Something else that helped me was that in the 19th century, British artists would go to various spots of interest in the corners of the Empire and make etchings and lithographs. And one of them produced a series of etchings about an opium factory. So I didn’t have to try very hard to visualize these places. My description is based on the book and on these lithographs. These are huge lithographs, and in them the factory looks like the Temple of Konark with these huge columns and these places where they used to stack the opium...it was an incredible sight, an incredibly tall building – in those days it must have been six storeys high, with the godown inside, and racks along the wall, and these little boys climbing between the racks, throwing the balls of opium down.

It’s quite an imposing sight, you know – if you just look at that room and the balls of opium in it, it must have been millions and millions of rupees’ worth of trade.

GLOBALISATION IN THE EARLY 19TH CENTURY

Much of Ghosh’s work has dealt with amorphous boundaries and how people transcend these borders, in the process altering not just their personal histories but also, over a period of time, the history of the world; the title of one of his earliest and best-loved books The Shadow Lines (with its famous scene where the narrator places the point of a compass on an atlas to try and make sense of the historical and cultural links between different places) has almost come to symbolise his major themes. In Sea of Poppies, we meet the lascars, sailors who “came from places that were far apart and had nothing in common, except the Indian Ocean” – in other words, the sea is their only nation. Later, various characters are forced to let go of the strictures of caste/community/religion to become jahaz-bhais and jahaz-bahens. Unusual relationships are formed: the village widow Deeti is rescued by and then marries a lower-caste man, whom she would not even have been allowed to talk with in a more conventional setting; the deposed Raja Neel forms a friendship with a cellmate of Chinese origin; there’s a funny sub-plot about a pious gomusta finding his Lord Krishna in the unlikely personage of a half-black American sailor who blows a pipe-whistle/flute.

In the 1830s, the concept of globalisation didn’t exist in sense it does today. Yet your characters, especially the lascars, are pioneers in that direction.

It’s true that the concept didn’t exist as such, but the reality did exist. And especially in so far as it concerns lascars – they were absolute pioneers, in that they were the first Asians to work in a western industrial process. The sailing ship was an extremely complex machine, technically speaking, much more so than the fairly simple ships that we had in India. And nautical engineering was really the cutting-edge technology of the 19th century; it was like aerospace today. The lascars were the first Asians to work in a cutting-edge modern technology, the first to acquire a colloquial familiarity with European languages, the first to work with the European rhythms of time (the western-style ship was run on four-hour watches), and they were also the first Asians to set up settlements in London – Shoreditch, for example.

So in every sense, the lascars were the equivalent of today’s IT workers. They faced exactly the same issues too, there was a systematic attempt to keep them out of the labour market, keep them off ships – they were paid a fraction of what white sailors were paid, for the same work.

Incidentally, while I’m on this topic, it’s a shame we don’t realise that the Indian shipbuilding industry was absolutely on par with the western industry, right up to the 1820s. In that era, a very large number of the Royal Navy’s ships were built in Bombay and Calcutta. The Wadia shipyard in Bombay was one of the most advanced on the planet. Then the British, through a series of financial measures and laws, succeeded in destroying Indian shipbuilding.

One of the terrible things that has happened in India in the last 30-40 years is the way the Indian shipping industry has shrunk and been ignored. As late as the 1940s, it was possible to send something from Bombay to Madras through coastal shipping – it was easier and cheaper. Today you’d have to send it by rail or air.

One reason for this neglect is that Delhi is not on the sea – the people who make policy here have a landward orientation, they don’t understand the sea. In that sense they’ve inherited this Mughal tradition – Babar and others were never interested in the sea, which was their downfall eventually because the British came from the sea.

In today’s much smaller, more globalised world, how important is the concept of the nation-state?

I think that in some ideal world somewhere, we wouldn’t want nation-states. But I’ve been in places where the nation-state doesn’t exist – Burma, for instance – and unfortunately the alternative to the nation-state isn’t a state of freedom; what actually comes into being is warlordism. In the absence of the nation-state, what happens is worse.

When I was in Burma, traveling with some of these Burmese insurgents, it struck me that the alternative to a nation-state is really a failed state. And that leaves so much wreckage behind. For us in India, we don’t really understand what a disaster it is to live under warlords. Of course, in parts of India it does exist – the north-east, for example. But on the whole, in my view we are fortunate to be among the contemporary post-WWII states that have survived, because so many others, like Burma, are going down in flames, and others like Pakistan and Sri Lanka are facing crises; in fact, we are surrounded by a ring of crises.

SMALL TALK

[Around this time, lunch arrived and with cutlery occupying much of our attention it became necessary to engage in lighter talk]

You’re now working with a high-profile publishing house, Penguin Books India [Ghosh was with Ravi Dayal earlier]. Is it very different in terms of the demands made on you for publicity and marketing?

It IS very different, I must say. In today’s world, any writer has to do a certain amount of publicity. Ravi was very low-profile by comparison – but in a way I also feel proud that my books initially found their way in the world without the backing of a huge publicity machine.

I’ve done the publicity grind in other countries but never before in India, and now I can see how our publicity machine has come of age. The Indian publishing industry has definitely come of age – in fact it’s now on the cutting-edge, the fastest growing books market in the world. The functioning of Indian publishers is very impressive – even though Penguin India is such a big company, as a group of people they are a team, very comfortable to work with, whereas this isn’t always the case with big companies in the US. They tend to be much more distant.

The growth of Indian media has played a role too. Earlier there were youngsters juggling three or four beats at once, rushing out to interview authors they had never heard of, on tight deadlines. But now we have more specialised books journalism in both print and television.

Yes, that’s changing very fast as well. You know, if India had been like this when I was in college, my life would have taken a different turn – I would probably have ended up working in what you call the books beat. But back then, there was no option for a literary career of that sort. It worked out fine for me, of course, but I’m glad that things have changed. For a publishing industry to flourish, there have to be the journalists to enable it to grow.

A lot of your reading must be for research, but do you follow Indian fiction?

I do, though I’m not always very up-to-date with it. One of the pleasures of coming to India now is going into a bookstore and coming across this whole range of titles, which wasn’t the case earlier. I particularly enjoy this new genre, you might call it, of the IIT novels!

One of the better IIT writers, Amitabha Bagchi, referenced the compass scene from The Shadow Lines in his novel Above Average.

Yes, I read that book and it was so amazing to me when I came across that passage. I did a double-take – here’s someone who’s written about my book in his narrative!

But there’s also so much wonderful non-fiction now coming out of India – I was reading Mukul Kesavan’s recent collection The Ugliness of the Indian Male, and his essays are outstanding. Looking at the publishers’ catalogues, there seems such a variety of topics now.

LANGUAGE

Reading Sea of Poppies, I was particularly interested in the use of language – such as the incorporation of so many Indian words in the speech of Europeans.

You know, when we were in college, we used to talk in this Hindi-English jargon and at the time we thought we were doing something very bold and new. But it’s not new at all – people had been doing it for centuries. The words you’re talking about, 80 per cent of them are in the complete Oxford English Dictionary, they are English words.

But the spellings you use reflect the foreign accents rather than the way an Indian reader would recognize the words - “rootie”, for example.

Well, most of these words are spelt in multiple ways in the OED. “Rootie” is one of the alternatives for “roti”. The British probably took it not from Hindustani but from Bengali, and in Bengali it’s “rootie” – that’s one possibility. Believe it or not, the word “chawbuck” (horsewhip) has five different spellings in the OED, and “khidmatgar” (servant) has eight different spellings, including “kismatgar”, which can be translated as “one who follows his master’s kismat”. That led me to joke that maybe the right word should be “bud-kismatgar” (ill-fortuned)!

What about your decision to not italicize these words or provide a glossary?

When I see Indian writers italicizing words, I’m amazed, because there are actually very few ordinary Hindi or Urdu or Bengali words that are not in the OED. "Hamaz", "azan", "mandir" – these are all in the OED. If you’re going to italicize, you have to have some consistent policy, you know – how can you italicize words that are already in the dictionary? “Tumasher/tamasha” has been in the English language since the 17th century, so has “vakil”, and many others.

Even so, it’s a brave decision, in terms of not mollycoddling the reader. Even as an Indian reader who know most of these words, I had to consciously interpret some of the sentences.

But more than that, I’m sure many of these words have dropped out of Hindi altogether. Words like “silahdar” and “gomusta”, how often do you hear them today? And some other words have changed in meaning – for example, “jamadar”, which was a rank in the army originally, from “jama”, which means to gather. So in fact, if you have a glossary, there should be one for Hindi speakers too!

One thing we should be aware of: in this age of globalisation, there’s this idea that English is becoming more and more expansive. In fact, much the opposite is happening: in the 19th century, English was much wider, more accepting of other influences, especially Asian influences. Not just Hindustani but Chinese too. But what happened from the 20th century was that they started ridding English of Asian influences. English today is comparatively limited.

Which is why I feel that if me, and other Asian writers, if we are going to write in this language at all, then we must reclaim for it what it historically had. When an English newspaper says about our writing that these guys are bringing all these new words into the language, it’s nonsense – those words have been there for centuries!

Some colourful swear words were in the dictionary too. Let me tell you about something interesting I came across in the lascari dictionary written by Lt Thomas Roebuck, in 1812. When he lists the words of commands...have you ever heard the word “habes” (pronounced hab-iz)?

No.

In lascari, when you wanted to tell a sailor to pull, or heave, the translation that Roebuck provides is “habes”. I’m not sure what the root is, but it was a very common command. So he provides this word and then adds in brackets, “Sometimes it may be necessary to include a few words of abuse, for example ‘bahenchod, habes!’ Or ‘saale, habes!’”

We have somehow become very embarrassed about these things today. I hope I’m not offending you, but the word “beti-chod” (daughter-fucker) has been used going back to the 17th century, in English as well.

This is all very interesting, because I was discussing the book with a friend and he thought that some of the speech seemed exaggerated and caricatured.

You know, the thing is that since our childhood we have always been told to “use the correct English word” and we have developed this anxiety about the language. But these things are completely grounded in the language. Take the word “bandana”, which I associate with cowboys and the wild west, but you know where it comes from? From “baandhna” (the Hindi for “tying”). Again, it has been part of English since the 17th century. And the word “turban” is from “sirband”.

If you take any interest in words as such, the most interesting thing about languages is that it’s impossible to separate them at a certain point – it’s impossible to do for Bengali, Hindi or English. I’m sure you know about how there’s been this process of “purification” in Hindi; well, the same thing has happened in English as well. And I think it should be combated.

It also struck me that the fluidity of language in your book helps illustrate your broader themes about people and the journeys they make. There’s a lot of rich comedy in some of the misuses and misunderstandings, but at the same time one gets a sense of how modern languages might have evolved and become more dynamic over time as they came into contact with other languages. And that’s true of people too.

Absolutely. I’m so glad you’ve mentioned this point. This is what I wanted, and this is what happened as I was writing the book – the language came to reflect the realities of the lives of these characters. When a language spreads, it creates these contact languages, which are basically pidgin languages. I’ve always had an interest in linguistics and particularly in pidgin languages – how people communicate without speaking the language as a first language.

But I also wanted to make another point in relation to what your friend was saying. I don’t know how much nautical fiction you’ve read, but even in Moby Dick for example, there’s a huge amount of terminology. You’ll often see commands like “fore-top sail!”. Hardly anyone knows exactly what these words mean, except for a very small section of people who know about sailing. It’s a very technical field. As a child I would read these books and feel annoyed because I didn’t understand exactly what these words meant – it was gobbledygook. Now I DO know what they mean, but I know that the reader doesn’t. So I simply used the lascari equivalents – after all, if you’re going to be puzzled by one word, why not be puzzled by another word?

I thought it was important to recognise that we in India and Asia had a very deep and important contribution to the technology and labour of the sailing ship. It’s important for us to try and reclaim the ways in which the lascars and Asians experienced the sailing ship, the reality of being out on the sea. And language is a huge part of that.

Was language always going to be a major part of the form of the book, or did you work that in gradually, as you stumbled upon old dictionaries during your research?

The dictionaries helped, of course, but they weren’t essential. Writing a book can be like a process of play, you toy with things, some days you come to work and something amuses you and you just want to put that in. I’ve spent a lot of time working with many languages – Arabic, French etc. And while anyone who reads this book can perfectly understand what it means, there are many internal puns too, on French and Arabic, which perhaps no one will understand – but it gives ME pleasure, so why shouldn’t I do it?

There are lots of hidden obscenities as well. One of the things that made me happy writing Sea of Poppies was that in a way this book was a return to my schooldays. I went to a boarding school and our language was incredibly obscene and filled with innuendoes, subtle wordplays, making connections between words.

You’ve explored so many places through your writing. As an anthropologist, what other areas on the map would you want to look at more closely?

Not many, really. I’m often told that I’m so widely traveled, but I’ve never been in south America or central America, or in whole parts of Africa. And I can see how those places are interesting, but somehow they’re not interesting to me. What really interests me is what the Russians call the “near abroad”, you know – in this case, the ring around India. Basically I’m interested in the Indian Ocean.

Besides, it’s going to take me a long time to complete the next two books, and I’m in no hurry. For me writing is not about the publishing – the publishing is the worst part! The best part is the pleasure of writing, turning things over in my head.

As I was leaving, a casual reference to food got us back on the subject of words and their provenance. Here are a few more musings by Ghosh:

I always see these restaurants write “dumpukht” on their menus, why not “dumbpoke”? That’s how it is in the dictionary – all it means is casserole.

Did you know that the word “banian” (vest) has been in the English language since the 16th century? It comes from “baniya”, which was how Arabs in the 12th and 13th century used to refer to all Indians. Even the “Banyan tree” simply used to mean “Indian tree”.

Anyway, the Victorian and Albert Museum has these long gowns on display, which are called “banians”. It’s thanks to lascars that we ended up with the modern usage of banian. At one point it meant “sailor’s shirt” – it was part of a western sailor’s outfit. It were the lascars who cut off the sleeve of the garment.

The influence they have had on our language is amazing, we don’t even know it. The word “baltee” (bucket) was Portuguese in its root, and its current meaning comes through the lascars. “Kamraa” (room) was also from a Portuguese root, and the lascars first used it to refer to a ship’s cabin; that’s how we get the common Hindi usage.

We think of “mistri” as a Hindi word, but it’s from the same Latin root that also gives us the French “maitre”, meaning master. The Portuguese used it in the sense of captain of a ship.

Think about all this and you realise that the whole idea of a fixity in language is so impossible and so unnecessary.

[For more on the languages used in Sea of Poppies, see Ghosh’s document The Ibis Chrestomathy. The PDF link is here. Fascinating stuff, though best read after you’ve read the book, or maybe alongside it.]

(Ghosh photos by Sanjay Sharma, copyright Business Standard)

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Sarkar Raj: lights off in RGV's Factory

Central to Ram Gopal Varma’s Sarkar Raj are plans for the construction of a Rs 20,000 crore power plant that will light up the whole of Maharashtra. Closely following the plot of this headache-inducing film was well beyond my fragile capabilities, but as far as I could tell this is what happens next: various bad-asses in Gujarat don’t like the fact that Maharashtra will be lit up. So lots of people are killed. Incensed, the state of Maharashtra breaks free from the Indian Union and drifts across the Arabian Sea to join the eastern coast of Africa, where there are no electricity problems. Then some more people are killed. Then Aishwarya Rai, in a sharp businesswoman suit, weeps silently. Then some people are killed. Then Rai asks for a cup of tea and Amitabh Bachchan asks for a chiku and the film ends.

It’s worth noting that despite various complicated plot twists and lots of murderous double-crossing, the power plant is never actually built. I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that this is the reason why the film is so unremittingly dark. By “dark”, I don’t mean the subject matter: I mean that the film is, quite literally, dark. In other words, there appear to be no electricity sources in the house where most of the action takes place.
("Power cannot be given," says the film's tagline accurately.) Not a tube-light or ceiling fan in sight, which means that the scariest and most unsettling scenes are the ones where someone elects to wear sun-glasses. When you think of it, it makes perfect sense that the one time a character has the temerity to ask for an air-conditioner to be switched on (horrors!), she instantly pays for it with her life. It’s the most startling murder in the film, but also the most thematically justified one. What could the foolish woman have been thinking?

Interestingly, on the very few occasions that there are light sources, the cameraman shoots directly into them, so that tiny circular spots show up on the screen, often right on a character's face. You might argue that this is deliberately done, in the style of the Dogme filmmakers. I would say that the editors weren’t on the job. In fact, if the sets had been better lit, we might have seen three or four boom mikes protruding from the ceiling, and perhaps Amar Singh waddling around somewhere in the background.

Actually, the look of this film didn’t surprise me much, because self-conscious gloominess has long been a staple of RGV’s cinema. He seems to frame nearly every shot as if to shout out to the audience, “See what I’m doing here with composition?” In an earlier post on RGV’s Aag, I suggested that the film’s remarkably drunken camera movements were accomplished by making the cinematographer consume lots of hooch and then stagger around the sets with the shooting equipment tied around his waist. Pretty much the same thing happens throughout Sarkar Raj, except that the cameraman also gets to lie down a couple of times.

As always, there is an element of barely suppressed hysteria in nearly every performance – many pauses, lots of uncompleted and interrupted sentences, as if the performers have forgotten their lines (or weren’t given any to start with), many shots of people starting to say something but then looking away. I think it’s called Realism. (To remind us that her dramatic performance in Provoked wasn’t a fluke, Aishwarya bites her lips a few times. I think it’s called Ruining your Makeup.)

Sadistically, the film’s soundtrack maintains a “Govinda, Govinda, Govinda” chant nearly all the way through; I agree with what J.A.P. says in a comment on Baradwaj’s post that this is a cruel reminder that we could instead have been watching something starring the Viraar ka chokra. However, I also think this film could have done with an extended friendly appearance by Salman Khan – you know, the sort where he shows up towards the end and sets everything right (in this case, by nudging Maharashtra back across the sea) before skipping away into the sunset. In fact, I propose that every Hindi film made from this point on should contain an extended friendly appearance by Salman Khan. It's the only foolproof way to make a good film.

(Jokes aside, I thought Sarkar Raj was undiluted crap. Terrible neck-aches and head-aches proliferate, which is why I've had to write this post standing up.)

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Quote (Kkote?) of the day

We are talking about God and so we can’t be anything but authentic
- Ekkta Kkapoor, announcing that the role of Baby Kkrishna in her Kahani Hamaaray Mahabharata Ki must be played by an infant who was born on last Janamashtmi.

And here I was thinking that this post was a spoof. Silly, silly me. Real life always catches up.

I wonder what the qualifications for the actor playing the adult Kkrishna will be. (It won't be this gent, alas.) Suggestions welcome.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Ekta ki Mahabharata

Ekta Kapoor’s soon-to-be-telecast production of the Mahabharata (retitled Kahaani Hamaaray Mahabharat Ki, kyunki “K” ka hona zaroori hai) promises to change the landscape of mythological serials in much the same way that her daily dramas transformed how we look at Indian families. Some predictions for what we can expect to see on this new show:

– In a case of inventive rewriting, the character of Bhishma, the grand old man who shows more longevity than most of his great-great-grandchildren, will be turned into a woman and played by the actress who enacted the role of the timeless Ba in Kyunki Saas bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi. This will save the casting directors some trouble.

– Each of Draupadi’s five weddings will be shown in loving detail, over several weeks, with a budget of Rs 200 crore set aside exclusively for the costumes.

– Dramatic twists will abound. During a teary family showdown, it will transpire that Dhritarashtra’s blindness was caused by the cumulative glare from the necklaces worn by the women in his family.
After the failure of the vastra-haran attempt, it will be revealed that Draupadi, being a dutiful wife, was wearing all five of her wedding saris at the time. ("No wonder she looks so fat," Duhshasana will remark, causing Bhima to swear the fearsome oath that he will catch hold of Duhshasana one day and force-feed him bean sprouts.)

– There will be at least one cat-fight between Draupadi and Subhadra, with chiffon and jewellery flying about the palace and an emasculated Arjuna watching nervously from a corner of the room. The number of speedy zoom-ins and zoom-outs in this scene will break all previous records for daytime soaps and the episode will win a special achievement prize at a Balaji Telefilms awards show.

– One of the features of an Ekta Kapoor soap is the ostentatious piety of the characters (that is, when they aren’t busy conniving to destroy each others’ lives). This is most notable in scenes where family members gather at the puja room together, fold their hands and moist-eyedly sway their heads in unison as celestial music plays on the soundtrack. In Kahaani Hamaaray Mahabharat Ki, where one of the key characters is God Himself, this sort of behaviour will cause serious disruptions in the plot. Each time Krishna enters a room, everyone will stand in a line and start singing bhajans loudly. These scenes will buy the scriptwriters a few weeks’ time to plan the next plot twist.

– Unfortunately, the censor board will disallow the scene where Krishna and his family fold their hands and sway piously in front of statues of the Kapoor family.

– Wherever possible, sentences will begin with “K” words. For instance, when Satyavati is asked why her son, the vagrant scribe, doesn’t live with her in the palace, she will reply, “Kyunki Vyas bhi kabhi sadhu tha.”

– There will be unexpected promotional guest appearances at crucial points. Midway through the episode showing the death of Abhimanyu, Tusshar Kapoor will appear onscreen to announce the forthcoming release of his new film ChakraView.

– Though the Mahabharata war lasted 18 days, it will take six years’ worth of episodes to telecast, because of the Principle of Reaction Shots, crucial to any Balaji serial. Each time a character shoots an arrow at another, we will be shown reaction shots of every man, horse, elephant and vulture on the battlefield. These scenes will make the pace of Ramanand Sagar’s soporific Ramayana comparable to that of an Indiana Jones film.

– The arrows will, of course, travel in slow motion; the more important ones like the Brahmastra will take at least four episodes to reach their target. But since the weapons will be dressed in colourful saris, viewers won’t mind.

It is said of the Mahabharata that “what is not here is nowhere to be found”. The tagline for Kahaani Hamaaray Mahabharat Ki will be “what is here is nowhere else to be found”.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Language variations in Sea of Poppies

I’ve been reading and enjoying Sea of Poppies, the first installment in Amitav Ghosh’s highly anticipated Ibis trilogy (the announcement of which caused lots of excitement in Indian publishing circles last year). There’s much to discuss about this book, which has many Ghosh trademarks – the depth of scholarship, the perpetually enquiring mind, his curiosity about races of people and their personal histories – but one thing I found especially interesting is the colourful speech patterns that occur throughout it.

Some background: Sea of Poppies is set in 1838, near the start of the Opium Wars between Britain and China, and its cast of characters include a strong-willed young widow from a village in northern Bihar, an American freedman born of a white father and a Negro slavewoman, a gomusta/agent who believes that his life’s work is to build a temple to a mother-goddess, a dispossessed Raja wrongly convicted of forgery, and a feisty orphan of European origin. These characters and others are thrown together on a large ship sailing from the eastern shores of India, across the Indian Ocean, towards the Mauritius (“Mareech”) Islands, and a running theme is that this ship, often likened to a giant womb, becomes a vessel for rebirth. On land, some of these people had led such parochial lives, and had been so bound to strictures of community or religion, that they would shrink in horror at the thought of even touching food prepared by someone of a different caste; but now, personal compulsions drive them to cross the Black Water (itself proscribed under many social or religious laws) to an entirely unknown land, in the intimate company of strangers.

As one migrant wisely puts it, “On a boat of pilgrims, no one can lose caste and everyone is the same. From now on and forever afterwards, we will all be ship-siblings - jahaz-bhais and jahaz bahens – to each other. There’ll be no differences between us.” But many fears and prejudices have to be overcome. The women on the ship are bewildered, then amused, to discover that they each had different methods of picking fruit or cooking spices, meticulously practiced “in the belief that none other could possibly exist”. The exiled Raja contends with severe revulsion while cleaning up after an ailing, incontinent cellmate of foreign origin. When an impromptu wedding has to be organised on board during the voyage, everyone is puzzled, because “with no parents or elders to decide on these matters, who knew what was the right way to make a marriage?” Fear of the unknown leads some travelers to recall descriptions of Lanka in the Ramayana and imagine that they are being taken to an island inhabited by carnivorous demons.

But long before the ship sets sail, the narrative has explored situations where people from different cultures must interact on a daily basis and find some common ground, and to read this novel is to experience the fluidity of language in such situations – how it shifts and adapts over time, colliding with and forming nervous alliances with other tongues.

Early on, we are introduced to the species of sailor known as the lascar, who “came from places that were far apart and had nothing in common, except the Indian Ocean; among them were Chinese and East Africans, Arabs and Malays, Bengalis and Goans, Tamils and Arakanese”. Many of these lascars, having been separated from family as children and employed in the trade since as long as they can remember, don’t even know which country they originally hail from; it can truly be said of them that the sea is their only nation. Their speech too is an odd hybrid of words, phrases and slang that have been picked up and assimilated over time from different places; some of the lascar talk in Sea of Poppies can have a dizzying effect on a reader.
Serang Ali wife-o hab makee die. Go topside, to hebbin. By’mby, Serang Ali catchi nother piece wife.
What for Malum Zikri make big dam bobbery’n so muchee bukbuk and big-big hookuming? Malum Zikri still learn-pijjin. No sabbi ship-pijjin. No can see Serang Ali too muchi smart-bugger inside? Takee ship Por’Lwee-side three days, look-see.
(Note: in this piece written for the Hindustan Times a few days ago, Ghosh mentions learning about lascars for the first time as a young man in Egypt, and discovering something of their language from a 19th century dictionary.)

As the story progresses, we also meet a cross-section of Europeans who have been living or trading in India for decades, and who now speak a highly diluted form of English that incorporates Hindi or Bengali words. Ghosh simply presents their speech as it is, without italicising the Indian bits or providing a glossary at the end (something that is frequently done – and overdone – in Indian novels written in English). Further, he spells the local words not as an Indian reader would recognize them but to reflect the European accents with which they are spoken. The result is that even for an reader who knows the words and their meanings, some of these passages require constant interpretation or extrapolation. (In some cases, I had to say the words aloud, or try pronouncing them first one way then another, before I could understand. I wonder how much sense these passages would make to a reader who doesn’t know Hindi.)

As illustration, here’s a short list of some of these words and phrases in the form that they appear in the book (spelt according to the foreign pronunciation). In parentheses, I’ve included the spellings that an Indian reader would be more familiar with.

- “Zubben” (zubaan), described as “the flash lingo of the East. Just a little peppering of nigger-talk mixed with a few girleys”. (I think the “girleys” is gaalis, or insults.)

- “Hoga” and “chawbuck’d”, in the sentence “Just won’t ho-ga; that kind of thing could get a man chawbuck’d with a horsewhip!”

- “Pollock-sawg” (paalak-saag) for a spinach dish

- “Chitty” and “dawk” (for chithi and daak, or letter and postbox) “So tiresome to have to run outside every time you have to drop a chitty in the dawk.”

- “Shishmull” (sheesh mahal, mirror palace)

- “Dufter” (daftar, office)

- “Balty” (baalti, bucket)

- “Hurremzads” (haraamzadas, bastards)

- “Jildee” (jaldi, quick)

- “Chupowing” (from chupna or hide)

- “Gantas (bells) in a clock-tower”

- “Tuncaw” (tankha, salary)

- “Tumasher” (tamasha, fuss, used here to mean a large celebration)

- “Oolter-poolter” (ulta-pulta or upside-down), as used in one of my favourite sentences: “He turned a ship oolter-poolter in the Spratlys, which is considered a great piece of silliness amongst sailing men.”

“Charter your chute” – which I’ll discreetly avoid explaining, except to say that it involves, um, cunning linguistics. It occurs at the end of a very funny dinner scene: an excitable Englishman overhears a dancing girl whispering to her companions about his sexual whimsies, whereupon he leaps to his feet and delivers this salty monologue:
Damned badzat pootlies. You think I don’t samjo your bloody bucking? There’s not a word of your black babble I don’t understand. Call me a cunnylapper, would you? I’d rather bang the bishop than charter your chute.
- “Quoddie” (qaidi, prisoner), as in “Shut yer gob, quoddie!”

- “Bawhawdery” (bahaduri, courage)

- “Coorsy” (kursi, chair) and “kubber” (khabbar, news), as in: “It would never do to be warming the coorsy when there’s kubber like this to be heard.” Later, “kibber” is used instead of “kubber”: “I don’t think the skipper needs to be jibbering the kibber with you.”

In this context, some of the most entertaining passages are the conversations between Mrs Burnham, the wife of a shipping merchant, and an orphan named Paulette, who has been living under her care in their Calcutta mansion. In Mrs Burham’s manner of talking, we get the full measure of how deeply the local language has altered the speech patterns of the Europeans who have been living here for years or decades. She says things like “Don’t you samjo, Paulette?” and “Where have you been chupowing yourself? I’ve been looking everywhere for you.” On one occasion she asks Paulette if “little chinties” had got into her clothes. On another, explaining that Paulette is lucky to have received a proposal of marriage from a judge, she says:
I can tell you, dear, there’s a paltan of mems who’d give their last anna to be in your jooties...you’re lucky to have a judge in your sights and you mustn’t let your bunduk waver.
And when she mistakenly thinks that Paulette is with child, the phrase she uses is a local variation on “bun in the oven”: “There isn’t a rootie in the choola, is there?”

Naturally, names undergo changes as well: one of the principal characters, Babu Nobokrishno Panda, likes being addressed by the Anglicised version of his name, Nob Kissin Pander or Nob Kissin Baboo (which in turn leads an Englishman to refer to him as a “nut-kissing baboon”).

In another novel, some of this might have become tiresome after some time, or begun to seem affected. But it’s very appropriate to Ghosh’s book, which is after all a panorama of different cultures, attitudes and belief systems colliding with each other, or at least circling suspiciously around each other – more than a century and a half ago, when concepts like “globalisation” didn’t exist in the sense that we understand them today, and the world was still a very, very large and frightening place. More on the book soon.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Film classics: 50 years of Vertigo

Last month saw two important movie anniversaries. While May 20 was the birth centenary of James Stewart, one of Hollywood’s finest actors (and one of my personal favourites), the week before that marked 50 years since the release of a film that contained Stewart’s most complex performance: Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, a poetic, very intimate story about obsession and what it can engender.

Though it received indifferent or sneering reviews in 1958, Vertigo saw a huge, almost alarming turnaround in critical reception over subsequent decades, so much so that it now competes with the once-untouchable Citizen Kane on many “best film” polls. (Note: I find it strange and vaguely disturbing that any one film – be it Citizen Kane or Vertigo or Faster Pussycat, Kill Kill for that matter – could inspire such consensus among motley groups of movie-lovers; it almost feels like there’s some secret society deciding these things. I would be much more interested in a collection of top-10 lists prepared by 20 different people, which mentions 200 separate films with no repetition. Like some of these.)

Vertigo isn't my personal favourite among Hitchcock’s films (at this point in time, it isn’t even in my ever-shifting top 5: those would currently be Psycho, Strangers on a Train, Notorious, Rope and The Trouble with Harry). It’s always fallen in the “admire more than love” category for me, so it might seem paradoxical that I’ve been compelled to revisit it many times – on one occasion, greatly inconveniencing myself to catch a film-festival screening – and my admiration has increased with each viewing. For starters, I’m always struck anew by the sheer beauty of the film (thank FSM for the print-restoration that took place in the mid-1990s, when the negative was in dire shape). It’s truly lovely to look at, full of lengthy wordless sequences and some very evocative use of San Francisco locations such as the Golden Gate Bridge and the sloping streets.

I’m almost certain that no other Hitchcock film has as many dissolves as this one does, and while that in itself doesn’t have to mean anything, in Vertigo these dissolves have the effect of heightening the relationship of each shot to the next, and of making each seem like a vital part of a living, breathing organism. Scene by scene, this film is more rigorous and compact than anything else Hitchcock did, with the possible exception of The Birds and Notorious – you can almost sense the director agonising over every frame, making sure that it fits in perfectly with the overall look and mood. Adding greatly to its effect, of course, are Bernard Herrmann’s lush music score and Stewart’s daring performance as a man who starts off by being eminently likable (in the classic Jimmy Stewart tradition) but who gradually reveals a very dark side - one that's all the more disturbing if you can relate to it.

The film begins with a haunting prologue – a scene that can, in retrospect, be viewed almost independently from the main narrative – that shows detective Scottie Ferguson (Stewart) discovering (in the worst imaginable situation) that he suffers from a paralysing fear of heights. Though advised to recuperate for a few weeks, Scottie is intrigued when an old college friend asks him to follow his wife Madeleine (Kim Novak), who may be possessed by the spirit of an ancestor. Unaware that he is being used as the set-up in an elaborate murder scheme, the detective finds himself falling in love with Madeleine and becoming her protector. When she dies, in an incident that might have been prevented if it weren’t for his vertigo, the guilt-stricken Scottie withdraws into himself – until, one day, he meets a woman, Judy, who bears a strong physical resemblance to his deceased love. He pursues her, they become close and then, unmindful of her feelings, he sets about trying to refashion her in the image of Madeleine.

It’s difficult to discuss the plot without giving away spoilers, so here’s the obligatory alert. With around half an hour left to go, the narrative makes one of the most startling right turns I’ve seen in any film – it abandons Scottie’s viewpoint (he has been our point of identification throughout so far, and the central figure in every scene) and shifts to Judy’s, in the process casually making a revelation that most suspense films would have saved for the end. But this helps achieve a larger purpose: as the movie heads towards its climax, we have been made privy to both Scottie and Judy’s internal demons, and the effect is very ambivalent and unsettling.

Anyone who engages closely with Vertigo will see that its thriller aspects – built around a convoluted, implausible, easily dismissed plot – are a pretext to explore more universal themes. In Scottie’s idealisation of Madeleine, his callous treatment of the more earthy Judy and the latter’s hesitant succumbing to his demands, we see the emotional arm-twisting that accompanies the deepest relationships: how our feelings towards other people are very often based on the image we have created in our heads rather than what they are really like; and how easy it is to make compromises or try to reshape yourself – often to the detriment of all concerned – to win the acceptance of someone you care about. In fact, I’m not at all sure that Vertigo is exclusively about romantic love. It seems to me that the most cutting observations made here – about emotional dependence and the subtle, often perverse manipulations that accompany many of our closest bonds – can apply just as well to any relationship.

Hitch's most problematic film?

It’s widely accepted that this is Hitchcock’s most intimate work, and this can be a stumbling block for the casual moviegoer, conditioned to think of this director as a witty entertainer who traded mainly in suspense. But I think the emotional directness and rawness of Vertigo can be problematic even for the more knowledgeable and devoted Hitchcock fans – because while we believe that the man is a great artist and that his work deals with serious ideas, we are accustomed to seeing this done obliquely rather than head-on.

To illustrate what I mean: the parlour conversation between Marion Crane and Norman Bates in Psycho is an example of a superb scene that provides the beating heart of a very profound film, anchors it and brings many of its deeper themes into the open. But crucially it’s also a scene that uses sardonic black humour as a smokescreen or a defence mechanism (much like the rest of the film does). The dialogue between Norman and Marion occasionally reaches a high pitch of intensity (e.g. Norman reflecting on his mother being left alone in the Gothic house if he were to leave her: “the fire would go out, it would be cold and damp like a grave – if you love someone you can’t do that to them even if you hate them”) but the tension is repeatedly dispelled by a clever one-liner or a wry observation (“A son is a poor substitute for a lover”/“Mother isn’t quite herself today”/“Some people even stuff dogs and cats, but I couldn’t do that”). It’s ironic and detached.

Vertigo, on the other hand, doesn’t give the viewer these breathers: it wears its heart on its sleeve. In the later scenes, when Scottie looks longingly at Judy, searching for glimpses of Madeleine in her, or when he waits for her to emerge from the bathroom after having transformed completely into the person he idealises, it’s difficult to look at James Stewart’s face – you almost feel like you’re intruding on something that’s too private. Consequently, the film occupies a unique position in Hitchcock’s filmography: it doesn’t have the distancing black humour of Psycho and Rear Window or the elegant wit of the early British films, nor is it a full-blown entertainer like North by Northwest (a first-time viewer expecting to see a “Hitchcock thriller” will almost certainly be disappointed, even angered, by how slow-moving and abstract it is). And if you look at it as the sum of its plot twists, it’s easy to dismiss it as a good-looking but pointless melodrama.

But for viewers who are lucky enough to be drawn into its world and absorbed by the dilemmas of its central characters, this is a very mature work that grows richer each time you see it – though of course, this presupposes the sort of viewer who would elect to see it more than once! Also, you probably need to be a serious movie buff/historian to appreciate how astonishing it is that such a personal film could have been made in mainstream Hollywood in the 1950s by one of the most high-profile directors in the world, working within the many constraints of the studio system.
I’m hoping a special-edition anniversary DVD makes it to Indian stores soon.

P.S. In the context of Vertigo being a film that doesn’t have mass-appeal and can make viewers uncomfortable, I recently came across this post on Jim Emerson’s Scanners blog: a discussion about films that are so personal that they work best when watched alone, rather than with an audience in a hall. Emerson also links to an interview with novelist Steve Erickson, who speculates that one reason why Vertigo’s critical appreciation deepened after its original release was that many budding movie buffs (future directors and critics) in the 1960s and 1970s saw it at home, on TV.
I’ve never seen Vertigo “work” with an audience in a theatre, and I’ve seen it with an audience at least four times...a movie that seems absurd in the collective dark, shared with other people, but watched alone on DVD has the force of a private dream.
I think there’s something to this: I remember the general restlessness and the snickering in the hall when I saw Vertigo on the big screen at PVR Saket of all places – part of a very short-lived experiment by the hall to show movie classics. In fairness, it must be said that the print they showed was a terrible one (from before the restoration) and the sound even worse. Besides, and there’s no polite way to say this, it was a PVR Saket audience.

P.S. 2: Also see this old post about the accusations of misogyny in Hitchcock’s films. The accusations seem even more bizarre when you see the obvious sympathy that Vertigo has for the Judy character, and how the film launches its emotional crescendo at precisely the point when Scottie leaves the room (and us) for the first time and the camera turns to Judy to learn her story. More from Camille Paglia about Hitchcock and Vertigo here.

P.S. 3: Here's a great piece by Adam Gopnik, originally published in the New Yorker I think, which marvelously links the death of a beloved goldfish with the premature revelation in Vertigo. Wonderful piece of writing.

[A shorter version of this post appeared in the New Sunday Express a couple of weeks ago]

Thursday, June 05, 2008

IPL, tennis, Jaya Arjuna, narrow domestic walls

Some people derogatorily use the word "intellectual" (or the more direct "pseudo-intellectual") to brush off a dissenting view. If you didn't care for a "masala entertainment" film that everyone else liked, it can only be because you're pseudo. Mention a book that isn’t on the current bestseller list? Yup, again, it must be because you're trying too hard to be different.

What's more amusing is when this accusation surfaces in the context of something as plebeian and mass-friendly as sport. As I’ve mentioned earlier on this blog, the Indian Premier League – all two months of it – entirely passed me by, so that I was still irritating friends with uninformed questions towards the end of the tournament: “You mean Shane Warne is playing for Jaipur – how is that even possible? Didn’t he retire a few months ago? Does Preity Zinta bat or bowl? Is this a unisex tournament?” During this period, much of my spare time has gone in watching tennis and participating in the messageboard of the TennisWorld website.

The average response goes: "The IPL is on and you're going on about tennis? You must be one of those snobbish pseudo-intellectual types who likes moving against the herd!" Now I have nothing against being called pseudo-intellectual or snobbish (or a vagrant sheep for that matter), but it's an ironic label given that most of my comments on the TW site run along the following lines:

"Rafa gets the break!! Woo-hoo!! Now HOLD SERVE, you moron, and take this to a third!! Bury the Djoker!"

Friends tell me IPL cricket is so exciting because of all the action off the ground: the cheerleaders, the movie stars, the Harbhajan-Sreesanth controversy. What does a bland sport like tennis have to compare with this, they ask.

More than you'd think, actually. For starters, in recent times, the mothers of players have been in the spotlight, and when mothers get involved in anything it always makes for good drama. During the tense Monte Carlo semi-final between Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, the usually unflappable world number 1 shouted "Be quiet!" to Djokovic's shrieky mom, who was creating an unnecessary ruckus in the stands. Meanwhile, Britain's Andy Murray exploded in rage during a match, accusing his opponent of saying something inappropriate about his mother. Hindi-film scriptwriters might want to see the video – while Murray didn't actually slur "Maa kasam, chun chun ke maaroonga!" in Dharmendra style, it still makes Harbhajan's "Teri maa ki" to Andrew Symonds pale in comparison.

Speaking of Harbhajan, his physical assault on Sreesanth has nothing on a tennis player's recent assault on himself. This year's most viewed tennis clip by far is the one that shows Russia's Mikhail Youzhny repeatedly smacking himself on the head with his racquet – and drawing a nasty stream of blood in the process – after messing up a forehand. Cricket may have long ceased to be the gentleman's game, but tennis is no longer all strawberries and cream and long, leisurely days in the Wimbledon sun either. At this rate, contact sports like WWE will soon be an endangered species.

Lanka notes contd

Anyway, it turned out that my lack of interest in the biggest thing to hit cricket since coloured pyjamas was even harder to explain in Sri Lanka, where not only was it assumed that anyone getting off a flight from India would be reciting IPL match stats in his sleep, but where my very name helped steer the conversation. “Hi, I’m Jai,” I said when we met our guide/tour representative Keith at the airport, and on hearing these simple words his face lit up with the combined effulgence of a million glowworms, causing the people around us to look up in astonishment at the night sky. “Jaya like in Jayasuriya?” he exclaimed, scarcely able to believe his good fortune. “So pleased to meet you!”

“Um, yes – Jaya,” I replied, “but with an Arjuna instead of a Suriya!” At this our man sighed long and deep, and people around us looked up to check if monsoon winds were gathering. “Arjuna like in Arjuna Ranatunga, our great captain?” “True,” I conceded, “but without the ‘Ranatunga’ – or the captaincy, for that matter. I gave up both after we won the World Cup in 1996, ha ha.”

The joke fell flat but on the whole we had got off to a good start, and over the next several days we learnt about Keith’s love for cricket, his strong views about the game and its players, and even the ways in which it had affected his personal life: he told us about a promising job offer he had received in Australia, which he turned down on no other grounds than “the behaviour of their cricketers, and the way they treated Muralitharan”. (I decided to avoid disclosing that Australia had been far and away my favourite team back in my viewing days.)

Jayasuriya’s violent knocks for the Mumbai team were key talking points and it was noteworthy that throughout our stay, the one channel that would unerringly be available on every hotel-room TV set was SET Max. “Do people in India like Jayasuriya?” Keith asked tentatively. “Oh, we always admired him,” I replied, “but we like him a lot better now that he’s playing for a domestic team in a friendly environment rather than hitting Indian bowlers all over the park in an international match.” The next morning, Keith reciprocated with a few unexpected words of praise for an Aussie cricketer. “Did you see how Hayden celebrated with Murali after they took that wicket?” he asked, “I think he’s not so bad.”

I’m sure that the people who thought up the IPL were driven by baser motives than tearing down the narrow domestic walls of partisanship, but they might just have managed it anyway. On the other hand, if future editions of the tournament are as successful, India might soon revert to being a collection of sovereign states.