Posts Tagged ‘Indian Films’

Sita (Nandita Das) and Radha (Shabana Azmi), Deepa Mehta’s Fire

Jules (Keira Knightley) and Jess (Parminder Nagra), Gurinder Chadha’s Bend it Like Beckham

Dear Friends,

This is a continuation of my previous blog on Indian films: I dealt with Lagaan, Bombay, Guru, included comments on Mississippi Masala and Charulata, with links to Water and Before It Rains; instead of adding yet more comments, particularly since one of my readers complained about the length of the post, I thought I’d make a separate one for the work of Deepa Mehta and Gurinda Chadha, especially since the tabooed theme of lesbianism unites these two films.

I spent Thursday afternoon watching Gurinder Chadha’s Bend it Like Beckham after having read Ratna Kapur’s essay on the firestorm (pun intended) and controversy and violent demonstrations aimed at Deepa Mehta’s Fire, “The Cultural Politics of Fire” — as well as several other essays on Indian films, especially the South Asian, and especially considered from a cultural studies, sexual, & censorship point of view. I here bring this altogether to argue that lesbianism it seems is one of the ‘red flags’ for those who are for male hegemony; just before bluestockings (also a target for rabid cruel attacks). Both kinds of women appear to do without men, not seek families as the center of their existence, find much more personally fulfilling substitutes.

The revealing thing about Bend It Like Beckham, which (like Chadha’s Bride and Prejudice and Mira Nair’s Mississippi Masala blends American or a Hollywood style film with Indian motifs) is that no one spoke of the subtextual and sometimes over central themes about homosexuality in the film. Here in the US we are supposed to have an open society: there were no riots; indeed the film garnered popular audiences, but mum was the word about this aspect of what was alluring.

The young Bengali man that the Bengali heroine, Jess (Parminder Nagra)’s parents want her to marry, and who does love her (as a brother or friend), Tony (Ameet Chana) is an unacknowledged homosexual. Jules (a boy’s name for Juliette as played by Keira Knightley) is mistaken for a boy when Jess kisses her. Jess is short for Jessminder, and Jess can be a boy’s name in the US.
Tony does tell Jess he’s gay but he swears her to tell no one else, especially the parents. At the end of the film Jess comes out for truthfulness in front of their Indian parents: when Tony attempts to help her take up an offered athletic scholarship in the US by claiming he and she are engaged and will marry when she returns from the US, she says “no.” That’s not so. She really wants the freedom to travel and live away and there is no guarantee she will be back to marry and live in the Bengali way. But neither she or Tony tells the parents, nor indeed anyone else.

I liked Bend It Like Beckham far more than I thought I would. I had not liked Bride and Prejudice very much: I saw its skillful art, beautiful dancing, and the wonderfully satiric proto-feminist and other songs. But it was silly and had other characteristics like Bend it. Both grated on and off and it took a lot of patience for me not to shut it off. Chadha’s sense of humor is (to me) awful; she invites us to laugh at what should make us pity someone or grow angry at outrageous accepted bullying; she finds obtuseness and social cruelties funny. One might say she is tolerant, but there is a line I’d draw when I feel the vulnerable suffering and Chadha dismisses intangible hurts. They do count, and at any rate I’m not amused. Like Bride and Prejudice, Bend It is very noisy; Jim agreed and said he could hear the decibel level in the front room.

She is all for “winners” (words like “whining” are used for justified protests or unhappiness, though she is too canny to use “losers” for those not so socially and in other ways most admire successful). Chadna’s films are incessantly upbeat in the worst way: all of us can have it all it seems. At least the male coach, Joe (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) at the end though of course offered the high big place coaching men for soccer, decides to stay where he is with women: he wants to be a big fish in a littler pond and on the “cutting edge” of sexual politics (lest we think he wouldn’t go for the biggest prize in the room).

Worst of all, in Bend It, the husbands and fathers are all wise, and we are to laugh at mothers who are stupid stick-in-the-muds, sarcastic, bully their husbands (oh yeah — this from women who have no income too) and it’s Dad who saves the day for both our girls. Juliet Stevenson was (I hope) paid a lot for being a dope mother (Jules’s) who wants to put falsies on her daughter, but deprived wears them herself. It’s she who goes bananas when she thinks Jules kissed Jess; then told it was a mistake, she reverts to her (hypocritical though she does not know it so we are supposed to forgive this) toleration of lesbians as long as it’s not her daughter.

Juliet Stevenson as Jules’s thick absurd mom

Frank Harpet as Dad who saves the day.

The main problem with the movie for me is that Chadha panders (we get the ectastically expensive happy wedding) even as she urges women (it seems) to accept their totally unfeminist sisters: all Jess’s sister (played by Archie Panjabi who was Ghita in The Constant Gardener lives for is marriage, pregnancy; another female relative is a nasty cock-teaser who thinks this is the way to live too, and we see her making-out busted up by her parents who try to destroy the camera that took pictures. We are to accept this as part of the picture — not that it’s not or we should not, and it did somewhat deflate the absurd wedding. Jules and Jess are presented as not all that unusual for wanting to break tabooes and seek something beyond cosmetics, getting men and babies. They want to play football, to be applauded and admired, to complete and if they are both attracted to Joe, marriage is not the end of their being, and they are bored bored bored with the role of mother, daughter &cc, want to go to university and travel.

Two Sisters: Chadha says the film is her most autobiographical

At the same time, Bend It is, though, also seriously about the pains of assimiliation, some of the character portraits are very well done, and it has its adult moving moments. I was struck though by how it also touched precisely on the issues that Fire dramatized. Jesse is attached to her family and she cannot get herself to hurt the individuals who feel tender affection for and loyalty to her, so she must participate in their cultural rituals. To walk away from their lifestyle would leave her without a lifestyle to belong to, for Joe himself is someone cut off from his father. UK families are no haven.

Jess’s Dad a Sikh man is a moving character: he is against his daughter playing football because when he was young and came to England, he was excluded from cricket on the grounds of his race. He mourns his having given up, and at the of the film we see Joe (making himself acceptable as a coming son-in-law) teaching this man to play cricket well.

In the essays on censorship the authors discussed the Hindu right, its parties, political arms, and the curious forms of censorship that stick, for example, the forbidden kiss. It stands for privacy, what goes on in the house. It’s okay for a woman to dance in sexy clothes and expose much of her private parts, but not
okay to kiss on the mouth anyone, nor men. I noted the Bend It played with non-kisses and it was not till the last moment that Jess and Joe kissed and then the camera insisted we watch it carefully close up.

Jess and Joe, a loving interracial couple (the actor projects a curious louchness and wildness, and is effeminate in his brooding features; he was brilliant a disturbed near homocidal maniac from the experiences of civil war in Ang Lee’s Ride with the Devil)

So Chadha does participate marginally in precisely what Mehta is doing. I have not yet seen Fire, only Water (see previous blog). I thanked Fran for her corrective comments on some of the reviews. It is not true that the women’s husbands are paragons; that does change the meaning of the film. Kapur perhaps wanted it to be more free-choice lesbianism. Instead the women turn to one another in reaction to the miseries of heterosexual marriage.

On WWTTA we talked about how such films and lesbianism and women’s friendship related to Jane Austen’s Emma. Emma has been interpreted from a lesbian standpoint (by Juhasz who is a lesbian herself); and Ruth Perry demonstrates how women’s friendship can’t last in the structures of society, not easily. Miss Taylor’s first loyalty must be to Mr Weston; her time is his; Emma turns to Harriet, but when Harriet emerges as a rival, and then marries a farmer, Mr Martin, she begins to keep her distance. Your first loyalty is to family and that means the males in charge too. In Bend It Chadha downplayed rivalry except for sexual jealousy between Jess and Jules over Joe, but that almost lost them the game.

Recent novels by more alert women (thinking) de-emphasize this rivalry I think; in Bell Jar (for example), Plath may show her mid-century placement and be using stereotypes and she herself (I understand) could be awful about and to other women (but her biographies are just as agenda-ridden by the authors as Dickinson). The psychologists say how important supportive friendships are for women, so this persistent divide-and-conquer is all the more poignant and hurtful for women. At the end Austen has Emma as the complacent winner, and I’m with a number of readers who find that ending grating (what did she do to earn anything) and while I wish it were ironic, I don’t feel it is. Austen herself dismisses what Perry is right to say is in the text (how women need women friends, how these relationships are broken up by patriarchial and class structures) and instead ends on one of Mrs Elton’s supposedly funny sneers at Emma, jealous of her as ever, and hoping Emma’s marriage will fail. Austen is also ambivalent about spinster old maids, for older unmarried women can be rendered as dignified women with a meaningful life too.

In my comments I add some on another recent American “women’s film”: a film dealing centrally with women’s issues and containing a positive or sympathetic portrait of women apart from men.


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The naive idealistic hopeful Muslim girl about to marry her Hindi beloved (from Bombay)

Bhuvan’s heroic stand as batter (from Lagaan)

Dear Friends,

The last week or so I’ve returned to working on my book on Austen movies. One of the Sense and Sensibility movies is a Tamil free adaptation, Rajiv Menon’s I Have Found It (2000), and, as I have done with the three I’ve written up thus far (1971 BBC, writer Denis Constanduros; 1981 BBC, writer Alexander Baron; and 1995 Miramax, writer Emma Thompson , all called Sense and Sensibility), I’ve been watching and/or studying and taking notes on, reading about, related movies.

In this case it has meant first reading about Indian movies: there’s more about Bollywood (Bombay movies) than Tamil (South Asian), but the two kinds are subspecies of Indian movies. I’ve two books and a group of essays. And then re-watching or watching for the first time those Indian films I can rent or buy which have English subtitles. Now most of these are movies which have been hits in the US or UK or Europe — or why gain subtitles? Indeed those I’ve watched thus far have been uniformly superb: two years ago I made it my business to see Deepa Mehta’s Water (2005), and this past fall, one made partly for the US market, Mira Nair’s Mississippi Masala, 1991 (and so not an Indian film [see commnt to blog], but an American one with Indian motifs, rather like Nair’s Namesake (2006) which I’m going to show my classes in a week or so); Sastosh Sivan’s Before the Rains (2007); a “classic” by Satyajit Ray, Charulata (1964, Englished as The Lonely Wife, based on a 19th century Indian novel); and now one by the director Mani Ratnam (with Menon as cinematographer), Bombay (1995), and one Menon said he admired tremendously, Ashutosh Gowariker’s Lagaan (2001).

I’d say that in comparison to Lagaan and Bombay, the two Austen movies I’m going to write about, Gurinder Chadha’s Bride and Prejudice and Menon’s I have Found It are weak (especially the essentially silly B&P) or simply an ordinary if in some ways compelling human drama and love story, with the important subtext of strong women, drawn from Austen’s S&S (IHFI). B&P may also be said to be a remarkable sustained blend of superbly done satiric and joyful song and dance (so I will try to see her Bend It Like Beckham [2002] this coming weekend too).

So that’s the context, how I’ve come to sit here at times enthralled, quivering, and occasionally bored, mostly at moments in <em>Guru (2007), also a Ratnam-Menon product: it has some tedious filler dance-and-song and doesn’t become riveting until we realize the hero’s in-laws are plotting to destroy his financial empire and him. Indian movies are all so long that there is a comparison between them and a long novel. You must sit and watch, sometimes over the course of a day and a half before you’ve done (as I have other things to do so am interrupted).

For tonight I want to write about Lagaan and Bombay mostly, with some mention of Guru. In the case of Lagaan (which means “Tax”), I became so involved in the cricket game between the dastardly cruel English and the exploited, impoverished, brave and noble Indian villagers, that I was in an intense fever of anxiety lest the Indians lose that game of cricket, so much was depending on it. I literally ran home to finish the movie and couldn’t bear watching while the other side (the dastardly English) scored points. I cannot remember ever caring whether one team won a game over another, and here I was gripped, gripped, my emotions at full pitch.

The Indian team between training sessions

The way it was done was to make a lot I could care about ride on the game. Here’s the situation:

It hasn’t rained for two years in Champaner, a village in sweltering central India, but Captain Russell (Paul Blackthorne, who is a Billy Zane doppelgänger), the commander of the local British regiment, isn’t about to give the parched villagers a break. He makes a bet with Bhuvan (Aamir Khan), the most spirited of the villagers (and of course, the handsomest), but only because he believes it’s a sure thing: If the villagers can beat the British regiment in a cricket match, he’ll cancel the land tax for two years; if the British win, the villagers will have to pay three times the normal, unreasonable amount.

Captain Russell feels confident because the villagers have absolutely no idea of how cricket is played. But Bhuvan believes that it is close enough to a game called “gilli-danda” they all played as children, and with the clandestine assistance of the captain’s sister, Elizabeth (Rachel Shelley), who’s appalled by her brother’s cruelty, Bhuvan begins putting together a team (by Dave Kehr; see the rest of this review).

Russell is a cruel sneering man. We see him kick, beat, and humiliate the villagers; he lives in the lap of luxury, and has decided to do this to tillitate himself with these people’s misery. Slowly each of the villager’s personalities emerges, and our hero Bhuvan is shown to be great-souled: he takes an untouchable, a Sikh, an old half-crazy despised man onto his team, because he needs them and they are willing. A curious fillip to the European viewer is Russell’s sister not only teaches the men how to play the game, she comes to love Bhuvan.

Rachel Shelley as Elizabeth (so the white woman watching could have someone to identify with too)

Everything is done to up the ante and create excitement and despair. Russell pays one of the villagers on the team to be a spy and to try to throw the game. The umpires tend to side with the English. There is wry humor in the obtuse words and gestures of the English watching the game; we find them hilarious all the while feeling they act so superciliously and sure of themselves because they are so powerful. The songs and dances are rousing and stir the heart with desire for them to win.

It is a kind of fantasy. I suppose the Indians of old really would have liked to be able to beat the British out by a single duel of this sort, and what better than this upper-class game.

Our team (David) beating the empire (Goliath)

Gowariker, writer, director had a brilliant idea and executed it with extraordinary passion and panache. Jim tells me the hero, Aamir Khan, went on to star in a film about the 1857 Mutiny, The Rising.


Shekar seeking his children frantically

Bombay had me quivering with horror and distress. It started very slowly as I watched a Hindu young man fall in love from afar by merely seeing the face of a Muslim young girl through her black burka. After much effort, he manages to reach her, and she falls in love with him at first sight too. Both sets of parents are bitterly against any match: in an article on the Austen movies, Linda Troost and Sayre Greenberg argued that the Indian adaptations uniformly make family and friends kind and a haven in the Austen films because the culture (it was implied) would not criticize family. Well, maybe the two Austen films show this, but in this film and Guru, family members are profoundly cruel, adversarial (the hero’s father resents paying for his son’s education), vengeful (the heroine’s father plans to marry her off in ten days, a plan which precipitates her courageous flight to Bombay and immediate marriage).

The open-faced Muslim bride (Manisha Koirala)

The somewhat older experienced Hindu groom (Arvind Swamy)

What is so riveting, compelling, horrifying is after a few years of living together peacefully in Bombay (after initially being rejected by their neighbors for their intermarriage), Bombay erupts in bloody riots where Muslims and Hindus proceed to beat, stone, hack, and in whatever horrific way possible (they set one another on fire) murder the person of the other religion, destroy each another’s property (by fire mostly), bomb buses, cars, whatever is in their way.

What stays in my mind is the frantic cruelty of the way the crowds of people seek to destroy individuals and houses: they pour gasoline over people’s heads, over cars, over houses, and then set them on fire. A kind of wild half-crazed exhilaration and maddened despair might be said to be at the core of this, but poverty is not enough to account for such horrors. I know in Europe people accused of heresy were burnt at the stake. What is it when religion gets involved? People who kill themselves as an example to others during ethnic and social and other wars also set themselves on fire. How are we to understand this terrifying impulse?

Here is this story told in detail from another blog:

It’s a beautifully photographed (by Rajiv Menon) story of personal and urban conflict when Hindu and Muslim encounter each other. On the small scale, Arvind Swamy (the most un-herolike hero I’ve ever seen) plays Shekar, the journalist son of a conservative Hindu father, who falls in love at first sighting of Shaila Bano, a Muslim girl who lives in the same TamilNad town, and has an equally staunch father. Manisha is gorgeous in this movie and the lengths her suitor goes to are perfectly understandable.

Facing parental opposition, the two flee to Bombay so they can marry and live in peace. Things go fine for a few years, though there are hints of what’s to come when Shaila is buying vegetables one day and a group of saffron-robed men pass by, chanting slogans. Shekar works as a journalist while Shaila tends to their twin sons, then Ayodya happens, and the city is torn apart by two spurts of rioting between Hindus and Muslims, in December and then January.

During the first riot, the boys are terrorized by a group of men who douse them in gasoline and keep asking “Are you Hindu or Muslim? Answer!” while fumbling to light a match. The sons narrowly escape, but the effects are profound. In a brief and wrenching scene, one twin, Kamal, riding on his grandfather’s shoulders as they head home from a temple visit, reacts instinctively when seeing another small mob, reaching down with a small hand to wipe the ash off the older man’s forehead while doing the same to his own. In the January riots, as the family flees a burning home, the boys are separated from their parents and then from each other. One is taken in by a hijra, the other by a Muslim woman (see rest of blog for more on the historical reality of the mid-1990s)

So our hero and heroine get caught up in these crazed city-wide conflagrations twice, and in both instances are separated from their children.

The terrified children

The second time destroys their fathers and the heroine’s mother who have at long last come to visit and been reconciled to some extent after the first visit. They are burnt to death. We see them frantically running everywhere to find their children, believing them dead, and the final moment when they do (improbably I admit) find the children after the children have re-discovered one another is such an intense relief I really shivered.

Of course the point of this film is to make a strong case against religious prejudice and its dire destructiveness. The film does neglect to show the conflict is at its core economic: over jobs and power. It simply blames “politicians” for stirring up hatred without explaining why this is possible so swiftly. The intense poverty of so many people.


Guru is a noteworthy film too, and by its end I was very involved. It tells the story of a lower or middle class young man who fights, claws, and struggles his way up from a poverty-striken life in a village to the luxurious life of a wealthy manufacturing businessman who runs a huge corporation. To move from his lowly place to such a high one, he must break laws, cut corners, do deals; this film might be said to justify CEOs, but since it’s set in India, the context is different, and he is seen in the film as a savior, as doing his best against out-moded laws and customs which keep the wealth and power in the hands of a few.

Along the way he marries a beautiful village girl, Sujatha (played by the ubiquitous Aishwarya Rai who also has twins — apparently a desideratum — two for the price of one?) and becomes involved with her family, and there’s the rub. He rouses the intense jealousy and hatred of his brother-in-law, Shyam (Madhavan) whose ego he bruises, and this brother-in-law and his wife’s grandfather set out to expose and ruin him — and they almost do. A side story is of his wife’s crippled sister who the brother-in-law has married almost out of spite, but who he loves intensely and gives a few years of happiness before she dies of multiple sclerosis. The actress who plays this role, Meenu (Vidya Balan) delivers a touching performance. I surmize we are to feel this villain hastened her death with his love-making.

Abhishek Bachcan as Guru

The performance of Abhishek Bachchan as Guru (full name Gurukant K. Desai) makes this film, and some of the minor characters he meets in business, e.g., the man who comes with him from Turkey and tries to commit suicide when the brother-in-law pumps information out of him. Many moving moments which are made probable come out of everyday life in a fiercely competitive locally-controlled (by bosses, by people in power) economy.

There’s a good blog on this movie (with a summary) and its music and cast too.

Rai in one of her dance routines

Guru may feel more relevant to our world today — the way Bombay is, than Lagaan, although we may take the side of Michael Moore in Capitalism: A Love Story, here greed is seen as part of a healthy dream to improve the lives of all. Guru does not drain everyone else, but wants to take them with him.

In this sort of idealism we do see the weakness of this film in comparison to the other two; similarly the two Austen films have positions and stories that won’t stand close scrutiny by a realist. And yet what they do add are strong women’s roles, women transgressing to some extent (B&P) and going out on their own for jobs. In most of the above films women are wives, mothers, daughters, sisters, and their big jobs are to have and care for children, cook, and wait for the man to return and be loyal to him. Period.

No one who has seen the above three films (or the others I’ve cited) can ever say that the vast world of cinema created and enjoyed by Indian culture is in any way inferior to that of the European countries (say French), middle eastern (say Turkey or the ex-communist ones) or English speaking ones (Hollywood, the UK). Some parts of their audience may be naive but so are parts of the audiences al over the world, and these movie-makers are not, and their “movie grammar” (to refer to all their techniques) when it gets going can be more powerful than the European-Hollywood. They know how to root their stories in primal emotions and build on these.

They also have a different set or differently-nuanced archetypes for men and women at the heart of the stories. I surmize Hollywood has not been able to make in-roads into Indian theatres because of a fundamental difference in the stereotypical males we find in the West, say the tough, hard, carapace, loner American, Robert de Niro, and the tough (always there for men), but loving, tender, sensual interactive male, Gerard Depardieu. I have to think more about the women in western movies, but at first blush I have not seen anything like femme fatales or independent “spunky” women in these films. I’ve read of prostitute-types, but this is sheerly in the area of sex where the Indian film may differ. Not that that’s not important 🙂

Enough for now,


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