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Posts Tagged ‘Indian Films’


The Householder (1963): husband, Prem (Shashi Kapoor) and wife, Indu (Leela Naidu) not getting along


Shakespeare Wallah (1965): daughter Lizzie (Felicity Kendall) and mother Carla Buckingham (Laura Liddell, Felicity’s real mother) playing Shakespeare


Roseland (1977): a few of the chief presences sitting around one of many tables just outside the dance floor


Heat and Dust (1983): chief characters: Nawab (Shashi Kapoor) and his kept man, Harry (Nickolas Grace) and the English Official’s Wife, Olivia (Gretta Scacchi) out for a picnic

Friends and readers,

Over the course of my life, I’ve seen at least 16 of some 40 films (and some several times) made by the whole M-I-J team or two of the three over half a century. A few are bound up with memories that matter: going out to the cinema one summer’s day with Thao, a young woman I am motherly towards, and Izzy and seeing the Chekhovian The City of Your Final Destination (2009, so very late, after Merchant’s death); one night very late, Jim asleep, I burst into hysterical tears at the sense of a life thrown away, in The Remains of the Day (1993) and rushed into a room in the front of the house so as not to awaken Jim; during our trip into Quebec one summer, about (I thought at the time) retreat, Heat and Dust (1983), and now I’ll remember Shakespeare Wallah (1965), studying, trying to understand the work of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala for a course I’m about to teach, and feelings about England deeply awakened by the poignancy of the characters having to leave India to go home …

While they are quite varied, I’d say at the core what makes them so often so compelling, so memorable is the true feeling caught or theatricalized in their actually usually quietly understated films; themes like memory, inexplicable longings, an undercurrent of melancholy. Film stories carefully developed, so the hidden life of social scenes is revealed before us. I didn’t chose the most striking shots from the many many brilliant actors who have performed for them, some of them almost unrecognizable by the time they were swept up into the film world (especially once Maggie Smith transformed) though the shots released to the public bring out the actor from the part to sell the picture:


A young Shashi Kapoor as Prem, the intensely frustrated, repressed (before his mother) and occasionally distraught husband in The Householder


Julie Christie as Anne supposed independent young woman come to India to research the life and places her great-aunt Olivia ended up in India in Heat and Dust

Ismail Merchant in one of the many short films he made with Ivory abut their work, and now to be found (if you are lucky), as features in re-digitalized DVDs, said what differentiated their work was they all worked with “heart, intelligence, art.” They were earnest as well as playful about their trade (Wallah can be translates into a trade). I find in their best moments, they approach the work of Ingmar Bergmann; there are also many fallings away, as they stumble, try for non-cinematic almost non-dramatic material (Roseland), attempt to please an audience with simply lush photography (The Bostonians). There is a love affair with the English southern countryside, though three continents, three cultures are their groundwork: India first (Southasia), then England (and Anglo places wherever found), then NYC (very late South America) and Italy (Europe). They could take a photograph: in their very first movies, The Householder and Shakespeare Wallah, they had the direct help of Satyajit Ray and his cinematographer from whom they learned much about cutting, editing. I feel they were drawn to the misty and intangible currents emanating from characters to one another


Felicity Kendall, the wandering half-broke troupe’s daughter, and Shashi Kapoor, the young Indian aristocrat in Shakespeare Wallah


Daniel Day Lewis as Cecil Vyse and Helen Bonham Carter as Lucy Honeychurch in Room with a View (1985)

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I have vowed to make these blogs shorter and so readable; my aim here is to encourage the reader (and watcher) to watch the earlier films (1962-83), perhaps in the black-and-white versions off-putting at first (little is compromised, they are not bland)go to Amazon prime or YouTube (where many are to be found), rent one of the older DVDs from Netflix (or better yet, splurge and buy a newly re-digitalized version with features as long as the movie), so perhaps the best thing, swiftest is to make a picture worth a thousand words by linking in the whole of Householder from YouTube

with a precise, carefully observed detailed study of the film’s art and the human story’s appeal. What I can add as to the story:

The Householder is a close adaptation of Jhabvala’s apparently fourth novel (in books on her The Householder is said to be her first). Now I realize it has in embryo central motifs and types of characters she has throughout her fiction, from beginning (all India) to middle (English women drawn into India and their original personality destroyed by the experience) to end (cool stories of corrupt individuals exploiting vulnerable ones across the Indian/American divide), — you can see a parallel plot in way (putting aside too literal alignments) in Heat and Dust (which I chose as the end of the early films as it was their first true hit, and ever after they were too often tempted into cream and enigmatic evasion).

The Householder is also a utterly believable story of two young Indian people put into an arranged marriage, and then left to make it on their own with the husband, Prem, having a low level job as teacher on a small salary. One of the aspects of all Jhabvala’s novels is that as we begin (and in many of her novels this does not change) in pairs of characters supposed to spend their lives together at least one, sometimes both have no concern or love for one another, are not congenial and what’s more don’t expect to be (particularly true here). Prem is having a very hard time adjusting to teaching in a crude place with no help from colleagues, no education in education, students absolutely w/o any real motivation to learn what he’s teaching (a dialect of Sanskrit); Indu (Leela Naidu, also an actress in France) is given nothing to do, no one to be with, her only function to serve him and he’s gone all day. One of his big mistakes is to bring his mother to live with them — a greedy, self-centered woman, rather stupid. The wife flees back to her parents and what she remembers as a happy household of sisters when she discovers she is pregnant. It’s this period away that awakens our hero to his need of her and desire to be a successful husband (householder). Amanda Vickery did a three part series on men in the 18th century and one of hours was how men wanted and needed to marry to belong, to have status, to be seen as successful males. So often 18th century England resembles 20th century India.

There are remarkable scenes of fights between teachers, of his attempt to get a rise in salary and get his rent put down, a friendship with a young man very like himself, but having an easier time adjusting to what the society has given him as his fate. We are shown that marriage is no picnic at all — The Namesake of Jumpha Lahiri (a writer whose franker work teaches you much about Jhabvala’s) is an idealized depiction — in Jhabvala these males are just so rude and commanding to the imprisoned females whose feeble weapon is to strike back by being awful in conversation. Prem gets involved with very ego centered Americans who have come to India to escape to some sublime nirvana (as does Anne in Heat and Dust) and we meet both sincere gurus and crooks. This is a sketch of the kinds of people and social interactions which matter which she repeatedly, almost obsessively develops at length in her later stories. I hope women today in India in some classes are offered far more in life for real individual fulfillment.

A Daphnis and Chloe archetype underlies this story, for at its end we are asked to believe they are making a happy adjustment at last


Returning home together on the train

I’ve not got a video of the whole Shakespeare Wallah for free online, but I can supply some remarkable reviews, from the New York Times archive; in The Guardian, the professional Chris Weigand approaches with concision some adequacy on the film’s complicated arts: Bollywood and the Bard

In his Guardian obituary for Geoffrey Kendal in 1998, Ivory wrote about the tensions during the production with the veteran actor (Geoffrey Kendal): “He let me know how he despised the cinema – that the cinema was his enemy, causing theatres to be empty and tours to be cancelled.” But Kendal – who has an ease in front of the camera despite his lack of film experience – came to recognize that thanks to Ivory “it was the despised cinema that told the world of my existence and to a certain extent of my fight”.


Geoffrey Kendal doubting the value of what he has spent his life so beautifully on

And the despised cinema is here undeniably beautiful. Shot in black and white (for budgetary reasons) by Subrata Mitra, the film has a stately pace, is sensitively written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and comes with music by the esteemed director Satyajit Ray. The bumpy travels of theatre troupes often make for bittersweet comic escapades

And now my words:

A wandering troupe of actors have made a living traveling around parts of India doing Shakespeare and other classics (as the film opens we see a Sheridan play in progress before a mass group of boys in suits — white, Indian and one Black).


In 18th century costume performing on a bike

But they find they are no longer wanted in the same numbers or way. Gigs dwindle: the local places would rather Sanskrit poetry; the British schools are closing; they are paid much less. We see their truck break down on the road. They are aging, one man dies. The Gleneagles Hotel (pitch perfect that Scots name) that used to accommodate them – very British – is closing. Felicity Kendall is not comic in this and she is not thin — no need to be near anorexic in the 1960s. She and Sanju, an Indian man who rescues them on the road fall in love ad who has as his mistress, Manjula, a Bollywood star who performs one of their sexualized songs, Madhur Jaffrey (she is the Begum in Heat and Dust).


Manjula performing a Bollywood song and dance for Sanju

The poignant question is, Can They Stay On?


Exhausted, on the road, rainy, hot ….

So this is a version of Paul Scott’s famous masterpiece, Staying On, a story retold by Olivia Manning in The Rain Forest (franker and nowhere as well know, and yet more visionary, acerbic, yet in Manning our hero and heroine after some scarifying ordeals escape back; in Scott’s the man dies and we leave our heroine in a desperate situation, just holding on in a beauty shop and hostile hotel. They and this are all autobiographical: the Kendalls did live this way and in one of the features, a mature Felicity tells us at first her father was disappointed with the film as it did not show their triumphs, the fantastical fun they had living the way they did, it too emphasized the ending and sense of loss

We see several famous scenes from Shakespeare done very well in what seems an old-fashioned 19th century way (disrupted now).
Saying goodbye; her parents know it’s best for Lizzie to return to an aunt in the UK; they will follow when they find they must — now they will go round just doing “gems from Shakespeare”. The way it is discussed off-hand by ordinary people suggests a rollicking comedy (!), but while it does not end tragically and there are very comic moments, it is a melancholy and oddly realistic film.

It’s very realistic in the sense that we get feel for India. Jhabvala is the author of the script which while not as subtle as her later ones is very good — no book behind it. I am slowly beginning to appreciate her stories for the very first time ever –understanding her better and being older less emotionally involved, more distant myself.

These two films are a pair.

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Roseland, the place and marquee


The dancefloor

I would call Roseland one of the team’s noble failures. They actually filmed in the real Roseland theater, and with some professional actors, used the aging and ordinary people dancing of an evening: the idea seems to have been to concentrate on the dancing itself, with the stories barely sketched and the repetitive obsessions of those who come to such places regularly emphasized. It has its moments (Geraldine Chaplin of the professionals manages best); there are some professional dancers who catch our attention now and again, but it is fatally unrealized because it is trying to show us that the shell of these places is quite other than what is unexaminedly celebrated briefly in commercial films and histories.

This evening’s task is nearly done. I am passing over the effective The Europeans (1979): sorry to do this as it features a young Robin Ellis (also Lee Remnick — see just below) is a Henry James story, about clashing cultures, which is picked up later on, as just the sort of thing that M-I-J were particularly good at. Its themes differ from those of the other early films and the film anticipate other Henry James stories as well as several of the later, E.M. Forster stories — all set in England — or the US as The Europeans seems to be. It is not one of their best; they grew better at this type as they went on.

Heat and Dust has been if anything over-reviewed. Jhabvala’s novel had won the Booker Prize (so it sold fantastically well). Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian

After 37 years, Heat and Dust stands up as an intelligent, ambitious, substantial picture – with flaws but also intriguing aspects that were perhaps not sufficiently understood at the time. Is the movie’s love story a diversionary heterosexualisation of something else?


Anne after reading her aunt’s letters seems (mysteriously) taken by their content, next to her Chidananda allowed back in (he lives off her)

Yes, the Nawab is homosexual (the team also had real empathy for homosexual men), and the ending is not happiness; Olivia and now Anne turn out not to be free spirits but frustrated women who allow themselves to become the sexual partners, Anne, for example, as deluded as the successfully for a bit stubborn shaved American with his faux-Indian name, Chidananda (Charles McCaughan), and her landlord Inder Lal (Zaki Hussain, another less scrupulous Prem). She does not know who the father of her child is, and her retirement for help in the transformed building that Olivia ended her isolated life in as far from self-actualization as Olivia. The Nawab we have learned is a corrupt thug.

Bradshaw concentrates on the wonderful performances, and hidden meanings that leap out today, as well as the facile nature of the Anne parallel (just compare a real depiction of such a household, with the wife subject to epileptic fits, the mother-in-law supplying counterproductive punishing remedies). I want to add that what helped make people keep coming to the film after they satisfied an early Booker Prize enthusiasm, is the simplicity with which the stories is filmed — almost the hollowed out nature. Like The Householder, Shakespeare Wallah (and the quietly complex The Europeans), nothing is over-produced or over-emphatic at all, even if feel of the film’s images and music is so sensual — which gave our film-makers their nuggets for turning to a commercially successful second half (later M-I-J).

What people remember best — who saw it — is the parallel plot, exquisitely dove-tailed into the same places — Anne (Julie Christie) comes back to India to see the place her great-Aunt Olivia’s (Gretta Scacchi) life played out, to understand it better by inhabiting the living context – and we go back and forth between the 1920s elegant Raj (once again Shashi Kapoor) with its desperate people and high violence (not seen by us but heard about off-stage) and the 1970s in exactly same places in India. The parallels including both women getting pregnant by the India man closest by, only Olivia has an abortion and the disgrace leads her to desert her (boring) English husband, Douglas (Christopher Cazenove doing a serious job a la Leonard Woolf) for the alluring (to Olivia glamorous because strange) Raj — a retreat which deepens when he is said to visit her only 3 times a year — in deference to his mother, the Begum (Madhur Jaffrey from Householder now grown 20 years older), and then stop altogether. Like so many of the women in Jhabvala’s stories, Olivia is utterly alienated from all the women she meets, and some have good advice, try to support her. Anne is your liberated young woman, but supposed sensible, with her affair with her landlord (Inder Lal) emerging slowly. But unlike Olivia, she stops short of an abortion


Anne stops the woman in mid-performance

and is seen joyously retreating to a building now a hospice institution, hospital, where we last watched Olivia live her life playing the piano, until the very end when (it is hinted) Olivia ended in desperate poverty. It seems the Begum has won at long last


Jhabvala presents these Indian mothers-in-law as vengeful when given any power

We have the saturninely bitter-witty gay companion, kept and bullied the Raj — Harry (Nickolas Grace, young in the 1920s, and made up to be very ancient in the 1960s; Grace played this type too many times — Brideshead Revisited, Dance to Music of Time. He can convey no wisdom to Anne now grown old, back in England so safer and more comfortable, but storyless — we learn nothing of the inbetween time — it is story which thickens out characters in films.


The two take tea many years later, miraculously Anne has aged little

Maybe what was liked were the scenes of playful social activity, rituals done so quietly (not much gossip) and dinners at length, Anglophilic with the important qualification none of the white men or women show any understanding or sympathy for the people they are supposed to be governing, except maybe Douglas at his table in the heat trying to dispense justice.


Maybe it’s his stiff white shirt and tie that make Douglas (Christopher Casenove) so unappealing to Olivia (Gretta Scacchi)

But unlike the stories of her later career, Jhabvala is willing to grant her heroines a refuge with the implication they have accepted being women alone or subject to others.

I recognize the types and themes (people performing, a foolish American following gurus, who at the film’s end, somewhat unusually escapes relatively unscathed — like Lizzie, he is headed home to his aunt, in his case it seems almost a Kansas of Dorothy-like security and safety. This is the paradigm for Adhaf Soueif’s Map of Love who gives the story post-colonial politics, with dollops of feminism, strong heroines in the past and present and the central heroine at book’s end her own person, bringing up a daughter, companion to her deceased husband’s elderly (kind and gentle) father in middle class Kensington.

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Early in the partnership

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s most central theme in her books (as also Jhumpa Lahiri) comes from her thoroughly post-colonial roots; born in Germany of a Polish father whose nuclear family were killed in German concentration camps (he later killed himself), brought up in England (she writes in English), studying literature, she married to an Indian Bengali man, spending 25 years in India (read “Myself in India”), and the last phase of her existence in New York City. She was a perfect fit for the Englishman James Ivory who had come to India, and Ismail Merchant A major theme of her fiction — searching for, building an identity, which even people who stay put at first sometimes must do as the one the nuclear family and community they live among seeks to impose one that violates their innermost nature which seeks actualization. This is the central theme of The Namesake (Lahiri also has a multiple identity now: Indian, English, US, and now Italian. It fits the Merchant-Ivory perspective as seen in the writing and interviews by and about them. She died in 2013.

Merchant appears to have personally been a secular man, but as an Indian born he grew up in a religiously-laden society, with opposing groups (Muslim, Hindi). In the online biography at wikipedia His father, a textile manufacturer, was the head of the Muslim League, and he refused to move to Pakistan at the time of independence and partition. “Family networks” enabled him at a young age to become friends with people influential and in the film industry. He studied at St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai and received BA degree of University of Bombay, moved to New York City where he worked as a messenger for the UN, and showed his talent for attracting funds from Indian delegates for film projects. He was the producer, the man who made the money come, and when he died, Ivory did not have the same talent. He and Ivory had met in 1961 when he was in the US on a scholarship in a New York coffee shop; at the time Ivory was an Ivy Leaguer with aims to work in artful cinema. He died in 2005.

Ivory’s biography in wikipedia tells us he came from middling people in Oregon, where he first went to University, he moved to the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts, where he directed the short film Four in the Morning (1953). He wrote, photographed, and produced Venice: Theme and Variations, a half-hour documentary submitted as his thesis film for his master’s degree in cinema. The film was named by The New York Times in 1957 as one of the ten best non-theatrical films of the year. He graduated from USC in 1957. Here we are told Ivory met producer Ismail Merchant at a screening of Ivory’s documentary The Sword and the Flute in New York City in 1959; but we meet up with the other biography for we learn they formed their company in 1961. He wrote and or collaborated with all four books on them as a team.

Neither man seems ever to have married or had a public partner.


The three continual creative spirits grown older …

In Robert Emmet Long’s wonderful (full of wonders) and useful book, The Films of Merchant-Ivory: there are good biographies, much better than the ones I’ve provided, insightfl details about stages in their careers, the gifts they showed, where learned their crafts, then descriptions and accounts of many of the films, many beautiful and thought-provoking photographs and stills. Long calls these three “unique uncommon individuals” who make “unique uncommon films.”

Ellen

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

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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.

JulietStevenson
Juliet Stevenson as Jules’s thick absurd mom

Dadsavingtheday
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.

twosisters
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.

lovinginterracialcouple
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.

Ellen.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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The open-faced Muslim bride (Manisha Koirala)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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,

Ellen

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