Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Book 04/50 A Suitable Boy

A Suitable Boy  Vikram Seth   fiftyfiftyme category: Other

This was such a special book that I had too much to say about it for this review blog. My reaction to this giant masterpiece is here, at Likhaavat.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Movie 04/50 Tere Ghar Ke Samne

Tere Ghar Ke Samne     fiftyfiftyme category: Major

 I was about 12 when I first tried kulfi and I spat it out in disgust. If anyone had told me then that I would come to love it, I would have dismissed the idea as inconceivable. But perhaps that word does not mean what I think it means, because something similar happened with this film.

I have a real issue with Dev Anand. I don't get why he's viewed as some sort of legendary "it" man of Hindi cinema, and I really, really hate the egotistical narcissism that oozes from him in the films of his I'd seen before this one. In Kala Bazaar and especially in Guide,  I get the overwhelming impression that Dev & Vijay both think Dev IS a god, and so he preaches and preens his way through them. Just thinking about his role in Guide is enough to make me mad, so it was a  big challenge for me to take the plunge and buy this movie, largely on the strength of recommendations from filmiphilic friends, especially Carla at Filmi Geek. I am in their debt, because I can now say of a Dev Anand film something that I would have thought inconceivable just a few weeks ago:   I love this film!

Tere Ghar Ke Samne is like good kulfi, sweet, light, with a melts-in-your-mouth deliciousness that simply compels one to smile. But that's what makes this such a remarkable film in my opinion. Sweet, happy Hindi films are about as rare as rice, so why does this one make such an impression? 

The answer lies in what's missing: Drama. Many, if not most, sweet and happy Hindi films incorporate some element of drama, some darkening of the horizons with clouds of gloom. Those clouds might be family opposition, an unwelcome arranged marriage proposal, or any number of other impediments to the inevitable happy ending. Although most of the films I like are oldies, two of my favourite films from this century, Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na  and Jab We Met both follow this revered and time-honoured filmi convention - make them sad before they make us glad. Adding this sort of element only makes sense, providing something against which the ultimate happiness can be contrasted. Without it, a film should be a sappy mess, unrelentingly, cloyingly sweet, like Hum Aapke Hain Koun...! I like HAHK, but it is, as one IMDb commenter aptly said "just a shaadi cassette".

Somehow, Tere Ghar Ke Samne pulls off the remarkable feat of being almost drama-free yet remaining an engaging, involving film to watch. That's what makes this a special, remarkable film for me - it's basically pure confection, but it's not sickly sweet. How it manages this is what I've been trying to figure out since I watched it, and I've come to the conclusion that it's chemistry. 

Someone who is much more knowledgeable about films than I am said recently that  "chemistry" was really mostly just  a matter of good script and and good direction. That's  paraphrasing, but I do largely tend to agree with the the idea that films are, after all, about acting, and that if the director and writer(s) have done their job, any onscreen pair should be able to have chemistry. Nevertheless, some films prove that casting is an important part of the mix, and that there is an elusive intangible that can make a movie either more or less than the sum of its parts. I'm a huge fan of Audrey Hepburn, but I prefer the Harrison Ford remake of Sabrina because he and Julia Ormond clicked in a way that Audrey and Bogey didn't - he was awful for that role. Tere Ghar Ke Samne  is definitely more than the sum of its parts, and I say that with conviction because I dislike some of its parts.

I've long thought that Vijay Anand was an enabler, facilitating his brother's ego and letting him make their films all about him, so that in every film it was Dev onscreen, not whoever he was playing. You can't forget it's Dev because he doesn't want you to  and won't let you. In the modern era, this phenomenon is most clearly seen in Shah Rukh Khan - it's always SRK onscreen, not his character. Somehow, the Anand brothers managed not  to do that with this film, and so even as a devout anti-fan, I really liked Rakesh. He wasn't Dev being a preachy self-righteous self-appointed (reformed) Messiah figure as in Kala Bazaar, or Dev being a preachy self-righteous self-appointed Messiah figure as in Guide, he was Rakesh, a suave, charming and funny character, quite irresistibly likeable. The scene where he's cutting back forth between his family and Sulekha's, staging carefully modulated dialogues to give each group the impression he wants, had me in stitches.  The same star, the same producers, the same director as in films I intensely dislike, but the chemistry transformed it. Which brings me to Nutan.

She was perfect! It may have been a light role, not requiring a lot of range, but that presented its own challenges. How could she bring something to the story when there was no dramatic arc involving loss, separation and/or personal growth?  She owned the role by providing the perfect amount of mock flounce. For me, one of the best examples of this is in the superb song above,  dil ka bhanwar. The song itself is a gem, but the picturisation was a triumph. Not only did I, for the first time, see why some might find Dev "all that", but Nutan played off him perfectly. One of my favourite scenes in the song is when Rakesh is singing "aaj mere sa.ng to guu.Nje dil kii aarazuu, tujhase merii aa.Nkh jab mile" - very traditionally filmi, but the way she "met his eyes" was both funny and very sweet. If Nutan can help me really enjoy a Dev film, when a favourite of mine, Waheeda, could not, that marks her as very special. 

Dil ka bhanwar  provides an example of something else that raises this film from more recent candy floss films - the songs. A major difference between then and now is the quality of the songs, and this film illustrates that perfectly. I have liked Dil ka bhanwar  for several years, and listened to it often, not having any idea that it came from a Dev Anand film(!) Then there is the title track, which has to be seen to believed. The combination of good music and engaging lyrics add substance to the froth of the film, and fact that the songs advance the story, rather than interrupting it for a pointless trip to some epilepsy-inducing nightclub, further sets this film apart from more modern fluff pieces.


Perhaps chemistry really is another word for casting, because certainly the cast in this film all added to its charm. Dev and Nutan were great together, and the supporting cast simply were their characters. Om Prakash's bluster was so wonderfully proto-Puri and Harindranath looked disconcertingly like all the photos of I've seen of my stern, remote grandfather, making his performance very believable.

I have gushed enough about this film: Old is gold - watch it! If you're looking for a film to make you smile, maybe even laugh, a film that shows that it is possible for Hindi cinema to do a perfect sweet soufflé of a film, then you really don't have to go far, just look to the house opposite. 

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Book 03/50 A House Divided: The History of Hindi/Hindavi

A House Divided: The History of Hindi/Urdu  Amrit Rai       fiftyfiftyme category: Minor

The copy of this book I read was from its original 1985 publication, with "Hindavi" in the title, where the revised edition (pictured) has "Urdu". I've been told that, other than the title, not much was changed between the two editions.

Hindi/Urdu is possibly the most famous, and certainly the most widely used, digraphia in the world today. This book is an attempt to trace the language from its roots up to about the time of Partition, with a focus on when and how one language began to split into two forms that are increasingly presented as being separate entities. It's a challenging task, because the status of Hindi and Urdu is one that is fraught with issues of politics, nationalism and religion, and those factors make a purely linguistic assessment difficult. An example of this can be seen in Ostler's  The Empires of the World wherein he has a graph listing the 20 most spoken languages today and places Hindi 3rd with 498M speakers and Urdu 12th with 104M, then over the very next page says of them "Hindi and Urdu are in a dialect continuum if they are distinct at all."

That sort of uncertainty about how to define them is at the heart of Rai's book, and the external factors that have caused the confusion are very clearly evident throughout. In the end, they give this book two distinct tones, one of which I did not enjoy, although I could understand its rationale.

For me, this book is most enjoyable in the early chapters, establishing the steps in the process that led from Vedic and Sanskrit through various Prakrits to the New Indo-Aryan languages, including Hindi-Urdu. Right from the outset, though, the author is focused on the issue of when, how and why Hindi and Urdu became separated from each other.

Rai documents all his claims with copious examples, and the linguistic scholarship seems sound enough. It was fascinating to see the the markers of linguistic change down through the centuries, and whenever the book is addressing solely linguistic issues, it is very enjoyable.

Of course, the very title of the book shows that the author's intent is to go beyond linguistics. The whole book addresses claims made about the history and origin of Urdu made by scholars of Urdu, and details the start of the divergence between Hindi and Urdu, and the reasons for that divergence, including the various campaigns deliberately aimed at fostering the separation. As linguistic history it is fascinating, even if the socio-political factors make for very  depressing reading.

Unfortunately, despite a generally even-handed tone, toward the very end, the book falters. The book makes no attempt to look at efforts to separate Hindi from Urdu, the drive for Sanskritisation and "shuddh" Hindi. Given the detailed analysis of the efforts to Persianise Urdu, this omission implies that the divergence is all the "fault" of one side, as it were.

That aside, there was a wealth of interesting reading in the book, especially many interesting quotes on the nature of languages and their inevitable evolution from scholars, poets and linguists down through the centuries.
It was naive of me to think that a book about this digraphia could be totally objective, I think. Overall, it is a good read for those interested in the history of Hindustani. To its credit it will, at least in places, likely annoy extremists on both sides of the argument. It is, though, a little disappointing that, driven by a desire to address errors and omissions in the propagandists' history of their language from the extreme Urdu end of the continuum, he falters at the very end and effectively gives a free pass to their counterparts at the opposite end.

I have no side in the political or nationalist debates that use the differences between Hindi and Urdu as ammunition. I really look forward to any comments, but I'm not getting into "it's their fault", "no it's theirs".  My interest in this is linguistic, fascination with the fact of a digraphia  which despite concerted, systematic efforts at differentiation by promoters on both sides of the divide remains mutually intelligible at street level. To me, this represents a triumph of language as an intrinsic part of human nature over the superficial and temporary overlays of politics, religion and national identity. Namaskaar, salaam alaikum.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Movie 03/50 London Paris New York

London Paris New York  fiftyfiftyme category: Major

"Almost, but not quite". That would be my summary of this movie. I was really looking forward to it for a number of reasons. First, I like Ali Zafar. His winning combination of charm, good looks, and humour were major factors in my enjoyment of both Tere Bin Laden, and Mere Brother Ki Dulhan. The other reason I was really looking for to this movie was to see how it compared with Linklater's iconic Before Sunrise/Before Sunset diptych. Those two movies are classics, two of my favourites, and for me, Before Sunset is "The. Best. Sequel. Ever." So  London Paris New York had a lot to prove.

In addition to the comparisons with the Sunrise/Sunset movies, I'd also seen several references to LPNY's similarity to  Hum Tum. My memory of that film is patchy, it's been several years since I've seen it, and I recall it basically as when Harry Met Sally, with animated segues. In contrast, I re-watched the Linklater movies just a couple of months ago, and enjoyed them as much as ever. That's why it was those movies that I was comparing LPNY to. 

I was not put off by the idea that LPNY might be a Hindi version of those iconic films, because some Hindi remakes have been very good, often adding something to the original in the process of adapting them to an Indian setting. The best example of this  is Salaam-e-Ishq. I saw Love Actually first, but prefer S-e-I, it's a very good adaptation/remake. Similarly, Malamaal Weekly is at least as good as Waking Ned Devine, and has elements I prefer. So, I was not predisposed to be negative toward LPNY simply because it was said to be a remake or adaptation of the  Sunrise/Sunset films. Instead, I was interested to see how well the adaptation was done. That's where the "almost but not quite" comes in. 

The movie starts off with real promise, and the London section felt like an almost perfect Bollywood adaptation of Linklater's films. So much so that my wife, who is much less fond of them than I am, got a bit bored, muttering, "this is definitely a remake". For me though, that first segment captured the tone I was hoping to see, something that clearly referenced the Linklater films, but added a Bollywood sensibility. After that, I felt the film lost its way a little. There were a couple of factors that contributed to this, and each of the last two segments showed the effects of one or more of them.

One problem facing a film attempting to recreate TWO films is the simple matter of quantity. The Linklater films are unique for many reasons, but primarily for their "real-time" nature, with the same cast and crew making the films in a near perfect real-time match with the elapsed time between the two films' stories. In LPNY, I got the impression that Anu Menon had liked those films then fell into the trap of trying to stuff too much into her film. 

This is a common problem in Bollywood cinema - it seems that Ashutosh Gowariker has never heard of the concept of editing, and Pankaj Kapur apparently decided that Mausam had to feature every faux arty cliché he'd ever seen in any film ever. Menon came nowhere near those extremes, and overall the pacing of her film is pretty good. But she did overload it a bit. The whole "reveal" at the end of the Paris segment felt a bit forced, a reversion to an old Bollywood trope. In so doing, she did a disservice to both characters, but especially to Lalitha, burdened with a Jekyll & Hyde style personality remake. The "twist in the tail" of the Paris segment was jarring, superfluous and disappointing. 

After that slight let-down, I wondered how the finale would play out. It started well, and I enjoyed it right up until they woke up the next morning. Nikhil's rant was bizarre, even though not entirely without merit in context. What followed though, was a stretch too far for the credibility of the film. Much of the film did show the characters as realistic and recognisable types, albeit filmi versions. That's the strength of the Linklater films, that the characters seem like they're just big-screen versions of real people. Perhaps in that context, Nikhil's explosive rant could make some sense, but what follows did not. Menon retreated to the safety of cliché, and this time it was Nikhil's character who underwent a lightning change of personality, from nearly psychotic rage to classic filmi Raj-Rahul. 

Many of the films I've liked from the last few years have been let down by this rushed, forced "need" to have a filmi-style happy ending, and LPNY joins Band Baaja Baarat, Tanu Weds Manu and, to a lesser extent Ladies vs Ricky Bahl (which had other issues) in this club. In the Paris segment, Menon overloaded the film with a "dramatic" interlude that betrayed her characters' growth arcs and thus seemed jarring. In the New York finale, it felt to me like she did the same in a slightly different way. Much was made of their being older and wiser, but little of that was seen from either of them. If she  was really older and wiser, why didn't she tell him what tomorrow was when he first turned up? If  he  had grown, why did he turn psycho in the morning then go all DDLJ in the end? If Menon had been bold enough to wrap it with a Before Sunrise  style ambiguous open ending, or even a "sad" one,  that would have redeemed the New York segment, and the film almost entirely.

I can't finish this review without stressing that I liked the film. The music was good, a great debut for Ali Zafar here too, writing both music and lyrics, and the two leads worked really well together. Ali Zafar is as swoony as ever, especially in the Paris segment for me where I kept thinking of Zoolander - really ridiculously good-looking -  and Aditi Rao Hydari was a delight, easy on the eyes (my wife commented on that several times) and very believable when the material let her be. I am very excited to see her opposite Irrfan Khan soon. 

I think that if I hadn't seen  Linklater's unique classics, I would have enjoyed this film more than I did. Apparently it's generated a lot of very negative reviews, which I don't think it merits. There is a lot to like about it, and it was a promising debut for Menon and for Aditi as lead. I will almost certainly watch it again, and will definitely be looking out for the future work of all the principals. It's just a shame that what could have been a great example of adapting an Anglo classic to Bollywood tripped up in a couple of key places and ultimately came up short. Almost, but not quite. 

Book 02/50 Empires of the Word

Empires of the Word  - Nicholas Ostler    fiftyfiftyme category:   Minor

"In writing this book, I have consciously been embarking on a new approach within the general field of linguistics....This kind of work might be called the study of language dynamics." That's how Ostler sums up the purpose of his book in its penultimate paragraph, and it nicely highlights the challenge he set himself. From the perspective of an enthusiastic amateur, I think he succeeded admirably.

This book is not a book on how languages develop , their structural or etymological relationships to other languages, or a reconstructive history of the languages themselves. Instead, it examines how and why some languages thrive and spread, building "Empires of the Word", and then traces the inevitable fall of those empires. It is a fascinating approach and one that Ostler pulls off well. A dense 568 pages, it traces the rise and fall of language empires from Akkadian through to Aramaic and Arabic, Sanskrit to Swahili and Spanish. It answers intriguing questions I'd never even thought to ask, such as "Why did Germanic invaders never succeed in implanting their language on the lands they conquered, with one outstanding exception?" "Why did Spanish thrive in Spain's South American colonies, but not in the Philippines?" and  "What marks Russian as different from other European "empire-building" languages?"

Ostler's scholarship is clear throughout the book, but it's also clear that he's written with a wider audience in mind. I enjoyed being challenged by it, but it was always accessible, without any cutesy pop-style dumbing down of its material.  It is an ambitious undertaking, to try to document several millennia of linguistic and socio-political history in one book, but only occasionally does the going get a little sluggish. The focus is always on the languages, so political and other issues are discussed in the light of how they impacted on the growth, survival or stagnation of the languages being looked at, and that clarity of focus is central to making the book an enjoyable read.  

If you have an interest in language, or history, or both,  I would strongly recommend this book. I think it makes an excellent companion to Guy Deutscher's The Unfolding of Language.  I look forward to reading more Ostler as part of my linguistics minor for FiftyFiftyMe

Monday, April 9, 2012

Movie 01/50 Tere Naal Love Ho Gaya

Tere Naal Love Ho Gaya  - fiftyfiftyme category: Major

A sweet film, but an airy confection, like candy floss. It's USP is unquestionably the fact that the two leads are a real-life couple, and their glitzy high-profile Bollywood shaadi shortly before the film's release must have helped it at the box office. It needed it.

That's not a criticism, because I enjoyed this film, the same way I enjoy a little candy floss. It was undemanding and unremarkable, pretty by much a by-the-numbers Bollywood romance. Genelia was very good as the spunky, take-charge kidnap "victim", and Om Puri is always good value, even when all he's given to work with is a lightly-drawn stereotype. Riteish normally appears in films that are not  my preferred styles, so this is only the second film of his that I liked, after the excellent F.AL.T.U. If the film is unremarkable, much of that can, I think,  be putdown to his muted presence. I thought he played the hapless stooge fairly well, but it didn't give him much scope  to make an impact against the frenetic energy of Genelia's character. I would like to see him in something else, but that seems unlikely given the sort of films he is in most often.

This is truly a Bollywood film, and one that deserves that uniquely filmi label, timepass. It should leave you with at least a small smile, which can't be a bad thing.

Movie 02/50 Hazaar Chaurasi ki Maa

Hazaar Chaurasi ki Maa   fiftyfiftyme category: Major and Minor

I've written about this film at more length here, so I'll just summarise it briefly:

A quietly paced, thoughtful  film tracing one woman's journey toward finding her own place in the world as she seeks to find out why her son died. A very female-dominated film, with solid performances from Jaya Bhaduri, my favourite Indian actor/director, Nandita Das and Seema Biswas. Not a breezy, fun film, but with an optimistic tone, despite its serious message. The contrast with fluff like Tere Naal Love Ho Gaya could hardly be greater, but it's definitely worth watching.

Book 01/50 The Eighth Guest

fiftyfiftyme category: Other

The second in Madhulika Liddle's series of Muzaffar Jang books, this is a collection of short, self-contained mystery stories.

I really enjoyed The Englishman's Cameo, Muzzafar's debut appearance, and the follow-up did not disappoint. Setting a detective in Mughal India, specifically Shahjahan's Dilli,  makes for very entertaining and informative leisure reading. The Eighth Guest  is an undemanding anthology, but manages to inform at the same time as it entertains. It's clear that the author, herself a Dilliwali,  has done a great deal of research to recreate her chosen setting as carefully and accurately as possible, and that is reflected in the many fascinating historical tidbits woven into each story. The politics and mores of the time are treated without the baggage of 21st-century interpretation that would be found in a non-fiction historical study. They are simply presented as they are, part of the fabric of the stories. Also, having a detective working in 16th-Century Dilli means that there is no scientific wizardry available for solving the mysteries (not all are crimes) and that makes a refreshing change for those of us who enjoy the old notion of a cerebral detective. 

The stories in this collection take place after The Englishman's Cameo, but none of them are dependent on having read that book first. I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys mystery novels, especially historical detectives of the Ellis Peters/Elizabeth Peters style, and to those who want a fun way to learn a little more about Mughal India.

In summary, a light, entertaining read that also offers fascinating glimpses into the world in which it's set. My personal favourite is The Bequeathed Garden, which has left me longing for a nice illuminated copy of the Gulistan of Sa'adi.  

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Do or Do Not, There is no "Try"

In the middle of March, I noticed that Katherine of Totally Filmi was using the #fiftyfiftyme hashtag in her Twitter stream. Being insatiably nosy, I followed it up and discovered the 50/50 Challenge - and what a challenge!

I love reading, and quite literally cannot remember a time when I couldn't read. Tragically though , I  was born with a crippling congenital laziness and a debilitating genetic predisposition to chronic procrastination. To fight these disabling problems, I decided to take the challenge, despite not joining until 3 months of the year were already gone. It's my hope that the challenge will force me to read more books* rather than just web pages and blogs. I've set myself the goal of "majoring" in Terry Pratchett, which means  reading at least ten of his books. This would take the number of his works I've read to 29 or 30 in total. I'm going to "minor" in books on linguistics, for a minimum of five books from this field. I have two underway at present.

The challenge is also providing some structure to my viewing of DVDs. I'm majoring in Hindi movies, and in fact, I'm only counting non-English language movies toward my 50 movie total. My minor is Nandita Das films, so I have to watch at least 4 more of her films to meet that requirement.

I will post brief reviews and ratings of the books I read and the movies I watch here, once I figure out how I want to rate them, and some of the films I watch will receive more in depth coverage at my primary blog, Likhaavat. The first of these is already up here.

I hope that any readers, here or there, will help keep my nose to the grindstone by commenting on my progress and responding to my reviews, so that by the end of the year I can  have met the challenge, and heeded the Ancient Anastrophic One's famous axiom above.  In the meantime, I'm looking forward to many months of fun and personal growth. Thanks for stopping by, and please feel free to help whip me into shape for the challenge!

* I am not one of those literary luddite snobs who don't count e-books as "real" books. I expect that anywhere from 60-80% of the books I read as part of the challenge will be on my Kindle,  especially the Pratchett ones. Whatever the self-yclept purists think, e-readers have been great for rekindling (couldn't resist!)  interest in reading, and I love mine.