Monday, May 28, 2012

Book 08/50 Hogfather

Hogfather   Terry Pratchett           fiftyfiftyme category: Major

What a difference a day makes. Having finished Terry Pratchett's nineteenth book,  Feet of Clay on one day and and feeling underwhelmed, I turned to his twentieth the next day and was left grinning from ear to ear. Hogfather is everything a Discworld novel should be.

After the political preaching of Feet of Clay, in Hogfather Pratchett returned to his most productive territory - the role of belief in human society. This is the same topic he explored so brilliantly in my favourite of his so far,  Small Gods. That book is the best of his I've read, but it's not the funniest. In all the books which have DEATH as a central character, Pratchett is at his humorous best, and Hogfather had me laughing out loud a lot.

There is a difference between the DEATH books and the Watch books, and I think the big difference is attitude.  In the Watch series, Pratchett's target is politics, and the strength of his own political views often invest his writing with palpable anger. This was particularly noticeable in Feet of Clay, and it's clearly not easy to be flippant when angry. The DEATH books, on the other hand, have belief as their target, and they are written in a spirit of amused affection. There is so much absurdity in belief systems that they are a rich source of comic material, and Pratchett exploits that material well, with the affectionate attitude of someone who includes himself and his own belief system in the fun, rather than someone trying to preach through comedy,  as in his more political works.

Everything about Hogfather shows Pratchett at his best. All the main characters are well drawn, including the psychopathic Mr Teatime and the bureaucratic bad guys, The Auditors. The star of this book, though, is the wonderful Susan Sto-Helit, DEATH's granddaughter. I saw the TV adaptation of this book long before reading it, so I visualised the wonderful performance of Michelle Dockery as I read the book. Susan's struggle to come to terms with her family background is a big part of the stories she's in, and provides plenty of opportunities for amusing swipes at other famous characters, as in "She'd become a governess. It was one of the few jobs a known lady could do. And she'd taken to it well. She'd sworn that if she did indeed ever find herself dancing on rooftops with chimney sweeps she'd beat herself to death with her own umbrella."

Mary Poppins is not the only source of laughs in Hogfather, though. Around the central framework of an affectionate parody of Christmas, Pratchett managed to make me laugh out loud with digs at Hans Christian Andersen's predisposition for needlessly cruel, sad endings (the little match girl) to restaurant French - Mousse de la Boue dans une Panier de la Pâte de Chaussures, anyone?

Everybody believes something, which is what makes Pratchett's best work so universal. Anyone who can laugh at themselves should enjoy Hogfather, a good-natured celebration of the wondrous silliness that is the human imagination and the importance of its capacity for belief. This is a Discworld novel I can enthusiastically recommend to anyone who hasn't read one before, with one important warning: Reading it late at night may disturb the sleep of others in nearby rooms, try to keep your laughter down! 

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Book 07/50 Feet of Clay

Feet of Clay Terry Pratchett        fiftyfiftyme category: Major

One of the reasons I decided to do the challenge was to prod me to get back into my reading of Terry Pratchett's books. I  read the first eighteen in three months  before series saturation set in, and the challenge has provided the incentive to read the other twenty or so, after a gap of a year. First on the list, book number 19, Feet of Clay

Like a Wodehouse story, a Discworld novel is a known quantity. Pratchett uses his stories to lampoon society on this planet. Sometimes, the mix of commentary and humour is almost perfect, and a gem like Small Gods is the result. At other times, the commentary comes over a little heavy-handed or lumpen, and we get Feet of Clay.

The fourth in the City Watch series, Feet of Clay continues that subseries investigation of politics and society, particularly addressing issues on inclusiveness. The message that everybody is equal is never obscured or buried beneath layers of subtlety in the Watch series, but it comes across in a particularly stodgy fashion in this book. Perhaps that's because the central characters are golems, and like them, the mix of humour and social commentary in this work comes off a little misshapen and half-baked.

The problem seemed to be an excess of earnestness. There is always one key target in a Discworld novel - in my favourite by far (til date) Small Gods, it's religion and religiosity, including the religion of atheism. That book is very, very funny, its mockery works because it's both insightful and delivered with a light touch. In Feet of Clay the target is monarchism, whether absolute or constitutional. Unfortunately, it seems that Pratchett's own views are so strong on this subject that the book becomes a republican rant, rather than a mockery of monarchs and royalists.

That's not to say it was a total failure. Pratchett's strength in humour is not unlike Wodehouse's,  throwaway descriptive asides that at the least raise a smirk, and at their best are genuinely laugh out loud funny. There were several of the quiet smirk moments in this book, not sure if there were any of the laugh out loud ones. 

The best thing about this book is the Patrician, Havelock Vetinari. He is the highlight of every Watch story, never used as a mouthpiece for any of Pratchett's preaching, always allowed to be true to his character. His role in this story was central, both to the plot and to redeeming the book's readability. Also, the next book in the Watch series, Jingo is often mentioned as one of Pratchett's best, so another good, strong  story involving Vetinari is something to look forward to. 

The overall standard of Pratchett's work is remarkably high, and I have yet to read a bad one. While I would not recommend  Feet of Clay as a starter for anyone looking to get into Pratchett (Small Gods, hands down), it was not without moments of his trademark wit and humour and I'm pleased that I read it so that I can get back on track, and look forward to book twenty, Hogfather. I love DEATH, even in this book, he got one of the best lines. Feet of Clay proved that everyone has them, even Pratchett, but don't let that stop you from visiting Discworld. Have I mentioned how good Small Gods is?

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Book 06/50 Piccadilly Jim

Piccadilly Jim    P.G. Wodehouse         fiftyfiftyme category: Other

"If Wodehouse hadn't existed, it would have been necessary to have invented him." 

Voltaire may not have said that, but I'm sure he would have done, given the chance. After wading through a fatiguingly mediocre Sapne Sajan Ke, I was desperately in need of refreshment, and the chance to return to Wodehouse was a blessing.

Wodehouse's writing is like a soufflé, light, insubstantial and airy, and guaranteed to bring a smile to the face of anyone who enjoys a sweet treat. Despite having read many of his books, including almost all the Blandings books, and most of the Wooster/Pelicans stories, I'd forgotten that I even had Piccadilly Jim until reminded of it by Dustedoff's excellent review review of the 1936 movie adaptation. Having "discovered" it, it's now one of my favourites, almost the quintessential Wodehouse.

One of the reasons that Wodehouse does generally not translate well to the screen is that his trademark style is not in the narrative, but in the descriptive parts of his works. An oft-quoted example of this is "if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled." Or, one of my favourites from this book, "it was his tendency, when he found himself in a sea of troubles, to float plaintively, not to take arms against it. To pick up the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and fling them back was not a habit of his." Phrases like that can't be brought to life onscreen, but they are what makes Wodehouse Wodehouse. So too are ridiculously complex and contrived plots, the sheer silliness of which make not smiling at them an impossibility. Even by Wodehouse's high standards, though, the farcical intricacy of the plot in Piccadilly Jim takes some beating.

Reading a Wodehouse story is liking pulling on a comfortable pair of slippers, you know exactly what you're getting into. True love will conquer all, but only after twists and turns that would make the Minotaur's head spin, and only after defeating women who make the Minotaur seem like a pussycat. In Piccadilly Jim the twists and turns include the delightful bonus of the lead character and hero of the story having to impersonate himself, a twist I don't recall from other PGW stories, and one that made me laugh out loud when I saw it coming.

In a world full of political darkness, economic uncertainties, and various grim horrors, it's therapeutic to turn the clock back a hundred years and just laugh. Wodehouse at his best is a master laugh maker, and  Piccadilly Jim is Wodehouse at his best. If you haven't read it, do, and if you have, return to it when you need to rediscover your smile. I guarantee that reading Piccadilly Jim will leave you thoroughly gruntled. 

Monday, May 21, 2012

Movie 08/50 Sapne Sajan Ke

Sapne Sajan Ke        fiftyfiftyme category: Major

No-one ever said that anything worthwhile would always be easy, and that's definitely true of the fiftyfiftyme challenge. Watching this movie was an exercise in sheer bloodyminded determination, to move that counter one closer to the target of fifty. A story that's been done a gazillion times, padded out with completely forgettable songs to make it twice as long as it needed to be. The less I say about this movie, the sooner I can forget it, and move on to something enjoyable, like reading some Pratchett or Wodehouse to advance my book tally in the challenge. 

Friday, May 18, 2012

Movie 07/50 Andaz Apna Apna

Andaz Apna Apna      fiftyfiftyme category: Major

This film scrapes under the fiftyfiftyme challenge "no rewatch" rule by virtue of the fact that I never actually finished watching it the first time. I disliked it so intensely, I gave up  barely halfway through. Having now seen it all, the question that remains is: What on Earth was wrong with me then?!

Andaz Apna Apna is normally translated "To each his own style", or similarly. That's a nice summary of the film's strengths and weaknesses. All interaction with art is subjective, but perhaps comedy most especially so, and film comedy from a culture not one's own even more so. That's the weakness, the possibility that what seems hilarious to many will leave others unmoved. The humour of Andaz Apna Apna is so non-stop that if it's not  your style of humour, the movie will seem very long and excruciatingly unfunny. Now on to the film's real strength, which centres on one word - meta.

Ben Zimmer wrote an excellent piece on the  evolution of meta recently, and the word in its current sense is very relevant to this film. It's a Hindi film that's all about Hindi film, but it has something that most Hollywood attempts at self-referential humour lack - innocence. There is no shortage of Hollywood product that relies on making references to other Hollywood product, but almost all of it is done with a very self-aware sort of arrogance - "look at us, we're making a clever reference here, aren't we clever?" This is done to be "ironic", because Hollywood is far too grown-up to break the fourth wall just for pure, innocent fun. The only exceptions I can think of to this both involve desis, interestingly enough - Danny Pudi's outstanding Abed on Community, and Psych , one of whose producers and writers is a desi American. It's tempting to think that this may not be coincidental, but perhaps indicative of a cultural difference.

The best Indian films really do have a unique innocence to their meta moments, devoid of the clumsily unsubtle "nudge nudge, wink, wink" mentality of shows like Family Guy.  The filmi references in Andaz Apna Apna are perfect illustrations of this. They are genuinely funny because the laughter is unforced. There's no script equivalent of a neon sign saying "laugh now", just a relaxed confidence that the audience will find them funny because the writers did - a shared laugh among friends who get the joke. And in this film, there's two and half hours of that shared laughing. Every filmi trope is thrown into the pot, including the clownish "supervillain" as in the above screenshot, but they are laughed with not at. 

This unaffected innocence makes Andaz Apna Apna  a relaxing, fun movie to watch. Its simplicity and lack of pretense is sadly rare even in Hindi films today, more and more of which seem to feel obliged to ape Hollywood in everything, including attitudes toward self-referentiality. This film may represent the acme of filmi meta-humour partly as an accident of timing, coming as it did toward the end of that age of innocence.

The fact that I enjoyed this film so very much got me wondering why I hated it the first time I tried to watch it, and the answers I came up with are the reasons why I can't give it an unqualified recommendation.

When I wrote about my favourite Hind film ever, Pyaasa, I said that to do the film any sort of justice required learning at least some Hindi/Urdu. I think that is even more true of Andaz Apna Apna, for a slightly different reason. In Pyaasa, the poetry of the songs will go un(der)appreciated without at least some grasp of the language. In Andaz Apna Apna the sheer speed of the dialogue can make listening to it without any comprehension tiresome - nearly one hundred and fifty minutes of people jabbering away flat out, just an irritating noise. That's one of my lingering memories of my first abortive attempt to watch it. It's a shame, because the quality of the subtitles is pretty good by Bollywood standards, and the basic humour of the story is of broad appeal. Perhaps I would still have laughed at it the first time if I'd just turned down the volume a bit more.

The other thing that makes me think this would not be a great film for a novitiate Hindi film watcher is its meta-ness. In-jokes are only funny if you're in on the joke, and there are so many in this film that if none are known, much of the humour is lost. For example, one of my favourite laughs in the movie is this one:

The subtitles do a perfect job of translating the song lyrics, but the scene is not funny at all if the reference to Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak is missed. I got it, and laughed a lot. I did that often enough through the film to know that there must be many more jokes that I missed. But that's OK, because I got enough of them to find the movie very funny and because I can look forward to finding ever more scenes to laugh at as my knowledge of Hindi cinema grows. It might be possible for someone to find this film mildly amusing without knowing anything of the language or the filmi references, (like Karisma playing someone who may or may not be Karisma), but its status as a truly iconic barrel of Hindi belly laughs will almost certainly remain puzzling.

To each his own may be a cliché, but Andaz Apna Apna  is one of the funniest collections of clichés you'll ever see. If you haven't seen it, do, and if you don't find it funny the first time, watch a few hundred more Hindi films and then try again. It worked for me!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Movie 06/50 Dhanwaan

Dhanwaan        fiftyfiftyme category: Major

As part of my fiftyfiftyme challenge, I decided to catch up with some Karisma Kapoor films. I started with this one, and ended up being pleasantly surprised. It's formulaic and predictable overall, but had a few  noteworthy redeeming features. First, it's comedy elements were actually funny for the most part.Second its starts all look very good - Urmila quite distressingly so. Third, and most important, its ending was intelligent and sensible. I don't want to give it away in case there are any Urmila, Ajay or Lolo fans reading this who haven't seen it, but  I thought I knew how this was going to end, and it let me think that right up until almost the very end, then pulled out a filmi happy ending that was still satisfying and consistent. If watching these three stars shine in youthful beauty sounds appealing, you could do much worse than Dhanwaan. 

Monday, May 14, 2012

Book 05/50 Through the Language Glass

Through the Language Glass  Guy Deutscher   fiftyfiftyme category: Minor

I simply cannot recommend this book strongly enough. Deutscher's The Unfolding of Language is one of my favourite books, and Through the Language Glass  is an excellent companion to that earlier work. I'm so very pleased that I overcame my initial hesitation and bought it.

The hesitation was caused by the subtitle. That phrase "why the world looks different in other languages" instantly made me think of Sapir-Whorf, and I was loathe to read anything that promoted such a theory. I need not have worried. Rather than defend the indefensible, Deutscher instead looks for a middle path between two extremes in the argument about whether nature or culture governs our perception of the world in which we live.

The book focuses primarily on colour - specifically how different colours are labelled in different languages and whether those labels actually impact on the way colour is perceived by the speakers of those languages. Other examples considered involve gender (whether "masculine and "feminine" gender labels affect the way the items thus categorised are perceived) and direction (egocentric versus geographic). It's a fun journey that starts with Homer and travels throughout history and around the world, from Russia to Mexico, from Native Americans to the small Aboriginal tribe that gave the world "kangaroo".

One note of caution: I prefer reading on my Kindle these days, but this book must be read in a traditional book format. The Kindle version apparently doesn't have many of the illustrations and graphical elements that are fundamental to the arguments made, so stick to the dead-tree versions!

The contention that language does govern perception, even partially, is very contentious, and rightly so. Deutscher treads carefully and reasonably, and lays out his arguments with meticulous care. He is challenging an orthodoxy, but does so in a specific and limited way, and makes a compelling case.

Deutscher's gift is being able to write about a field often thought of as dry and uninteresting and bring it to life. He writes with verve and real humour, and a complete lack of academic preciousness. I was surprised at how many times I laughed out loud at phrases in the book, and his humility was endearing. There was no insistence that he had all the answers, or even any of them, just a thought-provoking series of arguments that suggested there are  many questions that need to be addressed. That he ends the book with a chapter entitled "Forgive Us Our Ignorances" is an excellent example of how honest and unassuming the book is.

I enjoy reading about linguistics as a hobby, and Deutscher's books are written for people like me. It's clear that he loves language, and celebrates it in his research and writing. If you want to learn more about the incredibly complex relationship between our words and our worlds, or want to wonder what we mean when we ask, "why is the sky blue?", this book is a must read.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Movie 05/50 Vivah

Vivah  fiftyfiftyme category: Major

After a break, I got back into my fiftyfiftyme challenge with a movie I've had sitting around for a long time. I got Vivah for one reason, Amrita Rao. I think she is one of the few actresses who is truly pretty in the strict sense of that word, and enjoyed her part in Main Hoon Na. Having watched Vivah, I can best sum up my reaction to it with one word.


  1. WHY did I watch this?
  2. WHY didn't I listen to the warnings of my friends who said DON'T?
  3. WHY did this film get made?
  4. WHY did anyone think that a HAHK clone with 3 times as many songs was a good idea?
To be fair, this film has several redeeming features: First and foremost, it has two very pretty leads. They spend a lot of time doing what they do best - looking pretty. Second, it provides an object lesson in the perils of choosing a film for a reason as superficial as the prettiness of its leads. Third, it is one of the strongest arguments ever made in favour of giving the Nobel Prize to whoever invented the Fast Forward button on the remote. 

This film's "drama" is supplied by an incident involving fire. Having watched this through to the interminable end, I feel that I am now  entitled to be called Sita, having survived my own Agni Pariksha.

I am a sucker for sweet films and I really like the sweetest of them all, HAHK. That film was unabashed confection from start to finish and it got away with it. It was a one-off, though, and Vivah is powerful proof of that. It tries to be as sweet as HAHK but only manages to come off as cloying. It can't make up its mind whether it's regressively traditional (Krishnakanth's opening monologue) or drolly modern (its jibes at shuddh Hindi, which this learner enjoyed). 

It's also way too long, thanks to its makers apparently deciding that because HAHK had 14 songs, they would top that by having a song or song snippet after every 14 seconds of dialogue. The result is that the six months between the engagement and the vivah is lived in real time by any who sit through this film without hitting the FF button. 

I felt sorry for poor Seema Biswas - she deserved better than having such a shallow caricature of a character. It was obvious from her first appearance onscreen that she was the archetypal villain who would be redeemed by a transformative bout of soul searching, and so it proved to be. Happily, her "I'm so sorry it was all my fault, I love you, really" bit was mercifully short, and I'm sure the tears in her eyes were real as she reflected on the indignity of a real actress having to play such a role  to pay the bills. 

Vivah could have been a good film in the right hands. With less gag-inducing dialogue, fewer songs and thirty minutes knocked off its runtime, it could have been an enjoyable escapist romance. If you're the sort of person who can polish off a plate of laddoos, wash them down with a mango lassi and chase that with fresh jalebis and masala chai, then you will probably enjoy this film. If, like me, you enjoy sweet, gooey confections that stop just short of inducing diabetes, avoid, yaar!