Life as it ain't

"I'm not really from outer space. I'm just mentally divergent."

Archive for December, 2009

Jagte Raho (Stay awake): The Thief Who Couldn’t Steal

Posted by Ronak M Soni on December 28, 2009

Jagte Raho posterBest Hindi movie that I’ve watched yet. Hands down. Also seems to be one of my favourite all-language, but can’t say for sure because I only watched it today. What Fakir Mohan Senapati would have written if he was into screenwriting. The movie can be said to be about depravity in all its forms, from miscommunication to evil. It’s more than merely good because of the acting of the great Raj Kapoor, who acts as a naive farm boy who’s just come to the city. His face keeps the tone of the movie to sadness rather than anger.

Raj Kapoor's face

The Face; not the best moment, but I couldn't find anything better

RK’s only produced this film, but I feel certain it was his idea, because of similar thematic and stylistic elements to his Awaara (Vagabond), which was, in my opinion, good (especially in terms of acting and the form of cutting between shots) but unable to properly fill up its time. The new director duo seems to be better at editing than he is. Around half an hour shorter, and has around two minutes of boring time. Only four songs, and all thematically significant.

Story: RK needs water, sneaks into a building, is mistaken for a thief, and keeps on running all night. Some really brutal imagery, and not only by Bollywood standards. During the first part of a three-part climax, I thought I knew how it was going to end, and thought I knew how it was going to end, and thought it would be a good ending. This was one of those rare movies that surpassed that, and how!

I could go on for a while, but my left hand is broken and my right hand is starting to hurt. I’ll probably write more in a couple of weeks, when my hand’s fine. I just had to write something right now.

Posted in Mitra, Amit & Shombhu, Movie Reviews, Movies | Tagged: , , , , , | 6 Comments »

“I am, he thought one day, part of the twentieth century.”

Posted by Ronak M Soni on December 22, 2009

Cover of Vikram Chandra's 'Sacred Games'

You might have read or heard Indians telling people to “think deeply” about something. In fact, if you are an Indian, you are probably wondering what point I could hope to make with this. We Indians are bombarded with this phrase so often that we don’t notice that it actually sounds somewhat clunky in most sentences; most Western texts prefer to perform an “involved inquiry” or something similar. If you aren’t Indian, forgive the next one who says that, because it’s just the literal translation of a popular Indian idiom which isn’t clunky in our language. Translations from Indian languages are full of these, which make novels which try to translate everything into English sound either unbearably clunky (for a well-handled example, read Raja Rao) or, if you change over to more common usage, unbelievably artificial. Vikram Chandra, in his latest book Sacred Games, has found a way out of this quandary in a remarkably simple way:

Her Hindi was accented, functional and fluid, but improvised, it stumbled confidently past feminine possessives and tenses. Sartaj was sure her English was better, but his own English had rusted into awkwardness. They would get by in some knocked-together mixture, some Bombay blend.

When I read this, I noted down the page number because I thought it sounded very nice. It is only now that I realise how perfectly it describes the style of the book, and how it anchors it in what is obviously the book’s point: to Bombay. Which means to describe it, to serenade it with an ode about it.

Every Hindi/Marathi word in the book, of which there are plenty, is sufficiently comprehensible; we mostly don’t get what exactly the word means, but we always get the sense of it. For Chandra, to sprinkle these words in the book was downright necessary, because he has taken on the task of describing Bombay, and he chose the underworld because cops and robbers between them make their way around every level of life in the city. And if you’re choosing the underworld, you have to use the local slang (imagine a Scorsese movie in immaculate English). You can’t translate it because for a gangster to describe a woman he’s taken for a night as a “to be beaten” (“thoku”) is a way to make Stephen Hawking’s publisher say, “Every translated piece of slang means hundred less copies sold.” For a nine-hundred page book, that would be in the negative infinities.

But saying it’s necessary doesn’t mean that Chandra doesn’t enjoy it. In his previous outing Love and Longing in Bombay, he managed to keep the language by providing translations after the word. Most of the time, that is. For this new book, he went back to those instances of no translation in that book and copied the method to every page of this one.

Focusing on this fact so much makes it sound like this was the best thing about the book. Let me assure you, no. This was just a part of the style, like diary entries or psychedelia. It just gains importance when you are writing about the book. The best thing here is the characters, and the world they live in.

The world is brought to life with painstaking verisimilitude. Take, for example, a moment when an inspector – Sartaj Singh from the story ‘Kama’ in the last book – and his constable partner – Katekar, also from there –  bond while

Katekar drove with an easy grace that found the gaps in the traffic with balletic timing. … You went forward, and someone always backed off at the last moment, and it was always the other gaandu.

Or take how within one dialogue we can see the influenc e of Bollywood and Hinduism (the modern form):

‘So don’t choose that one. Make a shortlist. Then we’ll consider family background, education, nature of girl, horoscope, and move on from there.’

‘Move on?’

‘See the girls, of course.’

‘We’ll go to her house? And she’ll bring in tea while her parents watch?’

Or how alien Sartaj finds the West (if you look closely enough, you can also spot alienation from his own culture):

Some entertainment could be exactly what would fix him up, and revive him like a good morning walk in Buffalo. Where in America was Buffalo? And why was it called Buffalo? Sartaj had no idea. Some more of life’s mysteries.

Now that I’ve overdone that, let me give short shrift to the characters (hey, at least I’m giving them some shrift). There’s Sartaj, who’s not as interesting as he was in ‘Kama’. There’s too much happening in his parts, not giving us enough time to get into his head. He’s just like a pawn for the plot. We catch him himself thinking that he’s a pawn for bigger events; ironically, this gets less and less true as the events progressively blow up. There’s Gaitonde, one of the city’s two biggest gangsters who’s narrating his life story to Sartaj from what would seem at first to be beyond the grave (he dies in the second chapter itself). This narration takes up nearly every alternate chapter. And there’s Swami Shridhar Shukla, who doesn’t mind people not believing in God, who is taking Hinduism back to its philosophical roots in the Vedic texts, who answers at least two of the big questions in Waking Life. And there are a multitude of others, but these are the ones that stick most strongly in the head.

I said that these characters and their world was the best thing about this book. True, but also extravagantly false; from another perspective of ‘thing’, the best thing is the ‘insets’, little vignettes that in some way relate to the main story. These could be short stories in their own right, and lovely ones at that. It is in these that Chandra exercises his enjoyment of portraying a multitude of different voices, and since this is one of my favourite things about his writing, I loved the insets.

All in all, I would recommend the book, but I strongly feel that this is his worst book. While this is unmistakably a Chandra book, it is too… conventional. Take away the insets, and I would say that the job could have been done better by someone else. His love of storytelling, as done by his characters, only comes through sometimes. Oppose that to Red Earth and Pouring Rain, which is the narrative of a monkey telling the story of a man who’s narrating the story told to him by a woman who’s seeing the story of the monkey’s past life through a bit of water(and some divine intervention). Or Love and Longing in Bombay, which is a set of stories told to one well-rounded character by another. I have come to love Vikram Chandra books for being different, completely madcap. About Red Earth and Pouring Rain, I wrote “The only accurate word I can think of to describe this book is big. Not in terms of length, not even in terms of scope and imagination but in terms of the realistic universe Chandra creates. Here, by realistic, I mean rooted in reality: it could very well have happened and we don’t know about it because we just didn’t see it. Every new element of fantasy he brings in first looks like it is only there to satisfy Chandra’s sense of humour. Then, we eventually get to see the self-wrapped ness, so to say, of the universe he’s created and how every element fits in.” Sacred Games, by contrast, ends up having the plot like that of a Hollywood action movie. Yes, considering the plot, the book is remarkably good, but… I want to say to Chandra about Sacred Games what Ebert said to Tarantino about Reservoir Dogs, “OK, now you’ve shown you can do this, now go and do something better.”

Posted in Book reviews, Books, Chandra, Vikram | Tagged: , , , , , , | 17 Comments »

Hotel Rwanda

Posted by Ronak M Soni on December 21, 2009

This post first appeared at PassionforCinema.

Still from the movieAs a race, we are more scared by human fears than atrocities to humans. The latter just disaffects us, or like a reporter in Hotel Rwanda says, “They’ll watch it, say, ‘Oh! That’s horrible,’ and continue with their dinners.” It is exactly this reaction that director Terry George is trying to keep us from, by focusing on a hotel manager (the real life Paul Rusesabagina, played by Don Cheadle) and his efforts to protect his family and over a thousand other ‘Tutsis’, who have taken refuge at his hotel.

First, a few words on the conflict (what I learnt from the movie): Rwanda was colonised by the Belgians, who for administrative purposes split the population into ‘Hutus’ and ‘Tutsis’ (interesting side-note: these two words don’t attract the ire of the spell-check on Microsoft Word). Tutsis were the minority, taller and fairer than their Hutu counterparts. Using the common method of divide and rule, Belgians gave the Tutsis power (these were the administrative purposes).  When they left, it was obviously the Hutus who usurped power. They treated the Tutsis badly. The Tutsis rebelled. The Hutus formed a militant army of their own (the ‘Interhammwe’, separate from the Rwandan army but being helped by them), and started “denying the Tutsi cockroaches volunteers”. The events in Hotel Rwanda take place at the Hotel Milles Collines when the Interhammwe have power over the capital Kigali.

Hotel Rwanda has been widely criticised on two counts: on not being ‘artistic’ enough, and for not focusing enough on the genocide the movie is situated in. But it is exactly these two facts that made the movie so hard-hitting for me, in fact more so on the second watch than on the first.

This movie does not take the form of art, and for good reason, because art, at its core, involves fakery, even of the fakery is being used to get through to some deeper truth. It is the exact form of fakery that distinguishes one artist from another. How else can we be sure that a clip we are watching is from one director or another? Once when I was in sixth class, we had four extracts from books, one by a cricketer, one by a filmmaker, one by a swimmer, and one by a writer. Even then, I could tell that that one was by a writer. Even in this piece, you can clearly see the writer, in the overuse of commas and brackets, for example. The whole idea is that we must not be aware of the person behind the camera, just the people in front of it.

The movie focuses on the efforts, through bribery and ass-kissing and other hotel manager ways, of Paul Rusesabagina to protect his wife (who’s a Tutsi herself), his kids (considered Hutus because their dad is and Rwandans don’t believe in calling people half-bloods) and over a thousand Tutsis who have taken refuge at his hotel. They have an idea of what’s happening outside, and a good part of the movie involves Paul and his wife Tatiana (pronounced Ta-ciaa-na) and their fears, during all the scenes about which I had a lump in my throat. This is what struck home; while – and because – I had an idea of the political rumblings outside the hotel, I was scared to death for these two. It is a general fact that the only way we can feel real sadness for a big set of people is by completely empathising with the feelings of some among them. Take for example The Pianist, or Githa Hariharan’s Fugitive Histories in which a girl’s guilt walking through an unsettled riot victims’ colony made me feel guilty about ever complaining, or Indra Sinha’s Animal’s People which is an almost exuberant look at the lives of the victims of the 1984 Bhopal Gas tragedy.

I understand I haven’t said much about the movie as a movie, making this more of a rebuttal than a review. But, the fact is that there isn’t all that much to say; it’s almost like a documentary in its stark realism – but has the advantage over one in its lack of impersonalness – and has to be watched. It cannot be described, at least not by me. It is a movie where there is no one we can call an ‘auteur’. It derives completely from real-life events. Though everyone is excellent in their work, no one brings a stamp of self to it, and this, I say, is what gives the movie its greatness. And a great movie it very much is. In the aftermath of this movie, you question the value of all art. And though you may come up with an intellectual justification, in your heart you really don’t feel it. Why all of it when there is Hotel Rwanda which so faithfully documents the failings and triumphs of humanity? But the real question is not that; that is just a minor question, just the art part. The real question is, how can we bear to enjoy when there is this happening? I watched this movie last night, and while this feeling has mostly dissipated, it hasn’t gone. None of the other movies I’ve watched or books I’ve read have made me ask that question. None. And certainly never on a second viewing.

Posted in George, Terry, Movie Reviews | Tagged: , , , , , | 7 Comments »

“What nice? Mice are nice yaar”

Posted by Ronak M Soni on December 21, 2009

Poster for 'Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year'

Generally, I don’t bother enough to write about movies I didn’t think anything of, but I just watched a movie so hilariously bad that I have to write a short review. It’s a Hindi movie called Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year, one of the biggest Bollywood movies this year. There are basically two problems: the writing – done by Jaideep Sahni – and the dialogue delivery.

It’s about a Sikh (Ranbir Kapoor) who becomes a salesman and screws up when … it’s clichéd, unimportant stuff, the point is that he screws up and is more or less a Pariah in his company. So, he siphons off a bit of the company’s resources and forms his own company called Rocket Sales Corporation. Because all his co-workers are throwing rockets at him.

If I caught you rolling your eyes there, I might as well make it clear that such a thing can work (think Indiana Jones’ hat). It’s in the tradition of what is known as the catch-phrase, and catch-phrases (which are rarely, if ever, phrases) do capture our imagination. “Show me the money” from Jerry Maguire, or “I’m going to make you an offer you can’t refuse” from The Godfather. The difference is, these were written as dialogue, not as catch-phrases; something about their rendition on screen and their content caught the public imagination, and they became catch-phrases. Rocket Singh, however, has a catch-phrase, or a rhyming dialogue, every five lines. No, seriously, these were written to be catch-phrases, there’s no other explanation for it.

And then, there’s the monologues: they reminded me of the long answers our teachers used to expect us to write in one of the more run-of-the mill schools (I shifted to a better school in my seventh, but the horror still hasn’t left me), containing enough points to fill five out of the requisite fifteen lines, and repetition consisting of rearranging a sentence two sentences after last using it.

The other problem is more subtle, I suspect that a lot of people didn’t like it for this reason, but have no idea about it. Let us consider of the world two parts: the West, and India. The West has a long tradition of what is known as stiff-neckedness on the part of men. This is weaker in the US, but still there. These people generally speak from their throats, the Brits from the bottom of the throat and the back of the mouth, and the Americans from somewhat higher up. And then there’s the Indians (and some ethnic groups like the Italians), who have no such tradition, and who speak from their chest. Now, with globalisation, we have Indian men who speak from their throats and Americans who speak from their chests, but we still see something: the ones who speak from their throats are the ones who aren’t showing much emotion, and the chest-speakers are (I’ve said that Hindi speakers sound more frank, and now I realise this is exactly what I meant). An example that comes to mind is the American TV series House, M.D., which consists of the two characters House and Wilson (Holmes and Watson renamed for the hospital). Wilson expresses his emotion, and House bottles it all up. Now watch the first scene in this video.

Now, back to the movie, we see Ranbir Kapoor… speaking from his throat. Admittedly, his lower throat, but his throat nonetheless. And, did I mention? The movie is a melodrama. So, we have the wrong voice speaking the wrong dialogues… big boom, big bad-a-boom.

However, despite my eye-rolling reaction to the movie, I have to admit: this is the biggest step ahead I’ve seen for Bollywood, and Ranbir Kapoor (son of Rishi Kapoor, grandson of Raj Kapoor, great-grandson of Prithviraj Kapoor, all great actors) is the best thing a star could be. Whatever you say about its merits as a movie, Rocket Singh’s set-up rings true, the characterisations are strong, and the movie is actually quite funny. I, in addition, have to admit, that if this was the meat of Bolywood, I wouldn’t look down on it half as much.

Okay, I don’t feel like ending on a good note, so let me tell you about the SloMO team saunter:

Depending on when in the movie this occurs, this sequence has two meanings. At the beginning of the movie, over the title credits, the SloMo Team Saunter is designed for us to see “The Team” as a single unit, so that later, we know who the Good Guys are. In an action/adventure movie, the SloMo Team Saunter will let us know that training has finished, and that some serious butt-kicking is about to commence. In sports, especially kid-based sports movies, the SMTS is designed to let us know that the disparite collection of misfits has come together as one, and also, serious butt-kicking is about to commence. In any movie made after “Reservoir Dogs,” with saunter will resemble the gait and placement of the characters in that movie. DAWSON RAMBO, Tucson, Ariz

Posted in Amin, Shimit, Movie Reviews, Movies | Tagged: , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Poems of Limerence

Posted by Ronak M Soni on December 16, 2009

No one probably knows what limerence is so here is the wikipedia article. I’m only dealing with a narrow band of limerence, as it is possible that the other symptoms do not manifest.


Desire without love.
Depression, and euphoria.

Depression, about us,
from life.

Euphoria, about us,
from dreams.

what went around

He followed me around.
followed her around.

I got angry.
got angry.

Two months in,
It burst out.

Life Without Limerence

Purposeless bliss.
A lack of euphoria,
But bliss yet.
She was all that mattered.
Nothing does.
I’m a zombie,
Tied to life
Solely by responsibility.

I’ll do what I like,
For me
– And only me –
Without calculations
Or games.
My feelings will be independent of her,
My thoughts free of her –
Not devoid, but
Free of her.
My happiest moments will be mine,
Mine alone.
My saddest moments will be mine too,
Mine alone.
Hopefully, now I’ll love,
Not limer.
Hopefully, now I’ll love,
Something other than her.

She enters,
My eyes are drawn.
Life without limerence:
Purposeless bliss,
Yet for me to experience.
(It’s declining, not gone.)
She hates me,
But we talk more.
I enjoy the politics.
I enjoy antagonizing her.
Life is fun.
I can’t help but laugh.

Posted in My Own Fiction, Poetry | Tagged: , | 9 Comments »

Dead Poets’ Society

Posted by Ronak M Soni on December 14, 2009

There be spoilers here but there is nothing particularly surprising in this movie, and besides I say some interesting things.

The basic flaw at the heart of Peter Weir’s Dead Poets’ Society is so stupid as to be almost laughable: it is a movie about non-conformity which uses the medium of poetry. Sounds fine? Consider the fact that the message necessarily limits the poetry which can be used to a narrow, narrow strip of all the trammellable lands of poetry and the poetic mind. This in a movie which has poetry in its name and which we therefore expect to be about poetry. As I said, this is almost laughable, and in fact only manifests during viewing in one or two scenes. Though this is a basic flaw, there is a bigger, almost awesome really, flaw in this movie; it is horrible at hiding its manipulative machinery.

Every movie has manipulative machinery. The trick is to not let it turn our attention from the movie, to so seamlessly tie in the, two separate, threads of machinery and narration that each seems to grow out of the other. For example, when I was watching Rashomon recently with Donald Richie’s commentary, he pointed out a most curious thing: during the course of the four narrations, Kurosawa builds up our sympathy for the characters – which, as you may know, are mostly stereotypes – by letting them intermittently come out of their stereotype shells and become real characters. I had noticed the fact that they were mostly stereotypes in my earlier viewings, but I had never noticed this, this popping out from shells. The narrative thread required that they be mostly stereotypes (Kurosawa wanted to build up from his characters, so he needed pre-established ones) but the manipulative required that they be real people (how else were we supposed to believe in the statement he’s making on human nature?), so he simply structured his narrative so that they had to pop out of their shells now and again. A very important point here is that this structuring necessarily has to come solely and completely out of the arbitrary choices a director can make rather than the falsifiable ones characters make. What Weir ends up doing in this movie is too often either performing this structuring using the wrong sort of choice or taking the two threads – of narration and manipulation, I mean – and pasting in pieces of them instead of intertwining them.

One of my friends loved this movie and told me it was a brilliant movie. When I pointed out that it was just a teacher-student movie, he told me it had started the genre, and I decided I would watch it. A couple of weekends later, it was coming on TV, so I watched it. I found that the beginning was very good and energetic but a suicide seemed so contrived that I’d lost all interest in the movie and left it a few minutes later, when everyone was grieving. That time, I just nailed it down as a piece of crappy writing, because of the suicide seeming so contrived. Then, I read Roger Ebert’s review, which I thought was a horrible review because it just detailed what he had disliked after he had taken badly to the movie; what I mean is that most of what he says could as well be a good movie interpreted in a bad light (and his irrefutable points, like the absurdity of their not knowing about Ginsberg – seriously absurd, this – or the Robin Williams character actually not being a very good teacher of poetry, were rather inconsequential because the movie wasn’t actually about poetry at all). Turns out that now I agree, and I’ll try to fill in, and try to make it clearer why we (it’s something unbelievably… cool that I’m trying to better Ebert here) think so.

The story is about twelfth class students in some stiff-collared American school, cast-led by Neil (Robert Sean Leonard, within whom we can see a sort of simmering life) and Todd (Ethan Hawke, the only time I’ve seen him even slightly seem to not have way too much self-esteem – only because of the hairdo, I found out later when he pulled his hair back to a more normal style). Into their lives comes a poetry teacher Mr. Keating (Robin Williams), who insists on being called ‘O captain, my captain’ after the Walt Whitman poem. He teaches them how to be non-conformists but – in one of the more effective set-pieces – prudent ones, and how the quality of poetry is non-quantifiable (minor incident, important lesson). He teaches the recessive Todd self-esteem – in another of the movie’s not rare affecting scenes –, and tells Neil that it’s okay to tell his father that he wants be an actor not a doctor. And there’s a – stupidly unresolved – side-plot about a love story.

The movie begins with some sentimental shots of the landscape around the school, which didn’t affect me but might well have. Then, there’s a brief stretch where we see the students coming back for a new term, along with fresher Todd. I have to say that the scenes consisting only of the students’ interactions exclusive of poetry are really good, because of an uncannily accurate picture of hostel dynamics (this is my seventh consecutive year in a hostel, so I certainly feel qualified to say so) and the energy of all the actors. We see that one of the students is going to one of his parents’ friends’ houses to eat.

When they left, there was a series of shots that really puzzled me (second viewing; my first viewing began a couple of scenes later). It was another montage of landscape. Why? He reached the house, and the door was opened by his future love-interest. This is what I meant by ‘pasting in pieces of [the threads] instead of intertwining them’. See, when he first sees his love-interest, he goes on a veritable high, as is common to most people who’ve just fallen in love. And that montage was Weir trying to get us to an appropriately sentimental mood to not only sympathise but empathise with him. But, stupidly enough, he shoves this bit of the manipulative thread right into the flow of the narrative.

Soon, he had my attention again, because… well, there is a good amount of energy in the movie. Soon, they found out about the ‘dead poets’ society’ which was a secret society of poetry lovers which met to read out lots of poetry headed and founded by Mr. Keating when he was at school. Lots of deus ex machinas here, but I didn’t really mind. Todd, going by his timid nature, refuses to read out but is admitted into the meetings anyway, because Neil is helming the society and they are roommates.

Another case in point is the lead-up to the first meeting, which – primarily because they are non-conformists – happens at the dead of night, in a cave in a forest near the school. There’s a long scene where they are going, which is treated as a horror sequence. These people, they are afraid of the eeriness of the forest, when all they should really be afraid of is being caught. Why was this scene, so damned inorganic to anything in the world there? Simply to elicit a laugh from us. That’s it. He sent the whole tone of exuberance riding, simply to put in edgewise one measly gag. Something we expect more from Michael Bay than the director of movies like Master and Commander: the Far Side of the Ocean and The Mosquito Coast which I lovingly remember from when I was thirteen.

The meeting gave me one of my biggest laughs: Neil was reading out from Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’, the last lines, which on their own fit into the general tone of inspiration that the poetry quoted here invariably carries (well, except the bits from A Midsummer Night’s Dream). I, however, have read the whole poem: these lines are actually said as people hurling themselves at the maw of death. Portentous, actually, and one of the few times Weir gets this stuff right.

Later, Neil, who plays Puck – symbol of life and liveliness – in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is told by his father that he is certainly not allowed to act. He walks up to his room, takes off his shirt. Bare-chested, he opens the window of his room, and then wears the Puck hat. He considers the snowy night, and soon takes off the hat and places it on the sill. Then, he walks down the stairs, walks to his father’s study. Then, we see his father get up, claiming that he just heard a sound. He looks around, and eventually walks into his study. There, he sees smoke from behind his desk. He walks around, and sees a hand , with a gun next to it…

Could have been really effective, really. But, two problems: the actor, and the action. As I said, Robert Sean Leonard has a simmering life within him. This means that he is energetic but moderate in his ways. It’s there but it’s only set at a fairly low level, ready to rise up to a high level. Neil, as played by this actor, seems to me unable to take a considered decision to do something drastic. Could to you, but I found this terribly contrived, and made me stop the first time I was watching this movie. I would have believed a sudden flare-up, a lunge to the death, but not a slow, completely voluntary, walk to it. And then there’s the action. What does it mean? What can it mean? He opens the window bare-chested, and wears his symbol of life. What is he thinking? Inscrutability is one thing, but there can be a sum total of one (1) escape you can be thinking of while you are standing bare-chested in front of a window outside when the world is snow-covered, and it sure as hell isn’t running away. So, he takes off his symbol of life and goes and does the needful. The only possible explanation: this man was so steeped in Shakespeare that he was indulging in symbolism. The difference: Shakespeare didn’t make his characters dabble in symbolism, the symbolism grew – or gave the illusion of growing – out of them.

And then there’s the end. It comprises of Keating being blamed for the suicide. One person tells the authorities what they want to hear, and the rest see no other choice because they will otherwise be expelled. The only guy who does tell them the truth is the same one previously indicted for a lack of prudence. Doesn’t anyone, anyone, in this batch of bright kids understand that the school cannot expel the whole class? They are sitting together, and they don’t have the brains to discuss it, to decide that if everyone says the truth, no one – except the tattletale – gets hurt? Seventeen-year-olds generally indulge in more involved politics with each other. Hell, I learnt this sort of reasoning at thirteen or something. Keating gives this his approval. Well, Mr. Tom Schulman, let me ask you, what exactly is the point of non-conformity if you don’t have the guts to turn it into the norm when a chance so clearly presents itself?

All the directorial cock-ups I can forgive. This stupid piece of writing I can’t. It’s easy to see why this movie is so beloved, though. Ignore a few scenes, a few set-ups here and there, have no real experience of politics, and it seems like a perfectly well-directed, perfectly logical piece of work. The only compliment I, on the other hand, can give Weir about this movie is to thank him for giving me a movie that is bad in an interesting way, in a way that taught me something more about cinema, or rather made me articulate for something that I always understood, that Ebert too instinctively understood in his review.

Posted in Movie Reviews, Weir, Peter | Tagged: , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

On the Auteurship of Actors

Posted by Ronak M Soni on December 10, 2009

We normally ascribe a movie to the director and, to a lesser extent, writer. Not that actors don’t get any credit – acting is as important for the success of a movie as direction – but that a movie is, in some way, the director’s rather than the actors.

The director is definitely an artist, an auteur, because he has a vision. The actor, too, is in one way an artist, because what he does to his role is as important to it as how the director visualises it. I mean, can you imagine Raging Bull or Taxi Driver without De Niro, or No Country for Old Men without Javier Bardem? But it’s still a Scorsese movie, or a Coen brothers film. Obviously, this is because it’s Scorsese or the Coens who visualised it. They made the right casting choices, they did a countless number of things right. Amidst all this, the actor comes out looking like nothing more than a pawn the director moves around to do what he wants to.

The question I’m wondering about is, is this pawn an artist? In the trivial way I’ve already explained, the answer is yes. But, art is about expression. Whether you believe it’s the expression of an individual qua individual or that of an outlet of society, it’s about expression. How is this pawn expressing himself? This pawn has little choice about what projects he can become part of, because it’s finally the player, the auteur, the director, who chooses what he does. Yes, there is some amount of self-expression involved in bringing yourself to a character, or bringing a character to yourself – as the case may be – but with most artists – directors, writers of both books and screenplays, painters, composers – we can look at the oeuvre as a whole and deduce something of what drove this person to live, to create this art.

Obviously, an important part of expressing yourself in this way requires choice. An actor may see some project close to his heart, but not be able to join it for various reasons. He may have to take up Snakes on a Plane (Samuel L. Jackson) or2012 (John Cusack) to perform his pet-puja. Of course, we can ignore these massive aberrations, but what about small aberrations? There is, for example, a man called Adam Sandler, who is certainly a certified auteur; all his roles are one and the same (let’s ignore quality). It took a great filmmaker (look at the word) called Paul Thomas Anderson to understand the point his movies were making. This is why Anderson made Punch-Drunk Love, which has famously been called a piece of film-criticism. Of course, you might argue, how do you know you get the point a director, or a writer or a painter, is making? Well, at least I can come up with something. There was, on the other hand, a sum total of one person who understood Sandler’s movies, or even came up with a theory of understanding of his movies. Till him, everyone just dismissed Adam Sandler as a buffoon out for profits. On the other hand, every roadside drunk can theorise about Woody Allen and where he is missing his point.

One thing I said was that actors don’t have choice. This is where the star system comes in handy. Here’s a clip from Waking Life which advocates a new paradigm of movie-making (I suspect that this is how I started thinking about this):

Till a couple of days ago, I thought typecasting was a bad thing. Whenever someone told me Jack Nicholson was a great actor, I’d think, “In his type of role, yes”. Now, it occurs to me that that reservation might be the very thing that makes him a great actor, an auteur in his own right, a man about whose oeuvre you can think of in much the same way as that of Elmore Leonard. Of course, it might also be something which resulted in an inhibition of self-expression because he isn’t considered for other roles, but I think a star has enough clout to be auditioned for any role he wants.

While it seems that the whole business is settled, it’s not. A De Niro night go his whole life without finding his Scorsese, while a director need make only the type of movie he feels like, using either the new generation of actors who believe in moulding themselves to suit the movie’s needs or the old-fashioned audition. I suspect that actors who are called great – De Niro, Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson, Peter O’Toole – are the ones who found, and consistently kept finding, roles that suited them, both by means of clout and of choosing the right roles to mould for their own self-expression. Or maybe not. Maybe they were just pawns who fought remarkably well, pawns who got to the opposite end of the chess board to become queens. Then, the real question is: how much does it matter which it is, whether he was just a great pawn or someone who transcended his pawnhood to perfectly resonate with the player? The answer is: I don’t know. Yet.

Posted in General, Movies | Tagged: , , , | 7 Comments »

Waking Life

Posted by Ronak M Soni on December 6, 2009

Still from the movie

The ongoing WOW... is happening right NOW.

Dear Mr. Linklater,

I think it is a lie on your part to say that you made the movie Waking Life. I also think that it is not a lie on our part to attribute the movie to you. I think that the only lie possible on our part is to say that we have watched it. We can merely say with certainty that we have viewed it. Viewed it multiple times, if that is so.

I, personally, have viewed it twice. I, personally, am going to view it again. And again. And again. Ad infinitum, ad nauseum. No, never ad nauseum.

I, after having viewed it twice, have many, many thoughts about this movie. Reproducing them here would be pointless, because they are, in their own way, as sprawled out as your movie, or this movie that we attribute to you.

Not producing them here, however, would be counter-productive. Because the reason I write is to communicate my take on whatever it is I’m writing on. I, in fact, think that communicating my take is so important that I have been known to ignore better points, for the sole reason that they were not my points. That is also why I make it clear everywhere – from the name of my blog to the meat of my introduction – that it is my take that you are looking at.

I, of course, won’t be mailing this letter to you. I, after all, am just a character in your extended dream. I think it is a curious choice for me to discuss the reasons for my writing, and writing this, in what purports to be a review of your movie.

All I want to say is: thank you, for giving us this. This movie, obviously, raises many questions, and answers fewer. But this is the movie that I can say taught me that it’s okay to broadcast the question that I do have, no matter how stupid. Not that I ever hesitated. So, what am I thanking you for? I don’t know, but I know that this may be the most important movie of the generation. Why? I’m not sure, but I know subsequent viewings will hold the answers.

Just like the boy could hold on in the face of everything around him telling him there was no point but the man chose to go up, into a state of enlightened drifting, you have brought back, here, that very important thing that we’ve lost: that concern that marked out the hippies and the rest of the sixties’ counterculture. The same hippies that went and learnt natural farming with Masanobu Fukuoka, and the same ones that gave us the divine music of The Beatles.

But, you’ve also lost out on the disconnect from life that negatively marked these people out. Your hero, the man played by Wiley Wiggins, chooses to drift, like a hippie, but drift in the state of being enlightened that he is in a dream, which is the choice open to most of my generation. You have shown us that it is good to take the path offered by enlightenment.

It doesn’t matter that you can’t know. The important thing is to ask. All your people, they ask. The old man wonders, seriously considers, being able, in the near future, to see evolution taking place. This sounds absurd, but it is the hope that is important. Your middle-aged woman is happy about change. My generation, we are happy about change. Exclusively in the forward direction. As long as we don’t have to change inside, as long as we can say that it is too big for us… it is true when the whiny-sounding kid says that it’s all happened before.

Of course, you understand, all that I’ve said is bullshit. But the best of bullshit. Bullshit that has come with feeling. Feeling, yes, but, more importantly, understanding that it is bullshit. Some of what your characters say can be classified as bullshit, but that is the other best of bullshit: it’s plausible bullshit. Some more of what your characters say, like the philosophy professor about existentialism, is the very opposite of bullshit.

But that, again, is not important. It is only important that they said it. It is only important, further, that you collected all this and put it in a movie, a movie that seems to end just before catharsis, between the swell of the music and the bigger swell that would be catharsis, but casting back your auditory mind reminds you that all that can possibly happen now is the addition of another instrument into the fray, like has always happened. It is true to the movie that your musician appears to say that it should sound wavy, due to being slightly out of tune.

And, thank you for those visuals – the visuals without which it is impossible to quote you –, for collecting the fears of a whole generation about a decision they are supposed to make between apathy and a waking life, and showing – to a complete extent – the waking life. The waking life, after all, is as unsteady as you show it. Borders shift, arguments waver, philosophies confound, thoughts take you to unvisited regions of life, and we always try to connect, try to reach our own holy moments.

Thank you, finally, for giving us this, this precise language to discuss the lack of language that our collective intelligence has taken us too.

One of the generation,

Ronak M Soni.

PS: Please understand that most of what I’ve said is bullshit, but I’ve learnt enough from you to not know better than to broadcast it.

PPS: I have one little tiff with your movie; by repeating an idea relating directly to your hero’s predicament, you have made it too clear what has happened to him.

PPPS: That’s just a little tiff. I ought to end with a thank you.

Posted in Linklater, Richard, Movie Reviews, Movies | Tagged: , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

“My name is A. B. C. D. Douglas; Father’s name: E. F. G. H. Douglas”

Posted by Ronak M Soni on December 5, 2009

Cover of Fakir Mohan Senapati's Six Acres and a Third

Cover painting by Jatin Das

Fakir Mohan Senapati(1843-1918) has a really interesting name, because Mohan Senapati is a Hindu name whereas Fakir is a Muslim name. So, I thought I might as well explain it, my source being the introduction to this edition by Satya p Mohanty. He was born Braja Mohan Senapati. In his childhood he fell gravely ill. After his grandmother had prayed to all the Hindu Gods she turned to two Muslim saints. In exchange for curing him, she promised to give him up to their religious order as a Fakir. When he recovered, she reneged, but agreed to give him up symbolically by changing his name to Fakir.
Six Acres and a Third(Oenguin Modern Classics edition, Rs. 250) is his first novel. He is also said to have pioneered the genre of the short story in Oriya, though his pioneering story has since been lost.

Ramachandra Mangaraj was a zamindar – a rural landlord – and a prominent moneylender as well, though his transactions in grain far exceeded those in cash. For an area of four kos around, no one else’s business had much influence. He was a very pious man indeed: there are twenty-four ekadasis in a year. If there had been forty such holy days, he would have observed every single one. This is indisputable. Every ekadasi he fasted, taking nothing but water and a few leaves of the sacred basil plant for the entire day. Just the other afternoon, though, Mangaraj’s barber, Jaga, let it slip that on the evenings of ekadasis a large pot of milk, some bananas, and a small quantity of khai and nabata are placed in the master’s bedroom. Very early the next morning, Jaga removes the empty pot and washes it. Hearing this, some people exchanged knowing looks and chuckled. One blurted out, “Not even the father of Lord Mahadeva can catch a clever fellow stealing a drink when he dips under the water.” We’re not absolutely sure what was meant by this, but our guess is that these men were slandering Mangaraj. Ignoring their intentions for the moment, we would like to plead his case as follows: Let the eyewitness who has seen Mangaraj emptying the pot come forward, for like judges in a court of law we are absolutely unwilling to accept hearsay and conjecture as evidence. All the more since science textbooks state unequivocally: “Liquids evaporate.” Is milk not a liquid? Why should milk in a zamindar’s household defy the laws of science? Besides, there were moles, rats and bugs in his bedroom. And in whose house can mosquitoes and flies not be found? Like all base creatures of appetite, these are always on the lookout for food; such creatures are not spiritually minded like Mangaraj, who had the benefit of listening to the holy scriptures. It would be a great sin, then, to doubt Mangaraj’s piety or unwavering devotion.

Jonathan Swift – about whom I speak solely from reputation and hearsay – felt the need to create believable characters and put them in situations strangely reminiscent of reality to perform his satire. Fakir Mohan Senapati, in his Six Acres and a Third (translated by a veritable army consisting of Satya P. Mohanty, Rabi Shankar Mishra, Jatindra K. Nayak and Paul St-Pierre),feels no such need. His characters are all caricatures, his Orissa a land that exists only inasmuch as it helps him make his point, but I believed in them nevertheless.

When I finished this book, I thought this was a ‘great’ book in the same way that Citizen Kane is the greatest movie ever made, because of its importance. It is widely touted, to the extent that it is touted at all, as being the apex of nineteenth century realism in Indian literature, as showing the ‘view from below’ before most of India had heard of anything along the lines of Marxism, as … well, quite a few more things, as described in Satya P. Mohanty’s (rather averagely written, even if makes good points) introduction. But, now, five days after having finished it, I realise that there may be more to the greatness this book than just importance. Not that I ever thought it wasn’t a very good book, but it just didn’t strike me as a candidate for greatness merely on basis of quality. Now, as I was typing up that quote, I realized that not only had Senapati got me to believe in the caricatures while I was reading it, I still believe in Ramachandra Mangaraj and co.

All he does is make no pretensions at depth, or naturalism. His narrator is nothing more than a ‘dispassionate’ (I’ll come back to these quotation marks) observer, who tells us merely what he sees, what he ‘concludes’, and the results of his ‘research’. This, you would think, isn’t very hard to do. Take, for counter-example, Albert Camus’s The Outsider, a review of which was my first post on this blog. My primary complaint with it was that it felt as if Camus wasn’t trying hard enough to convince us, because everything from the plot to the characters apart from the protagonist struck me as very poorly thought-out. Max Cairnduff commented saying that it wasn’t intended as a naturalistic piece in the first place. Which is a fair reason for disagreement; the primary reason we disagree about quality of art is that some things are more important to some people than they are to others. My point in bringing this up was that I felt no such irritation while reading Six Acres and a Third, which I feel even works as a naturalistic piece. This is so because Senapati makes so little pretence, makes everything he says sound so provisional, that I can take it as the version of truth as offered by someone not completely disinvolved.

And, therein lies the crux of the narration; the book is narrated by a person, or persons – even common people from Orissa and Bihar tend to use the royal pronoun, and the narrator could well be an investigator for the English, so I can’t be sure though I lean towards it being just one person –, who’s not involved but is making a thinly-veiled pretence at being one of the people whose life depends on these people whose dealings he talks of. I can say this because of the way it is said: looking at the quote, you can see three levels of narration, so to say. First, we have the fact that he is using Western courtroom logic to defend Ramachandra Mangaraj. Then, we have the fact that he is revealing facts that can only incriminate the man. Then, he is using the worst logic available to save him nevertheless, inasmuch as he will then be safe in a (caricaturised) court of law. He’s attacking Mangaraj, and thinly veiling it as a defence. The whole book – which, compliments to the author, is very short, less than two hundred very loosely packed pages – passes in such a flurry of multiple but obvious levels of deceit, most of the time more thinly-veiled than the rest of it. Sometimes, we even see trickery in the narrator’s mention of his target audience.

There is a plot, but it only comes in the second half of the book. Senapati packs most of it with a set of vignettes showcasing corruption at various levels – and the various branches of each level – of society, going as high as is relevant from the villagers’ point of view. Brahmins, peasants, zamindars, policemen, lawyers – especially lawyers, since it is their language which is used as the medium of satire –, they all come under scrutiny. There are six acres and a third, not to mention a cow, that are seized, and which go to court etc. Interestingly, even the victims of the seizing aren’t completely honest. Most interestingly, the only good people in the book barely talk; there are two, and one of them gets one scene with three, maybe four, barely functional dialogues. The other one? He only gets a few actions to perform.

It sounds so complex (here, I’m talking about morally complex, all the little implications; my ‘levels of writing’ are actually fairly obvious, even necessary for a book claiming to be a satire). But, when I read it, I thought the book was written in a simple, lucid style with few depths I was surprised to have plumbed. It is nothing more than the highest compliment to Senapati that all of his meaning came across so clearly. After I finished the book, I read Mohanty’s introduction, and there’s very little of this write-up that uses things I’ve learnt from Mohanty. Not because I found the points unworthy but because I already knew them. It was valuable only as a history lesson on this book. It is this simplicity, supported strongly by the cultural – it was the apex of nineteenth century realism in Indian literature – as well as historical – as a burning critique of the British administration – importance that makes this a great book. And I never even mentioned the anger simmering beneath the narrative, with about as much obvious force as this sentence.

Posted in Book reviews, Books, Senapati, Fakir Mohan | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

“It’s déjà vu all over again.”

Posted by Ronak M Soni on December 3, 2009

Cover of Diary of a Bad Year by J. M. Coetzee

Click to look inside

The primary joy of reading J. M. Coetzee is his appeal to the subvocaliser within me. To subvocalise is to read by saying it aloud in your head, and I invariably do it in voices. One joy of Coetzee is how effectively he varies his narrator’s voice. The other, principal, joy is the use of a voice which is used by a lot of younger writers, but which I feel only he has mastered completely; I mean a slow voice, where the speaker is dragging out his words without actually drawling, not because of the accent but because of the meticulous way he thinks. This voice has a sort of coldness coupled with clinicality. I’m in no way saying he originated it; I can find an example from around the time he was born: ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ by T. S. Eliot. A lot of Eliot’s poetry has this voice, but this one is my favourite. When I first read his Waiting for the Barbarians in June ’08, this voice touched a deep, deep chord with me. I widely tout this book as the book which catapulted me into the world of serious literature. True, I had been heading there for a while, but this was the last straw.

One of the ideas behind Coetzee’s 2007 book Diary of a Bad Year is an examination of this voice when the writer’s powers are declining. It has, as a story, the writer Juan C. who wants to write a contribution to a German book called Strong Opinions. He sees a young, ethereal beauty Anya and asks her to be his typist; his motor control is going, and all he can do is scribble and speak into a dictaphone. She’s living with an older man called Alan, who acts as a foil to JC.

JC, like Coetzee, was born and brought up in South Africa and has just recently moved into Australia. He, in fact, has also written a book called Waiting for the Barbarians. So, the question arises: is JC in fact JMC? I don’t think so, principally because Coetzee’s powers are not failing. That, however, is nothing more than a brilliant dodge; it ignores the real question of whether the opinions are Coetzee’s. Again, I think no, and it’s due to the last essay in the book, coupled with the fact that Coetzee is a significantly more intelligent essayist than JC.

Each page of the book is divided into three parts. The top is JC’s contribution to the book, the middle is JC’s narration of his relationship with Anya, and the bottom (which first appears only at page twenty-five) is Anya’s narration of her relationships with JC and Alan, not to mention Alan’s relationship with JC. This results in us reading first a bit of an essay, then a bit of JC’s narration, then a bit of Anya’s, then some more of that essay, and so on. Coetzee, of course, often takes the opportunity to break a bit in the page mid-sentence. This structure plays with us in mysterious, as well as not so mysterious, ways, but to mention a couple of them, I will have to describe the characters for a bit.

JC is an old novelist who used to think of himself as a novelist who taught to fill his pockets, but is now thought of as “a pedant who dabbled in writing novels”. Through the course of the book, it becomes clearer and clearer that this one’s more of a poet than an essayist. His first few essays – which are so short that they rarely, if ever, have proper conclusions – make plausible points, but don’t argue them out too well. He just states them as fact. Of course, this is a problem later when he’s just plain wrong. When his essays really shine is when they speak of literature. And then there are times when he completely takes of the mask of the essay:

Someone should put together a ballet under the title Guantanamo, Guantanamo! A corps of prisoners, their ankles shackled together, thick felt mittens on their hands, muffs over their ears, black hoods over their heads, do the dances of the persecuted and the desperate. Around them, guards in olive green uniforms prance with demonic energy and glee, cattle prods and billy-clubs at the ready. They touch the prisoners with the prods and the prisoners leap; they wrestle prisoners to the ground and shove the clubs up their anuses and the prisoners go into spasms. In a corner, a man on stilts in a Donald Rumsfeld mask alternately writes at his lectern and dances ecstatic little jigs.
One day it will be done, though not by me. It may even be a hit in London and Berlin and New York. It will have absolutely no effect on the people it targets, who could not care what ballet audiences think of them.

And there are times when his poetry comes through in his essays, despite his efforts to suppress them, like the title, which actually makes some sort of sense in context. But, down below, in his diary, we see the cracks showing in his writing. At one point,

Are you new? I said, meaning was she knew to Sydenham Towers, though other meanings were possible too, Are you new on this earth? for example.

The real Coetzee often takes a question and does this sort of thing to it, but nitpicking of this scale is nothing more than a parody, or – since JC’s powers are failing – a tragedy. The first time I read this sentence, in November last year (this is the second time I’m reading this book), I thought JC was surely an overgrown kid. Later, the idea that he’s just a poet becomes stronger, when in the ‘Second Diary’ (Coetzee’s book is divided into ‘Strong Opinions’, 12 September 2005 to 31 May 2006 and ‘Second Diary’, undated), after he’s done with his strong opinions, he starts writing what Anya calls his ‘soft opinions’, where we see a sharp increase in plain quality, not to mention his near-absence in the middle bit which is now filled with things Anya are saying to him or just plain nothing; I think the idea here is that as long as he was writing his pure essays, we need his real voice, but later we don’t, because its already there above.

Anya is a beautiful Filipina, whose first appearance elicits this response in JC’s diary (note the substandard writing):

Startling because the last thing I was expecting was such an apparition; also because the red shift she wore was so startling in its brevity.

Surprisingly, she’s actually pretty intelligent, though not concerned enough to be an ‘intellectual’. I’m surprised because if you’re writing about the relationship between an intellectual and a commoner, it’s rather common to make the commoner a stubborn, though streetwise, ox. Notice, for example, the insight and sensitivity to the sound of words in her description of her relationship with JC:

At first I was supposed to be his segretaria, his secret aria, his scary fairy, in fact not even that, just his typist, his tipitista, his clackadackia.

Later, we will see bits from her that sound like they’ve come from JC (this last quote, unlike the ones I’m referring to, is rather female in its composition). She is, all in all, a rather well-rounded character. So well-rounded, in fact, that I think it’s a plausible interpretation that the book is about her.

Alan, as I’ve already said, is a foil to JC, and, like the best foils, is actually very similar in a fundamental way to him; JC is a socialistic anarchistic dreamer whereas he is a yuppie realist, but each is about as stubborn as the other. Anya is stuck in between these two. Both these characters are equally caricatured, and Anya is the well-rounded middle ground.

I realise I promised a mention of a couple of tricks the structure plays with us, but it turns out I ended up mentioning them above, like the last couple of sentences in my description of JC. Well, let me tell you that in the Second Diary, when I said that the middle part is taken up by Anya talking to JC, there’s a memorable sequence where the page is actually JC’s essay | Anya | Alan. On the whole, however, this structure has an effect of rushing the proceedings along. We read faster because we have two threads hanging at any one point in time.

I personally think Diary of a Bad Year is Coetzee’s most interesting book of the ones that I’ve read (in the order of my reading, Waiting for the Barbarians, Dusklands, Diary of a Bad Year, Life & Times of Michael K, Disgrace, In the Heart of the Country), but not his best. Well, just not his most effective; there’s always the question of how effective Coetzee wants it to be. After all, in keeping with the fact that the essays have barely any conclusion, JC doesn’t sign off so much as is cut-off. Anya does sign off. Anya has the time to finish with the book, but old JC doesn’t: it’s like life. And, after all, how effective is life as a book?

Posted in Book reviews, Books, Coetzee, J. M. | Tagged: , , , , | 5 Comments »