December 28, 2008

"Slumdog Millionaire" - A Metaphor for India?

Slumdog Millionaire is a refreshingly different movie; perhaps an expose of sorts, but disguised under the soft nuances of a romance. The setting of the movie is again a surprise, as it's Mumbai 2008; the producer couldn't have imagined that Mumbai would hold spotlight, world-wide, just as his movie was to be released!

Danny Boyle, the director of the movie, has a reputation for making controversial movies, and this was no different as it elicited some extreme reactions from the audience. Some felt the movie was a misrepresentation of India, others had a problem with the myopic lens of the film maker whose depiction of India was apparently 'lopsided'; though the fact that the story writer is Vikas Swarup, an Indian diplomat, gets Danny Boyle off the hot seat. Then there were those viewers who were convinced the movie would be nominated for the Oscars for it's direction and screenplay. However, there was one thing all these viewers had in common: they were all of Indian origin. All of this made me want to see the movie and decide for myself!

Slumdog Millionaire turned out to be a very entertaining movie that showcased some stark scenarios in Mumbai like that of abject poverty leading to child abuse and prostitution. It also highlighted the Hindu Muslim divide in Mumbai leading to violence and oppression for the underprivileged. Having said this, one would imagine the movie to be a somber tale of struggle with little reprieve. However, that's where the movie surprises; the stark reality of Mumbai is so naturally embedded in the storyline that it ceases to be revolting. For instance the 7 year old protagonist being covered in human feces does not evoke shock or revulsion as much as it does laughter and empathy for the passionate young film lover. 7 year old Jamal is clearly determined to get his favorite Bollywood actor's autograph, even if that meant going through a hole in the ground which happened to be the slum dwellings public-toilet-facility! It is this, the master weaving of the somber amid the tender and the humorous, that allows the movie to get away with the shocking and inhuman scenarios it presents; all apparently happening in Mumbai.

The movie is about a young boy called Jamal who serves 'chai' (tea) to employees in a call center in Mumbai. He is suddenly thrown into the spotlight when he becomes the most unlikely finalist on a "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" TV game show which would earn him a million dollars if he were to win it. The movie glides smoothly between the the protagonist's past and present, by the end of which the viewer has a clearer picture of who the protagonist is and why he is so. The three actors who play his part through the different phases of his life do justice to the character as they provide him tremendous credibility; it is difficult to believe that the 19 year old Jamal of the movie is in reality a British actor, Dev Patel, who hardly knows Mumbai!

I would recommend this movie to anyone who believes art is but the artists perspective. As the audience, we don't have to be one with the perspective or with the vision that is born out of it, though we could appreciate the artist's passion for having created a piece for us to ponder upon. In fact I pondered on this particular one a trifle too long; I now see Jamal, the unlikely finalist wanting to be millionaire, as a metaphor for 21st century India, the surprise contender for being the top economic growth engine of the world.

Definitely a movie worth watching.

December 12, 2008

The Book of Troubles" by Ann Marlowe - A Memoir or a Delusional Romance?

It took me the longest time to post on this one - "The Book of Trouble" by Ann Marlowe. I can't think of a better reason for this other than the fact that I couldn't quite come to terms with the social conflicts as presented by Marlowe. She candidly states her stance in the prologue itself saying, " I don't want to have a relationship, much less a committed relationship. I want to meet someone and fall in love and live with him for the rest of my life." Yet the falling in love she captures in the book is jinxed from the word go. What is even stranger, Ms. Marlowe is aware of the tentative nature of her relationship, yet, she spends the next hundred some pages justifying this tentativeness!

Ann Marlowe, a widely traveled journalist with stellar academic credentials, appears to have written this book either when she was on a sentimental high, or else she was brooding on the boredom of single living as a forty year old American woman. It could also be that her extended stay in and around Afghanistan had impacted her deeply, and Afghanistan's exotic culture still had her in its grip.

The book shifts between Afghanistan and the USA and is ridden with conflicts of gender, age, ethnicity, traditions and religion, mostly within the realm of romance. Ms. Marlowe, who is at the center of it all, is constantly debating her stand on these conflicts, trying to assess the conflicts the Afghan way and then looks at them the American way. There are weak attempts at defending the American lifestyle and how it deals with these issues, but somehow Ms. Marlowe always appears to have an Afghan bias, to the point that she defends machismo saying it lets the man be chivalrous, a trait apparently the average American woman of today misses. On the same note, Marlowe even lends credence to arranged marriages and the covering of the female face with a 'chadar'. The examples and statistic for both of which are questionable. What is more, this memoir of Marlowe's has her, a Jewish woman in her 40s, in love with an Afghan man at least 10 years younger than her, and one who tells her outright, "The Western idea of romantic love is an illusion. I don't believe in it. I want to have an arranged marriage. I want to marry an Afghan girl. A seventeen-year-old virgin." This is where one wonders, "What was Marlowe thinking!" Was this the falling in love she was referring to in the prologue? As for the book being 'a Romance', well, it is one that has 'trouble' written all over it! "The Book of Trouble" is the memoir of a delusional 40 year old who so desperately wants to experience 'love' with a difference, that she willingly suspends disbelief and involves herself in an affair that clearly has no future from the onset.

However, there is a softer and saner side to the memoir as Marlowe unfolds to the reader an Afghanistan that is simple and very understandable. She takes us into the inner folds of family life in Afghanistan, and it is a most endearing picture that she reveals; one which could make an American reader like me uncomfortable. The simplicity of interaction within Afghan families makes that society very appealing to an American who has long lived in an individualistic society. Belonging to a tight knit Afghan group, in this case an extended family, eases the burdens that come with individualistic living where you are accountable for every action of yours. Marlowe has undoubtedly seen Afghanistan very closely and does its people and its culture justice, in that she is very accepting of differences, analyzes them impartially, and partakes of them with appreciation and gratitude. The Bush administration ought to have had her as an adviser before they went there to bring democracy to this 'third world nation'!

"The Book of Troubles' is an apt title for this memoir since I too am 'troubled' writing a recommendation for this book. Would I suggest you read it? Given that I've called Ms. Marlowe, the protagonist of this memoir, delusional, it would almost seem absurd for me to recommend it. However, this is also the book that I could hardly put down once I began reading it! So I suggest you delve into this 'troubled book' and see whether 'the troubles' were worth your read.

Thanks Saadia for recommending the book!

December 08, 2008

The Beatles Beat - "I'm not afraid, I'm shy!"

This piece was inspired by someone who said
"I'm not afraid, I'm shy!"

Words unsaid...
eyes unmet...
hands unheld...
...leave steps untaken!

A lidded glance
for a proffered hand.
A tentative gesture
with a somewhat smile.
The spoken silence
amid hushed replies.

A hurried exit
so obviously distraught.
A forlorn look
trailing tender thought.
A lingering hope
leaving sanity besot.

Fiercely though you care,
words you'll never say.
People'll never know
the warmth beneath the cold,
and even less...
the love you left untold.

December 01, 2008

Mehreen Jabbar's "Ramchand Pakistani" - A Truth, Touchingly Told!

It was ironic that I happened to watch the movie "Ramchand Pakistani" the evening before the tragic events unfolded in Mumbai last week. In the light of which, the following comment of Javed Jabbar, the movie's writer-producer, carried special meaning for me:“While the story is very sharply drawn in a political context of extreme polarisation, what it attempts to do is to project the unifying human dimension.” These words gain further significance when tensions appear to be escalating between the two nuclear nations in the aftermath of Mumbai's terrorist attack.

A year or so ago a visitor on my blog recommended the movie 'Ramchand Pakistani' as a must- see movie made by a Pakistani filmmaker, and I'm glad I took his advice. Mehreen Jabbar has made a movie that both warms and shocks the heart . Based on a real event, the movie captures the travails of an accidental and unusual intruder into 'enemy' territory. Jabbar manages to raise some essential questions about how and why national borders heighten and highlight individual differences which would otherwise go unnoticed. The land on this side of the border is no different from what lies on the other side, and accordingly the people living on either side of it have adapted to its peculiarities. This adaptation would normally make people connect, but in this case the border patrol and the white stone demarcations between India and Pakistan ensure that this connect never happens. It is against this backdrop that Jabbar's unusual protagonist steps in as the intruder who accidentally ventures onto the 'other side'. What unfolds is a series of events presented with utmost sincerity and simplicity, and it is to the credit of the cast, Rashid Farooqui, Nandita Das, Usmaan Abbasi, and Navaid Jabbar, that despite the matter-of-fact narrative, the viewer often has a catch in his throat watching helpless innocents fall prey to the senseless and insensitive mandates of politicking.

Watching this movie reminded me of a 20 minute documentary I had watched some time ago titled "The Little Terrorist", and I want to believe that both these movies are based on that same true life event that happened during the Kargil standoff. "The Little Terrorist" was a telling comment on the ludicrousness of border disputes between two countries that are home to a people sharing a long and glorious history together, and are therefore culturally akin in their lifestyles especially in their passion for Cricket. "Ramchand Pakistani", takes that affinity a step further and poignantly lays out that 'closeness' of the two people as Ramchand, the accidental intruder, finds himself imprisoned on the other side of the border.