Thursday, April 14, 2016

Decolonizing My Social Studies Classroom: using cinema to challenge mental maps

Two of the most famous "Arabists", Gertrude Bell and TE Lawrence,
visiting the pyramids with Winston Churchill in 1921.
Area studies folks love to talk about the creation of "imagined spaces" and "perceptual landscapes". Once you scratch beneath the veneer of this sort of jargon, it's easy to understand why the concepts these terms describe are currently en vogue. Forget about the porous border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, virtually all borders are now recognized as somewhat fictitious and (at least) intellectually insecure. They are the ultimate anthropological artifacts, and arguably the most largest monuments of individual human intervention. Outside of territory exchanging hands through collective negotiation and invasion, ordinary people such as politicians (like James Balfour of the infamous Balfour Declaration), navigators (like James Cook), empire builders (like Cecil Rhodes of DeBeers and Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe), and explorers (like one of my more dubious heroes Gertrude Bell) created the 20th century and 21st century world map.

Europe: 1900 (source)
As recently as in our grandparents' or great-grandparents' lifetime, the familiar map as we know it didn't exist, or at least, or at least, was free to be re-imagined and reshaped at will. Four or five generations back, some of my ancestors lived in Prussia. That territory then became German, then Polish, then German, then Polish again. Reportedly, my great-great-great grandfather Kruger, a goat boy who married a goose girl and migrated to the U.S., was obsessed with the military exploits of Frederick the Great and Napoleon until his death. For him, borders were surely loose concepts, at best. But to many people born after the mid-20th century, the lines between political entities probably seem immutable. Unless, that is, you happened to live in a disputed ethnic homeland, a hinterland with valuable resources prone to occupation, or in a recently established state, etc.

Which begs the question, who are the 21st century guardians of this awareness of map-making and map-breaking?

Well, high education rates aside, they probably aren't residents of North America. U.S. citizens post-1950 tend to look at world maps with a combination of boredom and awe, and to me the reason is twofold. One, we have not had to relearn the U.S. map since 1959, when Hawaii became the 50th state, and two, we have not experienced a significant war for territory on the contiguous North American continent since the conflict between U.S. troops and Pancho Villa in the Southwestern U.S. in 1916. (Unless you count the long process of "displacement" of indigenous people during "peaceful" frontier settlement.) When even the possibility of change to a nation state's borders exists outside of living memory, that nation state can easily come to believe in its own permanence, and through the rigidity of that mindset, to see other places as equally permanent.

We are not the best people to ask about spatial imagination.


The United States of Eurasia (MUSE) 

However, let's forget for the moment the modern notions of sovereignty and nation states. When we turn to the idea of "regions" we find, perhaps, the best example of imagined space. Contrary to our common mental categories and divisions, Asia is actually not (gasp) a separate landmass from continental Europe. The most radical social scientists and politicians *might* divide the regions by tracing a finger down the Urals and including the Northern European Plain (the most populated tract of Russia) into Europe as a whole. After all, it's got "Europe" in the title. But anxieties about Russian expansionism run deep, and after all, we don't really want to encourage Russian inclusion into civilized Europe, do we? Therefore, anything in the Russian sphere of interest cannot be Europe. It's Eurasia, at best, Asia at worst. And therein lies the moral problem: meaning, Asia as the ultimate "other", of course.

For most of us, imagining Asia and imagining Europe amounts to the exact same action.

Arranged (2007)
We cannot, at this stage, easily do one activity without involving the other. Perhaps, once upon a time (let's say 500 years ago), the two were free to imagine each other without much interference. But at some point in the European-defined Age of Exploration and Colonization, the wires got forever crossed. As Ashis Nandy points out in The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self Under Colonialism, the colonized person/nation's concept of self is no longer self-generated, it is dependent on the colonizer's image of that person or nation; so much so that even the act of rejection of the colonizer's imagined world only further cements the boundaries of the worldview that the colonizer created.

These internalized limits and categories certainly create political boundaries on paper and on the ground, but even more so, they create our mental maps--our personal and societal vision of the world. They decide not just where Turkey begins and Bulgaria ends, but what that transitional space signifies, and why it is necessary in the first place.

In order to decolonize the classroom, the invisible assumptions underpinning these mental maps must be (A) recognized and (B) challenged.

In other words, students must be freed to re-imagine space. 

Never on a Sunday (Greece, 1960)
Top assumptions ...

1. Colonial and neo-colonial mental maps have fixed, timeless borders.

2. Colonial and neo-colonial mental maps have black and white categories that place people in black and white spatial roles.

3. Colonial and neo-colonial mental maps exist outside the individual's ability to critique or change. BUT when colonial and neo-colonial mental maps DO change, it is because the West has decided to change the rules (which is legitimate), or because the non-West has decided the rules must be changed (which is obviously illegitimate).


And the challengers are ....

1. Films about explorers (to open students' minds to the unknown)

As colonial as the word "explorer" admittedly sounds, exploring is a comfortable transitional role for an American to assume, a role that asks students to treat the world as a new place without any "mistakes in it", to learn to turn a fresh eye to unfamiliar landscapes. "Explorer's" films highlight plucky individuals grappling with hostile landscapes and shifting borders. They can introduce discussions around the constant modernizing quest to tame the wilderness and to scramble for resources, but without reverting to tired American bedtime stories of Lewis & Clark or Davy Crockett ... while simultaneously avoiding placing the student immediately in a a position of uncomfortable ignorance or defensiveness.


One of my favorite films to use for this purpose is Letter Never Sent (1960), a beautiful and terrifying Soviet film about a group of scientists on an expedition to the Siberian interior to search for natural resources "for the Fatherland".


In the first half, the film mostly seems concerned with the popular "civilized man turning savage again" trope, comparable to The Lord of the Flies or well, every season of LOST. However, in the second half, the group is decimated and separated by a massive forest fire. Then, the only question is, will any of them survive to return to their families again? And was the venture worth the risk?


Watching the African Queen (1951), or The Naked Jungle (1954) might also be entertaining examples of White Man and Woman vs. the Wild. But it's hard to beat LNS for pure cinematic value or environmental realism. I often lean toward making students watch older films when possible, but this is an easy subgenre to find in recent action and adventure and science fiction (if not always in parent-friendly films), and a relatively painless way to to remind students that most of the earth's territory was once uncharted.

2. Films about the alien and stranger (to entangle students' emotions in other people's realities)

Though they're often tearjerkers, films that portray stateless persons, refugees, separated families, etc. are helpful in showing the human impact of political boundaries and bureaucratic red tape, and the humanity on both sides of a border. This is a pretty common genre in art house international cinema, but so far, Baran (Iran, 2001--pictured below) and Lakhon Mein Eik (Pakistan, 1967) have gone over well in some of my classes.


Any story about immigrant experiences could achieve a comparable end. Ultimately, I want students to think about what it means to navigate invisibility, hostility, and displacement. West Side Story (1961) and Fiddler on the Roof (1971) are excellent jumping off points, since U.S. students often have some familiarity with these stories and settings. English Vinglish (2012) is also probably a good choice, as it's both amusing and fairly universal in its themes.



As long as you can create an emotional reference point to humanize later discussions, or even a vocabulary to use across the board, I generally find that students will feel a kinship with similar, if more complex struggles elsewhere. If they watch Fiddler on the Roof and talk about anti-Semitic pogroms, then later we can discuss ethnic cleansing in the Balkans or East Africa with a bit more second-hand displacement experience with which to ground our conversation.

[Note: Of course, there are other ways to provide a similar second-hand experience. In my geography class last year, we did a refugee crisis simulation--where some students got to be the European gatekeepers and some "got" to be Syrian and North African refugees.]

3. Films about revolutionaries and rebels (to shift students' expectations of the "other")

This is one of my favorite categories of film. Half the time these films were released as propaganda serving some party on the political spectrum or some particular regime. But they are still fascinating, inspirational, and for U.S. citizens at least, enlightening. We tend to think of most other countries' citizens as disempowered in comparison to Americans, while simultaneously fearing the power that other countries' citizens may choose to seize.


I love the following films both for entertainment and discussion purposes: Lawrence of Arabia (1960), The Last Bridge (Austria, 1954) The Hunger Games films (2012-2015), The Red Detachment of Women (China, 1961), Kommunist (USSR, 1959), Battle of Algiers (Italy-Algeria, 1966), Island in the Sun (1957), and Baaz (1953).


Note: despite the appearance of the above list, I don't try to turn out communist sympathizers (nor do I push my students toward the American left or the right), but I do like to turn out students who respect revolutionary ideals in theory, and the right/ability of other people groups and oppressed populations to try to change their circumstances.


My next experiment ... 

Next year I think I'm going to have my students watch the surprisingly relevant Vincent Price/Samuel Fuller film about a forger who tried to "steal" an entire U.S. territory: The Baron of Arizona (1950).


I'll probably pair it with a reading on Cecil Rhodes and/or other famous landgrabbers, along with a conversation about land redistribution in postcolonial nations.

In conclusion ...

Sabarmati (1969)
If a student's mental map is neo-colonial (favoring the Western world in all matters of spatial choice, definition, and agency), then in order to decolonize the classroom, the teacher needs to shift the balance of power in the imagined space first by:

1. Encouraging creativity and curiosity when envisioning the possibilities and limits of human use of the landscape (even if it means temporarily letting students slip into easy colonial roles)

2. Fostering empathy for people who don't fit well inside those limits

3. Giving students a chance to spend an hour or two rooting for people who challenge those arbitrary boundaries or their own comfortable categories

Pedagogically, it's all to easy to stop here ... having hopefully encouraged the growth of empathy and awareness, if nothing else. But mental maps are also drawn from a specific lookout point--from the ground we psychologically stand upon. And that choice of ground is often suspect. As Prof. Harry Goruba (University of Cape Town) points out:
Yes, the view of Cape Town from here is as stunning as it is panoramic — just as the tourist brochure tells you. What arrests you here though is not really this view but the vision it encapsulates: the vision of an era when the world was out there for the taking, when Africa was envisioned as a vast landscape, lying supine at your feet, waiting for the lights of civilisation and commerce to shine over it. It is this panoptic vision of a world under the gaze and surveillance of an imperial man that hits you in the guts: this, in essence, is the modernist dream of encyclopaedic knowledge and control over native subjects. This is one way of thinking Africa from the Cape: the modernist, imperialist version that Cecil John Rhodes embodied and envisioned. It is a vision that represses other peoples, other histories, other knowledges; rather than a dialogic engagement, it privileges a mono-centric, colonising view of the world. [Excerpt from: How not to think of Africa from the Cape, 2011]
So, I'm adopting a fourth goal, elusive though it may be to attain. 

4. Helping students develop the mindset of a "borderlander", a concept inspired by the life of Czeslaw Milosz and developed by Krzysztof Czyzewski. Milosz was a Lithuanian-Polish poet (and one of my favorites), author of the anti-totalitarian work "The Captive Mind", and also Nobel Laureate. He hailed from a region of Lithuania that changed national "hands" many times through his lifetime.
Behind my thoughts is the practice of the borderland. Can one “practice” the borderland? If we understand by this term a certain territory, it would be more appropriate to speak of “cultivating” or “exploring” the borderland. But I am speaking here about a territory that is not necessarily situated in a specific place (for example, a state borderline); rather, I am referring to an area crisscrossed by internal borders, where the inhabitants speak different languages, pray in different temples, or have different national identities. In multicultural areas like the territories of the former Jagiellonian Commonwealth, the word “borderland” described not only a place but also a certain ethos or tradition.The way those notions used to be perceived is reflected in the very term “borderlander,” which refers to a person with tangled family roots who is characterized by tolerance, empathy, critical patriotism, a resistance to ethnic phobias, fluency in many languages, and curiosity about otherness. A borderlander loves his or her small homeland but is open to the outside world. [Emphasis mine] (Source: Line of Return: Practicing “The Borderland” In Dialogue With Czeslaw Milosz. By Krzysztof Czyzewski; Michigan Quarterly Review, 2007.)
It may not be a radically decolonized perspective, but it's a start. 

Now it's your turn! What (semi-accessible) movies would you recommend to expand my resource cabinet, and what do you think are the most important neo-colonial assumptions that affect our mental maps?

Monday, April 11, 2016

Decolonizing my social studies classroom (one film at a time)

In my world geography course, my students know that I have one golden rule: don't bore me, and I'll try my darndest not to bore you. Using current events alone, it's relatively easy to find a hundred bits of interesting information about other places and spaces and repackage it all in sensationalist terms. Obviously, everyone "loves" a crisis (that isn't happening to them). If you can (at worst) get students to learn a little bit about another place while talking about its problems, or (at best) help them learn to treat each new country as a separate entity with a complex narrative ... that's probably more than they'll glean from their regular diet of news headlines on Facebook trending.

But teaching history is a bit trickier.

Satirical Stereotype Map of the World (source)
First, at the secondary level, there's this inconvenient and unfortunate reality that by the end of the year, most classes never get much past the unit on WWII. Obviously, several important things have happened since then;  a lot more than can be compressed in a rushed four week treatment of American military escapades or the U.S. civil rights movement at the end of term. But, more importantly, when the lens is moved slightly outward from the center of North America, the same period of history is suddenly revealed to be an era of rapid globalization and decolonization, of an increasingly industrializing and democratizing global south, of countless multipolar tectonic shifts that cannot be tamed or explained by the stubby historical measuring stick of the Cold War. Ironically, this temporally cramped, myopic focus on robust American political and cultural activities during the same period paints a picture that is in itself protectionist, de-globalizing, and re-colonizing. So, right, exactly the opposite of the emerging global reality. And worst of all ... it's boring.

How can one expect American students to be interested in a world that is defined only in relationship to perceived U.S. wins or losses? Yes, at first glance, this may *seem* the best way to make a foreign culture relevant to a person firmly planted in their home culture, but this is really the pedagogical equivalent of a person feigning public interest in a romantic partner who apparently has no other life outside the romance. Sure, the chemistry might be there, the power dynamics might be exciting, but what are you going to talk about afterward? The weather?

Literally the first result when you search the
year 1963 on Google Images (source)
Furthermore, learning about JFK's assassination for the umpteenth time may be useful in civics class, but it's the height of folly to assume that (A) students will still care at that point of mindless repetition, and (B) that this one, single, event in American history is more important to talk about than other events happening the same year everywhere else.

For example, three far-reaching events that also occurred in 1963:  

*Josip Broz Tito named President for Life in Yugoslavia

*Police raids in South Africa capture numerous African National Congress leaders, including Nelson Mandela

*The first Bond film, "Dr. No" is released in the U.S.

But, why should students be interested in these events any more than the death of a president they never knew?

For some, it's enough to draw the cause and effect connections across the temporal landscape:

1. Tito remained in a sort of benevolent dictatorial power until his death in 1980. His demise is generally considered the beginning of the process of Balkan fragmentation and the rise of ethnic nationalism that generated the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

Source:
2. Mandela remained imprisoned for the next 27 years, the ANC went further underground (and out of SA entirely), and eventually emerged as the primary negotiating partner in the development of the new post-Apartheid constitution in 1993. Of course, though it's maintained its majority representation in the South African parliament, and remains for many the party of Black liberation and Mandela, the ANC has been constantly beset by corruption and legal charges against its most prominent representatives in the last 15 years--most recently--with the accusations of state capture and the constitutional court ruling against the current president, Jacob Zuma.

3. 26 Bond films have been released to date, and could there really be another film series that better reflects the the new retro-European ideal of neocolonial power? Certainly, one couldn't find another franchise that beats Bond in illustrating the mythologization of Western intelligence services in the Information Age.
Source:

But for the other 9 out of 10 students, these correlations will mean nothing at first. A long collapsed Yugoslavia and a genocide that happened in a mythical time (today's high school students were born after 1995) means nothing to them.

What *might* mean something to them is that they've heard and hummed the James Bond theme their entire life, and maybe they like the movies. Or maybe they DON'T "get" the movies, but are kind of curious about the phenomenon itself.

Entertainment is personally relevant. Entertainment entertains. 

Or, to give another example, the first image above is from Half of a Yellow Sun (Nigeria, 2013). Significance to world literature or film aside, there's nothing like some drunk postcolonial sociology to make a film worth seeing. If you're a sociology nerd. For most non-Nigerians, the heart-rending personal stories within the story are what might make it worth giving up a Friday night at a Marvel film ... not the social commentary. BUT, the social commentary and unique cultural points of view are still there to be absorbed, nonetheless.

So, instead of asking my students to read a textbook and take history tests chock full of dates they will forget tomorrow, I decided to design a curriculum that would take students through the years of 1945 to 2016 movie by movie, one pop culture moment after another, with political scandals and propaganda in scores, and without confining ourselves to the casually self-centered historical comfort zone of American life.

It's still a work in progress, but it's been quite an interesting two years of teaching this course ... to say the least. I've found a lot of things that work, and a lot of things that don't, and over the next few months, I'm going to write about it; focusing on the pop-culture items, documentaries, and discussions from around the world that I've employed to try to make the scary places outside our American borders (A) personal, and (B) interesting to my world history students.

I hope you enjoy!

Note: I am a tutor who teaches middle school and high school classes at a small academy in the Twin Cities, MN, that provides non-traditional students with a part-time, private-school-esque experience. Thus, I have a bit more room to experiment and to develop curriculum than the average public school professional.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Songs of Sensuality

After about a month of the cold from hell, I thought I might as well jumpstart my blogging habit again with a bit of scandal. Well, it's at least scandal by degrees. Given the limitations set by censors and tradition, Indian song sequences have to work overtime on the metaphor front, and I'm not complaining. After all, who really needs explicit content when you can have the charm of the unseen ... the imagined ... and the forbidden? Inspired by Conversations Over Chai's great post on the same topic, here's my own list of classic Hindi and Bengali songs that explore sensuality, physical affection, and longing.

1. Udhar Tum Haseen Ho (Mr. and Mrs. '55, 1955)


This song marks the point in the film where Madhubala's character finally falls for her soon-to-be-divorced "husband" (Guru Dutt). I don't think Madhubala was ever more alluring than in this scene, in a dark, romantically cut skirt and upturned face, gliding along a balcony under the moon and heavy breeze. And Guru Dutt, casually walking in his rolled-up sleeves out from the shadows of the garden ... Well, it all screams "Gothic romance." (I suppose the de facto abduction supports this reading as well, but don't bother me with the facts.) Yet the overall effect is not of power struggles or helpless heroines or personal manipulation. It's just a hypnotic suspension of time and space and reason, the coming together of two souls who can finally see each other clearly in the moonlight.

2. Jodi Bhabo (Chaowa Paowa, 1959, w. English subs)


Possibly the most beautiful Bengali song I've ever heard, it plays a crucial role during this retelling of It Happened One Night. As you probably know, the haughty heiress has to face her own prejudices and her attraction to the working class reporter eventually, and in this version, it is the reporter's ability to shed his middle-class vulgarity and sing (what ho, a working man poet?!) a socially critical piece of poetry that does the trick. Unlike in Chori Chori's version of the tale (which papers over the classism), the heiress's painful shift from pride to shame to a sort of desperate attraction is documented in Suchitra Sen's face during this song. It's a beautiful knife to the heart.

3. Jhakhon Bhanglo Milan o Mela (Barnali, 1963 w. English subs)


Sharmila Tagore and Soumitro Chatterjee star as misfits thrown together for the day. She's a poor student, he's the listless heir of a rich family. He tries to delay her from the realization that her fiancee is currently getting married to someone else (i.e. someone richer) at his uncle's home, while she works through different stages of grief and anger and abandonment. Eventually, the two head to the harbor in Kolkata, and charter a small boat. She sings heartbreaking rabindra sangeet, and he tries to set his growing interest in her aside to let her mourn.

4. Song from Surjasikha (1963 w, English subs)


This song makes me laugh if I think about it too much. Uttam Kumar and Supriya Devi are a doctor and nurse, respectively, in a sexless marriage of convenience. Well, convenient for him, at least, as it serves the doctor's ascetic-inspired values of single-minded community service and that other value of yeah, let's have a clean house with a supper on the table. Nurse is way ahead of him, and has to play her cards right to turn her marriage around. In this song, Uttam spends the majority of the shots staring at Supriya with the most comical adolescent look on his face, like, "Hai Ram, you're a girl." Shabash, great diagnosis, doctor sahib. Notable: neither of the protagonists sings the song (it's on the radio), but rather do a sort of complicated dance of avoiding and staring and porch-traversing as they contemplate the straightforward message, "You're my beloved companion."

5. Haseena Dilruba (Roop Tera Mastana, 1972)


You really have to be on board with the Jeetendra factor to like this one, but hey, between 1969-73, no problem for me. And Mumtaz is stunning here; glowing and playful and masterfully coordinated with the decor. The song runs the gamut of funny (maybe unintentionally), sexy, and that peculiar 1970s idea of glamour ... you know, chiffon curtains everywhere, shaggy round floor rugs, fancy dressing gowns. It's notable for being a rare example of a positive female character getting married and consummating said marriage under false pretenses without any display of guilt, and the rather un-subtle climax of the scene, where the hero dives for the heroine's choli hooks with much determination. Good luck my friend ...

6. Aaj Rapat Jaye To (Namak Halal, 1982)


This script was really just an excuse to accommodate fabulous songs, and Aaj Rapat could fight Parveen Babi's golden death stage for the sexiest of the lot. The magic is helped along by brilliant choreography and controlled flooding, but you can't manufacture chemistry. Smita Patil often seems unapproachable to me in other films, but she's certainly obliging here, and I think gives Zeenat Aman a run for her usual title: Most Believable Enjoyment of Wet Sari. (I mean, it can't be that great, you guys.)

7. Kate Nahin Kat Te (Mr. India, 1987)


Not sure how I feel about Anil Kapoor starring in a song of sensuality, but lez be honest, Sridevi is almost a couple all to herself in this piece. By the end, she's so worked up she doesn't need much of anyone for a good time. Notable: Let's acknowledge the sheer genius in shooting an intimate scene where the naughtiness is definitely happening right before everyone's eyes, yet is still completely inaccessible to the censors.

Note on my choices: For the most part, I tried to pick sequences that were absent from other people's "sexiest thing evah" lists. Everyone has beaten the Anamika, Fakira, Kabhi Kabhie, Sharmilee, and Blackmail horses to death (which explains the dearth of 70s films on the list), so those were out. The songs above all involve potential couples, which removed songs of solo longing; eliminated the odd genre of domestic voyeurism songs, such as this one from Abhinetri, or this one from Manoranjan (which make me uncomfortable anyway, as my American horror film upbringing always tells me that someone is about to be murdered at the end of these songs); and also disqualified vamp seductions and item songs. I realize now that most of my picks either fall into the "unintentionally funny" or "finally emerges from long-held prejudice" categories, but that seems quite like life, so I won't mess with a good thing.

Let me know what funny or socially conscious sensual songs you would have picked in the comments!

Monday, August 24, 2015

An Indictment *Ahem* Review: Sohni Mahiwal (1984)

This is another one of those semi-rare Indo-Soviet co-productions, and one I'd never heard of before. On the surface, it shares some features that lend Ali Baba Aur 40 Chor so much camp charm ...

1. It's an interpretation of a beloved folktale (one of the four great romantic tragedies of the Punjab). 



2. It stars a Deol (Sunny) as a hero and a Zeenat (in her post-Insaaf Ka Tarazu avenging woman avatar) as an outlaw.



3. It highlights some "exotic" Uzbek locations, design, costumes, and architecture.




4. It's got an A+ KNIFE DANCE, "Chand Ruka Hai." (Has anyone made a Bollywood master list of these? Hema has quite a few to her name, including 40 Chor's but c. the 80s, I prefer Zeenat's, as she channels dominatrix over domestic goddess.)



5. Horse stunts and Central Asian sporting traditions that, sorry yaar, Feroz Khan got his hands on first (there must have been some Dharmatma fans in the house).



6. A very little bit of visual effects (OK it's no open-sesame disco cave or creepy-wali jinn, just an actress in faux clay with some fancy editing). 




















7. Hero's best bro is strikingly, not Danny Denzongpa. He should be. But he isn't. wait, you say Danny isn't in Ali Bab Aur 40 Chor either? Um, he should be. (How is it possible that there are two '80s Bollywood films calling for vaguely "Central Asian" features without him?)



8. An epic love story! To be clear, as the star-crossed, nadi ke paas lovers, Sohni (Poonam Dhillon) and Mahiwal (Sunny Deol) together are the unfortunate result of producers thinking that A pretty thing + B pretty thing = onscreen chemistry. Luckily, dosti + bromance try to make up the difference.

WE actually do have chemistry but this wouldn't get past the censor board



What this film fails to deliver in romance, it makes up for in attempted social commentary. Yes, this is one of those rare films to portray, if only via subtext, the exploitation of pottery.

Meri jaan, I'm totally gonna haunt you a la "Ghost" if you mess this pot up


Early in the film, Izzat Beg/Mahiwal's uncle brings back a vessel imbued with magic powers. It is in this pitcher that the hero first gets a glimpse of his beloved. Disturbingly, this pot seems to have been pressed into a life as a migrant worker. If 2015 taught us anything, it's that such situations are but a FIFA scandal away from being exposed as human trafficking.


Religious figures, even the storyteller himself (a fabulous Shammi Kapoor, perhaps as poet and author Hashim? It's unclear to me), are just as culpable in this non-consensual gray market.



















Sohni often uses earthenware to keep men at a distance, seemingly oblivious to the pots' needs.

This pot is as unadorned as you my love only it's actually useful

Yes, she does steal an intimate moment alone with a chalice, but this mostly just reveals her elitist bias toward metalwork.
















Don't even get me started on the "reckless endangerment" charges that could be leveled at these folks.

If you love something, set it free









The story of Sohni Mahiwal may traditionally be the tale of a potter's daughter and her foreign lover, their subsequent violent separation by family and villagers, her forced marriage and continued rendezvous with banished aashiq, and their untimely death in the river after their meeting pot (I kid you not, it keeps them afloat when they cross the river) sinks. But looking for the new twist on an old story, the three directors (!) of this film dare to ask ... what happens to nice normal vessels-next-door when they are taken far from home and thrust into greatness? 

Sadly, pots were definitely harmed in the making of this movie




















Aww, well, y'all tried at least.

In conclusion ... 

Sohni Mahiwal is undeniably pretty, but it doesn't hold up under the actors' lackluster performances, the repetitive soundtrack, or the legacy of previous Indo-Soviet collaborations. So yeah, you should learn from my mistake and skip this one. Unless you want to press the fast forward button and play "spot-the-lady dacoit." It's really too bad when the most entertaining 10 minutes of a feature is a secondary character's violent flashback.



This film does make me want to see Abdullah (1980), if only to get more ZPH (Zeenat Per Hour) demonstrations in desert terrain. And, praise be, Danny actually IS in Abdullah. As it should be. I suppose it would also be a shame if this film defined the classic for me FOREVER ... so I should probably seek out a more successful telling.

Your turn ...

Did you grow up with a version (print or film or TV) of this story that you loved? (It certainly hasn't been as popular with filmmakers as Heer-Ranjha.) If you know of one, do tell, as I hear Pran and Tanuja are also seeking a better version in which they can star together c. 1968.


If you're not Punjabi, is this story on your radar? What's more, is Poonam Dhillon even on your radar? I'd be curious to hear what y'all think.

Note: If you are annoyed by the gratuitous label in the corner of the screen caps (it was the best print on YouTube, so what can one do?), my tone of jest, or any great and wonderful plot twists or dialogue bits that I missed because of a lack of subtitles, my apologies. 

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Catching Up: World Lit Edition

If winter weather makes me want to curl up in front of the silver screen, summer weather often drives me outdoors with a book. So, instead of the usual film-catch up session, let’s talk books.

Ismat Chughtai. Worth it if you read Tahira Naqvi’s translations. But I suggest getting a collection with a glossary at the least, and some explanatory intros to each story at best ... because the context of her stories may be a mystery to you, and her casts of twice and thrice related characters might prove impossible to keep straight. Still, if you pay attention (or understand the world of the zenana or the customs of the Muslim community better than I do), it’s easy to appreciate the broader social commentary and Chughtai’s dry sense of humor.

Rabindranath Tagore. I’d read a few of his short stories before, including the ubiquitous Postmaster. But more recently I read The Home and the World. Personally, I’m a sucker for stories about revolutionary movements and especially personal disillusionment among the revolutionaries themselves, (plus I loved the film), so this pick was a no-brainer. As a whole, The Home and the World reads like a psycho-philosophical thriller (if there is such a genre), where almost all the action of note takes place in the three protagonists' increasingly urgent self-analysis and verbose interactions with one another; in their manipulations and calculations and (eventual) self-immolation in their own conflicting ideals.

Sigrid Undset. One of only thirteen women to win the Nobel prize for literature (ummmm?), Sigrid was awarded for her published work on medieval Norway and Sweden. So far, I’ve only read the first installment of her most popular work, Kristin Lavrandsdatter. Happily, Undset doesn’t fetishize the past, as so many historical fiction writers do as a matter of course. And neither does she make the medieval era (normally my idea of hell on earth) seem unbearable. Also, the characters are stuck in another time, and never venture out of the mindsets of a pre-modern era. In Undset's simple presentations of daily details, the main character emerges as an individual wracked with sexual and religious guilt, but very much determined to snatch some happiness out of her life in spite of it. As my friend said, “This book is so very ... Catholic.” It really is, although, it might appeal to anyone brought up in a culture steeped in both the lows of religious shame and the heights of religious mystical experience.

Winifred Holtby. Often described as well-kept secret, Holtby was a 1920s and '30s social reformer and writer in England, and great friends with the better-known Vita Sackville-West (though seemingly not one of her lovers). Holtby’s defining work, South Riding, was also her last, as she died in her mid-thirties. South Riding is an ambitiously broad view of a fictional district in Yorkshire ... with a cast of characters spanning a wide breadth of social stations and political views and professions. Sarah Burton, the new headmistress of the local girls' school, embodies the one viewpoint (of many) that the modern reader will probably find relatable. But unfortunately, the novel spends at least two-thirds of its time with other characters’ perspectives. As sociological literature, it’s fascinating; but it’s far too politically conscious to be psychologically authentic. I’m glad I read it, and I think it will stick with me, but I can’t count it among my favorites.

Laura Esquivel. It’s been years since I spent any significant time trying to learn about Chicana or Hispanic culture (I admit that this makes me a bad American). This time, my book club forced me to temporarily shift my gaze from South Asia to south of the border. Like Water for Chocolate is one of those books that I previously had classed with Marquez and Rushdie’s work ... thinking it was going to be *ahem* self-important and drowning in its own symbolism. As it was, Esquivel made me laugh, didn’t make me angry, and didn’t depress the hell out of me, so I count it as 1 for Esquivel, 0 for Marquez (who I never get through), and -1 for Rushdie (who alternately entertains me and enrages me). Note: The movie (poor 1992, you have not aged well) is good for a different kind of laugh.

Selma Lagerlof. Though this Swedish Nobel Prize winner’s “great” work seems to me like a massive and unnecessary portrait of an undeserving subject (Gösta Berlings Saga), her novella, The Treasure or Mr. Arne’s Money, is a perfectly ghostly little read for a stormy evening. Murder, high morals, female friendship, Scottish fiends, and a prescient hound populate this macabre Swedish tale. In the public domain, you can read it for free this October and settle in with some pumpkin chai for a quick, spooky adventure.

Qurratulain Hyder. Ok, I haven’t yet read Aag Ki Dariya in translation, which I guess is everyone’s favorite Hyder classic. But I did read Fireflies in the Mist, as the online summary promised me revolutionaries, love among partisans, violence, disillusionment ... all going off together like fireworks in pre-Partition Bengal. In fact, all those things DID happen in Fireflies, but not in the way you (really, I) want them to. Every event manifests artfully out of synchronization, as in the best tragedies and the worst poems. The translation (Hyder's) feels badly edited, over-rich with superficial detail; and yet, the regional situation and interpersonal conflicts are still gripping. Significantly, it is the most politically-centrist and self-aware of the three female protagonists (the Hindu, rather than the Christian or Muslim), that makes out all right through all the regional disasters and tricks of fate that destroy her comrades’ families. Hugging the middle and jetting off to the Caribbean when the home fire gets too hot seems to be Hyder’s prescription for success (or at least, survival).

Sunil Gangopadhyay. I recently made my book club read Aranyer Din Ratri (in translation, of course), and while I enjoyed the themes and the fable-like quality of it all, the movie is better. Heck, Sunil himself is better elsewhere. The translation *might* be a factor, but I think that the novel is more satisfying when approached as a short story. Each character is comically pitiable (if not quite despicable) in his or her inability to get beyond his demons, his social training, his ego, his urban assumptions. In verbalizing this stark truth, the book tends to use situations rather than motivations. Unlike The Youth, you won't find much narration here to take you into any of the characters' inner worlds (not that you'd want to get closer, you might catch something). Jokes aside, like a lot of the 1960's Bengali film youth, these four young men have more dignity than pocket money, and more pocket money than compassion. Despite their assumed good "bhadralok" breeding and education, they are loose cannons in a non-industrial setting, causing havoc in the little town and nearly getting themselves killed at several turns. Autobiographical novel or no, one can't help but assume that Sunil meant this one as a cautionary tale, asking, "Are you really above such people or such problems?" The silent refrain, "Probably not." Note: Another lesson learned, this is too Bengali-specific to be a good American book club book, despite its brevity. 

Nadine Gordimer. The only author on this list that I think I could love, this anti-apartheid activist and Nobel Prize winner started off “simply” enough with a British South-African girl’s coming of age tale, The Lying Days, published in 1953. Depicting yet another side of political revolutionary life, it turns out that Helen, the sheltered and colonial-mine-raised protagonist, is not so much tripped up by regional violence or injustice or the new Nationalist government, but by the militantly bohemian culture of her chosen social set. When she eventually rejects the impotent progressiveness of her fashionable Joburg circle, Gordimer finally leaves Helen (and us) in a place of welcome emptiness. Helen embraces her disillusionment as a new beginning, a space that can now be filled with something better (if unknown). For [a young] Gordimer, the question is not how to survive a revolution or a movement with your body intact, but with your soul still human, still the genuine article ... not to be swallowed by the politics or the people, but refined into something definite and individual and still capable of spontaneous, uncensored conversation. In this goal, one’s greatest asset proves to be a real friend, preferably one allergic to insincerity and newspeak. Gordimer’s blessing breathes through the final pages: If you must be intimate with a person or a set of ideals, may you remain yourself, for what use are you as anything else?

Sunday, July 19, 2015

False Dilemma Opinion Poll: Filmi Families

SIRF EK HI RAASTA!

Weigh in with your choice of two famous family members in the comments below! You cannot answer "Both! Ufff, dono!" because this poll is unfair. Also, my apologies if examining any of these pairs feels like that trip to the eye doctor where they flip through different lenses asking, "1 or 2, 2 or 3, 5 or 14" and you really have no opinion one way or the other (because they amount to the same thing).

1. Kishore Kumar  or ... Ashok Kumar?

My answer: Hai, what have I done? Probably Ashok Kumar because of his onscreen staying power and consistently excellent performances. I can't or won't count the playback brilliance factor because that's NOT a fair fight.

2. Supriya Pathak or ... Ratna Pathak? 

My answer: With that growly voice and sometimes-swagger, Supriya is more compelling to me at this point. But I wish I had known them both in the 80s c. Idhar Udhar.

3. Vinod Khanna or ... Akshaye Khanna?

My answer: Duh. VK ... I am thus-far allergic to his sons' performances.

4. Tanuja or ... Kajol? 

My answer: I've actually seen Tanuja in more films at this point, and she's a good performer and all ... but she never really wins me over and often projects a kind of emotional strain that isn't pleasant to watch. Kajol can also be grating on screen, but I still like her in spite of it. So I suppose it's Kajol.

5. Vijay Anand or ... Shekhar Kapur? 

My answer. Better to ask, Mr. India or Blackmail? Based on the films I've seen so far, well, Shekhar wins by a one point lead (one can't forget Masoom, even if those Elizabeth movies were dull as paint and I haven't been able to stomach Bandit Queen in full). But if I see a few more early Vijay films I might feel differently.

6. Salim Khan or ... Salman Khan?

My answer: Salim of Salim-Javed over Salman bhaiya any day. [I will probably make a rare trip to see a Hindi film in the theatre for Bajrangi Bhaijaan, however.]

7. Salim Khan or ... Helen? 

My answer: [crosses self] Helen-ji, please forgive the question, we know not what we do.

8. Dharmendra or ... Hema Malini?

My answer: Aren't they one person now? Like some superimposed super-being? No? Then, hmm, Dharmendra by a very narrow margin (that should by rights not be able to accommodate a Deol thigh).

9. Sonakshi Sinha or ... Shatrughan Sinha?

My answer: I liked Sonakshi in Lootera (before I promptly forgot about the film), but I'm extremely fond of ol' Shotgun, not least because I'm amused that whenever I show my family a movie with him, my mother inevitably goes "Who's that?" and starts rooting for his nonsense rather than the hero's.

10. Sharmila Tagore ... or Saif Ali Khan? 

My answer: Saif Ali who? Where are my Sharmila movies? I need them to remain in my sight at all times and I'm concerned that I do not yet own a copy of Nayak (despite an attempt to purchase and receiving an Anil Kapoor movie for my pains)... especially given the fickleness of YouTube and the general slowness of Criterion to release a remastered edition along with all the other popular 60s Ray films.

And a bonus question: 

11. Yash Chopra or ... B.R. Chopra? 

My answer: Can I bend my own rule and say YC in the 70s and BRC in the 80s? No? Well, then I choose Ittefaq (it is my blog header after all) and thereby choose both.

There's no end to the rishta and khandaans (or even the Khans) of Bollywood, so I'll cap this here.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Anatomy of a Debate: Jab Jab Phool Khile (1965)

After a recent re-watch of Jab Jab Phool Khile and several conversations about both its merits and flaws, I am again reminded that as a lover of JJPK in the Bolly-blogosphere, I am very much in the minority. For a series of reasons, this film tends to generate extreme reactions of both affection and disgust from modern viewers.

In my experience, people tend to sum up their opinion of Jab Jab Phool Khile in one of the following ways.

I imagine Yeh Samaa was a revelation for certain impressionable youths
1. "What a 'sweet' film, I grew up seeing those songs on Doordarshan. Mohammed Rafi was certainly in best form, then. And did you know that Shashi Kapoor studied and ate with shikara-wallahs to prepare for this role?"

Asking someone of this stripe to criticize JJPK would be like asking me to pass judgment on the home-sweet-home-is-best (but just for the woman) motifs in The Wizard of Oz (which is a film that appears in my earliest memories from age two, and continued to be my childhood obsession for long after). Even for those who have no special history with JJPK, this is an essentially non-critical, nostalgic, song-oriented position which holds that pretty + old = good.

ideallaedi here's the Lolita scene!
2. "The film represents a reactionary swing towards imagined rural values, and imposes them on the foreign-returned, educated, upper-class, city-bred female." 

For most of those who read the film this way, the (negative) critique flows naturally from the analysis itself. Progress is good, but Nanda is portrayed is bad, therefore Nanda is punished for her progressiveness, and even gives it up for the sake of the unreasonable reactionaries and cruel boyfriend! So much bakwaas. Dispose and delete. In contrast, though, I suppose there are also plenty of folks out there who, having read the film this way, would celebrate its championship of a simpler, traditional, and maybe already extinct way of life. [Also, if you happen to lean Marxist, you're certainly not going get caught rooting for a corporate zamindars' plan to control his daughter's marriage and thereby keep the daulat in the family and the bloodline pure.]

Note: I'm fairly certain that the above "feminist" critique represents the opinions of 90% of the Bolly-blogosphere.

3. "As in the later Dil Se, the romantic couple of Jab Jab Phool Khile embodies the ongoing ishq-nafrat relationship between India and Kashmir." 

Poetry, even poetic catharsis can be found here, if one is looking for it. And for the politically minded romantic, it must be something indeed to watch the final scene ... as the privileged Indian ladki almost kills herself trying to concede to the Kashmiri ladka's demands and win him back. Also, it's worth asking whether or not this is accidentally-on-purpose a Muslim/Hindu love story, on top of everything else.

4. "I liked it but I can't defend it. Still, you should see it, it's a classic." 

Fair enough.

5."Cute film. Liked the outfits. And the lake. The songs were catchy." 

O Enviable Being who can enjoy a film without feeling the need to reflect on every detail, teach me your ways.

***

But who in their right mind is going to root for this family's status quo?
In a richly layered film like Jab Jab Phool Khile, there's a little something for anyone (provided they take classic films seriously to begin with) to love or hate.

I can understand and respect most of the above views ... even those who long for "homegrown" values and simpler times have my sympathy. I have close family members who operate on a similar wavelength, people who are distressed by big cities and pollution and noise and promiscuity. What am I to say to them? No, you should enjoy that world's violence and artifice? You should jump on that train so you won't get left behind? Even if the destination repulses you? Someone in my family said, just last week, "I need to be living out in the country, you know. When I'm in big groups or at parties, I get overstimulated. I just see people's problems. There's too much noise."

The mythical deserted waterfront
As someone who grew up in the country, I understand this, even as I personally feel torn between the memory of the rolling hills of my childhood home, and the potential for new experiences and knowledge and culture that a city life brings. But I also know that peaceful pastoral days can eat up your life before you know it, never bringing a harvest ... and that fresh air is often intellectually stagnant.

As someone who grew up in a very conservative milieu, I also want to fight the traditionalist machine that only lives to reproduce exact copies of itself. So, in theory, I could rage at JJPK's dismantling of The Modern Woman's new-found independence. Still, I find myself dragging my feet, in this case.

While I don't pretend to know anything substantial about what it is to be Kashmiri or to live or travel in Kashmir, certain stories set in the region awaken for me the intangible essence of traveling from Mostar to Sarajevo and back to Zagreb. But if I can't describe the power of those more concrete travel experiences, I certainly can't describe the more abstract draw to a place I haven't yet been. My interest also might say more about connecting to an outsider's (Bollywood's) narration of a story that is not really its story to tell in the first place. [There are some powerful stories to be had here though, propaganda, one-sided-truths, romanticization or no.]

To those who want to dismiss this film based on the ideals of modern identity politics or feminist concerns, I can only say, "This is not your identity at stake here, this is a story. It's malleable. It can mean more than you think it means. Perhaps the central woman isn't a woman, but India. Or perhaps she's not India, but rather Modernity. Or could it also have less meaning than you ascribe to it? Perhaps the woman is just a girl who found something worthwhile outside her (grasping and villainous, let us remember) family and community ... and decided to make a sacrifice to keep it. If that's her personal choice, shouldn't one accept it based on those same political ideals of self-determination? Also, does the film require you to agree with her choice? You are just as free to see it as a cautionary tale."

And I could further talk about the value of subtext and performance over dialogue, and the Hindi dialogues vs. the English subtitles. I could argue that the film is more powerful in deed than in word, that Nanda and Shashi's performances are more in reactions than actions, and the film is *perhaps* less "offensive" in its original language. Even so, I could further argue that this is another time and place ... and shouldn't be weighed against our own. (As Filmigeek has done here, in a review I much appreciate).

Still, for me, most of these concerns were not much in my mind during my first experience with Jab Jab Phool Khile. First of all, it is a GOOD film, and as such, sent me far away from my own thoughts ... too far away to immediately judge or compare my opinions to that of others. I was more concerned with my own experience, frankly. To me, JJPK expressed the longing one can feel for someone or something or someplace that is not of one's own world. One fated day, the "pardesi" or foreign thing appears, captures the "desi" heart, and then leaves ... leaves you with no way to ever be whole again. Some part of you will always be with that far away place or person. It follows, then, that you will also never be completely home again. And yet, there is no way to fully inhabit that other, foreign life, either. Yes, Rita and Raja experiment with (mostly in Raja's case) each others' way of speech and dress. But ultimately, Raja will always be most comfortable in his phiran and shawl, and Rita her mod apparel. (Though I would pick Raja's any day over those satin gowns and skin-tight churidar-kameez.)

Like the protagonist of my earliest film obsession (The Wizard of Oz and its sequal), the lovers of JJPK have had a transformative experience, and now will forever be straddling two worlds. Raja will never be home without Rita, and Rita will never be whole without Raja. A neat filmi ending couldn't really resolve this tension, nor could we believe it if it tried. At least this film dares to give that struggle a voice.


"Jiska naam mohabbat hai voh, kab rukatee hain divaaron se."