|Hannah Arendt (German television interview, 1964)|
This topic reminds me that I have yet to see English Vinglish and some self-appointed internet ref is surely going to call me on that soon. In defense of my membership to Sridevi-Fandom, I DID just see one of Sridevi's big Tamil hits of the early 1980s, Moondram Pirai. The synopsis *spoilers*, if not the name, may ring a bell: Woman (Sridevi) gets head injury and regresses to childhood state, girl-woman is kidnapped and sold to brothel, man Cheenu (Kamal Hassan) finds girl, falls in repressed love with woman inside girl, helps girl recover,
I can't say exactly why I got the itch to watch this particular version of the tale. If you're not South Indian, you probably know this story as mega-Hindi-hit Sadma. But Moondram Pirai came first, and as Sridevi apparently said, the Hindi remake (Sadma) never could match [for her] the improvisational magic of the original.
Personally, I love that this film lends itself to afterthought, mostly because one is not initially sure of what it's attempting to say. For example, there's a pretty clear presentation of various female stereotypes: the girl and the vamp, the asexual saint and the hypersexual whore. But since the hero chooses ... or perhaps is compelled by circumstance... to put aside his assumptions, we also take a step back and wonder if these women are worth a different level of consideration.
here about it, and ultimately, I have to ask:
Is it is possible, dear postmodern, postcolonial writers, that in writing about everything—in breaking the laws of space and time and weaving a six dimensional verbal tapestry—you are really writing about nothing? That you have perhaps spent a million hours and painstakingly manipulated a thousand puppets to tell a six hundred page riddle about absurdity and identity? Unfortunately, you forgot to make us feel something. So anyone looking for an answer to your riddle is left with nothing of consequence, and those who don’t understand the question will care little that you asked it.
I'm not the only one, thought it sometimes feels that way, who dares to criticize Rushdie. [Not that anyone cares what I think, but it's odd how he seems nearly universally adored by the reigning Western critics.] James Woods, in a much circulated article for New Republic, compares postmodern novelists--especially "faux-dickensians," and "hysterical realists," and mostly Sir Salman Rushdie and Zadie Smith. He compares tendencies towards circularity, an oversupply of imagination over humanity, and a tendency towards manipulating protagonists into implausible choices for the sake of superimposing a point:
"Irie Jones is pregnant, and for a while we inhabit her mind, and her drifting thoughts. She looks from Millat to Magid, and cannot decide which twin is the father of her child. But she stops worrying, because Smith breaks in, excitedly, to tell us that 'Irie's child can never be mapped exactly nor spoken of with any certainty. Some secrets are permanent. In a vision, Irie has seen a time, a time not far from now, when roots won't matter any more because they can't because they mustn't because they're too long and they're too tortuous and they're just buried too damn deep. She looks forward to it.' Yet it is Smith who made Irie, most improbably, have sex with both brothers, and it is Smith who decided that Irie, most improbably, has stopped caring who is the father. It is quite clear that a general message about the need to escape roots is more important than Irie’s reality, what she might actually think, her consciousness. A character has been sacrificed for what Smith called, in that interview, 'ideas and themes that I can tie together—problem-solving from other places and worlds.' This is problem-solving, all right. But at what cost?" (Woods, James. New Republic: 24 July, 2000.)
|If only all of Rushdie was Haroun.|
Ok, Ok, it's easy to be a critic, and I am well aware that I have little patience for flaws in modern novels. Narrative writing (in English) has a terrible power over me ... it's both my temptation and my kryptonite. I have yet to meet another person who feels this way, but even a vaguely mediocre book will ruin my day or week. Not because of the content, but because the sentences Just. Lacked. Something. Whether that's because my semantic and rhythm memory is the bully on the playground, or whether I'm just a snob, time will tell. Sentences stick in my brain, if not whole passages, and a good or bad phrase sticking around after hours can change my entire mental outlook. Perhaps that's why I choose to watch films over reading for leisure. Books are dangerous. Not in a Fahrenheit 451 society way, but in a Girl Interrupted way.
Still, I stick to my guns on this Rushdie thing. His books are often needlessly bloated* and display a nauseating tendency to re-converge on themselves, until you are sucked into his whirlwind of circular ideas, far from solid ground. Some people might find meaning in being carried away by a force of nature, but as far as I can tell, there's nothing in the exact middle of a cyclone, just air.
|Source: Byliner on Pinterest|
But in trying to be about everything, Rushdie obscures that great "Something" that, if we are honest, we really would prefer to read about. He doesn't reach for an impossible ideal, he bends down and tramples on small "goods," until all that is left is petty "bads." And don't even get me started on the constant and interminable phallic symbols.
I'm curious to see if the film is better than the book. I suspect that it has to be. Anything to get away from effing Saleem Sinai's voice.
Perhaps it is hard to make us believe in myths, we who have cut them out of our lives to make room for New York Times bestsellers and airport novels. The beauty of a myth is that it brings god or the gods a little closer to earth. The beauty of literature is that it pushes men toward heaven. As far as I can tell, stories that elevate trivialities to the level of legend don't serve either purpose. Realism (even magical realism) in art inhabits this middle ground ... a place I have little use for in film or literature. The believable is not always worth believing IN, you know?
A modern approach to myth or mythic archetypes can be done. It's not easy, but insert "you know it when you see it" joke here. And sometimes (because it's film and I feel inclined to be more forgiving in visual mediums) I can just appreciate the effort. In fact, often watching films from the 80s, I sit back and say, "Hmm. That almost works, and I feel something, and therefore I'm impressed." Lower your standards, ready the mute button for those endless dishoom scenes, and get ready for some blood-soaked heroism. Maybe it's B.R. Chopra's fault, but I'm more inclined to see mythic attempts in 80's cinema than cinema of other decades. Shades of an ethic behind the violence points to a desire for the days of epic battles, blood feuds, and territorial disputes. Mahabharata much?
|Lakhan explains why the Ram Lakshman myth doesn't matter anymore. Meta-chuckle.|
I don't know the Ram Lakshman story well enough to comment on specifics, but it seems to me that Subhash Ghai unapologetically reached for the mythic in Ram Lakhan (1989). First off, there aren't expendable characters here, or many expendable scenes. The villains get just enough screen time to make their destruction inevitable. The *ahem* irritating parent dies early on, leaving Rakhee, in a strikingly aggressive role as the mother to two disinherited sons.
She is a mythic figure by definition ... apparently manipulating the heavens with the force of her emotions. She raises her sons without the usual filmi indulgence, and they actually turn out all right. Ram (Jackie Schroff) is a textbook oldest child [represent, Ram!], a policeman and an instrument of tradition and order. But he also treats the women in his life with deference; his mother with near worship, his fiancee (Dimple Kapadia) with playful respect. [Mature relationship alert?!]
Lakhan (Anil Kapoor) is sort of the opposite, but he means well, and that good intention is clear from start to finish. Unfortunately, he seems to have gotten the brunt of the childhood trauma and carries the greatest will toward violence. Actually, no. His mother might have him beat, there.
Ram Lakhan harnesses this instinct towards hatred and vengeance better than any 80's film I've seen; unless you dial back to 1982 and ring up Disco Dancer. But why? It's not THAT different on paper.
Barring choreography concerns, in any scene of "battle" or a fistfight, I mostly just want there to be something at stake. That the hero might lose something, even if he wins. It's hard to get this in Bollywood--where heroes might as well be Bruce Willis in the Die Hard films or the superhuman from Unbreakable. If they can't be seriously hurt, why should I look anywhere but at my watch? It's only a matter of time before "victory."
|And I mostly want Rakhee|
I admit readily that Disco Dancer's last fight scene is just GOOD. I don't have the right vocabulary to describe it, nor can I measure the success of Ram Lakhan's march of inexorability, the rush the audience feels when more and more pieces steadily fall into place, building a track leading towards justice. [You can't talk about this film without using a train metaphor.] Almost as if everything had been long planned by a higher power. [Good job screenwriters!]
However, both climaxes stand on the shoulders of an earlier plot point--a section of the film where the heroes (Jimmy and Lakhan) are outnumbered and seriously injured after a psychological shock. Shaken by a loss, the heroes feel they have failed, and on some level "give up." Villains move in and take advantage, dealing near fatal blows. It is only when a respected figure returns to give them back their mission, or their inner resolve, that the heroes find the will to fight.
Nothing gets the house out of their seats like a "Do you believe in fairies?" moment. The end of Ram Lakhan works because we had a moment where we (the audience) and the hero lost faith. Even real stunts by a lead actor (such as Kamal Hassan pulls off in Moondram Pirai) can't achieve the emotional effect of this relatively simple plot choice. Once again, it's a reminder to me that reaching for a myth is better than endlessly deconstructing it. You can erase familiar archetypes and social roles in your story, but we the audience only care as long as the absence of those ideals glows in our memory. With all due respect to Smith's conclusions in "White Teeth" or maybe even Rushdie's switched at birth metaphor in "Midnight's Children," origins do matter. They aren't to be dismissed irrationally (Smith) or fabricated into absurdity (Rushdie). Who your parents are (even if they are gone, even if they are your enemies), what myths you believe in, what you believe in about yourself and your loved ones matters. That's where your strength comes from. Bollywood knows this, even on its most un-watchable day.
*One is also free to say that this post is needlessly bloated and circular. I'm not stopping you.