Saturday, November 29, 2014

Fourths: Language, Moondram Pirai, Rushdie, Ram-Lakhan

                                                                                                         ONE

Hannah Arendt (German television interview, 1964)
It's been a few weeks since I've been here, mostly because a ticking clock (my classes) required me to very quickly acquire a solid understanding of the Vietnam war, Hannah Arendt and theories of power, South American and African geography, and Watergate. Also, after two weeks of in-class study, I'm THIS close to being able to read Urdu (Nastaliq)--I can read quite a few words but I still have a few character variations to get down and need a lot of practice writing. I dunno, but after a few go rounds with this sort of process, I've realized that during the initial stages of learning a writing script/alphabet I should hire someone should follow me around and make sure I don't forget basic life skills. "Don't mind the ever-present Do Not Disturb sign, barge in and make sure I'm still sleeping, drinking, bathing, etc. I really am an adult, I just forget it when I'm learning how to WRITE "BACKWARDS" IN ANOTHER LANGUAGE while simultaneously trying to teach in another language and take exams in yet another. Where I shall find the time for a beloved fourth (Bengali), you tell me." Seriously, though, trilingual immigrants are superheroes and my problems are cosmetic in comparison.

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                    TWO

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, but probably doesn't get to keep girl.

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.

"Raw" is certainly the first descriptive word that comes to mind. Many moments are powerful almost by accident ... because they seem unrehearsed, uncertain, unsafe. Even the central antagonist is nebulous. Are we held in suspense because of curiosity? Mixed feelings about Viji's impossible "love" story with Cheenu? Our worry for Viji's safety? While violent male appetites and the threat of rape lurk in the background, from the moment Cheenu finds Vjiji in the brothel, to the creepy woodcutter in the woods near his home, to the  old lecherous landlord married to a bombshell (Silk Smitha) ... all these are more symbol than substance. We know we've seen these sleezy characters before, and we also know they are unlikely to figure into the climax.

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.

[Side note: Cheenu's personal motivations are murky, but his actions toward the childlike Viji are at least superficially that of a parent or childhood friend. He immerses himself in her welfare, and although there are small upsets (mostly because Viji DOES act like a small child and can't be trusted with adult tasks), his daily routine is centered around making her feel safe ... and around making her laugh. One has to wonder what this man did as a teacher in the middle of nowhere BEFORE Viji came to stay. Don't get me wrong, on a certain level, Cheenu's actions are quite noble and unselfish. But he's also no angel. He's a bachelor teacher with no prospects, and he does attend the brothel at the beginning with his friend (perhaps out of peer pressure and boredom). And although he champions Viji's cause from there forward, there's clearly a gain for him: he finally has a companion, no questions asked.]

"Simple" Viji is actually quite complicated, both inherently (her condition), and subjectively (in the imagination of Cheenu). We feel keenly the hero's cognitive dissonance; he tries to protect her from exploitation as a de-facto child, all the while knowing full well that if she was "just" a woman, he would want more from her. The overall effect of this secondary dissonance is that it forces the viewer to examine his or her own assumptions. Not only does it make you look for similar motivations driving everyday romantic relationships--including messiah complexes, the tendency for some romantic relationships to have at least one man-child or woman-child, the tendency for some partners to try to keep their spouse in a place of ignorance and helplessness--but the film also challenges the usual boundaries between social roles. Here, once the interpersonal road map is erased, it is up to the characters to navigate according to their own conscience. Beyond the novelty factor--it's certainly gratifying to see gender reversal onscreen (the man has to clean up after the woman, for once), we probably keep watching because we need to know if such an endeavor can actually succeed.


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                                                                              THREE

Talking about improvisation and experimentation, my book club read Midnight's Children this month. Wait, correction, after our meeting today it turns out that exactly one (out of 10) read it in full. The rest of us battled with varying degrees of hatred, apathy, or confusion towards it. I am well on my way to finishing, after much struggle. Most people didn't get past the first 25 pages. No one else in the group had tried to read Rushdie before, and unfortunately they picked one of his most daunting works over the short story I recommended. [Not saying I told them so, but ok, I am.] Personally, I have few good things to say about Rushdie's adult fiction, but I quite enjoy his nonfiction essays and interviews, and his children's fiction. I've been ranting 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
He's surely a great mind, but his fiction defeats itself. Just when you think, "Yes, this fellow is about to come to his point," he expands his vision to include everything and your kitchen sink. He knows this, and yet he chooses to indulge, betting himself how much of the reader's time he can commandeer. He seeks to overstimulate and to dilute your perception with extraneous detail, all in the name of creating a grand experience, maybe even The Great Subcontinental Experience.

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.

 ***

  FOUR

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. 

3 comments:

  1. Yay!...Someone else who doesn't like 'Midnight's Children'. What an interesting post Miranda, and so wonderfully expressed. You've described it so well:

    "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... He seeks to overstimulate and to dilute your perception with extraneous detail, all in the name of creating a grand experience, maybe even The Great Subcontinental Experience."

    Rushdie novel's often make for a very dense and difficult reading. Some of the humour is appealing, but by the end of it you’re sometimes wondering whether it was really worth it. The characters in 'Midnight's Children' didn't stay with me either. It's a conscious stylistic choice on Rushdie's part, but it just all seems so erratic and convoluted. All that detail, mode of employing magical realism,"breaking the laws of space and time and weaving a six dimensional verbal tapestry" as you put it, can ultimately just make for a plodding and cumbersome novel.

    I actually feel very similarly about Gabriel Marquez's 'One Years of Solitude". Marquez is a lot easier to read than Rushdie, and his prose is a lot more fluid. In terms of aesthetics Marquez is impressive, even for those who are more ambivalent about the underlying content of his novels. But the part of your post I quoted has equal (infact, even greater) application to Marquez. The characters are often eccentric and capricious, and for some readers these very idiosyncrasies and marked traits are what render the characters interesting (I guess the genre is after all magical realism). Even so, I often find Marquez’s characters engaging at only a superficial level. I don’t know if u’ve read the novel but, e.g. all of Colonol Aureliano Buendia's enigmatic appeal, his internal ruminations, the sort of mystique that surrounds him cannot make him truly interesting or compensate for the brutal and bloody callousness he evinced as a militaryman. His ultimate realisation that he has only been fighting for pride, is accompanied by no desire to make amends. Rather, he just very willingly sinks into an extreme state of cynicism and apathy. I don’t think I’m taking the novel too literally when I say that many of the characters were positively perverse, and meant absolutely nothing to me. I think my comment repeatedly wasn't posting coz of the length, will divide it into two parts.

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  2. Infact I would say that Rushdie’s characters are more palatable than Marquez’s. His depictions of them and their actions are also tempered with humour. That ‘tendency towards manipulating protagonists into implausible choices for the sake of superimposing a point’ is perhaps most pronounced in Midnight’s Children, but it’s not that strong in several of Rushdie’s other novels. Most of Marquez’s characters (at least in 100 years of Solitude) however, are governed *solely* by their caprices; there is no other driving force, no internal struggle, no conflict; they exhibit no capacity for introspection. They operate on this completely amoral plane, and are basically just metaphors or sort of figurines placed on the author’s canvas to repeatedly drive home his central conceit. The novel is about solitude and the different forms it assumes, and conditions in which it manifest itself, but who freakin cares when most of the characters are alone through their own persistent perversity. Both of these novels I only read two or three years ago, yet I can scarcely remember a thing about either of them (that’s how limited their impact was on me). I was able to draw on examples from Marquez’s novel because I at least retain email exchanges on it, with the friend who gushingly recommended it to me.

    About origins, I can't remember Rushdie's exact position on it, and what I made of it. Broadly speaking, origins do matter, but sometimes their influence and formative role can be overstated. Sometimes the malleability of people, their susceptibility to new and diverse influences, and capacity to absorb and change can be underestimated. Perhaps that's what Rushdie took exception to.

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    Replies
    1. Silverambrosia,
      This is such a lovely comment/reply, I'm sorry it took me so long to respond. I wanted to give you a proportional response, and I ended up getting so caught up in end of semester stuff I didn't get around to it. This is still less than I wanted to say, but hopefully it addresses a few of your excellent thoughts.

      This cracked me up. "Who freakin cares when most of the characters are alone through their own persistent perversity."

      I agree with so much of what you said, even if I haven't read enough of Marquez to know the specifics, I have read enough of these global citizen-y, nihilistic, rule-breaker sorts to be able to relate. I do know that it takes a terrific miss of the mark in fiction to make me have SO much to say. That's really one of the most frustrating things, in the end, about reading Rushdie and Marquez. So much talent, so much gift of imagination, and so little faith in humanity. These writers take joy in creating hyper-complex works that never breathe--because they aren't interested in life. They're interested in complexity. It's not the same thing, in my opinion. And it seems they fail to breathe life into us, either. "I don’t think I’m taking the novel too literally when I say that many of the characters were positively perverse, and meant absolutely nothing to me."

      Also, as you said, these novels stem from a "central conceit." I love that phrase. It's not that modern writers shouldn't innovate. Kazuo Ishiguro does, and I care about the new things that peek through a format I didn't expect. And the Victorian novel is not the only thing of worth. Nor are all interwar novels fun and games to read. Henry James' work is complex and a little soulless, in my experience, for all it's heady heights of intellectual exploration. D.H. Lawrence makes me laugh. Sometimes long novels can never justify themselves to me, which is why I choose to read classic children's fiction if I'm not in the mood for headache.

      Still, I do think there's something broken in these postmodern novels or their novelists. Either that, or there's something very ancient in some of us that refuses to move forward. I'm ok with that ... mostly because I can't do anything about it ;)

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