Friday, August 26, 2016

Filmi Friday

So should Hindi movies be categorized here as 'foreign films'? How ridiculous. Still, anything not from Hollywood might be classified as such, logically. So I'll just sit on the fence for this one until I come up with a clever, alliterative category name. Filmi Friday might just have to do it, though. 

Parched: Director Leena Yadav's story of friendship and freedom set amidst the deserts of rural Gujarat was interesting. Mainly because it's a story of women, and this was a great delight in the usually testosterone-heavy world of Hindi cinema. Parched tells us about the lives of four friends. There are plenty of charming, un-self conscious vignettes of everyday life that resonated for me. (Why are so many other Indian filmmakers immune to the little things?)  And then there's the grand, over-arching theme of aching for freedom-- and doing something to obtain it, even if through a combination of circumstance and choice. The film feels glorious in its saturated colors, the abandonment felt in the company of female friends, and the ultimate bid for freedom that is an affirmation of life itself. 

Let me also take a moment here to talk about the moments of intimacy portrayed. Wait, bare breasts? In a Hindi movie, that too without the context of a slavering male performing a 'rape scene'? An actual moment of human need, told without the need for a conclusion or an apology? For this alone I am stunned. 

All in all, a quartet of memorable roles. Hitherto unknown to me were Surveen Chawla as the unapologetic showgirl Bijli and the reluctant child-bride Janaki portrayed by Lehar Khan. This kind of cinema gives me hope for more such stories coming out of that impossibly intriguing country of mine. 


Ungli: I'm a bit of a latecomer here, since this Renzil D'Silva-directed movie is actually from 2014. Still, the premise is attractive: ordinary Indian citizens rising up to set straight the rot of corruption and apathy that besets much of the country's political and bureaucratic system. 

Told with the belief that many Indians hold, "They understand only one language," the story moves quickly with four young people taking it upon themselves to pull daring, dangerous and eye-opening pranks on certain of the corrupt officials or public servants in Mumbai. They come to be known as the Ungli gang...brilliant, since 'ungli' means 'finger' in Hindi. Well-publicized by the gang themselves, the stunts or capers, for lack of a better word, have the advantage of resonating so deeply with most Indians that this alone is satisfaction for watching the film. Never mind that this 'corruption' or whatever one calls it, is being perpetuated by us, against us. We are the enemy, yet we must rise up. 

The two nascent romances seemed rather perfunctory in the larger scheme of things, though. A more skilled weaving of character arcs and backstories might have helped with this angle, failing which we didn't need the romances at all. Then Kangana Ranaut's role felt a bit underwhelming. Indeed, besides Randeep Hooda as the leader of the Ungli gang, no one really stood out for me. Sanjay Dutt is the main policeman character mercifully playing his own age here and even letting his gray hair show, a positively courageous choice, I thought. 

Overall, Ungli is interesting. If only it had gone through a few further rounds of bashing in the editing room, it might have come out a more finely-polished end product. 

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Our Last Tango

What a sad title for a thing of such beauty. This 2015 documentary details the lives of tango's most famous Argentine couple, Maria Nieves Rego and Juan Carlos Copes; their personal relationship and their contributions to the art of tango. 

Rooting around in the impossible matrix of Netflix and its too-helpful 'suggestions' last night, I stumbled across this title and pushed play immediately. I'm glad I did. 

Buenos Aires in the 1930s is beautifully captured, and the two young protagonists (now in their eighties) are re-enacted by superbly suitable young things. There is heartbreak and tragedy to come, but I did not get to the end. Twenty-five minutes in, I realized somewhat sheepishly that J would love to watch this too, so I chastely decided to re-watch the whole thing together with him.

The other thing was that I watched entirely without subtitles. The leading lady, an arresting, enigmatic 80-year-old, talks in the most delightful measured tones. As a result, I needed no subtitles. And I felt transported into another world. 

I can't wait to watch it through to its conclusion. If there is a place and time I would like to indulge me in some soul-travel, it would probably be to Buenos Aires in the 1930s, as a tango dancer. 

I can see my apartment now, it has those very tall windows and the long-dreamed of balcony. With an orange tree in a planter. 

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

To be or not to be

One among the latest bit of newsbites has been the beach incident somewhere in France: Two armed cops are asking a woman to take off bits of clothing, i.e., her 'burkini.'

This is pretty alarming. The image of a woman on the beach being made to take off pieces of clothing is disturbing enough, but there's the whole 'religious freedom' can of worms lurking underneath. I'm fully supportive of the idea of being free to practice religion according to your own interpretation, so this incident in particular does seem a bit extreme if only because of the powerful imagery. On the other hand, I'm also sensitive to certain Islamic principles being totally out of whack with the French idea of secularism, so I can see the reasoning behind this move, security being the topmost. 

There are hundreds of points to be made for either side: There are pictures of habit-clad nuns splashing happily on a beach too, to prove a point. Might not they be hiding explosives under all that fabric? 

And for the body-positivity movement, I'm not sure on what side this incident belongs. Should the body-shamers be outraged? But isn't the whole 'cover your body cover your hair' ideology an ancient form of body-shaming itself? 

It's the clash of civilizations, yet again. What a bore. I'm lucky enough to be pretty unaffected by religious strictures, so yes, I'm aware that I may sound arrogant. But I'm glad I'm an atheist.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Readings

There need to be certain additions to the English language. One, a term is needed for that slight feeling of being lost when one finishes a book and is in need of another. In fact, there should be two terms. One when the preceding book has been satisfying, and one for when the preceding book has been just average or below. 

Having just finished Michael Crichton's Travels, I'm in need of the latter term. So I turned up at my local library branch with a deathly determination. Now this branch has been honestly termed a 'small' branch, so I was prepared to not find a great trove of treasures. But I was still determined to dig through the offerings until I found something up to scratch. 

I rely mostly on my trusty reading site to provide me with reviews and I use it to gauge whether I would like a new book or not. Results have been more or less accurate, but with a slight touch of uncertainty that gives the whole endeavor a sense of adventure.

This resulting trio of picks has been rather predictable, though. An Irish village, a monster expert, a strong-minded girl fighting against circumstance? Hmmm. On top of which: Upon inspecting the bunch, J pronounced without a trace of doubt when I dithered about which to read first, "You should read the monster one first." Rather a disturbing firmness of opinion, there.

Still, monsters it is, clearly. Onward!

Books pictured:
An Irish Country Village by Patrick Taylor
The Monstrumologist by Rick Yancy
Divergent by Veronica Roth

Friday, August 19, 2016

Foreign movie Friday: Palmeras en la Nieve (Palm Trees in the Snow)

This 2015 Spanish film stars Adriana Ugarte, whom I loved in the tv series "El Tiempo Entre Costuras". Here though, she doesn't have a substantial role as the narrative catalyst Clarence de Rabaltue, but the movie itself was memorable. 

Told in a mixture of past and present, it's a story of undying but forbidden love. This in a time of colonial occupation by Spain in what is now Equatorial Guinea, in the mid-1950s. This is when a young Spanish man, Killian, arrives on the island of Bioko to work alongside his father and brother, Jacobo, on a cocoa plantation. 

Right away, we know that this Jacobo is a bit of bad news. He toys with the feelings of Julia, a family friend, and is quite a macho ass in general. Meanwhile, Killian finds himself experiencing a life-changing (and mutual) attraction to  Bisila, a young nurse in the plantation hospital.

There's quite a lot going on because all this is a flashback. Killian's niece Clarence (she's named after a volcano!) has arrived 40 years later on the island, in pursuit of the woman and child who she discovers were being paid monthly allowances by her family. The story unfolds through letters, photos, and the recollections of the now-old Bisila.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

El Cantante

Salsa music has the odd effect of bringing back memories of India.

This improbable geographical reversal has been brought about by our having taken salsa lessons for a few years in Bangalore. Run, equally improbably, by a young Cuban-American who had married an Indian, the classes were exceptional in their intensity and the dedication of our teacher. 

Once every week there would be a motley crew at his studio, eagerly awaiting the lesson in our attempts at...what? For me it stemmed from a long, long fascination with salsa. For others, it was a means to meet people. For still others, it was a way to honor the desire of a partner and thus a grim-but-enjoyable boot camp in the otherwise unthinkable art of dancing.

It somehow helped that the teacher would sometimes throw out casual insults in perfectly-accented Hindi. "Bakwaas!" he'd bark at a particularly egregious right-turn. He was militant about not turning the fans on at a high speed, despite being walloped by the pre-monsoon heat pouring in through the windows. And we loved him. The more he demanded excellence, the more we sweated. For an hour or two each week, all of us transformed into something better than we might have been during the other days of the week. For here, failure was not disaster. Failure was the reason to keep coming back into this other-world of conga, clave, inside-turns, Eddie Palmieri and Celia Cruz, and that voice saying over and over, "From the top! One, two three, five six seven..."

Now, something seems missing when salsa plays in my house every afternoon. It's an embarrassment of riches, this music. And yet, a certain dimension is lost because we left our teacher behind.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Travels

While at University in Florida, there was a sort of running joke among certain of us. If there was a party at an American house scheduled to start at 8, the fun wouldn't actually begin until 10 or 1030: that is, when the Brazilians and the Indians showed up. 

Representatives of both these great nations were quite proud to carry forward this heady image of their motherlands, as I recall. There were similar jokes about the Germans, the French, and so on. Let it not be said that any  nation was spared of its jolly stereotypes. Besides being avid party-enliveners, we Indians were known as incorrigible brains (and then there was me) and as being foodies to the hilt (besides me, of course). The food had to be spicy, predictably; there was that Chinese restaurant where the owner would shout to the kitchen as soon as we arrived "Spicy-hot-sauce-extra-bottle- Indian-table, PLEASE!"

My point in all these random recollections is that it was the first time I got to examine national identities, as it were. A good bunch of nations were represented in healthy numbers. I had friends from countries I couldn't have located precisely on the map before I met them, and the vast majority identified extremely proudly with a particular nationality. So were many of my Indian friends so deeply Indian, whereas I felt like an outsider looking in. 

Lest it be concluded that I am somehow not Indian, far from it. It's just that the older I get the more I realize that I am an outsider in most spheres. Being a bit of an oddball is never restricted by nationality. 

I have the same outside view of people of faith. I almost long to have that certainty, that unshakable sense of belonging to a church or a mosque. Or that sense of real, bone-deep pride in being from the country you are. 

My tumbleweed soul is altogether too insubstantial for all this rooted-ness. Yet today, India's independence day, I find myself thinking of my motherland.Will I ever live there again? 

Los Angeles is not my last stop. Maybe the world really can be an oyster for some us. 
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