Thursday, August 23, 2007

Aini Aapa, Urdu fiction's Marquez, passes away

Qurratulain Hyder, one of Urdu literature's grandest writers, passed away on Monday night after prolonged illness. Unfortunately, the news came to my notice only today.

Hyder was lovingly known as Aini Aapa. She was a journalist and writer and she had worked with Khushwant Singh during his Illustrated Weekly of India days.

My first introduction to literature was through Urdu and Hyder's fiction, much before I had heard of Marquez and other Latin American writers, was one of the most potent to fire my imagination and love for stories. Her seminal work, Aag ka Dariya (River of Fire) is considered no less a work than Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. But I love her short stories and novelettes. Her Paanch Novelletes remains one of my favourite works of fiction.

When I was reading her works in my university days, I used to fantasize how fascinatingly they will lend themselves to beautiful films. I hope Indian filmmakers like Shyam Benegal, Muzaffar Ali and Rituparno Ghosh will take note of her works. They have amazing atmospherics in them.

Here's C.M Naim's appreciation of Hyder's work:

What counts, for her, is the human spirit and the relationships it generates and nurtures. That is where the linearity of time seems to curve into a spiral, urging us to recognize a past that never quite disappears. This, of course, may have a depressing side too: the more things change, the more they remain the same. What, then, is our choice as individuals? Here it may be worthwhile to recall the characteristically modest, even self-mocking, remarks that Hyder made in 1991 in her acceptance speech at the Jnanpith Award function: "My concern for civililzational values about which I continue writing may sound naive, wooly-headed and simplistic. But then, perhaps, I am like that little bird which foolishly puts up its claws, hoping that it will stop the sky from falling."

Here's Hirsh Sawhney on her work, Aag Ka Dariya:

The novel is defined by a dizzying array of parables, love stories, letters, dreams and diaries, but Hyder successfully weaves this fictional universe together with a cast of characters that's not only diverse but also most intriguing. Hari, a monk in post-Buddha India, lives in a land inhabited by architects who fled the ashes of Persepolis. Kamaluddin, a 15th-century Persian thinker, has met Muslims in Andalusia who wrote Spanish in the Arabic script. Gautam, an opportunistic employee of the Raj, ends up in the kingdom of Oudh, where Muslim rulers celebrated Hindu holidays.

The group rematerializes in various incarnations and eras, and the result is an enlightening portrait of the subcontinent, one that blurs the line between insider and outsider, Hindu and Muslim, and reveals the ceaseless cycles of greed and hate that disrupt the world's beauty. Hyder is my favourite kind of writer, one who spares nobody from her scrutiny, not the treaty-breaking English who "took away the glory and wealth of Hindustan" or the "anti-British leftists" who made "a bee-line for England, deserting the toiling masses for whom their hearts used to bleed."

She first published this book in 1959, 22 years before Midnight's Children bagged the booker. So why has no one in the west outside of academia or the pages of the literary journals ever heard of this one-time Fleet Street journalist?

And here's Rakhshanda Jalil's tribute to Hyder.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Hollywood goes to Bollywood

PATRICK FRATER writes in Variety:

Warner Bros. on Tuesday unveiled its first India production, the action comedy "Made in China," for which it will hold worldwide rights.
With the film -- helmed by Nikhil Advani ("Salaam-e-ishq") and produced by Indian shingles Ramesh Sippy Prods. and Orion Pictures --Warner joins Viacom, Sony and Disney in the accelerating Hollywood race to make movies in India.

Though Hollywood fare flourishes overseas, it accounts for a small percentage of the box office in India --the world's second most populous nation. For example, Hollywood fare accounted for 85% of Spain's B.O. in 2006 but only 8% in India.

Since more multiplexes mean the Indian B.O. pie is growing, Hollywood is determined to increase its share -- and rather than bringing Western influence into the movie biz, the plan is to get into the Bollywood game.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

The Godfather chronicles

The Godfather, as is with so many others, remains one of my favourite movies. I have watched it many times, the first time on Doordarshan in my early 20s when I was in college, and later on on DVDs. This film always fascinates me: its setting, the actors, the tension, the colors, the could just go on.

But did the film have any impact on Indian cinema, and more so on the shaping of the Indian mafia? I didn't have much idea about it until I read this piece by Vir Sanghvi, whose columns I read regularly.

Here's Vir Sanghvi on the influence of Puzo/Coppola's Godfather on Indian cinema and the third world mafia but I like this part where he talks about the genesis of the novel and later on the film:

Contrary to what people believed at the time, despite being Italian, Puzo knew almost nothing about the mafia. He had heard the same gossip and stories as everybody else. So when he sat down to write, he invented an underworld based on honour and a sense of family. To make it seem authentic, he included a few apocryphal stories that were then current.

For instance, it was rumoured that Frank Sinatra had mafia connections, and that when his career was on the brink, the mob got him the co-starring role in From Here to Eternity that resurrected his fortunes. Puzo invented a Sinatra-like character and included the From Here to Eternity story, adding one dramatic flourish: When the studio boss refuses to cast the Sinatra character, the mafia guys behead his favourite horse and put its decapitated head in his bed.

Stories such as this one—which Puzo dreamt up from the top of his head—made the book seem even more authentic than it really was and it became a number one best-seller. By the time Paramount Pictures got around to filming it, the Italian- American community was filled with outrage and the studio agreed to delete the words “mafia” and “La Cosa Nostra" from the script.

Death of the small town

Pankaj Mishra on one of India's vanishing cultures:

Perhaps this dwindling of middle-class culture was inevitable, part of the price of "progress". A generation ago, my own parents and their peers had moved out of their restricted settings and taken up jobs in remote cities and towns. Their children are now scattered across India (and increasingly across the world). Besieged by the usual middle-class anxieties of jobs and careers, we lose touch, forgetting names and faces. Few people show up when some of these children get married or have their thread ceremonies. Deaths and funerals have turned into lonely, often desolate affairs. Two years ago, one of my uncles, who was afflicted with Alzheimer's, watched his wife bleed to death after an accident at his home in a Lucknow suburb - a fate unimaginable in the close-knit world of his childhood.

Of course, the destruction of old bonds of family and community and shared culture has been faster elsewhere, in Europe, America - even China... Still, it is hard today, 60 years after independence, not to see poignancy in the Nehruvian elite's tryst with destiny; to realise how little the makers of modern India knew of their suburban future: the high-rise apartment complexes in which they would die pining for a patch of weak wintry sun on a green lawn.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Brand India's soft power of literature

Siddhartha Deb on India's soft power of literature. Read the intro of his piece; the history described there should not be forgotten:

The relationship between Indian writers and western publishers has been in many ways a necessary collaboration, and one that does not always take the form of accepting big advances from multinational conglomerates: for instance, Arundhati Roy, in spite of the bestseller status of her novel, The God of Small Things, has published most of her essay collections with the smallest of American publishers, the radical Cambridge-based South End Press. But publication in the west has also produced a kind of dual identity for the Indian writer in English. If successful in the west, especially in the amount of noise made by the publicity machine, the Indian writer is understood to be part of Brand India, using the "soft power" of literature to consolidate the more muscular geopolitical reach of the state. Some writers play along with this, performing the role of the native informant with ease. But for others, and I believe this is what makes them attractive to publishers and readers in the west, writing is shaped by their sense of literature as an engaged art, one that interprets the world as an imperfect, unfinished place rather than one where a universal system has laid down the perfect, eternal gridwork of inequality.

I don't think, by any means, that it is only Indian writers who are working in this manner, or that they have some sort of special dispensation to do so, but they seem to have the advantage (and the drawback) of using English, at a historical moment when the west has turned its attention on India and China. It is a crossroads that offers very different alternatives to Indian writers: that of cashing it in by becoming minor entertainers for the powerful and the privileged, or that of looking for new forms and new ways of engagement with the stories that demand to be told. The upheaval we are caught up in is so vast, and so uncertain - is this the best of times? the worst? - that Indian writing has barely begun to take the measure of the conditions in which it functions.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Those days...

James Kelman recalls his early days as a writer in The Guardian:

The lack of working time was a continual source of stress, as it still is. The frustration worms its way through rage and bitterness, and can lead to breakdown, and silence. I returned to the lives, as well as the works, of writers and artists, particularly Franz Kafka.

I saw it as the fundamental and shaping struggle in each, the need to do your work in the face of the socio-economic reality. There was no place in society for your work, as with Cézanne, van Gogh and the rest. Your only requirement was to do their work. Who the fuck were they? These bastards. Who wants to do their work? Let them do it themselves, tell them to go and fuck.

Young writers seek bonds of solidarity with older generations; we look for things in common. If a writer comes to mean something to us we want to discover affinities. How did they live their life? What hardships did they endure to pursue their art? How long did it take them to write a story? Kafka did The Metamorphosis in a couple of nights. Oh, I don't believe it, no, no, for godsake, no.

Yes. Now pick yourself up, brush yourself down. Van Gogh did not even begin until he was 28. And look at Tolstoy, a hero at 22, a hero at 72. Phew.

I still found difficulty in connecting with writers who had no reason to worry about money and job security. I was prejudiced against Turgenev for years, until it dawned on me how influenced I had been by Dostoevsky's judgment, arrived at through a suicidal gambling habit. I would have sat down for a game of poker with Dostoevsky but knew I would not have enjoyed it. I aye imagined him jumping up from the table and flinging a cape round his shoulders, This is too slow, too slow! and marching out into the night.

Bergman: In search of 'that secretive light'

When acclaimed filmmaker, Ingmar Bergman, died on July 30th, some remarkable obituaries were written in his memory.

I love reading well-written obits. And, by far, The Economist, in my humble opinion and within the limited range of my reading, generally does the best job in this field.

Here's how The Economist paid its homage to the great filmmaker:

Critics wondered whether there was a general message in his films. Mr Bergman sometimes denied he had one. Yet he usually found a saving moment in the misery: a selfless communication, in word or gesture, between two human beings. At the end of “Wild Strawberries” the hero, an aged professor, is belatedly reconciled with his family and his past. As the scene was filmed, Mr Bergman noted, the old actor's face “shone with secretive light as if reflected from another reality”. That secretive light, or hidden love, was just what the director had been searching for.

Film critic David Thomson beautifully analyzes Bergman's life and work in this piece in The Guardian (I love it when he brings up this little but significant fact: Wild Strawberries is a great film, struggling to reconcile inward failure and outward success--that itself is such a deeply thought remark):

The way Bergman’s work and Bergman’s pain were in equation struck me early on and almost by chance. In 1957, he made Wild Strawberries, in which a great man, a professor, is going to a kind of film festival to be honoured for his career. He is Isak Borg, played by Victor Sjostrom (the pioneering figure in the Swedish film industry and Bergman’s mentor). But as he travels toward his honorary degree, so Borg dreams and remembers and feels shocked by his private failures. We can see that he is a cold man attracted to the warmth of others - and I think Bergman saw himself the same way.

Wild Strawberries is a great film, struggling to reconcile inward failure and outward success. I realised that it was the same “story” as a film I had seen two years earlier - Citizen Kane, in which an old man dies and has his last thoughts filled by the same grim debate: was I wretched in all my glory? Maybe all great films say the same thing.

And here's an appraisal of the filmmaker by another admired filmmaker, Shyam Benegal:

As a filmmaker what I have appreciated deeply are his brilliant scripts. He was an exceptional storyteller, his films always had very strong, powerful narratives. When I heard of the news of his passing away, I picked up The Seventh Seal (in which a knight plays a game of chess with Death) to watch it all over again. It is terribly powerful, philosophical and so wonderfully shot with such strong imagery.

He had pretty strong views on films and filmmakers. Film for him was something magical—film as dream, film as music. "No form of art goes beyond ordinary consciousness as film does, straight to our emotions, deep into the twilight room of the soul," he said. The act of making a film, to him, was like working out your dreams. He loved Andrei Tarkovsky for that reason. Bergman created dreamscapes on celluloid. It's not as though the characters were a dream, they were all very real and rooted but engaged in existential questioning. He was also appreciative of Luis Bunuel, Akira Kurosawa and Federico Fellini. In his autobiography, The Magic Lantern, Bergman wrote that "a film is not a document, it is a dream". He looked up to Tarkovsky because he felt "he moves with naturalness in a room of dreams". Bergman thought that he himself could "creep inside" that room but only a few times. He was very critical of Antonioni. He felt Antonioni aspired to be in the same room of dreams but got "suffocated by his own tediousness".

Sunday, August 05, 2007

A question of justice

Bollywood star Sanjay Dutt has emerged, for all the wrong reasons, as the poster boy for the Mumbai bomb blasts. Scores of others, the non-Bollywood type perpetrators of the crime, the ones you might have seen in Anurag Kashyap's Black Friday, have got death sentences and life imprisonments.

But some have chosen to look deeper into the issue, beyond the gloss and the mayhem:

Professor Amitava Kumar asks on his blog:

The verdicts have finally been delivered in the Bombay blasts case. Most of the guilty are in jail. But the bombings had been in response to the earlier riots, in which three times more people were killed. Why have those who were guilty of inciting violence and murder during the riots gone unpunished?

Vir Sanghvi writes on the Mumbai blast verdict in HT:

No Muslim family who lost everything in those riots received anything like justice, let alone compensation. The murderers, unrepentant to the end, were elected to high office and the policemen who facilitated the massacres were promoted. Official inquiries into the riots (such as the Srikrishna Report) were ignored. And then, after the blasts, TADA was used indiscriminately against honest and blameless Muslims.

So let’s not waste our time worrying about Indian Muslims and Al-Qaeda. Let’s stick to our own riots and our own terrorist reprisals. The Bombay blasts case shows that the bombers have been (fairly) punished. But the rioters still run free, and the victims of those massacres have found no justice.

Rather than be concerned about a few inept doctors and a couple of failed car bombs in a faraway country, let’s think about our own blasts and our own system of justice. And let’s pause to consider whether the next time a bomb goes off in Bombay we should blame Osama bin Laden or whether we should consider our own failure to provide justice to those whose families, homes and lives were destroyed in the Bombay riots.