Thursday, March 25, 2010

Rab Ne Bana on Main Street

I know: one would think I've said everything that could possibly be said about Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi. There's a previous post here, if you have hours and hours with nothing better to do. However, our friends at Deewani for Bollywood and I recently used the film (successfully!) to convert a Bollywood newcomer, and thus had to discuss it all over again at length, which led to some strange new revelations.

Actually, it's really only random happenstance that RNBDJ is the what set off this train of thought, but since it's the example I have at hand, I'm gonna talk about it a little here and there, in as round-about a way as possible. Because that's what I pride myself on.

The couple in RNBDJ each have a separate, largely internal story arc, which cross in the surface storyline about the husband disguising himself and entering a dance contest to woo his wife in disguise. The wife's narrative is about what happens when someone has suffered a tragedy that leaves her in a state of numbness, going through the motions of being alive, thinking she'll never love again. She has to learn that she can bear to go on, and eventually be alive and happy. The husband's narrative is about someone who's spent his life doing without, who has to find out who he really is and what he really wants, and then, most dauntingly, say what he feels and become who he is.

So when their marriage begins, Taani is trying not to feel anything, and Suri is too self-effacing to express himself. I suddenly realized: this could be an Ingmar Bergman film, or a Sinclair Lewis novel!

Once I thought of it in those terms, it occurred to me that, while nobody was ever going to try to marry me off against my will, I definitely do identify in some ways with the conflicts between the individual and society/family/tradition, as seen in many Hindi films. The idea that we have all these freedoms in America -- that "Anything Goes!" -- is to some extent true. But many of these issues turn up in the U.S. as well, albeit in different forms, and expressed in different ways. This is certainly true where I grew up, in a heavily Scandinavianized environment (see previous post on the movie Careful for more insight on that).

India is often talked about as a more tradition-based society than the United States, but within it, there's obviously a great range of attitudes and opinions. For another example, Japan is often publicly depicted as a very conformist environment, certainly as contrasted to "American individualism." But within American society, there can still be tremendous pressure to conform to social standards and family expectations, even if this often goes unspoken. The degree to which that’s true will depend on many factors outside the individual's control.

No society is truly monolithic. The balance between tradition and modernity, between society and the individual, is going to depend on who and where the person in question is. Gender, religion, social class, personal family upbringing, the ethnic background, region, and even the specific town where a person lives, are all going to play a part in how much, and in what way, a person express his or her individuality, and how much they conform or rebel.

Bollywood-specific Tangent #1

There's a commonly floated idea that Kabhi Khushi Khabhi Gham tends to be harder for many Americans to relate to, because ideas of tradition and obeying the family aren't as strong in the U.S. as in India. However, I believe I could remake K3G today and it would be a totally, unquestionably American story.

Here it is: Ryan Reynolds is a handsome, athletic, WASP-y Manhattan businessman, with extremely wealthy and conservative parents (Harrison Ford and Diane Keaton) who have spent his whole life heaping expectations on him. He’s engaged to a staggeringly blonde, Grace Kelly-ish Katherine Heigl, whose parents are long-time friends and business associates of his parents. However, there are hints that with this engagement, he’s given in to the inevitable more than that he’sactually in love with her.

One day, while visiting his retired nanny, he stumbles upon a street parade in Greenwich Village, and there he meets her grandson, played by Nelsan Ellis, who plays Lafayette on True Blood. I don’t mean to typecast the actor, who’s obviously really talented, but I can't help it. That’s totally my concept: Lafayette in the Kajol part. He’s a young African-American man, out and proud, who’s fun, flamboyant, crazy and campy, and unashamedly working as an exotic dancer to support himself and his baby sister.

The two men quickly fall in love, and Ryan decides to break off his engagement to be with Lafayette. This leads to a terrible fight with his father, who gives him the “you’re no son of mine” speech. Several years later, little brother Zac Efron finds out the story behind why his brother moved across the country and never visits anymore. Deciding to reunite the family, he goes to San Francisco and becomes his brother's boarder in a beautiful Victorian home, under an assumed name.

Also living there is Lafayette's younger sister, a wild, aspiring R&B diva, played by whoever the up-and-coming teenage R&B diva of the moment is. She performs some sexy numbers in an inner-city dance club that are going to teach Zac new moves. She agrees to help him in his quest, and the two fall in love, although Zac knows his father will be no happier about him wanting to marry an African-American woman who grew up in the ghetto than about his brother being gay.

We'd even have a subplot about how the Ryan/Lafayette couple have spoiled the crap out of Little Diva because of the love they were denied as children (Ryan because of the repression of the wealthy, Lafayette because his troubled parents abandoned him with his Grandma in the projects, thus showing how people suffer emotionally on all sides of the economic spectrum). They've gone overboard in raising her self-esteem, so she's becoming kind of a man-manipulating monster. Fortunately, family-uniting, started as a lark (and a way to make Zac fall in love with her) will prove she can be empathetic and care about other people.

Geez, no wonder these Bollywood screenwriters do this plagiarism-with-a-twist thing: they write themselves!

The thing is, we don't even have to posit any specific racism or anything here to show that, in a roughly similar situation, it could be as hard for the Ryan Reynolds character to defy his family, his upbringing, the opinion of his entire world, all for the sake of love, as it was for Shah Rukh's.

Architectural Tangent
Then I got to thinking about a conversation I had with my sister, about how different some things are when one travels to different parts of the country. In Boston, for example, there were gardens and courtyards and little architectural delights tucked into all sorts of odd corners in public buildings. My reaction was, they have so much! Why can't we have even a little? Why does everything have to be so plain and unadorned back home? It's like there's a real distrust of anything that smacks of frivolity, that isn't practical, sensible, and nothing but. (And yes, thanks so much to all the exceptions, past and present!)

At least our ancestors here used to lavish their aesthetic sense on church-building. Recent decades have led to a reversal even there: the new churches look like banks on the outside, and are full of tan and beige on the inside. I was startled to discover that this architecture was a conscious choice -- a Suburban Puritan, if you will -- that views beauty as a threatening distraction from God, rather than an awe-inspiring reflection of God. Author Moyra Doorly has called this "the Denial of Transcendence."

It's part of the same idea that when emotions are habitually repressed, even positive emotions can be threatening. Just like it's hard to have color and art and creativity without individuality becoming an issue. When some individuals express their individuality, it threatens the people who've managed to repress theirs. A little color can highlight how bland everything else is. Suddenly the sense of control that people associate with order and safety feels off-balance. Some people may even begin to doubt the premises of control that underlie the society, which will frequently cause them to clamp down even tighter.

Ha! I'm talking about the movie Pleasantville. But it's not like the problem went away because it isn't the '50s anymore.

Lagom and Jantelagen
Now, for all I know, much of this might not be true in other parts of the country (and again, can depend on personal upbringing, among other factors). Where I come from, however, in an environment largely influenced by Norwegian and Swedish immigrants (my own ancestors among them), there are two concepts that, when I first heard about them, automatically made many things click into place.

Lagom is a word that means, more or less, "just enough," or the exact right amount; for example, being satisfied with enough, rather than being greedy. Which not a bad thing, but a concept with positive consequences for social equality can have repressive ones when we're talking about people's private lives. How do you have "just enough" love, but no more? How do you follow your creative dreams without wanting to assert a desire for more in life than you have? Obviously, "just enough" can go too far, as we see with RNBDJ's Suri, who doesn't feel entitled to any more than he has.

See! Told you we'd dip our toes back in Rab Ne Bana Land!

The other concept is Jantelagen, or the Jante Law, which takes its name from the fictional small town of Jante in the 1933 Danish novel A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks, by Aksel Sandemose. The book --which sounds like a Danish Main Street -- is strangely hard to come by, considering how famous the jantelagen idea has become.

Here is the "The Law of Jante," which is basically ten ways of saying the same thing:

1. Thou shalt not presume that thou art anyone [important].
2. Thou shalt not presume that thou art as good as us.
3. Thou shalt not presume that thou art any wiser than us.
4. Thou shalt never indulge in the conceit of imagining that thou art better than us.
5. Thou shalt not presume that thou art more knowledgeable than us.
6. Thou shalt not presume that thou art more than us [in any way].
7. Thou shalt not presume that thou art going to amount to anything.
8. Thou art not entitled to laugh at us.
9. Thou shalt never imagine that anyone cares about thee.
10. Thou shalt not suppose that thou can teach us anything.

The "we" is of course the collective community. I took the translation from a website that includes the original Danish. It's from a guy who got a Ph.D. in computer science in Denmark, which seems to have given him some food for thought.

For those of you who've read Main Street (Sinclair Lewis's novel is considerably easier to come by than Sandemose's), it might interest you to know that I grew up 56 miles from the prototype, Lewis's home town of Sauk Centre, Minnesota. They were pretty unhappy about it in his time, but now, it's turned into a tourist industry, with the motto "The Original Main Street." What a thing to be proud of! But at least it's not as bad as the witch-killing publicity Salem milks wherever it can.

And speaking of, a few years ago I was talking to a college student who was reading Main Street, and was surprised how relevant it still is. "You could replace the blacksmith with an auto repair shop, set it in the present day, and nobody would know the difference," I agreed.

Again, this is not to say that all small-town folks are petty, close-minded anti-intellectuals. Far from it! But in many cases, the Jante Law is still in effect: and yes, larger communities can have pockets of Jante-ness within them, in neighborhoods, smaller social groups, workplaces, etc. Anywhere that rocking the boat would threaten the group identity.

It's the "hold your horses/put a lid on it" syndrome all over again. Don't think you're important, don't think you're going to amount to anything, don't expect anyone to care about you. In many cases, I think parents who were themselves raised with these notions think this attitude is for their children's own good. They're trying to prepare them for what's perceived as a cold, cruel world, where if you don't expect too much from life, you won't be disappointed. But it's still pretty harsh.

The result is: we grow up being taught that we shouldn't draw attention to ourselves or stand out, and never show that we think we're better than anyone else, even by accident. There are times I have often been accusing of "thinking you're better than everyone else" because I was sitting quietly, reading a book.

Then we grow up and are sent out to compete in the world, to auditions and job interviews and grant applications and first dates, deeply uncomfortable with any kind of self-promotion or "horn-tootiness," as I like to call it. How do you express your feelings and win the true love? How do you "sell yourself" in the job market? How can people who are barely able to accept a simple compliment (not uncommon in these parts) negotiate to get paid what they're worth? You'll never get anywhere in this world if you're a self-effacing Suri, but as soon as you start asserting yourself, there are people who'll accuse you of being a Raj: narcissistic and show-offy.

Obviously, there are people who manage the trick of acting like they're more important and deserve special treatment, without setting off other people's Raj-alarm. I won't give any embarrassing specifics, but with my own eyes I have seen otherwise sensible people suddenly fawn all over Important People just because of the way they're dressed, or because of some title or marker of authority they have.

In many (not all, I realize, but many) cases, these are people who grew up in privileged environments: they had well-off businesspeople for parents, and picked up the social cues to use in certain situations that will allow them to be treated like the Boss without seeming pushy or desperate (which tends to happen to ordinary people who try to assert the same rights).

This is all still part of a larger paradigm of expressing individuality within certain narrowly defined parameters. This is all deeply individual: some people aren't going to relate the jantelagen thing at all -- where to me, it seems almost self-evident. I know that I express my individualism more than a lot of people around me do. I know this because of how often people have reacted to me with strange extremes of horror and admiration. Like I was/am performing some kind of miracle by walking down the street wearing what I feel like wearing.

And really, I'm no Lady Gaga here: it's pretty small potatoes, non-conformity speaking. But that's the point. People act like it takes extreme bravery to go out in public without wearing makeup, if all the other women are wearing makeup. What I do is nothing. But it's a lot more than a lot of people feel they could do.

Running parallel is a strange paradigm that it's okay to excel in football, for example, but not in academics. Maybe ultimately football prowess is less threatening than the idea that some people are actually smarter than others? It's okay to enter a beauty pageant, and compete seriously for the title, possibly again because this is a realm that's set apart from everyday life. Sports and organized competitions mark off specific areas where people can strive to excel. The people who do excel in them, though, are thrown into a love/hate relationship with a public that admires them, but still enjoys seeing them "brought down a peg."

Despite its bravado about "American individualism", on the everday level, the country still has too many people who are afraid of laughing when they think something's funny, of wearing clothes that are too colorful ("flashy"), or expressing any kind of emotion. And, I mean, to some extent they're right to hesitate, because they do open themselves up to the possibility of being judged.

Now, despite what my grandparents, Masters of Jantelagen, thought, I'm of the opinion that if a little emotion and color and weirdness can collapse the whole house of cards of society, then the people in it are wound to an unhealthy tightness. People need those mountain nodes, as in Careful, where "cautious vent can be given to stifled impulses."

In Bollywood films, with censorship more rigorous than in American ones, this can of course occur in the song sequences, which sometimes overflow with eroticism that isn't directly expressed. I remember my original "Yowza!" reaction to Veer Zaara's "Main Yahaan Hoon," which is super-super-sexy, even though the characters haven't had any romantic physical contact, however slight, in the "real" story. There's an aspect to many Hindi films that reflects the repression of emotions and individuality, while still providing a layer that allows a colorful expression of emotions and individuality. Some people might not relate to the repression part, or feel frustrated by it; some people might feel uncomfortable with the expression part; but for some of us, it comes off just right.

Despite my having almost nothing in common with RNBDJ's Suri on any level, I have to admit that the small-town Scandinavian environment I grew up in makes me relate to his struggle to strike the balance between the expectations of others, what he expects from others, and what he really, truly wants out of life. Even more, I relate to the lead character in Billu, who has a stronger sense of self, but similarly expects no positive reinforcement from the people in his community. When he occasionally gets it, it's a surprise.

I can't explain why 2009 was the year that Shah Rukh Khan made two movies exploring these particular themes, or how specifically they might have been viewed in the context of Indian society. But they are definitely more relevant to certain aspects of American society than the makers could probably have guessed.

This influence on my life does perhaps explain why my favorite part of the RNBDJ movie star medley is when, in the Rishi Kapoor section, Sonu Nigam sings "Hum kisise/kum nahin hain" with such confidence.

When I first saw the movie the line was taken from, I was all like, yes! This is the motto for me! Because you'll notice what it says. It's not "I'm better than anyone else." After all, "Thou shalt never indulge in the conceit of imagining that thou art better than us." It's not even "I'm as good as everyone else," which is also problematic. However, it's totally fair under the Law to say, "I'm no less than anyone else." There's really no internal conflict there at all. And yet, the spirit of the law is such that even claiming this much is a powerful assertion of the self and one's right to expect something from life.

One more specific tidbit about RNBJD that came up in the course of these thoughts -- more or less a P.S., on the subject of repressed emotions. There are various movie-within-the-movie scenes of Taani and Suri at the theater, where she enjoys silly action comedies, but dislikes romances. This makes perfect symbolic sense, because she's seeking distraction from her emotions. She's numb, and whenever she starts feeling again, it's going to be painful.

She doesn't want to sit at home alone with her thoughts all day, and physical activity (the dance contest) is a not uncommon thing for people to sublimate their feelings into. (Like on Dexter, when Deb became addicted to working out in the wake of a serious psychological trauma). And part of the reason why she falls for the Raj persona is because to care about anyone, she had to let her defenses down. The reason that can happen is because in the beginning, she doesn't even like him. He irritates her, and she clearly thinks he's an idiot. Therefore, he's totally non-threatening, which allows her to relax, have fun, feel like her old self again, without her attention being drawn to the fact that she's starting to feel again.

If I'd thought of that before, it would have been included in my previous post.

Anyway -- it's been weird writing up these notions, even as disjointed as they are, because it's made me think about various events and trends in my life, which I didn't necessarily want to think about any more than Taani does! I've pretty much come into my own as a non-conformist (one of the advantages of getting older), so I get much less overt tension than I used to from other people. And yet, when I look back, I wonder how much more I might have accomplished if I hadn't had to exert so much energy just in working against resistance.

That's waaaay more than enough introspection for now! Next time, we'll indulge ourselves with what I like to call The Dark Chicken: a Tamil superhero conspiracy! With, yup, chickens. And plenty of them!


Anirban said...

Wow! That is an epic post. I love your idea for remaking K3G. Had me in splits :)

Anarchivist said...

Thanks! I much prefer the word "epic" to "long-winded." :)

ajnabi said...

Epic and deep! I'm so impressed with your thoughts about K3G. I've heard it equated to "Asian Boy Outs Himself" but never had it put into a context an American could instantly... Well, I can't *identify* with it, but it's entirely relate-able. And now, I really, really want to see that movie. Really.