Monday, December 22, 2008

What else has Ovaltine been up to?

Watched 1960's black and white Barsaat Ki Raat over the weekend. The hero, a renowned but underemployed poet (imagine that) takes a job working for a radio station in ... Hyderabad! Where, under the name "Aman Hyderabadi," he composes songs and has a regular radio spot performing them live on the air. His poem about accidentally meeting Madhubala on the rainy night of the title becomes a big hit, and people are singing it everywhere, even as he's rejected by her father as a suitor because, well, he's a penniless poet.

Since I, of course, am such a huge fan of the radio stations in Hyderabad, this was like one of those special shout-outs just for me. I will add, however, that if they were to broadcast live qawwali competitions, like they did in the movie, I'd like them even better.

Then yesterday I finished the book The Last Mughal (a harsh read; it sounds amazing that anything of Dehli was left standing), and came across an intriguing footnote about some ghazals that are attributed to Zafar, that last Mughal emperor. Mohd. Rafi actually sang them in a movie, Lal Qila, that I haven't been able to track down yet (but the morning is young). Anyway, the note continues that the songs were actually performed and popularized earlier, in the fifties, "on Radio Ceylon's talent show, Ovaltine Amateur Hour." (p. 437n)


Which I drank as a child, but mainly associate as the sponsor of the radio show in A Christmas Story.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

It's a Wonderful Bollywood Life

Bada Din (1998)

Surly rock-n-roller David Dawson (mysterious Marc Robinson, whose only other credit is an episode of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air) has alienated everyone in Calcutta with his angst and bad attitude. He's lost his girl, his job, and is on the verge of being kicked out by Lilian, his embittered, hard-drinking landlady (the lovely Shabana Azmi, rising way above the material). But then the mute street urchin who runs his errands witnesses a murder, and comes to David for help. Going to the police only brings on the wrath of the gangsters, but the pair are determined to protect the little boy, and eventually are brought together by the twin Christmas activities of frolicking around a tinsel tree and beating the stuffing out of threatening street thugs.

With its (relatively) gritty depiction of the poor living on the streets, and a protagonist mostly so anti-heroic that I cheered when Irfan Khan turned up briefly to punch him in the face, this is like an art film with commercial pretensions. There's a Jim Morrison on David's wall; a rock band that holds their instruments like an actual rock band (the drummer even has heavy metal hair); a musical number with artificial snow; and a moment when the most psycho of the petty criminals tries to lure the hero out by telling him "We're both Christians." It's not great by any means, but Christmas crime dramas, especially Hindi ones, are hard to come by, so I'm sure I'd have enjoyed it even if it were a lot worse.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Yep, "Hulk Smash"

Thoughts on the new Hulk:

Architecturally speaking, I loved the early section filmed in a real Brazilian favela.

When his emotions become too overwhelming, Edward Norton turns into someone else who can act out his impulses, an embodiment of the id, and when he comes back to his regular restrained self, has no memory of what transpired. Did he form an anarchist army and bonk Helena Bonham Carter, or did he turn into a giant green monster and smash up tanks? Or both?

Bruce Banner calls himself Mr. Green in encrypted email correspondence with a cellular biologist whose alias is Mr. Blue. In a movie where one of the villains is played by Reservoir Dogs' Mr. Orange.

I have now seen two movies in which Tim Blake Nelson, the ultimate yokel simpleton in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, plays a scientific genius. (The other was Fido, by the way; highly recommended). Much more convincingly, too, than Liv Tyler can manage.

At a dramatic turning point in the story, the heavens suddenly open up into a drenching symbolic downpour. Just like a Hindi melodrama!

When Tim Roth turns into the bigger, meaner version of the Hulk, and the two are brawling through the streets of New York, I suddenly knew exactly what this movie is. It's a glossy big-budget remake of War of the Gargantuas! With a quick but entertaining cameo by Robert Downey, Jr. And there's nothing wrong with that.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Embalmed in honey

So I came across a book (don't ask) called Nativity: The Christmas Story, Which You Have Never Heard. My first thought was, how would that be possible? I've already read the only real source material that exists. Turns out this is one of those "real history" books, albeit "real" filtered through a particular theological agenda.

Possibly the finest tidbit on the back cover (and yes, this is "sic"):

"Herod amazing genius whose architecture excelled Rome, and kept his murdered wife in a jar of honey!"

Wow! I definitely don't remember hearing that one before! Unfortunately, the actual "fact" is described in the book this way: "It was rumored in ancient times that Herod secretly kept Mariamne's body embalmed in a huge jar of honey...but this was never verified." (p. 119)

The online does include this factoid as a "Talmudic legend." But I definitely appreciate the enthusiasm of the back cover blurbage.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Kuch cooch

As I went about my day, pondering whether "jo koii" or "jo kuch" was the better way for me to be saying "whatever" in my head, it suddenly occurred to me that the word "kuch" is pronounced the same way as the word "cooch," familiar to us all from the cooch dancers in Carnivale. (The same word occurs in the phrase "hootchie cootchie").

Unfortunately, my Oxford English Dictionary is still in storage, and I'm not sure a low-brow word like "cooch" would even be in it, so I have no reliable means handy of tracking the origin. I suppose it's possible that there's something in the Indo-European Wayback, although coincidence is more likely. Nonetheless, it does occur to me that the Hindi "kuch kuch" would literally be "something something," and "a little somethin' somethin' " was a cooch dancer's business...

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Victorian-Style Scholarship: Not Just for Rich Dead Guys Anymore

Random thoughts on a stack of books:

Sometimes I catch myself getting all angsty and existential. You know: who am I? What does it all mean? What is my purpose in life? Then I walk into a library or a bookstore and suddenly, it all becomes clear. I am the person who has read these books, who is going to read these books. Maybe most importantly, who wants to read these books. As I'm drawn to one volume instead of another, the picture of myself becomes clear.

Then that makes me wonder: to what end? I don't know why, all of a sudden, the idea of utility should occur to me. If I'd thought about the ends of means a long time ago, I'd be in a better position in life. I've basically done everything for its own sake. But now, I feel like I don't want all this knowledge to go to waste. I mean, why didn't I carry on and become a professor? (Well, because that would suck). Why didn't I discipline myself, and become a real expert in something, so I could write books about it that would contribute to the storehouse of human learning? (Because specialization would have cut off so many fascinating areas of interest, and I didn't want to do that).

That kind of thinking is exactly how I got to this confused point in the first place. I feel like a Ms. Causabon... For those of you who were never assigned Middlemarch, Mr. Causabon is an old Victorian scholar, who sits in his study reading and planning a book that he believes will integrate all the world's knowledge. I don't have a nice Victorian study -- my books are mainly piled up in my messy living room -- and I don't have any lofty scheme behind my course of study. But I do appreciate that Victorian gentleman-scholar attitude, from the time when members of the more leisured classes would study, say, archaeology, or folklore, just because they wanted to.

Of course, I'd rather do it without the imperialism and the class divisions and the superior attitudes toward women, etc. And that should be possible. With the technology at our disposal, the common folk (like me) now have access to more books than the wealthiest people of prior generations did, so there's no reason for academic snobbery. Almost anyone can practice impractical scholarship as a leisure activity, so long as they're inclined. We don't all have to be professionals, and we don't have to be specialists. God forbid, actually.

I feel like I'm on the verge of a thesis statement. But not quite.