Sunday, May 31, 2009

Personalized Pentecost Message

Back to church this morning with Mom and Dad, and interestingly, it's Pentecost: the day the Holy Spirit rained down on everyone, and they could understand each other's languages. During the announcements, I was skimming over the program and found this note "Take a moment following the message to reflect on what God is asking of you."

When I see something like this, I always think of Big Love, where Bill Paxton will pray on things, and emerge fully convinced that he knows specifically where God is leading him, and what God wants him to do. Fascinating. How could a person ever separate some amorphous clues of supposed divine communication from one's own thoughts? This would require a kind of certainty that I've just never had.

This brief musing was interrupted by the call to stand for the opening hymn. Randomly opening my United Methodist Hymnal, the first thing I saw, in big bold letters at the top of the page, were the words "Jaya Ho."

What the? Yup, hymn #148, attributed to "Anon. Hindi." Translated by Katherine Rohrbough, 1958, with phonetic transcription by I-to Loh in 1988. The Hindi portion was mainly repeated in variations, but here were the words: "Tera sana mukh ham hain ate. Ham hain ate, cha ra no may hain. Shisha navate. Jaya jaya teri ham hain gate."

While I can't say for sure what a higher power might be asking of me, this is pretty good evidence that I'm on the right track. Also that no cosmic forces have taken offense at my mentally picturizing them on Rishi Kapoor.

Friday, May 29, 2009

More notes from Black and White Land

Dastan (1950)

One of the actresses I've been most eager to see has been Suraiya, famous as a singing star from the pre-playback era. Especially since I recently flipped through Shobhha De's novel Bollywood Nights, where she was clearly, and cruelly, roman-a-clefed. After her parents refused to allow her to marry Dev Anand, she vowed never to marry, and she never did. Not that marriage is the be-all and end-all or anything (and more on that subject later), but really, reading his autobiography, he was nothing to get that worked up about. I'm telling myself that she really didn't want to get married anyway, and used him as a pretext.

The film opens with a narrator telling us the story ("dastan") of the people in the "Raj Mahal." My first thought was, the Mahal where Raj Kapoor lives? And he does! In the movie at least. Anyway, almost immediately, I was reminded of the kind of movies Bette Davis used to make: there's a death in the old mansion, and then a flashback to the proud, stern sister who ruled the house and manipulated the lives of everyone in it. Very 1940s women's "weepie," and I mean that in the best possible way.

Sweet orphaned Indra (who'll grow up to be played by Suraiya, with a lovely, clear singing voice indeed) is taken into a wealthy family, where she is beloved by the two sons and deeply resented by older sister Rani (Veena).

That very young and skinny Raj Kapoor is the fun-loving younger brother, who somehow, off-camera, develops the discipline to become a pilot, and who woos Indra in the back seat of a car with lines like "My desires are soaring. Come, I'll take you for a ride." Yeah, I bet he will! As his more serious older brother and unspoken romantic rival, Al Nasir doesn't make much of an impression, which I guess is why Raj is Raj, despite the mugging and some very fey dancing.

Then there's old friend Ramesh, the man Rani plots to hook up with Indra, just to get her out of the house and away from her brothers. Ramesh seems like the best pick of the lot -- rich, good-looking, willing to love Indra sincerely and, if necessary, platonically. For once, thank goodness for that "we've loved each other since childhood" thing to explain why she prefers Raj, who acts like a total idiot in the face of transparently false information about Indra's affections, from a source he knows is untrustworthy.

Despite the tragedy she engenders with her meddling, I'm actually oddly sympathetic toward cold-hearted Rani, especially after this exchange:

Family retainer Shambhu Dada: Till when will you be a spinster?
Rani: Till the rules of your society don't change.
Dada: Child, it's impossible to change the rules of the society.
Rani: Then think that my marriage is also impossible.
Dada: Can I know the reason for this hatred?
Rani: It's because the men of this country take a woman as a slave...and I don't want to be a slave of my husband.

Amen, sister! Frankly, I was hoping for a third-act twist in which she would find love with "what you might call a new man...looking for a new kind of love." (To quote Down With Love's Catcher Block, ladies' man, man's man, man about town). I digress in a big way, but Rani is definitely a Down With Love Girl. And in the absence of the right kind of man, she's right to stay single. Besides, she keeps calling Raj an idiot, and while she may be a bitch, she's got a point.

I came so close to having a Veena film festival: my next Netflix was Kaagaz Ke Phool, in which she plays Guru Dutt's estranged wife. But I decided I wasn't in the mood for anything too serious, so I sent it back. I'll watch it someday, and hopefully catch more of Veena's oeuvre. But in the meantime, I'm waiting on Dancer, which looks like a latter-day Mithun Chakraborty movie, only with a young Akshay Kumar. Now, that's a mental picture that haunts me!

Stay away from those pulltabs!

A Throw of Dice: a Romance of India (1929)

"Bring on the jugglers!"

I got my Devis and Ranis mixed up when talking about the German-Indian silent film A Throw of Dice the other day. Should've had that extra cup of coffee after all! The film does star the luminous Seeta Devi, one of the early Anglo-Indian stars, born Renee Smith. But it was costume designer Devika Rani (who eventually married producer/star Himansu Rai and co-founded Bombay Talkies) who supposedly picked Dilip Kumar out of a crowd of extras and said something like "Give this boy a screen test."

The opening scenes show off all the tigers and crocodiles and trained elephants at the film-maker's disposal, and then quickly get to the heart of the story. Evil King Sohan is planning to kill his friend and rival King Ranjit in a faked hunting accident. He's thwarted when Ranjit is healed by a holy man, one who left Ranjit's court because he couldn't bear to see the king wasting his days in dissipation, particularly gambling.

Seeta Devi plays the healer's daughter Sunita. Needless to say, the relationship between rival kings, addicted to hunting and gambling, is only going to be exacerbated when a random beautiful girl is plunked in their midst. Early on, Sohan hits on her, and Sunita gives him an awesomely scornful look, which totally puts me on her side. (She also gets some full-on screen kissing with her leading man).

For once, though, the father refuses the marriage of his daughter to the king because he's worried about her happiness; he knows that, at this point at least, the king isn't good enough for her. Sure, cue the complications, and the inevitable moral lesson about gambling, but the visuals are lovely, the stars are engaging (and refreshingly free of stereotypical silent film overacting), and oh! The architecture of Rajasthan, where it was filmed!

Those costumes of Devika Rani's are pretty gorgeous, too, even in black and white.

The new score was produced in 2006 by Nitin Sawhney, The Namesake's composer, and while it's a fine classical piece, it's too European for my taste. For example, there's a scene in which a bejeweled nautch girl dances to the tabla and veena, while the score is all light horns and violins, melodious and slightly moody. Jarring. If I were to watch it again, which could easily happen, I'd mute the sound, and try it out with Indian music playing on the stereo.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Hoodoo Book Club

(Something I'm doing through the folk magic listserve I'm still on, even though some of the regular posters annoy me. I thought I'd try to offer something constructive. We'll see).

The next selection is The Conjure-Man Dies by Rudolph Fisher."Originally published in 1932...(it) is the first known mystery novel written by an African-American." (book jacket cover) Let's say we discuss on June 15th.

This month's book is Last Days of Louisiana Red, by Ishmael Reed

I can tell I've been working in a public library for a long time, because when I re-read this book, I thought: oh no! There are things in here that could REALLY offend some people! I don't think that would have ever occurred to me when I was just a civilian reader.

If it's any consolation, it definitely attacks some of my sacred cows, too. I'm an idealist; an "all you need is love" type; a fan of Antigone as "the epitome of the free spirit against the forces of tyranny." (p. 29) I'm also a woman, but it would be naive to believe that there aren't tensions between the sexes, or that women are blameless in them, just because my conscience happens to be clear on that score.

Despite the sexual material (some of it a bit crude), and the political incorrectness, I do still the book has a sharp satirical humor, and was, in general, funnier than I remembered. For example: "Do you know what the people want? They want lots of blood; monkeys roller-skating; 200 dwarfs emerging from a Fiat, and lots of popcorn - that's what they want." (p. 90) Ha! Another favorite is "Ain't no ontology gone pay our light bill." (p. 73)

It also has a message I like about the place of magico-spirituality in the world: that it's always existed, it will always exist, albeit changing with the times, and the Workers have the choice whether to add to the conflict in the world, or try to heal the problems that create the conflicts.

For those of you who didn't read it, but might be interested some day, the book is largely a satire on the political, racial, and gender movements of the 70s. "Louisiana Red" is the name for the state of anxiety and pointless conflict in modern society. People "inflicting psychological stress on one other," (p. 6) while all the pre-existing problems don't get fixed. It's symbolized as "crabs in a barrel," (p. 140) in which people fight each other rather than working together to benefit everyone.

I love having a name for this concept (and it's kind of odd that there is no real term for this omnipresent state of affairs in public discourse).

In the end, the unpleasant state of Lousiana Red is shown to be the result of a corporation that profits off other people's misery (still a relevant metaphor, thirty years later). Opposed to it are the agents of the Solid Gumbo Works, who are using conjure to effect positive changes. The difference between the two groups is exemplified by the Gumbo Works' cheap cure for cancer, which makes them enemies. "You'd think they'd be glad to have a cancer cure. I don't know how their mind works," one of the characters says (p. 32).

What seems really interesting to me, after reading so much about traditional conjure, is at the end, when the whole organization is disbanded, and the Workers all go underground to quietly carry on the Work. Of course, this is a depiction of the historical state of independent conjure, which existed without any official hierarchy or central leadership, and an explanation for why it might work that way. So "everything the Business required was inside of each Worker...The Workers were dispersing, spreading out across the country, each person responsible for the quality of his or her own craft..." (p. 173)

I wouldn't agree that the accoutrements belong in a museum, as happens in the end, because as long as they work for people, why not use them? But it raises an intriguing question about the ends and the means. If the result is what matters, do people, myself included, sometimes get too hung up on the means? Am I attached to the tools, or to the results?

Anyway, those are my brief thoughts on the book. Thanks for reading, contribute if you want, and next month we can discuss "a Mystery Tale of Dark Harlem," with not one, not two, but basically THREE African-American detectives investigating a murder with magical undertones.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Ever-increasing snaky goodness

I just started reading a really trashy, Judith Krantz-like novel called Bollywood Nights (by Shobhaa De). Given my recent obsession with the snake-filled end of the Hindi film spectrum, I was amused that the characters include: a heroine, treated basically like a prostitute by everyone, who makes her debut dancing with snakes in a fictional film called Nagin ki Kasam, and her lover, a super-handsome star whose producer father once lost everything on a movie called Mehboob ki Nigahen.

Someone is definitely trying to tell me something...

Monday, May 11, 2009

Snakes Alive

Minutes into Nigahen: Nagina Part II, I realized that I've only ever seen Anupam Kher in lighter, more comedic roles. This was the first time I'd see him in a serious dramatic one. Of course, in this case, that serious dramatic role is a crazy-eyed, snake-hunting tantrika who worships a life-size statue of -- yes! -- Amrish Puri! Which, frankly, is my kind of serious dramatic.

In the film, Sridevi plays the lookalike daughter of Sridevi, who comes with her Uncle Pran for a visit to the ancestral manor where crazy goings-on (many of them Amrish Puri-induced) transpired in the original Nagina. At night, she wakes up to find a large cobra on her bed, which shoots blue laser-beams into her eyes, apparently filling her with snaky knowledge. This is much more reasonable than the fact that she was sleeping in full eye-makeup and really extreme, thick, glistening lipstick.

I'd barely made it to the point where Anupam, inspired by a print of Ravana spiriting Sita away, decides to kidnap Sridevi in his attempt to find the magical jewel with which the snakes have some sort of mystical connection, when the subtitles gave out. Nahin, Nigahen! I was going to watch anyway (in the manner of those adorable reviewers on the IMDB who are always saying things like, "I don't know a word of Hindi, but I saw this movie with no subtitles, and it was really stupid.") But then I was clumped upon by warm, furry cats, and nodded off on the sofa.

Luckily, when I woke up, there was no snake sitting on top of me, and the cats couldn't be bothered with the laser beams. Sunny Deol was, however, frolicking with a bunch of maidens on the screen.

Sending it back to Netflix unwatched will feel like defeat; especially since whenever a character says anything like "Bas!" or "yeh larki," I feel like I know what's going on. And I'll never write the definitive post on the snake films of India without having seen it. So I guess I'll carry on, hopefully while conscious. There's plenty of fun snake-charmer music to enjoy, even if Sunny Deol isn't my brand of eye candy.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Quick blip on "Salaam-e-Ishq"

At the halfway mark, things I like best about Salaam-e-Ishq:

-- Bagpipes! Okay, that's cheating. I liked the bagpipes in the title tune long before I saw the movie. They're still really fun to hear.

-- A mellower Govinda, singing the "Dream Girl" theme.

-- The American girl he meets up with loses all her belongings except her Oxford Hindi-English Dictionary. It looks like the same edition as mine, which made me go "squee!"

-- When Priyanka creates a fake boyfriend, she names him "Rahul." (Hmm...naam to suna hoga).

-- So far, I actually think Salman Khan is funny.

Speaking of the Oxford Hindi-English Dictionary, I don't really see how they get "Love's Sweet Salute" out of "Salaam-e-Ishq." Admittedly, I'm no expert, but turning the "e" into the adjective "sweet" seems like a real stretch, and the result sounds like either a body spray from the 1970s, or one of those inspirational romance novels about pioneer life. As Morrissey once said, "And neither one particularly appeals to me."

P.S.: And I had to check the IMDB, but I really love that I was right, and it's Tinnu Anand playing Priyanka's manager, Babu. I was like, isn't that one of the guys who was boogying in the audience during the "Bump Up the Bhang-ee-la" number from Ram Jaane? (Okay, the title is really "Pump Up the Bhangra," but that's how I hear it). Definitely one of my top favorite Shah Rukh picturizations! In addition, I say to the IMDB: WTF? He directed Duniya Meri Jeb Mein? One of the most delirously, deliciously nutty masala films I've ever seen? Who IS this mystery man?