Tuesday, October 27, 2009

It's raining anthropomorphic cats and dogs

What with all the celebrity voice imitations in Roadside Romeo, it's a shame they didn't take the opportunity to link a hero named "Romeo" with Mithun's character from the infamous Dance Dance. I know, that would be too much to ask from a kids' movie, but it would have been pretty hilarious.

Seriously though, I've had a long-standing grudge against this movie because of its promos, which were not only super-annoying, but NON-FAST-FORWARDABLE. When will DVD companies learn that they're only antagonizing us? Even without that, a Disney crossover/funny animal kids' cartoon isn't exactly my scene. So it was indeed the fickle hand of fate that made me responsible for a showing at my Place of Employment: I get to show a Bollywood movie and it's ... Roadside Romeo.

Still, it was far from the worst time-pass I've ever had, and the bunch of little Chinese kids in attendance laughed and laughed. They and their parents actually gave it an ovation when it was over! So I can feel good about that.

Only a few tidbits worth mentioning: the character of Romeo is very full of himself, with an unflagging sense that he's cool and has "the style." Since he's voiced by Saif Ali Khan, I couldn't help but think "Aha! That's what he thinks about those darn bandanas."

There were some gratuitous DDLJ moments, but that's better than the fawning over KKHH in Dostana. At least within my little brain.

And most crucially, the dogs are so anthropomorphic -- standing upright, with human-like bodies and features -- that I found the resemblance to the Omaha the Cat Dancer comics downright startling. Especially after we see the heroine onstage with a gaggle of backup dancers at a hound dog nightclub.

Omaha, for those who don't know, was a long-running comic book series about the life and loves of an exotic dancer in a funny animal version of Minneapolis. The situations are adult, in both senses. The characters have complex lives and emotions. For example, when one major character struggles with manic-depression, and another becomes paralyzed, both situations are really dealt with in realistic ways. Also, the sexual activity is very graphic: full nudity, full everything. It's well worth reading, but it was a little distracting thinking, Roadside Romeo could totally be taking place in the same universe as Omaha!

Monday, October 26, 2009

Today in character actors

The other night we binged our way through the first three episodes of the excellent 2007 British mini-series Jekyll (written by Steven Moffatt, of Coupling and Doctor Who fame). At one point,
the Jekyll character, long-suffering Dr. Jackman, discovers his wife has hired private detectives to figure out where he disappears to. When the Hyde side doesn't show up in the surveillance photos they give her, he knows something's wrong, and visits an agency run by two women (whom he eventually discovers are a couple).

One of them is played by the awesome Fenella Woolgar, who was the best Agatha Christie imaginable on an episode of Doctor Who. The other is Meera Syal, who I sweared played the receptionist at Patsy's magazine in Absolutely Fabulous. So I hit the IMDB later, and she did: she's the one who's really defensive about how hard she's working ("Everyone seems to think my job just happens"), but then it turns out she's just playing computer games.

That's only one episode, so it's a little weird that I'd recognize her, but then, the episode is "New Best Friend," which is possibly my very favorite. Some old friends, pretentious artists turned harried parents, visit Eddie with their newborn, leading to her famous pointing out of "Lacroix -- baby spew," and her ultimate condemnation of "this no-fun bloody baby world."

Oddly, though, I did not recognize Syal playing Bobby Deol's mother in Jhoom Barabar Jhoom, which also appears in her credits. Whaa? She couldn't possibly be old enough to be Bobby Deol's mother. When I did the math, turns out she's six years older than he is. Although I only have a vague memory of his having a mother, she must be under the same old-age makeup from the Kumars at No. 42 Britcom, where she played the grandmother of her real-life husband.

Being an actor leads to a complicated life!

Then last night we polished Jekyll off, and there's a dramatic confrontation between Dr. Jackman and the life-long friend who's been secretly involved with the vast international conspiracy (the latter played with smarmy corporate villainy by Denis Lawson, last seen by me as a bastion of kindness and nobility in Bleak House). Lawson's character gives an impassioned speech to justify his horrible behavior, in the hopes of convincing Hyde not to kill him, using the phrase "the greater good" more than a few times.

I thought there was a kind of a burr in his pronunciation, and while I hadn't thought so before, his voice really reminded me of Ewan McGregor's Scottish speaking voice in Down With Love. I particularly envisioned the scene where he was talking about the new "wonder fabrics" with David Hyde Pierce, and two things suddenly hit me. It was the bit in the scene when McGregor says "Some bad Nazis are good scientists" -- it was the word "good." Just like the word "about" tips people off to the presence of Canadians, or a near geographical locale.

The other thing was: duh, Denis Lawson is Ewan McGregor's uncle!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Tithe One On

This morning, the minister had the thankless task of preaching about tithes. He knew it was thankless, too, and mentioned that he gets complaints any time he talks about how people are supposed to tithe. I find it thankless because this is one of those biblical ideas that, once you look at it, falls apart into interpretative problems that he might not be purposely sidestepping, but I'm pretty sure he doesn't want to get into.

For one: there's the fact that an injunction to offer 10% of your earnings to "God" is a very, very different thing from offering them to "the church." Much less to any specific church. And then, when one gets into the biblical support for tithing, one discovers that some of the talk about tithes and "firstfruits" (as in Numbers 18 and 2 Chronicles 21) is about supporting the priesthood, which can be used as evidence for the Protestant viewpoint. But there's also a lot of "the blood of your sacrifices must be poured beside the altar of the LORD your God" business, where tithes are discussed as part of the system of animal sacrifice. (Deuteronomy 12:27. Thank you, Bible Gateway!)

What I like even better, also in the same intriguing chapter of Deuteronomy, is this: "You must not eat in your own towns the tithe of your grain and new wine and oil, or the firstborn of your herds and flocks, or whatever you have vowed to give, or your freewill offerings or special gifts. Instead, you are to eat them in the presence of the LORD your God at the place the LORD your God will choose." (Deut. 12: 17-18) You're supposed to take those tithes, and the firstfruits and your special gifts, and eat them yourself! There's even a handy loophole: "If the place where the LORD your God chooses to put his Name is too far away from you, you may slaughter animals from the herds and flocks the LORD has given you, as I have commanded you, and in your own towns you may eat as much of them as you want." (Deut. 12: 21).

I'd say that if I don't know where this place is, that God has put his Name on, it's not too legalistic to say that it's "too far away." (A scan of religious scholarship shows that most people assume that place was the Temple, long since destroyed, which is used to explain why the animal sacrifices fell out of vogue. As the religion evolved in a new direction without an official, Temple-based center, the ritual of bringing the tithes to the place that was destroyed didn't work any more). But if we're still tithing, and I accept the available evidence, then the old Temple would be the site to go to and again, I'm not going to be able to get there with my offerings every year. So I guess I have to eat and drink them at home.

Deuteronomy 14 reiterates the same idea, especially the part about how it's fair to sell your tithes, get to the holy place, and then use the money to buy whatever you want to eat there in God's name. Then it adds that every three years, the tithes should stay in your own town and be distributed to the needy. By this logic, I can party in God's name two years out of three, and then the third year, donate my ten percent to a local food bank (maybe the one where my dad works!), and be Old Testament certified!

Well, you know. From a certain point of view.

Deut. 14: 26 even kindly specifies "And thou shalt bestow that money for whatsoever thy soul lusteth after, for oxen, or for sheep, or for wine, or for strong drink, or for whatsoever thy soul desireth: and thou shalt eat there before the LORD thy God." Personally, I much prefer the wine to the oxen, so it's nice that it's perfectly fine for us to lust after what we like, at least in the eating and drinking department.

By the time of the New Testament, the majority of the offerings and firstfruits are metaphorical. Individuals are offering spiritual sacrifices instead of physical ones, and are standing themselves in the place of firstfruits.

Research caused me to stray, as research so often will, and I stumbled into Acts 4: 32-35 as an example depicting financial obligation in the early church. (And I found a delightful article arguing that Christian attempts at "social Gospel" -- helping the poor and fighting social ills -- are based on "twisting and misunderstanding" how the finances of the early church worked in these verses). Here they are:

"All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all. There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need."

I'm not really clear how that's twistable. Umm. Well, that website was using the venerable King James for their quotes, so let's try there!

"And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common. And with great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus: and great grace was upon them all. Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, And laid them down at the apostles' feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need."

That's even more so! The New International Version I started with said that "from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them," whereas the KJV says that "as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them." Not just from time to time, as needed, but that everybody who owned something got rid of it upfront, and the funds were distributed to everyone.

Was the whole notion of "biblically"-based tithing, giving donations of 10% of one's income (a tax tradition going back to Babylon, if some people are to be believed), developed in order to avoid the implications of New Testament "communism"? Because it's obviously hard enough to get offerings out of people, much less get them to sell everything and put it into a common pot...

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Inspecting the Inspectors, Part 2

Oh, the fifties -- a time when any film occupation, from police inspector to gangster's moll, could be endowed with dignity through sheer force of accessorizing. In C.I.D., the men sported suave white suits, the women wore beautiful gowns and veils, and they all drove around in enormous, aesthetically pleasing automobiles, while people like Mohd. Rafi and Geeta Dutt sang their inner thoughts and feelings.

Just thirty years later, no such dignity was available to the stars of the 1980s, who were forced to wear hideous headbands and spangly spandex in films with "Music Direction by Bappi Lahiri" in the credits. Disco king Mithun Chakraborty was obviously used to this kind of thing, but watching his Main Bhalwan (1986) in a double feature with C.I.D. puts the devolution of style in sharp relief.

The movie's first twenty minutes contains more plot twists than many full-length features. First, there's a father proudly passing on the family legacy of jewel thievery to his son, but it all turns into an argument when the son wants to go straight and get married. (The thief is a conventional criminal, insisting that he'll choose his son's wife. He also seems to be trying to channel Amrish Puri, but the evil laugh is tellingly overdubbed -- trying too hard). Then there's a shootout with the cops. Then the son brings home the fiancee, just in time for Dad to come home and beat her with a cane. Much shouting about how one man's rock is another man's diamond ensues, climaxing with the son sindooring her on the spot.

(By the way, the son, who is destined to spawn baby Mithun, is played by Suresh Oberoi, Vivek's father).

The jewel thief throws them out in the street. They go to take refuge with her brother Dharmendra, who's entertaining some prospective in-laws for her. Awkward! He throws them out, too -- at gunpoint -- in a scene that gives Dharmendra the opportunity to channel his inner William Shatner.

Later, Dharmendra stumbles across his sister, who's pregnant and being thrown in the street by the landlord (that's her third eviction in about five minutes), and begs her forgiveness. Across town, her husband has gone groveling to his father, who throws money at him and forces his son to do one more job. Just as the sister is going into labor, her brother gets a call that the fabled jewel thief is striking at that very minute. They storm the building, he gives chase, and shoots the thief, not realizing it's his brother-in-law until the culprit runs bleeding to his own door. Poor Vivek's Dad arrives just in time to meet his newborn son, blame his father for everything, and die in his wife's lap.

Before long, she leaves the baby sleeping and goes to confront the villain, who kills her and has her body thrown in the river. (Or did he? After all, we've seen Dance Dance). Flash-forward twenty-five years, and the villain is stalking his grandson from afar, hoping to corrupt him into taking up the mantle of famous jewel thief that his father so foolishly abandoned.

Also abandoned is a plot point about how the gangsters were slipping young Mithun "poison" -- I can only imagine some kind of addictive drug -- so he'll turn to a life of crime to support his habit. But it's not really necessary: he's involved in petty scams (tipping off criminals to his uncle's upcoming raids) just for money to impress chicks. When he gets caught, it breaks his uncle's heart, but the return of the jewel thief makes the police decide to train Tony as a double agent (after all, one of them points out, "He is a top dancer. He dances flexibly like a deer.")

Of course, we know this is belly-of-the-beastville. When Grandpa finds out, he exclaims "Wow! Whatever I wanted to do, the police officers are doing that." Especially since they train him in prison, without ever telling Mithun their purpose, so he thinks it's part of the punishment, leaving him vulnerable to be recruiting by the REAL jewel thief. Good plan.

(By the way, this film consistently translates "vah!" as "wow," including in a "vah! vah! vah!" ghazal-reciting scene, which is so logical and sounds so right, it actually makes me wonder about the etymology of "wow.")

So there's a good father figure/bad father figure dichotomy going on, complicated by the fact that if Mithun embraces the good father's values, he'll also get to marry his rather Flashdance-esque dance partner, who happens to be the police superintendent's daughter.

Small world! While you ponder that, here's the sprightly love duet "No Entry." That's not meant to be ... suggestive or anything. Certainly not with a bevy of disapproving nuns...

P.S.: D'oh! That's what I get for blogging in mid-film. Sometimes I just can't contain myself, though. The plot point wasn't dropped; I just misunderstood. It didn't occur to me that when a criminal was talking about poisoning somebody, he might just be metaphorical. After all: he's a criminal! He could actually poison somebody. But no -- the "poison" was that he bribed some small-time criminals to offer Mithun money for information, thus corrupting him. A little circuitous, yes, but far from the worst I've ever seen in a film.

In the end, pretty much all the minor characters I'd forgotten about (the prison body builder, the weaselly prison administrator, all those gamblers and sellers of "country liquor") turned up and were part of the jewel thief's elaborate conspiracy. The movie is really a sort of parable on existential paranoia: the forces of good (Dharmendra) and the forces of evil (Not Amrish Puri) are both manipulating Mithun's life behind the scenes, and he has no idea. The former lies to him with good intentions, and the latter tells him the (partial) truth in order to manipulate him. Somehow Mithun is supposed to muddle through all the grey and figure out who he is and what side he's on.

No wonder a guy turns to disco! (Or, in this case: "Break dance! Break dance!")

Inspecting the Inspectors

1956's C.I.D. has a solid film-noir feel, if lacking in the sort of existential moral despair I associate with the genre. And I'm impressed with any straight-faced crime drama that can get Johnny Walker to witness a murder committed by Mehmood.

Not only that, but I have never found Dev Anand more likeable than I did as earnest young police inspector Shekhar, a role perfectly tailored to his particular charms. Even his hair, while still sporting a poof, isn't yet a parody of itself; in fact, Mehmood's pompadour draws way more attention to itself.

An upright newspaper editor, on the verge of a big expose, is murdered by thug-for-hire Mehmood. Inspector Shekhar easily captures him at an opium den, but the sinister bigwig behind it all has him murdered in his jail cell, framing Shekhar in a birds/stone maneuver. Clearly about to be found guilty of the crime, Shekhar jumps bail and goes on the run (complete with a classic newspaper headline/police siren montage), with the goal of tracking down the real killer.

Favorite tidbits:
-- A group of girls at a birthday party play musical chairs around the harmonium!

-- The complex script was written by the father of my man Tinnu Anand. The crazy talent obviously runs in the family. (But I can't find any evidence that they were related to Dev and Vijay).

-- Four little words: "And introducing Waheeda Rehman." She could hardly be more ridiculously glamorous, especially when she's coolly holding a gun on hapless Dev, or slipping on the ghunghroos to distract a bad guy. Poor starring Shakila is stuck in the comparatively thankless role of good-girl love interest, and while she's fine, she just can't compete with that wardrobe and that sheer -- Waheedaness.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Boringness Personified

The last week or so I've done a lot of very interesting reading on subjects that would be very dull to talk about. But I highly recommend this trilogy of books, in this order (because one will build upon the other).

Thinking in Systems: a Primer - by Donella H. Meadows
The New Economics for Industry, Government, Education - by W. Edwards Deming (I called this "a real page-turner" in conversation the other day, flabbergasting the poor person talking to me)
Pragmatic Thinking & Learning: Refactor Your Wetware - by Andy Hunt

I've gotten a good background in systems thinking, and ways to see patterns related to why the economy, the government, and the world are so messed up. Not that I'm in a position to do anything about anything, but as we have learned, "Later you will realize that nothing has been superfluous." (as quoted in Ivan Illich's In the Vineyard of the Text: a Commentary on Hugh's Didascalicon, p. 54).

One helpful hint I picked up from the Hunt book was the idea of studying while in a relaxed, right-brainy frame of mind, so I've been reading a chapter of Teach Yourself Hindi first thing every morning, before I'm properly awake. I've already made more progress than I did when I was trying to make myself (gak!) "study."

This morning I learned one of the most useful pairs of phrases I might ever come across:

"तुमको क्या चाहिए?"
"मुझको काफी चाहिए."

(That is: "What do you want?" "I want coffee.")

(P.S. When I wrote this, I was in a hurry -- but I came back from lunch and thought, wait, did hitting the "Hindi" button make it "kahie" instead of "cahie"? "Cahie" is how the book transliterates, but it's pronounced with a "ch." And I was correct! So I've at least begun to be able to tell when I made a mistake. That's progress right there.)