Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Singh is Culture-Specific Clutter.

I'm reading a wonderful little book of essays from Tim Parks called, Where I'm Reading From: The Changing World of Books. Parks is not only an author but a translator and he has some insightful pieces," including one titled "The Dull New Global Novel," whose topic is self-explanatory. Here is Parks: In particular one notes a tendency to remove obstacles to international comprehension...Kazuo Ishiguro has spoken of the importance of avoiding word play and allusion to make things easy for the translator...If culture-specific clutter and linguistic virtuosity have become impediments, other strategies are seen positively: the deployment of highly visible tropes immediately recognizable as "literary" and "imaginative," analogous to the wearisome lingua franca of special effects in contemporary cinema, and the foregrounding of a political sensibility that places the author among those "working for world peace."

Change a few words and he may as well be writing about the "The Dull New World Cinema".

This is the passage that came to mind when I was debating on inviting a new friend along to see a Bollywood film. What's playing this weekend is Singh is Bliing and, after watching the trailer, it struck me that this would be utterly incomprehensible to somebody not versed in the "culture-specific clutter" of Bollywood.

Take the title: Singh is Bliing.

If that was the only hint given to you, my dear friends, I bet most of you would bring it back to 2008 Akshay-starrer Singh is Kinng and assume that this was also a wacky Punjabi-flavored comedy, probably starring Akshay Kumar.

But imagine if you didn't know Singh is Kinng; if you didn't immediately peg "Singh" as a surname; if you didn't know about the numerological habits of starry types to expect weird spellings! Despite the English, the title itself is jam-packed with "culture-specific clutter."

Watching the trailer, the film seems straightforward enough. We all know the filmi Punjabi stereotypes. We've all seen enough comedy films with Akshay playing a dopey hero to guess at the plot. We all know very well that Amy Jackson isn't desi, so we read her character as exotic with no prompting. The teleport to Switzerland song implies the two are going to hook up. Kay Kay Menon and Lara Dutta highlighted in the trailer means they are going to have supporting roles of some sort. Even the Goa setting itself implies a certain easy-breezy quality to the comedy.

But without that knowledge... it's all nonsensical. A blur of faces, settings, and jokes with no context. What's the deal with the whiskey? Why is that guy with a lion? Is Goa different from Punjab? Who's that guy? Why doesn't that girl speak Indian?

The Akshay Kumar comedy film may not be "high art" but take a moment to appreciate how difficult it can be to understand a film like this. And remember that the next time you see some dumbass outsider try to "review" a film like this as if it was "world cinema."

Speaking of which there was another delightful little section in a different Parks essay, "A Game Without Rules": Magical Realism was not, of course, confined to South America. Among others, a number of Anglo-Indian authors used their own versions of the style to create a new vision of India for international readers; one of those authors was so spectacularly out of touch with the nation he was supposedly presenting to the West that the violent reaction to his Satanic Verses after its publication in India caught him entirely by surprise.

SHOTS FIRED! Also, strip away the exoticism and Rushdie is rather a dull storyteller if you ask me.

Parks again: Translation, [scholar Francesca Orsini] remarked, could make a novel available, but the real exoticism of the truly foreign text remained a barrier to most readers.

Kind of like the difference between Midnight's Children the movie and adding subtitles to a film like Singh is Bliing, translated but still inaccessible to outsiders.

Anyways, the book is worth checking out! Very interesting stuff. And I am going to try my best to get to Singh is Bliing this weekend. Probably Saturday? We'll see!

Friday, September 25, 2015

Let's talk Tamasha.

The tagline to the film is: "Why always the same story?"


It's deeply ironic that many of the same dudes who lecture us about how awful "escapist" cinema is, identify with all these films about escaping ordinary life, generally via romance. What is so bad about getting up and going to the office everyday? Nothing. Nothing is bad about that. What is bad is externalizing your sense of self-fulfillment, waiting for something to fulfill you, instead of buckling down and working to turn your "boring" job and life into something not boring. Take up cooking, get married and have a family, join an intramural sports team or something.

Escapist cinema, masala films, have their flaws. I'm not denying that. But what those escapist masala films don't do is tell the audience that their lives as good, productive citizens are worthless garbage. Escapist films are a stress release from the pressures of daily life but we're not supposed to actually emulate Salim & Anarkali, Jai & Veeru. We live vicariously, taking some comfort in a happy ending and poking at the painful catharsis of a tragic one. But who wants all that fuss in their life? Don't we all have enough problems? Why add to the stress of being alive by putting the pressure on yourself to have One True Love? One True Artistic Profession That's Definitely Not Office Work? That's a fantasy that should stay on the screen. Isn't it enough in real life just to love and be loved? To find a way to make your work fulfilling rather than seeking out some elusive Perfect Job?

Do you know who gets up everyday, eats breakfast, and then goes to work? Me. I didn't realize my life was so boring and worthless, Tamasha. And, as long as I'm on the subject, I got a few "fuck you" tweets for saying this but I'll say it again, it's more than a little condescending to have Richie Rich Star Son playacting a "dreary" office worker. I don't need some dude bankrolled by daddy telling me how I should be living. Give me some of that cash to fund my lifestyle and the power to gain a toehold in any profession I want and then we'll talk.

I'll also say this. All these "you need to escape ordinary life" films, Hollywood and Bollywood, have the musty odor of the post-60s flower child about them. It's as if an entire generation swallowed whole The Graduate, Easy Rider, and Bonnie & Clyde etc. without actually thinking about the messages they contained. We can't be petulant teenagers forever. What's cute at 17 is far less appealing at 27 and even less appealing at 47. Who is the real douchebag? The petulant kid at the bottom of the pool or the guy actually doing something useful with his life: making plastic. Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper end up DEAD at the end of their adventure... is that really the way to live?

Monday, September 21, 2015

Some thoughts on re-watching Student of the Year

At the very end of Student of the Year (2012), Rishi Kapoor’s character, Dean Yoginder Vasisht, says he started the Student of the Year competition to fill an emotional void in his life, to stave off the social isolation that came with his (heavily implied) closeted homosexuality. Sir Ian McKellen said something very similar on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast a few weeks ago, that when he began acting, it was a release for emotions he wasn’t allowed to have in public life, because of his (at the time) closeted homosexuality. Perhaps this is a reason that so many homosexual men (and women) have been attracted to a life in show business. The performative nature of hiding a double life is already second nature, so why not put those talents to good use?

Sunday, September 13, 2015

A Detective Three-fer for August: MOZU, SPEC, and Veronica Mars

As you may or may not have known, August was a very difficult month with the Filmi Girl clan. Three funerals for family and close family friends and both my father and grandfather were hospitalized. I haven’t particularly been in the mood to write or think about anything serious. The last person we lost has been the hardest. She was only 44 and always at the center of making plans for family to be together. Although one may think we “know” life can be random and unfair sometimes, it’s not always easy to process a loss. Perhaps that’s why detective stories can be so cathartic at times like this. Not so much the crime-and-punishment angle but the fantasy that everything has meaning, everything is a clue, everything is leading to some bigger picture.

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