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!

1 comment:

Raye S. said...

What a fascinating book! Thanks for sharing, I will have to check it out! Made me think of one I read (you probably did too.) "Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything" by David Bellos.
Translation is such a wide and deep topic; it seems that despite shrinking borders of the world and an ever greater need for "translation", the general public's grasp of "others" is shallower than ever. Seems a shame really, to take the time to learn the reasons behind a joke or cultural experience makes life richer.

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