Saturday, February 17, 2007

Eklavya - Throwing Seats at the Screen

I'll confess - I knew very little about Eklavya before I went to see it. I didn't know much about the cast - just that it starred Amitabh Bachchan, and just that it was directed by Vidhu Vinod Chopra. Chopra is capable of either producing a real gem, as he did with Parinda & Mission Kashmir, but also very easily capable of producing what can only be described as bilge - as he did with Kareeb. It's like watching Sehwag go out onto the pitch - you can never tell at the start of the innings if he's going to knock a century or be out for a stupid shot in single digits.

Eklavya has to be one of the worst Bollywood movies I've seen in some time. I just knew that the good run I've had watching Hindi movies in cinemas over the past six months just couldn't last. After Omkara, Kabul Express, and even Dhoom 2, which at least qualified as a total time-pass movie, Eklavya will be my statistical correction. It has to be the single most reductionist, essentialising view of a world that is so unbelievably anachronistic as to be laughable. The entire movie is set in a royal palace (as a Rajput and someone with some genetic sense of what a fort actually is mean to be, I will NOT dignify the pleasure palace they filmed in with the term "fort", despite the insistence of the characters to do so) and is predicated on a great & terrible palace secret - that the heir to the throne is not the son of the King, but rather of one of the guards, Eklavya. The King opens the movie by reading Shakespeare, "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" to his dying wife, in what seems to be an act of touching love, until we see him strangle her when in her dying delirium she keeps calling out for the guard, not him. Nice, isn't it?

Things steadily go downhill from there. There is palace intrigue, the King isn't impotent (as was earlier implied) but rather more interested in his stable boys than his wife (aha, that prediliction, do I hear you say) Saif Ali Khan emerges to play the London - returned heir apparent (i.e. pretty much playing the nawabzada that he is in real life), there is a love sick girl from a lower family (Vidya Balan, who is stunningly expressive & just gorgeous on the big screen, but has REALLY flabby arms!!!) and also a demented sister who paints her mother in broad oil strokes reminiscent of Anjolie Ela Menon & M.F. Husain.

Throw into this cocktail some long winded tirades about what dharma really means, a letter from a dying mother to her son explaining who his father is, and possibly the most ill-quoted phrase from the Mahabharata (Dharmah Matibhyah Utghratah - dharma is that which is born from reason & rationale) and voila - one orientalist fantasy with eerie Shakespearean intrigue thrown in for good measure. Eklavya, the title character, has been described as Bachchan's tour de force. Unfortunately, while Bachchan is definitely a good actor, even he cannot save his character from descending into what appears to be an almost Al Qaida like fanaticism of what his dharma truly is, and how dharma is above all reason, all question, all challenge. Besides, he's an incredibly weepy man!!

The real tragedy of the movie is that aesthetically it is quite beautifully shot. But to quote a fellow film goer, give a five year old a camera and some Rajasthani landscapes, and you'd get some amazing visuals. There are also some good performances from several characters - Boman Irani, a favourite after Don, plays an incredibly Shakespearean King, while Sanjay Dutt in his cameo as the untouchable who became a cop is a breath of fresh air. It was good to see Parikshit Sahani back on screen, but alas, even heavy hitters like these are unable to save Eklavya from becoming the hash that it truly is. I am truly surprised by the reviews that this movie has gotten from international critics - but I suspect in so many ways the movie becomes much more accessible to a western audience that is immediately able to relate to a film that can so easily help reinforce an Orientalist stereotype. There are palaces, there is royalty, there are long speeches about honour, there are evil landlords who annex the lands of poor farmers - all in all, welcome back to the Raj.

I won't even GET started on the factual inaccuracies, because we could be here for some time, and I feel terrible about having wasted three hours of my life on this movie already. So I will finish this post with the following two comments:

1. DO NOT WATCH THIS MOVIE unless you are totally mascochistic

2. DO NOT WATCH THIS MOVIE unless in the words of a fellow movie watcher you want to see if you will actually be forced to rip your seat off the floor to hurl it at the screen...

(PS - No images because I could not be bothered to waste my time looking for them on the internet. Go to the official film site, Eklavya The Royal Guard, if you're interested)

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Memory & the Art of Writing

No matter how hectic my schedule, there is always time to read in it - either while commuting on the Tube, or in bed before falling asleep. I usually read very quickly as well, and I can go through several books in one weekend, or on a long flight.

It therefore always surprises me when I find books that force me to slow down and really spend time turning the pages. So it was rather a bizarre coincidence to find not one, but two books, both borrowed from a friend, that managed to do just that. In fact, I probably took over four weeks to really go through them - a completely surprising thing, given that cumulatively they're only about six hundred pages.

I think what really forced me to slow down and take the time to go through these at leisure is that they both wrote so eloquently about something that is usually so complex and multidimenstional that it is difficult to capture completely in work - the act of remembering.

The Memory Artists and The Museum of Unconditional Surrender are written by Canadian Jeffrey Moore & Croatian Dubrovka Ugresic (I am unfortunately missing some critical diacritical marks from the second name) Both write about very different circumstances & realities, with very different structures and plot elements, but are essentially connected with the power and helplessness of memory, and how in so many ways it forms an integral part of our worlds.

The Memory Artists is set in the narrative of an immensely talented character who is diagnosed at a young age as being a hypermnesiac synaesthete - his memory is startlingly accurate, but he sees words as colours in his own head. Moore spends many paragraphs spinning out how simple words and sentences can trigger chains of association in the protagonist's head, a myriad of colours, shapes, images, all carefully and tumultously documented as we're taken on a tour of the mind of a synaesthete. Noel's "normalcy" is severely hampered by his synaesthesia, but his ability to remember the most minute of details is unerring, allowing him to remember detailed conversations had many years ago. Once Noel experiences something, it is as good as graven in stone, for him to be able to recall at a later date.

The counterpoint to his own unfailing ability to remember is his mother, who's descent into Alzheimer's disease is probably the single most disturbing part of the novel. The complete inability of Noel, who has more than enough memory for the both of them, to be able to "save" his mother, is completely heartbreaking. Unwilling to let his mother slide into oblivion, Noel starts frantically to search for a cure in the basement of his house, aided in his pursuits by a friend who is unable to feel disappointment, and the occasional interludes from Noel's doppelganger, Norval.

Moore's writing is crisp, and even though the prose flows quite easily, he provides enough weight in a few sentences to keep you preoccupied. Using a multiple of narratives, diary entries and conventional dialogue, the story progesses, pieced together towards an ending that is muted in its joy, but is also equally poignant. The acknowledgements at the end describe how both of Moore's parents were victims of Alzheimer's, and I was forced to go back to the passages that discussed Noel's mother's condition, and which suddenly became even more tragic.

Contrasted to Moore's idea of what it means to remember, and to forget, Ugresic's writing is in some sense much more personal - it almost feels like sitting in someone's head, reading their thoughts, as she flits from one idea to the next. The story is abrupt, and in real terms, there is no plot. That would have been the most damning thing for me to say about any novel, but in Ugresic's case, the lack of plot provides the perfect platform to exercise in the act of remembering.

Told from the perspective of a Croat exile who flees to Germany to avoid the ethnic conflict in erstwhile Yugoslavia, The Museum... is one long lament. It is the keening of a woman mourning the loss of a life, a heritage, and a country. Compiled from a set of vignettes, the story starts and end in Germany, cutting back to the Balkans and in time to coalesce into a mosaic describing the lives led by some very ordinary people in ordinary times, only to have that mosaic shattered by events. In many ways painful reading, Ugresic's work is very, very quietly written. She is not one for bombastic or "powerful" writing. But the strength of the work lies in the quiet turmoil that conveys the anguish in the writer.

I know that most authors hate to be asked whether their writing is somewhat autobiographical - it is the most cliched of questions you can possibly ask, but somehow, in both these cases, there are clear glimpses of painful memories that both writers have chosen to deal with, not because they cannot find any way to obliterate them, but because the writing process becomes a cathartic experience - by writing it down, you can purge it from your system. And both The Memory Artists and The Museum of Unconditional Surrender are just that - incredibly poignant, powerfully written stories that leave you disturbed out of your shell, and usually traumatised by the author's act of catharsis. But unlike Greek theatre, there is no dramatic denouement that can help the reader perform his own purge - the internalisation that takes place during the novel cannot be that easily removed.

That takes its own time - enough time for the memory to fade just a little bit.

What I'm Listening To...

I've gone through yet another period of being terrible at updates - but I blame work, really! One really good development is that I've now figured out that I can access online streaming music websites from work, so I can carry out all that corporate financiering with the strains of the latest Hindi music blasting away!

A recent discovery, and likely to be promoted to the category of "all time favourite" is the song Maula Mere from the film Anwar.

Normally I don't post a lot of videos on this blog, but this one just had to come in...I love the visuals in this clip as well - you can almost feel the dust in the air, the heat of a warm day in a small Northern India town...