Memsaab Story: A Recommendation

Those who want to educate themselves about Indian films, specifically Hindi films, and even more specifically, ‘commercial’ Hindi films (i.e., mostly ‘Bollywood’ films), can find this blog very enlightening, or at least very useful.

She doesn’t speak Hindi, but she has developed an insight into these movies, not to mention a taste for them (almost like an Indian). The blog is also like a mini-encyclopedia of these movies. The fact that she has many inside (Indian) ‘informers’, many of whom are themselves very knowledgeable about such movies, helps in making the blog more interesting and educative.

No matter how much you know about these movies, you might still come across some new things. There are even resources which only a true (critical) fan can develop, aka trivia of certain kinds.

Of course there are some things which she might not be able to perceive in the same way as an Indian would (given not only the language gap). But that might also be an advantage for a critical fan. The outsider-observer’s advantage.

I have been watching movies from around the world and have often wondered whether I was really ‘getting’ those foreign language (that is, non-English, non-Hindi) films, as I knew very well how inadequate subtitles are. Sometimes they (subtitles) are hilarious (if you know the language) and other times they are idiotic. Still other times they are disorienting. Or infuriating.

After reading this blog (being a highly critical almost-fan of these movies), though, I think it is possible to develop an understanding of foreign language movies almost like not only a native speaker of that language, but like that of a native.

This makes makes me more confident that I can write about foreign films (American, French, Italian, German, South Korean, whatever) with as much authority as a native speaker and a native.

If I do my homework, that is, which I think I do (there are occasional slips).

This takes years of effort.

This kind of effort is quite pleasurable (usuallly), if only you can spare the time.

(The same goes for other forms of art, popular or otherwise, such as literature, painting or music).


As I have hinted, she is no fan of ‘art’ films, which she thinks are like ‘watching the grass grow’. Not the same as my opinion.

The Ambiguity In The Box

Moral ambiguity is one of the stocks-in-trade of literary and art criticism. This or that work of art is said to have moral ambiguity to a high degree and it is usually meant to be a compliment. Now moral ambiguity, given the world we live in, is indeed something that perhaps every work of art should possess to some degree. After all, what can be worse, from the artistic point of view, than to sit in judgement over each and every aspect of human life, when human knowledge of human mind or of human relations, let alone of the cosmic realities, is so little that we can only feel humble at our own collective ignorance. We can also feel collectively criminal, given what we have done to the Earth, but that is a digression. Paraphrasing and putting in the reverse order what Pinter said in his Nobel acceptance speech, unlike in real life, where we often have to (and must) say what is true and what is false (or what is good and what is bad), in art one need not do that. The necessary result of such a well advised policy will be moral ambiguity in art, because art is not Moral Science. That applies as much to popular art as it does to ‘high’ or ‘fine’ art. However, that does not give us the license to see moral ambiguity where it is not present.

The sources of immediate provocation for bringing up this topic are the reviews ([1] [2] [3] [4]) that I have recently read of an acclaimed movie. That movie is called Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), directed by Michael Curtiz. It can be called a gangster movie. On the surface, it is quite run-of-the-mill, but like all ambitious works that achieve some artistic success, by which I don’t mean box office or critical success, but the inherent quality of the work, this one too rises above other similar crime movies. It is also one of those rare movies that are made great (or almost great) mainly because of the acting, in this case the acting of just one person: James Cagney. On this point I am in agreement with all the reviewers of this movie, who, without exception, praise his performance. The direction is good enough, but it has become secondary.

One can also mention before proceeding further that this is a better movie than the overrated Casablanca by the same director. But please don’t let that come in the way of listening to what I have to say about the supposed ambiguity in this movie.

The basic plot is simple and familiar for every movie buff (even to others perhaps). Two boys live in a slum. They are members of, what we euphemistically call, ‘troubled youth’. They indulge in petty thievery (one reviewer called it robbery: unarmed boys trying to steal a little something from a stationary goods-train wagon and failing to do so). On this train ‘robbery’, they are noticed by someone and then chased by two policemen. One gets away, the other gets caught. From then on, their lives are separated for fifteen years. One becomes a priest and the other becomes a hardened criminal. No prize for guessing which one becomes what. Their lives collide again and one of them ultimately loses. No prize again for guessing which one.

The plot would be especially familiar to those who grew up on Hindi films of the seventies, but it was a common plot even in the US in those days, that is, the thirties. Only forty years of difference in progress, instead of fifty. Cheer up. Don’t feel cheated.

So where is the ambiguity? When the hardened criminal comes out of prison one more time and meets his old pal, the priest, he also revisits his old slum. And he runs into not just the girl he used to tease (who, after having waited for fifteen years, pays him back as she always wanted to, but falls in love with him nonetheless: the movie does suggest that they were in love even in the beginning, though their street-smartness required them to express it via mutual hostility), he also runs into a a group of boys just like what he and his friend were. These boys pick his pocket and he bests them (as one reviewer expressed it) to win their admiration. He was already their hero, being a familiar figure in the daily headlines, but now that they have him near them and find out that he lived in the same place and used the same hideout, their admiration is total. These boys are called the Dead End Kids (or Dead End Boys in the movie, I don’t remember which). They are played by the same actors who played similar roles in an earlier series with the same name. The situation is that the good guy priest is trying to ‘straighten’ them. He tries to make them go to the gym and play basketball. Play by the rules, that is. But he fails. It turns out that the bad guy criminal is better at making them play the game by the rules. How would the priest feel?

The movie ends with the bad guy criminal duly coming to an inevitable bad end, as required by the moral Production Code of those days. He is captured after a shootout, which occurs, in the first place, because he was trying to save his friend’s life. For the second time. The first time was just before he was caught after the train ‘robbery’ and was put in the Center for Juvenile Delinquents. Jerry (the to-be priest) had fallen on the rail tracks as a train was approaching and Rocky (the to-be gangster) stopped and helped him get up. That probably cost him his future. But he ain’t complaining. He is the kind who is prepared to ‘take the rap’ for his actions and maintains his tough persona and, when Jerry comes to visit him and asks him why didn’t he name him too (so that he could have got an easier punishment), he (Rocky) advises his best friend, “Always remember: Never be a sucker.”.

So the bad guy comes to a bad end and is sent to die on the electric chair. Now the priest, who already owes his life twice over to his best friend (and had earlier gone on a campaign against all the criminals in the city, including Rocky Sullivan), asks for one last favour from him. Since the boys hero worship him, would he now show “a different kind of courage, a courage that only you and me and God know about” and pretend to die as a coward, instead of maintaining his brave persona to the end, as expected by the boys? That, the priest argues, would save the boys from falling into a criminal life and coming to … a bad end.

Rocky Sullivan refuses the request (it’s the only thing he has: his heroic, even if criminal, image) and walks defiantly to the chair, but just before the last part, after walking the last mile, his shadow is seen through a glass and his voice is heard as he apparently succumbs and cries out for mercy. The next day the media reports that Rocky Sullivan died ‘yellow’ and the priest takes the dejected and disillusioned (isn’t that an appropriate word?) boys to go with him to say prayer for “a boy who couldn’t run as fast as I could”. No mention, of course, of the life saving part, which would have caused the hero worship of the bad guy to resurface.

The ambiguity, for many reviewers, is supposed to be in that last act of cowardice. Did he just pretend to die as a coward (for the sake of his friend and the boys who admire him), or did he actually lose his courage in the end? But one can almost excuse the reviewers because James Cagney himself is reported to have said that he tried to make that scene seem ambiguous, and his co-actor (then not quite a star) Humphrey Bogart also appreciated this scene, presumably because of the same ambiguity.

What ambiguity? Where is the ambiguity in that last scene? There is no ambiguity there. If you insist it’s there, may be it’s there in the box. I didn’t see it. Given all that went before in the movie, it is crystal clear to me that Rocky was just pretending to have turned ‘yellow’, granting one more favour to his best friend. And thus failing by his own standards, as well as by those of the others. He died, not a coward, but a sucker.

Actually, there was a reviewer who also didn’t find any ambiguity here. Neither, as he mentioned, his father. He is the one of the robbery mention. But there were others. So I am not completely alone in this.

Movies about crime, movies like this, almost always work at different levels. One is as required by that moral Production Code. Criminals coming to a bad end. The conflict between the good and the bad. Even this is not as simple as it sounds, because at this first level too the bad guy, who is the main character, is shown to be basically a good person (in this movie: in others he may have some good traits), who only came to a bad end because of his circumstances (the movie doesn’t mention his hero worshipping a preceding Rocky Sullivan). That is why he does all those favours to his friend. The movie also shows many other bad characters, who are much worse than him and meant to be seen as such by the audience. But the priest, who is also shown to be really a very good person (who came to a good end), boils down the whole set of circumstances to just one thing: Hero Worship of criminals like Rocky Sullivan. That’s the reason, he seems to believe (like a right-wing conservative nut), if that hero worship was stopped (by hook or by crook), the Dead End Kids will get straightened and will live a good life. So he decides to make an example of his own best friend (who is dying because of him and probably came to a bad end also because of him). For a good cause. For him, ends justify the means. Priesthood and goodness be damned. He is a pragmatic, albeit idealistic, politician. As wily as they come.

The second level, when compared to the first, is what shows up our own moral ambiguity. That is the level of entertainment. How we enjoy those thrilling scenes. How we root for Rocky all the way (as more than one reviewer noted), even when he is in the shootout and is killing policemen. The whole story has been made up mainly for our entertainment. Michael Curtiz (he was famous for his problems with the English language) is known to have said about his movies (and his way of making movies, and may be also for the business of making movies), “Who cares about character (development)? I make it go so fast, no one notices.”. All the way we root for the bad guy, and at the end we set it morally right by delighting in the sorry end of the same bad guy, so that we can go home and sleep well.

That’s the usual thing. What is especially bad here (or is that usual too?) is that there are a lot of other really bad guys. Much worse, as I said. And most of them don’t come to a bad end. They are not even considered or known to be criminals. They live respectable lives. What about their hero worship? Don’t the ‘straight’ but not yet respectable people see them as their role models (or at least look up to them)? The lawyers. The police chief. The businessmen. The mediamen. You can extend the list to the very top.

In fact, as the soon-to-die criminal remarks, all those bad guys were named during the trial and the priest himself had tried to clean the city of all the corruption (with the help of one brave newspaper editor), but nothing happened. The only ones who we see coming to a bad end (except Rocky Sullivan) are those who are killed by Rocky, who is the only one caught and sentenced. So what’s all this about bad guys always coming to a bad end? Does someone really believe that? Did they believe it even in the thirties?

I am talking about the world we have, not the one we should have.

To follow this to the bitter end, one could almost say that the good guy priest finally has his revenge on his friend who didn’t take his offer of help and instead advised him (condescendingly?) to not be a sucker. The monster living in the priest’s dark side might well be looking up during the prayer after the execution and saying triumphantly, who is the sucker now?

The boys, when they first saw him and decided to pick his pocket (and before they realised that he was their hero, Rocky Sullivan), identified him as, yes, a “sucker”. Works of art often say things which their creator may not have intended.

Why were the boys called the Dead End Kids? The word angel is referring to these boys as well as to the famous criminal. One of the dirty-faced angels has to be sacrificed to save the other dirty-faced angels. So it’s all among the dirty-faced angels. Nothing to do with the rest. Be happy, go home and have fun.

It was perhaps the possibility of having to face such questions that sent those reviewers and commentators (and Cagney and Bogart) scrambling to find ambiguity where there was none.

As hinted earlier, there is a kind of ambiguity here, but it’s not in that last scene, which is an embarrassing end to the movie. It’s there in the priest’s character. It’s also there in our reactions to the movie, where it always is. But the criminal-with-a-heart-of-gold’s character is as straightforward as that of any archetype in Western movies. No ambiguity.

The problem (at the first level) is not that the priest is trying to make the kids forego a life of crime. The problem is that his endeavour, like that of the moral Production Code as well as the quest for ambiguity in this particular case, is not genuine. And the solution is not to make suckers out of ‘angels’, dirty-faced or not.

The problem (at the second level) is also that even the last purifying delight of ours just doesn’t work, if you think a little about it. After all, it’s not just the priest and criminal and God who know what really happened. We also know it. And the final bad end was ultimately for our benefit. But if we know that he didn’t die ‘yellow’, then the device breaks down. Now we need something else as a substitute. So we make up the story that we really don’t know. The last scene is ambiguous. In spite of the explicit explanation that went just before it and all that went on earlier, we don’t know whether the cowardice was real or not. May be it was. That would absolve us. Because if he did die yellow, then he did come to a really bad end: in the public eyes, his own eyes, in our eyes. No redemption for him. After having entertained ourselves at his expense, we have appropriated his redemption as well. That’s smart, isn’t it?

We ain’t no suckers.

The Movie that Haunted Coen Brothers

‘Big’ writers generally avoid writing about movies, or, at any rate, writing seriously about them. Part of the reason is that for a big writer (or a would be big writer), there is always the immortality thing to consider, which is as natural and understandable as any other quest by human beings. Immortality in some form has, of course, been one of the holy grails of human history and civilization. Writing about such things as movies might affect their chances. You just have read a little about a writer like Samuel Beckett and read some of his works to see what I mean. Movies, ‘the art form of the (twentieth) century’, even the best movies, are still not fully accepted as belonging to the the haloed territory of High Art. An unfortunate consequence of this is that it is hard to find what great writers have written about movies in general and about specific movies. Some might say that there haven’t been all that many really great writers in recent times, but that is a risky territory for me to go into.

Obviously the above consideration doesn’t apply to every great writer. George Orwell is one example: I am not sure whether he wrote about movies, but he did write about other unsafe things. But then the evidence seems to suggest that he wasn’t exactly planning on becoming a great writer, at least not in the way Beckett was. He had other things on his mind. This unexpectedly makes me add here that avoiding politics by ambitious writers is more often than not because of the immortality factor.

Mark Twain is another example (in the category of Orwell, not Beckett). Is it just a coincidence that both had politics in their writing? I mean explicitly: Everyone has politics at least implicitly, whether they like it or not.

Coming back on track, it was, therefore, a surprise when, after discovering (and recognizing as a masterpiece) ‘The Night of the Hunter’ (not having heard of it before that) some years ago, one of the very few reviews or any writing that I found about this (till recently) neglected exceptional work of art was by Margaret Atwood. It is called ‘Why I love Night Of The Hunter’. The movie made such an impression on her mind that she doesn’t now remember who she saw it with. Some of the images have haunted her ever since, she says, especially the famous ‘underwater Shelly Winters’ scene ‘in her aspect of wrecked mermaid’, which has made ‘several disguised appearances’ in her own writing.

Since then I have come across many others, writing that this particular scene haunted them and it’s easy to see why. In my opinion, though, this scene is just one of the minor things that make this movie great.

Among those haunted by images and scenes from this movie are the Coen Brothers, known for their ‘quirky’ ‘indie’ movies. To digress a little, I think it is quite wrong to see them as anything other than Hollywood. They represent the best of the mainstream Hollywood. None of their movies strays too far from the Hollywood style. But that is not necessarily a failing. As I said, they represent the best in this tradition. And they do push the boundaries.

I have been meaning to write about them and the Charles Laughton movie ever since I saw one of their movies after The Night of the Hunter (let’s make an acronym to save my labour: TNOTH), though I had seen two or three earlier. They are said to make numerous references to other movies (nods, as they are called, or tributes), which apparently they claim that they don’t do deliberately, but that doesn’t matter much.

I can’t really say that I am a fan of their movies, but I do like most of them, to varying degrees, like everyone else I guess. But here I am not going to review their movies or even TNOTH. It just gives me pleasure to point out some interesting facts which might be relevant for reviewers of their movies. I had once somewhere read about a few people having influenced them, as is usual in biographies, even very brief ones. And I have also read about specific influences on their movies. When I had checked last, I couldn’t find any mention of TNOTH, but it seems now it is mentioned in several places that this is one of the movies that influenced them and I feel vindicated.

So let me mention a few of the readily observable of such influences. I said the movie has haunted them and it is based on the way images and motifs from TNOTH repeatedly occur in their moves. Their first movie that I remember seeing was Miller’s Crossing. I have since seen it again and it is one of my least favourite of their movies. And it is the only one of their movies for which I can’t recall any example of image or motif from TNOTH. This might be partly because I haven’t thought much about Miller’s Crossing, as I have in the case of other movies by them.

Let me take each of those cases where I can recall, though I won’t cover all of them:

No County for Old Men

Apart from the fact that the movie is set in the West, it is about a serial killer who is almost supernaturally good at hunting people (down). He is a ruthless and cold blooded killer, but he has his own code of conduct, his ‘principles’. Somewhat like Harry Powell, the preacher in TNOTH, although there are differences. And both are hunting for money, which is easy to forget in all their killing. Still, in both the cases it is not very clear what is their primary consideration: money, the violence (which is often shown to be the primary and sole motive for psychopaths: by shallower story tellers) or their ‘principles’. Both are confronted by a woman (young in one case, old in another) towards the end. One meets his nemesis, while there is just a slight hint of redemption for the other, even though the young woman has to die for that. Both movies have a long segment involving the ‘hunt’.

Raising Arizona

What I wrote above for No Country for Old Men is also true of Raising Arizona, except that, since this was a comedy, all similarities are passed through a comic filter. Just like in the other two movies, here also the killer-hunter seems to be ‘more a force of nature’ (a comment the directors made about the actor who played the role in this movie) than a real human being. As one of the comments by a character in No Country for Old Men indicates, he sort of represents all the violence in this land that is ‘hard on people’. Now I might have something more to say about these things, but here I intend to perform duties nearer to accounting than to criticism.

You could say that I am doing this on behalf of Charles Laughton, the great actor, who only made one movie because this one movie, which he rightly believed to be very deserving, wasn’t received well at all at that time. May be I am doing it just to show off, but I like the first idea better.

By the way, a week or two ago I saw the list of top ten all time favourite movies of Fassbinder (excluding his own) and what do I find? TNOTH is in that list! I had a vague feeling that Fassbinder too (in some indirect way) was influenced by this movie, but I actually thought that I was going too far and probably finding imaginary influences. On second thoughts, it’s not so surprising, because the Brechtian thread connects them, if nothing else.

Getting back to the movie under consideration, here also the killer-bounty-hunter has his own icons. In TNOTH he had the LOVE and HATE tattoos on the fingers (another favourite and frequently copied image from the movie) and his trademark knife (recall Brecht’s Mack the Knife, Brecht being associated closely at one time with Charles Laughton). In No Country for Old Men, he has his special weapon that was originally meant to kill cattle. And he has his coin that has been travelling for a long time. In Raising Arizona, he has several such icons strapped on to him and his bike, including one that says (if I remember correctly) ‘Mama didn’t love me’. Even this comic character has supernatural tracking skills.

There can be another take on the supernatural tracking-hunting skills. No real individual can plausibly have such skills. But a large organisation or institution or syndicate (I just saw Love is Colder than Death) or ‘agency’ can. A system can. Or, to put it better, The System can.

As in, for example, Burn After Reading. It would be a piece of cake, even with more than one to be tracked. And even with clueless individuals involved in the tracking. There is always an army of bishops, knights, rooks – and pawns – acting like remote controlled drones with wills of their own, which have nevertheless been trained to do the bidding of their handlers. Not to mention the latest technology of the day and the latest Mythology of Fear and the old old Ideology of Domination.

One of my favourite bits in TNOTH is when the preacher finally arrives at Rachel Cooper’s place to take away the children and the doll. The young orphan girl, Ruby (who is older than the other children living at the place, being cared for by the woman who earlier turns to the camera and says proudly, ‘I know I am good for something in this world and I know it too.’), this young girl who has become infatuated with the preacher, drops what she was doing and cries out excitedly to Rachel Cooper, ‘The Man!, The Man!’.

The Man is the other take.

O Brother Where Art Thou

The underwater scene makes an appearance here too, though there is no corpse as far as we can see. But there must be a few in the background, given the previous scene. Talking of the previous scene, there is, yet again, the motif of the tracker-hunter with almost supernatural capabilities. This time he is a man of the law, not a man of the Lord, or a man outside the law, but he is a psycho and a sadist alright. He is supposed to be from Cool Hand Luke, but that one wasn’t shown to be an uncannily good tracker. He only looked similar and supervised a chain gang.


I had to think a little for this one. It might not be so obvious, but it’s there. The pregnant policewoman who tracks down the killers (yes, the tracking thing is present here too), one already fed to a grinder by the other, can be seen as reference to Rachel Cooper. The latter was old, the former is pregnant. Neither seems or acts very heroic, unlike many other Hollywood heroines. Both, in fact, seem vulnerable, but they manage to do what they should. They are no Lara Croft.

The Man Who Wasn’t There

The underwater corpse is present here. With the car. Inside the car. Drowned with the car after being murdered. But the murderer in this case is not a psycho serial killer, but a very plausible real person, who cons everyone and is well liked and admired. The protagonist’s wife is having an affair with him. And he is not even a habitual murderer. So the motif of a well liked and admired person, built up by the society, who is actually a murderer is also present, apart from the underwater scene.

Three extra points from me to Coen Brothers.

The Hudsucker Proxy

Margaret Atwood mentioned Harry Powell as a man ’embraced by society, then torn apart by it’. This applies to the protagonist of The Hudsucker Proxy too. There is even the more specific motif of this sacrificial character being chased by a lynch mob, just as the mob goes after Harry Powell at the end of the TNOTH. And the mob consists of the same people who had earlier built him up, directly or indirectly.

The Big Lebowski

The motif from TNOTH in this film is the one that makes me laugh the most. People reviewing this movie always mention the mysterious cowboy (‘The Stranger’) at the end who has a brief chat with Lebowski. Who is he? This is what I think: He is the grown up John Harper from TNOTH. Of course, there is some artistic license here regarding the age etc., but he can’t be anyone else. And here is my evidence: After his chat with Lebowski, he turns to the camera (he has been the narrator earlier: the Brechtian thread is very much visible even in Coen Brothers’ movies) and gives a little speech in which he also says ‘the Dude abides’. And Rachel Cooper at the end of TNOTH said about children, ‘They abide. They abide and they endure.’, also to the camera. The tone used is the same in both the cases. The Stranger (according to Coen Brothers and as interpreted by me) seems to be carrying on the tradition of the old (‘gun toting’, which is not relevant here) cowboy woman played by Lillian Gish. He seems to have learnt well from her and was really saved after all. He even seems to like adopting orphans, in a manner of speaking. It’s almost as if the Coen Brothers are finally trying to exorcise the TNOTH ghost, which has been haunting them for such a long time.

Margaret Atwood, in her article, also wondered what would John become when he grew up:

Perhaps he will grow up to become a robber. Or perhaps, as his name suggests, a singer of bloodspattered sagas and the author of apocalyptic revelations?

If I am to believe Coen Brothers and you are to believe me, then he seems to have turned out quite alright.

So this story seems to have a happy ending. But it could have ended differently. What if John Harper had been taken away by Harry Powell and been made his apprentice or if Rachel Cooper had not found him at all? Well, then, he could have become what we get in Raising Arizona.



The choice of Coen Brothers has a significance also because, as I mentioned earlier, they are quintessential Hollywood directors, no avant garde or nouvelle vague etc.

[I might add more later.]

So Dissent is Just a Disease After All

If you are even a little bit well read, you might have come across the name of Bertolt Brecht, even if you don’t recall it now. He is well known as one of the most important figures of twentieth century theatre (theater for the more dominant party). But his influence goes far beyond theatre. It extends to movies, literature, poetry (he was also a poet), political thought and so on (not excluding the Monty Pythons). It even goes beyond the boundaries of the East-West or the North-South divides. I wasn’t surprised at all when I read yesterday that there are ’30 something’ MA theses in South Korea alone (written in Korean) on Brecht. In India, he has been widely written about and heavily quoted by intellectuals, especially those writing in Indian languages. One of the most respected Hindi poets, Nagarjun, even wrote a poem about Brecht. I would have loved to provide a translation of that poem here, but I don’t feel equal to the task as the poem uses words whose equivalents in English I am unable to think of. Some poems are translatable, some are not.

Brecht has been on my mind these days as I have translated some of his poems (from English) into Hindi in the last few days. This excercise included a bit of surfing the Net for his name too and as a result, I came across something that made me write this. Or, at least, acted as a catalyst or the precipitating agent for writing this.

I don’t mean to present a brief bio of the man here. You can easily find plenty of material about him on the Internet and in any good library. I am not even a minor expert (in the technical sense) on him or his works. But I might mention here that some of the things he is known specifically for, include these:

  • His plays and his active theatre work (in particular the ‘epic theatre’ works like The Life of Galileo, The Threepenny Opera and Mother Courage and Her Children)
  • His theory about theatre, which is centred around the idea of the ‘alienation effect’
  • His poetry
  • His affiliation to Marxism (though of the dissident kind)

It should not be hard to guess now (if you were unfamiliar with him earlier) that it is the fourth point that would get most people interested, either approvingly or otherwise. You write plays, you do theatre, you pen poems, that’s all quite alright. No problem. Have your fun. Let us have some too. We can spend time discussing and arguing about it too. But being a Marxist is taking this business to a different territory. That’s politics. That might lead to talk of revolution. Or, at least, to that of radical change.

And so it does. Intellectuals, artists and activists around the world who are not satisfied of being a real or potential (‘wannabe’) Salman Rushdie or V. S. Naipaul and who want to do or say something more about the injustices in the world, in the society, in the institutions, have almost all paid at least some attention to this guy. Some disagreed and turned away, some agreed wholeheartedly and became loyal followers and some agreed partly and adapted his ideas and techniques according to their own taste and their own views about things. One from the last kind is also someone with whom I have happened to be concerned recently. That one was Fassbinder, a prolific filmmaker from the same part of the world as Brecht. Another filmmaker (from India) of this kind was Ritwik Ghatak. But about them, later.

Brecht’s ideas about ‘epic theatre’ (the quotes are there because it is a specific theory or a specific kind of theatre, not necessarily what you would guess from the words: it is a technical term) were a result of synthesizing and extending the ideas of Erwin Piscator and Vsevolod Meyerhold.

About the alienation effect, this excerpt from the Wikipedia article on Brecht gives a fairly good introduction:

One of Brecht’s most important principles was what he called the Verfremdungseffekt (translated as “defamiliarization effect”, “distancing effect”, or “estrangement effect”, and often mistranslated as “alienation effect”). This involved, Brecht wrote, “stripping the event of its self-evident, familiar, obvious quality and creating a sense of astonishment and curiosity about them”. To this end, Brecht employed techniques such as the actor’s direct address to the audience, harsh and bright stage lighting, the use of songs to interrupt the action, explanatory placards, and, in rehearsals, the transposition of text to the third person or past tense, and speaking the stage directions out loud.

But more than this somewhat technical aspect, what attracts me to the ‘Brechtian’ art, was expressed extremely well by Erwin Piscator in 1929:

For us, man portrayed on the stage is significant as a social function. It is not his relationship to himself, nor his relationship to God, but his relationship to society which is central. Whenever he appears, his class or social stratum appears with him. His moral, spiritual or sexual conflicts are conflicts with society.

I read this only today, but as my (few) readers might have noticed (which I explicitly expressed once), almost all of what I write here is about ‘Individual and Society’ (which is also one of the most common tags that I use). For me, the above is the crux of the Brechtian enterprise. But I should add that in my opinion the Brechtian technique, along with its variants, is not the only technique for achieving the goal (for expression in art as well as for scholarly investigation) outlined in the above quotation. Still, I can’t resist saying here that it is the key to understanding Fassbinder. Many a reviewer of Fassbinder movies has made a fool of himself by ignoring this.

Having provided this little context, I will move now to the thing that precipitated this article. Yesterday, after posting one more of the translations of his poems on a blog, I came across a post that pointed me to a news story from Reuters. Since it is from Reuters, it has been carried by many other news outlets.

The story reports that a researcher from the University of Manchester “has uncovered the truth behind the death of German playwright Bertolt Brecht”. It goes on to say:

Professor Stephen Parker … said the playwright died from an undiagnosed rheumatic fever which attacked his heart and motorneural system, eventually leading to a fatal heart failure in 1956.

Previously it was thought his death in 1956 aged 58 had been caused by a heart attack.

So far, so good. But here is the precious bit:

Parker said the playwright’s symptoms such as increased heart size, erratic movements of the limbs and facial grimace and chronic sore throats followed by cardiac and motorneural problems, were consistent with a modern diagnosis of the condition.

“When he was young no one could get near the diagnosis,” Parker, 55, told Reuters. “Brecht was labeled as a nervous child with a ‘dicky’ heart, and doctors thought he was a hypochondriac.”

Brecht’s childhood condition continued to affect him as an adult, making him more susceptible to bacterial infections such as endocarditis which affected his already weakened heart, and kidney infections which plagued him until the end of his life.

Parker believed that his underlying health altered the way the playwright felt and acted.

“It affected his behavior, making him more exaggerated in his actions, and prone to over-reaction,” he said. “He carried the problem all his life and compensated for this underlying weakness by projecting a macho image to show himself as strong.”

I have quoted at this length because I didn’t want to lose anything in the paraphrase. So this researcher is a medical doctor? Wrong. He is an expert in German Literature. And he derived all these conclusions from Brecht’s medical records. The report ends with this gem:

“Going into this project I felt I didn’t really fully understand Brecht,” he said. “This knowledge about his death opens a lot of new cracks about the playwright, and gives us a new angle on the man.”

As the Americans (and now even the Indians) say, Wow!

The Superman might have been fictional, but we now have a Super Researcher. Nothing short of real superpowers could have made him achieve this amazing feat: “his underlying health altered the way the playwright felt and acted”. Felt and acted! That is a nice summing up of the whole business of existence. The key to all this was rheumatic fever! This would make a nice present to an absurdist poet looking for ideas. An expert in German Literature goes through the medical records of a man who was born in 1898 and died in 1956, having lived in various countries during one of the most tumultuous periods in history (when there were no computers: well, hardly). He (the Expert) felt “he didn’t really fully understand” Brecht and by going through these medical records (one of the key exhibits being an X-ray) and found out that all this ‘epic theatre’ and the ‘alienation effect’ and affiliation to Marxism and his poetry and his immeasurable influence on a large fraction of the best minds of the world for the last three quarters of a century was just the result of his rheumatic fever. All his politics was just a simple disease.

As if this wasn’t enough, there is something else that would have caused cries of “Conspiracy theory!” if a different party was involved in the affair. His research shows that the 1951 X-ray report, which showed an enlargement to the left side of Brecht’s heart, was never shown to the playwright or known about by his doctors and it may have been (emphasis mine) held back by the German security services, the Stasi, who had a grudge against the playwright.

So all of you loony lefties, you commie fairies, this idol of yours was just a sick man. And if he was not, well, then he was at least (indirectly) killed by a communist government. So wake up, man! Give up all this talk about the individual and the society and injustice and imperialism etc. Get back on track and let’s live up the market dream together. We can change things. Yes, we can.

To be fair to Professor Parker, he has written a ‘literary biography’ of Brecht and it might be that he is not really claiming all of the above. However, what matters in the world outside the closed academic circle of experts on German Literature, is the effect of the reports of this study on the common readers. And what appears in these reports is, to use a word from the report itself, quite a sinister subtext. The Indian media right now is full of such reports (often of a much cruder, laughably cruder, moronically cruder variety) with similar, barely concealed subtexts, with obvious relevance to the current political situation in the country.

The ‘study’ apparently says nothing about the effect that his blacklisting in Hollywood might have had on him. Did the FBI (or any of the other agencies) had a grudge against him? Here was one of the most admired and influential playwright who had sketched notes for numerous films, but he got to write the script of only one movie that was directed by Fritz Lang. He was interrogated by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and decided to leave the US after that. He lived during the period when his country went mad and so did the world, with millions upon millions dying. He saw Germany descend from relative decency into barbarism. He later also saw the degeneration of the revolution in the Eastern Block. Did all that have anything to do with what he was and may be even with why he died relatively young? Parker doesn’t seem interested in such trivialities and externalities. At least Reuters doesn’t, because I don’t have access to the complete and original ‘study’ as written by Parker.

Very long ago, I had read one of the novels by that great favourite of those looking for gentlemanly humour, P. G. Wodehouse. In that novel (whose name I don’t remember), one of the main characters (Jeeves, perhaps) decides to go, for some reason, on a kind of fast. And from the time of the very next meal, his whole personality starts changing. He becomes dissatisfied with lot of things. He starts finding faults in everything. His good nature is all gone. In short, he becomes the caricature of a dissenter.

Finally, when things go beyond a point, the plot has him give up the fast, may be with some persuasion from others. As soon as he has had a good meal again, he reverts to his usual self. The dissenter is gone. Then comes an editorial comment from the narrator which goes something like this: If only Gandhi (no ‘Red Top’, as you probably know) were to give up his fasting antics, he won’t be creating so many unnecessary problems. As far as Wodehouse is concerned, he has won the argument against the whole idea of Indian independence and whatever else Gandhi said he was fighting for.

But we shouldn’t be too hard on poor Wodehouse, as cautioned by Orwell in his defense, because, for one thing, the humourist was just too innocent of political awareness.

A scholar of Brecht and one of the biggest news agencies in the world, however, belong to a different category.

But this is not such a unique event. Parker has just given a new meaning to the idea of pathologizing troublesome people. To the idea of ‘finding dirt’ on people who don’t follow the rules of the game. It is just a sophisticated version of the understated witch hunt against Julian Asange. A small attempt at rewriting History in somewhat Orwellian sense. The motivation is all there, as more and more people start talking about the ‘churning’ and ‘renewed stirrings’ for a more fair world. Yet another facet of the psychological operations (psyops) in these times of the gold rush.

(Using Bob Dylan’s words, we could say that Professor Parker is perhaps just a pawn in their game, but of a different kind than Wodehouse was for the Nazis.)


One of the significant influences on Brecht was Chaplin’s movie The Gold Rush.

Life is full of poetry and drama.

And melodrama.

Indifferent Rebellion – I

Growing up with Hindi books and, to a lesser extent, Hindi movies, I was constantly (but silently) enraged at the way certain characters in many of these books and movies behaved. These characters were usually women: unmarried, married or widowed. They lived with extended families or ‘joint families’. The behaviour that enraged me involved silently tolerating all the wrong that was continuously done to them by family members, by neighbours and acquaintances and even by strangers. The reasons why they were singled out (though ‘singled out’ is not a very accurate phrase as we will see) for tormenting ranged from their being dependent on others, say, because the parents had died, to simply because they were women. You can still see these characters (in some form or the other) in the soap operas of 21st century T.V. and even in occasional Hindi movies, though these movies now avoid such things: they now focus more on the brighter side of life, which their target multiplex audience is more accustomed to as well as more comfortable with.

To take a typical case, you would have this joint family where there were at least two brothers with their parents and at least one sister. Both brothers are married, one from the beginning of the story and the other usually during the course of the story, possibly after a courtship. The courtship would serve the purpose of providing a happy prologue (which could be quite long) before the sad, tragic body of the story. The end might be happy too, but I won’t go into that. Instead of a courtship, you could have a happy growing up of the younger brother’s would be wife in her loving parents’ home, followed by an arranged marriage.

So this new member of the extended family would join with as great expectations as an Indian woman of her time could. See a few old Indian family dramas if you want to know what that means as I won’t go into that either. Soon she would realize that her expectation were ill founded. All the other members of the family (except usually her husband) would start going after her like proper sadists. It would be very misleading here if I don’t mention that ‘all others’ is not the right way to put it as the members who would really do most of the tormenting would be the other female members of the family: the mother-in-law and the sister-in-law. I might note here that the Hindi words for the mother-in-law and the sister-in-law of a woman evoke the image of most likely to be unpleasant relationships. Hindi has a different word for sister-in-law for men, which doesn’t evoke such an unpleasant image. In fact, the word evokes quite a naughtily pleasant image.

I didn’t create that image, so don’t go after me on moral grounds. Or nationalistic grounds.

The expectations were ill founded and instead what would happen is that the new member would be required to do all the dishes, to wash all the cloths and to cook all the food and more. Then she would be viciously targeted for all her mistakes in everything that she did. The mistakes, in most cases, won’t even be her mistakes. She would framed repeatedly.

The husband, the younger brother (or younger son, if you like), might not participate in the tormenting, but he would either not come to her defence or would be very unwilling and ineffective to do anything. More usually, he might not even notice what is happening. And here comes the starting point of the behaviour that enraged me: the victim would not even tell him about the ways she is being tormented.

She would not tell and she would not protest. She would quietly tolerate (possibly with some meek protest initially) everything that is done to her. And I would be shouting to myself (silently) why the hell is she not saying anything. Why is she not protesting. Why is she not hitting back.

And so on it went for a very long time. Then I understood something and it made sense. At least it made some sense, even if making some sense is not the same as being completely justified or being the right thing to do. But then who am I to definitely say what would have been the right thing. I was not that woman.

Let me remind you here that this particular woman is just an example of the characters I am talking about. And let me also clearly state that they are not just (at least not completely) the product of pulpy and bad writers or writers of the Sadist school. These characters were found very commonly in the Indian life and they still are (I hope to a lesser extent).

These characters, dear reader, were some among your ancestors, whoever you might be, in whichever country. That is, if you yourself are not one of them.

I have been aching to write about this, but (to borrow a phrase from Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant) many things between the heaven and the earth came in the way. Till a few hours earlier when I read the story The Road by Vasily Grossman.

Let me also clarify that these characters are not of the slave-girl category of the Fassbinder film-play. They are not of the ascetic-hermit variety either. Nor are they Gandhian satyagrahis.

Nothing like Mel Gibson’s Passion, so don’t accuse me of blasphemy. Passion is being used here just as an English word (in its older sense), not a religious concept.

Vasily Grossman was called the Tolstoy of the USSR by Martin Amis. The Road is about (and from the point of view of) a mule being driven on the way to the Battle of Stalingrad. Robert Chandler, who has translated Grossman novels, mentions ‘evocations of the horror of war and the miracle of love’ all appearing in this universal story. But as the introduction to the story (not written by Grossman) says, it is about a ‘mule wrestling with Hamlet’s dilemma on the long road to Stalingrad’. This is the part that concerns us here because the dilemma is not just the mule’s (or even Hamlet’s). It is the dilemma of the characters I have introduced above.

And just like the mule in the Grossman story, these characters of real life and pulpy Indian stories resolve the dilemma by becoming indifferent:

It was impossible now to tell him apart from the old mule walking beside him, and the indifference each felt towards the other was equalled only by the indifference each felt towards himself.

This indifference towards himself was his last rebellion.

To be or not to be – to Giu this was a matter of indifference. The mule had resolved Hamlet’s dilemma.

Having become submissively indifferent to both existence and non-existence, he lost the sensation of time. Day and night no longer meant anything; frosty sunlight and moonless dark were all the same to him.

Indifferent not just to others but also to oneself. Indifferent to being or not being. But this indifference was not the result of conscious thought and analysis. It was spontaneous and instinctive. And, arguably, it was almost the only way to survive the life one had landed in. Survival by being indifferent to survival. It was not stoicism, just as it was not masochism. It wasn’t even necessarily the lack of courage or of any other abilities. But with some lexical license, we could call it The Passion. Think of Tarkovski’s Andrei Rublev or Dreyer’s Joan of Arc. So what if it has nothing literal to do with Christianity. So what if they are not painters or warriors but just ordinary mediocre people. As the hunchbacked sexton Algot says in Bergman’s Winter Light, he too in his own humble way has suffered a lot. And so what if they have been portrayed a lot in pulpy Indian stories without even Grossman’s (or, to be impudent, my) insight.

Let’s call it The Passion of the Mule. Or, to be a bit discreet, let’s call it The Passion of Giu. Does it ring a bell? Let it ring. No harm is intended and none is being done.

There is another candidate. We could call it The Passion of Balthazar. How could we forget Bresson in such a context?

At this point, if you are familiar with the Hindi-Urdu literature, you might mention Krishan Chander’s talking donkey (Ek Gadhe Ki Aatmakatha: The Autobiography of a Donkey). But I don’t think that is an appropriate comparison and bringing it in is probably an unacceptable and irrelevant digression. Premchand’s Hira Moti, the oxen, are only a little more closer, but not quite.

There is, of course, the difference (though not always) of degree between real life and fiction. The scale of suffering could be smaller in real life and its manifestation might be different too. I would give you a very common scenario: a frequent motif in real life. There is a woman who is either living with or is visiting her extended family. She has a child. Something happens that is not very unusual in her or the family’s life. She feels that she has been unfairly treated. The matter might involve her child, perhaps vis-a-vis other children in the family. What does she do? She roughly goes to her child and starts beating her or him. Sometimes right where the row took place and sometimes after first taking the child to her room (if she has a separate room). She might or might not shout while she does that. And, more likely than not, she would cry while she does the beating.

This reaction to (quite often justifiably) perceived injustice seems on the surface to be not the indifference of that mule or of the more archetypal characters. But it is just an emphatic display of that same indifference. I have mentioned this particular behaviour just to prove that this instinctive indifference is actually a kind of rebellion, even if she herself is not explicitly aware of this. The only thing this woman cares about more than herself (and may be her husband) is her child. By unjustly punishing that child (and thus punishing herself: more than she could have done by directly punishing herself) she is only showing that she has been treated unjustly. The child too seems to understand this.

How do I know all this? I could tell you, but I won’t. At least not now.

If you want, you can go ahead and laugh at these characters, real or fictional. I don’t feel the inclination to join in. I would like to better spend my time laughing at some other characters.

Before continuing, I would just add a confession (to avoid misunderstanding and silly allegations) that I have only read this one story by Vasily Grossman, though I have read (in translation) other, mostly pre-Soviet, Russian writers.

(To bo contd.)

खुश हुआ खुश हुआ

[ये श्री अनिल एकलव्य जी के एक विद्वतापूर्ण शोधपरक लेख का खड़ी बोली कविता में अनुवाद है। मूल लेख बिजली के खेल में हुए हार्ड डिस्क क्रैश के कारण खो गया है। उसे रिकवर करने की कोशिश चल रही है। तब तक यही सही।]

जंगल-जंगल पता चला है
धोती पहन के मोगैंबो खिला है
पगड़ी पहन के गब्बर सिंह सजा है

पिछली बार जो लठैतों-डकैतों ने
तोड़ा-फोड़ी और पिटाई की वो याद ही है तुम्हें
तो ये मसला अब बहुत लंबा खिंच गया है
जज साहिबान, अब इसे लॉक किया जाए

अबकी अगर शामत न आई हो
तो समझ से काम लो और चुप बैठो
हमने रियायत कर दी है तुम्हारे साथ
पर लठैत-डकैत अभी संत नहीं हो लिए हैं

ज़रूरत पड़ी तो जो कहा गया था
वही होगा
तलवारें निकल आएंगी म्यान से
और जो भी करेगा विरोध
वो जाएगा जान से

हाँ, ये ठीक है – अबकी कोई शोर नहीं
बड़ा डिग्नीफ़ाइड रिस्पौंस रहा है
लगे रहो, जमे रहो, सीख जाओगे

खुश हुआ, मोगैंबो खुश हुआ
गब्बर सिंह को ये शरीफ़ाना नाच
ब-हु-त पसंद आया
ये परिवार के साथ देखने लायक है

परिवार समझते हो ना?
क्या करें
आजकल के बच्चे परिवार संस्कार
सब भूलते जा रहे हैं

उसके बारे में भी कुछ करेंगे
सर्च एंजिन वालों से भी बात चलाई है
पर फिलहाल तो इस फिल्म को
अगले साल ऑस्कर में भेजेंगे

[कविता में किए इस अनुवाद में घटिया फ़िल्मों का ज़िक्र आने का ऐसा है कि अनुवादक बेचारा खुद एक भयंकर घटिया फ़िल्म में एक ऐक्स्ट्रा है। दुआ कीजिए कि इस नई फ़िल्म को ऑस्कर मिल जाए। तब शायद अनुवादक को भी इनाम में माफ़ी मिल सके।]

Five Fingers

The phrase ‘too clever by half’ was coined for such things.

Take Twelve Monkeys as an antidote to this poison. If there is not enough improvement, take Brazil too.

In case of side effects from the above double dose, Burn After Reading might help. But be sure to know your allergies before you take it.

For preemptive, I mean preventive, purposes, it is advisable to periodically take The Quiet American. Beware, however, that you have to take the 2002 version, not the 1958 version. The latter is prescribed by many quacks who practice intellectual euthanasia.

As a final resort, you should take the Mr. Neutron episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. If that doesn’t help, I am afraid there is not much hope.

The Elite Strikes Back, Fetishiously

From right after the transfer of power from the British to the local English Elite (the Babus in the broadest sense), one recurrent theme in the Indian ‘National’ press, which translates as the English press, has been to come down like a 16 ton weight on anyone who so much as mentioned the case of the Indian languages and the extraordinary privileges enjoyed by the English speaking Elite in the country. So, for example, if any politician of the Hindi belt suggested that students should be allowed to write some important exam in Indian languages or that English should not be compulsory at the primary level or even something much less radical-revolutionary and world shaking, there would be (without fail) editorials in the ‘National’ newspapers about how the language chauvinists are going to lay waste our great democracy.

With the changes that have happened in the last 15 years or so (some for better and more for worse), this trend became less common. But now the lumpen antics of the Thackerays have given the Elite a golden opportunity to come back with a 32 (or is it 64?) ton weight on the ‘language chauvinists’.

The way the Thackerays have been able to carry on their thuggery (in the Hindi as well as the English sense of the term) is so absurd that only a few things can compete with it. And one of those things is the fact that the English Elite of the country have been so amazingly successful in summarily suppressing all Indian languages including the legally National Language (Hindi), the language that has the most chauvinistic support from its speakers (Tamil) and the language of the most intellectual community of the sub-continent (Bengali). These and many others are not endangered languages (at least not yet). Most of them can be called mega languages in terms of the number of speakers. All of this is so well known and so often repeated that I feel weary of having to write this. Also equally well known is the fact that only a very small fraction of the Indian population is comfortable with English. However, as India is a society whose structure is mainly defined by the caste system, no one except the top caste wants to remain in their own caste. They all want to make the transition to the higher castes, even as they list the reasons for the greatness of their caste. And the highest caste now effectively is that of the English speakers, who have replaced the (literal) Brahmins from their perch at the top (I know, ‘replaced’ is not a good term because a large fraction of the Elite is Brahmin). Naturally then everyone wants ultimately to make the transition to the top caste. This has lead to an extremely comic and absurd fetish about any language anywhere in the world. It is the fetish for the English language. This fetish too is a well known, though rarely talked about in the English media. A recent issue of the Outlook magazine was an exception. (The issue was the exception, not the magazine). The ‘language media’, of course, used to talk about it. Innumerable books have been written about it. Movies have been made about it (a recent one being Tashan, one of whose stars is now living out his character’s fetish in the real world). And sometimes politicians have talked about it for electoral purposes. But most of them have learned that it doesn’t pay much as the Indians (especially the North Indians) are not very keen to be seen speaking their own languages when in respectable company. They don’t even want it to be known to anyone that they are not good at English. Parents who can’t speak the language will parade their English learning children in front of any visitor and have a little performance of nursery rhymes being chanted in English, even if the visitor as well as the child feel tortured. They will also mention with pride that their child is very poor in Hindi (or any other Indian language).

It’s not that no one in the English speaking community has noted this. Even Nayantara Sehgal had mentioned this in one of her novels long ago. More recently Arundhati Roy had written about the oustee villagers from the Narmada dam site being scolded by Maneka Gandhi for not writing their petition in English, after they had travelled all the way, enduring hardship and hoping to save their lives. There have been others like Namita Gokhale among the (English speaking) writers and artists who have at least hinted at the absurdity of the situation.

But, by and large, the Elite has managed to suppress all talk about any fairness with regard to Indian languages which account for the overwhelming majority of the population of India. They have used diversity as an argument for maintaining the hegemony of English. They have used chauvinism as an argument. They have pitted one big language (Tamil) against the other (Hindi). They have pitted small languages (the so called dialects of Hindi) against big languages. They have pitted Dalits against the upper castes: no matter that most of them belong to the upper castes themselves. They have used linguistically spurious claims about the superiority of English over the ‘less developed’ Indian languages. They have steadfastly refused to concede even a pinhead worth of territory to the Indian languages.

Talk of divisiveness.

Unfortunately for them, The Market (whose praise they are now singing, be they from any part of the political spectrum) may be a brutal place, but it has allowed the Indian languages to gain some territory. As had the linguistic reorganisation of the states, which also (like the demands for linguistic fairness, not like The Market) they have always kept riling against.

When Pepsi and the others came after The Reforms, they didn’t give a damn about what language can get them more customers. Before that, big companies in India preferred to make commercials in English, unless their product was some low brow thing that no one would want to talk about. It is understandable why: the top advertising agencies are mostly dominated by the elitest of the Elite. It must have been hard for them to get used to the presence of Indian languages in their midst. To give the devil his due, they have managed the transition quite well, at least on the public front. It has turned out that these underdeveloped languages can be used ‘creatively’ after all, whatever may be the purpose. I don’t know what to feel about this.

The people may be ashamed of their own languages and of being seen reading books in them (chauvinism indeed!), but they are hooked to the movies and T.V. serials in those same languages. The movie scene is not any less hilarious either. The people involved in these movies may be making their career, earning huge amounts of money and generally being the gods of urban life in India (along with the cricket stars) through Indian languages, but they too are equally ashamed of the languages they make movies in. The scripts of Bollywood movies are written using the Latin alphabet. More than one big Bollywood Hindi movie star has been on record saying he hates Hindi. One of them said he didn’t want anyone around him speaking in Hindi. Offscreen, all they want is for their lives to be copies of Hollywood stars. And they are prepared to pretend that their mediocre work in ‘foreign’ English movies (to the extent they get such work, the chances of which are increasing now as the real superpower focuses a little bit more of its attention eastward this side) is by far better than their best work in Hindi movies. They will tell you the reason for this too: English movies give them far more exposure than Hindi movies (if they do, what does quality matter?). As for the criticism which suggests otherwise, well, ‘it will die its own death’.

Another of the cards the Elite uses against any demand for linguistic fairplay is that of communalism. The fact that the Jan Sangh/BJP and the Sangh Parivar in general have been shouting the slogan of ‘Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan’ has been used time and again to put down (and discredit) any such demand. This time they are vehemently talking about how the ‘Hindi fetish’ of the BJP and the Sangh Parivar has brought about the Thackerays’ Marathi version of the same. One of them has grudgingly noted, though, that there are differences between the two.

The only part of the slogan in which the BJP and the Sangh Parivar are interested in is the Hindu part, and they have made a travesty of even that. The preferred name for India for them is Bharat, not Hindustan. India is referred to as Hindustan (or Hindostan) more in the Urdu literature than in the Hindi literature or in the literature of these right wingers.

As a person whose mother tongue is Hindi (standard Hindi, Khari Boli) and who wants to write in Hindi, I refuse to surrender all the rights of this language or the terms Hindustan, Parivar, Sangh (or even Hindu) etc. to the Sangh Parivar conglomeration. The Elite has done its best to give exclusive rights for all these to the conglomeration. I keep the rights to these as an individual, not as a member of a group. I also keep the rights to contribute and participate as an individual, without being a member of any group.

The plain fact is that injustices are committed on a large scale every day in this huge country in the name of languages. However, there can be no doubt that the largest number of these injustices are in the name of English. Time and again I have seen (first hand) how careers of even brilliant students go the steep downward path because they are not so good at English. And careers are a just small part of the picture. If you are involved in a court case, you are unlikely to be heard if you use an Indian language.

I am not talking about a polish person’s case not being heard properly in France because he can’t talk in French. Even that, as a lot of the members of the Elite perhaps know, can be a valid grievance.

The plain fact is also, as a prominent Hindi writer said in an interview on Doordarshan, that ‘we’ (the people talking about the Indian languages) have accepted English as an Indian language and as our own: the question is whether ‘you’ (the English Elite) are prepared to accept the Indian languages as Indian and as your own.

She said this when the first great lit-fest was held a few years ago at a former royal palace near Jaipur where the guest of honour was V. S. Naipaul, who came with all his knightly glory. And where hardly any Indian language author was invited.

If you don’t listen to people like her, then some day you might have to listen to people like the Thackerays. And you might have to pretend that you like what they are saying.

Another plain fact is that most of the mainstream literary writers in Indian languages (whatever might be their other shortcomings) are neither chauvinists nor communalists. In fact, they are the most committed opponents of the right wing politics of the BJP and the Sangh Parivar. And hardly any of them has ever been able to survive from literary writing alone, except perhaps those whose books become textbooks, which is itself a long story. Dismissing the whole idea of linguistic fairness by waving the communalism card is something that we usually expect from unscrupulous politicians, but the Elite (especially of the Left variety) has been doing exactly this ever since the transfer of power to them. Absurd as it may sound, one can understand this if one realizes that they have always felt threatened that some day the vernacular hordes will take the power away from them. There is a great deal they have at stake. I suspect part of their initial vehement opposition against the BJP was motivated by this. And the BJP saw this and made good use of this: they started talking about political untouchability being practiced against them and they gained a lot of sympathy votes on this point alone. The same Elite later became much more tolerant of the BJP once it came to power. Perhaps they accepted it as the fait accompli.

Fait accompli is another card that is heavily used by the Elite. English is the most powerful language that can give you any chance of a decent career and the possibility of some kind of justice so just shut up and try to improve your English. As one strategic think-tanker recently wrote about the Taliban, if you really want to get something done, then you have to go and talk to the people who have power.

As a not so irrelevant aside, consider the paid news affair, which is causing quite a stir these days. Newspapers have been always been used as weapons by both small and big power mongers. While the big newspapers are used more subtly, the smaller ones (with exceptions and to varying degrees) have either been directly owned by the powerful political and corporate people or have been available for hire. But after the Great Indian Reforms and Liberalisation, some big newspapers like the Times of India started the business of paid news quite openly. Till recently, however, there was only a little murmur of protest from the rest of the English Media. Then the ‘vernacular’ newspapers (for whom it is much harder to compete as they get less advertisements and at lower rates) started following the example of the TOI, but they did it more crudely. Suddenly it became a big issue, with even Dilip Padgaonkar telling us what a scourge paid news is.

Why would the editor of a National daily spend the time and effort to write an editorial about every non-committal language related statement from every two penny politician?

The Left part of the Elite is prepared to talk about all kinds of injustices except those related to language. Except when it is Indian language vs. Indian language. In that case it’s great fun for them.

What we actually have is a strange kind of fanatic language chauvinism practiced by the Elite against all Indian languages: more than just fetishist chauvinism. It’s so real that you only need to walk the roads of any Indian city and read the posters (among other things) of English teaching joints.

Not that there are no injustices in the name of Indian languages. The situation very much fits the big-fish-small-fish metaphor. There is also the infinitely indecent situation in Indian villages of there being separate upper caste and Dalit languages. The Dalits are not allowed to use the ‘upper caste language’. Language is used as a tool for domination, oppression and daily humiliation. In this language-eat-language world, the biggest fish by far in India (as in most parts of the world) is English. Even if it is spoken by a miniscule minority.

Trying to cover up this situation with slick diatribes about chauvinism and communalism might go on paying for a long time, but it might also lead to more dangerous situations than what we already have.

I really haven’t believed for one moment that the Thackerays have any love for Marathi. It’s their only possible ticket to power as of now. If they find some other better ticket, they will gladly drop the whole Marathi Manoos issue. The BJP and the Sangh Parivar are a bit more serious about the Hindi part of their slogan, but as their conduct while in power has shown, they care about Hindi only as much as the Bajrang Dal cares about the Indian culture. And everyone knows how much and of what kind that is. I abhor all kinds of chauvinism, but I still think it is an insult to the real chauvinists (like the ones who took part in the anti-Hindi riots a few decades ago) to call the Thackerays (or even the Sangh Parivaris) language chauvinists.

(1) What people like the Thackerays say, goes something like this:

  • Give licenses to taxi drivers only if they are Marathi speakers.
  • If the above is not done, we will get us some North Indian migrants kicked.
  • We will not allow anyone to do whatever we might decide they shouldn’t do.
  • We will thrash anyone who doesn’t agree with us.

(2) Here is what a real chauvinist might say:

  • Marathi is the greatest (or one of the greatest) language(s) in the world.
  • No Marathi speaker should use any word borrowed from any other language.
  • Hindi is actually a corrupted version of Marathi.
  • There is some evidence that the languages of Central Asia are derived from Marathi.

(3) A Marathi fetishist (if there are such people) might say this:

  • I am afraid to read English (or Hindi) books because they bring bad luck to me.
  • I must have a temple in my house to worship Marathi.
  • If my son doesn’t speak Marathi, I think he will become a pervert.
  • The captions of the Playboy centerfolds should be pasted over with Marathi ones before one looks at them.

(4) Then there could also be demands like:

  • English should not be compulsory at the primary level. It should be left to the parents to decide.
  • Students should not be punished for speaking in Marathi.
  • Knowledge of English (or Hindi) should not be compulsory for certain jobs.
  • Marathi writers (and newspapers, magazines, books) should be treated in the same way as English (or Hindi) ones.

There can’t be any debate about (1), (2) and (3), but as far as I can see, the three still have to be treated differently (say, for moral, psychological or political discussion). But there can (and should) definitely be debate about (4). That is, if by democracy you mean something substantial, not just a protective shield to keep your hold on the power indefinitely. If you put all four in the same group and dismiss them all, then there is some chance that this might lead to some bad things, even if Indians are ashamed to use their own language for higher purposes.

To touch upon another taboo topic, a great great deal has been written about Bombay becoming Mumbai, but I don’t remember anyone pointing out that Bombay had already been Mumbai for the Marathi speakers (not to say that it was and is Bambai for Hindi speakers), just as Calcutta had been Kolkata for Bengali speakers and Delhi has been either Dilli or Dehli for Hindi speakers. Is that completely irrelevant?

If we were to take the English Elite’s rhetoric about chauvinism seriously, one would have to call even Orhan Pamuk a language chauvinist. And Satyajit Ray. And Tolstoy. And every French writer. And so on.

In many places in his books Tolstoy resentfully showed how French was treated as the superior language among the Russian Elite and how no one among them wanted to be seen speaking Russian. Except may be when talking to the inferior people: servants, peasants etc.

As one member of the Elite (in a moment of frankness) living in New Delhi narrated in a ‘middle’ in The Hindustan Times several years ago, she was embarrassed when a foreigner from the West came to visit them and tried to talk to them in Hindi. Because for her and for the people in her class, Hindi was a language to be used when talking to vegetable sellers.

Most members of the BJP would love to make a transition to the same class. Some have already done that.

There are schools in India where students are punished for using an Indian language. Not in the class room. Not just for any formal or academic purpose, but even in their private conversation, say while playing in the playground.

So much for chauvinism.

Not to mention the Fetish part.

As for the Thackerays, I wonder why they don’t write their surname as Thakre.

They are defiling the name of one my favourite writers.

The Crescent Moon

Director: Jang Kil-soo
Year of Release: 2002
Language: Korean

So, a long time after I wrote that I am going to review some movies just a bit more systematically, I have finally started doing that.

I didn’t go into an infinite loop: I just took longer.

Most people will find my list of Great Movies (when compared to my list of Very Good Movies) unconventional, if not strange. And this movie is likely to be perhaps the one (out of my selection of Great Movies) to which rarely any other movie critic will do the same honor. But then I don’t really see myself as a critic. I claim to be a good movie viewer, which is more important in my opinion than being a good critic. Anyway, it seemed quite appropriate to me to start my movie reviewing career with this movie. I was so bent on starting with this one that I stopped myself from reviewing any other movie here before I reviewed this one. So you can be quite sure that I am not taking it lightly and it is not a passing fancy. In fact, it’s already more than two years since I discovered (I hope not in the colonial sense) this movie.

Why did I put this relatively unknown movie in my list of Great Movies? Simply speaking, because it fulfills my criteria of being a Great Movie. But I wouldn’t try to objectively list those criteria. You can get a sense of them if you keep reading my reviews.

But you won’t be so surprised if you are familiar with Korean movies, which are known to be among the most creative by those who know about them, so much so that both Hollywood and Bollywood are getting some of their inspiration from there.

Like several other Great Movies in my list, this one too starts out quite unassumingly. And if you are (according to my standards) not a good movie viewer, you are unlikely to notice much in this movie that can make you call it Great. You might just say that it is a good enough movie. Perhaps I too would have done so when I was just beginning to learn the difficult but quite a tempting art of movie viewing.

The Crescent Moon is, first of all, a classic example of the works of fiction which are centered around what I call the Sibling Motif, or more particularly, the Young Sibling Motif, or even more particularly, the Mixed Young Sibling Motif. This motif requires two protagonists who should be young (children or adolescents) and they should be brother and sister. It involves telling the tale of their experiences, adventures if you like, over a period of time that can range from the shortest possible to whole lifetimes, but is usually a few years.

It is not an uncommon motif and is found in some of the greatest works of fiction, literary or audio-visual. I am not very sure, but it seems to have become more popular from the nineteenth century. Off the top of my head, I can think of many works built around this central motif. From the nineteenth century itself I can cite George Eliot’s classic tragedy, The Mill on the Floss, about the life and death of a girl who is more devoted to her brother than he is to her and who (like many others in Eliot’s novels and like herself) is also an unusual female character in the Victorian era literature in that she is quite an independent individual with a better brain and better education than her brother, but who nevertheless doesn’t do anything that could be considered indecent even by the Victorian standards, though she is hardly ever treated fairly by anyone.

Another, much more well known, classic which is centered around this motif is Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird. Since it is so well known, I won’t say anything about it. There is also the movie masterpiece (and the novel on which it is based) called Pather Panchali. From around the same time, there is a different kind of movie masterpiece, which is much less well known. That one is Charles Laughton’s only directorial work, The Night of the Hunter, which has still not received as much recognition as it should have. Incidentally, both of these movies are in my list of Great Movies. Coming to more recent times, there is, of course, Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. Needless to say that there are numerous others such as Jean Cocteau’s (much darker) Les Enfant Terribles, which unfortunately I haven’t read as I simply haven’t been able to lay my hands on it. And all the three novels by J. D. Salinger (but more so Catcher in the Rye and Franny and Zooey) are also centered around this motif, except that in his case there are other siblings too who either appear in the novel or are talked about. (About defining what a novel means in Salinger’s writings, you could almost call his collected works a single fragmented novel).

I don’t exactly know what it signifies, but I notice here that the first three books that I mentioned were all written by women and the main protagonist is the girl in all of them, whereas the two movies were made by men and they had the boy as the main protagonist.

Coming back to the movie under review, this one doesn’t really make either the boy or the girl the main protagonist. In that sense it seems to me to be a more paradigmatic example of the works centered around the motif.

The girl in this movie is significantly younger than the boy and we are in fact shown the boy seeing her recently born sister. He is not happy as he is given the task to care for her when the grandmother is busy working inside and outside the house. The mother left the girl with the grandmother and we don’t know anything about the father. So the siblings are not only motherless and fatherless, but their only refuge is the old poor grandmother who has only a few years of work left in her.

The boy is even more unhappy with her sister when she turns a out to be a little hunchback. The fact of the sweet little extremely lovable girl being a hunchback, if I might mention with technical and/or academic brutality, allows the movie to look at the world from a different perspective and to develop the character of the brother, who gradually becomes much more affectionate to her, overcoming his embarrassment at being the brother of a hunchback and being the target of taunts for the same reason from his friends, who the movie doesn’t really make out to be monsters.

The movie also has many other minor and not so minor motifs. It won’t be an exaggeration to say that it is full of what could be called (with some justification) clichés. But then (to use a clichéd expression) some of the greatest stories ever told are full of clichés. Wise usage of these clichés and ‘worn out’ motifs often gives a work of fiction that epic quality which is the dream of most authors and auteurs. This movie is a case in point.

It deals with themes ranging from migration (to city), poverty, the struggle for survival, moral ambiguity, exploitation, child labor and unthinking oppression by the state in the name of development to the relationship between a boy and a teacher, but unlike in Mera Naam Joker (which is not one of my favorite films), here the teacher is a mother figure for the motherless child. It even has a section (which is one of the least clichéd and the most interesting) about the repressed sexual desires of a middle aged woman (to whom the boy delivers newspapers) and the awakening desires of her adolescent maid servant. But (despite the mother figure teacher) this is not really a movie for prudes and moral puritans (the teacher is introduced to the boy’s family through the intervention of the family’s dog who steals the teacher’s ‘chest scarf’). It gives both of them (the woman and her maid) due dignity, even as it presents the tragi-comic nature of the situation. If you want some single label for this movie, then I would have to give you Humanist.

Apart from the brother and the sister, the other important character is the grandmother, who we come to know better and are sometimes surprised by as the movie proceeds. To use another cliché, she represents all the honest hard working members of the class to which she belongs. I might confess here that, unlike some ideologues, I don’t believe that all the members of any class (including hers) are honest and hard working. But I don’t think that changes anything with regard to most other things.

On the whole, like Pather Panchali, this movie has a lyrical (sometimes poetic) quality that, if you get it, would remain with you for a long long time, even if you don’t see it again, which I think you are likely to do if you can. And it is so strong that the fact that The Crescent Moon doesn’t have any very ‘innovative’ technical flourishes is not a good enough reason for me to keep it out of my Great Movies list.

Another important reason why this movie works so well is the perfect cast, which is very important for this kind of movie (as it is for movies by Fellini and the Neo-Realists), even though it may be less important for other kinds of movies, such as those by Godard. Which brings me to mention that this movie somehow makes me recall The Nights of Cabiria.

I might add one caution for those who are very sentimental and also, at the same time, very particular about hygiene. Keep a handkerchief ready. It won’t take anything away from the movie’s greatness.

P.S.: I have found out that the famous French magazine Cahier du Cinema (to which Truffaut used to contribute regularly) conducted a poll of major critics and prepared a list of 100 great films. In this list, The Night of the Hunter is ranked second, along with La Règle du jeu by Jean Renoir. By the way, Truffaut’s was among the few favorable reviews that this movie got at that time. Let’s hope the great actor will break the wall of regimentation that stipulates that if someone was as great an actor as Laughton, he couldn’t be an equally great director (unless he is already recognized as an exceptional auteur, like Orson Welles: after the deification, everything is allowed). Most people now (barring, perhaps, the movie historians and the like) don’t even know that at one time he was as famous as Marlon Brando, Lawrence Olivier and Alfred Hitchcock. And how many people know that he not only worked closely with Bertolt Brecht on the English version of Brecht’s Life of Galileo (and played the title role in it), Brecht also wrote a poem about the actor’s garden. For the longer term, however, let’s also hope that he is not deified.

Hundred (Fictitious) Dollar Oscars

This has been said by someone else, but I will repeat it anyway: if the new ‘Indian’ craze in the West, Slumdog Millionaire, wins one (or possibly more) Oscars, it will be due, to a large extent, to one particular scene in the movie. After the protagonist plays foul with an American (actually the US, lest we forget altogether) tourist couple and is being beaten brutally by an Indian, the American couple rescues him, only to get the retort that ‘you wanted to see a bit of real India’. And the lady’s answer is to get a hundred dollar note (we don’t call it a ‘bill’, nor a ‘bank note’) from her husband and hand it to the offending boy with what we call a dialogue in Hindi, ‘well, here is a bit of real America, son’. As the person who mentioned this scene earlier (although I had thought of the scene in more or less the same way) also pointed out, this American lady (that’s what we now call a woman in Hindi) is shown to be the only really good person in the whole movie.

But the movie is supposed to be all about Indians, so there are no real people other than Indians except this lady. The only Western (White and presumably Christian) person in the whole movie can hardly not be a representative of the average Westerner (let alone the US Americans) as opposed to the wretched, written-to-be-wretched, Indians, especially when she makes such a grand gesture accompanied by a solid dialogue.

Since there still are people out there who are going to (or already have) criticize this movie for some crappy reason like selling India’s poverty to the West etc., one has to give out the mandatory disclaimer that one is most certainly not against this movie for any such reason. In fact, one is not really against this movie at all.

I most probably wouldn’t have commented on this movie had it not become such a sensation and also given that a lot of insightful commentators have already written about it. But now it looks very much likely that the movie is going to get that most-prestigious-in-the-globe-but-actually-the-US-American movie award named Oscar, and probably more than one. This means that the movie will be taken seriously by a lot of non-Indians and perhaps even by some Indians. And, as I indicated earlier, it is not really such a bad movie. The problem is that it is not a great movie at all, which is what it is being made out to be outside India.

And like one other commentator (pardon me for not giving references, but I am tired right now: though I can provide them on need), I find it hard to believe that it is directed by the same person who directed that movie which is in my list of Very Good Movies (in the company of movies by Bergman, Fellini, De Sica, Kubrick and the like), namely Trainspotting. Whereas that movie was exactly what it wanted to be, this movie almost fails completely, although it is still entertaining.

There are so many things which are fundamentally and very clearly wrong with this movie. Accent is, of course, one of them. I wonder whether Danny Boyle knows that the knowledge of English (and even more so its use with a particular accent) is the single most reliable indicator of one’s socio-economic status in the Indian subcontinent. And the movie shows the ‘slumdog’ using the highest caste accent whereas the elite TV show host using a pretty low caste accent (yes, Anil Kapur’s accent is not very ‘good’ and he would usually be looked down upon among a circle of people speaking in almost British accent, as does the protagonist).

I would urge Danny and his crew to go and see Tashan, which has some similarities with this movie and also stars Anil Kapur.

The movie could have been so much better if it was made in Hindi and had better casting and had hired some accent tutors like they do in Hollywood even for the all-(US)-American movies.

The second big problem is that the novel on which it is based doesn’t talk Karma-Varma at all. And the movie resolves everything at the end by saying ‘because it is written’. And Danny Boyle himself in an interview (roughly) said that you simply can’t resolve the complexities of India: they are just there. Then he said ‘they even have a philosophy for this’, which says to me that he seems to know very little about India. Yes, there is a philosophy of that kind, but there are innumerable other philosophies too.

Come on, Danny, no one in India actually says ‘I don’t know, I have got a sort of Karmic feeling about this’ or something like that (as the TV show host does). This Karmic terminology is more used in the West, than in the ‘real India’. No one really talks about ‘Karma’ here. (Even when they do, they don’t do it in this way). Though they do talk of Bhaagya and Taqdeer and Maathe Ki Lakeer etc. Which is not the same thing. And which is the reason this movie can be accused of being indulgent in post-modern Orientalism (someone else said that too).

In many parts of India, if you spoke out the word ‘Karma’ in the way Danny Boyle (or any Westerner talking about India) does, people would think you were talking about a patriotic movie starring an old Dilip Kumar pairing with one of my favorite (favourite for the less dominant party to which Danny belongs) female actors, Nutan. This ‘Karma’ is, of course, not the same word. In fact, it’s not a word at all: it’s a name.

It’s an ambiguous Named Entity that I would classify as either a Person or as an Object-Title, depending on the context.

In the same interview, Danny Boyle says about Mumbai (which we still quite often call Bambai – बंबई in Hindi and Bombay in English) that ‘they call it the Maximum City’. Well, it’s actually Suketu Mehta who calls Mumbai that. A lot can be said about that book too, but I won’t say it now.

Now the music. Well, the simple and solid fact is that A. R. Rehman has given much better music before, right from his very first hit, Roja. If some Indians start respecting him now because he wins an Oscar or two, I can only pity them. And I pity the non-Indians too: for being completely unaware of such great music even in this .mp3 era. Music which has been heard and liked by hundreds of millions of people for more than one and a half decade now.

But let me reiterate. This is not such a bad movie. Your money won’t be wasted if you go and see it. But it is definitely not ‘a gritty and realistic’ movie about India, except in some ways which are of no use to an Indian and could be misleading for a non-Indian.

Let me reiterate something else. The Indian ‘reality’ is much worse than what is depicted in the movie, which is basically a lived-happily-ever-after fantasy.

And featuring the US American lady in the movie with her fictitious hundred dollars is a cheap (pun intended) trick to win over the Western (especially American) audiences whose senses will be offended by what is shown in the movie (for the dummies: this is a deliberate but slight exaggeration). Because if the truth were told, a big share (not all, of course) of the responsibility of this worse reality of India (as of other colonized or near-colonized countries) rests with the West.

Overall, Slumdog Millionaire is in the same league as Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge. Both movies are inspired by the ‘Bollywood’ style of film making and both have directors who seem to know precious little about India but who wanted to pay some tribute to the country and its films, just as the earlier Orientalist artists paid their own tributes to the seductive, exotic East as imagined by them with their artistic temperament. But as an Indian I feel that the latter movie has a definite edge. That could be partly because it doesn’t pretend to know (and, therefore, tell) much about India.

Slumdog Millionaire’s only connection to Trainspotting, ironically, happens to be a scene that was hard to watch even for the hardened Indians: the jump in and out of the shitpot. And even this scene was done much better in Trainspotting.

There is also a serious matter that is concerned with both the style as well as the content. It’s a very tricky matter to mix realism with fantasy, which is what Slumdog Millionaire tries to do. And it does quite a bad job of it.

As it happens, Danny Boyle came and lived in India for some time for making this movie. One gets the impression that he was overwhelmed by what he saw and didn’t quite know what to make of it. And in such cases the easiest resort is to the Karmic poppycock that the movie ends at. Small mercy that it is done with the tongue at least lightly in the cheek.

P.S.: Also for the dummies, the word ‘caste’ above has been used metaphorically, not literally. Knowledge of English and the accent is a big (perhaps the biggest) determinant of the metaphorical caste in India. Even in the India of Call Centres. Or should it be ‘especially in that India’?