Thursday, May 31, 2007

In Bombay Tomorrow

Today Revathy Gopal would have turned sixty. I don't want to say very much more, though several things are running through my head. To say them here would be to appropriate her death and her persona in some way, and clearly wrong.

This is just to say that coincidentally, there will be a reading of her poems tomorrow at the NCPA. Do try and attend, if you happen to be in Mumbai. Her poetry packs a punch and always deserved more listeners. That's,

Friday, 1 June 2007,
at 6:30 pm
in the Audio-Visual Room, 2nd Floor NCPA, Nariman Point, Mumbai.


Sugar-free diabetes

I'm happy to say I haven't watched Cheeni Kum. It has been so universally reviled that I feel relieved I didn't expend the energy required to go to the theatre, buy a ticket, popcorn and an aereated drink only to endure two or more hours of 'alternative' cinema.

My filmmaker friend Batul (who has made a wonderful film with and for children) has several cutting things to say about the film. Please read. But she has one good thing to say:

The only saving grace of the film is the father of Sexy, who limits his lines and appearances to giving medical reports about her - "She is dying, she is dying, she is dead". Wish everyone else in the film served some such purpose, and did it as briefly as he does.

Heh! All dark clouds etc.

Monday, May 28, 2007

'silence in my left hand'

Jeet Thayil in an interview with Hemant Sareen (via):

In my first book, Gemini, there is line that says, ‘My mother tongue is not my mother’s tongue,’ because my mother’s tongue is Malayalam, but my mother tongue is English. It always has been. I spoke in English to both my parents. They spoke to me in English. I grew up breathing English and living in English. Although we lived in many different places -- Patna, Bombay, Hong Kong, New York, London -- for me the real home through all those moves was the language. And that was English.

Also, when I say ‘silence in my left hand,’ English is my right hand because that is the language I write in and also in the sense that you need silence to make the language come alive-- its silence, its pauses between words that provide music, provide the beat, that provides room for imagination.

Jeet's lates collection of poems is called, not surprisingly, English. I've been told there are some CDs of the book floating around, and I've been trying to lay my hands on one. (I have the book, thanks.)

But this times itself nicely with something I've been thinking of recently. I've been putting together some poems for The Little Theatre in Hyderabad, to read at The Poetry Society. I thought it would be fun to do poets writing about writing. I know this has been done before, but I also know that TPSofH hasn't had a programme like this one. While trying to include Indian poets' works, I realised that a lot of the poems that deal with writing about writing (when it's done by Indians) tends to revolve around the question of languages and writing in English.

Now all I need is the full version of Jeet's ghazal, 'In Malayalam". Can anyone help?

Friday, May 25, 2007

The Music of the Spheres

Thursday morning at the Birla Planetarium. We're lying back in our seats, urged to imagine it is the 21st of June. Our journey to the Land of the Midnight Sun begins. It will take us from Hyderabad, through Venice, Paris, Leningrad and finally to the North Pole. I'm excited, and might even allow myself to drown in the experience, were it not for one fairly large problem and one smaller one.

Hyderabad is signified by some santoor-type music familiar to all of us from the days of DD. It fairly reeks of jasmine and sandal. But once we reach Venice, we are treated to 'Woman in Love' in some unidentifiable language. Why? Why?

Paris was some retro-pop in French ( I could tell because I heard the words 'person' and 'chose'. I think.) And I couldn't even distract myself with the stars because on June 21, Paris is not very star-friendly.

On to Leningrad. Who wrote the script for this presentation, and when? Leningrad?! Are we in a Kaurismaki film? What happened to St. Petersburg?

And now we get classical. Strauss, and lots of it. It was a wonder the Aurora Borealis didn't waltz in response.

The music of the spheres. Oh Merlin!

Wednesday, May 23, 2007


I've spent a lot of time wondering whether I should do what I'm going to. After all, I've enjoyed the couple of years I've done this; I like my name, the one I've assumed. But the time has come to (at least temporarily, at least for today) chuck it out.

This afternoon, I received my copies of my first book. I knew yesterday that they were being sent to me, but I really did not think that they would reach me quite so soon. It's a very strange feeling: when you have proof-read the MS three times and know what the cover will look like, you think you know what the book will also look like. But nothing prepares you for the sensation of seeing it come together into one whole. It all looks so professional... you feel you could not possibly have had anything to do with it! much excitement is unseemly.

So, with no further digressions, here's the cover of my first book of poetry: A Reluctant Survivor (Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi, 2007).

Cover Design © Neelima Rao.

The book should be available in the Sahitya Akademi sales offices in Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Spaniard Turns One

Or, in which Statutory Navel Gazing and Blogispection happens.

Interior. Early morning. A study.

Space Bar sits at a computer typing away. The room is dark, lit only by the monitor. At the edge of what is visible, are several bookshelves punctuated by the occasional light-coloured spines of books. There is a fan that often whirrs and hums but it is off at this time. Space Bar is careful to type softly, lest those who sleep in the adjoining bedroom should wake.

Take 1.

Spaniard turns one! Gosh!

I’m actually surprised that I’ve kept this blog going for one whole year, posting something – anything – nearly every week. I can’t remember which came first: the thought that it might be fun to have a blog, or the name of the blog, which then demanded that I post to get it started and keep it going.

Cut. Too exclamatory and Dear Diary-ish. And incoherent.

Take 2.

It seems almost mandatory for every blogger to introspect on the reasons why s/he blogs and anniversaries seem to amplify this urge. I find such introspection especially hard to do, because it would mean I know the kind of writing I want to do in that space; it only remains then, to sort out the ‘why’. But I'm not even sure of that.

Some people write very personal, journal-like blogs – almost a form of thinking aloud. As Take 1 will indicate, I can’t do that (and this is the place to emphasise that this goes only for me. I have no problem with people who do have personal blogs.) And though I’ve had several posts on cinema and poetry, some on books, some posts that are links, most are what could be categorised as Misc. At the end of one year, I’m still not sure why I have a blog or what I really intend to do with it. After all, I deleted the first one I had; this should augur ill for this one. But given that I spend the time immediately after I put up a post in a state of mild euphoria, followed by two days of complacency and then a rapidly escalating sense of tension (I have to post! I have to post!), that doesn’t seem very likely.

(Aside: notice also, that this post, like the life of my blog, is still going strong in its second avatar. Hmm.)

I can understand why journalists blog, and why they are so widely read when they do. It’s a place where they can give themselves the space to explore all the thoughts they can’t in the media they engage in. They can be more informal, and have conversations about their work. At the very least, it is a place for them to store their published work. But I am not a journalist.

I think of a blog as a lit space surrounded by a pool of darkness. Why I find writing about my life or more personal matters difficult (apart from my inability to understand how anyone could be possibly be interested) is that it feels uncomfortably close to being a Lady Godiva figure at a lit window at night. Do I pretend the curtains are drawn and this space is indeed a private journal? Or do I assume that there will be people looking in? And having assumed that, would I ignore that fact and do what I would otherwise do? (Is that even possible?)

I prefer to think of this space as a stage instead, and necessarily an artificial one. If I must be in the lit space, I may as well offer something else than a slice of my boring life. And if the light leaches out into the dark places and draws in some figures every once in a while who will participate, so much the better.

Like several such spaces that hold a few people in for a period of time, blogs can become a real world sufficient in itself. We know each other by our real or assumed names and our opinions. If we do not know the personal details of each others’ lives, we know, through the writing, what any given person is likely to think, or how s/he will react. Even what we react to are often the same things. We live in an echo chamber and we find our choruses rather pleasant – even the occasional dissonance (who was it said you can have no harmony if everyone sings the same note?).

I enjoy that. I enjoy the eventual sense of community, the opinions that people hold, the way they express themselves and the conversations. I read several blogs for these reasons; I can only assume that someone somewhere likes to read mine for similar reasons.

So…Spaniard turns one.

Thank you all for reading!

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Sneaking Sicko Out

Talking about Michael Moore, his latest film, Sicko is being premiered at Cannes today. From his website, here's his account of events leading up to Cannes:

I was floored when our lawyers told me this. "Are you saying they might actually confiscate our movie?" "Yes," was the answer. "These days, anything is possible. Even if there is just a 20 percent chance the government would seize our movie before Cannes, does anyone want to take that risk?"

Certainly not. So there we were last week, spiriting a duplicate master negative out of the country just so no one from the government would take it from us. (Seriously, I can't believe I just typed those words! Did I mention that I'm an American, and this is America and NO ONE should ever have to say they had to do such a thing?)

Harvey Weinstein has taken on the mantle of protector.

Intimidation, investigation...does any of this sound familiar to anyone?

Friday, May 18, 2007

Adventures in Semantics Part 3: Collective Nouns

Our light at the traffic signal and I have to turn right. Traffic moves at the usual slow crawl when it's our turn. Our green light, on the other hand, has a differnet sense of time. As I cross the signal, the cop puts out his hand to stop those behind me.

"Just made it!" I say.

"Yes," says my son. "There was a zoom of cars just after we crossed!"

More collective nouns here.

Adventures in Semantics 1 and 2.

Bomb blast at Hyderabad's Mecca Masjid

"The two bombs which killed five people and injured many others inside the Mecca Masjid compound near the Charminar on Friday afternoon here appeared to have been remote controlled.

Two unexploded bombs have also been recovered from inside the compound. Soon after the explosions, around 200 people gathered outside the mosque, pelting stones in protest against the incident.

The blasts took place in the compound of the mosque around 1:30 pm while Friday prayers were on. The injured have been rushed to nearby Osmania Hospital.

Section 144 has been imposed in adjoining areas."

The rest here and on all TV Channels.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Running to Stand Still: Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth

Where is the thicket? Gone. Where is the eagle? Gone. And what is it to say goodbye to the swift pony and the hunt? The end of living and the beginning of survival.
—from Chief Seattle’s speech*

R. Rajamani, former bureaucrat and environmentalist, made three very interesting points while introducing Al Gore’s Oscar-winning film, An Inconvenient Truth on Sunday, but hoped that we would not then be compelled to look at the film through the narrow lens of his views. But as happens when an argument is persuasive, it was impossible not to notice the accuracy of Mr. Rajamani’s statements. He said that

1) the film was a shrewd mix of the sentimental and the reasonable;

2) that though it was a film about a subject that might be said to be dry and boring, had all the elements of good showmanship that characterises the best cinema; and

3) that the film was as much about Al Gore as it was about global warming.

I’d say that all the three points he raises are related. Al Gore, early on in the film, introduces himself to an assembled audience. He says, “Hi. I’m Al Gore. I was the next President of the United States.” The audience erupts into laughter as he says, with a smile that makes them complicit in a joke, “I don’t find that funny.”

In another clipping of the same presentation that punctuates the film, he walks along the screen on which a chart compares global temperatures for the last few million years. As he walks along, he indicates the Ice Ages – several of them – alternating with warmer temperatures. When he comes to the end of the chart, he tells the audience that the last fifty years have seen an unprecedented rise in global temperatures. Then, moving slightly away from the screen, he fumbles with a contraption to one side of the stage, saying that he’d been taught to use it, but if it doesn’t work…The audience waits in silence. He climbs on to the contraption, which turns out to be a sort of crane, and resumes his presentation. As he talks about projected temperatures for the next fifty years, the crane rises along with the red line on the chart, until he is way above the screen and the audience.

Gore’s methods are very different from the sledgehammer techniques favoured by Michael Moore. It might have something to do with the fact that he was, after all, the former Vice President of the US; that accommodation and dialogue are more natural for him than confrontation and sarcasm. But he is also aware that if the ordinary person is to be won over into recognising the threat that global warming poses, he would need to persuade them with humour and gesture. If the film has one defining characteristic, it is in the recognition that people need to be entertained while they are informed. Which is why Gore uses the kind of animation shorts that teachers use in school to persuade children to brush their teeth: to illustrate simple points about greenhouse gases or to make fun about inadequate action and where it might get us (he uses The Simpsons to do the latter).

Every once in a while, however, in a more contemplative tone, Gore talks about his farm, his childhood; about the tobacco farming that his father abandoned after it was proved that tobacco caused cancer; about his six-year-old son’s accident and recovery and how it brought home to him the need to spend his life doing something worthwhile. While these sections skirt the edges of sentimentality, they escape a certain tweeness because of Gore’s belief that the personal is the political, and his willingness to take responsibility and act on his convictions.

Which is probably why he characterises the issue of global warming and what we need to do to solve it as “not so much a political issue as a moral one.” I find it extraordinary, because given that at every stage in the latter half of the film, the results of climate change are clearly political – the migration of refugees from countries affected by the effects of flooding or desertification, for instance – he does not manage to make a convincing case to support his statement. When one considers how closely geography is related to politics, it seems amazingly blind to characterise the issue as a moral one.

The other weakness of the film is the number of related issues it ignores: trading in carbon emissions, for one; the continuing export of obsolete technology by the US that is nothing if not cynical and self-serving; the connection between the energy consumption of the US and its political presence in different parts of the world.

Unfortunately, global warming is only one of the many environmental disasters that await us. We have to deal with the poisoning of the oceans and rivers; our depletion of more than our carbon reserves; and the huge question of what to do with the enormous amounts of waste that we produce. Granta had an excellent issue a couple of years ago called This Overheating World (Granta 83, October 2003). The photo-essay in that issue had some images of rusting tin cans, car tires, computers, radios, TVs – all looking frighteningly indestructible. (Some articles from the issue available here).

In one of the articles in that issue, published before Al Gore made his film, Bill McKibben says:

As satisfying as it is to blame politicians, however, it will not do. Politicians will follow the path of least resistance. So far there has not been a movement loud or sustained enough to command political attention. Electorates demand economic prosperity—more of it—above all things. Gandhianism, the political philosophy that restricts material need, is now only a memory even in the country of its birth. And our awareness that the world will change in every aspect, should we be so aware, is muted by the future tense, even though that future isn’t far away, so near in fact that preventing global warming is a lost cause—all we can do now is to try to keep it from getting utterly out of control.

This is a failure of imagination, and in this way a literary failure. Global warming has still to produce an Orwell or a Huxley, a Verne or a Wells, a Nineteen Eighty-Four or a War of the Worlds, or in film any equivalent of On The Beach or Doctor
. It may never do so. It may be that because—fingers crossed—we have escaped our most recent fear, nuclear annihilation via the Cold War, we resist being scared all over again. Fear has its uses, but fear on this scale seems to be disabling, paralysing. Anger has its uses too, but the rage of anti-globalization demonstrators has yet to do more than alienate majorities. Shame sends a few Americans shopping for small cars, but on the whole America, now the exemplar to the world, is very nearly unshameable.

While Al Gore and Davis Guggenheim (the director of the film) might not have the cinematic chutzpah of a Kramer or Kubrick, and while all that the film might achieve is a minor reversal, if that, it has to be admitted that it does what some good films can do: raise the spirit enough for us to hope that something may yet be achieved, that simply by writing or making a film about it people could be induced to change their way of living.

There’s an old joke I was reminded of while watching this film. A man walks into a restaurant and is told he can order whatever he likes and he wouldn’t have to pay for it. So he orders the most exotic, expensive things on the menu. At the end of his meal, he gets ready to leave, when the waiter presents him with a whopping bill. “What’s this?” the man asks indignantly. “I was told I could order anything and there would be no charge!” “There isn’t, sir” the waiter replies respectfully. “This is your father’s bill for the meal he ate twenty year ago.”

The most unambiguous message of the film is this: that while we pay the price for the excesses of the previous generations, we must ensure that our children are not left with a burden that is too large to be borne.

* From the famous speech attributed to Chief Seattle, though it is said that a playwright, Ted Perry, wrote it for a film called Home.

Leela Samson vs. the Sangh Parivar

James Laine, M.F.Husain, MSU Baroda, Leela Samson.

We could look at these two articles in the light of the whipping up of frenzy. Expect more developments from the Hindu Right on this matter, who manage to get their people's knickers in a twist with the most incoherent arguments. I can picture some dude sitting in Goregaon (W) wringing his hands in despair at the state of our country's institutions of culture. They've moved a few statues! They allow boys and girls to mix! Horror! Somebody do something!

By contrast, there's Baradwaj Rangan's interview with Leela Samson (done before this brouhaha erupted, I think) which gives a more clear insight into her philosophy and motivations than the product of The Organiser's fevered imagination. (Please take note of one of the comments to the post; Baradwaj has wisely refrained from responding).

All this via Rahul's blog.

I wonder what would happen if Mr. Menon or Mr. Daivamuthu actually met Ms. Samson. The imagination boggles at the high levels of absurdity that would result.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Common Species of the Literary World

# 41: The Book Blogger


No, I don't know where the other 40 are. If you find them, do let me know.
(oh, and click to enlarge the image)

'the weird guitar guy'

Old age is a sad, sad thing. I'm not even talking about decrepit old age when the body gives way and the mind wanders. That would be understandable. Sad, but understandable.

But when you know you have it in you to do a Never Ending Tour of the world, and in between all the continent jumping you take the time off to visit your grandson's kindergarten class, and you imagine that singing a few songs for the kids is a Good Thing, but the kids call you 'the weird guitar guy', and you weren't even trying to scare them, really, by singing gruesome songs with great relish...then it's tragic.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Beginning with the protest and ending with the loo

I returned from the protest late last night. In Hyderabad, it was a bit of a damp squib, because the more prominent members of the art and intellectual community had registered their protest a day earlier. There was no press, no large gathering, no slogan shouting; no one, in fact, to witness or report that this was one more city that had ranged itself firmly on the side of Chandra Mohan.

But for the dozen or so of us who did turn up, there was enough to discuss. We agreed that 14th May was not the ‘real’ protest; that something more had to happen to make our voices heard.

I found that the meeting had set off several thoughts in my mind, which I’m sharing here. For a start, one of the people there yesterday was a teacher, and an external examiner at the offending exhibition. She was in a better position to tell us what had happened there. And though it was clear that the attack was cynical and planned (how on earth were the cops so readily available? Don’t they know they’re supposed to arrive only once everything has been done with? They upheld this tradition at Khairlanji, at every riot in the last few decades. Now they’re ready and waiting?) – and though it was clear the attack was planned, she felt that the real reason Chandra Mohan should have been let off was because he was a student, only learning, not in a position to take responsibility for what he had done, because he did not mean to offend.

I emphatically disagree. I think that if his painting – whatever it was (I’ve read descriptions of a cross with a commode under the painting) offended, the problem is with the person who got offended and not with him. While it’s true that it was an internal assessment and that this Jain person had no business there, I think that even had this been a public exhibition, and the painting was deemed by some viewer to be offensive, it is her job to say why it was offensive and to engage with the whole issue of offence instead of putting the whole thing under the rubric of ‘religious sentiment’. I mean, I could say that depicting Krishna in a bilious shade of blue offends my sensibilities because I dislike blue skin. I could pass off prejudice as offence. But would anyone support me?

While watching the news last night, I saw one woman saying that ‘religious sensibilities cannot be offended’. I wondered if she had seen the painting at all, or could even describe it by hearsay. (Of course she couldn’t).

Now, for all the people whose sentiments are offended, I would suggest that the prurience of their imagination in which they construct the offending work – in the absence of having actually seen it – far exceeds the alleged offensiveness of any work actually produced or viewed. Let’s assume that there’s a painting of a cross with a commode. Or a goddess being violated by a linga. If these paintings offend, it is not because they are offensive in themselves – Indians routinely worship the linga, which is supposed to be joined to the antaryoni. We get an inside view, so to speak). If they offend, it is because it requires the viewer to accommodate an idea that is so revolutionary that it cannot be easily accepted: the sex in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the language of Ulysses; the idea that the son of God would want to imagine living an ordinary life, in The Last Temptation of Christ; issues of caste in Samskara…the list is endless.

When we were discussing what we ought to do to show our support for Chandra Mohan at the meeting last evening, I suggested that one of the long-term things we ought to do was have discussions around what it means to offend: what offends and how? Show films that have been banned; read from books, plays, songs that sent ripples of indignation through entire populations. In fact, offend again and again, as often as possible and wherever you can. Create a hydra-headed monster.

Show re-runs of saas-bahu serials, I said to myself. What could be more offensive to good taste than the regressive attitudes depicted in these serials, where women are chattels and incubators, and the men are promiscuous and hypocritical. Children watch these serials with their parents. Is no one worried?

In Luis Buñuel’s The Phantom of Liberty, people sit at a table strewn with magazines and chat while they crap, but go to the loo to eat in extreme, silent privacy. This is shocking and, no doubt to Mr. Jain will be extremely offensive. But the power of a simple reversal such as Buñuel frequently employed, lay precisely in questioning the sanctity that we assign to some acts and the profanity we assign to others.

In the extremely Brahminical villages that my grandparents used to live in some decades ago, the houses ran the length of a street; rooms led to other rooms and there were many unexplored and exciting nooks. But if you wanted to go to the loo, you had to hike right to the other end of the house, where you would find one tiny, dingy (and smelly) room lit at night with a zero watt bulb, usually red in colour. There, you did you business and did not refer to it under any circumstances. Someone in the infrared areas of our varna spectrum came and shovelled the products of your body away and you were peaceful the knowledge of your purity. If there was a way to hang up your soul on the way to the loo, in one of those convenient rooms along the way, so that it was completely uncontaminated by contact with the body that insisted on producing filth, it had not yet been invented.

For that generation, our bathroom in Hyderabad was shocking enough. Someone actually takes pleasure in this unspeakable room? But – but – that means that bathing, sitting on the pot and reading a magazine…all of these things are ok, even (swoon) great?

Tied up intimately with the idea of offence is the idea of taboo. If something is forbidden, then bringing that out into the open causes offence. Of late, in our country, religion is the ultimate taboo. Which is why, how Rakhi Sawant decorates her bathroom becomes a matter of public debate. No one considers the offence they caused to Rakhi Sawant by making public her very private space and what she chooses to do with or in it.

But those who take offence easily would die before they admit that these events give them nourishment. What would happen in a world where nothing and nobody slapped their delicate sensibilities awake? I suspect it gives them a sense of involvement that is as false as it is exciting. What we need to do is dull those sensibilities and provide them with an excess of offending material so that ennui is inevitable.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Protests over Chandramohan's arrest and Panikkar's suspension

I could do no better than to point you to Peter's blog. He has comprehensive post about what is happening. All over India, there will be protests at 6pm at various places, details below:

Date and time for all: 14th May, 2007, 6p.m.


New Delhi - Rabindra Bhavan
Mumbai - Jehangir Gallery
Vishakapatnam - Faculty of Fine Arts, Andhra University
Cochin - Kashi Art Café
Hyderabad - Fine Arts, S N School, University of Hyderabad
Bangalore - M G Road, opposite Gandhi statue
Santiniketan - Kala Bhavan
Guwahati - Press Club

Those attending are requested to wear black and/or white.

(I'm highlighting Hyderabad for obvious reasons.)

I would urge everyone who is reading this and is in one of the cities listed above, to participate.

Every time something like this happens, my first reaction is a mix of disbelief and laughter. It would be easy to brush off these things with an Obelix-like toc, toc, toc and a 'These Hindutvavadis are crazy', were it not for the fact that these events occur more and more frequently, and people suffer imprisonment, exile, suspension and years of legal battles as a consequence.

It's important to protest this in any way we can, not only because some day it could be us, but also because every time we concede to others the right to silence us, we step into a cage of our own making.

Or, in Laurence Liang's words which I've quoted before, 'the answer to problematic speech is not silence, but more speech.'

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Wash your blues away!

Prozac turns 20.

When I was going through a rather rough patch a few years ago, a friend gave me this postcard. She thought it was funny but gave it to me with great trepidation, because another friend to whom she had given this postcard thought it was, in Ross's words, "the opposite of funny."

She needn't have worried. Thus proving that neither of us needed the stuff after all.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Some Thoughts on Kiarostami’s Five

A friend once asked an Australian if he liked to watch cricket. “Naah!” he replied. “It’s like watching paint dry.”

This was a long time ago, and it is very possible that someone else might have given her a different answer; but though I laughed at the time, I have since wondered what it would be like to sit and watch paint dry. Or leaves fall. Or actually listen to the traffic instead of letting it become one undistinguished background roar. Such an activity doesn’t seem possible or even desirable, which is why watching the paint dry is supposed to be an exercise in futility.

Abbas Kiarostami’s film, Five Dedicated to Ozu is a film that sets out to, in his words, “escape from the obligation of narration and of the slavery of mise en scène.” If this comes as close as it can to watching the paint dry, it is not, I found, a disadvantage. For 74 minutes, Kiarostami sets the camera down on the seashore somewhere along the Caspian Sea.

We get to see a piece of driftwood floating on the waves. A piece of it breaks off and though we stay with both for a while, one floats away.

From very far away, we watch people walking to and fro on a promenade. Sometimes people talk to each other; other times they stare at the sea; some just walk on as if they had other places to go to and other things to do. Not one of these people’s faces or features is distinguishable.

In the third take, some dogs sit on the beach. Every once in a while a dog scratches itself; one gets up and stands for a while before sitting somewhere else.

A number of noisome ducks cross the frame and then re-cross it.

A moon shines in one corner of an otherwise dark frame. Frogs, crickets, the usual chorus of the night keep the moon company. A storm breaks and passes.

People do fall asleep during the film. Kiarostami has repeatedly said that he doesn’t mind if people fall asleep in his films, that it’s good they can sleep. This usually elicits the same kind of laughter that watching-the-paint-dry gets. I find this a very curious response on the part of a filmmaker. Why would anyone want people to sleep through their films? Why is the director not offended? At the Trivandrum Film Festival, Kiarostami had one caveat: sleep during the film if you want to, but please don’t leave the theatre, because that would be disturbing for everyone else watching the film.

I wanted to get up and clap, because there is nothing more annoying than people streaming out of a film they no longer want to watch.[*]

But this also says something very interesting about the conditions in which Five can be watched: walking in and out is to be discouraged. One should preferably view it in a theatre, and not in an art gallery (as has sometimes happened) or at home where the pause button is within reach. A darkened theatre, with no distractions, no easy conversations surrounding the experience of the film, and no retreat from it, are the most desirable conditions.

Under these circumstances, several things become apparent while watching the film. In the first take, for instance, the one with the driftwood, you begin to see the care with which the frame is restricted. When a piece breaks off the driftwood, we stay with the first one. How difficult would it have been to widen the frame to include both? But to not have done so creates a certain sense of drama that, if you’ve been watching, come close to wanting to know what happens next.

One eventually figures out that Kiarostami is not interested in repeating himself. In the third take – with the dogs – he plays with exposure so gradually, overexposing the frame so that by the end of fifteen minutes there is only an abstract image where the dogs are black dots, and the sunlight reflecting off the waves moves across the frame like brilliant beads of light.

The other thing that happens, if you refuse to sleep is, you are forced to watch what makes you restless. In the world outside a darkened theatre, if one’s mind says ‘enough!’ there are other things to occupy it; in the theatre, there is nothing except the large image in which nothing much happens. It forces one to look at our expectations of cinema as something that has to be narration; that ought to parcel out experiences we might have missed, and construct them in such a way that they take their proper place in the hierarchy of meanings.

All the innovations of cinema that we take for granted: the moving camera, the range of available shots – close-up, mid and long shots (and zooms), montage, flashbacks – all these are unavailable to us in this film. Like a Lumière from another century, here is a camera, and there is what is in front of it. And behind it is all the weight of film history and the ways in which stories have been told for one century. We return to the way in which the Lumières made their first films, but we are aware of a difference, not just in our knowledge, but in the possibilities of technology that gives a different sheen to the act of placing a camera somewhere, anywhere, and watching the result.

Shooting on DV makes it possible to have a shot that lasts for fifteen minutes. This would have been inconceivable in an earlier time. But the most interesting thing for me is the ways in which different directors use the freedom of the long take. What Jansco might have done would be very different from what Hitchcock would have tried. Alexander Sokhurov’s experiment was one of the first to use digital cameras; it couldn’t be more different than Kiarostami’s experiment.

The most amazing thing about Kiarostami and Five in particular is the refusal to make concessions to the viewers expectations. There is no manufactured drama – not even in the take with the comic ducks which have, as anybody who stays awake through the take will know, been harried by someone outside the frame to move in a particular direction. There is no story within a story. There is no choreography (unless you count the sound design of the last take, which apparently took Kiarostami months to get right). There is nothing except the fact of the sea and what happens in front of it. If that is too hard to watch, it says more than we might want to know about us and what we want cinema to be.

The Rave Out piece here. I couldn’t say all of this in 200 words!

[*] If Kiarostami ever wanted to repeat the experiment that was Five he could do no better than to have one take of people leaving the theatre in bewilderment and disgust!

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

'Commit flight to memory'

Iranian cinema has been on my mind for a while (yes, I promised a post about Mama's Guests; I remember), and this morning, I was revisiting Kiarostami's Five Dedicated to Ozu after having recently watched The Wind Will Carry Us. The title for the latter film comes from a poem by Forugh Farrokhzad a well-known poet and filmmaker. In the film, Behzad is constantly looking for fresh milk and unable to find anyone who can give him some. Finally, he finds one old lady who sends him down into a cellar. There, in the dark, is a young girl who milks a cow by the light of a petromax lamp. While he is waiting, he asks her a number of questions which she meets with silence. So to while away the time, Behzad recites this poem which, given the circumstances, is surprisingly erotic.

I first came across a poem by her a few years ago, and though it was the only poem I knew, it made a great impression on me. This year, I gave that poem to my mother as a gift on her birthday - somehow a suitably dark and sombre poem despite the occasion it was meant to celebrate.

So having stumbled on the site dedicated to her work, I found this poem in the Introduction; the last two lines seem made to be read with the image from The Wind Will Carry Us:

Commit flight to memory,

For the bird is mortal.

Monday, May 07, 2007

mirror or echo?

Cover her face. Mine eyes dazzle. She died young.

The Duchess of Malfi, Act IV Scene 2. John Webster.

Nothing to fear. I've touched bottom. I cannot sink lower than your heart.

Fires. Marguerite Yourcenar

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Plug for Appa

My friend, Appa, has just started another blog after abandoning his old one. 'So you thought only moms can blog?' was his cheeky one-line mail introducing some of us to On Fatherhood. (The reference to blogging moms was, of course, a nod to the indefatigable Mad Momma).

Now, in general, I can only occasionally read very personal blogs; I can't imagine what anyone would find interesting in my personal life, and find other peoples' accounts of their everyday lives incredibly boring, no matter how amusingly recounted. The exceptions are likely to be friends who now live in different cities, and with whom one feels in touch because of reading their blog. The Mad Momma being a case in point.

But Appa's blog I'm going to watch out for. Whether he's writing about his three-week-old daughter needing a character certificate from a Goverment official to obtain a passport, or outlining what it's like to be an apprentice vagabond, I'm sure I'm going to enjoy reading this one.

Do check out. (Appa, blogroll!)

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Always Coming Home

She stepped onto the deserted platform and looked about her. For a moment her eyes searched the dark corners of railway waiting rooms and the striped shadows of the places under the stairs. No, no one had come. She had expected no one. Her stomach tightened with irritation and something else.

If the word ‘disappointment’ crossed her mind, Aditi did not allow herself to acknowledge it. It was absurd to expect anyone to be waiting for her on a railway platform, squinting their eyes against the noonday sun, searching the compartments that whipped by, for a face that they might not even recognise.

Aditi lifted her small, battered suitcase and started up the stairs when a figure peeled itself off from a wall and walked towards her.

“Pratik,” said Aditi. “I didn’t see you.” He looked just the same, only bigger.

“Yes, it’s hot, isn’t it? Wanted to keep out of the sun.” He indicated the dark pools of shadow where Aditi suddenly noticed many more people.

“How are Amma and Appa?”

“You’ll see,” said Pratik.

Aditi’s first impression of the home she had left twelve years ago was mixed. Her first feeling was one of relief. Coming in out of the day that pressed down on her eyelids, she felt the grey stone floors cool under her bare feet and sighed with pleasure. But her initial, provisional happiness gave way to a familiar sense of tension.

Things were not all right at home.

Pratik dropped her suitcase in her old room and disappeared into his. He came out only at lunch, by which time Aditi had endured a difficult hour with her mother. It wasn’t that her mother didn’t talk, or ask questions. It was merely that every question she asked seemed desultory, as if she didn’t really want to know the answer. It was Aditi’s turn now.

“Where’s Appa?”

“He’ll be back soon. Help me set the table,” Amma said. Which was as normal as it ought to be, except that Aditi thought Amma’s voice was tight with something: tears? It couldn’t be fear, could it?

A car roared into the garage. A door slammed. Wiping her hands on a towel, Aditi saw Amma wince. When Appa came into the room, he carried the flaming heat of the outside with him. As he placed his briefcase on a small table, each gesture and movement was being carefully watched by Amma, as if she was waiting for something.

“Aditi. Good you came. How are you?”

Aditi had never expected a prodigal daughter’s welcome, but she had expected something more than this tepid acknowledgement of her presence. As they ate their lunch in silence, they listened to Appa raging about the traffic, the incompetence of the people in banks, and about how nobody could be trusted to do anything well.

‘How many times do I have to tell you, I’d like normal water and not cold? Here – take this away!”

Amma shrank into herself. Pratik, sitting opposite Appa, did not life his eyes from his plate. He finished eating first, mumbled something and went back into his own room. Appa’s voice sounded in Aditi’s ears long after the day was over. In between his dissatisfactions, loudly expressed, were mellower, expansive disquisitions on the nature of enlightenment and Vedanta. This was a waking nightmare.

Lying in bed, Aditi let her eyes roam over the walls of her room. Everything looked just as it had when she left. Even the shadows of the trees and the occasional headlight sweeping across the walls were as they had always been. The garden had seemed as lush as ever, the house as lived-in and warm as an embrace. But something was wrong. Why was Amma so afraid? Why was Pratik so uncommunicative?

“Pratik? Are you awake?”

Aditi stood outside Pratik’s door and waited. No answer.

After a minute she knocked again, this time a little louder. The door opened at once.

“Shh! Why’re you trying to break my door down?”

“I was just knocking, not trying to break your door down. Cheh! What is wrong with all of you at home? All of you overreact to everything!”

Pratik flopped down on the bed and looked at Aditi sleepily. Aditi annexed Pratik’s sheet and leaned against the wall.

“What’s with Appa, Pratik? Why is he like this? And why is Amma so scared of him?”

Pratik stared at Aditi for a full minute before answering.

“Appa. You want to know what’s wrong with him, hanh?” Pratik opened his window, lit a cigarette and put his head out after each puff to exhale. He saw Aditi watching him.
“Amma found out about Appa’s…” The rest of the words were lost because Pratik has put his head out again.

“Appa’s what?” Aditi’s head filled with terrible possibilities. How strange that the first of these, after their parents’ 28 years of marriage, should be a dread of some second, unknown family that suddenly had to be acknowledged. “Appa’s what?”

“Cigarettes. Bad investments. Temper.” Pratik threw the butt out of the window but left it open. A whiff of Raat-ki-Rani floated in as the smell of cigarettes wafted out. “What the fuck difference does it make? Does there have to be a reason why things are the way they are?”

“Well, yes,” said Aditi. “That’s usual, isn’t it?”

“Why did you leave twelve years ago?”

Aditi stayed silent. What could she tell Pratik, who was ten at the time, why she’d left? She wasn’t even sure she knew anymore, which probably accounted for the impulsive letter home and this visit.

After all this time, the difference between the serenity of the house and its surroundings and the silent tensions at home that erupted into raging anger, was more apparent. Tomorrow perhaps, there would be a moment of joy sandwiched between the rest of the day, when it would not occur to her to ask for reasons.

Aditi shrugged. People were, after all, terminally inexplicable.

“Chuck me the suttas, will you?”

Wednesday, May 02, 2007