& occasionally about other things, too...

Friday, April 26, 2013

Bollywood and the Indian Diaspora

Salman Rushdie is a huge fan of Hindi cinema.

Speaking to Jon Stewart on The Daily Show earlier this week he said given its size and sophistication, it’s unfair for the Bombay film industry to be called Bollywood.

He suggested instead that Hollywood should be called Hombay or some such thing.

Rachel Dwyer with Javed Akhtar at Jaipur Literary Festival
There are many who’d share Rushdie’s opinion. Rachel Dwyer would definitely be one of them. Dwyer is a professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.

Her understanding of the Bombay film industry is deep and her interpretation breathtakingly original. She blends her academic rigour with her love for Hindi cinema to weave stories that are utterly charming, and propounds insightful theories.

And she does this with her tongue firmly in cheek.

I had read her and about her, and earlier this week I saw her in person when she spoke on Bollywood and the Indian Diaspora at the Munk School of Global Affairs.

Munk School couldn’t have thought of a better way to celebrate Indian cinema’s centenary.

Dwyer outlined the recent filmography of two superstars – Shahrukh Khan and Akshay Kumar – to explain the trend of Indian Diaspora-themed movies that became staple Bollywood fare for close to two decades starting from the mid-1990s.

She traced the long fascination for Vilayat – the foreign – in Hindi cinema, especially in the 1960s and the early 1970s – a period when Vilayat was the antitheses of the so-called Indian values, as portrayed by Shammi Kapoor in Junglee (1961) and Saira Banu in Purab aur Paschim (1970).

The genre was transformed in the 1990s by Aditya Chopra’s Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995) and the Non-Resident Indian was coopted into the Indian mainstream. A series of films based on the ‘I’m NRI but I’m missing India’ theme were made, most of them with Shahrukh Khan in the lead.

Dwyer narrated Bollywood's transformation from a cultural outcast for a major part of the last century to cultural mainstream in present times. The question-answer session was also quite riveting, especially the near-absence of the depiction of caste in Hindi cinema (with a few notable exceptions), and the ultra-nationalistic, soft-Hindutva line adopted by most of the Diaspora-themed movies.

Her talk was spiced with innumerable anecdotes - how coincidentally the families of Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar and Shahrukh Khan lived on the same street in Peshawar; Yash Chopra's love for London.

For a brief while, many in the audience felt that Dwyer’s school girl-like adoration for Shahrukh Khan would hamper her erudition, but she checked herself and went on to give a bravura performance, worthy of a Filmfare. 



Indian cinema is celebrating its centennial year.

I attended a riveting talk by Rachel Dwyer last week on ‘Bollywood and the Indian Diaspora’ where she spoke about the growing acceptance of Hindi cinema across the world (Shahrukh Khan’s fame in the German-speaking world) and how in many non-western societies – especially in East Europe and the Middle East – Hindi cinema emerged as an alternative to Hollywood narrative.

Nearly a decade ago a convenience store manager in Washington DC gave me a hefty discount on a towel because I was from “the land of Amitabh Bachchan.” I asked him how he’d heard of Amitabh. From his Indian taxi driver friend, with whom he shared a room when he had immigrated to the US.

It’s only after immigrating to Canada that I’ve seen the popularity of Hindi movies among audiences who aren't from South Asia.  My friend Kundan Joshi (a Hindi movie aficionado, and a former Mumbaikar) gave me another interesting insight: Until some years ago, Hindi movies were shown only at Albion in Toronto. Now, of course, they find regular multiplex release and I generally go to Dundas Square to watch the latest blockbusters from Bombay.

Earlier this year, Facebook brought me this amazing youtube video where Angélique Kidjo, a Beninoise singer, (now based in New York) sings Dil mein chupa ke pyaar ka toofan (from Aan 1952).
A bit of web search led me to Girish Raj’s blog idigo.

In a 2010 entry on his blog, he says (about Angélique): “Half way through, she begins to tell a story. As a child growing up in Africa, she would beg her father to see Bollywood movies at the local cinema house. She said she loves Bollywood movies because they always have 'happy endings'.

“One particular song from a Bollywood film left an indelible mark. Over the years, she would sing the few lines she remembered, having long forgotten the name of the song or movie. Years later, she asks her brother, who had become an airline pilot, if he can help her find the name and lyrics to the song. On a flight out to India, he pokes around. Does anyone know this song? What do the lyrics mean? With the help of a few kind hearted Indians, he finally gets his answer and gives it to his sister.

“Elated, she begins to incorporate into her repertoire. Now 'Dil Main Chuppa Ke Pyar Ka' has made its way onto her latest album, 'Oyo' to be released June. When she sang it this past Friday night, the crown went wild. As did I.”

Enjoy the video:  

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Interview with Lisa de Nikolits, author of A Glittering Chaos

Author at the book launch

What is A Glittering Chaos about? Tell us about the theme, the characters and the place.

The novel explores the unexpected twists and turns that life can take at any stage of our lives. When we’re young, we tend to think that all adventure ceases as the years advance but I rail against that notion and I wanted to show that adventure, passion and new beginnings are possible (and sometime inevitable) at any stage of life.

In the novel, a German couple’s trip to Las Vegas is the catalyst for the chaos and change that follows. The seeds for disaster, sown many years previously, lay dormant but Las Vegas, with its glittery amorality sparks off a chain of events that, once started, cannot be stopped until every aspect has been resolved.

Melusine (protagonist) is unaware of the depths of her husband’s torments and she has believed their marriage to be a satisfactory and generally fulfilling one. Her beliefs are challenged when she falls in love with a stranger and she embarks on a passionate affair. Her husband, Hans, is increasingly obsessed with his sister who vanished when she was fourteen; he is convinced that a psychic will be able to help him contact her and help him resolve his incestuous desires.

Things don’t work out in the way that Melusine or Hans expect them to and the story evolves in a way that even surprised me, the author!

This book is based in Vegas; the title of your previous novel was West of Wawa. Are geography, space, and location important for your work?

My initial answer was no but the truth is yes! Yes, geography, space and location are important to my work and I realize the extent to which this is true when thinking about your question.

West of Wawa was a cross-Canada road-trip; A Glittering Chaos would not have happened but for the Vegas context; The Witchdoctor’s Bones (due in 2014, Inanna) is about a group of tourists who travel from Cape Town to Windhoek through Namibia, with murderous consequences. Even The Hungry Mirror dealt with matters of space and landscape – the protagonist’s body was her uncomfortable prison of residence and she examined this intimate country as closely as any cartographer doing daily checks of the valleys and hills.

With three published novels, you’re a prolific writer. What motivates you to write, and what compels you to be so prolific?

I never stop thinking about stories. And I truly do mean do mean never!

There was a period for about four years (1998 to 2002) in which I didn’t write; I was initially trying to forge a life in Sydney, Australia and then, when that didn’t work out, I came here in 2000 and was preoccupied by building a new life to write. However, I’ve used all those experiences in my writing, so that time of adventure did serve a writing purpose in the end!

I’ve churned out novels since my early twenties but the difference now is that I am working hard at improving. It’s as if I spent years in my living room doing pirouettes and pliés while my family applauded – but doing a thousand or a hundred thousand movements means nothing if you keep making the same mistakes.

I decided, when I put my mind to writing here in Canada, that I was going to do things differently, that I’d make an effort to really learn. I got some real feedback (not just my Mom telling me how great I am!) and started studying the craft in earnest.

I’ve never thought that ‘prolific’ was a particularly complimentary term on its own – I mean it’s no good if you produce truckloads of rubbish! There are writers out there who have published one tiny gem and never written again and I think that has a greater worth of the two scenarios.

I don’t mind being prolific but it’s more important to be me that I improve.

I haven’t read the book, but one of the online reviews compares it to Madam Bovary. Flaubert’s novel was criticized for obscenity. Is your novel obscene? Also, we’re in the 21st century, is anything obscene anymore?

I never censure what I write. A lot of readers found The Hungry Mirror to be extremely disturbing and triggering and dark. Some reviews of West of Wawa slammed it for its depiction of the delights of opiates and self-medication but (thankfully) a lot of readers out there ‘get’ my voice; the voice that explores life’s oddities and does so without restraint but with humour and compassion and there’s always an element of triumph in my work. There’s always adventure, there’s always the chance for personal growth and the potential for happy endings.

One of my favourite writers is Harry Crews; he’s funny and dark and unexpected and sensual and unafraid and that, yes, along with Gustave Flaubert’s classic work, is writing I aspire to. The comparison of these two authors may leave some speechless but that would sum up my goals.

Let’s look at a definition of ‘obscene’:
Pronunciation: /əbˈsiːn/
Definition of obscene
•     (of the portrayal or description of sexual matters) offensive or disgusting by accepted standards of morality and decency: obscene jokes

offending against moral principles; repugnant: using animals' skins for fur coats is obscene – source: oxford.dictionaries.com

By that definition, I think a lot of things are still considered to be obscene today and A Glittering Chaos has already been judged to be that by some reviewers.

For example, I had a 25-stop blog tour planned in the U.S.A in May and June but this has been reduced to a 12-stop tour because some of the bloggers baulked at the mention of incest in the book’s online trailer.

And a few advance reviewers of the book declined to endorse it due to the sexual content and this did surprise me given Maidenhead’s success (I love Maidenhead by Tamara Faith Berger) and of course there’s Fifty Shades of Dreadful Writing (which I could not read despite trying). Fifty Shades is openly read on subways while my book is being turned down by bloggers in the Midwest… interesting…

In any event, I am delighted and honoured that the book is likened to Madame Bovary (with thanks to Richard Rosenbaum/Broken Pencil) and I’ll take the comparison with gratitude.  

I’d like to mention my publisher here, Luciana Ricciutelli. She’s always believed in my voice and she’s always believed in my writing, regardless of the story’s specific context. Make no mistake, she’s sent me back to the drawing board more than a few times (for which I am incredibly grateful) and she’s always been a stalwart believer in my message and I thank her, along with the board of directors at Inanna. My Inanna family take my words and help me sculpt them, and make them live in this world and no writer could possibly ask for more.

Why do you write? And please don’t say you enjoy writing because nobody in their right mind can say they do. It’s a painful, miserable experience most of the time.

I write because I am more miserable when I am not writing. I am happier with the sometimes-rewarding misery of writing than in the bleak misery of not writing. And I write because I cannot stop myself from doing so. 

And, since we’ve mentioned Madame Bovary, I’d like to end with a quote by Gustave Flaubert that seems rather fitting: “Writing is a dog’s life, but the only one worth living.”

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else

The book and the author 

Last year, Pankaj Mishra and Nail Ferguson quarrelled on the pages of London Review of Books over Mishra’s review of Fergusson’s Civilization: The West and the Rest (http://www.lrb.co.uk/v33/n21/pankaj-mishra/watch-this-man). 

It was a fascinating debate that didn’t end conclusively.

Mishra’s From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against theWest and the Remaking of Asia is a response to Ferguson’s book, and was one of the books shortlisted for the Lionel Gelber prize this year.

Eventually Canadian Chrystia Freeland’s Plutocrats: The Riseof the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else won the prize. 

Freeland is the digital editor at Thomson Reuters. She has worked at the Financial Times both in New York and in London and has been the deputy editor of The Globe and Mail.  Freeland has reported for The Financial Times, The Economist, and The Washington Post.

Brian Stewart, eminent journalist interviewed Freeland at a packed Munk Centre on April 15.

Thoughtfully, the organizers had made arrangements for a webcast of the interview at an adjacent venue to accommodate the overflow of participants.

Freeland’s book is a pithy commentary of the battle between democracy and plutocracy. It’s about the rising band of the world’s superrich who are steadily taking over the world, leaving everyone behind.

In her book, Freeland says, “Our light-speed, globally connected economy has led to the rise of a new super-elite that consists, to a notable degree, of first- and second-generation wealth. Its members are hardworking, highly educated, jet-setting meritocrats who feel they are the deserving winners of a tough, worldwide economic competition—and, as a result, have an ambivalent attitude toward those of us who haven’t succeeded quite so spectacularly. They tend to believe in the institutions that permit social mobility, but are less enthusiastic about the economic redistribution—i.e., taxes—it takes to pay for those institutions. Perhaps most strikingly, they are becoming a transglobal community of peers who have more in common with one another than with their countrymen back home. Whether they maintain primary residences in New York or Hong Kong, Moscow or Mumbai, today’s super-rich are increasingly a nation unto themselves.

The prize was presented by Patricia Rubin, Chair, Lionel Gelber Prize Board, Professor Janice Gross Stein, Director, Munk School of Global Affairs and Susan Glasser, Editor in Chief, Foreign Policy.

Besides Freeland’s and Mishra’s books, the other books on the shortlist were:

Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956 by Anne Applebaum 

The Second Nuclear Age: Strategy, Danger, and the New Power Politics by Paul Bracken 

Ghosts of Empire: Britain's Legacies in the Modern World by Kwasi Kwarteng

Lionel Gelber Prize is awarded to “the world's best non-fiction book in English (or English translation) that seeks to deepen public debate on significant global issues. The Economist has described the Lionel Gelber Prize as 'the world's most important award for non-fiction.' It is worth $15,000.”

Images from Google.

Monday, April 08, 2013

Accept & encourage new Canadian culture

Beit Zatoon is a meeting place for art and culture with unmistakable political underpinnings on Toronto’s Markham Street. I was there recently to listen to young spoken word artists recite poems of social justice at an event that showcased the poetry of a medieval Punjabi sufi poet Bulleh Shah. There was music, too – a veritable feast of Indian semi-classical, and other genres both vocal and instrumental. And rather incongruously, some bit of Shiite preaching (‘Karbala is his Kaaba’). The artists and especially the audience comprised all races and many religions. I assume there were many like me in the audience with little patience for anything religious but an abiding belief in the oneness of humans, something that Bulleh Shah preached.

A program on Bulleh Shah is as South Asian as it gets, and would’ve easily attracted a few hundred connoisseurs of sufi poetry in any Indian or Pakistani city. However, what transformed the Toronto show into a foot-stomping, handclapping, swinging and swaying musical communion was the participation of musicians of different ethnicities from across the world and who call Toronto home. That wouldn’t have been possible in South Asia – a subcontinent geographically divided by history.

I recall at least two other programs that were similarly path-breaking and innovative. The first was a poetry and music program at St. John’s Cathedral which had Canadian poets of Bosnian, Brazilian, Indian and Irish origins, and violinists who reinterpreted Bartok’s folk tunes. The second one was collaboration between a Toronto-born poet and a painter of Japanese origin where the painter interpreted the poem by painting on an illuminated glass panel.

These collaborative efforts are not exercises in nostalgia nor are they merely an attempt to recreate a milieu of a time that is now living in memory, or a place left behind. Conscious of their new environment, the artists, musicians and poets are reinterpreting the original material by synthesizing the traditional with the modern. The resulting confluence is quintessentially Canadian.

During my five years in Toronto, I’ve attended several similar programs organized every day by different ethnic groups – all working quietly, unobtrusively to expand the Canadian identity.  I think it is this artistic exploration that makes Canada unique. This land provides a platform for everyone to celebrate oneness; to forge a new identity through their creativity; to make some magic.

Without committing a Socratic fallacy in defining the term Canadian, I’d say that labelling something Canadian definitely builds our society. But building a society is different from making culture a marketable commodity. If there is a perception that labelling something ‘Canadian’ dooms our cultural industries to failure, it’s because at present the term Canadian is narrowly defined and doesn’t encompass all that it should – culturally, socially, economically, and politically.

The so-called “national mainstream” takes no notice of the programs that I so enthusiastically attend. Its disdain for the new Canadian culture stems from an absence of awareness of the upsurge of new talent. This is the result of policies that prevent wholesome integration of immigrants into the Canadian mainstream.

The “national mainstream” indulges in rank tokenism. It’s happy to acknowledge Russell Peters’s wild popularity, and occasionally also the masters who can’t be ignored – Rohinton Mistry, MG Vassanji, Deepa Mehta, but then swiftly move on to Dion Phaneuf, Justin Trudeau and Margaret Atwood. The cultural tumult that is transforming Canadian cities remains hidden. In this process, artists, musicians, filmmakers, poets who are perhaps as talented remain unacknowledged.

This is a pity because there is both a growing market and sponsorship available for the new Canadian culture. A culture acquires acceptance and gains in popularity when it’s constantly talked about. Cultural marketability comes through heightened awareness which can only be created if people from those sections of the Canadian society who are involved with the development of new culture have the decision-making powers. This can come about only by empowering immigrants economically and politically.

Also published in Toronto Star (13-04-13): 

Strictly Canadian: Embracing the new nation’s culture