Tuesday, August 28, 2007

King of Bollywood

Anupama Chopra is a well-regarded film journalist with insider connections. Shah Rukh Khan is a charismatic actor who came to Bombay with no money or connections and transformed himself into a superstar. The combination of their sensibilities and talents should have resulted in a memorable book. The intention seems to have been to view the changes in Bollywood from the late 1980s to the early 2000s through the lens of Shah Rukh's career; the jacket copy promises "the first comprehensive narrative of Bollywood published in the US."

Alas, King of Bollywood: Shah Rukh Khan and the Seductive World of Indian Cinema is a bit of a disappointment. We hear what sound like well-worn stories about Shah Rukh's early career, and we get a highly compressed description of the changes in the Indian economy in general and Bollywood in particular in the decade following the economic liberalization of the early 1990s. Chopra's main thesis seems to be that SRK symbolizes a new cosmopolitan Indian identity. His characters often live in or travel to London or New York, and display the consumer tokens of globalization (Pepsi, basketball, designer clothes). At heart, though, SRK's characters retain a deep connection to Indian traditions and culture, easing viewers' anxieties about the loss of a specifically Indian identity under the impact of Western-style consumerism. The original template for this character appears in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995), but similar elements recur in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998), Kabhi Khushie Kahbie Gham (2001), Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003), and Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (2006); the reawakening of an identification with India in a Westernized engineer is the explicit theme of Swades (2004).

But the book is hardly comprehensive--there's little discussion of other stars or filmmakers outside of Aditya and Yash Chopra, Karan Johar, and Sanjay Leela Bhansali--and apart from DDLJ and Devdas (2002) it lacks detailed analyses of particular films. In particular Chopra gives short shrift to SRK's post-Devdas work, omitting discussion of films like Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003), Veer-Zaara (2004) and Paheli (2005). Large chunks of the narrative are lifted almost verbatim from her 2002 book on DDLJ, and a certain critical distance seems to be missing throughout.

This is understandable. Beth Loves Bollywood recently posted a comment from a friend of hers who participated in a group interview with SRK on the occasion of the London opening of his new film Chak de India (2007). Beth's friend wrote, "I asked him a question about where he sees Indian cinema in 5 years and he looked at me as he spoke. At this point, I began to feel slightly, uh, swoony. He has the most amazing eyes--a sort of liquid amber, like cognac or something. They are mesmerising. I could feel my critical faculties ebbing away as they were directed at me..."

So nothing against Anupama Chopra if her critical faculties ebbed a bit during the research for this book--she's only human. I do think, though, that the definitive book on Bollywood from the late 1980s onwards remains to be written. Meanwhile, I highly recommend her book on DDLJ, and only wish that in King of Bollywood she had discussed more of SRK's films at a similar level of critical detail.

Update 9/12/07: On re-reading this post I realize that it sounds a bit more negative about King of Bollywood than I actually feel. Chopra's book is entertaining and well-written; it just doesn't fulfill some of the promises the jacket copy makes, or meet some of the expectations raised by her book on DDLJ. For another (more enthusiastic) perspective, see Beth Loves Bollywood's review of the book.

Thursday, August 9, 2007


"Sex, violence, lust, incest, jealousy and betrayal: ah, it's comforting to slip into the world of High Art, isn't it?"
(Donna Leon on Floridante)

18th-Century Italian opera is the art form Samuel Johnson described as "exotick and irrational entertainment." Oddly, its greatest composer was a German living in London, George Fredric Handel. Floridante dates from 1721, the second season of the Royal Academy opera company (financed by nobles temporarily enriched by the South Sea Bubble). If Floridante is not quite up to the musical or (especially) dramatic standard of Handel's later Royal Academy operas such as Giulio Cesare or Rodelinda, it still offers much beautiful music.

In composing Floridante, Handel was responding to the challenge of a rival composer, Giovanni Bononcini, who was renowned for his "airs of tenderness" (according to 18th-Century musical historian Charles Burney) and who also composed operas for the Royal Academy. Bononcini's skill in composing slow, melancholic arias had struck a chord with audiences, and in Floridante Handel responded with an opera full of music expressing sorrow and anguish.

The plot has the typical complexity of 18th-Century opera seria: Oronte has usurped the Persian throne, raising the murdered king's orphaned daughter Elmira as his own. She's been promised to Floridante, prince of Thrace, who has just triumphed in battle. Floridante has captured the disguised prince of Tyre, Timante, who had been betrothed to Oronte's true daughter Rossane. Rather than rewarding Floridante for his victory, though, Oronte banishes him, because he's decided that he wants to marry Elmira himself. Elmira, though, thinks that Oronte is her biological father, and is horrified. Multiple disguises, revelations, and selfless gestures ensue before the two pairs of lovers (Elmira and Floridante, Rossane and Timante) are united, Oronte is overthrown (but forgiven), Elmira takes her rightful place as ruler of Persia, and peace between Persia and Tyre is established.

It's a cliche that in Baroque opera the plot is merely an excuse for situations of emotional extremity expressed in glorious music and virtuosic singing. In fact, many Baroque operas can be dramatically effective if they are given attentive, intelligent stagings. However, Floridante comes close to fulfilling the stereotype; even without a fully compelling drama to anchor the opera, though, Handel's music is exceptional.

The cast on this recording is superb. Joyce DiDonato in the role of Elmira sings ravishingly; she is supported admirably by the contralto Marijana Mijanovic in the male role of Floridante (sung originally by the castrato Senesino); soprano Sharon Rostof-Zamir as Rossane; and soprano Roberta Invernizzi in the male role of Timante (sung orginally by the castrato Benedetto Baldassari). (Yup, cross-dressing heros and no tenors--two big reasons we love Baroque opera.) There is no weak link in the cast.

The booklet note claims that this recording of Floridante is an attempt to recapture Handel's "original intentions." However, those intentions are unrecoverable. Handel had orginally conceived the role of Elmira as being sung by the Italian mezzo-soprano Margherita Durastanti, and Rossane as being sung by a contralto, Anastasia Robinson, but had only written the first act of the opera when he found out that Durastanti would not be able to come to London in time. Robinson--an English singer who was the mistress of one of the major sponsors of the Royal Academy--was given the transposed role of Elmira, and another Italian soprano, Maddalena Salvai, was given Rossane. This recording casts a mezzo (DiDonato) as Elmira, but a soprano (Rostof-Zamir) instead of a contralto as Rossane.

It doesn't matter. Whatever the musicological merits of the choices conductor Alan Curtis has made, we can simply wallow in the glorious singing and music which are so abundant on these discs.

If you've never heard a Handel opera before, I'd recommend Giulio Cesare, Alcina, Ariodante, or Rodelinda as the places to start. But this recording of Floridante is very alluring, and makes a strong case for this opera to be considered among Handel's masterpieces.

For other reviews of this recording, see Ionarts and Prima la musica, poi le parole.