Monday, June 29, 2009

Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi

Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi (A Match Made in Heaven, 2008) is a film that divides people. At least it divides me from most other people, who hated it. Here are some sample responses:

"...a disappointingly ordinary and sloppy script that is not at all engaging beyond the first few minutes..." (theBollywoodFan)

"...nothing but mediocre fluff..." (Bitten By Bollywood)

"...it's not bad - it's terrible." (The Post-Punk Cinema Club)
In fact, PPCC's savaging dissuaded us from trying to see the movie in our regional Hindi cinema. We bought the DVD, of course, being the helpless Shah Rukh Khan fans that we are, but it was with some trepidation that we popped it into the machine.

And while RNBDJ isn't a timeless masterpiece of cinematic art, it isn't terrible. Despite its occasional weaknesses, implausibilities, and (as Beth points out in her mixed review) somewhat heavy-handed religiosity, we actually found it to be highly enjoyable.

As the film opens, Surinder Sahni (Shah Rukh Khan)--a quiet, ordinary office worker--is bringing home his new bride Taani (newcomer Anushka Sharma). It's a shock to see SRK so radically deglamorized as Suri:

Suri
We sense that something is wrong, and soon discover that Suri and Taani's marriage has been hastily arranged. Suri had been attending Taani's wedding as a guest of her father when the news came that on the way to the wedding the groom and his family had been killed in a horrific bus accident. Taani's father collapses, and on his deathbed begs her to marry Suri so that he can die in peace. Completely numbed by the loss of her fiance and the impending death of her father, Taani agrees.

So not only do Suri and Taani barely know one another, Taani is in deep mourning for her fiance, her father, and for her former life:

I have to kill the old Taani
Suri is older, and a painfully shy man. He's fallen instantly and hopelessly in love with the vivacious Taani, and expresses his wish for a "soft, sweet, slow" blossoming of affection in the delightful fantasy song "Haule Haule" (sung by Sukhwinder Singh; soundtrack composed by Salim-Sulaiman). But Suri realizes that a declaration of his feelings would be horrendously inappropriate. Not only that--Taani tells him straight out that love is out of the question:

I won't be able to love
So they sleep separately and eat meals in uncomfortable silence. Taani's one pleasure is going to the movies; there Suri sees her laugh for the first time since their marriage. When Taani starts attending dance classes, it gives Suri a (bad) idea: having his salon-owner buddy Bobby (Vinay Pathak) give him a makeover in the style of Taani's filmi heroes. In his new guise--torn T-shirts, tight jeans, gelled hair, and sans moustache--Suri goes to the dance class and by unlikely coincidence gets paired with Taani. Suri calls it the hand of God (we know better: it's the hand of screenwriter-director Aditya Chopra). Suri introduces himself to Taani with the generic filmi name "Raj Kapoor"; and it's not just Raj's clothes and hair that are different from Suri's, but his personality. Suri may be introverted, but Raj is brash and outspoken to the point of obnoxiousness.

Raj
Initially it's going to be a one-time thing, but as it turns out Suri actually enjoys being Raj and sharing the dance classes with Taani. Raj clearly has a freedom that Suri has never allowed himself; and he can express feelings that Suri could never utter:

As Raj you can tell her what's in your heart
Taani is at first angered by Raj's outrageous flirting and his clueless incompetence on the dance floor, but soon comes to realize that under all his flash he's really a decent guy. In "Dance Pe Chance" (sung by Sunidhi Chauhan and Labh Janjua) we're treated to the amusing spectacle of Taani (Bollywood novice Sharma) schooling the awkward Raj (in reality the graceful and athletic superstar SRK) in Bollydance moves.

Suri also comes to realize that Raj isn't just liberating for him, but for Taani as well: she can dance, laugh, and recover something of her former high-spirited self in Raj's company. And here is where the flaws in Suri's plan become apparent. Taani enjoys herself so much with Raj that Suri starts to become jealous--of himself! He reads her newfound happiness with Raj as a sign of her dissatisfaction with Suri, and decides to force her to choose between them. As Bobby points out, this false choice is highly perverse:

You're being unfair to your wife, Suri
And this is where my logical brain centers, disarmed for most of the film, started to make their presence known again--but not before the gut-wrenching scene where Taani makes her choice.

Memsaab, in her insightful review, draws parallels between RNBDJ and a Barbara Cartland novel, Desire of the Heart. And she's exactly right: RNBDJ is a male romance, in which the characters of Suri and Raj represent the split in the male psyche: the geeky, quiet, considerate Suri, and the would-be hero Raj. Of course, Raj (being Suri) is fairly inept at playing the hero; and Suri (being Raj) eventually rises to the occasion and reveals the truth of his feelings to Taani.

All the principles give excellent performances in RNBDJ. It would have been easy for Shah Rukh to make Suri and Raj two entirely distinct characters, but SRK does something subtler: he lets us see the Suri inside Raj, and the Raj inside Suri. (His drunken conversation with himself just before the interval gets an instant nomination for my all-time SRK highlights disc.) Anushka Sharma believably negotiates Taani's rollercoaster of emotions; she's utterly charming in the role of an ordinary woman who finds herself in unexpectedly deep emotional waters. And Vinay Pathak does a great job as the volatile Bobby--if only all of us had friends so loyal. (Amazingly enough, we'd seen Vinay in Fire (1996), Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1998), Water (2005), and Aaja Nachle (2007), and didn't recognize him.)

The film is beautifully shot, and (a few lapses such as a magically vanishing scratch on Suri's forehead aside) well written. The Bollywood references are mind-bogglingly dense. As one example, when Raj takes his leave of Taani after the first dance class, he says, "Kabhi alvida naa kehna...hum hain rahi pyar ke...phir milenge....chalte chalte" (Never say goodbye...We are travellers on the path of love; we'll meet again as time goes by). This utterance includes references to no fewer than 8 films. Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna is the title of a 2005 film starring SRK, and a phrase from the title song of the 1976 film Chalte Chalte. "Hum hain rahi pyar ke" is a song from the 1957 film Nau do Gyrah starring Dev Anand; it is also the title of a 1993 film starring Aamir Khan and Juhi Chawla. Phir Milenge is the title of a 2004 film starring Salman Khan and Shilpa Shetty. Chalte Chalte is the title of no less than three films, from 1947, 1976, and 2003 (the last starring SRK and Rani Mukherji); it's also a classic song from the film Pakeezah (1972). So one line has invoked all three superstar Khans, plus at least five vintage Bollywood films.

The references only get denser in the number "Phir milenge...chalte chalte" (sung by Sonu Nigam), which pays tribute to five Golden and Silver Age actors--Raj Kapoor, Dev Anand, Shammi Kapoor, Rajesh Khanna, and Rishi Kapoor--and their leading ladies. During a dull movie Taani dozes off and suddenly imagines Raj hijacking the onscreen action (with help from Kajol, Bipasha Basu, Lara Dutta, Preity Zinta and Rani):



Despite the inevitable echoes of its hilarious predecessors "Dhoom Taana" from Om Shanti Om (2007) and "Wod Ladki Hai Kahan" from Dil Chahta Hai (2001), this number works brilliantly on its own terms. theBollywoodFan has detailed 28 specific references in this song in a highly enjoyable YouTube playlist; the main ones seem to be Shree 420 (1955), Johnny Mere Nam (1970), Teesri Manzil (1966), Aap Ki Kasam (1974), and Hum Kisi Se Kum Nahin (1977).

So, as must be apparent, I join with Memsaab in disagreeing with the negative consensus on the film. I've already watched it three times, and I'm sure we'll return to it again in the future. Or as the film has it, phir milenge chalte chalte...

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Clay Sanskrit Library (and Fire Part 2)

The Clay Sanskrit Library (CSL) is a handsome and modestly priced series of small-format hardback volumes of classics in Sanskrit literature. Of course, these classics include sweeping epics such as the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, but also charming coming-of-age adventures (What Ten Young Men Did) and animal fables (Friendly Advice).

In his review of some CSL offerings in the Times Literary Supplement of June 19, Aditya Behl relates a story from Friendly Advice called "The Lion and the Cat": An old lion just wants to be able to nap without distractions. But every time he closes his eyes a mischievous mouse comes and nibbles away at his mane. So the lion asks a cat to keep the mouse away; in return, the lion will share his food with the cat. The cat agrees, and the lion is able to sleep undisturbed. One day, though, the cat catches and kills the mouse. Their bargain concluded, the lion stops feeding the cat, who eventually starves to death. The moral? "Never keep your master free from care."

Behl describes how this story and its moral was included in the primers from which young East India Company officers learned Hindi from Indian teachers. He writes,

"In this situation, who is the colonized subject? Modernity needs to inscribe tradition, especially when coded in classical language, as closed, singular and oppressive in order to define itself as the opposite. Yet when we look at stories such as these, they reveal the classical as open, both in the sense of using older materials in new situations of cultural encounter and in the expanse of what can be represented as part of the human condition." (p. 5)

It seems to me that this is one of the things that Deepa Mehta is doing so cleverly in Fire (1996): she is re-inscribing ancient tales of women's devotion (Karva Chauth, Sita, Radha) with new meanings. It's one of the things that makes Fire such a rich film.

I'm ashamed to say that I've never read the Mahabharata or the Ramayana even in abridged form. I've only picked up elements of these epics through their reworkings in Indian films, and through watching the film of Peter Brook's theatrical adaptation of the Mahabharata. But the Clay Sanskrit Library now makes this fantastically rich literature available in the most comprehensive form yet to readers of English.

Right now 49 volumes are available in the series, with another 7 scheduled for August 2009. But as it stands both the Mahabharata and the Ramayana remain incomplete. Ominously, the "Future Volumes" link on the CSL website does not link to any titles. I can only hope that this series, co-published by New York University Press and the JJC Foundation, will continue to be issued at least through its initially planned 100 volumes, and that in particular the two great epics will ultimately be available in their entirety.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Ustad Ali Akbar Khan

I just learned the sad news of the death last week of sarod master Ali Akbar Khan. While I remain shockingly ignorant about Indian classical music, even I am aware of Ali Akbar Khan and his efforts to pass on the traditions of Indian music through the Ali Akbar College of Music. Khan also wrote and performed the music for several films in the late 50s and early 60s, including Satyajit Ray's Devi (Goddess, 1960) and James Ivory and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's The Householder (1963).

On her blog Cafe Aman, Anastasia Tsioulcas has posted a tribute which includes this lovely video of Ali Akbar Khan and Swapan Chaudhuri playing the raga "Zila Kafi," which I'm reposting here:



Anatasia's post includes a link to a profile she wrote for National Geographic Music; that profile includes some recommendations for additional listening. There's also an informative Wikipedia article, and the AACM site includes a complete discography.

Ali Akbar Khan's passing is a profound loss to the musical culture of the world.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Fire

fireDeepa Mehta's Fire (1996) is the story of two sisters-in-law, Sita (Nandita Das) and Radha (Shabana Azmi), who are trapped in loveless marriages. But the film also explores issues of class, familial hierarchy, generational change, and "the struggle between tradition and individual expression," as Mehta puts it in her director's note. (Fire is not, strictly speaking, a Bollywood film: it's in English, and although it features Indian locations and actors from Bollywood and India's parallel cinema, it was made primarily with Canadian financing.)

Sita is a new bride entering the household of her husband Jatin (Jaaved Jaaferi): the household includes his elder brother Ashok (Kuhlbushan Karbandan), Ashok's wife Radha, and the stroke-debilitated matriarch of the clan, Biji (Kushal Rekhi). It soon becomes clear that all is not well in the family. Jatin has agreed to the arranged marriage with Sita only to placate Ashok. Jatin is really in love with Julie, his longtime Chinese-Indian girlfriend, who is unwilling to be tied down in a traditional marriage. Ashok himself has fallen under the sway of a guru and has taken a vow of celibacy. Sita and Radha soon draw close to one another for support and solace, and slowly their emotional connection begins to deepen.

One of the pleasures of the film is the way that the traditions, rituals and myths which are woven into the daily lives of the characters take on a heightened significance and new meanings. Karva Chauth, for example, is a daylong fast undertaken by Indian wives to insure a long life for their husbands; at moonrise, the wives are supposed to receive their first sip of water from their husband's hands. When Sita and Radha observe Karva Chauth, though, at moonrise Jatin is out seeing Julie; instead of receiving her first drink of water from her husband, Sita receives it from Radha--an emotionally loaded moment in the context of the ritual.

Of course, the very names Sita and Radha are freighted with meaning. In the Ramayana, the devoted Sita is unjustly repudiated by Lord Ram, and Sita insists on a trial by fire to prove her steadfast love. (Interestingly, even though she passes through the fire unscathed, Lord Ram still banishes her!) And the legend of Radha's love for Krishna is that of a passionately carnal connection that transcends their formal vows of marriage to others. (I'm fascinated that the love of Krishna and Radha, who in many versions of the story are each technically adulterous, is often invoked at Indian weddings.) Fire then becomes a metaphor for both physical passion (Radha) and purity of heart (Sita).

Fire is the story of the collision between tradition and modernity, duty and love, men's limiting expectations and women's awakening desires for self-fulfillment. It's a complex, subtle, nuanced and surprising film. I highly recommend it, along with Mehta's Earth: 1947 (1998) and Water (2005). I haven't yet seen the final film in her Elements tetralogy, Heaven on Earth (2008), but I'm eager to see it.

Friday, June 12, 2009

The KnowPrivacy Project: Google and Yahoo (and many others) are watching you

We're all vaguely aware that our use of the internet isn't really private. However, you may be surprised to find out who is monitoring you, how they're doing it, and what they're doing with the information.

UC Berkeley's KnowPrivacy Project ("KnowPrivacy," of course, also sounds like "No Privacy") has recently issued a report of its findings on internet data collection, and it makes for some pretty troubling reading. Here are summaries of a few of their findings:

1. Collecting information with web bugs and beacons: Everyone knows about cookies--the small text files that sites like Amazon and Gmail place on your computer to personally identify you when you visit them. And if you want to order something online or read your web-based e-mail, you have to enable cookies from those sites. However, when you do that cookies can also be placed on your machine by third parties such as advertisers; since an advertiser can have ads on many sites, they can collect personally identifiable information about your browsing behavior across the web.

But even if you set your browser to disable third-party cookies, your internet use can be monitored by web bugs. Web bugs are typically 1 x 1 pixel images that are invisibly embedded in the background of a web page, an ad, or an e-mail. Whenever that web page is opened in your browser, the bug informs the server of your IP address (that is, your computer), the time, and the URL (that is, what you're viewing). The only way to disable web bugs is to block all third-party content, but that means (for example) you couldn't view a YouTube video embedded in someone's blog post. Web bugs can also be embedded in e-mails, alerting the sender when the message has been opened (so a spammer can discover that your e-mail address is valid, even if you don't click on any link and immediately delete the e-mail).

Often, of course, you may want to share information about your internet use with a website operator--it enables the site to be customized to your preferences. Examples include things like Amazon's recommendations for users based on their browsing and purchasing patterns, or Netflix's recommendations based on previous rentals and ratings. Consenting to such information-sharing can make these sites more functional for users. However, the whole point of web bugs is that they do not require your consent to gather information about you.

2. Who is collecting your information: Dozens of advertisers and website operators attempt to track your internet use, but among the leaders in web bug placement is Google. The KnowPrivacy project found that Google-owned sites are saturated with web bugs--in March 2009, 100 separate web bugs were found on Blogspot, 44 on Google and 31 on Blogger. (Typepad, a rival blogging site, had 75 separate web bugs.)

While blogs can contain ads that have their own bugs, many of the bugs on the blogging sites are placed by the bloggers themselves in order to track their traffic. But popular tracking bugs such as Google Analytics, for example, allow bloggers to share that information with the parent company (and in fact, Google offers incentives to do so). Google-owned trackers--Analytics, DoubleClick, AdSense, FriendConnect, and Widgets--appeared on more than 88% of the 394,000 distinct domains visited by the KnowPrivacy Project participants. Clearly, a lot of information on web use is being gathered without the explicit consent of users.

3. Sharing of information: So what's being done with this information? For one thing, companies like Google use it to sell ads targeted to specific users. I have a Gmail account, and my messages are obviously bugged and scanned for keywords. When I open a message containing specific keywords, a text ad that has been matched to those words appears on my screen. But I have to confess that I don't even consciously notice most of these, and the ads were part of the deal I accepted when I set up the account.

But information gathered about you by websites can be shared--that is, sold, rented, or offered as part of a commercial agreement--with other companies without your knowledge or consent. In order to protect yourself, you might try to read websites' privacy policies. But many privacy policies have language that refers to things like "affiliates," "marketing partners" and "third parties." It is almost impossible to find out which companies are getting information about you, and under what constraints.

Of 50 privacy policies analyzed by the KnowPrivacy Project, 36 stated that third-party tracking is allowed, but "the data collection practices of these third parties were outside the coverage of the privacy policy" (p. 27). And as for affiliates, the report points out that "it appears that users have no practical way of knowing with whom their data will be shared" (p. 28). As an example, "MySpace, one of the most popular social networking sites (especially among younger users), is owned by NewsCorp, which has over 1500 subsidiaries....Information pulled from these websites could potentially find its way to all of these affiliated companies" (p. 28).

In my own experience, Yahoo's privacy policy seems particularly confusing and unclear. For example, it states that Yahoo doesn't share personal information about you with without your consent...except "to trusted partners who work on behalf of or with Yahoo! under confidentiality agreements. These companies may use your personal information to help Yahoo! communicate with you about offers from Yahoo! and our marketing partners."

In other words, Yahoo can share any information they gather about you with any entity working "on behalf of or with" Yahoo, although these "trusted partners" aren't supposed to further share your information. Who are these "trusted partners"? "Yahoo! works with vendors, partners, advertisers, and other service providers in different industries and categories of business." Clicking on the offered "reference links" takes you to a page that includes more than 100 links detailing the "privacy practices" of various Yahoo products and services, including more than a dozen "Acquired Companies with Different Privacy Policies." Presumably, the use of your information by these acquired companies--which include AltaVista, del.icio.us, Flickr, and Yahoo Search Marketing--is governed by their "different privacy policies," even though they are owned by Yahoo.

There's also some other troubling language in the Yahoo policy about how merely viewing an ad implies consent. "Yahoo! displays targeted advertisements based on personal information....[B]y interacting with or viewing an ad you are consenting to the possibility that the advertiser will make the assumption that you meet the targeting criteria used to display the ad."

So based on personal information it has collected about you, Yahoo sells display ads on pages you visit. Merely by viewing these ads, which display automatically, you are consenting to the assumption that you fit the profile of users at whom the ad is aimed. Among Yahoo advertisers are "financial service providers (such as banks, insurance agents, stock brokers and mortgage lenders)." The assumptions that financial companies such as insurance companies and lenders make about you can have potentially huge impacts, of course.

I recommend reading the full KnowPrivacy report; it is available through the KnowPrivacy website, which summarizes the report's findings. How personal information is being collected and disseminated should be of concern to everyone who uses the web.

If you're interested in additional resources, the Electronic Frontier Foundation monitors important developments in internet privacy, as well as other issues like free speech, innovation, government transparency, and intellectual property--see my response to Memsaab's comment below.

Reference:
Joshua Gomez, Travis Pinnick, and Ashkan Soltani, "KnowPrivacy" (June 1, 2009)
http://www.knowprivacy.org/report/KnowPrivacy_Final_Report.pdf

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Tosca (and L'Allegro)

When I'm awakened at 2 in the morning by a bunch of drunken clubgoers screaming at one another outside my window, I think that the romance of city life is overrated. But there are occasions when living in a major metropolitan area has its rewards, and last Saturday was one of them.

In the afternoon we went to see the dress rehearsal of San Francisco Opera's production of Tosca. It's not our favorite Puccini opera, but since the tickets were free (they were given to us by a regular customer at my bookshop), we couldn't resist.

Tosca was the opera Puccini wrote after La Bohème. Like La Bohème, it's based on a literary source--in Tosca's case, Victorien Sardou's 1887 play La Tosca--and the libretto was written by the brilliant Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa (who also collaborated on the libretti for Madama Butterfly and Manon Lescaut). But otherwise, there aren't many resemblances between the two works. Unlike La Bohème's ensemble of bohemians, Tosca centers on three characters: the artist Cavaradossi, the diva Flora Tosca, and Baron Scarpia, head of the secret police in Rome. Cavaradossi and Tosca are lovers, but the malevolent Scarpia lusts after Tosca and suspects Cavaradossi of supporting the recently overthrown Roman Republic.

A bit of history, which is important to the opera's plot. The opera is set in June 1800. Several years earlier French armies under Napoleon had invaded Italy and, after defeating the forces of the Austrian empire which then occupied most of the northern part of the country, eventually entered Rome. As they had elsewhere in Italy the French declared a republic, and the Pope (who was both spiritual and secular ruler of the Papal States--a huge swath of central Italy stretching between the Tyrrhenian and Adriatic Seas) was taken prisoner. However, a few months later Napoleon embarked on his invasion of Egypt. While he was occupied with the disastrous Egyptian campaign and its aftermath, the Austrians returned and retook northern Italy, while the army of the Kingdom of Naples (then ruled by the Spanish royal family) captured Rome. Reprisals were carried out, and suspected republicans were executed or imprisoned. In Tosca, it is the escape of the republican prisoner Angelotti that sets events in motion.

However, in 1800 Napoleon's army re-invaded northern Italy and, on June 14, fought a major battle with the Austrians at Marengo (not far from Turin in the northwest). It is news of Napoleon's apparent defeat in this battle that is announced in Act I of Tosca, and which is the occasion for the victory mass that is sung at the close of that act.

While the mass begins, Baron Scarpia is gloating over his plan to use Cavaradossi's arrest on suspicion of aiding Angelotti in order to blackmail Tosca for sex: "Ah, to see the flame of those imperious eyes grow faint and languid with passion...For him, death, and for her, my arms..." In an amazing juxtaposition, as the choir begins to sing the Te Deum, Scarpia cries out, "Tosca, you make me forget God!"

Since the opera takes place at a specific historical time and references are made to actual events, people, and locations (the settings for all three acts--the church of Sant'Andrea della Valle, the Palazzo Farnese, and the Castel Sant' Angelo--are still standing) directors have little leeway to change its time or place, making Tosca more or less immune from Regietheater. And indeed the SF Opera's production shows how effective a traditional staging can be. The set and costume designs by Thierry Bosquet were based on Armando Agnini's original 1932 SF staging, and they were quite handsome. The Act III Castel Sant' Angelo set, which looks out over the skyline of Rome as the dawn slowly illuminates the dome of Sant'Andrea della Valle, was especially striking.

Since we saw a dress rehearsal, I don't want to write about any of the singers we saw (for the record: Jordan Bisch as Angelotti, Carlo Ventre as Cavaradossi, Adrianne Pieczonka as Tosca, and Lado Ataneli as Scarpia). But I will mention that there is a 1992 DVD version of Tosca starring Plácido Domingo (Cavaradossi), Catherine Malfitano (Tosca), and Ruggero Raimondi (Scarpia), which was broadcast live from the actual locations and at the actual times specified in the libretto. (The orchestra, conducted by Zubin Mehta, was playing live in a studio nearby, and the singers apparently wore tiny radio transmitters that enabled them to hear the music and sing on location.) Here is the finale of Act I from this broadcast:



Scarpia's blasphemy in this scene is especially shocking because the opera premiered in Rome almost exactly a century after the events it describes; perhaps it was only permissible because Scarpia is the evil agent of a foreign power.

After seeing this brutal and bloody opera (which features--spoiler alert!--torture, attempted rape, murder, execution and suicides; musicologist Joseph Kerman famously called it "that shabby little shocker") we drove across the Bay Bridge to Berkeley to see the Mark Morris Dance Company perform Handel's L'Allegro, il Penseroso, ed il Moderato accompanied by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, soloists, and the UC Berkeley Chamber Choir. Seeing both on the same day was almost too much of a good thing; fortunately, we had a break of several hours in between. Perhaps I'll write about the MMDG performance in another post; for now, I'll just say that the chance to see these two amazing live performances in one day made us glad once again that we live in the city.