Thursday, November 25, 2010

Baroque Bollywood Part 2

A continuation of Baroque Bollywood Part 1, tracing the parallels between Baroque opera and Bollywood:

Love triangles: Love triangles in Baroque opera can get quite, er, baroque. In Vivaldi's Ottone in Villa (1713), for example, the Roman emperor Ottone loves Cleonilla, who has a crush on her male page "Ostilio," who is really a disguised woman named Tullia, who has come to court seeking her former lover Caio, who abandoned her and now loves Cleonilla. Got all that?

A similarly tangled love plot features in Handel's opera Serse (Xerxes, 1738): Atalanta is in love with Arsamene, who loves Atalanta's sister Romilda, who loves Arsamene in return, but finds herself also subject to the amorous attentions of Serse.

This double triangle—two sisters in love with the same man, two men in love with the same sister—is uncannily similar to the plot of the Bollywood movie Dil Hai Tumhaara (My Heart Is Yours, 2002). In that film, Mahima Chaudary loves Arjun Rampal, who loves Mahima's half-sister Preity Zinta, who loves Arjun in return; meanwhile, Preity's childhood friend Jimmy Shergill has secretly been in love with her for years. The complication in DHT is that Preity so desperately wants her sister to be happy that she asks Arjun to marry Mahima, and for Jimmy to pretend to love herself. To do so, of course, he has to pretend that he doesn't already love her. This sort of delirious perversity is what makes DHT one of my favorite love-triangle movies, but I'm hesitant to recommend it to anyone who values their sanity.

Among my other favorite love-triangle Bollywood movies are Baarsaat Ki Raat (One Rainy Night, 1960), where both Madhubala and Shyama love Bharat Bhusan; Katha (1983), where quiet, shy Naseeruddin Shah loves Deepti Naval, who is infatuated with the heartless cad Farooq Shaikh; Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (Something Is Happening, 1998), where Kajol falls in love with her college classmate Shah Rukh Khan just as he's falling in love with new girl at school Rani Mukherjee, then years later Shah Rukh discovers that he loves Kajol after all—but only after she's become engaged to Salman Khan; and Kal Ho Naa Ho (Tomorrow May Never Come, 2003), where Shah Rukh Khan teaches Saif Ali Khan how to woo Preity Zinta, the woman Shah Rukh himself has fallen in love with. (A man acting as a go-between for the woman he loves and another man is also a subplot Handel uses in Serse.)

Some other plots that are common in both Baroque opera and Bollywood:

Revenge: A son who must revenge his father's or mother's humiliation or death is central to Baiju Bawra (1952), Amar Akbar Anthony (1978), Rocky (1981), Khal Nayak (The Anti-Hero, 1993), Karan Arjun (1995), Trimurti (Trinity, 1995), Koyla (Coal, 1997), and countless other films. It's also a subplot in Handel's Giulio Cesare in Egitto (Julius Caesar in Egypt, 1724). Sesto, the son of the Roman general Pompey, must avenge the murder of his father and the imprisonment and attempted seduction of his mother at the hands of the treacherous Greek-Egyptian ruler Tolomeo (Ptolemy). Sometimes, as with Tolomeo, the evil done by the villain is so profound that justice can only be served by his death. This is also true of the bad guys in Koyla, Trimurti, Karan Arjun, Khal Nayak, and many other Bollywood films.

But in Baiju Bawra, when the moment of truth arrives for the son, he finds himself unable to carry out his revenge. And this is another common plot element in both Bollywood and Baroque opera:

Forgiveness: In Bollywood, tyrannical fathers and other authority figures who transgress against those under their power are often forgiven, no matter how outrageously they've overstepped the bounds of justice. In Ishq (Love, 1998), for example, the fathers of Ajay Devgn and Juhi Chawla will stop at nothing to get their children married to one another, even though Ajay loves Kajol and Juhi loves Amir Khan. The fathers force their children to unwittingly sign false marriage contracts, deceive them into thinking that Kajol and Amir are lovers, have both Kajol and Amir attacked by goons and Amir brutally tortured, and blackmail Kajol and Amir into leaving India entirely. But in the final five minutes, as Kajol and Amir are boarding a ship into exile, there is a tearful confrontation on the dock, the true lovers are reunited, and everyone forgives the two fathers.

Ishq may be way—way—over the top. But Baroque opera got there first. In Handel's Rodelinda (1724), the villain Grimoaldo invades and conquers the kingdom of his neighbor Bertarido, imprisons him and sentences him to death, attempts to seduce Bertarido's wife Rodelinda, threatens to kill her child if she doesn't marry him, and abandons his own former lover Eduige. However, Bertarido escapes, and in the last five minutes of the opera saves Grimoaldo's life, forgives him, reunites him with Eduige, and reinstates him as the ruler of the neighboring kingdom.

The emphasis on magnanimity, of course, is intended to legitimate a system in which the father/ruler wields all the power. We've just spent three hours watching that power being employed arbitrarily, selfishly, and unjustly, which might tend to make us question its very basis. But both Baroque opera and Bollywood want it both ways: they want to move us with the plight of characters who are experiencing unmerited suffering, and reassure us that the father/ruler will ultimately be reformed. Because the supreme value of both forms is the...

Happy ending. As Shah Rukh Khan's Om Prakash says so memorably in Om Shanti Om (2007), if the ending is not happy, then the movie is not over, my friend. There are a few exceptions: Devdas (1935, 1955, 2002, et seq.), Mughal-e-Azam (The Great Mughal, 1960), and Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (From One Heartbreak to Another, 1988) are tragedies, and the later films of Guru Dutt, such as Khagaaz Ke Phool (Paper Flowers, 1959) and Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam (Master, Mistress and Servant, 1962), also have dark endings. In Baroque opera, too, there are the rare works that end unhappily, such as Blow's Venus and Adonis (1684), Purcell's Dido and Aeneas (1689), or Handel's Tamerlano (1724).

However, in both Bollywood and Baroque opera the imperative that the ending be a happy one, and that a happy ending necessarily means the union or reunion of the main couple, can lead to some pretty wild plot contortions. Baroque operas went so far as to rewrite myths to make them conform to the need for a happy ending. The original Orpheus myth, for example, ends with Orpheus' wife Eurydice imprisoned forever in Hades and Orpheus being torn apart by the Maenads; but Monteverdi's L'Orfeo (1607) ends with Apollo reuniting the couple in the heavens.

So in both Bollywood and Baroque opera there can be a mad scramble in the last five minutes to tie up all the loose threads of the plot, forgive all transgressions, and unite the correct couples. For Bollywood, Ishq is a particularly egregious example, but last-minute reversals are legion. The "wrong" groom or bride realizes in the middle of the wedding ceremony that their bride or groom loves someone else, and steps aside so that the true lovers can be married (hello, Hum Aapke Hain Koun...! (What Am I To You?, 1994), Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Mujhse Dosti Karoge! (Will You Be My Friend?, 2002), Dil Hai Tumhaara, and Main Prem Ki Diwani Hoon (I'm Crazy About Prem, 2003)). Or the woman who has spent the entire film trying to unite with a distant, absent, or estranged lover realizes that she's fallen in love instead with the steadfast nice guy who's been helping her out the whole time (stand up, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (My Heart Belongs To You, 1998), Kya Kehna (What Is There To Say, 2000), and Jab We Met (When We Met, 2007)). But a special prize has to be awarded to Lajja (2001), in which the happy ending is the loving reunion of a husband with his wife...the wife he has spent the previous three hours trying to kidnap and murder (!).

But again, Bollywood was simply following the well-worn path of Baroque opera. In Alessandro Scarlatti's Griselda (1721), Gualtiero tests his wife Griselda's fidelity by pretending to have killed their daughter, renouncing Griselda, forcing her to work as a slave in his household, promising her in marriage to one of his courtiers, and finally pretending that he is going to marry the young ward of a neighboring prince (really, his and Griselda's daughter). In the last five minutes of the opera Gualtiero reveals his deceptions, and restores the faithful (and still loving) Griselda as his wife.

Sometimes, perhaps, forgiveness can go too far, and the happy ending can seem instead like your worst nightmare.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Baroque Bollywood Part 1

A while ago, Memsaab drew attention to the many parallels between opera and Bollywood in her posts Opera and Hindi Cinema and The Bartered Dulhania. Those parallels are especially striking in Baroque opera, and so I thought I would add some items to Memsaab's lists and amplify some others. Life intervened, but at long last I'm following up on that impulse. To start, there's the question of

Originality (or lack thereof)

In the Baroque era, musical originality was not the supreme value that it later became. Composers thought nothing of recycling librettos and storylines. The librettos of Pietro Metastasio, the greatest poet of opera seria, were set multiple times by every major composer of the era.

Composers not only re-used characters and stories, they also recycled their own and others' melodies. Partly this was because there wasn't really any such thing as a repertoire—an opera would be performed for a season, or perhaps two, and then usually never be performed again. Why not make use of music that would otherwise be forgotten?

Handel, for example, re-used much of the opera, oratorio, and cantata music he'd written in Italy when he composed his first opera for London, Rinaldo (1711). One of the most famous arias from Rinaldo, Almirena's "Lascia ch'io pianga" (Let me weep over my cruel fate) was taken virtually note-for-note from Pleasure's aria "Lascia la spina" (Leave the thorns, pluck the rose) from the oratorio Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno (The Triumph of Time and Dillusionment), which Handel wrote in Rome in 1707.

Handel wasn't above borrowing other composer's music, either, although he often altered and improved it. His early opera for Venice, Agrippina (1709), for example, includes material from operas by Handel's German colleagues Reinhard Keiser and Johannes Mattheson.

How else, one might ask, could Baroque composers maintain the incredible productivity that was demanded of them? Often they'd have only weeks to compose a four-hour-long opera which might involve 30 or 40 arias. Handel wrote more than 40 operas, plus oratorios, cantatas, motets, masses...that's a lot of tunes.

The productivity question arises with Indian movies as well. While I've heard various figures for the number of films Bollywood turns out in a year, it seems to be somewhere between 150 and 300. And that's just mainstream Hindi cinema; there are also films in Bengali, Kannada, Malayalam, Marathi, Tamil, and Telugu, among other languages. The Central Board of Film Certification reported in 2009 that there were over 1200 feature films produced in India. No wonder Indian filmmakers borrow plotlines and characters from wherever they can find them: myths, novels, and especially other movies.

I haven't tried to keep count, but I've noticed that a lot of the Bollywood films we've seen draw either indirect or direct inspiration from Hollywood movies. Pyar To Hona Hi Tha (Love Had To Happen, 1998) borrows from French Kiss (1995); Mohabbatein (Love Stories, 2000) from Dead Poets Society (1989); the first Munna Bhai movie, Hum Kisi Se Kum Nahin (We're As Good As Anyone Else, 2002) from Analyze This (1999); Chori Chori (Secretly, 2003) from Housesitter (1992); Koi Mil Gaya (I Found Someone, 2003) from E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982); Life In A... Metro (2007) from The Apartment (1960), and on and on.

The tracing of borrowings can also become quite involved. Sholay (Flames, 1975), for example, one of the most revered films in Bollywood history, takes its main plot from Sergio Leone's Once Upon A Time In The West (1968), which itself borrowed from The Magnificent Seven (1960), which reimagines Akira Kurosawa's Shichinin no Samurai (Seven Samurai, 1954) as a Western. Heyy Babyy (2007) takes its premise from Three Men and a Baby (1987), which was itself a remake of the French film Trois hommes et un couffin (1985). Chori Chori Chupke Chupke (Silently, Secretly, 2001) borrows heavily from Pretty Woman (1990), which was a retelling of My Fair Lady (1964), which was a film version of the 1956 Lerner and Loewe Broadway show of the same title, which was a musical version of George Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion (1912).

I can't say that all of these borrowings, influences and inspirations bother me in the slightest, apart from the question of writers receiving proper credit. For me it's mainly a question of how effectively the borrowings are Bollywoodized. Some Bollywood films are disappointingly literal: Life in a...Metro just transplanted The Apartment wholesale from New York to Mumbai. Others, though, improve on the originals. I'd rather watch Kajol than Meg Ryan, or Rani Mukherjee than Goldie Hawn, any day.

More parallels to follow!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Cartoonish, sordid, bawdy--and irresistible: Glee

Trust me to come late to any party. I've been hearing about the Broadway-goes-to-high-school Fox series Glee for over a year. Up until recently my aversion to TV programs that aren't BBC adaptations of 19th-century novels won out over my curiosity. Now that the complete first season is available on DVD, though, I've bowed to the inevitable.

Glee follows the fortunes of a high school glee club in a small midwestern city, and the format allows many opportunities for the cast (many of whom look like they haven't seen the inside of a high school classroom for a decade or so) to perform song and dance numbers. Unlike in most Bollywood movies or operas, in Glee musical numbers are usually diegetic. That is, when a character is singing and dancing, they're doing it in the context of an audition, a rehearsal, or a show that's actually happening in the world of the other characters. But like all musicals, Glee still offers the singing-in-the-shower fantasy of effortless performance. We see the performers going over a few dance steps, working on a couple of bars of music, and then the next thing we know, some Top 40 song or show tune standard has been reinvented in four-part harmony and synchronized gestures.

One reason four-part harmony and synchronized gestures don't happen spontaneously in my real life, apart from my lack of talent, is because they actually require hours of planning and grindingly repetitive rehearsal. Glee pretends to acknowledge the hard work that goes into that illusion of effortlessness, but in fact the rehearsal scenes are pretty cursory. Instead of watching our heroes practice under the critical eye of their director Will Schuester (Matthew Morrison), most of our time is spent learning the details of their lives. This being Fox, those details are often cartoonish or sordid. I'm going to betray my old-fogeydom here, but the script is amazingly bawdy for a show that's broadcast (at least for now) at the family-friendly time of 8 pm on Tuesdays. It's also amazingly funny, with the evil cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester (Emmy-winner Jane Lynch) getting many of the most cutting lines.

Glee also pretends to side with the misfits and outcasts against the popular kids, but in the first half-dozen episodes we spend far more time with the Glee Club queen Rachel (Lea Michele), the conflicted quarterback Finn (Cory Monteith), and the mean head cheerleader Quinn (Dianna Agron) than with Mercedes (the amazingly talented and criminally underused Amber Riley, who seems to be the only black person in the school), Tina (Jenna Ushkowitz, who similarly seems to be the only Asian person), Kurt (Chris Colfer, whose bullied gay teen is one of the few characters on the show who actually looks teenaged) or Artie (Kevin McHale, whose wheelchair-bound character could raise lots of interesting issues if he were allowed more than one line per episode). Having served their purpose—tokens and foils—they've been pushed into the background.

But there's no point in being curmudgeonly about Glee—it breaks down all resistance, not to mention rational thought. The creators of the show have an unerring instinct for the soundtrack of Midwestern young adulthood over the past three decades: Journey, REO Speedwagon, Queen, Bon Jovi. And the arrangements of these "classics," glee-club style, are both inherently funny and surprisingly effective. What does it say about me that I actually enjoy the Glee-ified rendition of "Don't Stop Believin'"? Nothing very good, probably.

Throw in cameos and special appearances by Broadway stalwarts like Kristen Chenoweth (an original cast member of Wicked), Idina Menzel (an original cast member of both Rent and Wicked), and Neil Patrick Harris (of the brilliant Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog), and it's a pretty irresistible cocktail. Yep—I'm addicted.