Friday, July 15, 2011

Our conflicted relationship with film stars: Masala Zindabad on Koffee with Karan


Ranveer Singh and Anushka Sharma on Koffee with Karan

Masala Zindabad—the wonderful Bollywood blog/podcast (blogcast?)—has devoted its latest post to Season 3 of Karan Johar's talk show Koffee with Karan. Beth Loves Bollywood, Maria of Filmiholic and Amrita of Indiequill choose the most pleasantly surprising guest, the cattiest comments, most eye-roll-inducing episodes, the most adolescent behavior, the worst-dressed male and female guests, and the most cringe-worthy moment.

These are three women you'd love to meet for dinner or to have at your party. They're thoughtful, knowledgeable, articulate, funny, and unafraid to say exactly what they think. Their conversation is highly entertaining—far more so, I'd guess, than the show they're dissecting.

But I have to ask, what is the fascination with the off-screen lives of movie stars? Our favorite stars' performances on film are compelling because of a combination of their personal attributes (a highly individual judgment of how attractive and sympathetic and graceful and sincere they appear to be on camera) and the skills of the writers, directors, composers, playback singers, choreographers, costumers, and other crew members who craft the world in which the stars enact our fantasies.

The stars themselves realize this, if they think about it at all. Shah Rukh Khan has said, "I am an employee of the myth of Shah Rukh Khan." And Cary Grant said, "Everyone wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant."

But off-screen, stars have to make up their own lines and choose their own clothes, and sometimes they fail—spectacularly—to meet our (extremely high) expectations. I want to continue to be entertained by John Abraham and Priyanka Chopra and Shahid Kapoor and Anushka Sharma and Abhishek Bachchan; I don't want to have their awkwardness, insecurity, vanity, pettiness, self-involvement and surgical enhancements paraded in front of me.

I'm anything but deluded. I understand that most actors are narcissistic monsters. They have to be in order to succeed in a savagely cut-throat business that is focussed on the highly unstable commodity of personal appeal. But the next time I watch a movie I want to be able to suspend my disbelief and enter into the world of the characters. Of course, I appreciate opportunities for analysis as well. But if there's no emotional engagement, analysis can be a pretty empty exercise.

It seems to me that an obsession with the offscreen lives of the stars is an indication of how powerfully they can affect us. But to watch a show like KwK, or to obsessively follow Bollywood gossip, is to deliberately set yourself up for present and future disillusionment. In fact, it is to actively seek out disillusionment.

And I have to ask myself, why? Is it that we can't bear to experience the powerful emotions evoked by these performers? Do we look for ways to demonstrate to ourselves that our feelings are misplaced, that the performers who bring out these feelings in us are not worthy of our emotional investment?

Whatever the impulse, for some reason I don't share it. I couldn't care less who is dating whom, who is feuding with whom, who earns what. If an actor's next performance isn't compelling, none of that stuff matters. And if it is, none of that stuff matters either.

Your thoughts?

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Bollywood Rewatch 2: Vivah and India's missing daughters

We've been revisiting a few of the Bollywood movies we encountered relatively early in our Bollywood viewing to see if we still like them as well as we did the first time; for details, see my first Bollywood Rewatch post on Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam. This time, it's the turn of Sooraj Barjatya's Vivah.

Prem and Poonam on their wedding night

Vivah (Marriage, 2006)
Original rating: ★★ (recommended with reservations)
Rewatch rating: ★★★ (strongly recommended)

On my first viewing of Vivah I called it "porn for parents." I wrote,
"Almost every character is unrelentingly good, and except for the last few minutes the story is almost entirely lacking in drama. Instead, we're treated to the beautifully photographed three-hour long spectacle of the 'journey from engagement to marriage' of two really nice young people from really nice families.

I loved it."
As a film I found Vivah to be even more powerfully affecting the second time around (thus the extra star). But I've also become more aware of a real-world issue that Vivah addresses, obliquely but almost certainly intentionally: India's missing daughters.

100 Million Missing Women
"To have a daughter is socially and emotionally accepted if there is a son, but a daughter's arrival is often unwelcome if the couple already have a daughter. Daughters are regarded as a liability."
—Shirish S. Seth [1]
In 1990 the Indian economist Amartya Sen (later to win the Nobel Prize) wrote a now-famous article for the New York Review of Books entitled "More Than 100 Million Women Are Missing." He found, after studying demographic statistics for South Asia, China, Africa, and other areas, that there were more than 100 million fewer women than would be expected. While in North America, Europe and Japan there are substantially more women than men (about 1050 women for every 1000 men), in countries such as Pakistan, India and China the situation is starkly reversed. In Pakistan, for example, there are only 900 women for every 1000 men, while in the Indian state of Punjab there are only 860 women for every 1000 men.

What accounts for the missing women? Sen concluded that an interplay among a variety of social, cultural, environmental, and economic factors was likely to be involved. But fundamentally, women "suffer disadvantages in obtaining the means for survival...The numbers of 'missing women' in relation to the numbers that could be expected if men and women received similar care in health, medicine, and nutrition, are remarkably large. A great many more than a hundred million women are simply not there because women are neglected compared with men." [2]

It turned out that not only are women neglected once they are born; they are missing at birth. While slightly fewer girls are born than boys all over the world, in certain countries there are drastically fewer births of second or third daughters than would be expected. In North America, Europe and Japan there are between 950 and 975 girls born for every 1000 boys, and that ratio remains relatively constant for second or third children no matter what the sex of previous children. But in 2005 in India, one study found that for couples having a second child when the first child was a girl there were only 836 girls born for every 1000 boys. In an earlier study the same team of researchers led by Prabhat Jha found that for couples having a third child when the first two were girls, there were only 719 girls born for every 1000 boys. The birth ratios were even more skewed in favor of boys for mothers who were more urban, wealthier, and more highly educated. And the deficit in the births of girls had increased significantly over time. [3, 4]

After looking at a number of possible causes, the researchers concluded, "Selective abortion of girls, especially for pregnancies after a firstborn girl, has increased substantially in India. Most of India's population now live in states where selective abortion of girls is common." As technologies for determining an unborn child's sex (such as amniocentesis and ultrasound) have spread, 4 to 12 million selective abortions of girls are estimated to have occurred since 1990. Selective abortion is more common among more urban, wealthier and more educated couples because they are more aware of sex-screening technologies and abortion services, and are better able to afford them. [5]

Why is it that in India and elsewhere girls are selectively aborted (especially after one or two other daughters have been born)? In her book Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men (PublicAffairs, 2011), journalist Mara Hvistendahl points to the combination of decreasing family size (due to economic development and population control measures pushed by Western institutions such as the World Bank), the widespread availability of technologies that can be used for fetal sex determination, and a pervasive preference for boys. If families are limiting themselves to fewer children, they want to be sure that at least one of them will be a boy.

Boys are preferred in many societies, including our own.* But they are especially valued in societies where women's education, income and ability to own property are limited, and where the tradition of bridal dowry exists. A son can inherit a father's property, bring income to the family (including, if he marries, a dowry from his bride's family), and carry on the family name. A daughter often is not allowed to inherit property (which goes to male relatives)* or earn outside income for the family, and if she marries, her bridal dowry can be ruinously expensive. If this sounds to you like a description of Victorian England, you're absolutely right. The only difference is that the Victorians didn't have ultrasound.

As Raj Bhopal has written in a letter to The Lancet,
"As an Indian-born person raised in a traditional Punjabi family in Scotland I have been immersed in institutionalised sex bias. In a multiplicity of minor ways, I, along with other Indian men, have benefited at the expense of women—eg, by being fed first, by being served by my mother and female relatives (including sisters), by being sheltered from housework, and most importantly of all, being celebrated more from birth—just for being male....Indians worldwide need to unite, not only in condemning discrimination against the female sex, but in dismantling the structures that keep it in place. Every Indian can help by taking basic but important simple actions—eg, handing out sweets at the birth of a girl as you do with a son, and requesting them from your friends and family; raising girls and boys with equal care, resources, and respect; and refusing to give or accept dowries as a matter of principle..." [6]
Vivah

Which brings us back to Vivah, which is all about celebrating and honoring daughters. Kind-hearted Krishnakant (quintessential Good Dad Alok Nath) and his wife Rama (Seema Biswas) have raised their orphaned niece Poonam (Amrita Rao) as their own daughter.

How dismal are the thoughts of men who think daughters are burdensome

The wealthy industrialist Harishchandra (who else but Anupam Kher, another classic Bollywood Dad) hears of Poonam through a mutual acquaintance and sets up a meeting between the families with an eye towards finding a wife for his second son Prem (Shahid Kapoor). Poonam and Prem slowly get to know one another, fall in love, and a date for their wedding is set.

And that's pretty much the movie. There is a subplot about Rama, who has never fully accepted Poonam as her own daughter, and who resents the attention and money that's being lavished on Poonam. The younger daughter of Krishnakant and Rama, Chhoti, is tomboyish and slightly darker-skinned than Poonam, and Rama is jealous of Poonam's beauty. The rejecting stepmother stereotype gets a bit tiresome, but it also becomes clear that Rama is worried about Chhoti's marriage prospects.

I can find no suitors for her because she is dark

But lest you think that Vivah is endorsing standards of beauty that favor lighter skin, consider the possibility that it is really subverting them. It's true that most of the well-to-do, attractive people that we're supposed to sympathize and identify with in Vivah (and in virtually every other Bollywood film) have light skin. And the actress playing the supposedly plain Chhoti, Amrita Prakash, in some scenes seems to have been given darkening makeup. But while her mother obsesses over Chhoti's looks—we see Rama applying powders, creams, and other treatments in a vain effort to make Chhoti's skin lighter—

Seema powders Chhoti

Chhoti wearing a facepack

—Chhoti herself isn't bothered in the least by her looks, or lack of traditional femininity. She is smart and funny—when sent to serve food to the family's guests, Chhoti mocks her mother's admonitions to "walk properly" with an exaggerated hip-sway—and seems perfectly comfortable in her own skin, despite her mother's fixation on lightening it. And the relationship between the two girls is very close, full of teasing but shown again and again to be loving, tender, and supportive.

Barjatya has a reputation as a conservative "family values" filmmaker. But Vivah is surprisingly progressive on such questions as:
  • Educational opportunities for women: Both Poonam and Chhoti are college students, with Poonam about to graduate with a business degree:

Poonam is about to graduate from college

  • Employment outside the home: The office staff at Harishchandra Industries looks to be about 50% women, and Harishchandra offers to hire Poonam as an accountant:

Girls are better administrators

  • The dowry system: Although Vivah doesn't advocate its abolishment, it suggests that it should become purely symbolic:

Give Prem one rupee and a coconut

  • Equality in marriage: The marriage of Prem's brother Sunil (Samir Soni) and his wife Bhavna (Lata Sabharwal) is presented as something of a model for the future married life of Prem and Poonam. It may have a traditional division of labor—Sunil goes off to work while Bhavna takes care of their house and child—but it is shown to be wonderfully companionate. Bhavna is clearly Sunil's equal in intellect and in authority within the marriage; she defers only (and then somewhat jokingly) to Harishchandra, who unfailingly takes her side. As he tells Prem,

Trust and honesty are the most important qualities in marriage

  • Women's body image: Before their wedding, Prem has some advice for Poonam:

10 to 15 kilos is no problem

I don't want to make excessive claims for Vivah's progressive politics. We're still in a world where the women cook the food and serve it to the men, where Bhavna stopped working after she had a child (although that may have been her choice), where marriages are arranged (though only with the full consent of the couple involved), and where religious devotion is an unquestioned value. Nonetheless, the world it portrays looks pretty appealing; if only all families were this loving, nurturing and open-hearted. And in a world missing over 100 million women, Vivah's depiction of the joys and rewards of raising daughters can seem pretty radical.

Giving daughters away in marriage is a sacred act

Of course, Vivah isn't perfect. On a rewatch it is still slow-moving and sentimental, and will probably send lovers of masala screaming from the room. Ravindra Jain's soundtrack was inexplicably underrated when Vivah came out, perhaps because it was seen as old-fashioned. That's precisely why I think it's so great, as you might expect of a soundtrack that prominently features Udit Narayan, Shreya Ghosal and Kumar Sanu. Shahid Kapoor's excellent dancing skills are largely wasted, alas.

Finally, there's really not much drama until the final 30 minutes or so. Then I can hardly bring myself to watch—and I can't tear myself away. If you can make it to the credits with dry eyes, you're made of far sterner stuff than I am.

Update 4 June 2012: Thanks to Rajshri Films, you can watch Vivah on YouTube, with English subtitles (click on the CC button), for free. (If the link doesn't work, simply go to YouTube.com and search for "Vivah.")

Update 13 May 2012: The first episode of Aamir Khan's journalistic television show Satyamev Jayate is devoted to the issue of gender selection in India: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w1ByZCLOvXY. Thanks to Veracious of ...so they dance! for alerting me to the show's posting on YouTube.

*Update 25 July 2011: When I wrote "Boys are preferred in many societies, including our own," I was referring to the United States, and making a couple unwarranted assumptions. Of course, not all of my readers live in the U.S., and so I should have been more specific. And according to Hvistendahl's book, a large majority of the couples who select for the sex of their child at U.S. fertility clinics are selecting for girls, not boys. Last July there was even a cover story in the Atlantic about this phenomenon (Hanna Rosin's "The End of Men".) While this doesn't mean that son preference no longer exists in the U.S., it does mean that class and cultural factors may play a complicated role in gender selection.

Update 3 September 2013: For the third post in this series, see Bollywood Rewatch 3: Kandukondain Kandukondain.

Update 14 October 2013: Amartya Sen, in the New York Review of Books for October 10, has published a follow-up to his 1990 article: "India's Women: The Mixed Truth." He writes, "Women’s education, which has been a powerful force in reducing mortality discrimination against women and also in achieving other important social objectives such as the reduction of fertility rates, has not been able to eliminate—at least not yet—natality discrimination."

--

* Filmbuff informs me that daughters in India have the legal right to inherit property; see his comment on Bollywood and the Victorians.

1. Shirish S. Seth. (2006, 21 January). Missing female births in India. The Lancet, v. 367, p. 185.
2. Amartya Sen. (1990, 20 December). More than 100 million women are missing. New York Review of Books, v. 37, p. 66.
3. Prabhat Jha, et al. (2011, 4 June). Trends in selective abortion of girls in India. The Lancet, v. 377, p. 1921.
4. Prabhat Jha, et al. (2006, 21 January). Low female-to-male sex ratio of children born in India. The Lancet, v. 367, p. 211.
5. Jha, et. al. (2011), p. 1926.
6. Raj Bhopal, (2006, 21 May). Letter. The Lancet, v. 367, p. 1728

Monday, July 4, 2011

Boston Early Music Festival: Steffani's Niobe, Regina di Tebe

Philippe Jaroussky

Philippe Jaroussky as Anfione

People who dislike Baroque opera often claim that its plots are convoluted and absurd. Such claims beg the question of whether Baroque operas are typically more convoluted and absurd than staples of the mainstream repertoire such as, say, Verdi's Il Trovatore or Bellini's La sonnambula. They also raise the issue of whether those who make such stereotypical claims have ever heard the dramatically compelling operas of Monteverdi, Purcell and Handel.

I have to say, though, that "convoluted and absurd" is a fair description of the plot of Agostino Steffani's Niobe, Regina di Tebe (Niobe, Queen of Thebes, 1688), the centerpiece opera of this year's Boston Early Music Festival (seen June 19). The story is based on Book VI of Ovid's Metamorphoses: Manto, daughter of the seer Tiresius, urges the women of Thebes to perform rites at the shrine of Latona, mother of Apollo and Diana. Queen Niobe becomes angered, demanding to be worshipped for her own semi-divine origins and boasting that her seven sons and seven daughters surpass Latona's mere two. For her sacrilege and pride, Niobe is punished by the deaths of all her children and the suicide of her despairing husband, Amphion. Finally, surrounded by the bodies of her family, the grief-stricken Niobe herself is turned to stone.

Steffani's librettist, Luigi Orlandi, took this straightforward story and complicated it with subplots involving rival princes (Clearte, Creonte, and Tiberino), an evil magician bent on revenge (Poliferno), a bawdy nurse (Nerea—a stock character in 17th-century opera), and the repeated appearances of a bear (perhaps a real one when the opera was performed in Munich during the 1688 carnival; in Boston, a guy (the game Jay Lloyd Smith) in a bear suit). In Ellen Hargis's translation, the 1688 libretto lists among the scenery an "Ampitheater with a large aerial Globe in the center, which after opening forms a Heavenly Body," "Hell, which rises in the empty space of this Scene, and then sinks" and "the Planet Mars, which is then transformed into a Lonely Place with Grottos." "Machines" included "an enormous Monster," "two infernal Dragons," characters rising and descending in clouds, a flying chariot, and "the falling of many Buildings in an Earthquake." Fun, yes; coherent or emotionally engaging, no.

Fortunately this production offered rewards apart from the plot. Chief among them was the spectacular countertenor Philippe Jaroussky in the role of Anfione (Amphion). The moment Jaroussky began to sing an electric surge of excitement rippled through the audience. The unearthly soprano sound he produces, his amazing virtuosity and his deep musicality offer a suggestion of why in the Baroque era the castrati were showered with so much adulation. In classical myth Amphion was an Orpheus-like figure whose singing was so moving that with it he could command the very rocks to build the walls of Thebes, and Steffani did not miss the opportunity to give his primo uomo the best music in the opera. It wasn't all coloratura fireworks, either; Anfione is also given several highly affecting arias of yearning, mourning and loss.

Unfortunately, while Anfione's music was exquisite, as a hero he was lacking: he's shallow, vain, and easily duped by Niobe. Niobe herself is highly unsympathetic: proud, narcissistic, manipulative and unscrupulous. A lack of virtue in the main characters isn't necessarily a fatal flaw: Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppea) and Handel's Alcina both feature morally compromised heroines, and are among the greatest operas ever written. But the creations of Steffani and Orlandi somehow don't arouse the same degree of sympathy and interest.

Matthew White and Amanda Forsythe

Matthew White as Creonte and Amanda Forsythe as Niobe

Steffani also wrote some gorgeous love music for Creonte (Matthew White) and Niobe (Amanda Forsythe)—bewitched by Poliferno (Jesse Blumberg), Niobe believes that she has been chosen by the god Mars as his consort, which is how they wind up on his planet—and for Tiberino (Colin Balzar) and Manto (Yulia Van Doren). There are also some amusing set-pieces for the travesti role of Nerea (José Lemos, who has also appeared with Bay Area group Magnificat). The strongest possible case for Steffani's music was made by the superb BEMF Orchestra under the leadership of concertmaster Cynthia Roberts, with musical direction by lutenist Stephen Stubbs.

But in general I felt that Steffani's melodic invention wasn't as consistently appealing as, say, Handel's. Coupled with the bewildering story, unsympathetic characters, and (despite extensive cuts) a running time of four hours, it made for a long afternoon in the theater. While it was enjoyable to see Anna Watkin's sumptuous costumes and Gilbert Blin's recreations of Baroque stage effects, I couldn't help feeling that the best of the music might have been more effectively presented in a concert version.

Still, the BEMF is to be applauded for realizing such a massively complex undertaking onstage, and for assembling such a talented group of designers, performers and musicians to do so. Jaroussky in particular was a revelation. It looks like he will be touring in North America this fall with Apollo's Fire performing a program of Handel and Vivaldi arias—he appears in Berkeley at the end of October and in Boston in early November—and if you have the opportunity to see him in person, don't miss it.


Philippe Jaroussky performing Vivaldi's "Vedro con mio diletto"

Update 28 September 2012: The 2011 Berkeley concert appearance by Philippe Jaroussky and Apollo's Fire was an unforgettable experience; you can read about it here.

Update 9 October 2012: Jaroussky sings four duets with kindred spirit Cecilia Bartoli on her spectacular new album of Steffani arias, Mission. It will definitely be on my list of favorite albums of 2012.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Boston Early Music Festival: Steffani and Handel vocal duets

Mireille AsselinEllen HargisMeg BragleJason McStootsDouglas Williams

After the wonderful performance of Handel's Acis and Galatea at the Boston Early Music Festival we decided on impulse to stay for the late-night concert "Fioratura: The vocal chamber duets of Steffani and Handel." I had never heard of Agostino Steffani before this year's BEMF: the centerpiece opera this year was his Niobe, Regina di Tebe (Niobe, Queen of Thebes, 1688) which, like Acis, was based on Ovid's Metamorphoses.

It turned out that there are a surprising number of connections between Handel and Steffani. The two men knew one another, and in Hanover Steffani had been the Kapellmeister for the court of the Elector George August before Handel was appointed to the post.

John Mainwaring, Handel's first biographer, says of Steffani that his "compositions were excellent; his temper exceedingly amiable; and his behavior polite and genteel." [1] Handel, too, must have thought that Steffani's compositions were excellent. In 1973 scholar Colin Timms discovered a Handel signature dated "Roma 1706" on a manuscript collection of Steffani's duets. Steffani was an acknowledged master of the duet form, and when Handel later produced a set of twelve duets for the Hanover court he used Steffani's compositions as models. Mainwaring himself noted similarities between Handel's and Steffani's duets: he wrote of one, "The Duetto beginning, "Amirarvi io sono intento," is a beautiful example of a style truly vocal, and much resembling that of Steffani...The first movement of "Sono liete" is another..." [2]

Based on the insights of Mainwaring and Timms, "Fioratura" was a concert of Steffani and Handel vocal duets, interspersed with instrumental numbers by the two composers (and, for reasons not entirely clear, a guitar duet by a composer of an earlier generation, Francesco Corbetta). The duets were performed by a rotating group of singers (sopranos Mireille Asselin and Ellen Hargis, alto Meg Bragle, tenor Jason McStoots and bass-baritone Doug Williams; the men had also performed in Acis). Instrumental accompaniment was provided by Tragicomedia (Paul O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs, lutes; Erin Headley, viola da gamba; Maxine Eilander, harp; plus Kristian Bezuidenhout, harpsichord).

The singers were uniformly excellent, and blended their distinct voices beautifully. The duets, whose largely uncredited texts are highly conventional love poetry, were contrapuntally intricate and involved much imitative illustration of words like "sospirar" (sighing) and "infiammate" (inflamed). In Handel's "Sono liete, fortunate" (performed in the YouTube clip below by soprano Laura Claycomb and alto Sara Mingardo with Emmanuelle Haïm's Le Concert D'Astrée) the two voices intertwine sinuously on the words "catene" (chains):


Sono liete, fortunate,
Dolci, grate le catene,
Le catene un fido amor.

Crudeltà nè lontananza,
Non avran mai la possanza
Di staccarle dal mio cor.

(They are happy and fortunate,
Sweet and gentle, the chains,
The chains of a faithful love.

Neither cruelty not distance
Will ever have the power
To unbind them from my heart.
—Translation by Stephen Stubbs)

The intimate duets of "Fioratura" were a delightful bridge between Handel's Acis and the next day's fully staged performance of Steffani's Niobe, which will be the subject of my next post.

------------

1. John Mainwaring, Memoirs of the Life of the Late George Frederic Handel (London, 1760), p. 70.
2. Mainwaring, p. 197-198.