Saturday, January 31, 2009

U Me aur Hum

The late David Foster Wallace wrote a hilarious essay about taking a luxury cruise on a ship he rechristened the Nadir. You can still read it in the online Harper's Magazine under its original title "Shipping Out"; it was later published as the title essay of his nonfiction collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again (Little, Brown, 1997). Here's a representative sample:

"The promise [of cruise-ship advertising] is not that you can experience great pleasure but that you will. They'll make certain of it. They'll micromanage every iota of every pleasure-option so that not even the dreadful corrosive action of your adult consciousness and agency and dread can fuck up your fun. Your troublesome capacities for choice, error, regret, dissatisfaction, and despair will be removed from the equation. You will be able--finally, for once--to relax, the ads promise, because you will have no choice."

So a release from everyday reality and an escape from the burden of memory could be said to be the very purpose of a cruise. Or, as Wallace quotes from the cruise line's "positively Prozacian" brochure, "Just standing at the ship's rail looking out to sea has a profoundly soothing effect. As you drift along like a cloud on water, the weight of everyday life is magically lifted away, and you seem to be floating on a sea of smiles."

How fitting, then, that large chunks of U Me aur Hum (You, Me and Us, 2008), including its framing story, take place on a cruise ship. The movie recounts the saga of Ajay (Ajay Devgan) and his love for Piya (Kajol), a cruise-ship waitress who becomes a victim of (spoiler alert!) a Tragic Disease: early-onset Alzheimer's. Really early--Piya seems to be in her mid-20s in the flashback scenes (Alzheimer's symptoms are rarely detectable before age 60).

But this isn't the only stretch of the imagination the film requires. (More spoilers follow.) For one thing, Piya's symptoms come and go--she's capable of executing a seductive song and dance ("Saiyaan") for husband Ajay one minute, and then forgetting she's put the baby in the bathtub the next. (What is it with drowning-baby scenes? Heyy babyy (2007) also had a highly disturbing one.) In fact, when we first see Piya--in the present day, more than two decades into this inexorably degenerative disease--she's reading a thick paperback novel, and she listens attentively to Ajay's lengthy narration as he recounts how they met and fell in love on a cruise 25 years previously. She has no trouble remembering the plot and characters of a 700-page novel or following Ajay's story, but she can't recognize her husband of more than two decades? This movie needed to hire Oliver Sacks as a consultant.

The flashbacks are no more grounded in any sort of recognizable reality than the present-day scenes. Ajay is supposed to be a high-powered psychiatrist, but somehow he can't diagnose the dementia symptoms in his wife. And apart from some unconvincing aging by makeup in the present-day scenes, no effort has been made to suggest the passage of time: in the flashback scenes, none of the clothes, hairstyles, or music seems to date from the early 1980s. (Were cruise ships filled with blonde Russian pole dancers back then? Just asking.)

Wallace reported: "I don't think it's an accident that 7 N[ight] C[aribbean] Luxury Cruises appeal mostly to older people. I don't mean decrepitly old, but like fiftyish people for whom their own mortality is something more than an abstraction. Most of the exposed bodies to be seen all over the daytime Nadir were in various stages of disintegration." But--surprise!--most of the bodies on display in U Me aur Hum belong to an army of lithe young actor-dancers, who of course just happen to be taking a cruise together.

But I can deal with lapses in logic and a certain degree of unreality: this is Bollywood, after all. The flaws in this movie are deeper (or perhaps I should say shallower). Basically everything about U Me aur Hum and the dilemmas of its characters rings false, and so the big emotional moments are flat and uninvolving. This was a project conceived, produced, and directed by Ajay Devgan, and so there's not a lot of ambiguity about who to blame for its failures.

The main redeeming feature of the movie is Kajol, who seemingly can't give a bad performance, even of a character whose Tragic Disease has been rendered completely unbelievable by the scriptwriters. Not only that, she's looking great. In some of the cruise ship scenes, when she's out in the bright sunshine, you can see that she's now developing tiny, endearing, sexy laugh lines at the corners of her extraordinary eyes. Kajol is one of those fortunate mortals who just looks better than ever as she gets older. And since she's onscreen for most of the film, she keeps it from being a total loss--there are certainly worse ways to spend a couple of hours. But in the end watching U Me aur Hum was all too much like Wallace's cruise: it was only supposedly enjoyable, and I'm not tempted do it again.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Manny Farber's film criticism

Negative Space is a collection of Manny Farber's legendary film criticism, originally published in magazines like The Nation and Artforum from the mid-1940s to the late 1960s. (My paperback copy, given to me by my brother, is simply titled Movies (Hillstone, 1971).) Farber was a champion of what he called "termite art": creative products made by highly skilled craftsmen without pretensions or ulterior motives. He saw termite art as being exemplified by what he called "underground film"--meaning, mainly, the action or crime pictures churned out by the Hollywood studios to fill the B slot on a double bill. Typically made without expensive stars, shot on recycled sets or on location, these films display an inventiveness and a directness inspired by their modest budgets.

Farber contrasted termite art with what he called "white elephant art": bloated, big-budget spectaculars designed to showcase star performances or directorial technique or Important Issues and (not coincidentally) rake in awards and box office receipts. For Farber, watching a white elephant film usually became a battle between boredom and irritation.

However, his aesthetic judgments weren't always consistent. In an aside in an essay about The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (1965), he praises Vertigo (1958) as Hitchcock's best film. I agree with him wholeheartedly, but Vertigo features major stars (James Stewart and Kim Novak) and foregrounds Hitchcock's directorial technique: the track-out zoom-in "vertigo" shot; the swirling, 360-degree pan around the kissing lovers; even an animated sequence. Shouldn't that make it (in Farber's estimation, anyway) a white elephant? Perhaps its box-office failure and the searingly personal nature of its themes blinded Farber to his own typology.

But you don't turn to Farber to find someone who is perfectly in sympathy with your own aesthetic judgments. For one thing, he's too spiky. Not many films get his full approval; praise for a film is almost always accompanied by an enumeration of the failures, bad faith, or misjudgments of its creative team.

And while his general tone--skepticism and disappointment--is usually clear, it can be hard to figure out exactly what he's saying in any given sentence. Farber wrote like a jazz musician plays, making associations (often to painting), using puns and neologisms, mashing incongruous words together into a phrase to try to express something important but elusive (in a description of an actor's performance, for example, what might "gelatinous frigidity" or "gloved fluidity" mean?). His hipster prose can sometimes be frustratingly opaque.

What can't be denied, though, is the sheer energy of his writing and the passion of his engagement with movies. When he writes that Michelangelo Antonioni's "aspiration is to pin the viewer to the wall and slug him with wet towels of artiness and significance" (in "White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art"), or that Preston Sturges' characters' "semicomic suffering arises from the disparity between the wild lusts generated by American society and the severity of its repressions" (in his essay on Sturges) he cuts straight to the heart of his subject.

So read him for that energy and passion, and because he appreciated particular producers (Val Lewton), directors (Howard Hawks) and genres (the crime movie style we now call film noir) long before it was fashionable to do so.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Suggested reading

"Suggested reading" will be an occasional series where I offer links to some of my favorite recent articles, blog posts, reviews, and the like:

1. Hester Santlow was one of the most famous dancers and actresses in Handel's London. She was painted in costume as Harlequin by John Ellys, had affairs with members of the aristocracy, had a duel fought for her honor in Hyde Park, and her descendants include Diana Spencer and Sarah Ferguson. Amazingly, some of her dances were notated at the time and are now being recreated. In a review of Moira Goff's The Incomparable Hester Santlow: A Dancer-Actress on the Georgian Stage (Ashgate, 2007), New York Times dance critic Alastair Macaulay writes about her amazing life both onstage and off:

"Her enduring appeal comes across in a 1725 letter by James Thomson, whose response to her is distinctly erotic: 'Mrs. Booth acts some things very well and particularly Ophelia’s madness in "Hamlet" inimitably, but then she dances so deliciously, has such melting lascivious motions, airs and postures as indeed according to what you suspect almost throw the material part of me into action too.'"

2. Zadie Smith in the New Yorker on comedy and mourning her father's death, "Dead Man Laughing":

"Maybe it was the fortuitous meeting of my mournful mood and his morbid material, but I thought [Edward Aczel's] show, 'Do I Really Have to Communicate with You?,' was one of the strangest, and finest, hours of live comedy I’d ever seen....'I think you’ll all recall,' he muttered, barely audible, 'the words of Wittgenstein, the great twentieth-century philosopher, who said, "If indeed mankind came to earth for a specific reason, it certainly wasn’t to enjoy ourselves."' A long, almost unbearable pause. 'If you could bear that in mind while I’m on, I'd certainly appreciate it.'"

3. John Lanchester in the London Review of Books on the multibillion-dollar video game industry (game and console sales in 2007 were greater than those for movies, video, or books), "Is it art?":

"A common criticism of video games made by non-gamers is that they are pointless and escapist, but a more valid observation might be that the bulk of games are nowhere near escapist enough. A persuasive recent essay by the games theorist Steven Poole made the strong argument that the majority of games offer a model of play which is oppressively close to work."

Poole's essay
, a critical examination of the standard video game paradigm, smartly invokes historian Johann Huizinga (author of Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture) and the Frankfurt School philosophers Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. Poole writes, "What would videogaming look like if it rejected the machine as a model for play, if more games incorporated gratuitous moments of relaxation from their constant, accelerated striving? Or if more games did not treat us as employees but as autonomous co-creators?" Such games might appeal to those of us ignored by most current game designs, which seem to focus on violence and/or accumulation.

4. Marcia Angell, former Editor in Chief of the New England Journal of Medicine, writes in the New York Review of Books on the financial ties between drug companies and the doctors who are testing and prescribing their drugs, "Drug Companies & Doctors: A Story of Corruption":

"No one knows the total amount provided by drug companies to physicians, but I estimate from the annual reports of the top nine US drug companies that it comes to tens of billions of dollars a year. By such means, the pharmaceutical industry has gained enormous control over how doctors evaluate and use its own products. Its extensive ties to physicians, particularly senior faculty at prestigious medical schools, affect the results of research, the way medicine is practiced, and even the definition of what constitutes a disease."

Update 20 June 2016: A new study by UCSF shows what it takes for pharmaceutical companies to influence physicians to prescribe more expensive brand-name drugs instead of an equally effective and far less expensive generic versions: a free lunch costing between $12 and $18. See "Drug Company Lunches Have Big Payoffs," New York Times, 20 June 2016.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

John Adams: Hallelujah Junction

The composer John Adams has recently published an autobiography, Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2008). The title is taken from one of Adams' piano pieces, which was named after a truck stop on the border of Nevada and California (curiously, the piece doesn't appear in Hallelujah Junction's index).

The title seems to allude to a moment of epiphany Adams experienced while driving in the Sierra Nevada mountains (near Hallelujah Junction?) and listening to the final opera in Wagner's Ring Cycle, Götterdämmerung. He perceived that Wagner's music can have such tremendous emotional impact because of its ravishing melodies, shifting harmonies, and exploration of the tonal colors of the orchestra (and of human voices). He realized in that moment that atonality, strict serialism, and Cageian experiments with random processes are limited in their expressivity, and represented (for him, in any case) a creative dead end.

I'm not actually the hugest fan of Adams' music. But even so I found the book to be very engaging, especially, perhaps, in Adams' discussion of his New England upbringing and his struggles to find his own compositional voice after moving to California in the 1970s. He goes on to discuss the gestation and development of many of his best-known pieces, including Shaker Loops (1978), Harmonium (1981), and the operas Nixon in China (1987), The Death of Klinghoffer (1991), and Doctor Atomic (2005).

Here's a taste of Adams' mature style, Short Ride In A Fast Machine (1986), performed by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Sir Mark Elder:

To my ears, this sounds a bit too much like a mix of Steve Reich (the pulse and cross-rhythms), Philip Glass (the arpeggios) and Aaron Copland (the brass fanfare that kicks in at about the 3:10 mark).

Adams clearly intends his book to be read by a general audience--there's little abstruse music terminology--and his narrative voice is very appealing: down-to-earth, plainspoken, and generous to most of his colleagues and collaborators (though the director Robert Wilson and the late poet and activist June Jordan come in for some fairly sharp criticism, as do post-Schoenberg serial and atonal composers). Adams is also amusingly blunt in assessing the failures of some of his own pieces.

However, something odd intrudes towards the end of the book during the discussion of the creation of Doctor Atomic. Librettist Alice Goodman (who had written the words for Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer) withdrew from the project; Adams writes that she stopped participating because she was "newly ordained as an Anglican minister with her own parish in the English midlands and overwhelmed with her church responsibilities" (p. 276).

Alice Goodman herself has given an account of her withdrawal, though, that is very different. In a profile piece on Doctor Atomic by Tom Service that was published in the Guardian UK (29 September 2005), she was quoted as saying, "I found that the structure John and Peter had got together with me was really anti-semitic, with Oppenheimer as the good blue-eyed Jew and Edward Teller as the bad limping one with the greasy hair, and a host of virtuous native Americans pitted against the refugee physicists out in the New Mexico desert. I couldn't see how it could be anything but deeply offensive." Adams was clearly aware of her accusation, because he's quoted by Service as responding that "her preposterous reason for not being able to deliver a libretto strikes me as speaking more about her own private preoccupations than about the reality of the Oppenheimer story." Of course, her objection wasn't to "the reality of the Oppenheimer story," but to its representation in the opera.

Although I haven't seen the opera, Goodman's accusation sounds pretty far-fetched and hyper-politically-correct to me. Teller was a pretty despicable person: we basically have him to thank for the arms race, he claimed sole credit for work to which other scientists made major contributions, and he betrayed his colleague Oppenheimer in Congressional hearings by agreeing with the absurd proposition that he was a security risk (perhaps not coincidentally, leaving the way clear for Teller to assume the leading role in creating nuclear policy). It seems justifiable to portray a reprehensible character as, well, reprehensible--otherwise, you risk sanitizing a complex and messy history.

But leaving aside the question of whether her objection had any basis or was simply "more about her private preoccupations," not a hint of this heated exchange makes it into Hallelujah Junction. Even if Goodman later thought better of her claim and patched things up with Adams, it's strange that Adams makes no mention of the controversy, and substitutes instead an entirely different, neutral explanation of her withdrawal.

Unfortunately, Adams' treatment of this incident calls into question his credibility in the rest of the book. Of course, an autobiography necessarily represents the perspective of its author. However, this strikes me as something more--a deliberate evasion of what was likely a painful moment of conflict. It's especially puzzling because Adams treats the accusations of anti-semitism hurled at The Death of Klinghoffer fully and openly.

Daniel Mendelsohn has written a review of the recent re-mounting of Doctor Atomic in New York for the New York Review of Books. Curiously, although Mendelsohn discusses Hallelujah Junction and mentions the "well-known tensions between composer and librettist (hardly the first on record), which resulted in an eventual break," he doesn't say anything about Adams' elision of Goodman's "anti-semitic" remarks. Neither, to my knowledge, has any other reviewer.

Adams' resorting to partial truths in his discussion of Goodman's withdrawal shouldn't deter you from reading this highly entertaining and reflective account of his life and works. However, it should put you on your guard that perhaps Hallelujah Junction is less frank than it pretends to be.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Some great filmi music

I'm a bit behind in my blog reading, so I'm just now catching up with two excellent posts on Indian film music.

I don't know why I wasn't aware of this series before (except that it began during my final exams), but Filmi Girl is posting a series of podcasts on Indian film music called My Filmi Mix Tape. The series is a terrific introduction to film music both classic and contemporary: episodes have already covered the playback singers Kishore Kumar, Lata Mangeshkar, and Mohammed Rafi; another offers samples from Filmi Girl's picks for the top ten songs of 2008. If Filmi Girl isn't a radio announcer, she should be--not only is her delivery incredibly smooth and professional-sounding, but what a voice!

In recognition of AR Rahman's recent Golden Globe Award for best original score for Slumdog Millionaire (2008), Memsaab has listed My 15 favorite AR Rahman songs. She includes an appreciation of Rahman's lengthy career, and for each song in her list she offers brief commentary and links to YouTube clips or MP3 files. It's a wonderful survey of Rahman's marvelously subtle and evocative music.

Friday, January 9, 2009

7 things about me

Bookish Desi recently "tagged" me for the 7 Facts About Me meme. The list Bookish came up with is charming; I'm afraid mine won't quite match up. Here are the rules:

1) Link to the person that tagged you, and post the rules on your blog.
2) Share 7 facts about yourself.
3) Tag 7 random people at the end of your post, and include links to their blogs.
4) Let each person know that they have been tagged by leaving a comment on their blog.

Even though I hate chain letters and have an irrational aversion to personal revelation, I decided to offer 7 facts about me:

1. I'm a middle child. According to some studies, that should supposedly make me more agreeable, more diplomatic, and more sociable. I can't speak for my agreeableness, but I'm the rebel in my family (relatively speaking, anyway) and mostly prefer intimate evenings with close friends to noisy parties full of strangers.

2. I really enjoy problem-solving, detective work, and deduction. I wonder why it took me so long to realize that reference librarianship might be a good career choice! At the same time, I don't enjoy crossword puzzles or word games very much--I'd much rather read a book, listen to music or watch a film.

3. I'm a bit of a perfectionist. I typically revise my papers, blog posts, and other creative projects many times before anyone else has a chance to see them. I'll keep making changes to my posts even after they're published, and I'm never quite happy with the finished product. Spotting a typographical or grammatical error on a post I've published is painful.

4. Perhaps as a result of #3, I'm more Apollonian than Dionysian in my aesthetic preferences. Evidence of an intricate structure or careful thought in a creative work goes a long way with me; unstructured or improvisational work had better be Coltrane-level brilliant, or it tries my patience.

5. Most 19th-century opera leaves me cold, perhaps because my least favorite voice type is tenor--even though I am one! At least, once I've had my morning coffee--before that, I'm a froggy baritone. In any range, I'm off-key.

6. I can haltingly play piano, guitar, trumpet, and bass, and I'm pretty terrible at all of them. Despite my proven lack of musical talent, though, I wish I had tried to learn to play cello.

7. I get anxious when I finish a book and don't have another one that I can begin immediately. Perhaps that explains why I'm a bookseller who's in library school--I'll go to any lengths to insure a continuous supply!

I'm going to be one of those terrible people who breaks the chain, because I can't bring myself to choose seven people to tag. So instead I invite everyone who feels moved to do so to post their own lists; if you alert me, I'll try to post a link here.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Bollywood for the curious

Inspired by Filmi Girl's Top Ten Bollywood Films For Beginners and Bollywhat?'s Rental Guide, I've put together my own list of films for people who are curious about Bollywood movies.

As with Filmi Girl's choices, this isn't a list of the "best" Bollywood movies, although all the films on it are very enjoyable. This list also excludes films like Deepa Mehta's powerful Elements trilogy (Fire (1996), Earth: 1947 (1998), and Water (2005)), Mira Nair's Monsoon Wedding (2001), or Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire (2008), because although they feature Hindi film stars, they aren't really Bollywood movies. Mainly, I'm retracing our own first encounters with Bollywood films, and picking out the ones that I think are good places to begin for someone approaching Bollywood for the first time.

This list is, of course, personal, and the movies chosen reflect my own tastes in actors, directors, genres, and music. There's no attempt to be comprehensive--if you enjoy any of these films, you'll definitely want to continue exploring on your own. The Bollywood blogs and sites listed to the left are excellent guides to your further exploration.

But for now, if you're looking for an entry into the world of Bollywood, here's...

The Exotic and Irrational Guide to Bollywood for the Curious

Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003)

The story: Three friends in New York City learn to live, laugh, and love...but one of them is concealing a tragic secret.

Why you might like it: With its setting in modern-day New York, two characters who are second-generation Indian-Americans, and pop-inflected soundtrack, Kal Ho Naa Ho (Tomorrow May Never Come) is a pretty atypical Bollywood film. But it was our own first Bollywood movie, and it's still our favorite (an entirely objective choice, of course!). The clever script, appealing stars and razor-sharp editing make KHNH an excellent candidate for a Bollywood conversion experience. It's a film that gets better with multiple viewings, as more of its Bollywood in-jokes become comprehensible. But while it's fun to get the references, we can attest that the movie is also highly enjoyable without any previous experience of Bollywood.

The stars: Shah Rukh Khan, Preity Zinta, Saif Ali Khan

If you like this one...:

Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (Something Is Happening, 1998) features Shah Rukh Khan as a man who doesn't realize that his best college friend Anjali (Kajol) is actually in love with him. Eight years later, his daughter sets out to reunite Anjali and her now-widowed father--only, Anjali's wedding has already been arranged...

Salaam Namaste (2005) is an attempt to regenerate the star chemistry that Preity Zinta and Saif Ali Khan shared in KHNH, and it mainly succeeds. The plot, centered on an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, is rather daring by Bollywood standards.

Dil Chahta Hai (What the Heart Desires, 2001) offers the intertwined stories of three friends and their relationships. Saif Ali Khan is featured as an incurable romantic who thinks he's in love with every woman he's momentarily attracted to--until he experiences the real thing. Preity Zinta also stars as the victim of a cruelly heartbreaking prank played by Aamir Khan; when she unexpectedly encounters him again, should she give him a second chance?

Hum Tum (Me and You, 2004) also features Saif Ali Khan, this time romancing a reluctant Rani Mukherji.

Here's a taste: "Kuch To Hua Hai" from Kal Ho Naa Ho, with Saif Ali Khan, Preity Zinta, and Shah Rukh Khan

Veer-Zaara (2004)

The story: Veer, an Indian man, and Zaara, a Pakistani woman, fall in love on the eve of her arranged marriage to another man. The lovers' fates become entangled in the political conflict between their countries.

Why you might like it: Strong performances, the lush direction of Yash Chopra, and a sweeping score make this film surprisingly powerful.

The stars: Shah Rukh Khan, Preity Zinta, Rani Mukherji

If you like this one...:

Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (The Brave Heart Will Take The Bride, 1995), universally referred to as DDLJ, is a now-classic film starring Shah Rukh and Kajol as Raj and Simran, young British Indians who fall in love on a post-collegiate tour of Europe. They're separated when Simran's father takes her back to India for an arranged marriage with a man she has never met; Raj follows to try to win her back.

Black (2006) features Rani Mukherji as a blind and deaf woman who blossoms under the tutelage of an extraordinary teacher (Amitabh Bachchan).

Paheli (Confusion, 2005) is a retelling of a folktale in which a spirit falls in love with a new bride and disguises himself as her absent husband. Shah Rukh stars in the dual role as the neglectful husband and the loving spirit; Rani Mukherji is the wife who is faced with the choice between fidelity and fulfillment.

Here's a taste: "Main Yahaan Hoon" from Veer-Zaara, with Shah Rukh Khan and Preity Zinta

Devdas (2002)

The story: When childhood playmates Devdas and Paro grow up to become adult lovers, class and caste differences come between them with tragic results.

Why you might like it: One of the most visually stunning films ever made, thanks to director Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Devdas also has an all-star cast and a brilliant score. The dance numbers are unusually well integrated into the narrative, and in fact each one imparts crucial information that advances the story. A must-see for Madhuri Dixit's affecting performance and stunning dancing as the courtesan Chandramukhi.

The stars: Shah Rukh Khan, Aishwarya Rai, Madhuri Dixit

If you like this one...:

Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (My Heart Belongs To Another, 1998): see below.

Dil Se (From the Heart, 1998) is another visually stylish story starring Shah Rukh about lovers who are torn apart by political conflict.

Shah Rukh and Aishwarya starred once before as tragic lovers in Mohabbatein (Love Stories, 2001). The strict headmaster of a boarding school thwarts his daughter's blossoming love with a student. Years later the student returns to the school as a teacher determined to defy the headmaster's rigid rules and insure that his student's loves don't meet the same fate.

Madhuri Dixit is renowned for her dancing, but she's also an excellent actress. Alas, she's generally much better than the movies she's in. For a recent sample of both her acting and dancing talents, try Aaja Nachle (Come Dance With Me, 2007).

Here's a taste: "Kahe Chhed Mohe" from Devdas, with Jackie Shroff, Madhuri Dixit, and Shah Rukh Khan

Munna Bhai M.B.B.S. (2003)

The story: A gangster boss decides to become a doctor to redeem himself in his father's eyes. In the process he creates comic havoc, but also teaches some lessons in compassion to the teachers and students of a medical college.

Why you might like it: Munna Bhai M.B.B.S. (Brother Munna, M.D.) is a warm-hearted comedy featuring the terrific buddy act of Sanjay Dutt and Arshad Warsi. Munna Bhai is Dutt's career-defining character, a shambolic, sad-eyed gangster with a heart of gold.

The stars: Sanjay Dutt, Arshad Warsi, Gracy Singh

If you like this one...:

You'll want to see the sequel, Lage Raho Munna Bhai (Munna Bhai Meets Gandhi, 2006), in which Sanjay Dutt and Arshad Warsi reprise their roles as Munna Bhai and Circuit. Satyagraha becomes a source of comedy when the gang leader Munna Bhai makes a pledge of Gandhian nonviolence. His resolution is tested, however, when greedy developers evict the elderly residents of a rest home.

Arshad Warsi, who should be a major star in his own right, is far too enjoyable in sidekick roles for his career's good; he does another excellent job as Saif Ali Khan's friend in Salaam Namaste (2005).

Gracy Singh has a featured role in Lagaan (Land Tax, 2001), in which a ragtag group of villagers must play a crack British army cricket squad with the future of the village at stake. It's some people's favorite Bollywood movie; not mine, but it's definitely worth seeing and has an excellent soundtrack.

Here's a taste: "Munna Bhai M.B.B.S." with Sanjay Dutt and Arshad Warsi

Bunty aur Babli (2005)

The story: A pair of lovers try to escape the stultifying life of their village by turning conmen and heading for the glamorous city. Their escape is complicated, though, by a policeman's relentless pursuit.

Why you might like it: While the comic energy flags somewhat in the second half, Bunty aur Babli (Bunty and Babli) is buoyed by the performances of the real-life father-son team of Amitabh and Abhishek Bachchan. Rani Mukherji does her usual superlative job as Abhishek's partner in love and crime, and Aishwarya Rai (now Mrs. Abishek Bachchan) puts in an appearance in the terrific item number "Kajra re."

The stars: Abhishek Bachchan, Rani Mukherji, Amitabh Bachchan, Aishwarya Rai

If you like this one...:

Chori Chori (Secretly, 2005) features Rani Mukherji in a role that might be Babli's sister--a young woman who feels that in an unjust world, a little deceit is sometimes necessary to get what you want.

Kuch Naa Kaho (Say Nothing, 2002) offers Abhishek and Aishwarya in a pleasant comedy carried mainly by the appeal of its stars.

Abhishek, Amitabh, and Rani were reunited in Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (Never Say Goodbye, 2006). Be forewarned: the story of two unhappily married couples, it's not exactly a comedy. But Abhishek in particular offers one of his best performances.

Here's a taste: "Dhadak dhadak" from Bunty aur Babli, with Abhishek Bachchan and Rani Mukherji

Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1998)

The story: A young woman must choose between a youthful crush and her husband's steadfast love.

Why you might like it: Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (My Heart Belongs To Another) combines the attractions of director Sanjay Leela Bhansali's gorgeous settings, the young Aishwarya Rai's astonishing dancing (and astonishing beauty), and Ajay Devgan's understated and affecting performance as the husband.

The stars: Aishwarya Rai, Ajay Devgan, Salman Khan

If you like this one...:

Devdas (2002): see above.

Aishwarya Rai's item number "Kajra Re" in Bunty aur Babli (see above) is a near-perfect mix of humor, playful sexiness and spectacular dancing.

Chori Chori (Secretly, 2003) features Ajay Devgan in another understated role as a frustrated architect trying to achieve his dreams with the aid of uninvited houseguest Rani Mukherji.

Here's a taste: "Aankhon Ki Gustakiya" from Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, with Salman Khan and Aishwarya Rai

More recommendations for first-time Bollywood viewers, or stories about your own Bollywood conversion experience, are welcome!

The songs of Erich Korngold and Reynaldo Hahn

For someone who likes opera, I've had substantial difficulties in appreciating art songs. While I've seen memorable recitals by Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and Renée Fleming, in general I prefer to hear voices with strings and continuo than with piano alone.

However, I've recently discovered two song collections that have overcome my resistance to the genre. The first is Anne Sofie von Otter's Love's Twilight: Songs by Strauss, Berg, and Korngold with the pianist Bengt Forsberg. I'd been looking for a recording of Alban Berg's Sieben fruhe Lieder (Seven Early Songs) ever since we'd seen Renée Fleming perform them several years ago. The coupling of the Berg songs with Richard Strauss made Love's Twilight irresistible when I found it in the used bin of my local record shop. It turned out, though, that it was neither the Strauss nor the Berg songs that I enjoyed most; instead, to my amazement, it was the Korngold.

I knew Erich Wolfgang Korngold as one of the generation of European composers who escaped to America when the Nazis came to power. He wound up in Hollywood writing film scores for adventure movies, especially Errol Flynn's Captain Blood (1935) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938; it won an Oscar for best score).

I was vaguely aware of one of his operas, Die Tote Stadt (The Dead City, 1920), through a recording of its aria "Marietta's Lied" on the soundtrack of the film Aria (1987). Nothing, though, prepared me for how enjoyable his songs are, especially in von Otter's performances. Surprisingly, given his blood-and-thunder film scores, Korngold has a gift for writing haunting melodies that move in unexpected directions but still somehow seem absolutely right, as in "In meine inninge Nacht" (In my deepest night). What can sound like simple, repeated forms turn out to be subtly varied on each repetition, as in "Liebesbriefchen" (Love note) or "Alt-spanisch" (Old Spanish song). And von Otter gives them performances that are inward, meditative, but intensely felt.

Von Otter and Forsberg have an all-Korngold recital on DVD in the "Voices of Our Time" series (it was also released on a now out-of-print CD). It includes movements from some of Korngold's chamber music, as well as the songs; I recommend it very highly. To give you a taste, here is von Otter performing "Marietta's Lied" from this DVD recital:

The words mean: "Joy, stay with me. Come to me, my true love. Night falls now; you are my light and day. Our hearts beat as one; our hopes rise heavenward...Though sorrow darkens all, come to me, my true love. Bring your pale face close to mine. Death cannot separate us. If you must leave me one day, know that there is a life after this."

Another recent discovery has been La Belle Epoque, Susan Graham's performances of the songs of Reynaldo Hahn. His songs are generally introspective, with gentle melodies that often hover just on the edge of one's perceptual grasp. "Exquisite" is a word often applied to Hahn's music, perhaps derived from his delicate treatment of mood in "L'heure exquise" (The exquisite moment); it's an adjective that can certainly be applied to the performances of Graham and her pianist Roger Vignoles on this recording. Another strong recommendation.

Here is a video created by xavisuescun, which sets Graham's performance of Hahn's "L'heure exquise" to a montage of gorgeously introspective 19th century portraits of women--the sort of women who might have attended the salons for which Hahn wrote and performed his music. The words mean: "The white moon shines in the forest; from every branch a voice rises up from beneath the foliage...Oh, my beloved. The lake, a deep mirror, reflects the silhouette of the black willow where the wind weeps...Let us dream. This is the moment. A vast and tender peace seems to descend from the heavens where the evening star is shining...This is the exquisite moment."

Four months of Bollywood

Happy New Year to all, and thanks to Memsaab and everyone else who inquired about me over the past four months. My schedule left little time for seeing movies, reading books or attending operas, much less writing about them. My too-busy schedule also coincided with a low period in our Bollywood viewing: nothing we've seen over the past few months has been very impressive, so I not only lacked the time but the inclination to write. So this post is going to cover four months of Bollywood in five films, most of which, I realize, will be old news.

Jab We Met (2007)
I had high hopes for Jab We Met (When We Met). The dance numbers we'd seen on our Saturday morning clip shows featured colorful North Indian costumes, spectacular settings, and Shahid Kapoor's boyish charm. Even Kareena Kapoor seemed as though she'd be tolerable for a change.

Alas, Jab We Met is yet another remake of DDLJ (1995) with a goodly helpings of Chalte Chalte (2003) and Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1998) thrown in. There's the missing the train scene from DDLJ, there's the falling in love while travelling together sequence from DDLJ and Chalte Chalte, and there's the guy who's in love with the girl delivering her to her fiance/lover without declaring his own feelings character from Chalte Chalte and HDDCS. Fatally, the part of Shahid's rival was played by Tarun Arora, who on the evidence of this film is a stolid gym bunny with man-boobs bigger than his personality; no right-thinking woman would prefer him to Shahid. So the last hour becomes increasingly irritating as it delays the inevitable Shahid-Kareena embrace. Watch the songs, skip the movie.

Main Prem Ki Diwani Hoon (2003)
It's better, I think, to draw a veil of silence over this movie, from which only Abhishek Bachchan emerges with some shreds of his dignity intact. Hrithik Roshan and Kareena Kapoor are painful to watch, together and separately. The premise for the whole thing--that Hrithik's character is mistaken for Abhishek's because they're both named "Prem"--is unutterably lame. This isn't the worst Bollywood movie we've ever sat through, but it was bad enough.

Raja Hindustani (1996)
Karisma is the Kapoor sister with the better acting ability and dance skills, but neither she nor Aamir Khan could rescue this movie from its masala-y second half. Aamir is the poor but proud taxi driver Raja; Karisma is the sheltered rich girl Aarti. Spoilers follow: Do they meet cute? Fall in love? Get married despite her father's opposition? Have evil relatives who try to split them up because the relatives are after the father's wealth? When that fails, do the relatives hire a gang of thugs to kill Raja and his infant son? Does Raja somehow, while holding his son, beat up 20 guys armed with guns, swords and pikes? Are the evil machinations of the relatives exposed, and is there a tearful reunion between Raja, Aarti, and Aarti's father? Wait, don't tell me--let me guess...

Somehow it won the Filmfare Best Film award, along with a slew of other awards for the actors and director Dharmesh Darshan. Maybe it was a weak year, or maybe the charming songs clouded the voters' judgment.

Saawariya (2007)
We'd been warned by BethLovesBollywood, but did we listen? Noooooooo. Rani Mukherji's sparkling performance is the sole thing that keeps this bloated motion picture (make that slow-motion picture) from sinking into the blue lagoon of its fake Venice-plus-Paris setting. Matters aren't helped by the serious lack of charisma exhibited by newcomers Ranbir Kapoor as the puppyish Raj and Sonam Kapoor as Sakina. Sakina was by turns flirtatious and demure, encouraging and chaste--even a seasoned actress would have had a hard time making this character cohere. The soundtrack has only a few highlights (most of them dance numbers for Rani), and a couple truly embarrassing moments for Ranbir (yodelling?). For his next film director Sanjay Leela Bhansali might want to spend a bit less time on art direction and a bit more time on getting a compelling script together first.

Thoda Pyaar Thoda Magic (2008)
A mixture of the Sound of Music (1965), Mary Poppins (1964), and the most saccharine moments of It's a Wonderful Life (1946), TPTM (A Little Love, A Little Magic) can't be completely dismissed because of the strong performances offered by Saif Ali Khan as a successful but miserable business executive and by the four extremely talented young actors who play the children that he's accidentally orphaned. Alas, all Rani Mukherji is given to do for most of the movie is twinkle, until the very end when she's asked to cry, but of course she's very appealing even in role of such limited scope. The music is mediocre, the special effects worse, and the shameless plugs for certain LA and San Diego tourist traps are cringeworthy.

Speaking of Rani, Beth offers a delightful appreciation of her, complete with stills and clips, in "26 reasons I love Rani Mukherji."