Thursday, July 15, 2010

Black Narcissus: A parable of colonialism, or who's the narcissist?

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's Black Narcissus (1947) is a classic of Technicolor cinematography. It's also a classic of colonialist ideology.

A small group of Anglican nuns led by Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) is sent to establish a convent in a remote Himalayan village. They are given a mountaintop palace once occupied by concubines, and plan to create a school, infirmary, chapel, and garden on its grounds. But the isolated setting, the constant wind, the obstinacy of the "natives," the erotic paintings on the walls, and the propensity of the local English agent Mr. Dean (David Farrar) to wander about shirtless are soon whipping up hysteria among the nuns.

The story, based on a Rumer Godden novel, is ludicrous, especially when Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) snaps, dons a siren-red dress, lipstick and high-heeled shoes, throws herself at Mr. Dean and—spoiler alert!—tries to push Sister Clodagh off the mountain. The convent is doomed by the combined force of the villagers' indifference and the eruption of the nuns' own repressed emotions.

What's harder to stomach than the film's pop Freudianism, though, is its depiction of the Indian villagers. "Black Narcissus" is the nuns' nickname for the Young General (Sabu), the son of the village headman, who dresses in colorful finery and attends the children's classes in English, French and typing (very useful skills in a remote Himalayan village). When the "natives" are not being shown as childlike, comically vain imitators of the English, they are shown as inscrutable, dangerously sexual, or ominously threatening.

So it should come as no surprise that the filmmakers couldn't even be bothered to get the details of the Indians' culture right. I'm no expert, but when on several occasions we hear the drums of the villagers, their rhythms sound more like Skull Island (from King Kong (1933)) than Himalayan Indian. The clothes look like a mix of regional Indian styles with a heavy overlay of film-studio fantasy. And as 17-year-old Kanchi, a young Jean Simmons—in obvious brownface—is asked to perform hilariously inept "Indian" dance moves.

It could be that there's a satirical tone that I'm just missing. The shots of Sister Ruth in her mad frenzy verge on camp:

But I don't think the filmmakers intend any satire. The music cues us when a scene is meant to be lighthearted (most of those involve May Hallatt, who plays the caretaker Angu Ayah without brownface and with a broad Cockney accent). The gorgeous cinematography, the somber tone and the lingering closeups of a conflicted Deborah Kerr give the rest of the film a sheen of high seriousness. Our perspective remains almost entirely on the mountaintop with the nuns, and it is they with whom we are invited to sympathize. I think we are meant to see the nuns as well-meaning but naïve, attempting to do good work in a place where the climate is unsuitable and the ignorant, superstitious people are stubbornly unreceptive.

But this is classic colonialist ideology, liberal version, as memorably described by Noam Chomsky (in "Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship," from American Power and the New Mandarins (Pantheon, 1967)) and Edward Said (in Orientalism (Vintage, 1979)). To make the suggestion the nuns are serving the British imperial project and that the Indians have their own subjectivity requires reading the film against the grain.

The film's elegiac final images, where the monsoon rains begin to fall as the nuns leave the village, take on a different meaning when you note the date of the movie's release. 1947, of course, was the year that the entire British imperial project in India was abruptly abandoned. That self-regarding sense of melancholy at the end of Black Narcissus ignores, as does the rest of the film, the experience of the Indians themselves. And so it functions as a sort of parable about the loss of the Raj—only in real life the self-concern of the British turned out to have deadly consequences for their former subjects, a legacy of displacement and violent conflict that continues today. It prompts me to ask: Who are the narcissists here?

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

In defense of Devdas, the movie everyone loves to hate

What follows is an expanded version of a comment originally posted on Bollyviewer's review of Bimal Roy's Devdas (1955):

Since everybody hates the Sanjay Leela Bhansali version of Devdas (2002), I feel I have to say a few words in its defense. After all, I did pick it as one of my favorite Bollywood films of the 2000s.

Say what you will about Shah Rukh Khan in the thankless title role—and most people say he's over the top. But I'm not sure any approach would make this character fully sympathetic. After all, Devdas is callous, weak, abusive, self-pitying, and self-destructive. Given those elements of the character, going operatic makes as much sense as any other approach (someone underplaying the role would have gotten lost in SLB's outrageously lush visuals).

But what makes the 2002 version so special for me is Ismail Darbar's music, and the way that the songs are so carefully woven into the narrative. In fact, the songs convey absolutely crucial information, particularly in the sequence "Bairi Piya," "Morey Piya," and "Kaahe Chhed Mohe."

Taking the first four songs in order:

1. "Silsila Yeh Chaahat Ka" expresses the yearning of Devdas' childhood sweetheart Paro (Aishwarya Rai) for Devdas' return:

While here I burned

It's significant that the first number is a performance of Paro's unwavering devotion—a devotion that will be severely tested over the course of following events.

2. "Bairi Piya": Devdas and Paro tease and flirt with each other, though there's an edge that suggests Devdas' later violence against Paro. Two important things happen during this song. First is the symbolic marriage of Devdas and Paro, when Devdas gives her his grandmother's wedding bangle. And second, each makes a prediction about the other's future. His prediction for her:

You'll marry an old man

Hers for him:

You'll never marry

Both predictions, of course, will come true.

3. "More Piya" involves two intercut sequences. Paro's mother Sumitra (Kirron Kher) celebrates what she thinks will be Paro and Devdas' engagement with a love song about the encounter of Radha and Krishna on the banks of the Yamuna.

Krishna and Radha in the Dance of Love

Meanwhile, on the banks of their local stream, Devdas is raping Paro. While "rape" perhaps doesn't quite capture all the nuances of what's happening between them, there really is no other word for it. Paro loves him, doesn't struggle, and ultimately acquiesces, but there's no mistaking her reluctance:

No don't force me

The invocations of Krishna and Radha in Sumitra's song and the prominence of the flute (Krishna's instrument) in the Devdas-Paro sequences, plus the the explicit symbolism (the river bank, the water jugs, and the way Devdas removes Paro's jewelry and veil as a husband removes his bride's on their wedding night) leave no doubt about what takes place between Devdas and Paro. And this makes Devdas' later repudiation of Paro even more heartless and cruel.

4. "Kaahe Chhed Mohe": The very next song, performed by the tawaif Chandramukhi (Madhuri Dixit) for Devdas, his dissolute friend Chunnilal (Jackie Shroff) and a third man whose importance is only revealed later, is another retelling of the Krishna and Radha story. As Chandramukhi sings of Krishna,

He shamed Radha

Devdas realizes his own cruelty and callousness towards Paro, and the terrible mistake he's made in sending her a letter of rejection. Alas, his remorse comes too late.

Incidentally, thanks to Ismail Darbar Pandit Birju Maharaj's excellent music, Madhuri's brilliant, eloquent dancing and SLB's swirling, hypnotic visuals (which evoke other great courtesan dances from films such as Mughal-e-Azam (1960), Pakeezah (1971) and Umrao Jaan (1981)), "Kaahe Chhed Mohe" remains my Platonic ideal of what a Bollywood dance number can be.

Devdas was the second Bollywood film we saw, and we were mesmerized by it. I realize that we're in a distinct minority, and know it's a film that people love to hate. But it's so obviously a labor of love for everyone involved that I just can't share that disdain. And SLB's hallucinatorily rich visuals are a sumptuous feast. The moment in "Kaahe Chhed Mohe" when Chandramukhi spins outside, and we see the whole pleasure district behind her lit up in the night and filled with tiny moving and dancing figures, is simply breathtaking.

Bimal Roy is, of course, one of the greatest directors of not only Indian but world cinema. I think, though, that a small-scale and realistic approach to these characters just foregrounds how despicable Devdas' actions are. Instead, I feel that the story of Devdas requires a heightened quality and larger-than-life emotions, something that the SLB version certainly provides.

As I wrote in my comment on Bollyviewer's post, give me a moment to get under cover, and then you can start throwing things!

Update 28 May 2012: It seems that it's not just me who appreciates Devdas. It came in at a surprising Number 1 in the Top 10 Shah Rukh Khan Movies as voted by the viewers of Namaste America. And it was listed at Number 8 on Time magazine critic Richard Corliss' 10 Greatest Films of the Millennium (Thus Far), although any list that also includes Moulin Rouge (2001) and Avatar (2009) has to be viewed with some skepticism.

Here's a glimpse of why Devdas is so ravishing: the exquisite Madhuri Dixit in "Kaahe Chhed Mohe":

Friday, July 2, 2010

Bollywood Babylon, and two other books with Bollywood in the title

The term "Bollywood" is problematic but inescapable, as Rachel Dwyer notes in the introduction to her 100 Bollywood Films (BFI Screen Guides, 2005). It persists because it's a useful shorthand: other alternatives are clunky ("Hindi commercial cinema"), only partly descriptive ("Hindi cinema" ignores films in Urdu) or misleading ("Hindi popular cinema" conceals the power of media industries in shaping popular taste).

Dwyer is Professor of Indian Cultures and Cinema at the University of London, but her book is free of film studies jargon and is highly readable. As its title implies, it consists of 100 short (2-page) reviews of Bollywood movies from the early sound era to the present. The main criteria for inclusion are language (Hindi-Urdu), production and distribution (mainstream commercial), "importance in the history of Hindi cinema," and representation of the work of significant directors, stars, music directors, writers, and playback singers. Many of the films she chooses are obviously personal favorites as well. She excludes parallel cinema, so there are no films by, say, Satyajit Ray. Dwyer does find room for Shyam Benegal's Bhumika (1976), though not his Zubeidaa (2001), which featured major Bollywood stars and a score by A. R. Rahman.

Of course, no selection of 100 (I actually count 101) Bollywood movies can be comprehensive. I'd argue with some of Dwyer's choices, such as Kaho Naa...Pyar Hai (2001), Dil To Pagal Hai (1997) (which she says "will be seen in the future as a landmark film"; I have my doubts), and Disco Dancer (1982)—all big hits, of course. I'd also prefer a chronological rather than alphabetical organization, but it's likely that Dwyer inherited the format from the other books in the series. On the plus side, names are indexed as well as titles, so it's easy to look up all of the films in the book that feature a particular director or actor. Especially if you're beginning to explore Golden and Silver Age films (movies released before 1980 account for nearly two-thirds of the entries), you'll find 100 Bollywood Films to be a useful compact guide.

Subhash K. Jha is a journalist, and it shows in the breeziness of the prose in his Essential Guide to Bollywood (Roli Books, 2005), which covers about twice as many films as Dwyer's guide. Jha's capsule reviews are shorter than Dwyer's, but he packs a maximum amount of summary, analysis and context into a small word-count. The Essential Guide is also liberally illustrated with film and promotional stills, with a majority in color (100 Bollywood Films has fewer illustrations and they're all in black and white). Nearly every right-hand page also features a short sidebar focussing on a particular film or star. And while Jha includes only one pre-independence film (Dwyer discusses 9), he offers a substantial section on parallel cinema (22 films) and has entries for 18 films from the early 2000s (Dwyer includes only 5).

Jha divides his choices rather unhelpfully into genres among which the distinctions aren't always clear—for example, he includes three kinds of drama, "War Drama," "Family Drama" and just plain "Drama," with the last taking up fully half of the book. The "War Drama," "Historical" and "Action" sections are only four pages long, and (shockingly) the "Romance" section only covers 12 films. Better, probably, to have fewer and larger sections, or to simply arrange the films chronologically. Fortunately, there's a name and title index; unfortunately, the index doesn't indicate which page contains the major entry for a film (Dwyer's index prints the main entry page numbers in bold type).

Jha's book is a good choice for its sheer breadth of coverage and its author's obvious enthusiasm for his subject. Both Dwyer's and Jha's guides are now somewhat outdated, though, and I hope new editions are being prepared.

Finally, there's William van der Heide's hilariously mistitled Bollywood Babylon (Berg, 2006). Far from the lurid exposé that the title promises, the book instead consists of extensive interviews with writer/director Shyam Benegal. While Benegal has employed actors, music directors, and playback singers that have also worked in mainstream Bollywood, his films are generally classified as parallel cinema. They are often realistic, morally ambiguous stories of women struggling against the constraints of a patriarchal society. And Benegal has had the good fortune (or good taste) to work repeatedly with extraordinary actors, including Smita Patil, Shabana Azmi, Rekha, Naseeruddin Shah, and Amrish Puri.

The book is organized into chapters on Satyajit Ray, Benegal's beginnings as a filmmaker, his views on Indian cinema, and a film-by-film survey of nearly all of his work up to 2006. This approach is similar to Francois Truffaut's Hitchcock (Simon & Schuster, Revised edition, 1984) or José de la Colina and Tómas Pérez Turrent's Objects of Desire: Conversations With Luis Buñuel (Marsilio, 1992). And it offers similar rewards: you don't have to be an evangelist for the auteur theory to feel that a director has a uniquely important perspective on his own work.

Van der Heide is a knowledgeable interviewer, perhaps to a fault—he is sometimes so busy telling Benegal his own interpretation of Benegal's films, or elicting Benegal's response to the criticism and comments of other writers, that he neglects to fully draw out Benegal's own views. The interviews are presented as uninterrupted transcripts; all explanatory material is given in the endnotes to each chapter. Those endnotes are so extensive, though, that it might have been better to try to integrate some of them (the film synopses, for example) into the main text.

Still, if you are interested in Benegal's work or parallel cinema in general, Van der Heide's book is essential reading. It, too, though, will need updating, whenever Benegal decides that he's through making films. Although he's in his mid-70s he's still going strong, having released Welcome to Sajjanpur (2008) and Well Done Abba! (2010) since this book was published.