Sunday, June 24, 2012

Suggested reading: Jenny Diski, Elif Batuman, Zadie Smith

Another in the (very) occasional series where I offer links to some of my favorite recent articles, reviews and the like:

Jenny DiskiJenny Diski derides Downton Abbey, Upstairs, Downstairs, and other "Vicwardian" costume dramas ("Making a Costume Drama Out of a Crisis," London Review of Books, 21 June 2012):

"This ‘nothing will ever be the same again’ is the single motif that conditions all the plots of the books and programmes, which otherwise are undistinguished stories of love and money lost and won. Mostly the nothing that will ever be the same is the centuries-old entitlement of a small group of highly privileged people, for whom, for various reasons, we must feel sorry, both before and after the changes..."

Elif BatumanElif Batuman on Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk's Museum of Innocence (Knopf, 2009), for which Pamuk created an actual museum filled with the objects collected by Kemal, the novel's erotically-obsessed main character ("Diary: Pamuk's Museum," London Review of Books, 7 June 2012):
"Pamuk’s museum restores a specialness to objects of mass production, transmuting quantity into quality. A middle-class fake is more magical than a priceless painting, precisely because it’s everywhere at once.

"Late in the novel, no matter where in the world his Byronic gloom takes him, Kemal can’t stop running into Füsun’s mother’s saltshaker. Cairo, Barcelona, New Delhi, Rome: ‘To contemplate how this saltshaker had spread to the farthest reaches of the globe suggested a great mystery, as great as the way migratory birds communicate among themselves, always taking the same routes every year.’...

"Every few years, Pamuk writes, ‘another wave of saltshakers’ washes in, replacing the old generation. People ‘forget the objects with which they had lived so intimately, never even acknowledging their emotional attachment to them’. Unlike the Mona Lisa, which is always and only in the Louvre, the saltshakers are everywhere for a few years, and then they’re gone, shifting the dimension of rarity from space to time....Pamuk was astounded by the difficulty of getting hold of 1970s toothbrushes: how could they all have vanished from the face of the earth? After he mentioned the problem in an interview, a reader sent him a large collection of old toothbrushes that would otherwise have been lost to posterity."

Zadie SmithZadie Smith reports on her local council's plan to eliminate a beloved bookshop and public market and downsize the Willesden Green Library Centre so that private developers can turn these formerly public spaces into luxury condos ("North-West London Blues," New York Review of Books, 12 July 2012. Subscription—or library card!—required):
"Well-run libraries are filled with people because what a good library offers cannot be easily found elsewhere: an indoor public space in which you do not have to buy anything in order to stay.

"In the modern state there are very few sites where this is possible. The only others that come readily to my mind require belief in an omnipotent creator as a condition for membership. It would seem the most obvious thing in the world to say that the reason why the market is not an efficient solution to libraries is because the market has no use for a library. But it seems we need, right now, to keep restating the obvious. There aren’t many institutions left that fit so precisely Keynes’s definition of things that no one else but the state is willing to take on. Nor can the experience of library life be recreated online. It’s not just a matter of free books. A library is a different kind of social reality (of the three-dimensional kind), which by its very existence teaches a system of values beyond the fiscal."

Update 25 June 2012: I should make it clear that, much as I admire her writing, I don't share Diski's disdain for costume dramas (a term that could as well apply to Mad Men as Lark Rise To Candleford). For one thing, I think she has over-simplified the implicit class perspective of many period dramas; it's not all nostalgia and misplaced sympathy.

In her article she mentions The Duchess of Duke Street as one of the programs of which she "never saw more than one episode." We're watching it right now, and as I recall, in the first episode the Prince of Wales is depicted as a predator who uses bribes and blackmail to coerce an attractive young working-class woman (the "Duchess" of the title) into sex. The compulsory nature of their relationship is made quite clear; not exactly the soothing message about the upholding of "the proper order of things" that Diski imagines is characteristic of the "Vicwardian" genre.

These "costume dramas" (I'd call them "period dramas," but never mind) are often based on 19th-century novels, which can be quite subversive in their attitudes towards the constraints of class and gender. Still, Diski is a brilliant writer and this article is highly entertaining—particularly when she points out the class positions of Julian Fellowes (writer of Downton Abbey and a baron) and Frances Osborne (writer of the novel Park Lane and wife of the current chancellor of the Exchequer): "These purveyors of escapist fantasies of love and landed wealth come directly from the social world and political party that talks compulsively of 'honest, hard-working families' while giving us austerity and cuts in public spending for most, and tax breaks for the already wealthy and overpaid."

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Facebook knows your details—even if you're not on Facebook

According to a recently published paper in the open access journal PLoS One, some people "choose to stay away from social network platforms such as Facebook in the belief that this will help protect their privacy. In this article, we show that such an assumption is no longer valid: with the help of machine learning, social network operators can make predictions regarding the acquaintance or lack thereof between two non-members with a high rate of success."*

And if Facebook and other social network platforms can predict your friends, they can predict many other things about you: your income, age, marital status, political preferences, health status, sexual orientation, and much more—even if you have never been a member.

An interview with one of the paper's authors, computer scientist Katharina Anna Zweig, is available on the IEEE Spectrum website. As host Steven Cherry says in his introduction, "It’s been known for a while that Facebook makes a shadow profile of people it learns about who aren’t on Facebook"; this paper shows that it is likely that those profiles are highly detailed. Privacy is no longer simply a quaint concept—it's impossible.


* Horvát E-Á, Hanselmann M, Hamprecht FA, Zweig KA. (2012). One plus one makes three (for social networks). PLoS ONE 7(4): e34740. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0034740

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Bollywood Heroes: Ram vs. Krishna Part 2

A continuation of Bollywood heroes: Ram vs. Krishna Part 1.

I had thought that it would be be easy to find examples of boyish, ardent Krishna-heroes. But it's surprisingly hard to come up with pure Krishnas; as I mentioned in Part 1, mischievous Krishna-heroes often transform into steadfast Ram-heroes by the end of the movie. When they don't undergo this transformation (and sometimes when they do), the happy ending generally eludes them. Krishna and Radha may be invoked at Indian weddings as a model of passionate love, but in Bollywood it is Ram who usually gets the girl.

Krishnas and Krishna-Rams include:  

Akash (Salman Khan) in Saajan (Beloved, 1990): Akash is a love-'em-and-leave-'em type who falls for Pooja (Madhuri Dixit), a poetry-loving woman who thinks he is the pseudonymous bard Sagar (Ram-hero Sanjay Dutt). Really, he's Sagar's playboy stepbrother—but from complicated motives of his own, Sagar decides to continue the deception. The parallels to Cyrano de Bergerac are entirely intentional.  

Prem (Salman Khan) in Hum Aapke Hain Koun...! (Who am I to you?, 1994): Both Prem and Nisha (the Radha-heroine played by Madhuri Dixit) abundantly demonstrate their mischievous, fun-loving natures in the gender-bending "Didi Tera Devar Deewana" (Sister, your brother-in-law is crazy), sung by Nisha to her sister Pooja (Renuka Shahane) during Pooja's engagement festivities. No subtitles—if you're curious, begin watching the full movie at the 1:40:15 mark and click the CC button—but the action shouldn't require too much explanation, even without them:

(By the way, I believe the woman who mockingly dresses as Salman in the clip is Sahila Chadda.) 

Sameer (Salman Khan) in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (My heart belongs to you, 1999): Was Salman getting typecast? Here he plays a prankish musician (Krishna is, of course, associated with the flute) who falls in love with Radha-heroine Nandini (Aishwarya Rai), the daughter of his music teacher. Her father has other plans for her, though. In "Aankhon ki Masti" (The impertinence of my eyes), Sameer and Nandini flirt, tease, and fantasize to the prominent accompaniment of a flute:

Raja (Aamir Khan) in Dil (Heart, 1990) is a callow college boy who spends his time partying and playing pranks on Madhu (Madhuri Dixit). Can a true love and a Ram-transformation be far behind?  

Akash (Aamir Khan) in Dil Chahta Hai (What the heart wants, 2001): Another Akash, another love-'em-and-leave-'em type. Akash thinks it's funny to make Shalini (Preity Zinta) think that he's proposing to her in earnest. Later, though, after a chance encounter with the now really engaged Shalini, Akash's inner Ram begins to awaken...  

Rahul (Saif Ali Khan) in Kya Kehna (What is there to say?, 1998/2000): Ah, college. Where students pass their time in dance competitions, motorcycle jumping, and pre-marital sex. Priya (Preity Zinta) unwisely yields to her powerful attraction to daredevil Rahul, whose hair distressingly changes length from scene to scene. When she discovers that she's pregnant, Rahul cruelly rejects her. After Priya gives birth to their child, though, Rahul realizes that he truly loves her after all. Priya must then choose between her best friend Ajay (Chandrachur Singh), a steadfast Ram, and the repentant Krishna Rahul. If only Rahul had watched Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam first...  

Rahul (Shah Rukh Khan) in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (Something is happening, 1998): Krishna is usually associated with music, and indeed Rahul, his best friend Anjali (Kajol) and his main squeeze Tina (Rani Mukherjee) whip up on the spot the tightly choreographed dance competition number "Koi Mil Gaya" (I found someone). Only, Anjali makes the painful discovery that she's the odd girl out in this triangle. Eight years later Rahul, now a widower, discovers his Ram-itude when his daughter reunites him with Anjali. Only, his inner Krishna keeps bubbling to the surface...  

Raj (Shah Rukh Khan) in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (The brave heart wins the bride, 1995): Raj starts out as a fun-loving prankster, and in an early version of the script (according to Anupama Chopra's book on the film) a lover as well: in his first encounter with the baleful Baldev (Amrish Puri), Raj was looking for condoms, not beer. But after a series of teasing encounters with Baldev's daughter Simran (Kajol) on a Eurail vacation, he realizes that he's found true love. He follows her to India, but after the interval becomes more and more of a Ram. He's got to win the bride, doesn't he?

Aman (Shah Rukh Khan) in Kal Ho Naa Ho (Tomorrow may never come, 2003): Aman is a ringer, because while on the surface he's a classic Krishna (musical, teasing, mischievous), underneath he's really solid Ram—so devoted to Naina (Preity Zinta) that he tries to engineer her marriage to her friend Rohit (Saif Ali Khan, in one of his best performances). Why would he do such a thing? Because a Ram is nothing if not self-sacrificing, even if he's convincingly disguised as a Krishna.  

Devdas (Shah Rukh Khan) in Devdas (2002): This film is super-saturated with Krishna-Radha imagery: childhood sweethearts Devdas and Paro (Aishwarya Rai) reunite as young adults, but it doesn't end well. The Krishna-Radha parallels are perhaps most glaringly apparent in "More piya": as Paro's mother Sumitra performs a song about "Krishna and Radha in the Dance of Love" on the banks of the River Yamuna, Devdas accosts Paro on the banks of their local stream.

As I wrote in In Defense of Devdas, "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." Alas, Devdas' mischievous nature and inconstancy bring tragedy to both of them.

SRK deserves a special award for portraying Suri and Raj in Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi (A match made in Heaven, 2009): While many actors have portrayed characters with diametrically opposed personalities, usually the conceit is that they are twins separated at birth (see Ram aur Shyam (1967) or Seeta aur Geeta (1972)). But in RNBDJ, both roles are really the same person. Suri is the quiet, devoted and dutiful Ram-hero who lives like brother and sister with his wife Taani (Anushka Sharma). Raj is the brash, loud, flirtatious and flashy Krishna-hero that Taani encounters when she enters a Bollywood dance class. What Taani doesn't realize is that Raj is Suri in disguise, determined to win her love: in an inversion of the usual pattern, Ram has become Krishna. Only he succeeds all too well, and Taani must make a Radha- vs. Sita-like choice to follow her heart or fulfill her duty to a husband she doesn't think she loves...  

The new generation

Of newer heroes, it seems like Imran Khan is (like his uncle Aamir) often primarily Ram (as in Jaane Tu...Ya Jaane Na (Whether you know...or not, 2008), Break Ke Baad (After the break, 2010) and Mere Brother Ki Dulhan (My brother's bride, 2011), while Ranbir Kapoor is generally Krishna (as in Bachna Ae Haseeno (Beware beauties, 2008), Wake Up Sid (2009), and Anjaana Anjaani (Strangers, 2010)), and Ranveer Singh seems Krishna-like in both his roles so far (Band Baaja Baaraat (Bands, horns, revelry, 2010), Ladies vs. Ricky Bahl (2011)).

Classic heroes

The subject of a book-length study, probably, for which I am spectacularly unqualified.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Bollywood Heroes: Ram vs. Krishna Part 1

I'm sure this observation isn't original, but I've noticed that Bollywood heroes can often be categorized as either Krishna or Ram. Krishna, of course, is the playful, flirtatious, mischievous, teasing god of love, and Ram is the righteous, virtuous, steadfast, upright god of duty and devotion.

Of course, like every dichotomy, this one is a bit false, since Ram and Krishna are both avatars of Vishnu (Ram the seventh, and Krishna the eighth or ninth). And not every hero belongs unambiguously to one category or the other: some heroes move from one category to the other over the course of a film (usually from Krishna to Ram), and some exhibit elements of both at the same time. But this rough division seems to hold true pretty often. Latter-day Rams include:

Major Ram (Shah Rukh Khan) in Main Hoon Na (I'm Here Now, 2004): Yes, just in case we missed the point, this Ram-hero is actually named Ram. And if that isn't enough to clue us in, he has a brother named Lakshman (Zayed Khan). SRK has also frequently played Krishna-heroes, as we'll see in Part 2.

Veer (Shah Rukh Khan) in Veer-Zaara (2004): So noble that he agrees to spend his life in prison rather than elope with Zaara (Preity Zinta) against her parents' will. Or as Ajnabi has it, "I Lived Twenty Years on a Week of Love".

Veer (Salman Khan) in Veer (2010): Like Ram, Veer goes into exile and leads a battle against a demon king—in this case, British collaborator Gyanendra Singh (Jackie Shroff).

Veer (Saif Ali Khan) in Love Aaj Kal (2009): So Ram-like that he decides to marry Harleen (Giselli Monteiro) before he even speaks to her, and remains steadfast in his desire despite being beaten up by her relatives.

Bhuvan (Aamir Khan) in Lagaan (Land Tax, 2001): Bhuvan organizes a group of villagers to play a cricket match against a crack team of British oppressors. Even though the villagers have never played the game, have no equipment and don't know the rules, the British are no match for Bhuvan's Ram-ity. Along the way the sister of one of the British occupiers (Rachel Shelley) falls in love with him, but she should have realized that Bhuvan-Ram could only remain true to his simple village girl Gauri (Gracy Singh).

Sriram (Sumanth) in Godavari (2006): Another hero named after Ram; to add to the symbolism, his heroine (Kamalinee Mukherjee) is named Seeta and they are travelling together down the Godavari River to the Sri Rama temple at Bhadrachalam. This Ram winds up committing a blunder that threatens his union with Seeta, but I seem to recall that Lord Ram makes a few questionable decisions too.

Vanraj (Ajay Devgan) in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (My Heart Belongs to You, 1999): Vanraj discovers the unwelcome news that his new wife Nandini (Aishwarya Rai) married him against her will; she loves Sameer (Salman Khan as the Krishna-hero) instead. Vanraj then takes Nandini to Italy to try to reunite her with Sameer—now that's devotion! Along the way, Nandini discovers new feelings beginning to stir. In many films the Krishna-hero undergoes a transformation over the course of the movie into a Ram-hero; in this case, a Radha-heroine begins to transform into Sita...

Aditya (Shahid Kapoor) in Jab We Met (When We Met, 2007): Like Vanraj, Aditya also falls in love with a woman (Geet, played by Kareena Kapoor) who loves another man. And also like Vanraj, he does everything in his power to bring them together. Fortunately for Aditya, the man Geet loves is more Raavan than Krishna.

Prem (Shahid Kapoor) in Vivah (Marriage, 2006): On the eve of her marriage to Prem, the lovely Poonam (the lovely Amrita Rao) is terribly burned while rescuing her sister from a raging house fire. Prem, hearing of the disaster, rushes to the hospital. In an inversion of the Sita-Ram story, the trial by fire becomes a test of Prem's worthiness of Poonam:

That it is Prem, and not Poonam, who is tested is another reason I love this movie; see my commentary on it at Bollywood Rewatch 2: Vivah and India's Missing Daughters.

Thanks to Rajshri Films, you can watch Vivah on YouTube, with English subtitles (but at low resolution) for free.

Next time: Krishna-heroes.