Sunday, February 24, 2013

The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence

Edith Wharton at 22, 1884
That terrifying product of the social system he belonged to and believed in, the young girl who knew nothing and expected everything, looked back at him like a stranger through May Welland's familiar features; and once more it was borne in on him that marriage was not the safe anchorage he had been taught to think, but a voyage on uncharted seas....

What could he and she really know of each other, since it was his duty, as a "decent" fellow, to conceal his past from her, and hers, as a marriageable girl, to have no past to conceal? What if, for some one of the subtler reasons that would tell with both of them, they should tire of each other, misunderstand or irritate each other? He reviewed his friends' marriages—the supposedly happy ones—and saw none that answered, even remotely, to the passionate and tender comradeship which he pictured as his permanent relation with May Welland. He perceived that such a picture presupposed, on her part, the experience, the versatility, the freedom of judgment, which she had been carefully trained not to possess; and with a shiver of foreboding he saw his marriage becoming what most of the other marriages about him were: a dull association of material and social interests held together by ignorance on the one side and hypocrisy on the other.
—Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence, Ch. 6

In The House of Mirth (1905) and The Age of Innocence (1920), Edith Wharton makes the risky choice of creating central characters who largely forfeit our sympathies. Both Lily Bart (in The House of Mirth) and Newland Archer (in The Age of Innocence) are self-centered, superficial, and self-defeating. Like most of the people around them, they are trapped by the hypocritical mores and rigid unspoken rules of the New York social world. What makes them figures of tragedy is that they can see clearly the bars of the gilded cage in which they are imprisoned and the emptiness of the goals for which they are struggling. But ultimately neither has sufficient imagination or moral strength to find a way out.

Lily Bart—an unmarried woman nearing the critical age of 30—passes up a chance at true companionship with Lawrence Selden, a man with whom she shares intellectual, emotional and aesthetic sympathies. But he lives in what she considers genteel poverty (he has to work—as a lawyer; what could be more déclassé?), and spends much of his time with disreputable writers and artists. Both Lily and Selden recognize that she would not be happy without a husband who could provide her with social distinction, an unlimited budget for clothes and jewels, and a splendid house to decorate.
“...You despise my ambitions—you think them unworthy of me!"

Selden smiled, but not ironically. "Well, isn't that a tribute? I think them quite worthy of most of the people who live by them."

She had turned to gaze on him gravely. "But isn't it possible that, if I had the opportunities of these people, I might make a better use of them? Money stands for all kinds of things--its purchasing quality isn't limited to diamonds and motor-cars."

"Not in the least: you might expiate your enjoyment of them by founding a hospital."

"But if you think they are what I should really enjoy, you must think my ambitions are good enough for me."

Selden met this appeal with a laugh. "Ah, my dear Miss Bart, I am not Divine Providence, to guarantee your enjoying the things you are trying to get!"

"Then the best you can say for me is, that after struggling to get them I probably shan't like them?" She drew a deep breath. "What a miserable future you foresee for me!"

"Well—have you never foreseen it for yourself?" The slow colour rose to her cheek, not a blush of excitement but drawn from the deep wells of feeling; it was as if the effort of her spirit had produced it.

"Often and often," she said. "But it looks so much darker when you show it to me!"

He made no answer to this exclamation, and for a while they sat silent, while something throbbed between them in the wide quiet of the air.

But suddenly she turned on him with a kind of vehemence. "Why do you do this to me?" she cried. "Why do you make the things I have chosen seem hateful to me, if you have nothing to give me instead?"
The House of Mirth, Ch. 6
Their mutual retreat from this moment of emotional honesty is only the first of a series of misjudgments that have momentous consequences for Lily. Running afoul of both men and women who play the game far more cynically and ruthlessly than she does, Lily finds herself in an increasingly compromised position as the social vultures begin to circle...

Like Lawrence Selden, Newland Archer affects bohemian attitudes, suggesting scandalously that women should be allowed the same sexual freedoms as men, and inwardly denigrating his beautiful fiancée May Welland as unimaginative and conventional.

But Archer does May an injustice: she is actually far more perceptive and understanding than he is, and is willing to grant him the freedom in reality that he only extends to her theoretically. Their moment of truth comes when, despite her demurrals, he persists in urging her to marry him right away:
"Is it—is it because you're not certain of continuing to care for me?"

Archer sprang up from his seat. "My God—perhaps—I don't know," he broke out angrily.

May Welland rose also; as they faced each other she seemed to grow in womanly stature and dignity. Both were silent for a moment, as if dismayed by the unforeseen trend of their words: then she said in a low voice: "If that is it—is there some one else?"

"Some one else—between you and me?" He echoed her words slowly, as though they were only half-intelligible and he wanted time to repeat the question to himself. She seemed to catch the uncertainty of his voice, for she went on in a deepening tone: "Let us talk frankly, Newland. Sometimes I've felt a difference in you; especially since our engagement has been announced."
"Dear—what madness!" he recovered himself to exclaim.

She met his protest with a faint smile. "If it is, it won't hurt us to talk about it." She paused, and added, lifting her head with one of her noble movements: "Or even if it's true: why shouldn't we speak of it? You might so easily have made a mistake."

He lowered his head, staring at the black leaf-pattern on the sunny path at their feet. "Mistakes are always easy to make; but if I had made one of the kind you suggest, is it likely that I should be imploring you to hasten our marriage?"

She looked downward too, disturbing the pattern with the point of her sunshade while she struggled for expression. "Yes," she said at length.  "You might want—once for all—to settle the question: it's one way."...

Her face had taken on a look of such tragic courage that he felt like bowing himself down at her feet. "I've wanted to say this for a long time," she went on. "I've wanted to tell you that, when two people really love each other, I understand that there may be situations which make it right that they should—should go against public opinion. And if you feel yourself in any way pledged...pledged to the person we've spoken of...and if there is any way...any way in which you can fulfill your pledge...even by her getting a divorce...Newland, don't give her up because of me!"
The Age of Innocence, Ch. 16
May is here offering Archer a chance to honestly reveal what she has already guessed: that he's fallen in love with another woman. What May doesn't suspect is that the woman is May's cousin, Ellen Olenska, who has come to New York to separate herself for good from her dissolute European husband. But Archer shows himself to be a prisoner of the conventional opinion he professes to disdain. He conceals the truth of his illicit love from May, as he had earlier advised Ellen not to expose herself (and by extension, himself and May) to scandal and social ostracism by divorcing her husband. His choices ultimately destroy the happiness of everyone involved.

Edith Wharton was herself a product of the New York social world that she portrays so unsparingly. She also had a troubled marriage that ended in divorce, and conducted a passionate extramarital affair. Perhaps only someone who had experienced the crushing weight of social convention and the remorseless surveillance that enforces it could have written so incisively about those who are simultaneously its victims and perpetrators.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Many thanks to my readers

At some point during the evening of February 17, Exotic and Irrational Entertainment surpassed 100,000 page views. When I started writing E & I, I never imagined that anything I wrote would be of interest to more than a few family members and close friends. So I want to take a moment to thank all of my readers and commenters over the last five and a half years; it means a great deal to me that so many people have taken the time to stop by, consider my views and share their thoughts. I also want to thank fellow bloggers Memsaab, Beth, Bollyviewer, Daddy's Girl, Filmi Girl, Sita-ji, theBollywoodFan, and many others, without whose examples, support and encouragement I would likely never have begun or been able to sustain this adventure.

Knowingly or unknowingly, E & I violates every rule of blogging. You are supposed to write on only one subject, post frequently (daily if possible), and keep posts short and breezy. But E & I covers anything I'm watching, reading, listening to, or thinking about. I post whenever I can, but I'm lucky if that's more than once a week. And my posts are sometimes lengthy; while I hope they're not unnecessarily so, I know I could always edit myself more ruthlessly. I'm amazed and honored, though, that some of my longest posts are also among the most viewed.

I'll return to my thoughts on opera, books, Indian and non-Indian movies, television, music, and other subjects shortly; many thanks again for reading E & I.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Today's Special

Blockbuster films belong to everyone, which is another way of saying that they belong to no one. This isn't to say that it's impossible to ascribe personal meaning to films that are designed to be superhits, but it can be difficult. With big-budget films, you can choose to participate in the mass-cultural phenomenon (or not), but there can be little sense of personal discovery; the saturation promotional campaigns usually insure that you know exactly how you'll respond to a movie before you see it. In Umberto Eco's formulation, blockbuster movies tend to be closed works: that is, works that attempt to fix their own meanings and the terms of your engagement with them in advance.

That's why smaller-budget films can be so enjoyable. Not only can they offer a real sense of discovery, but there's more space for responses that haven't been completely predetermined. Aasif Mandvi's Today's Special (2009) offers the pleasures of openness in this sense, but also the rewards of a really well-written script (by Mandvi and Jonathan Bines) brought to life by the excellent performances of the cast.

One of those excellent performances is by Mandvi himself. He plays Samir, whom we see in action as a sous-chef in a fancy New York restaurant in the very authentic-looking opening scenes. (I'd guess that either Mandvi or director David Kaplan has spent some time in restaurant kitchens—either that, or they're good friends with people who have.) After an adrenaline-filled night in the kitchen, Samir learns from the owner-chef Steve (Dean Winters, who bears a striking resemblance to restaurateur Thomas Keller) that he's been passed over for a promotion to head chef at a new restaurant Steve's opening. When Steve tells Samir that he wasn't chosen because his cooking isn't surprising or unconventional enough (although Steve puts it more crudely), Samir quits on the spot.

Joblessness leaves Samir at loose ends. He has a vague idea about going to France to apprentice with a famous chef, but before he can make any concrete plans his father Hakim (veteran actor Harish Patel) suffers a heart attack. Samir promises his mother Farrida (the renowned actress and—nice metafictional touch!—famous writer on the gastronomy of India, Madhur Jaffrey) that he'll take over the family's failing Indian restaurant in Jackson Heights. There's only one catch: he has never cooked Indian food before and has no idea how to go about it. After a series of kitchen catastrophes, he's reduced to ordering take-out from other Indian restaurants to have something to serve to his customers.

In desperation Samir enlists the aid of Akbar Khambati (Naseeruddin Shah), a loquacious cab driver who "used to cook a little." Akbar introduces him not only to the spices and techniques of South Asian cooking, but also to its improvisational and personal character. Along with cooking lessons, Akbar also imparts a few life lessons as well: the importance of trusting yourself, embracing the unknown, expressing your passions, and acknowledging the legacies bequeathed to you (consciously or not) by your family.

The film is based on Mandvi's Obie Award winning one-man show, Sakina’s Restaurant, but the role of Akbar fits the brilliant Naseeruddin Shah so well it seems as though could have been written expressly for him. As an added bonus, the movie's soundtrack is filled with vintage Bollywood songs (including one of my six favorite songs from Yash Chopra films).

Today's Special shows that it's not the budget of a movie that counts, but the imagination of its creators.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

English Vinglish

English Vinglish (2012) is a very welcome return to the screen for Sridevi. She plays Shashi, a traditional mother and wife who finds herself becoming gradually estranged from her family. Her husband Satish (Adil Hussain) takes her for granted, and her teenaged daughter Sapna (Navika Kotia) is entering her rebellious phase.

Language becomes a symptom of Shashi's growing distance from their lives because she doesn't understand the English that her husband uses in speaking with his co-workers and her daughter uses to gossip with her girlfriends. Even her youngest child Sagar (Shivansh Kotia) uses English words and phrases that make her feel excluded.

Shashi travels to New York in advance of the rest of her family to help out with the wedding of her niece Meera (Neelu Sodhi). On her arrival she feels overwhelmed, dependent on her sister Manu (Sujatha Kumar) and her family, and distanced from much of what's going on around her. Even a task as apparently simple as ordering tea at a cafe becomes a source of anxiety and humiliation.

The tea incident is the last straw, and impulsively Shashi decides to sign up for a crash course for learning English. In the class Shashi encounters a cross-section of multicultural New York, but perhaps inevitably her instructor David (Cory Hibbs) and her classmates are all stereotypes of one sort or another: Pakistani cab driver Salman (Sumeet Vyas), Latina nanny Eva (Ruth Aguilar), Chinese hairdresser Yu Son (Maria Romano), and silent African Udumbke (Damian Thompson). All of her classmates, of course, have their own motivations for learning English, generally related to their jobs. The most poignant story is that of South Indian software engineer Ramamurthy (Rajeev Ravindranathan), whose co-workers won't see him as an equal until he speaks their language. The kindest and most sympathetic of Shashi's classmates is handsome French chef Laurent (Mehdi Nebbou), who shares her love of cooking and begins to develop a romantic interest in her.

Thankfully, writer/director Gauri Shinde avoids two major pitfalls. Had Karan Johar written this film, it would have been filled with references to Sridevi's earlier movies. Here I spotted only a few, and they're pretty subtle: a nice cameo by her Khuda Gawah co-star Amitabh Bachchan, and a shout-out by Ramamurthy to her frequent 1970s and 1980s South Indian co-star Rajinikanth. Sridevi was one of the most famous dancers of that era, but apart from a running joke about Shashi doing a Michael Jackson dance move for Sagar, her dancing is downplayed. The mostly low-key soundtrack by Amit Trivedi and Swanand Kirkire includes the catchy title song:

Shinde also sidesteps the familiar Bollywood (and Hollywood) "transformation through shopping" plotline. Shashi doesn't want to have a makeover, wear Gucci or become more Western. She's very comfortable with who she is; for her, learning English is a way of staying close to her family, not of taking on a new identity.

English Vinglish is a nicely observed and thoughtful film on issues of language, cultural identity, and family dynamics. It would have gotten my Filmfare Award vote for the Best Film of 2012 instead of Barfi!. And I hope it's only the first of many well-written, nuanced roles for Sridevi on her return.

25 February 2018: Sadly, Sridevi passed away last night. I've written a brief appreciation with links to posts about several of her films.