Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Premarital sex and Shuddh Desi Romance

Raj (Rishi Kapoor) and Bobby (Dimple Kapadia) in Bobby

In Indian cinema premarital sex has often had severe, and sometimes fatal, consequences. What follows is a brief history of premarital sex in seven films from five decades (with mild spoilers):

Aradhana (Adoration, 1968): After a night of passion with local beauty Vandana (Sharmila Tagore), dashing Air Force pilot Arun (Rajesh Khanna) is killed in a plane crash. Vandana soon discovers that she's pregnant. Unmarried,* and rejected by Arun's family, Vandana must give her son Suraj up for adoption. To stay close to Suraj, she goes to work as a servant in the household of the wealthy couple that adopted him, but must keep her true identity a secret. Attempted rape, a killing, prison and years of separation follow…

Bobby (1973): Rich boy Raj (Rishi Kapoor) and poor girl Bobby (Dimple Kapadia) fall passionately in love. Raj's father, though, angrily rejects the proposed match and engages him to another bride. Raj and Bobby elope, but are pursued by their angry parents, kidnapped and beaten by goons, and plunge off a cliff into a raging river.

Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (From Doom to Doom, 1988): Raj (Aamir Khan) and Rashmi (Juhi Chawla) fall in love, but their feuding families won't agree to their marriage. So the lovers elope and live in blissful happiness together—until hired killers are sent by Rashmi's father to murder Raj.

Kya Kehna (What Is There to Say? 2000): Priya (Preity Zinta) falls hard for the daredevil charms of college hero Rahul (Saif Ali Khan). When she discovers that she's pregnant, she is spurned by Rahul, ostracized by her family and her community, and has to fight to keep her baby.

Salaam Namaste (Muslim-Hindu Greetings, 2005): Radio DJ Ambar (Preity Zinta) and aspiring restaurateur Nick (Saif Ali Khan) move in together, but when she becomes pregnant he tells her that he isn't ready for fatherhood, abandoning her to deal with the pregnancy on her own.

Love Aaj Kal (Love These Days, 2009): Meera (Deepika Padukone) and Jai (Saif Ali Khan), unwilling to let their 3-year-long live-in relationship interfere with their careers, separate to pursue their dream jobs. They both become involved with other people, but when Jai is badly beaten by muggers, he realizes that he truly loves Meera—who, in the meantime, has married another man.

Cocktail (2012): Party-girl Veronica (Deepika Padukone) and flirtatious Gautam (Saif Ali Khan yet again) sleep together, but think of themselves as free agents. Veronica comes to realize, though, that she is truly in love with Gautam—only, he has fallen for her new roommate, the demure Meera (Diana Penty). Stumbling down the street in a haze of alcohol and grief, Veronica is hit by a speeding car.

It's hard not to view these movies as cautionary tales about the dangers, emotional and physical, of premarital sex. Krishna and Radha may be held up as models of passionate love, but those who follow their example are regularly forced to endure Sita-like trials.

Which brings us to the latest entry in this series:

Shuddh Desi Romance (Pure Indian Romance, 2013)

Raghu (Sushant Singh Rajput) hustles tourists for a living; he's also a wedding guest for hire as part of the crew of wedding planner Goyal (Rishi Kapoor). On the overnight bus to his own arranged marriage, Raghu expresses his last-minute doubts to Gayatri (Parineeti Chopra). She's equally skeptical about arranged marriages:

That's India for you. No love. No romance, nothing.

She's been hired to play the role of Raghu's sister, and (she tells him) has had several boyfriends. This evidently makes her more attractive to Raghu, and they exchange a few tentative kisses.

At the wedding ceremony the next day Raghu panics just as he's about to be garlanded by his bride Tara (Vaani Kapoor), and runs away. He later explains to Gayatri that it was because of their brief encounter on the bus. Gayatri is wary, but also attracted to him. They start sleeping together, and eager Raghu is soon ready to move in.

What's wrong?

Of course, we wonder about Gayatri's judgment. But perhaps it's precisely Raghu's publicly demonstrated fear of commitment that attracts her. With him, she's safe from impulsive marriage proposals—or at least, she's free from having to take his impulsive proposals seriously. We learn that her last boyfriend dumped her after she became pregnant; she's understandably distrustful of Raghu's promises and leery of making her own commitments:

And love? Cooked it, tasted it, done with it.

Despite Gayatri's uncompromising talk, one drunken night she accepts Raghu's proposal of marriage. At the ceremony, though, both have second thoughts, and this time it's Gayatri that runs away (sensing, rightly, that Raghu was about to do the same).

As a hired guest at another wedding, Raghu bumps into his jilted bride Tara, who inexplicably slips him her phone number. When they meet later on at a cafe, she asks him a question that stuns him (and us):

Will you be my boyfriend?

This raises a question that the film is unable to answer:

What do women see in you? Why do they come back?

When Gayatri re-enters his life, Raghu is faced with a choice between the two women. But it is the women, of course, who really make the choice...

Shuddh Desi Romance is ultimately unsatisfying, though not because the right couple isn't united at the end (the aimless and evasive Raghu is lucky to be in a relationship with anybody), or because the characters are punished for having sex out of wedlock (unless you count Gayatri's pre-film pregnancy and abandonment). But Jaideep Sahni's script is so busy setting up clever parallelisms in the story that it doesn't allow the characters to grow, change, or achieve any insight into their own feelings. Perhaps the spectacular scenery of Rajasthan can allow us, and them, to overlook this—at least for a short time:

The music is by Sachin-Jigar with lyrics by Sahni; the playback singers are Jigar and Priya Saraiya.

By the end of the film, the characters' reflexive avoidance of marriage seems like a negative choice, not a positive one. While they claim to be rebelling against marriage as a corrupt and increasingly empty institution, it's clear that it's their anxieties and not their principles that are driving their decisions. Complementary emotional wounds—fear of commitment on his part, and fear of rejection on hers—don't seem like the healthiest basis for a sustained, or even temporary, relationship. In Shuddh Desi Romance, marriage may be in trouble, but life without commitment is hardly a viable alternative.


* In Aradhana and Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak, the couples perform their own private marriage ceremonies. They're "married in the eyes of God," but not in the eyes of their families or the larger society.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Favorites of 2014: Books


Elizabeth Gaskell, Wives and Daughters and Cranford

Perhaps the books I've most enjoyed over the past twelve months are by a writer who bridges the disparate worlds and sensibilities of Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë: Elizabeth Gaskell.

Wives and Daughters is Gaskell's greatest achievement: it follows the fortunes of Molly Gibson, a young woman whose widowed father makes a sudden decision to remarry and discovers the painful truth of the proverb about repenting at leisure. With its close observation of the social world of a small English village and its touching portrait of the shy, sensitive and steadfast Molly, Wives and Daughters bears comparison to the work of Austen, Brontë, and George Eliot—that is to say, to some of the greatest novels ever written.

Cranford is a warm and affectionate portrait of the kind of small town in which Gaskell herself grew up. The interconnected stories about the spinsters and widows who rule Cranford society are narrated by a younger woman, Mary Smith, and describe the varying responses of the Cranford ladies to the rapidly changing mores and modes of life of the Victorian era. If you have never read Gaskell it is the perfect place to start.

Read the full post: Bridging Austen and Brontë: Elizabeth Gaskell

Charlotte Brontë, Villette

Based on Brontë's experiences during her two years spent at a boarding school in Belgium, Villette tells the story of the ill-fated loves of its quiet heroine, Lucy Snowe. Despite her name, Lucy is only outwardly cool; inwardly she is warmly passionate. But the constraints which forbid her to express her feelings openly, as men in her society are allowed to, lead to desperate unhappiness—which must, like her love, remain concealed.

Read the full post: "Hunger, rebellion, and rage": Charlotte Bronte's Villette

Fanny Burney, Cecilia

Cecilia is a young woman trying to make her way through the hypocrisies, trivialities and unwritten constraints of the social world. Burney's heroines, like those of her admirer Jane Austen, are not always unblemished paragons of virtue and good sense, but instead experience uncertainty and occasionally make mistakes. Burney's books also share the same kind of clear-eyed view of the allurements and perils of the marriage market that distinguishes Austen's novels. And if one of the pleasures of reading Burney is to be immersed in the social mores of the distant 18th century, another (as it is with Austen) is to discover just how contemporary her characters can seem.

Read the full posts: Jane Austen and Cecilia: A personal connection?" and Jane Austen's favorite novelist: Fanny Burney

Biggest Disappointment: David Mitchell, The Bone Clocks

David Mitchell is brilliant at creating narrators with distinct and highly individual voices. That focus on character is what drove his best novel to date, Cloud Atlas (2004). The Bone Clocks (Random House, 2014) starts promisingly as the story of a convincingly-voiced teenaged girl, Holly Sykes, who is running away from home after a fight with her mother. But it quickly bogs down in a science fiction/fantasy plot in which its human characters are pawns in a supernatural war between two factions of immortal beings, the Anchorites (evil) and the Horologists (good). There's talk about "the Dusk Chapel of the Blind Cathar" and "the Psychosoterica of the Shaded Way," but it's not meant as parody—at least, I don't think so. A big chunk of the novel is taken up with the final confrontation, in which the Horologist narrator says things like "I pour psychovoltage into a neurobolas and kinetic it at our assailants." The fantasy plot ultimately renders the actions and fates of the novel's mortal characters mere background. Not many novels can leave me indifferent to the fate of humanity, but The Bone Clocks managed it.

Second Biggest Disappointment: Haruki Murakami, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

I was an early fan of Haruki Murakami's, discovering him at the time A Wild Sheep Chase was first issued in the U.S. (1989), and then seeking out his earlier novels in their Japanese English-language editions. But lately I've begun to wonder whether I wasn't really a fan of his early translator, Alfred Birnbaum. Murakami's most recent novels have been translated by Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel, seemingly in haste, because they are full of stylistic awkwardnesses (one of the things that made his last novel, 1Q84, my Biggest disappointment of 2012).

But clunky translation could be forgiven if Colorless Tsukuru were otherwise compelling; unfortunately it revisits territory covered too often before by Murakami and other writers. An emotionally withdrawn protagonist approaching middle age renews his acquaintance with each of his former friends from college to try to understand why years ago he had been abruptly ostracized from the group. There are a half-hearted invocations of many Murakami tropes: a dreamlike alternate reality, Western music (classical and jazz), a central story that involves the unraveling of a mystery. But Colorless Tsukuru lacks the conviction, originality and imaginative energy of Murakami's better work.


Elizabeth Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Brontë

Elizabeth Gaskell knew Charlotte Brontë personally, and her friendship with Charlotte gives this biography an intimacy that is rarely achieved between biographer and subject. And while it's fascinating to learn of the real-life people and events that were transmuted into Charlotte Brontë's fiction, the chief interest in Gaskell's biography, at least for me, is its liberal quotation from Charlotte's letters. In particular, Gaskell was given access to Charlotte's extensive correspondence with her former school friend Ellen Nussey. Charlotte's letters are frank, open, and sometimes painfully revealing, as when she wrote to Ellen, "Don't deceive yourself by imagining I have a bit of real goodness about me....I am not like you. If you knew my thoughts, the dreams that absorb me, and the fiery imagination that at times eats me up, and makes me feel society, as it is, wretchedly insipid, you would pity and I daresay despise me."

Read the full post: "I am not like you": Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Brontë

Rebecca Mead, My Life in Middlemarch

My Life in Middlemarch (Crown, 2014) is a record of the changing meanings that George Eliot's Middlemarch has held for Mead as she has reread it over the course of her life. It's also a concise and highly compelling biography of Eliot, a description of the creation and reception of Middlemarch, and a frank and moving account of Mead's life and experience as it has been reflected in and informed by the novel. My Life in Middlemarch is essential reading for lovers of Eliot's great novel, but also for those, like Mead (and myself), for whom books have been a crucial element of their "self-fashioning."

Read the full post: My Life in Middlemarch

Fanny Burney: Journals and Letters

On her 15th birthday, Fanny Burney, conscious of her father's (and her society's) disapproval of women authors, burned every scrap of her writing: poems, plays, stories, and a full-length novel. But nine months later she picked up her pen again and began writing a journal that she dedicated to Nobody:
…to whom dare I reveal…my own hopes, fears, reflections & dislikes?—Nobody!

To Nobody, then, will I write my Journal! since To Nobody can I be wholly unreserved—to Nobody can I reveal every thought, every wish of my Heart, with the most unlimited confidence, the most unremitting sincerity to the end of my Life!
Burney indeed kept the journal until the end of her life as a record of her thoughts, feelings and sensations. It was also a record of her keen observations of the literary and aristocratic worlds into which she was unwillingly thrust by the success of her first novel, Evelina. Burney's fame brought her into intimate contact with figures such as Samuel Johnson, Hester Thrale, and Queen Charlotte, in the service of whom the shy, sensitive Burney spent five miserable years as the Second Keeper of the Robes.

In the 19th century the posthumous publication of her journals eclipsed her novels. But it's not just the famous people she knew or the compelling story of her life (a late-blooming love, forced exile with her French husband during the Napoleonic Wars, her horrifying experience of a mastectomy without anaesthesia) that made her journal so popular; it is her forthright, perceptive and deeply appealing voice. In essence, the publication of the journals made Fanny Burney her own greatest character.

Biggest disappointment: Morrissey, Autobiography

Morrissey was the lead singer and lyricist for The Smiths, whose "Hatful of Hollow" album gave expression to certain inchoate feelings of loss, regret, and lack of direction in my post-collegiate 20s. Johnny Marr's crystalline guitar was the perfect accompaniment to Morrissey's arch, funny, and bitterly true lyrics: "I was happy in the haze of a drunken hour, but heaven knows I'm miserable now / I was looking for a job and then I found a job, and heaven knows I'm miserable now."

In the first half of Autobiography, Morrissey writes compellingly of his youthful feelings of loneliness and desperation, his struggles to escape the dead-end future planned for him by a routinized and soul-crushing school system, and his conviction that there must be a way to stop being an observer, a fan, and take an active part in the world of pop music that was his lifeline: "I am suddenly full of sweeping ideas that even I can barely grasp, and although penniless, I am choked by the belief that something must happen. It is not enough just to 'be'....I cannot continue as a member of the audience. If only I could forget myself I might achieve" (p. 116).

Shortly afterwards Morrissey met Marr, and The Smiths were born. But after five years and four albums (plus compilations like "Hatful of Hollow"), The Smiths broke up acrimoniously. Morrissey's substantial success as a solo artist over the past quarter century has not, apparently, healed those wounds, and the second half of Autobiography devolves into score-settling, l'esprit de l'escalier, name-dropping, lengthy passages that sound like excerpts from his tour diary, and a 40-page-long blow-by-blow recounting of a royalties lawsuit brought by The Smith's former drummer Mike Joyce.

Perhaps the last word should be left to Morrissey and Marr in better days:

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Favorites of 2014: Opera, music and dance

Concert performances

For us 2014 was musically bookended by two brilliant countertenors. In February we saw the electrifying Philippe Jaroussky perform with the Venice Baroque Orchestra in Berkeley as part of the Cal Performances season. The concert was billed as a battle between the rival composers Handel and Nicola Porpora, featuring arias written for their star castrati Carestini and Farinelli. At the end of the concert I turned to my partner and said "Handel won." The real winners, of course, were all of us fortunate enough to be in the audience for Jaroussky's stunning performances of "Mi lusinga il dolce affetto" from Handel's Alcina, "Scherza infida" from Handel's Ariodante, and "Alto Giove" from Porpora's Polifemo:


Jaroussky has recorded excellent albums devoted to arias written for Carestini and Farinelli.

In November we saw Andreas Scholl appear with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorus in a program of Handel and Bach. In the middle of the third decade of his international career, Scholl's tone has lost little of the beauty displayed in his early recordings. He sang "Va tacit e nascosto" and "Aure, deh, per pieta" from the title role of Giulio Cesare, and an exquisite "Dove sei" from Rodelinda (the Met Live in HD broadcast of the latter was one of my Favorites of 2011). In the second half, he performed the lovely Cantata No. 170, "Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust" (Delightful rest, beloved pleasure of the soul):



The most sheerly enjoyable dance we saw in 2014 was the Mark Morris Dance Group's production of Handel's Acis and Galatea, seen in Berkeley in April. (So far we're two for two with this Handel chamber opera: we also saw a great production of it at the Boston Early Music Festival in 2011.) Morris's version used Mozart's fuller reorchestration, performed brilliantly by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorus under the direction of Nicholas McGegan. And just as he did in the BEMF production, bass-baritone Douglas Williams stole the show as the jealous cyclops Polifemo. Some of the other singers' costumes were unflattering, but that was the only flaw in a production that brought back fond memories of Morris's version of Handel's "L'Allegro."


A great cast and Christopher Alden's clever and visually striking production at San Francisco Opera could not quite disguise the middling level of Handel's musical inspiration in Partenope (seen October 24). But the Surrealist milieu and Man Ray visual references worked beautifully as an updated setting for this story of erotic intrigue and irresolution. As the title character, Danielle De Niese was costumed as a combination of Peggy Guggenheim and Nancy Cunard, and ruled over a salon of the yearning and the lost. I don't think I will ever forget the sight of tenor Alek Shrader singing an aria through the transom window of a water closet, and I mean that in the best possible way.


Marc-Antoine Charpentier:
Messe des morts/Litanies, Le Concert Spirituel, Hervé Niquet, director: Naxos Records
Messe de Monsieur de Mauroy, Le Concert Spirituel, Hervé Niquet, director: Glossa   
Miserere/Motets, La Chapelle Royale, Philippe Herreweghe, director: Harmonia Mundi
Actéon, Boston Early Music Festival Vocal and Chamber Ensembles, Paul O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs, directors: CPO

This was the year we immersed ourselves in Charpentier's sacred music, thanks mainly to the serendipitous discovery of Messe des morts (Mass for the dead) in Amoeba Music San Francisco's bargain bin. While we had long been familiar with his operas—William Christies's recording of Medée with Lorraine Hunt in the title role was one of the first Baroque operas I ever purchased, Magnificat's performance of La Descente d’Orphée aux enfers was one of our Favorites of 2011, and Actéon was one of this year's highlights)—Charpentier was largely blocked from producing works for the stage by the hostility of rival composer Jean-Baptiste Lully. By necessity Charpentier devoted most of his energies to sacred music, and this year we discovered its many beauties.

Lalla-Roukh, Opera Lafayette, Ryan Brown, director: Naxos Records.

Based on an 1817 poem by Thomas Moore, and later turned into a Bollywood movie, Lalla Roukh's story is strange indeed. As I wrote in my post on the opera, "In reviving and recording this forgotten gem, Opera Lafayette has outshone opera companies with budgets many times as large. If you enjoy the sound-world of Offenbach's Tales of Hoffman, Bizet's Pearl Fishers or Delibes' Lakmé, you'll find Lalla-Roukh to be a fresh new discovery with some welcome familiarities."

The Complete Gesualdo Madrigals, Delitiae Musicae, Marco Longhini, director: Naxos Records.

The Italian Renaissance prince Carlo Gesualdo murdered his wife and her lover when he found them in bed together, and later was accused of madness. At the same time he was one of the greatest composers of the madrigal, and the extremes of chromaticism and dissonance developed in his music were not approached again until the 20th Century. Many thanks to the dear friend who gave this to me; I've been playing it obsessively for weeks.

Finally, I can't help but notice that three of my favorite recordings of 2014—Messe des morts, Lalla-Roukh, and The Complete Gesualdo Madrigals—were issued on the Naxos budget label. If only all record labels were this adventurous.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Favorites of 2014: Bollywood and Hollywood

Classic Bollywood

Hema Malini
In our classic Bollywood viewing 2014 was the year of the young Hema Malini. Of course, we'd seen her before as the flirtatious Basanti in Sholay (Flames, 1975; dir. Ramesh Sippy), and in her charming double role as the gentle Seeta and the feisty Geeta in Seeta aur Geeta (1972; dir. Ramesh Sippy). But somehow we'd never sought out other early Hema Malini films until this year.

But Sharafat (Decency, 1970; dir. Asit Sen), Raja Jani (Dear Raja, 1972; dir. Mohan Segal), and Tere Mere Sapne (Our Dreams, 1971; dir. Vijay Anand) showed us what we'd been missing. Of these, perhaps our favorite was Tere Mere Sapne. Hema gives a heartrending portrayal of a film star who, despite all her glamour, beauty and talent, has lost her sense of herself in trying to meet other people's ever-escalating demands. "Phur ud chala" (Where is my heart flying off to?) defines star quality; Hema is dazzling:

You can read the full posts on Tere Mere Sapne and Sharafat.

Other favorite classic films

Anuradha (1960; dir. Hrishikesh Mukherjee): An idealistic doctor discovers—too late?—the price his wife and family have paid for his single-minded dedication to his work.

The Chess Players (1977; dir. Satyajit Ray): While the British are threatening to take over the last independent kingdoms in 19th-century India and rebellion is looming, the ruling class spends its time enjoying wine, women, song—and chess.

Contemporary Bollywood

Ram-Leela (2013; dir. Sanjay Leela Bhansali): James Baldwin wrote of film stars that "one does not go to see them act: one goes to watch them be." [1] There are few people I would rather watch be right now than the two leads of Ram-Leela, Ranveer Singh and Deepika Padukone. They simply glow in their physical perfection. And that glow is not just the sheen of the body makeup in Ranveer's shirtless scenes: Bhansali surrounds the actors' youth and beauty with gorgeous costumes, sets and lighting. The Romeo-and-Juliet-style plot involves two warring families and forbidden love, but the plot is almost beside the point: this film is all about star charisma and onscreen chemistry.

If "Nagada Sang Dhol" reminds you of "Dholi Taro Dhol Baaje" from Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (My heart belongs to you, 1998), there's a good reason. Bhansali wrote the music for Ram-Leela, but it sounds quite a bit like the scores Ismail Darbar composed for HDDCS and Devdas (2002)—not coincidentally, the two most successful films Bhansali directed before this one. (Also not coincidentally, Deepika's playback singer is Shreya Ghosal, who also did the playback for Aishwarya Rai in Devdas.) Still, stars don't have to be original, and neither do films—they just have to be compelling. And the story of Ram and Leela's love-death was the most compelling contemporary Bollywood film we saw this year.

Classic Hollywood

Jean Arthur

This year we curated our own Jean Arthur film festival. We're still waiting to rewatch Billy Wilder's A Foreign Affair (1947), but we saw many of her other highlights, including Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), The Talk of the Town (1942), and The More the Merrier (1943). But perhaps our favorite discoveries were two of her less heralded films.

Too Many Husbands (1940) is a gender-reversed and much more suggestive version of My Favorite Wife (1940). Vicky Lowndes (Arthur) has remarried after her first husband Bill (Fred MacMurray) vanished at sea. But when Bill is rescued after being marooned on a desert island, Vicky faces a dilemma: is she married to Bill, or to her second husband, Bill's friend and business partner Henry (Melvyn Douglas)? She's not sure, and she's not in a hurry to make a decision…

The Devil and Miss Jones (1941) features Arthur as a department-store salesgirl who, together with her boyfriend Joe (Robert Cummings), is trying to organize her fellow clerks. The store owner, John Merrick (Charles Coburn), goes undercover to try to expose the union ringleaders—only to discover that his workers have legitimate grievances.

Contemporary Hollywood

The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014): Wes Anderson's movie about an old hotel, a priceless painting, and a murder mystery is set against the violent history of Central Europe in the 20th century. This matrushka doll of a fairy tale, with its stories within stories, is a visual and narrative delight.

Her (2013): Spike Jonze's film takes our fixation with (and anthropomorphism of) technology into a future so near it looks disturbingly like the present. Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), a lonely writer, discovers that there's only one woman in his life who is always available, interested, and emotionally compatible: his Siri-like smartphone operating system. A depiction of our technology-enhanced isolation and anomie that's brilliant and desolating.


Tim's Vermeer

Tim's Vermeer (2013): Penn and Teller's film follows computer graphics entrepreneur Tim Jenison's attempts to recreate a Vermeer painting using optical techniques that were plausibly available in seventeenth-century Holland. The film is fascinating, both as an exploration of the optical aids that might have been used by the Old Masters, and as a portrait of Jenison's obsession.


1. James Baldwin, "The Devil Finds Work," in The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction, 1948-1985. St. Martin's Press, 1985, p. 575.

It's worth quoting Baldwin more fully:

The distance between oneselfthe audienceand a screen performer is an absolute: a paradoxical absolute, masquerading as intimacy. No one, for example, will ever really know whether Katherine Hepburn or Bette Davis or Humphrey Bogart or Spencer Tracy or Clark Gable—or John Waynecan, or could, really act, or not, nor does anyone care: acting is not what they are required to do. Their acting ability, so far from being what attracts their audience, can often be what drives their audience away. One does not go to see them act: one goes to watch them be. One does not go to see Humphrey Bogart, as Sam Spade: one goes to see Sam Spade, as Humphrey Bogart.
Not to belabor the point, but in Ram-Leela we are very much watching Ram as Ranveer Singh and Leela as Deepika Padukone.