Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Big-hearted: Shammi Kapoor

Shammi Kapoor has long been a favorite among those who love Golden Age Bollywood; Memsaab has written that "I would rather watch Shammi in a bad movie than many other actors in good movies." Now that I've (finally!) seen my first Shammi movies, I'm beginning to understand why he inspires this sort of passionate fandom.

There is something completely endearing about him. Imagine someone with Elvis's charisma, but without a trace of self-consciousness. Someone who is big and teddy-bearish, but also surprising graceful. My partner compared him to a young John Wayne, but a John Wayne who can sing,* and dance, and emote: Shammi wears his heart on his sleeve. Watching him is just a joyful experience.

Here are brief reviews of the three movies of his we've seen, in the order in which we viewed them:

Brahmachari (1968; directed by Bhappi Sonie, written by Sachin Bhowmick)

A brahmachari is one who lives modestly and virtuously—an apt description of Brahmachari (Shammi), an orphan himself, who runs a home for orphaned children (and yes, the kids are too cute for words). Brahmachari's work as a photographer barely brings in enough money to keep the orphanage going. Its main source of income comes from blackmailing the landlord next door: whenever he shows his house to prospective tenants, the kids threaten to raise a huge ruckus that will scare them away. (In this case, as in many others, the higher virtue of supporting the kids outweighs the minor mischief that is sometimes required in order to do good in a corrupt and heartless world.)

One day, in search of a dramatic photograph for his editor, Brahmachari spots Sheetal (Rajshree) as she's about to throw herself into the sea. She's in despair because Ravi Khanna (Pran), a rich playboy, has refused to honor his promise to marry her. Brahmachari tells her that he will help her win Ravi if she will give the orphanage financial help after her marriage. Of course, Sheetal agrees.

Brahmachari infiltrates Ravi's birthday party as a deliberately clumsy waiter in blackface (!?), and then (shoe polish removed) performs a song with Ravi's new girlfriend Rupa (an adorable Mumtaz):

"Aaj kal tere mere pyar" was composed by Shankar-Jaikishan with lyrics by Hasrat Jaipuri; the playback singers are Mohd. Rafi and Suman Kalyanpur. (Apologies for the sometimes distracting lack of synchronization between sound and image.)

Of course, as he works to transform Sheetal with a glamorous makeover and compel Ravi to pop the question, Brahmachari falls in love with her himself, and Sheetal with him (and the kids). Ravi, though, is attracted to the new Sheetal, and is not used to being thwarted when he sets his sights on a girl. When Brahmachari is threatened with foreclosure, Ravi agrees to pay the debt and save the orphanage—but only if Brahmachari pretends in Sheetal's presence to be in love with Rupa instead. And just to be sure nothing goes wrong, Ravi plans to kidnap the kids...

Will the orphanage be saved? Will Ravi's kidnap attempt be thwarted? Will the villain be reformed, the truth emerge, and true love win out? Of course, there is no doubt about the outcome, which the final half-hour prolongs unnecessarily. But who can resist Shammi and a dozen orphans? Not me, and not the Filmfare Award voters: Brahmachari won Best Film, Shammi Best Actor, Shankar-Jaikishan Best Music Director, Shailendra Best Lyricist (for "Main Gaoon Tum So Jao") and Mohd. Rafi Best Male Playback (for "Dil Ke Jharoke Mein").

Professor (1962; directed by Lekh Tandon, written by Abrar Alvi)

I was a bit taken aback by the writing credit on Professor. Abrar Alvi is probably best known for writing the Guru Dutt dramas Pyaasa (Parched, 1957) and Kaagaz Ke Phool (Paper flowers, 1959), and both writing and directing the harrowing Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam (Master, mistress and servant, 1962). Those films would seem to be worlds away from the comedic Professor. But Alvi also wrote the comedy Mr. and Mrs. '55, which features a strict, censorious aunt named Sita Devi, played by Lalita Pawar, who tries to prevent her niece from falling in love.

Pawar also plays a strict aunt named Sita Devi in Professor, only here she's trying to prevent two nieces from consorting with men. Rita (Parveen Choudhary) and Neena (Kalpana) recently lost their parents, and have been placed under the care of Sita Devi. She advertises for a tutor for the girls, but specifies that only an old man will be hired. Pritam (Shammi), who must somehow pay for his mother's life-saving treatment in a tuberculosis sanitorium, decides to apply in disguise, and as the elderly "Professor Khanna" he's hired.

He soon discovers that the two girls are chafing under their severe aunt's rigid rules, and that they see him as a collaborator with her restrictive authority. They play tricks on him and tease him mercilessly; in "Yeh Umar Hai," Neena (in white) and Rita (in blue) tell him that "It is our era." "I too was young once," he responds. "...There was someone who used to love me; we thought it was our era too":

The music is by Shankar-Jaikishan with lyrics by Hasrat Jaipuri; the playback singers are the sisters Asha Bhosle and Usha Mangeshkar (a nice touch for the sisters Neena and Rita), and Manna Dey.

The Professor tries to help Neena and Rita understand that their aunt's strictness is an expression of her love for them, and tries to encourage the aunt to recognize that her nieces are nearing adulthood and that it's time to relax her rules—but to no avail on either side.

Pritam and Neena meet in the village when he is out of disguise, and soon the two are falling in love. Complicating matters, though (as if they needed any complicating) is that the tyrannical Sita Devi starts to become sweet on the Professor—and, strangely, she's less opposed to love stories when they involve herself. But, of course, Pritam's deception is discovered, and he is bitterly rejected by both Sita Devi and Neena. Can Pritam win back Neena's love, gain Sita Devi's approval for their union, and reunite the family? Are Shammi's eyes green?

Bluff Master (1963; direction and screenplay by Manmohan Desai)

Ashok (Shammi) has moved from his village to the big city. But without a job he finds that he has to scam strangers and neighbors in order to get by. He's not malicious—with his ill-gotten gains he buys cookies for the neighborhood kids—he just needs money (don't we all?).

After reading a want ad for a position as a newspaper photojournalist Ashok pulls a con on a shop owner to get a camera, and then lands the job—depending on the stories he can find. On his first assignment Ashok encounters petulant rich girl Seema (Saira Banu), and captures a photo of her slapping a harasser on the street. The front-page picture makes that issue of the newspaper a huge success, and Ashok thinks his job is assured; the only problem is that Seema herself is the owner of the paper (inherited from her deceased parents) and he gets fired.

Seema's financial affairs are being (mis)managed her by her uncle (Niranjan Sharma). He is looking to rescue his fortunes by marrying Seema to the wealthy London-returned Kumar (Pran). Kumar inspires nothing but indifference in Seema; Ashok, though, inspires annoyance, and so we know that love is sure to follow.

This being a Manmohan Desai movie, the songs often don't really further the plot. But they are so much fun, who cares? A prime example is the first number in the movie, in which Ashok dresses in drag as "Munnibhai" to perform a qawwali with Seema, "Chali chali":

The music is by Kalyanji-Anandji assisted by Laxmikant-Pyarelal, with lyrics by Rajinder Krishan; the playback singers are Shamshad Begum (Shammi) and Usha Mangeshkar (Saira).

As in Professor, though, Ashok's run of luck can't last. When his ma (Lalita Pawar) comes from the village expecting to find her son respected and successful, Ashok's deceptions begin to unravel. The heartless and venal Kumar now sees his chance to marry Seema and get his hands on her money. Will Ashok be able to regain his ma's respect and win back Seema's love? I didn't think I was a big fan of Manmohan Desai movies, but the charming Bluff Master makes me wonder whether I've been missing something.

I certainly let too much time go to waste before watching my first Shammi movie. And I haven't even seen the legendary Junglee (The wild man, 1962, with Lalita Pawar and Saira Banu) or Teesri Manzil (Third floor, 1966) yet. More to come...

For another perspective on Shammi, please see Memsaab's wonderful appreciation and her very entertaining reviews (with screencaps!) of Brahmachari, Professor, Bluff Master, and other Shammi films. She also got the chance to meet Shammi in person and talk about his films.

* Of course Shammi doesn't actually sing, but he performs to the playback of Mohd. Rafi and others as he does everything else in his films, with complete conviction.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Why we live in cities: Five exceptional musical performances

Cities are crowded, noisy, dirty, dangerous, expensive, and vulnerable to natural and human disasters. So why do we live in them?

Over the past month or so five exceptional live musical performances reminded me why it can be worth putting up with all the aggravations of life in a modern metropolis. This is why we live in cities:

1. Alcina at Exit Theatre, San Francisco, April 8, produced by Black Box Baroque

Alcina (1735) is perhaps Handel's finest and most affecting opera, and it was written for the greatest voices in the world. For a small company with limited means to take it on is a bold choice, but Black Box Baroque founder Sara Hagenbuch is nothing if not daring: the company had already produced Handel's Orlando and Ariodante, the other two operas in his Orlando Furioso trilogy. (For more on the background and story of Alcina, please see "Opera Guide 6.")

Stage director Sarah Young's minimalist production focussed attention on the interactions among the characters, who were performed with skill and conviction by the excellent ensemble. Especially notable were Danielle Sampson as the besotted knight Ruggiero, Ellen Presley as his cross-dressed fiancée Bradamante, Kelly Rubinsohn as the sorceress Alcina, and Hagenbuch herself as Alcina's lovestruck sister Morgana. In opera productions on this scale sometimes musical accompaniment is provided solely by piano or harpsichord; Black Box Baroque had the 11-member period instrument group Albany Consort in the pit. It made for a very vivid and immediate experience in the intimate Exit Theatre space.

Bay Area audiences will have a chance to see Black Box Baroque perform highlights from Alcina as part of the Berkeley Early Music Festival and Exhibition Fringe; see the BFX Fringe website for details. Below is a short video featuring excerpts from Black Box Baroque's first production, Orlando, and including brief interviews with Hagenbuch and Jonathan Smucker (Oronte in Alcina):

2. The Haydn Project at the Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse, Berkeley, May 9

In 2013 four members of the SF Chamber Symphony began a survey of the 68 string quartets of Joseph Haydn, who created the string quartet as we know it. The Haydn Project now consists of Robin Sharp, violin; Julie Kim, violin; Ben Simon, viola; and Hannah Addario-Berry, cello. Once or twice a year they appear at the Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse to present a program of two quartets. The nonprofit Freight & Salvage, primarily a folk and bluegrass club, is a very informal setting; you can sip a beer or a glass of wine while you listen (it was also the venue for the West Edge Opera's performances of the other Barber of Seville and the other Bohème this past season).

It was the perfect setting for the Haydn Project's low-key, unpretentious approach to performing. Ben Simon (who doubles as the music director of the SF Chamber Symphony) gave a brief introduction to each quartet that pointed out some key musical details (he also served as the MC for the entertaining Haydn trivia contest at intermission). The quartets performed were No. 4 from Op. 9 (1769), perhaps the first set of quartets to begin to fix the structure of the form, and No. 1 from Op. 64 (1790), an example of Haydn's mature mastery.

The Haydn Project's musicians emphasized the works' lyricism. Addario-Berry is an especially eloquent musician, and her playing made the song-like qualities of the slow movements wonderfully apparent. Here is a sample of one of the pieces we heard: the third movement, Adagio cantabile, from Op. 9 No. 4, performed by the Festetics Quartet:

Beyond even the Haydn Project's high level of musicianship, though, what made the evening so enjoyable was that it felt like a gathering of friends. I'm looking forward to their return to the Freight & Salvage in the fall.

3. Philippe Jaroussky at the First Congregational Church, Berkeley, May 12, produced by Cal Performances

Jaroussky is a countertenor primarily known for re-creating for modern ears music that was written for the castrati; his albums devoted to arias written for Carestini and for Farinelli are both astonishing. But this concert was a departure from his usual Baroque repertory. It featured song settings of the poetry of Paul Verlaine by 19th- and 20th-century composers such as Ernest Chausson, Claude Debussy, Gabriel Fauré, and Reynaldo Hahn.

Jaroussky's pure voice and superb musicality are well suited to chansons. With sensitive support from pianist Jérôme Ducros, he presented a carefully thought-out program that offered contrasting settings of the same Verlaine poems by different composers. For Verlaine's "La lune blanche," for example, he performed Poldowski's "L'heure exquise" and Chausson's "Apaisement," saving the most famous setting, Hahn's "L'heure exquise," for his final encore. This was a concert we'll long remember.

For me the revelation of the evening was Léo Ferré, an older contemporary of Serge Gainsbourg and Jacques Brel. Here is Jaroussky performing Ferré's setting of "Colloque sentimental":

This performance is taken from Jaroussky's recent double album of Verlaine songs, Green (Erato, 2015), on which he is accompanied by Ducros and Quatuor Ébène.

4. Anne Sofie von Otter and Andreas Scholl with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, Nicholas McGegan, conductor, Weill Hall/Green Music Center, Sonoma State University, May 14

For some reason this concert was not included as part of Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra's regular Bay Area season, but instead only presented on tour. Fortunately the second stop on the tour was only 50 miles from San Francisco. We were also fortunate that an excellent restaurant, Prelude, is located next door to Weill Hall. It made for a wonderful late afternoon and evening on the park-like Sonoma State campus, as new graduates wandered happily about.

We were mainly anticipating the first part of the program, which included arias and duets from some of Handel's more rarely performed stage works: the operas Giustino and Flavio (Scholl), the semi-opera Semele (von Otter), and the oratorio Solomon (both). And these performances were indeed highly enjoyable. But unexpectedly I found the second half of the concert, devoted to songs by the contemporary composers Arvo Pärt and Caroline Shaw, to be even more so. The transparency of texture of the period instruments of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra worked beautifully with the spare music of Pärt and Shaw.

Here is Andreas Scholl performing "Vater Unser," Pärt's setting of the Lord's Prayer, with the Morphing Chamber Orchestra (I've cut off the final minute or so of (well-deserved) applause):

Another Pärt piece performed during this program was "Es sang vor langen jahren." At Weill Hall it was sung by both Andreas Scholl and Anne Sofie von Otter; in the linked video it is sung by Susan Bickley. I will definitely be seeking out more of Pärt's haunting music for solo voice.

5. The Amazons in the Fortunate Isles at Marines Memorial Theater, San Francisco, May 22, produced by Ars Minerva

Molly Mahoney (Cillene), Kindra Scharich (Florinda), Aurélie Veruni (Pulcheria), Coral Martin (dancer), Tonia D'Amelio (Auralba), Casey Lee Thorne (dancer)—and I think hidden behind D'Amelio is Cara Gabrielson (Jocasta)
Ars Minerva's founder Céline Ricci's artistic mission is to uncover works that have lain forgotten in the archives for centuries, and bring them to life. Her latest project was Venetian composer Carlo Pallavicino's Le Amazzoni nelle Isole Fortunate, performed for the first time in 1679 and never since—until last weekend.

The original production was spectacular: according to Dr. Paul V. Miller's program notes, contemporary accounts report that it featured 200 supernumeraries portraying Amazon and Moorish warriors, and 50 men on horseback riding in formation at the finale. Ricci wisely did not attempt to overwhelm us with spectacle. Instead she mounted a semi-modern-dress production, with striking scene-setting projections by Patricia Nardi and witty supertitles by Joe McClinton, that focussed on the human relationships at the opera's core.

One of those relationships involves the love of the Amazon warrior Auralba (Tonia D'Amelio) for her comrade Florinda (Kindra Scharich). While this isn't the first lesbian relationship portrayed on the opera stage—the nymph Calisto is very willingly seduced by the goddess Diana in Cavalli's La Calisto (1651), she just doesn't realize that "Diana" is Jupiter in disguise—it is remarkable that Auralba's feelings are, if anything, taken more seriously than the often changeable emotions of the other characters.

As in many Baroque operas, the human relationships can be quite tangled: the Amazon princess Pulcheria (Aurélie Veruni) falls in love with the shipwrecked Moorish soldier Numidio (Ryan Matos), who professes feelings for both her and Florinda, who is torn between him and Auralba. Meanwhile, Pulcheria is facing the teenage rebellion of her daughter Jocasta (Cara Gabrielson) and trying to fight off the surprise attack of the Moorish army—unaware that Numidio is an agent of the Sultan (Spencer Dodd). Especially memorable were some bitter denunciations of love by Auralba, a lament by the wounded Jocasta, and a sleep scene for Florinda (sleep scenes are surprisingly common in Baroque opera).

This opera was very much worth remounting, especially in such a clever and well-performed production (the four central women were especially good, and Scharich's rich mezzo-soprano in particular is gorgeous*). It's astonishing that a company of Ars Minerva's size is producing modern world premieres of forgotten Baroque operas, and doing it so well. Ricci's sense of adventure puts to shame opera companies with budgets many orders of magnitude larger. I can't wait to see what her next discovery will be.

* I learned too late that the night before The Amazons opened (!) Scharich sang Mahler's Kindertotenlieder and Strauss' Four Last Songs in arrangements for the Alexander String Quartet; I also missed these artists performing Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder and Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder last year. Here's hoping that a recording is in the works, and that the sponsoring organization, Lieder Alive!, will present these artists again soon.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Six months with Jane Austen: Northanger Abbey and women writers and readers

...There seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them....'And what are you reading. Miss ——?' 'Oh! it is only a novel!' replies the young lady; while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame.— 'It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda;' or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language.
Northanger Abbey, Ch. V
In Northanger Abbey Jane Austen pays homage to the women writers who preceded her, and who created a literary marketplace in which women could publish, be read, and receive money for their efforts. Named in the passage quoted above are books by Fanny Burney and Maria Edgeworth; and the sensationalistic novels of Ann Radcliffe are avidly read by Northanger Abbey's highly impressionable heroine, Catherine Morland.

These writers, and others such as Eliza Haywood, Charlotte Lennox, and Elizabeth Inchbald, not only influenced Austen's novels but helped to create a largely female readership that made the publication of her novels possible. Over the course of the eighteenth century, as historian Alvin Kernan has argued, "an older system of polite or courtly letters—primarily oral, aristocratic, amateur, authoritarian, court-centered—was swept away...and gradually replaced by a new print-based, market-centered, democratic literary system." [1]

In this new market for literature, the number of books written by and chiefly aimed at women experienced rapid growth in the last decades of the eighteenth century. According to Julia Philips Stanton, the number of women writers increased by "around 50 percent every decade starting in the 1760s." [2] However, as Jan Fergus notes, "the older aristocratic attitudes that saw print and payment as vulgar were surprisingly persistent among elite women and some men." [3] Because public notice and monetary exchange were involved, writing for the market was seen as disreputable for respectable women (and this attitude persisted well into the nineteenth century). Burney's Evelina (1778), Edgeworth's Castle Rackrent (1800), and Radcliffe's A Sicilian Romance (1790) were all first published anonymously.

"People shall pay for their knowledge if I can make them"

And despite strong familial support for her writing, so were Austen's novels. None appeared under her name during her lifetime, even though the authorship of her second novel, Pride and Prejudice, became an open secret soon after its publication. When Henry Austen wrote a brief "Biographical Notice of the Author" for the posthumous publication of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, finally acknowledging his sister's authorship, he was careful to portray Jane as shunning both public acclaim and money:
Neither the hope of fame nor profit mixed with her early motives...It was with extreme difficulty that her friends, whose partiality she suspected whilst she honoured their judgement, could prevail on her to publish her first work...She could scarcely believe what she termed her great good fortune when "Sense and Sensibility" produced a clear profit of about £150. Few so gifted were so truly unpretending. She regarded the above sum as a prodigious recompense for that which had cost her nothing...[S]o much did she shrink from notoriety, that no accumulation of fame would have induced her, had she lived, to affix her name to any productions of her pen...[and] in public she turned away from any allusion to the character of an authoress. [4]
We may well be skeptical, if not of Jane Austen's desire to remain anonymous, then at least of her reluctance to publish. She was only 21 in late 1797 when her father George wrote to the publisher Thomas Cadell to offer the manuscript of First Impressions (the first version of Pride and Prejudice); by this time Jane had also probably written Lady Susan and Elinor and Marianne (the first version of Sense and Sensibility). George Austen's offer was "declined by return of post." [5]

In 1803 Henry Austen, acting on Jane's behalf, offered the publisher Richard Crosby the manuscript of Susan (the first version of Northanger Abbey) through an agent. Crosby purchased the manuscript for £10, and advertised the novel as forthcoming, but then did nothing further. In 1809 Jane Austen wrote Crosby under the pseudonym of "Mrs. Ashton Dennis," or MAD, "I can only account for such an extraordinary circumstance by supposing the MS by some carelessness to have been lost; & if that was the case, am willing to supply you with another copy if you are disposed to avail yourselves of it, & will engage for no farther delay when it comes into your hands." Crosby responded by reasserting his right not to publish, and offering to return the manuscript "for the same as we paid for it." In 1816 Henry Austen took Crosby up on his offer and bought back the manuscript for £10, thanks to Crosby's ignorance of the true identity of its author. Austen's anger at Crosby's inaction, though, hardly supports the view that she was reluctant to publish. [6]

And if profit was not a motive early in her literary career, Austen's letters suggest that by 1813 it had become one. Several months after the publication of Pride and Prejudice in 1813 she wrote to her brother Francis,
…the secret has spread so far as to be scarcely the shadow of a secret now—and that I believe whenever the third [novel, Mansfield Park] appears, I shall not even attempt to tell lies about it.— I shall rather try to make all the money than all the mystery I can of it.— People shall pay for their knowledge if I can make them. [7]
But making them pay could be difficult, thanks to the modes of publication then available: on commission, by sale of copyright, and by subscription. (For more detail, see Jan Fergus's excellent essay "The professional woman writer" in The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen, Second Edition, which I drew on extensively for the information that follows.)

Publishing on commission: Publishing on commission limited the financial risk to the publisher by shifting the responsibility for the costs of printing and advertising a work to the author. In practice, publishers often paid the production costs for a title up front, and repaid themselves from sales, plus a commission on every copy sold (typically 10 percent). If the edition did not sell enough copies to cover the production costs, the author wound up owing the publisher money. In a variation of publishing on commission called profit-sharing, publishers agreed to absorb any potential loss in exchange for a higher share of any potential profits (typically 50 percent after costs were covered).

Austen's first published work, Sense and Sensibility, was issued by Thomas Egerton on commission in 1811. Because of its unexpected success—the first edition sold out in about 18 months—Jane Austen made a handsome return. As she wrote to Francis Austen in July 1813, "You will be glad to hear that every copy of S.&S. is sold & that it has brought me £140—besides the copyright, if that should ever be of any value.— I have now therefore written myself into £250.— which only makes me long for more." The additional £110 that makes up the £250 she reports to Francis came from the sale of the copyright of Pride and Prejudice. [8]

Sale of copyright: Outright sale of copyright was the least risky way for authors to see their books into print. Authors could be sure of their return on a book, and would generally receive the full amount within twelve months (rather than having to wait to receive payment if sales of the edition were slow, as they did on the commission system).

If sale of copyright limited authors' financial exposure, though, it also limited their potential gain. Once a publisher had purchased the copyright, the publisher, not the author, received all of the income from sales. (Of course, the publisher also bore all the risk if an edition didn't sell.) And if the first edition sold well, the publisher had the right to issue subsequent editions without paying the author any additional fee.

This is what happened with Pride and Prejudice. Austen sold the copyright to Egerton for £110 (she had wanted £150). In comparison to Sense and Sensibility, the first edition of Pride and Prejudice issued in January 1813 was larger (1,000 copies instead of 750), cost more (18 shillings instead of 15), and sold out in half the time (9 months instead of 18). Egerton issued a second edition in October 1813; on both editions, Fergus estimates that Egerton, after deducting production costs and Austen's copyright fee, may have realized a profit of more than £450. Austen herself never saw another penny from her most popular novel.

Subscription: This was a publishing model that could work very well for established authors, but was more logistically troublesome than either publishing on commission or sale of copyright. When publishing by this method the author solicited subscribers by advertisement or direct appeal, asked them for payment in advance, and sent them copies of the finished work once it was published; each copy was bound with a printed list of the subscribers. Fanny Burney provides an example: after the success of Evelina and Cecilia, Burney cleared £1,000 by selling subscriptions to her third novel, Camilla. (She later sold the copyright for another £1,000.) Among the list of subscribers to Camilla was "Miss J. Austen, Steventon." Although clearly familiar with subscription publishing, Austen did not attempt to publish any of her books by this method.

Circulating libraries
Fanny found it impossible not to try for books again. There were none in her father's house; but wealth is luxurious and daring—and some of hers found its way to a circulating library. She became a subscriber—amazed at being anything in propria persona, amazed at her own doings in every way; to be a renter, a chuser of books! [9]
Circulating libraries were a major market for novels, and over the course of Austen's life such libraries became increasingly popular. Circulating libraries charged a modest subscription fee in exchange for the right to borrow a small number of books at a time; they were a way for those with limited incomes—especially women—to have access to books, which were expensive luxuries.

For authors, not only did this limit their financial risk when publishing on commission (since some level of sales was virtually guaranteed), it magnified their readership. Fewer than 2,000 copies of Pride and Prejudice were published during Austen's lifetime, but because each copy in a circulating library had multiple readers, it was read by many thousands more.

Circulating libraries carried books on many subjects, but novels, romances, poetry and plays were among the most heavily represented genres in their catalogues. This dismayed moralists who felt that, if women were to read at all, it should be only uplifting, "improving" literature. Novel-reading was seen as frivolous at best, if not morally suspect. In Pride and Prejudice, when the priggish Mr. Collins visits the Bennets a book from a circulating library creates consternation:
Mr. Bennet was glad...to invite him to read aloud to the ladies. Mr. Collins readily assented, and a book was produced; but on beholding it, (for every thing announced it to be from a circulating library,) he started back, and begging pardon, protested that he never read novels.— Kitty stared at him, and Lydia exclaimed.— Other books were produced and after some deliberation he chose Fordyce's Sermons. [10]
Austen herself subscribed to circulating libraries; on December 18, 1798, she wrote to her sister Cassandra: "I have received a very civil note from Mrs. Martin requesting my name as a Subscriber to her Library....As an inducement to subscribe Mrs. Martin tells me that her Collection is not to consist only of Novels, but of every kind of Literature, &c. &c— She might have spared this pretension to our family, who are great Novel-readers & not ashamed of being so;— but it was necessary I suppose to the self-consequence of half her Subscribers." [11]

In Northanger Abbey, Henry Tilney tells Catherine, "The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid. I have read all Mrs. Radcliffe's works, and most of them with great pleasure. The Mysteries of Udolpho, when I had once begun it, I could not lay down again; I remember finishing it in two days—my hair standing on end the whole time." Henry is Austen's most sympathetic hero in large part because he shares Catherine's chief enjoyment—because he too is a "great novel-reader." [12]

Women as readers

Novel-reading was especially frowned on for women, who were seen as easily swayed and emotionally susceptible. In The Female Quixote (1752) Charlotte Lennox satirized this point of view, while also acknowledging the power of fiction to engage the imagination. Arabella, the heroine of The Female Quixote, reads French romances so addictively that she's come to see herself as one of her fictional heroines.

Northanger Abbey's Catherine Morland seems modelled in part on Arabella. When Catherine arrives for an extended stay at the Tilney estate, which incorporates an ancient abbey, she imagines mysteries lurking in every corner. During her first night at the Abbey she discovers an old cabinet in her room, which contains, hidden deep in its recesses, a roll of paper. Catherine has no sooner grasped this secret missive than her candle goes out:
Darkness impenetrable and immovable filled the room. A violent gust of wind, rising with sudden fury, added fresh horror to the moment. Catherine trembled from head to foot. In the pause which succeeded, a sound like receding footsteps and the closing of a distant door struck on her affrighted ear. Human nature could support no more. A cold sweat stood on her forehead, the manuscript fell from her hand, and groping her way to the bed, she jumped hastily in, and sought some suspension of agony by creeping far underneath the clothes….The storm still raged, and various were the noises, more terrific even than the wind, which struck at intervals on her startled ear. The very curtains of her bed seemed at one moment in motion, and at another the lock of her door was agitated, as if by the attempt of somebody to enter. Hollow murmurs seemed to creep along the gallery, and more than once her blood was chilled by the sound of distant moans. Hour after hour passed away, and the wearied Catherine had heard three proclaimed by all the clocks in the house before the tempest subsided or she unknowingly fell fast asleep. [13]
Northanger Abbey is the story of Catherine's disillusioning, her realization that sensationalistic novels do not reflect the mundane realities of everyday life. There is a mystery at Northanger Abbey, to which Catherine ultimately learns the solution. But the mystery relates to her sudden expulsion from the house by Henry's father, General Tilney, after his welcoming, and, indeed, over-solicitous behavior towards her earlier. That mystery, though, has its roots not in some lurid crime, as originally imagined by Catherine, but in ordinary human failings: greed, self-deception, anger. As Henry tells Catherine when he understands the way her thoughts have been tending,
Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been judging from? Remember the country and the age in which we live...Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you. [14]
The supreme accomplishment of Jane Austen, of course, is that her novels so perceptively describe her own observation of what was passing around her. As Walter Scott wrote in his review of Emma, her novels
proclaim a knowledge of the human heart...presenting to the reader, instead of the splendid scenes of an imaginary world, a correct and striking representation of that which is daily taking place around him....The narrative of all her novels is composed of such common occurrences as may have fallen under the observation of most folks; and her dramatis personæ conduct themselves upon the motives and principles which the readers may recognize as ruling their own and that of most of their acquaintances....All of [her characters'] entanglements bring on only a train of mistakes and embarrassing situations...in which the author displays her peculiar powers of humor and knowledge of human life. [15]

The publication of the last novels

As Jan Fergus details, after Egerton reaped large profits from the success of Pride and Prejudice, Austen decided to return to having her next book, Mansfield Park, published on commission. She was wise to do so. The first edition of 1,250 copies sold out in just six months, yielding her a profit of £310—the most she earned from any of her novels. She evidently wanted to risk a second edition, but Egerton may have advised against it.

This may have been one reason that Austen decided to switch publishers. She sought to sell the copyright of her fourth novel, Emma, together with those of Mansfield Park and Sense and Sensibility, to the prestigious house of John Murray (the publisher of Byron and Walter Scott). His offer of £450 fell far short of her expectations, however, and she once again published the new book on commission. Emma was issued at the end of 1815 in an edition of 2000 copies, and a second edition of Mansfield Park was issued by Murray about two months later. Although Emma made a substantial profit, the second edition of Mansfield Park did not sell well; after covering Murray's losses on Mansfield Park, Austen realized less than £40 from the sales of Emma.

Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were issued together in four volumes in an edition of 1,750 copies by Murray at the end of 1817. The novels sold well and ultimately realized a profit of more than £500. Alas, Jane Austen did not live to see their success. It was Cassandra and Henry who saw these last works through publication. Jane passed away in July 1817, after months of debilitating illness. However, between September 1815 and August 1816 she marshalled her energies to produce what is, in my view, her greatest achievement: Persuasion.

Next in the series: Persuasion and the British Navy at war
Last time: Emma and the fate of unmarried women

Other posts in the "Six months with Jane Austen" series:

Picture credits:
  1. The Honorable Caroline Upton (detail), by Sir Thomas Lawrence, ca. 1800. From The Clark Museum, http://www.clarkart.edu/Art-Pieces/1448
  2. Letter from George Austen to Thomas Cadell, 1 November 1797. From St. John's College Library, Special Collections: Jane and George Austen, Letters (MS 279) https://stjohnscollegelibrary.wordpress.com/2014/06/25/jane-and-george-austen-letters-ms-279/
  3. Detail of the subscriber list of Fanny Burney's Camilla (1796) from the Chawton House Library blog, http://www.chawtonhouse.org/
  4. The reader (detail), by Marguerite Gerard. From the Fitzwilliam Museum, http://www.fitzwilliamprints.com/image/702970/gerard-marguerite-fragonard-jean-honore-the-reader-by-marguerite-gerard-fragonard

  1. Alvin Kernan, Printing Technology, Letters & Samuel Johnson, Princeton University Press, 1987, p. 4. Quoted in Jan Fergus, "The professional writer," in Edward Copeland and Juliet McMaster, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen, Second Edition. Cambridge University Press, 2011, p. 2-3.
  2. Judith Phillips Stanton: "Profile of Women Writing in English from 1660 to 1800," in Frederick M. Keener and Susan E. Lorsch, eds. Eighteenth-Century Women and the Arts, Greenwood Press, 1988, p. 248. Quoted in Fergus, "The professional writer," p. 2. Emphasis in the original.
  3. Fergus, "The professional writer," p. 3. https://goo.gl/rLF5c4
  4. Henry Austen, "Biographical Notice of the Author," reprinted in Jane Austen, Persuasion with A Memoir of Jane Austen, Penguin Books, 1965, p.  32. https://archive.org/stream/persuasionwithme030504mbp#page/n37/mode/1up
  5. George Austen, letter to Thomas Cadell, Publishers, 1 November 1797. https://stjohnscollegelibrary.files.wordpress.com/2014/06/george-austen-letter.jpg 
  6. Jane Austen, letter to Richard Crosby, 5 April 1809. http://www.jasna.org/persuasions/printed/number4/morris.htm
  7. Jane Austen, letter to Francis Austen, 25 September 1813. https://goo.gl/ZJ62gM
  8. Jane Austen, letter to Francis Austen, 3/6 July 1813. http://www.pemberley.com/images/Letters7/86.pdf 
  9. Jane Austen, Mansfield Park, Volume III, Chapter ix; Chapter 40.
  10. Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, I. xiv.; 14.
  11. Jane Austen, letter to Cassandra Austen, 18 December 1798. From R. W. Chapman, ed., Jane Austen's letters to her sister Cassandra and others, Oxford University Press, 1932, pp. 38-39.
  12. Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey, I. xiv.; 14.
  13. Northanger Abbey, II. vi.; 21.
  14. Northanger Abbey, II. ix.; 24.
  15. [Walter Scott] "Art. IX. Emma, A Novel" [review]. The Quarterly Review, Vol. XIV, No. XXVII, October, 1815, p. 188-201. http://www.bl.uk/collection-items/review-of-emma-in-the-quarterly-review-1815

Monday, May 2, 2016

Changing cultures: Alia Bhatt and Preity Zinta

Preity ZintaAlia Bhatt

Is it just me, or does the pace of cultural change seem to have accelerated of late?  Last year the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage rights for same-sex couples. And over the past few years in nineteen states plus the District of Columbia, criminal penalties for marijuana possession for personal use have been reduced or eliminated. Fifteen years ago both developments were, if not inconceivable, then at least wildly improbable.

Judging by some recent Bollywood films, the U.S. isn't the only country where old prejudices and mores are being overturned. Of course, movies cannot be taken as a simple or undistorted reflection of the values and practices of a society. As we know, those values and practices are not monolithic or universal, but instead are highly contested. But (as they used to say in cultural studies classes) commercial movies are a major site of that contestation. As I wrote in "Having it both ways: Bollywood contradictions," the culture industry tries to shape popular consciousness, but at the same time in order to be successful its products must mirror the longings, aspirations and anxieties of its audience.

Movies featuring two actresses, Preity Zinta and Alia Bhatt, seem to exemplify some of these recent cultural shifts. Both actresses have tended to play young single women experiencing their first serious romantic relationships. But the differences in how their characters, actions and situations are portrayed are instructive, and say a lot about changes in attitudes over the past decade or so—at least among that segment of the Indian audience at home and abroad at which the films are aimed.

In Dil Hai Tumhaara (My heart is yours, 2002) Preity plays Shalu, who in a wrenching scene midway through the film discovers that she is not the biological daughter of Sarita (Rekha), the woman she thinks is her mother. Instead, she learns that her father was having a long-term affair, and that she was a part of his second family.

You are the illicit daughter born of that illicit relationship

When her husband and his mistress were fatally injured in a car accident, Sarita unwillingly promised to raise their child Shalu as her own daughter. But Shalu is the living symbol of Sarita's betrayal and hurt, and Sarita can never fully accept her. As Shalu grows older, her rejection by Sarita embitters her. Only the unstinting love shared by Shalu and her half-sister Nimmi (Mahima Chaudhary) holds the family together.

Sarita is the mayor of the town, and is facing a re-election campaign against a corrupt and vicious rival, Mittal (Govind Namdeo). Mittal discovers the truth about Shalu's parentage, and uses the threat of exposure to try to blackmail Sarita into giving up power. Nimmi is engaged to be married to Dev Khanna (Arjun Rampal), the son of a wealthy industrialist, and Mittal threatens to tell the senior Khanna the "filthy truth" about Shalu's origins:

Would you have your daughter suffer for the sake of an illegitimate?

To preempt Mittal, Shalu bursts into the wedding celebrations for Dev, and, covered with mud from a slip on wet grass—literally and symbolically "filthy"—confesses her shameful origins in front of the assembled guests:

Am I so evil that my Mamma and my Di must suffer for my existence?

In Dil Hai Tumhaara, birth outside of sanctioned wedlock is a source of pain, trauma and disgrace.

Not so in Shaandaar (Fabulous, 2015). Alia (Alia Bhatt) has been raised believing that she is an orphan adopted by Bipin Arora (Pankaj Kapur) and his wife Geetu. Midway through the film she learns the truth of her parentage: she is really the child of Bipin and the love of his life, Prabha, and was conceived just before Bipin made his arranged marriage to Geetu for business reasons. Alia's reaction:

This is so cool.

I'm illegitimate.

This is so much better than being adopted.

Birth outside of marriage implies, of course, sex outside of marriage. In two of her films Preity Zinta portrays women who have sex with their boyfriends before marriage, or even engagement. The consequences in both cases are devastating.

In Kya Kehna (What is there to say? 1998/2000), Priya (Preity) is infatuated with self-involved and unreliable classmate Rahul (Saif Ali Khan). When Priya discovers that she is pregnant, she is brutally rejected by Rahul, urged to get an abortion by Rahul and his mother, and expelled from her family and home. Even after her father is convinced to bring her back into the family, she is ostracized by the community:

The music is by Rajesh Roshan with lyrics by Majrooh Sultanpuri; the playback singers are Kavita Krishnamurthy and Hariharan.

In Salaam Namaste (Muslim-Hindu greetings, 2005), Ambar (Preity), an NRI medical student and radio host, moves in with Nikhil/Nick (Saif Ali Khan again!), a self-involved and unreliable NRI architect and chef. In short order she's pregnant (wait—did she skip her classes on reproductive biology?). Nick urges her to get an abortion; when Ambar backs out, he breaks up with her. She is left alone to deal with her pregnancy and a child that may have a rare disease.

One would be forgiven for assuming that premarital sex results inevitably in pregnancy, rejection and suffering. Not so in 2 States (2014), made less than a decade after Salaam Namaste. Ananya (Alia) and Krish (Arjun Kapoor) meet at college, and despite their cultural differences—she is from Chennai, while he is Punjabi—fall in love and start sleeping together. Ananya, though, unlike Priya or Ambar, insists on using contraception: note the casual toss of the box of condoms just after the one-minute mark in "Offo":

The music is by Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy with lyrics by Amitabh Bhattacharya; Bhattacharya and Aditi Singh Sharma are the playback singers.

2 States isn't the first Bollywood film where a young woman has premarital sex that doesn't result in pregnancy, ostracism or death. In Band Baaja Baaraat (Bands, horns, revelry, 2010), wedding planners Shruti (Anushka Sharma) and Bittoo (Ranveer Singh) cap the drunken celebration of the success of their first big job by falling into bed together. While mutual regrets follow in the morning and ultimately lead the couple to split up, it is because Shruti is wary of mixing emotions with business, and Bittoo isn't ready for romantic commitment. In Tanu Weds Manu (2011), Tanu (Kangana Ranaut) has the name of her gangster boyfriend Raja (Jimmy Shergill) tattooed on her breast, and it is strongly implied that they have had sex; this doesn't seem to dissuade NRI doctor Manu (R. Madhavan) from pursuing marriage with her. And in Shuddh Desi Romance (Pure Indian romance, 2013), Gayatri (Parineeti Chopra) and Raghu (Sushant Singh Rajput) choose to live together. Although this isn't portrayed very positively—Gayatri has a fear of rejection, while Raghu has a fear of commitment—no one is punished. (Unless, that is, we consider Gayatri's relationship with the aimless and evasive Raghu as a punishment.)

One key difference between the earlier and later films is that the latter are almost entirely concerned with the dynamics of the couple and their families. Earlier films place much more emphasis on social context, and social stigma.

It makes you wonder what other taboos are about to become incidental, rather than traumatic (or entirely unacknowledged), in Indian cinema. Shaandaar may give a hint. Towards the end of the film, during the disastrous wedding ceremony for the arranged marriage of Alia's step-sister Eesha (Sanah Kapur) and her narcissistic groom Robin (Vikas Verma), a round of truth-telling ensues. Eesha defies Robin's fat-shaming, Alia reveals her parentage, and their favorite Uncle Vipul (Sagar Arya) decides that it's time he too revealed his deepest secret. He's not quite prepared, though, for the family's casual response:

Because of all of you I've been living a lie.

I'm gay! We know.

For more on some of the films discussed in this post, see: