Empire

I felt a strange sort of dissonance while reading Devi Yesodharan’s Empire. The story is told from the point of view of two major characters, and while the inner monologues and the descriptive sentences feel exquisite, the dialogue itself feels stilted. Does the fact that Thamizh is my mother-tongue have a part to play in how I feel? I suspect it does. Your mileage may vary.

As for the novel itself, it is a splendid work of historical fiction. I shall not comment on the veracity of the period descriptions, since I know very little of the period aside from what I have read in historical fiction (notably Ponniyin Selvan). I assume that Devi has done her homework, and done it well, and used artistic license wherever appropriate.

The novel, in any case, is a lot more interested in the emotional landscape of Aremis, the heroine of the story and a member of Rajendra Chozha’s guard, and Anantha, a much-decorated, weary general tasked with carrying out the emperor’s plans to wage war on the Srivijaya empire in South-East Asia. There is much by way of palace intrigue and internecine quarrels between factions in the King’s court. Some of these plotlines are resolved, some others not. But the plot is more of a clothesline to hang these two individual stories. And they are fascinating.

Aremis has to deal with being a foreigner (she was offered as a vassal by a captured invader from Greece after a defeat) in this land, being a woman in a mostly male army, and the burden of a centuries-old prophecy. This is a character with a lot on her plate, and Devi does a great job of making us see her as an interesting, complex individual.

And then there is Anantha, her captor, and the general of Rajendra’s army. There are moments during his section of the narrative when I found myself reminded of Thomas Cromwell’s narrative in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. Not the characters themselves — Anantha comes across as a simpler character than Cromwell — but in the sense of watching a man trying to do his King’s bidding and the difficulties that accompany the task.

One could argue that the story is essentially one of how these two characters relate to each other. There is an early scene where Devi describes Anantha’s relationship with his dogs — he explains how the ones most likely to rebel turn out to be the ones most loyal. The obvious parallel being drawn is to Aremis, one thinks.

Until one realizes that, sooner or later, everyone is someone’s dog.

 

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Kashmir: Two narratives, one tragedy

I recently finished reading Rahul Pandita’s Our Moon Has Blood Clots. Together with Basharat Peer’s Curfewed Night, it makes for traumatic – and dare I say necessary – reading about a beautiful region mutilated by gunfire.

Peer’s is the older book, and in some sense the better written of the two. (Not that the quality of the writing is what I was looking for in the first place anyway.) He does a good job of detailing how militancy seemed like a perversely “glamorous” option to a while bunch of kids back then, and how those same kids grew into bitter, traumatised adults (or sometimes didn’t even make it that far).

It is also true that some of them became militants along the way — the casualness with which the phrase “attacking army convoys” is bandied about is a little galling sometimes, to be honest. As traumatised as some of them were, as much as they might have considered themselves freedom fighters, it is also true that they were fighting a guerrilla war that cost lives on both sides. Peer does mention this (there is an interesting section late in the book where he finds himself hesitant to ask a friend and former militant whether he had ever killed anyone), but his focus is on the everyday reality of living in a war zone, and this reality impacts both those who took to the gun as well as those who did not.

Pandita’s book, on the other hand, is written from the point of view of a community that was exiled from their own land as a result of this struggle. Much of the recent critical discourse around this book seems to be centered around the precise factual accuracy of what has been written (“such-and-such couldn’t have happened the way he says it did because…”). Or its one sided portrayal (“what about what happened to the Muslims left behind in Kashmir?”). Or the politics (too complex to merit a summary in parentheses).

Truth be told, I have no basis to comment on the factual accuracy of his account. Or for that matter Peer’s. However, I strongly suspect that, barring maybe some specifics, the general story is probably correct. “It sounds true” doesn’t seem like much, I know. But consider this: With any conflict of this nature and this magnitude, every narrative we hear is going to have its own set of issues.A chronicler might find it surprisingly difficult to get people to agree on whether a particular event happened, and if so, when and where. And this is before we even get to who did what and why. Perhaps the deeply personal ones, even with their alleged inaccuracies, are the ones best trusted.

As far as the one sided nature of these accounts goes, isn’t that the whole point of a personal narrative? For either party to walk a mile in the other’s shoes, we first have to agree that the shoes cannot – should not – be made by committee.

Both stories need to be told. Both stories need to be heard.

History is complex. It cannot be otherwise. But historical accounts, for lack of a better option, have to simplify the narrative to some extent. We have to trust in the collective wisdom of historians to not oversimplify, but I suspect, sadly, that we will be disappointed. But at least today, we have the choice of absorbing as much of the complexity of what is happening around us as our brains would allow. Like reading Curfewed Night and Our Moon Has Blood Clots.

Dear Santa, now that the Christmas rush is over…

I always love the bit where Bond meets Q and gets a bunch of toys, all of which, would you know it, get used in critical situations. Which leads me to wonder about the dramatic possibilities of an action sequence where 007 desperately needs an exploding pen and finds himself stuck with a portable defibrillator instead.

Anyway, the point is, I love the gadgets more than the other perks of Bond’s job. Not that I’ve encountered too many situations where I’ve said to myself, “Man, I’d kill to have a watch with a laser beam right now” (which must’ve been how Richard III felt back in the day), but it’s really the principle of the thing. Besides, an Aston Martin DB5 is probably more low maintenance than Denise Richards.

Still, as Arundhati Roy says, for practical purposes in a hopelessly practical world, here’s what I’d like:

5. The computer they build in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that takes several million years to find the answer to the great question of Life, the Universe and Everything. With a bit more RAM and a processor upgrade, I figure it can do wonders.

4. On days when I’m stuck in traffic long enough to start gong postal, something like the Batcycle which detaches itself from the Batmobile (The Dark Knight) would come in handy. Ideally, I’d like to hold out for quantum teleportation, but with my luck, some colourful bird would find its way into the chamber just before I hit the big green Beam-Me-Up button and I’d come out looking like the Amitabh Bachchan character in Jhoom Barabar Jhoom.

3. That neuralyzer from Men in Black would be mighty helpful, especially when one is walking into review meetings for projects where one has spent a lot of time and money doing nothing. Hypothetically speaking, of course. I’ve never been in those meetings before. No really.

2. As helpers go, Jarvis from Iron Man or TARS from Interstellar sound like good bets. A certain sense of humour is always welcome in one’s AI. But really,  I’d give away all of these things in a microsecond if you could get me…

1. Chitti from Endhiran. Because Rajnikanth.

And while we’re on the subject, could we also see a bit more realism in the movies when it comes to technology? Like a nail biting sequence where the hacker desperately tries to fix a runtime error involving memory allocations for his double pointers while someone’s life (or his own junk, as in the case of Swordfish), um, hangs in the balance. I simply refuse to believe that they all get it right the first time around.

(But don’t mess with the virus idea on the alien spaceship, okay? When it comes to saving the world, it’s either that or Slim Whitman’s Indian Love Call, and I’m not crazy about that song.)

ps: I originally wrote this for a GE blog, but now that I’ve left the company, they seem to have taken it off. Pondering the science in Interstellar got me thinking about the topic again, so I figured I’d remove the mothballs and air the old post out for a bit.

pps: In other words, the well’s running a bit dry at the moment. Thank you for holding. Your visit is very important to us.

The mess inside is better than the one outside

For those of you who wondered about the radio silence: I have a daughter who is old enough to acknowledge me as something more significant than Random Tall Creature With Facial Hair, but not yet old enough to want to watch Citizen Kane with me and argue whether it’s the greatest film ever made. (Her current approach to the Universe involves three fundamental questions: Is it a pair of glasses perched on a nose? Whatever it is, can I bang it on the floor and make some noise? Can I eat it? Citizen Kane, unfortunately, doesn’t check any of those boxes.)

What happens, therefore, is that I end up watching a couple of movies on long haul flights (and I don’t even travel all that often), and on the odd night when I really ought to know better than stay up late. On the flip side, I’m reading a lot more (on my way to work and back). So I recently revisited Mockingjay, the third book in the Hunger Games series, and thought back to my experience of watching the two movies (The Hunger Games, Catching Fire), the latter of which I watched on one of the aforementioned long haul flights. And I realized something.

The reason why I grew increasingly less enchanted with the writing in the series is the following: It is set in sort of a haphazardly put together dystopia — a cross between a TV show and a post-apocalyptic nightmare that feels real and plausible as often as not. Just when you begin to feel drawn in by the despair, an odd discussion about fur–lined leggings yanks you out of the mire of despond you happily found yourself in just seconds ago. It’s a bit disconcerting, and prevents you from getting involved, almost always a bad thing in a book.

The first book worked for me because it introduced us to this world, and quickly dropped its main characters into a deadly, inverted version of a reality show (unreal world, real emotional responses), where the plausibility of the setup was not a principal consideration. The second and the third books, being increasingly concerned with the world outside the arena, worked less and less as a result.

When I look back on the whole series, I realize that what holds the series together, if only tenuously, is the character of Katniss Everdeen. This is one messed-up girl, perhaps even more than Lisbeth Salander, who in recent times has become the archetype of the Batshit Insane Ass-Kicking Heroine. It is in charting Katniss’ scarred emotional landscape that Suzanne Collins gets a measure of control over her book — the story is simply there to provide a backdrop against which to set Katniss’ inner monologue. Since the story is told from her perspective, and her narrative eye looks inward as often as outward, we feel emotionally anchored to some extent.

The movies, on the other hand, can only hint at all of this. It can be like any other blockbuster action spectacular. But as far as adapting the actual books go, they basically have to hope that Jennifer Lawrence can hint at the more interesting inner narrative through her acting. As good an actress as she is — and let’s face it, after watching her in Winter’s Bone, we all pretty much knew she’d hit this waaay out of the ballpark — this is a tough ask. She almost pulls it off.

Almost.

Snuff

When someone asks me what genre Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels fall under, my usual response is ‘comic fantasy’. But the truth is, I don’t read Pratchett for the laughs anymore, although I will readily vouch for the quality of his humor. No, these days I read his novels for their humanism. This might explain why I often find myself returning to his Watch novels starting Samuel Vimes, even though there is enough and more unread material waiting on my bookshelves.

Pratchett’s style has occasionally been described as stealth philosophy, which basically means that, while he’s making you laugh, he’s also slipping in a dose of his brand of philosophy. With the Watch novels, it isn’t quite as stealthy – he would basically pause between punchlines and deliver his punches, as it were, and there’s no way you wouldn’t notice when he does that. But the laughs do keep coming. Feet of Clay, for instance, has an utterly brilliant section towards the end where the golem Dorfl has an argument with the priests of Ankh Morpork. By the time you close the book, you’re still chuckling.

With Snuff, he bothers even less with the humor, idly picking at easy targets like marriage and scat on occasion, but staying focused on the dramatic content. It’s as if Pratchett, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease, is trying to get Sam Vimes to dispense as much justice (“just ice”) as possible in Discworld before his own memory fails him, and can’t stop to engage in trifling wordplay. Note that I say this by way of description, not complaint.

The more crucial difference, though, is Vimes’ self awareness and intelligence. In the earlier books, he was a bit more of an earnest plodder with clear ideas on right and wrong, and would figure it all out eventually. In this one, you see a street-smart cop whose obstacles are not so much internal as external.

Take the case of the Summoning Dark, which had one of the more intriguing cameos in Thud. Here it makes an appearance as a mostly benevolent demon that helps Vimes. There is something anticlimactic about that. Again, like I said, Vimes seems to have matured internally into a self-aware hero, and mysteries don’t mystify him anymore, so his problems are more, shall we say, operational now.

His wife Sybil has a bigger role to play in this one, and it seems like her understanding of her husband is also much better. She has always understood what he did, and sometimes even assisted him in her own way, but one rarely saw her taking it personally. There is a scene where she urges him to seek justice for the goblins, and her vehemence is surprising, even to those who have known her long. There is also more than one mention of their sex life, something I frankly didn’t expect in a Pratchett novel.

From a philosophical standpoint, though, what has distinguished the earlier Watch novels is Pratchett’s insistence on the rule of law, even though his novels are populated with people who deserve a more vicious punishment. However, the man has lately begun to favor the more visceral forms of dispensing justice, like the encounter between Andy and Pepe in Unseen Academicals, or the late scene involving Willikins here. And while these scenes are satisfying in the obvious way, they are also a bit worrying. It feels, strangely, like a cop out.

These quibbles aside, Snuff represents yet another strong entry in the always excellent Watch series of novels. Will there be another before a Terry Pratchett goes gently into that good night? Maybe not, but Samuel Vimes will walk into the darkness knowing (and I daresay a little bemused) that he has had, not only a series of books (mostly about poo and farm animals) read aloud by him and another series written about him, but even one dedicated to him. Blackboard Monitors have never had it so good.

 

Madras Talkers

At this point, I suppose, I should define “we”. I refer to peole like me, born in Madras in the nineteen-seventies and ripening into cinematic awareness in the decade that followed, in Mani Ratnam’s decade. We are possibly the most qualified to write about Mani Ratnam. We might also be the least qualified.

— Conversations with Mani Ratnam: Introduction.

The above passage might serve to explain why I anticipated the arrival of this book like no other non-fiction book before it. I too count myself among the “we” that Baradwaj Rangan talks about. Born in the seventies, struck by the twin Sicilian Thunderbolts of Mouna Raagam and Nayakan. Felt, in a strange little way, disowned when Mani Ratnam went on to be owned by a larger audience after Roja.

Add to this the other “we” that a growing band of us now consider ourselves part of. The people who, come Friday morning, find ourselves keeping one tab in our browser constantly open to Blogical Conclusion and refresh it every few minutes to see if there’s a new post awaiting us.

Does it make my ilk uniquely qualified to talk about a series of conversations between Mani Ratnam and Baradwaj Rangan? Perhaps not so much, but it certainly makes the topic personal enough to want to write about.

With a book on film that involves a filmmaker and a film critic, one is tempted to get all meta and assign movie-like attributes to the book itself. This is not as much of a force-fit as it sounds. Conversations can be tricky. You have to strike a balance between covering the stuff you want to talk about and allowing it to flow in whichever direction the topic takes you. At its best, the conversation is smooth, yet wide-ranging. Sort of like a film that draws you in so completely that the maker’s skill occurs to you only in hindsight.

Cover art

The other aspect of these conversations is the comfort level that the two people seem to have with each other. The first chapter, which talks about, among other things, how Mani Ratnam came to be a director, is more in the nature of get-to-know-you chitchat. The tone is more biographical than conversational, but that is not to say that it is a dry, factual account. But as the book hits its stride, the dialogue gets more bilateral. There are questions where the man is predictably cagey, such as when he is asked about moving from Ilayaraja to Rahman. Then again, this isn’t meant to be a tell-all tome. For the most part, he is both articulate and detailed in his answers.

There are a few jarring transitions —  for instance, a conversation about Manisha Koirala in Bombay suddenly jump-cuts to a question on actors knowing how to enter and exit a scene, before getting back to her again. A conversation on tangled relationships in Dil Se suddenly gives way to one on the spiritual undertone to his songs. But these instances are few and far between. By and large, the shift from one topic to another seems organic and not forced. Towards the latter chapters (Kannathil Muthamittal onwards, especially), you just wish they’d keep talking.

The conversations are further enlivened by gentle tug-of-war between a critic’s intellectual viewpoint and a filmmaker’s refusal to let his work be mined for subtext. But this is not to say that Mani Ratnam is a purely instinctive filmmaker who doesn’t think in layers — his closing remarks in the chapter on Iruvar, and his comments on micro- and macro-conflicts in Kannathil Muthamittal are cases in point. His viewpoint, I suppose, comes from the fact that the final product we see is a function of what he originally conceived as well as what transpired on set.

Somewhere in the first chapter, Mani talks about the challenge of translating an abstraction (a scene as it is written) into reality (the scene as it is filmed) and being flexible about the things that change while not letting go of its essence. A macro version of the same idea comes up in the chapter on Mouna Raagam, where he reveals that the whole Manohar (Karthik) subplot was put in as a way of making Divya’s viewpoint more credible/palatable to audiences. Entertaining as it was, it might not have been there at all, had Mani made this film later in his career. Other instances, such as the case of a window in Kannathil Muthamittal, pop up here and there.

But at the end of the day, the fact is, we don’t notice the scaffolding. Or want to, for that matter.

Freeze Frame #158 (a,b): The Merchant of Venice

How the fuheck does The Merchant of Venice get labeled a comedy? Sure, it gets a bit farcical at times, and mercy (apparently) triumphs over revenge in the end and what not, but seriously? Didn’t Shylock deserve the right to kick Antonio’s butt seven ways to Tuesday? The key moment, for me, is his wonderful monologue about the anti-semitism he faces. “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” he asks. Even earlier in the play, while you see Shylock mostly through the eyes of the people around him, their criticism is laced with pithy self-awareness. But this is the scene where he leaps off the page and becomes the only character worth remembering from the play. So when I heard a few years ago that Al Pacino was playing Shylock in a new adaptation of the play, I was obviously quite excited. If you had to pick an actor who could do justice to that impassioned rant, the man would be on top of a very short list. And his performance lives up to expectations. Out of curiosity, I looked up other versions of that scene and came upon Orson Welles’ take from his unfinished 1969 adaptation. While Pacino is energetic, physical and angry, Welles sounds more sad than anything else. And if one had to bear the cross of anti-semitism (pun absolutely intended) for so long, I suppose both reactions are equally plausible. For the most part, Welles is surprisingly unimpressive. But there is one moment where he scores. It comes when he puts in a little pause in the phrase “scorned… my nation”. For that one fleeting moment, you can see him being almost overwhelmed. Then he pulls himself together.