November 2007 Archives
The best jokes used to come from the Soviet Union. Here's one I especially like:
A Western journalist is talking with several Russians in a cafe, and he naively asks them what they think of Comrade Stalin. They stare at him in silence. But then, when the reporter leaves, one man follows and offers to share his true opinion of the Great Leader -- provided the reporter is willing to meet at midnight on the banks of the Moskva River. The reporter agrees, and that night they meet. The man insists on getting into a boat and rowing out into the middle of the river, where amid bitter winds and bobbing ice floes, he leans forward and whispers into the reporter's ear: "I like him!"
If you enjoyed this joke, then don't miss this news bulletin from the Onion.
Javed Akhtar is a renowned Indian screenwriter, song lyricist, and poet. Here is wonderful comment of his from Nasreen Munni Kabir's book, Talking Films: Conversations on Hindi Cinema with Javed Akhtar:
"I can tell you two ways of writing an unsuccessful film. Firstly you decide you'll make a great film, and secondly, you decide the film you're making is not for you but for the common man, a film for the masses. In the first situation, you're looking upwards and in the other, you're looking down. You go wrong because in both cases you're going to create something that's not coming from you."
Wading a step farther into the waters of Bollywood, I recently saw the 2003 comedy, Munna Bhai, which I heard about in Bombay.* I liked it very much, although to be honest, I am still getting used to such old-fashioned, industrial-strength entertainment!
Sanjay Dutt, a sandy-haired rogue in his 40s with bedroom eyes and a huge following, stars as Munnabhai, a loan shark with a heart of gold, shaking people down in one of the nicer Bombay slums. (Some scenes are shot in a semblance of that city's laundry district, where thousands of washermen and women ply their trade in stone tubs passed down through the generations.)
Munnabhai, it turns out, comes from a well-to-do background outside the city, and his refined parents don't know he's a crook. They think he's a medical doctor, and when they come to Bombay for their annual visit, he and his mates transform his gangster digs into a hospital.
Naturally, this scheme goes awry, and to the mortification of his parents, Munnabhai is exposed. Heartsick, he vows to cheat, charm, and strong-arm his way to a medical degree (anything but study, naturally). This, too, is a disaster, albeit the kind that occurs in Hindi films: lots of singing, dancing, and larking about included. In the end, Munnabhai's genuine goodness has become evident to all, including his worst enemies, the woman he loves, and -- at long last -- mother and dad.
Sounds corny, I know. But along the way, the film makes relentless fun of the medical profession, self-important people, and high-caste Indians who treat lower-caste people as faceless underlings. This is the kind of thing old-fashioned Hollywood films used to do, and it is fascinating to see it done in a whole different cinematic language.
NB: I thought "Mumbai" was politically correct until I went there and learned that everyone who grew up in the city calls it Bombay. So now I call it "Bombay" in order to be PC in some things, at least. I can understand their resistance, actually. What if someone came along and renamed Boston "Mustain"?
Frank Capra's "why we fight" theme dominated films produced during World War II, even Korea. But these films also downplayed war's ferocity and horror. About Vietnam the only contemporary film was The Green Berets, produced in the style of 1944 and lobbed like a (dummy) grenade into the middle of 1968. After the war ended, a series of counter-cultural films, notably Taxi Driver (1976), caricatured Vietnam vets as dangerous lunatics. The Deer Hunter (1978) showed more respect for the veterans, while also painting an unflattering picture of the North Vietnamese communists. The lunatic vet made a comeback in the extravagantly awful Apocalypse Now (1979), but by the 1980s it was no longer cool to use vets as villains.
Yet at the same time, Hollywood in the 1980s was loath to make films retroactively supporting the Vietnam War. (Unfortunately, the sole exception, Lionel Chetwynd's The Hanoi Hilton (1987), is dramatically speaking a dud.) So the challenge became: How to make the soldiers look good, while also making the war look bad? A clever solution was devised by two directors, Oliver Stone and Stanley Kubrick, in two highly successful films, Platoon (1986) and Full Metal Jacket (1987). By focusing on the experience of a small unit of soldiers, and using state-of-the-art technology to render the sights and sounds of combat as vividly as possible, these films managed to avoid any focus on why they fought. At its cleverest, this approach also managed to make the soldiers' disgruntlement with ill-conceived orders and fruitless tactics look like principled opposition to the war.
This narrowly focused band-of-brothers approach is now a cliche, as film after film ramps up the special effects and dumbs down the characters and plots. A harbinger of this approach is Ridley Scott's Blackhawk Down (2001), a high-tech tour de force whose characters are as interchangeable, and unmindful of the reason why they are fighting, as the figures in a video game. Even We Were Soldiers (2001), Mel Gibson's attempt at a revisionist Vietnam film, spends more time reconstructing the physical details of the 1965 battle of Ia Drang Valley than defending the purpose for which it was fought. And despite its patriotic fervor, Gibson's film ends with the line: "They went to war because their country asked them to, but in the end they fought not for their country or their flag. They fought for each other."
They fought for each other. Very stirring, but how do you get them to do that? On the most basic level of narrative art, there's nothing wrong with the band-of-brothers approach. Since before Homer, the best war stories have focused not on grand strategies but on comrades-in-arms. And long before sociologists coined the term unit cohesion, storytellers have understood that in the heat of battle, soldiers think less about overarching goals than about their buddies. And when they act bravely, it is usually to save their friends, to avoid letting them down, or (at most) to uphold a shared sense of honor. So it's dramatically necessary, and sociologically accurate, to separate comradeship from cause while the bullets are flying.
But this only takes us so far. Soldiers are human beings, and when the shooting stops, they are bound to ponder why they fight. If no adequate reason presents itself, or if their sense of duty becomes eroded by a sense of futility, they may grow less willing to march back into hell. In the worst case scenario, they lose their moral bearings altogether, and cease to care about either cause or comrades. This is war's final bitterness, and only rarely does Hollywood dare to depict it.
Just a couple of things I'd like to fix in last entry, after hearing from an Indian colleague. First, for you non-Hindustani speakers, a translation of Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge: it means "the one with the brave heart wins the bride." Second, Javed Akhtar is a song lyricist as well as a screenwriter.
More later as this neophyte wades into the Bollywood waters. Feet wet but a long way to go.
When I was in India this last spring, several people recommended a Bollywood classic called Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge -- or, to use the popular shorthand for an immensely popular film, DDLJ. Now that I have seen the film, I understand why my interlocutors were so insistent.
"Bollywood" is becoming an obsolete term, or maybe it always was. There is Hindustani cinema, which uses a blend of Hindi, Urdu and English, and has been described by the famous screenplay writer Javed Akhtar as "one more state in this country, ... quite different from Indian culture, but it's not alien to us, we understand it." (See his book-length series of interviews with the writer Nasreen Kabir.) In addition, there are several regional film industries in other languages, which together with the Hindustani mainstream produced largely in Mumbai/Bombay, dominate a huge region stretching from West Africa to Central Asia to East Asia and Oceania -- not to mention London, Russia, and New Jersey.
We Americans think of movies as constantly "pushing the envelope" -- that is, first you show kissing, then foreplay (remember foreplay?), then sex in bed, then sex against the wall, then sex with baked goods and fruit, then sex with animals, then rape, then rape and strangulation, then rape preceded by torture (back to foreplay again?), and then -- what? Rape and strangulation of baked goods?
I'm not suggesting that this is a natural progression -- most people are content with the first 2-3 steps. But woe to the Hollywood director who stops pushing the envelope, or even riskier, pushes it in the opposite direction. The only director I can think of who does this is Judd Apatow, whose comedies The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up paradoxically use raunchy humor to affirm (relatively) traditional sexual mores.
There is no raunchy humor in DDLJ, but there is plenty of old-fashioned erotic attraction, battle-of-the-sexes combat, and finally passionate surrender, all accompanied by song-and-dance numbers that are (in the best Bollywood style) extravagant and surreal without being (in the worst Bollywood style) repetitive and tedious.
What is fascinating, though, is what happens after the lovers realize how hopelessly smitten they are. In The Wedding Crashers, the lover whose girl is engaged to someone else simply shows up at the wedding and claims her. He makes a short speech along the lines of "I really love you and that dude is a bum," and she falls into his arms. Needless to say, the wishes of parents and relatives are treated as a minor irritant quickly disposed of. When the bride embraces the interloper, they have no choice but to applaud -- they're old, after all, and therefore irrelevant.
Never mind that this is not how many young Americans see the world. It is the dominant trope of popular culture, that sexual attraction equals love, and that nothing must stand in its path. DDLJ would not disagree, but its way of making the same point is infinitely more subtle, powerful, and human.
When Raj (Shahrukh Khan) falls for Simran (Kajol), the problem is obvious: he is the spoiled playboy son of a London-based millionaire (Anupam Kher), she the sheltered daughter of Chaudrry Singh (Amrish Puri), a hard-working shop owner who hates England and longs for his native Punjab. The young people meet on a Europass tour of the Alps (very picturesque), but when Simram returns home, her father packs her off to India to marry the son of his best friend.
The old man is a stern, forbidding autocrat, and his dream of reconnecting with Punjab is not shared by his wife and two daughters. In an American film, these sentiments would have to be corrected, either by persuasion or coercion. But therein lies the difference: in DDLJ the old man is treated with the utmost respect, and although it seems impossible for 99 percent of the story, he finally yields. (This is not a spoiler! Everyone knows that the lovers get together at the end of a film like this!)
But watch carefully, because this is not just a case of the young folks bringing the old folks into the current century. It's also a case of the young learning from the old that there are two ways to do anything: the wrong way, which leads to happiness in the short term but emptiness in the long, and the right way, which is hard and painful but leads to the greatest happiness.
Maybe we Americans are too sophisticated for this stuff. In terms of revenue, Hollywood still makes a whole lot more money than Bollywood. But in terms of audience size, Bollywood surpassed Hollywood in 2004 and is still ahead: 3 billion, as opposed to 2.6 billion. And most of the latter are not Wedding Crashers fans so much as Titanic and Shrek fans. With regard to stories about human beings, it's the heart that counts. And on that score, 3 billion Bollywood fans may not be wrong.