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July 28, 2006

Lady In The Waterloo?

Many moons back, the Society For India (SFI) at Cornell held a screening and QA for a thesis film from a fresh out of school NYU filmmaker. Only about ten folks showed up. The treasurer and president had a heated discussion afterwards about whether precious funds should be spent on events with such poor attendance or whether such monies were better utilized on organizing meat market .. ahem .. social gatherings on campus. The filmmaker himself was quite a nice, approachable guy and was clearly happy to receive his $500 honorarium. The treasurer remembers writing out the cheque himself. As well he should. M. Night Shymalan has yet to make that film, his first, Praying With Anger available on video but it's safe to say he no longer has to trudge up to college towns in the dead of winter and cadge speaking engagements for a living.

Following The Sixth Sense in 1999, it was impossible to meet a desi who didn't have a connection with Manoj. I remember meeting the proprietor of the Manali Cafe in Ann Arbor who swore she and Manoj's mum were best buddies. Likewise for a resident doctor at the University of California San Francisco - why she'd had dinner with Manoj and his entourage just the other day! And so it went. He was the guy who had defied his parents' wish that he become a good little doctor boy and had followed his dreams to the pot of gold lying at the end of the rainbow. What desi kid could possibly quibble with that? And he'd done it on his own terms, staying back in Philly when it clearly would have been better for him to be with the movers and shakers in LA. He was living proof that an NRI filmmaker could find a massive worldwide audience without kowtowing to the nacha-gana obsessed feudal families that had hermetically sealed off Bollywood.

But somewhere, all of that began to change. Perhaps it was the fact he kept putting himself in his films instead giving chances to other struggling desi actors who could definitely use the break. Perhaps it was his insistence on promoting himself as a brand a la Hitchcock or Spielberg. Perhaps it was that American Express commercial. Maybe at some point he began believing in the myth he'd created around himself. Who knows? What I can tell you is last week, on Friday 21st, on the eve of the opening of Lady In The Water, a couple of us held a heated e-mail roundtable on all topics Water and Night.

Prem kicked it off with:

It's getting horrible reviews and the book about his rift with Disney is being deemed an unintentional laugh riot. Newsweek even suggests it's time for an intervention (I thought so too after I saw Signs). Has the next Spielberg hit the iceberg? Apparently he got his knickers all bunched up because a Disney exec didn't give the LITW script the proper respect and eventually he fled to Warner Bros. Does he expect studio heads to perform elaborate Vedic rituals to honor his supernatural offerings? Shyam-a-crazy like a mental patient or crazy like a fox? Maybe neither. I think his problem is more
mundane. In terms of creativity he hit the skids after Unbreakable. But perhaps the same self-belief and faith in his inner voice that served him so well early in his career is also making him blind to his creative decline.

But if I was a studio exec I'd let him be -- at least for now. I may cringe watching his recent efforts or, better yet, sneak out the back door at the private screening, but his movies are a great business bet. They are modestly budgeted compared to your average summer flick and the built-in audience for the Shyamalan brand generates solid returns. That's as good a bet as there is in Hollywood.

What do you guys think? If you go see the movie let me know your opinion.

Devdoot replied:

I read an article about him in E Weekly (an excerpt from the book) where it described a meeting between the Disney execs and Shyam at a restaurant in his beloved Philly. At the end of the meeting, he had decided to take the script elsewhere and after the execs left, he began to cry uncontrollably. Um, wow...so I ordered the book - can't wait to read it.

But you make a good point Prem. Leave him be for now -- his movies come in at budget, the built in audience spans the globe, and returns on the investment are healthy.

I pointed out that the bidgets on his previous films were as follows:

Lady In The Water (LITW): $75M
The Village, Signs, Unbreakable: all around $70 - $72M
Sixth Sense: $55M

With the possible exception of the Sixth Sense, these weren't "modest" budgets. Prem's ripose:

Certainly not Wayans brothers-cheap, but for a major summer movie still quite reasonable. The fact that average Hollywood movies cost $60-70 mil is ridiculous, but we can save that for another day.

I read somewhere his movies have grossed 2.5 billion. He has lost street cred among hollywood-types, but that town is still all about the bottom line and as long as he's bringing in the profits there will be a studio willing to let him continue drinking his own kool-aid.

He added:

He needs to stop talking to the aliens and fairies in his head, step out of the supernatural environs of his Pa. mansion and mingle with the earthlings again. But if LITW does good BO I'm afraid he will use the critical slams and Hollywood putdowns as fuel to continue down the creative deadend.

Devdoot did something funny amidst all of this back-and-forth. He actually went out and saw the movie in question.

In the spirit of this roundtable discussion, I went out and just watched LITW.

Spoiler alert: do not read any further if you will be seeing the movie.

OK, so I didn't dislike the movie as much as I expected. Surprisingly funny, although his use of the stereotypical Korean girl as a means of explaining the fairy tale was nothing but a weak way to get through the exposition.

A lot of fine actors like Bill Irwin and Jeffrey Wright are way underutilized.

The numbers came in on Sunday night and they weren't particularly encouraging. From boxofficeguru:

Suffering his worst opening since becoming an A-list director, M. Night Shyamalan saw his latest thriller Lady in the Water struggle in its debut grossing an estimated $18.2M from 3,235 theaters. The PG-13 film about a mysterious creature from the water who must return to her world averaged $5,629 per site. The opening was less than half the size of the $50.7M bow of Shyamalan's last film The Village and less than one-third of the $60.1M that his previous film Signs took in when it opened in 2002. Critics panned Lady which was promoted as being a "bedtime story" as the Oscar-nominated filmmaker earned the worst reviews of his career.

Ouch! So, what do you think we as a roundtable did next? Yes, it was true Night needed to come to grips with his roots and all of that but it was possible to take that sort of stuff way too far. In typical desi style, we were hardly short of advice. From Prem:


He's been obsessed with magic realism for so long one wonders if he can make the transition to stories rooted strictly in an earth-based reality. Hey Night, can you create characters who are NOT leading tortured lives, burdened with knowledge of other dimensions? Can your characters NOT mumble awful lines in hushed, portentous tones...for the length of the entire friggin' movie! Just for a change, ya know. Mix it up a little, dude.

Anyway, I hope he can recover from this because I'm a sucker for comebacks.

As am I. As is the USA for that matter. Actually, I have no doubt M Night will return in full force in his next production - he's too talented not to. However, it is possible to go too far in the opposite direction from magic realism i.e. urban in-yo-face-ism. Consequently, we came up with a list of films that Manoj should absolutely not be doing next. Here goes:

  • The Seventh Sense - I See Rich People: A tough, tell-it-like-it-is thriller from the mean streets of Philly where LaShawn and Devawn are carjackers with hearts of gold - they only rob SUV driving people who deserve it. Plus no one actually sees Devawn 'cause he's a ghost! But he doesn't know it yet.
  • Unbreakin' II - Electric Vindaloo: After failing for the umpteenth time to get "AtMan", a desi soul food joint, going in Center City, PA, Devi Shah hits upon a curry recipe guaranteeing wild gyrations for three hours upon consumption. Alas, AtMan is located next door to a Pottery Barn and Devi's clientele is really testing their "if you break it you own it" policy. Hilarity ensues.
  • Signs 'N' The Hood - Somebody's been scrawling wild graffiti on the SEPTA buses in Philly and those are attracting some really freaky riders.

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- July 28, 2006 12:31 AM // Diaspora , Film

July 27, 2006

Web 2.0 Logo Parodies

This is hilarious. A bunch of folks on this design site are busy web-2.0-ifying corporate logos. Enjoy!

Perhaps we'll see logos for wipR or rediffr soon enough :-)

PS - Thanks to John Battelle for the tip!

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- July 27, 2006 12:20 AM // Technology

July 23, 2006

Mind Your Lingo. Um.

I see DesiPundit picked up Mind Your Lingo. Thanks mate! Anyway, I know I focussed on recent outpourings from Indian writers in there but I would be remiss if I didn't point out that Kama Sutra is but a starting point for a rich body of classical Indian works. Anil Menon writes:

Indian erotica is a bit like a thali: the saffron-infused Sanskrit raitha, the rustic sabzi of Brij, the rich madulai of Tamil, a wati with chilled Bengali, sweet-sour Telugu pickles, rough Marati pol ... And the brown rice of our poets is nearly unlimited. There's Bhartrihari. And Vidya. And Rajasekara, Cempulappeyanirar, Vallana, Peyanar, Bilhana, Bhavabuti, Srinatha, Vallabharya and the thousands of other poets who have kept shell necklaces jostling from 500 B.C. to 17th October, 1981.

As for recent times, my nod to the best passages of "the-earth-moved" variety goes to Vikram Chandra's Love and Longing in Bombay - there are two sequences in there that are absolutely breathtaking. It's a great book, one of the best from an Indian author in recent times. Interestingly enough, it seems Chandra took the name of his first book, Red Earth and Pouring Rain, from a Tamil erotic poem. From Anil Menon again:


"What could my mother be
to yours? What kin is my father
to yours anyway? And how
did you and I meet ever?
But in love
our hearts have mingled
as red earth and pouring rain."

A master indeed.

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- July 23, 2006 2:31 PM // Books

July 21, 2006

Mind Your Lingo

Jon Carroll writes about English as practiced in India, particularly that of the written variety:

English as spoken in India is not a mistranslation; it's a different dialect. Most written Indian English is made for domestic consumption, so it can follow rules that make intuitive sense to the audience. The work below was prepared by a friend of a friend. All the sentences are reported to be actual quotations from one issue of True Crimes magazine

Hmm, sounds like one of those long e-mail chain letters that get circulated amongst desi circles, you know those of the "we're-like-this-only" variety. So, I'm pretty sure what follows is definitely exaggerated, but it's amusing nonetheless. An excerpt:

After beating about the bush for sometime, Vijay touched the focal point. This is how love got on track once again. Geeta got greatly fancied to Vijay's all such maneuvers. When she got fully charged up, she clung to him. On reaching inside the room Vijay took Geeta in his arms and started titillating her body so as to ignite every pore of her body with libidinous urge. This was followed by repetition of frenzied sexual antics to which they had got accustomed. Their bodies were already so much charged up with intense libidinous heat, that when they mated their body heat melted like wax. Geeta was trigger happy to have got her body squeezed by a young man.

Even despite best efforts it is not possible to contain exposure of love affair as its wind spreads all around.

The husband, Pradeep, shows up outside the door unexpectedly!

He fixed his eyes at the slit of the door. The scene made the eyes of Pradeep to google out of his sockets with surprise. He was stunned to witness Geeta and Vijay were freely flowing and indulging in sex stream without any hassles. He opened the door under utter nervousness.

Like I said, I'm pretty sure there's much here that's blown out of proportion (so as to speak) for comic effect. But then again, examples of bad Indian English are not that tough to find - why, I've written about some myself. No, the quoted passages bring up a related point - the poor quality of Indian amorous writing. Desi authors have been getting a lot of attention for that recently:

Aniruddha Bahal's book, "Bunker 13" -- described as a combination of the styles of ex-SAS author Andy McNab and romance novelist Jilly Cooper -- was awarded the prize on Wednesday for the most inept description of sexual intercourse in a novel.

Bahal's winning passage described the book's hero as an "ancient Aryan warlord" when a woman dropped her trousers to expose a strategically placed swastika. Then as the temperature between the two rises, Bahal shifts into top gear:

"Your RPM is hitting a new high. To wait any longer would be to lose prime time...

"She picks up a Bugatti's momentum. You want her more at a Volkswagen's steady trot. Squeeze the maximum mileage out of your gallon of gas. But she's eating up the road with all cylinders blazing. You lift her out. You want to try different kinds of fusion."

This was in 2003. Tarun Tejpal tried his damndest hard to repeat the feat two years later:

"We began to climb peaks and fall off them," Tejpal has written. "We did old things in new ways. And new things in old ways. At times like these we were the work of surrealist masters. Any body part could be joined to any body part. And it would result in a masterpiece. Toe and tongue ... The Last Tango of Labia Minora. Circa 1987. Vasant Kunj. By Salvador DalĂ­."
Classic, indeed. Nilanjana Roy elaborates on the problem further:
Unlike Siddhartha Dhanvant Shanghvi, Tejpal offered no descriptions of 'weasel-like loins clutching and unclutching [his] lovely, long, louche manhood, as though squeezing an orange for its juice'.

And he eschewed toothbrushes all together, unlike Arundhati Roy, who was nominated years ago for a passage from God of Small Things that featured 'nut-brown breasts' that wouldn't support a toothbrush and haunches that would support 'a whole array' thereof.

Rohinton Mistry hasn't featured on the shortlist, but some of his aura lost its sheen when I read a passage in A Fine Balance that referred to a menacing seducer's 'Bhojpuri brinjal'. It made baingan bharta out of that scene.

There are fifty different ways to write bad sex, and Indian writers have explored all of them. There's the Washing Machine Manual variety - bland and overly descriptive, as in the works of Shobha De (move from position Y to position Z, insert body part here) or Khushwant Singh (all women have buttocks like tanpuras) or Abha Dawesar (where gynecology replaces emotion). There's the Lyrical Effusion, as exemplified by Shanghvi, where Mills and Boon prose goes a shade of deep purple: "Aw, Lord, it was only love. Thick as molasses; hungry as a leech."

My personal horrific scene comes from Amitav Ghosh's Circle Of Reason when our anti-hero, Aloo, is described doing the deed with a hideously ugly woman much older than he. As traumatic it is for him, it is even worse for the reader - I have not been able to touch any of Ghosh's other books since! Anyway, theories abound as to the glut of bad hanky panky passages from desi authors. Perhaps it's in the blood - after all England has never had anything like the Kama Sutra or maybe it's because we take it too seriously, and too literally. Whatever it is, it sure as heck makes for laugh out loud reading (as opposed to hot 'n' heavy, which may well have been the orignal intended effect!).

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- July 21, 2006 1:08 AM // Books , Select

July 16, 2006

Bush Baby

From The Telegraph UK comes this snapshot of US President George W Bush holding a baby in Trinwillershagen, Germany.

There's a saying in Bengali: "chere deye maa, kende bachi." This can roughly be translated to "please let me go, I'm in tears, I'll do anything to get out of here." Seems appropriate on so many levels, doesn't it?

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- July 16, 2006 8:47 PM // Bangla , Politics

July 15, 2006

Bald Dread

On a lighter note, more exploits from our favorite, pedal-to-the-metal, ultra Method Actor wannabe, perennial strivers for veracity - you guessed it - from our Bollywood star-sons! In today's episode, Vivek Oberoi admires Saif Ali Khan for ... shaving his head!

"I applaud Saif's commitment and belief. He actually shaved his head for the role. It is difficult to take that plunge."

What cojones! Will these studs stop at nothing to inject realism into their roles? This is madness. What will Saif do next? I mean, he went bald for this part. How do you top that?

Yul Brynner would be so proud.

PS - Hat tip as usual to Amar Parikh.

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- July 15, 2006 10:53 AM // Bollywood

July 12, 2006

Blast Links

Some links on the Mumbai blasts:

Our thoughts and prayers go out to the victims of this senseless carnage.

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- July 12, 2006 7:49 PM // India

July 8, 2006

"How Comfortable!"

In Lost In Transcription, I wrote about the poor quality of subtitles in an Indian film. Those, along with bad dubbing are also mainstays of Hong Kong cinema (and parodied in Wayne's World, amongst others). In Once Upon A Time In China, Jeff Yang's concise history of cinema from Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China, there's this:

Of course, any Anglophone who's watched a subtitled Hong Kong movie knows that the process is far from perfect. Often hastily produced based on half completed (or nonexistent) scripts - and sometimes without even basic knowledge of the storyline - translations have ranged from amateurish to comical. Some problems are due to inherent linguistic differences: Spoken Chinese uses few gender-specific terms, so subtitlers often must make arbitrary pronoun choices based on context. Sometimes errors are due to poorly translated idioms, with curses and expressions of affection or lust the most frequent victims. For the most part, however, enthusiasts say that learning "subtitle English" is like picking up a specialized dialect. Experienced Hong Kong movie fans know that "How comfortable" is an expression of sexual pleasure, while "How come?" is what people say when faced with something shocking and inexplicable.

The book is fascinating - I've always wondered how cinema from that part of the world has been able to shine so well on the global stage while offerings from India continue to be consistently mediocore, with occasional exceptions. I hope to share some of my thoughts later.

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- July 8, 2006 8:26 AM // Film

July 1, 2006

World Cup Extra Time

As I write this, the England-Portugal match is heading into penalties. That makes half the matches in the '06 quarter finals that have gone into extra time, found no resolution there and ended up in shootouts. Personally, the most boring cup final in recent memory was the Brazil-Italy '94 match, decided, you guessed it, on penalties. I really hope the current tournament doesn't turn out that way. However, given Germany's inexorable march, I am not optimistic.

This kind of resolution to a match is unfair. Often, it is decided by the players who are barely standing, played as they have through ninety minutes of regular time and thirty of extra time. The end result is a pure lottery. You might as well have players draw grass from the pitch and see who gets the shortest. No, I think there are other, more creative solutions FIFA should consider. Here's a couple: send a player off from each team for every five minutes of extra time and it has to start with the goalkeepers. That way, even the most staunch defense will eventually be reduced to two men from opposing teams duking it out. Another: why not extend the goal by two feet on either side every five minutes? Perhaps when the goal posts span the entire penalty box, we'll finally see some shots going in.

Update: Portugal won 3-1 on penalties. I can only hope the Brazil-France match will be more entertaining. Nothing is worse than a goalless two hours of football decided this way.

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- July 1, 2006 10:22 AM // Sports