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March 29, 2008

What's In A Name?

A little while back, I wrote about the naming process for our son, Virj, and I hoped:

Now, if everyone would only pronounce it properly :-)

I thought I was being facetious. Hard to go wrong with something so succinct, right? It's been four months now, so what's been our experience?

Amongst folks originating from the subcontinent there wasn't a problem. More or less perfect enunciation every time. However, for everyone else, particularly if they happened to have been born and brought up in the USA and had little or no exposure to Indian culture, it was more hit and miss. Correct pronunciation is "veerj" with stress on the "e" sound. But we were equally likely to get "verge" as in parents on the verge of a nervous breakdown. I exaggerate but imagine our plight. The early months of parenthood are particularly brutal - add to that regrets about picking a name that I thought was bulletproof, but one that turned out to have loopholes regardless - it certainly doesn't help.

At this juncture, we found the following skit from the hit BBC show Goodness Gracious Me particularly calming. The sketch, which came out around 1998 or so, is eerily prescient. We have Jonathan moving from the UK to join a firm in India where they have trouble with his name:

I don't see you progressing in this firm with a name like that!

In today's mobile, intertwined, economically shifting world, there's really no guarantee our son will choose or even necessarily be able to live in the USA. Consequently, we tried to pick a name for all seasons and continents. On the whole, we're pleased.

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- March 29, 2008 3:08 PM // Diaspora , TV , Virj

March 26, 2008

Devi Brown: Director's Note

Devi BrownWe're in the process of assembling a press kit for Devi Brown. The Director's Note is something that took me a while to put together. It's work in progress and subject to change but thought I would share regardless.

Devi Brown grew out of a simple observation: '70s blaxploitation and Bollywood masala movies are long lost twins separated at birth. Perhaps not identical twins, but certainly fraternal. Consider the similarities: over the top costumes. Sticking it to The Man from an Angry Young Man. Melodrama by the pound. Vavavoom heroines. Nutty sidekicks. And last but not least, the audio. Whatever the surface trimmings, the pulsating greasy funk at the core of soundtracks on both sides of the world knew no boundaries. Small wonder then beat producers, tired of digging in their crates of blaxploitation LPs, have now increasingly started to mine Bollywood soundtracks of the same period.

Speaking of music creation, Devi Brown is our attempt to apply some of the hip hop production aesthetics to filmmaking. The time honored approach to producing a hip hop track is to start with a collection of samples from various sources, process/chop them, overlay drums and other instruments as necessary, and weld into a cohesive whole via a rapped narrative. Similarly, source material for Devi Brown was assembled from a number of Bollywood films of the 70s and early 80s. These clips or rather "samples" were then trimmed, sequenced, processed, overlaid with additional soundtrack elements from blaxploitation classics, and topped with an appropriate voiceover serving as narrative. The final product is best described as a masala mashup.

Our approach allows us to deconstruct the original source material and have a little fun with some Bollywood conventions of the time. The heroine, often relegated to a side role, now becomes the centerpiece. The hero becomes the villain. Slow expositions are dramatically accelerated; many hours worth of movies are now packed into five minutes consisting only of the action stuff, the "good parts" version, as it were. Whether our effort is successful, whether something coherent has emerged from all this mashery, is ultimately up to the viewer to discern. Hope you enjoy it as much as we did putting it together. If not, at least it will be over quickly!

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- March 26, 2008 8:42 AM // Devi Brown

March 20, 2008

Copywood Part I

Bollywood plagiarism or "inspirations" form a recurrent topic in the desi blogosphere. Try this, this or this as recent examples. Their ire is understandable for in this age of globalization, there is no place to hide. Filmi producers might think they are cutting corners by lifting entire plots and scene layouts from elsewhere but with plentiful online video, BitTorrent and relatively large overseas following of Bollywood, more and more members of the audience are already familiar with the source material. The whole practice is objectionable for several reasons:

  • The obvious: it cheats the original creators and content producers.
  • It deprives desi writers out of a living. Why would anyone want to pay a writer when source material is only a DVD away?
  • It deprives the audience. Imagine this: you've forked over your hard earned money to watch latest desi blockbuster X only to find you've seen it all before in Hollywood indie sleeper hit Y. To make matters worse, Y's themes and plots have been "Indianised" to the point where the femme fatale actually gets caught as opposed to ending up in a retired private island somewhere. After all, in Filmisthan, the baddies must always pay.

Small wonder, interest is growing in the lack of copyright enforcement in India as this recent report from National Public Radio, Bollywood's copycat film industry, illustrates:

Rajiv Masand: I also think that in the West, I don't think they realize to what extent the borrowing is happening. Increasingly you see entire screenplays literally unfolding exactly like the original film, and every now and then you'll see films that are just dialogues translated down to the last word.

Sometimes it's more than dialogue. Anjum Rajabali is a successful Mumbai screenwriter. He says he's been on sets where everything was copied directly from a video of a foreign film.

Anjum Rajabali: There was a video monitor, and the VHS was actually playing. The angles of the camera would be taken directly from that. The actors would actually watch, and say, "OK, this is how you want me to do it? Fine." Camera angles, lighting, properties...

...All copied. And film songs, of which there are several per Bollywood film, might not always be 100 percent original, either.

[MUSIC: "THOIA THOING"]

That's R. Kelly's tune "Thoia Thoing." I think that's how it's pronounced.

[MUSIC: "GELA GELA"]

...And that's a song called "Gela Gela," from the Bollywood film "Aitraaz."

Take a bow Adnan Sami/Himesh Reshammiya ("Aitraaz" music director/singer). Your music was piped into a whole lotta speakers in the USA just now. But not in the way you imagined it. So, what can be done about this?


Gagliano: Does anybody point this out in media or fans, anybody?

Karthik: They do, but nobody cares.

Except, well, you'd think the original artists would care. And according to Indian intellectual property lawyer Praveen Anand, intellectual property laws are very strong -- yet no Indian filmmakers have been taken to court.

Praveen Anand: There are lots of them which have copied concepts and a lot of detail -- clear infringements of Hollywood films. But somehow, Hollywood producers have not come forward to file cases and test the proposition.

Small wonder then desi bloggers are reduced to fantasizing about how best to punish perpetrators. In particular, consider this genius piece from greatbong where a particularly noxious fate awaits Sanjay Gupta, director of Zinda, a pretty gratuitous Oldboy ripoff:

But where is he now? A small room with one television set, a rack full of DVDs—it is obvious to him he has been kidnapped.

But by whom? He had given the overseas rights to Bhai, sought the “blessings” of the Balasaheb–in all discharged all the duties of a Mumbai director/producer. And yet why is he in this solitary room with just a TV set , DVDs and a plate of pao bhaji inserted through a hole in the door?

He breaks down. Pleading with his unknown captor to let him go. But noone replies to his anguished cries. He only gets regular meals of the same pau bhaji and nothing else. The TV tells him about the outside world—-and then there are the DVDs. Realizing he can do nothing else and besides he always made films based on DVDs, Sanjay Gupta starts watching these movies one by one. Putting the time to good use—he thinks.

Aaah what a treasure trove. He starts making copious mental notes of which movies to copy once he gets out, how to “Indianize” it and how to pass off each of them as his creations. But he knows not when he shall get out—if at all.

From time to time, a strange tune plays (he notes in his mind to copy that tune once he gets out), his room fills with noxious gas—the kind one smells after one too many bean burritos and he collapses. When he comes to, he finds he has been shaved, bathed and his DVDs replenished with new ones.

A year passes. And another. On the TV he sees all the movies he had plans of Indianizing being remade one by one by his one-time friends—Manjrekar, Ramgopal Verma and suchlike. All his babies being taken away from him in front of his own eyes and Sanjay Gupta powerless—confined in this hellhole. He breaks down, tries slashing his wrists with a extras DVD (the 2nd disc noone watches) but his evil captor wont even let him die.

In greatbong's fervid imagination, Gupta's tormentor ultimately turns to be Chan Wook Park, the director of OIdboy, taking revenge on the wholesale pilfering of his work. The whole thing is great. Check it out. As for real life, there is hope yet. From the NPR segment again:

Anjum Rajabali: There is no doubt it'll change. I mean, economics will ensure that it'll change. Hollywood studios have begun investing in Indian productions as of the last six to eight months, in a very big way. There's a big market -- we're talking about one billion captive eyeballs in India. Hollywood studios would like to cash in on that. Now, they might also want their own earlier successful films adapted. But if somebody else has already done it without paying them anything, they will stop that.
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- March 20, 2008 10:33 PM // Bollywood

March 16, 2008

American Dream Irony

With all the recent news of instability in the US financial system (consider today's news of JP Morgan purchasing rival Bear Stearns for the laughable price of $2/share) contributing to the all round malaise felt by many, I found the following picture particularly telling:


Bread Line During the Louisville Flood, Kentucky, 1937

My intention is not to be apocalyptic. But it's good to remind ourselves.

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- March 16, 2008 8:12 PM // Politics

March 14, 2008

Link Love

Props to Nirali for making us one of their daily delicious picks. We can always use the link love. I first came across Nirali when trying to do a dd entry on Mindy Kaling and Vali Chandrasekaran - desi writers on hot comedy shows The Office and My Name Is Earl - and saw they had written a most wonderful piece already. Great stuff. Thanks and keep spreading the dishum!

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- March 14, 2008 9:21 PM // Diaspora

March 13, 2008

Shooting By Docuwallah

As a film, I found Shootout At Lokhandwala, to be rather meh. The only new thing it really does, at least by Bollywood standards, is weaving flashbacks into a present day narrative via having certain police officers recount the events leading up to the shooting in front of their superior. If anything, I found the title to be far more memorable than the film itself. However, it looks like there was a behind the scenes documentary that might actually be really interesting. Andrew O'Hehir lists his top discoveries of the recently concluded South By Southwest Film Festival and amongst them is:

"Shot in Bombay"

This fast-paced, immersive documentary from London-based American Liz Mermin (whose last film was the peculiar and compelling "Beauty Academy of Kabul") plunges you into the off-kilter chaos of Bollywood filmmaking, behind the scenes at an atrocious-looking action-adventure based on an infamous 1991 Mumbai shootout between cops and gangsters. The film's star, Sanjay Dutt -- a beloved Indian cinema icon run slightly to seed -- is himself under indictment on a weapons charge that's dragged through the courts for 13 years, and the crew spends more time with Dutt's double than with him in person. Mermin navigates between the film and the real-life crime story behind it, between Dutt's legal problems and his lengthy troubled-heartthrob career, with remarkable flexibility and sharp, dry humor. (Here's director Apoorva Lakhia, after every take, no matter how bad it is: "Cut! Mind-blowing! Let's move on!")

Mind blowing! I love it! Reminds me of John Cleese's clueless Scottish director from Monty Python's "Scott of the Antarctic" sketch:



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- March 13, 2008 8:08 PM // Bollywood , Film

March 8, 2008

Ciabatta Malpoa

What do you do you if you have a bunch of Ciabatta bread from Costco lying at the bottom of the refrigerator occupying valuable space? Sadly, I am the only one who took a liking to this product in its original state and I vastly overestimated my appetite for it. Luckily, my mother-in-law devised a plan: convert it to a Bengali sweet called malpoa. The results were delightful and I asked her for the recipe.

It's quite simple:

  • soak bread in milk to soften
  • fry in vegetable oil for crispness
  • dip in sugar syrup - but not too much, just enough for the sugar to seep in
  • set aside to cool

Ciabatta Malpoa

Apparently, a variant of this recipe is also known as Bombay Toast.

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- March 8, 2008 7:28 PM // Bangla , Food