Famous Opening Lines Masalafied

Call me Ishan. Seriously, SMS me yaar!

It was prem at first sight. The moment Yogesh saw the Guru, he fell in love with him.

A screaming comes across the busti.

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to Doordarshan.

As Gadhadhar Samosa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into the CM.

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, General Aurangazeb Butt was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover falooda.

I am an invisible Dalit.

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- February 3, 2013 9:39 AM // Books

White Tiger

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

There once was a driver called Adiga
who went into a desi bodega.
The choices were stark - the light and the dark
since inside was a cooped up white tiger.

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- February 28, 2012 8:36 PM // Books

Curry, Women and Song

"Right gentlemen," said the cabbie brightly. "Where am I taking you?"

"To where the three remedies for the darkness of the soul may be found," said Spider.

"Maybe we could get a curry." suggested Fat Charlie.

"There are three things, and three things only, that can lift the pain of mortality and ease the ravages of life," said Spider. "These things are wine, women and song."

"Curry's nice too," pointed out Fat Charlie, but nobody was listening to him.

-- Neil Gaiman, Anansi Boys

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- March 23, 2009 10:06 PM // Books

A Book Of Epigrams

Family friend, Mike Lipsey's I Thought So: A Book of Epigrams, is now available on both Amazon and Barnes and Noble. It is, as the title indicates, a collection of pithy words of wisdom from Michael himself. Let me list some of my favorites here. Hopefully, that'll give you an idea of what the book contains:

What am I doing this weekend?
Must I always be doing?

Your house is thinking,
"These people too shall pass."

I see a crying infant in the face of the angry man.

We carry our ethnic heritage like an invisible costume.

Nonviolence works well against pacifists.

Jobs have grown wings.

We sink financially in order to rise socially.

Football is hard bodies colliding on the screen and soft ones sinking into the sofa.

We were told we were winning the Vietnam war until the last Americans were helicoptered off the roof of the embassy.

There are sections on Life, Wealth, Religion, Politics and more. All in all, a lovely collection of quick verbal pick-me-ups, particularly when you're feeling a little jaded with the world.

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- April 26, 2008 12:40 PM // Books

Odd Titles

From the Beeb comes this entry about a contest for odd book titles. The finalists are:

  • How Green Were the Nazis?
  • D. Di Mascio's Delicious Ice Cream: D. Di Mascio of Coventry: An Ice Cream Company of Repute, with an Interesting and Varied Fleet of Ice Cream Vans
  • The Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America: A Guide to Field Identification
  • Tattooed Mountain Women and Spoon Boxes of Daghestan
  • Proceedings of the Eighteenth International Seaweed Symposium
  • Better Never To Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence

Love it, particularly the one about the seaweed. These titles reminded me of a game of movie charades I played in my grad school days. When came my turn, my adversary, his grin a mile wide, whispered in my ear, "The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl."


"You heard me."

This being an informal game and with my pride at stake, I had no choice but to proceed. Needless to say, nobody understood a single gesture I made. Adding insult to injury. many guffaws could be heard during my contortions. But, when came my tormentor's turn, I was ready. Thank you Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean for helping me get revenge!

In general, Indian film titles tend to be terse. With that in mind, here's the longest/oddest one that I know of. Cue drum roll...

It's Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyon Ata Hai (Why Is Albert Pinto Angry?). This 1980 examination of the life a typical Indian Christian sank without much fanfare shortly after its release. But the title alone ensures its place in desi film folklore.

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- March 11, 2007 7:48 PM // Books , Film

Asian American Chick Lit

In Jeff Yang's article in the Chronicle regarding Asian American chick lit, there's this observation from author Anjali Banerjee:

"The first book I wrote was actually a pretty straight romantic suspense novel, called 'Night Train Home,'" says Banerjee. "It didn't have any Asian characters and was quite honestly a pretty bad book. But the primary critique I got from agents was that it wasn't 'different' enough: It wouldn't stand out from the hundreds of other works of contemporary women's fiction already being published. And so I decided to tap into my own ethnic background, my own cultural experience, to give my next book a more distinctive flavor."


Which didn't stop Publishers Weekly from calling "Imaginary Men" "'Monsoon Wedding' meets 'Bridget Jones's Diary.'" "Hey, I have no problem with that," laughs Banerjee. "I'd be delighted if everyone who watched 'Monsoon Wedding' and bought 'Bridget Jones's Diary' also bought my book. Unfortunately, there are people out there who see an Indian on the cover of a book and won't buy it. They'll be like, 'Oh, this book isn't meant for me.' It's a bit of a catch 22: You want to be able to write something distinctive, but you also want to have people recognize that there are broader themes in the work, that the work is universal."

The dilemma is captured beautifully here: to be exotic or not, and if so, how much?

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- February 14, 2007 8:07 PM // Books

Screenwriting For Dummies

In his memoir, Hollywood Animal, screenwriter and Tinseltown bete noire Joe Eszterhas, writer of such films as Basic Instinct and Flashdance, shares an anecdote about the Golden Age of Hollywood:

Charles MacArthur was a celebrated playwright/screenwriter who believed that studio executives were some of the dumbest people he'd ever met and didn't know anything about writing. So he decided to prove it.

At the gas station one day, he started chatting with the young Englishman who was filling up his tank. The young man lamented that he was only making $40 a week and Charles MacArthur asked him if he wanted to make $1000 a week. The young man said, "Whoever I have to kill, I will happily do it."

Charles MacArthur bought him a new tweed suit and a curved-stem pipe. He took him in to the studio head and introduced him as "Kenneth Woolcott, the well-known English novelist who is against doing any movie writing because he insists there's no room for creative talent in the movies."

The studio boss did everything he could to persuade Kenneth Woolcott, the well-known English novelist, to be a screenwriter at his studio. He finally offered him $1000 a week. The gas station attendant grudgingly accepted the offer.

The studio was so pleased with Woolcott's work that they kept him under contract at $1000 a week for a whole year. After which Kenneth Woolcott went back to pumping gas.

Later on in the book, Joe Eszterhas confirms our suspicions about LA - yes, everyone there has a script in development of some kind. Consequently, though he lived outside LA and flew in for his meetings, he stopped taking cabs, mainly due to desperate drivers who staked out the lobbies of the hotels where he was staying, waiting for an opportunity to ambush him with their masterworks.

Their Mumbai counterparts, on the other hand, are still apparently too busy terrorizing their passengers and hapless pedestrians with their kamikaze tactics to worry about plot points and story arcs - whatever Bollywood dreams they have are still confined to starring in films, not writing one. But that may change soon. As DNAIndia reports, desi screenwriters, that long neglected arm of Bollywood, are finally getting more than chai and buttertoast for their services, sometimes as much as 25 lakh rupees (that's $50K) a script!

Industry observers point out that till recently, anybody could have scripted a Bollywood "formula" film with its trademark twists and turns. The concept of a script did not exist in the industry for the longest time. So, there was no real need for writers, says trade analyst Amod Mehra.

The script, however, is changing in Bollywood and the storyboard is moving in a new direction.

Though, scriptwriters are yet to get the recognition they deserve, they are suddenly sought after. And new voices are being heard all the time. As producers churn out films for different, even niche audiences, the opportunities for scriptwriters are increasing.

"A screenplay is now being viewed as the most important tool to make money," says Monga. This spells good news for writers who are paid better now-anything between Rs1 lakh to Rs25 lakhs, say industry sources, depending on the budget of the movie.

Time to reach into the desk drawer and dust off that screenplay, methinks. If there's no screenplay, why, a foreign hit DVD will do nicely for "inspiration." And invest in a tweed jacket and hookah.
PS - Thanks to Amar Parikh, as always, for the tip.

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- August 4, 2006 10:12 AM // Bollywood , Books , Film

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

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

The Office

Ron Suskind's latest expose on the Bush Administration, The One Percent Doctrine, is reviewed in Salon today and it's chock full of damning details. Of course, there's been a whole lotta books on this administration of this type and we've yet to reach any kind of tipping point.

A meticulous work of reporting, based on interviews with nearly 100 well-placed sources, many of them members of the U.S. intelligence community, Suskind's book paints perhaps the most intimate and damning portrait yet of the Bush team.

At this point, one could forgive readers for asking, "How many more damning portraits of the Bush administration do we need?" From yellowcake to Joe Wilson to Abu Ghraib, the list of Bush scandals and outrages is endless, but nothing ever seems to happen. As the journalist Mark Danner has pointed out, the problem is not lack of information: The problem is that Americans can't, or won't, acknowledge what that information means.

In particular, in addition to providing more detail on the usual shenanigans of this administration, the book sheds new light on Cheney's stealth bureaucratic machinations. A stunning summary from Salon:

Suskind's more momentous disclosure is the degree to which Cheney deliberately kept Bush in the dark, so as to be able to achieve his desired ends. For example, when Crown Prince Abdullah, the de facto Saudi ruler, visited Bush in 2002, the advance packet sent by the Saudis to prepare Bush for the meeting was mysteriously diverted to Cheney's office. Bush never read it. As a result, he had no idea what the agenda of the meeting was and failed to respond to the Saudi's requests for American help with the exploding Israeli-Palestinian crisis, which severely weakened Abdullah's position as an ally in the "war on terror." Nor did he extract any concessions from them. For Cheney, it seems, the less Bush was prepared for Abdullah, the less chance he would make any concessions to the Arab leader. Or perhaps Cheney simply wanted to control the meeting for the sake of control.

This is amazing stuff, The Office meets Yes Prime Minister by way of Dr. Strangelove. The fate of the free world rests on these guys?

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- June 23, 2006 1:12 PM // Books , Politics

Drumming At The Edge Of Magic

I don't know about you but I find the driveby sonic rumble of car subwoofers extremely annoying, yet there are plenty of people who spend fortunes decking out their cars and Suburbans just to share their bottom thumping joy with you. What happens to these bassheads as they get older? I have visions of the ashrams of tomorrow full of folks sitting in serene, untroubled contemplation, mostly because they can't hear a damned thing anymore!

Anyway, warfare of this kind has been going on for as long as humans have existed. Mickey Hart's (drummer for the Grateful Dead) book, Drumming At The Edge of Magic, is a serious attempt to trace the role of percussion in world mythology. I particularly enjoyed the following reference to the Mahabharata:

Drums provided the music of war, and the favored war drum was the kettledrum, whose terrible low booming could be heard for miles ... There are kettledrums froma ancient India, from the time of the ancient holy text, the Mahabharata, that measure five feet in diameter and weigh approximately four hundred and fifty pounds. You needed an elephant to lug them around. "There arose a tumultuous uproar caused by the blare of the trumpet and the thundering of drums, the blowing of conch shells," says the Mahabharata. "The very sky was rent by the beating of drums."

I'll keep that in mind the next time a Suburban booming the latest narcorrido ditty goes by. That's the modern day equivalent, I suppose.

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- May 23, 2006 11:26 PM // Books , Music

How Kaavya Got Punk'd

Forget the actual story, the media and blogosphere frenzy behind the rise and fall of Kaavya Viswanathan is no less compelling. First, there were the breathless reports in the papers, both Indian and non-Indian alike, about the scale of the deal, the film rights, the background of the author and, most importantly, her age. Seema Sirohi sums up the underlying feelings best:

Let's be honest. Many of us were a trifle jealous when Kaavya, barely 17 summers old, was handed a fortune by Little, Brown to churn out a novel based on the reading of just one chapter. After all, how can someone command a sum of $ 500,000 when in the school of life, they haven't even begun? She wasn't out of college, barely even in college when in the wiser judgement of the publishing hounds, she was declared the next it, the sensational new writer who was going to ride fearlessly into the annals of "chick-lit."

Then came the exposes, courtesy her own classmates via the Harvard Daily Crimson. Mark Morford notes the schadenfreude:

But over at Harvard, savage competitiveness isn't just a requirement, it's a mantra, a way of life at the expense of intellectual joy and raw curiosity and drunken sex on the dormitory steps at 3 a.m. (or, you know, so I'm told). Everyone there actively seeks and fully expects wild success, but when a friend or colleague gets it, they are viciously resented and loathed. Such is the nature of the beast.

I can't say I read each and every Kaavya-gate related desi blog entries injected into the Internet at the peak of the whole affair, but those I did come across gave her no quarter. This illustrated entry from Grumpy Old Indian Man is pretty representative. Consequently, it seems to me, Mark could just as well have been talking about the desi blogosphere. Once the ball started rolling, the luminaries jumped in, digging deeper into the book:

The similarities in passages with Rushdie's Haroun and the Sea of Stories (HATSOS) were brought out on the weblog Sepiamutiny.com where it was pointed out how the passage in Rushdie's book where his hero...
The similarities with Meg Cabot's 2000 novel The Princess Diaries were reported on the comments section of the online journal DesiJournal

Meanwhile, Shobak felt the South Asian American press were MIA:

The South Asian-American press, normally salivating over the success of Salman Rushdie, Jhumpa Lahiri, Fareed Zakaria, etc. seems to be running as far away as it can from this story. This journalist crew seems to only care about "model minority" and "India Shining" stories, but nothing involving awkward, messy, flawed real life.

Now that the furor is dying down, some voices are finally trying to put the whole thing in perspective and even offer some sympathy. Seema Sirohi again:

Perhaps, having a book to her name before a bachelor's degree was seen as just another "opportunity" by the young woman. After all, on the list of achievements it certainly would be the sexiest tag. In the hyper-competitive environs of Harvard, where most professors are stars, where big names jut out from corridors like headlines on a bad day, authorship of a novel at the tender age of 17 would give her traction. It would get her noticed and who knows may even please her parents! So she did what many have done before her and many surely will do after her -- lift from what's already on the shelf. The hard labour of writing, rewriting and editing out didn't fit the schedule of a young woman in a hurry. She had loads to do. Like take classes, get A's and have fun. She probably didn't even think of the moral and ethical questions involved in copying, often verbatim, passages from her "favourite" author, Megan McCafferty's books (and now as it seems, possibly from Salman Rushdie, Meg Cabot, and Sophie Kinsella as well). As Salman Rushdie points out, pushed by the needs of a publishing machine, the rush evidently was too much.

And Sandip Roy thanks Kaavya for performing a community service:

I know this must come as small consolation to you these days, as dreams of book deals, film projects and maybe even Ivy League futures seem to wither on the vine. But as one Indian-American to another, I say thank you. I have to confess to a sneaking sense of relief when Opal Mehta's life came crashing down around you. It's not schadenfreude. It's just this relief that finally we can fail, that we can screw up spectacularly and live to tell the tale.

Only we Indian-Americans know it's hard out there for an overachieving Indian-American. It was bad enough that we were the anointed model minority. (Did you know our median income is higher than that of any other ethnic group in the United States? That we have 200,000 millionaires and 41,000 doctors?) Now we are expected to excel at everything we do. We are the first-class first minority. "Doesn't anyone's kid ever come second in anything anymore?" wondered a friend bemusedly listening to a group of Indian mothers at a potluck.
I mean, we don't just win spelling bees. We do a clean sweep. Last year, all four finalists were our people. Our Bollywood actress Aishwariya Rai can't just be beautiful, she has to be the MOST beautiful woman in the whole world. That's why it was such a relief to see a stoner South Asian in that film "Harold and Kumar." Except Kumar wasn't just a pothead; when push came to shove he was also a medical whiz.

The only trouble here is that Kumar isn't an Indian-American invention, the script having been written by two Jewish Americans. No matter, perhaps this is something Ms. Viswanathan can rectify, now that she's seen the seamier side of success.

Update: Grumpy Old Indian Man writes in response to his entry:

While its fair enough to note the Schaudenfreude currently raining down on the Sundaram-Vishwanathans --- I must point out that the illustrated entry from my blog that you cite as an example (and thank you very much for the link :) of no quarter given -- does have the disgraced wunderkind surrounded by a whirling confusion of influences and pressures in its fourth panel. School ... truth .... fame ... money ... orientation ... expectant parents. That's a quarter Given ... perhaps even fitty cents.

Great blog you have going on! ... Keep up the good work.

I should also note this post is in no way trying to defend the actual plagiarism. I'm more interested in the pattern of the desi reactions out there. To quote Morrissey, "we all hate it when our friends become successful" and I wonder whether this sentiment cannot be extended to the desi community, particularly the expatriate version.

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- May 5, 2006 7:58 PM // Books

Slight/Sleight of Hand

The January edition of Forbes has this article on a Japanese bookseller, Keiichi Kikuchi,(Iconoclast) that's managed to avoid an ongoing industry slump. What's his secret? Cross-merchandising: i.e. grouping like minded items together. For example:

Kikuchi sells CDs, pictures, figurines and other paraphernalia by linking them to the specialty books on the store shelves. On the same shelf as, say, the novel Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami you might find the Beatles' Rubber Soul album and books that inspired the Japanese author, including Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's; a photo collection of Audrey Hepburn, who starred in the movie of the same title, rounds off the display. The travel section might offer magazines, tour guides, model jumbo jets, compact suitcases, chunky hotel key holders and retro push-button phones once common in U.S. hotel rooms.

His managers are free to make their own assortments in the franchise stores. Sometimes though, such collections may make more of a statement than was intended:

On a stand selling pictures of Saibaba--an Afro-sporting Hindu mystic who claims to have the power to conjure up jewelry from thin air--are party wigs and do-it-yourself magic tricks.

Subtle commentary, sly dig or just Japanese camp? You decide. I have a feeling the Baba himself might just be amused by the whole thing.

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- February 9, 2006 7:30 PM // Books

Age Of Propaganda

In the 1991 edition of Age Of Propaganda, a treatise on manipulation via media, there's this eerily prescient passage:

Political pundits and consultants are increasingly learning that appeals to our self-image make good politics. Candidates for political office are given attractive personalities; images are created by making speeches about the American flag, by posing in an Army tank, and by being photographed with schoolchildren in prayer. All we need to do to be patriotic, to be strong and tough, to be holy is merely to cast a vote for the right candidate. It would be sad indeed if we lost our 200-year old tradition of democracy because ... we were never motivated to scrutinize the candidate's self-image and evaluate the substance of his or her message.


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- November 22, 2005 9:37 PM // Books , Politics


In Blackface, a collection of reminiscences of African Americans in the movies, critic Nelson George writes on how black filmmaking might be sustained or expanded in the future. The book was published in 1994 but it is still interesting to draw parallels with desi independent filmmaking. In the final chapter, he writes:

The cost of making major motion pictures has always daunted anyone challenging Hollywood. It certainly is a big roadblock for the traditionally underfinanced black community. Perhaps the model to look at is the world of bootleg tapes and cassettes. Any major motion picture of interest to the black community is available before release in any swap meet, flea market, or sidewalk vendor in most urban areas...

The development of a direct-to-home-video market for African American films will be crucial in any strategy to build a black film institution. The programming must be made as inexpensive and easily accessible as the bootlegs purchased by blacks. In fact, whoever starts this company might be well-advised to advertise their films as "legal bootlegs."

Fast forward a decade and it's true that there does exist a direct-to-video market for black films. However, the titles I keep hearing about seem to be rapper exploitation flicks like Master P's I Got The Hookup. Desi films have a direct to video market in the USA as well - it's called renting DVDs from your local Indian grocery store. Of course, there are dedicated screens that show only films from the subcontinent but they exist only in major metropolitan areas. Anyway, most of the rental demand is for mainstream Bollywood fare, most of which tends to be, you guessed it, exploitative.

Additionally, rampant piracy continues to be a problem for Indian films too but with an additional twist. File-swapping sites like desitorrents.com have taken the problem online and global. So, why not take the book's suggestion and utilize an existing distribution network, which currently is being used for piracy, for legal distribution purposes? The desi audience is clearly technically savvy - when I was talking to Netflix, I found out that when they first switched to their all-you-can-eat subscription model, they were initially sustained by rentals of Bollywood movies, made presumably by folks who lived too far away from desi grocery stores. P2P network Kazaa tried this with the Bollywood film Supari. The article, dated December 2003, reports 200 download sales but I haven't heard anything since, so I don't know what became of that initiative. Of course, we have to make a distinction before we go any further - in the USA, Bollywood is considered niche and indeed it is. But to Indians, Bollywood is the mainstream. And I'm more interested in brainstorming about distribution for desi independent filmmaking - this in the USA becomes a niche within a niche. Yikes! Later in the chapter, Nelson George offers a way forward:

Similarly, there is an emotionally rich, financially lucrative mother lode in the catalogue of unfilmed women's literature. The Color Purple, which I personally didn't like but which was embraced by women of all colors, didn't inspire a wave of novelistic adaptations but I'm confident that by the end of the century one of the most substantial wings of African-American cinema will be the filmed works of Toni Morrison, Terry McMillan, Ntosake Shange, Bebe Moore Campbell ,etc. No question that this is a vital catalogue of great, very human stories waiting to be told.

Moreover, as book sales have testified, a national audience for the voices of black women clearly exists. The audiences have been consistently multiracial, though the works have been seeped in the African-American experience.

Clearly, he was on the money - I don't know about the latter two authors he mentioned but Terry McMillan (Waiting To Exhale, How Stella Got Her Groove Back) and Toni Morrison (Beloved) have had major films made from their books. Once again, however, you can extend this pattern to Asian American cinema (Amy Tan and Joy Luck Club) and, more recently, to Indian-American literature. I refer to Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake which Mira Nair, a true desi independent filmmaker if there was one, is adapting into a motion picture. Another example is Chitra Banerjee Devakaruni's Mistress of Spices, a recent feature from Paul Mayeda Berges. Of course, the advantage these films have is they have a pre-sold audience that's bought the book. Desi male indie filmmakers without access to such best selling female authors' works might either have to go the M. Night Shyamalan route i.e. tackle high-concept scripts and directly aim for as broad an audience as possible or explore new ways of reaching an audience through other means, such as online, particularly as NRI audiences have not proven to be particularly supportive of non-Bollywood diaspora films in general.

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- October 26, 2005 2:24 PM // Books , Film

Brick Lane

Shari has been reading Monica Ali's Brick Lane and, though it was slow going at first, she's enjoying it considerably. She read out one particularly poignant passage and I thought I'd share. It's from a conversation between Chanu and Shahana. Charu says:

I don't know Shahana. Sometimes I look back and I am shocked. Every day of my life I have prepared for success, worked for it, waited for it, and you don't notice how the days pass until nearly a lifetime has finished. Then it hits you - the thing you have been waiting for has already gone by. And it was going in the other direction. It's like I've been waiting on the wrong side of the road for a bus that was already full.

This is from the point of view of immigrants in the UK but it could equally well apply to us folks running after the American Dream. John Lennon is even more blunt:

Life is what happens when you're busy making other plans.

Disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and its hugely bungled aftermath somehow helps to put a lot of things in perspective. If you haven't given already, Red Cross is a good place to start.

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- September 9, 2005 9:38 PM // Books , Diaspora

The Diaspora Strikes Back

In The Lost Subcontinent William Dalyrmple summarizes the state of Indian and Indian diaspora writing. As he notes, Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things heralded the commercial viability of Indian litertature:

.. Roy's international critical and commercial success in 1997 radically changed perceptions of Indian writing in English, and not just in Delhi. Roy's book was immediately recognised as a major literary achievement: it won the Booker and sat at the top of the New York Times bestseller list for several months: by the end of 1997 it had sold no less than four million copies in two dozen languages.

The results were predictable:

There quickly followed a major publishing feeding-frenzy: international literary agents and publishers descended on India from London and New York, signing up a whole tranche of authors, many of whom received major advances for outlines of novels they had barely begun. Picador launched a list exclusively devoted to Indian writing in 1998; the office was soon buried under an avalanche of unsolicited manuscripts. Throughout the late 1990s, barely a month went by without the news of some fledgling scribbler being discovered lurking as a sub-editor on the Indian Express or pushing papers in the Ministry of External Affairs.

Several other writers had of course prepared the ground for this success. Roy could not have happened without VS Naipaul, Salman Rushdie and Vikram Seth: in particular Rushdie's 1981 masterpiece Midnight's Children liberated Indian writing in English from its colonial straitjacket. It also gave birth to a new voice, one that was exuberantly magical, cosmopolitan and multicultural, full of unexpected cadences, as well as forms that were new to the English novel but deeply rooted in Indian traditions of storytelling. It won the Booker, as did Naipaul's Bend in the River. Then, in 1993, Seth produced his massive - and magnificent - A Suitable Boy. Rushdie's prediction that "Indians were in a position to conquer English literature" seemed about to be vindicated.

Unfortunately, that didn't quite pan out..

The truth is, however, that since 1997 there has been no new galaxy of stars emerging to match the stature of those of the 1980s and 90s. Many of the Indian novelists who were signed up with such excitement 10 years ago failed to repay even a fraction of their advances. The only Indian-themed book to win the Booker - The Life of Pi - was written by Yann Martel, a white Canadian. In India itself, there is no new internationally acclaimed masterpiece, no new Roy.


As far as prizes are concerned, since Roy, we have had Anita Desai, Rohinton Mistry and Monica Ali on the Booker shortlist, Jhumpa Lahiri winning the Pulitzer; while off the prize-piste there have been two exceptionally brilliant novels by Hari Kunzru (The Impressionist and Transmission) and a fine book each from Manil Suri (The Death of Vishnu) and Nadeem Aslam (Maps for Lost Lovers

Many of the folks on this list are diaspora writers. Could they be coming into their own?

The big uncertainty in the years to come, however, is whether it will continue to be Indians in India mediating this country in the future - or will this increasingly come to be the preserve of the diaspora. Here a big and daily growing question mark remains. In Britain during the last four or five years, the waves have been made less by authors from south Asia, or even from the immediate south Asian diaspora, as much as British-born Asian writers such as Nadeem Aslam or Meera Syal, and particularly what Rushdie might call "chutnified" authors of mixed ethnic backgrounds who are, in Zadie Smith's famous formulation, "children with first and last names on a direct collision course. Names that secrete within them mass exodus, cramped boats and planes, cold arrivals, medical checks".

The diaspora, however don't quite see themselves carrying the torch:

When he was in Delhi last summer launching Transmission, Kunzru surprised many Indian interviewers by emphasising that he was a British author, not an Indian one, and that he was very happy living in London with his British identity: to one interviewer, he remarked that although his books have some Indian characters and partly Indian settings, he is not "one of those expatriate Indian writers who scours the Indian landscape looking for my roots", adding that he "abhors the nostalgic writing that many writers of Indian diaspora usually indulge in. My next book will not have anything to do with India at all." For him, he said, India was a place where his cousins lived and where he came for weddings and winter holidays.

In Hong Kong, he confirmed this: "I am very careful never to describe myself as an Indian writer," he said. "I am a British-born, British-resident author. I have connections to India and I feel they inform what I do to some extent, but more than this I cannot claim. What I and Zadie are doing is British writing about British hybridity. It is a completely separate story to that strand of writing which is about Indian-born writers going somewhere else. People should not confuse the two."

I could sense the politics of this when reading Transmission. There were three plotlines within the book: one dealt with a desi computer nerd finding his way from Gurgaon to Silicon Valley, the second was about a really put-upon Bollywood starlet on location in the UK and the third described the shenanigans of a high class British man. Somehow, I felt the third thread was somewhat superfluous to the overall narrative. The first two narratives came together quite nicely in the end but the third seemed to be more about Mr. Kunzru saying to the readers, Look - I can do non-brown too! Given that his first book, The Impressionist, dealt, once again, with an Anglo-Indian desi during the times of the British Raj, I found Mr. Kunzru's statements interesting. Unlike Zadie Smith and Monica Ali, both of whom dealt with Bangladeshi first and second generation UK immigrants in their debuts, I don't quite see the second generation hybridity in his work. If that's not there and he is disavowing any serious connections with the subcontinent, then there's the faintest whiff of opportunism about the whole thing. Writing about India is "in" - use it's exoticism while you still can. Move on when the masala runs out. Hopefully that's not the case.

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- August 15, 2005 9:41 PM // Books , Diaspora , India

Down and Dirty Pictures

Peter Biskind's Down and Dirty Pictures, subtitled Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film, is a five hundred page takedown of the Weinstein brothers, Harvey and Bob, the founders of uber indie distributors Miramax (currently peddling Bride and Prejudice in the US), and of the Robert Redford Sundance empire. It gleefully dishes out enough dirt to make you feel like you need to be scrubbed with pumice, thrice over, when you're done with the book. Required reading for any wannabe film producers and directors, this tome tells you how cutthroat the business really is in the USA (as if you didn't know already!). After you've scrimped and cajoled your film into existence, hurdled the festival circle, the final and toughest obstacle is that of getting your film picked up for distribution. And that's where the sharks come in. Imagine - you've eaten, breathed, slept this film for the past three, four years of your life. You've made it past the festival circuit and your film has actually managed to get some attention away from the hot shot debut du jour. What wouldn't you do to ensure it plays at a real theater, with real patrons, munching mostly real popcorn? Would you give away your first born in exchange for a bit of marketing push? Yep, you would. And that's where they get you. The book is full of anecdotes whereby desperate filmmakers were sweet-talked by Miramax into selling their films for nothing. Of course, once they sign on the dotted line, the real fun starts. Re-cutting, re-negotiations, threats to shelf the film indefinitely and a host of other indignities follow until you are left, literally, in tears. God help you if they are both producing and distributing. An astonishing example comes in the case of M. Night Shyamalan and Wide Awake. Peter Biskind writes:

Even then, without a hit, Shyamalan was arrogant and stubborn. To them, his attitude was, "I'm Steven Spielberg, and this is a pit stop and I'm going to blow past you guys. I'm writing a movie right now called The Sixth Sense, which is going to be a $100 million dollar film, and that's the business I'm interested in." The Weinsteins returned the favor. "They treated Shyamalan like shit," says a source. When Harvey and Bob first saw Wide Awake at a Tribeca screening room, Bob, according to former production head Paul Webster, told the young director, "I don't think this movie can be saved," while Harvey "made Night cry. Destroyed him, in front of everybody."


As was their custom, the Weinsteins slashed the budget way beyond a point that was reasonable, tormented Shyamalan for exceeding it, and then when their self fulfilling prophecy was fulfilled, threw money at postproduction, allowing Harvey to flex his producing muscles. Adds Lechner, "There was cut after cut, reshoots, rescoring, revoicing, but it was fucked from Day 1. It wasn't a good script, it wasn't a good movie, and you could have worked on it for another ten years and you wouldn't have made it into a good movie." Says Joe Roth, "Harvey was recutting it behind him. Shymalan had a terrible time."

I have no idea whether any of the incidents mentioned in the book are true or not but it caused some consternation when it came out. According to a Salon article

When this year's Sundance festival opened two weekends ago, Biskind's book cast a terrible pall over the opening proceedings. Weinstein, some said, blubbered around contrite like some Ralph Kramden at Alice's funeral, while Redford just lay low, like an aging ski bum minus Viagra. The days of quitting your day job at Blockbuster and maxing out your Visa card to produce a Sundance-worthy masterpiece of American cinema seemed dead and buried.

Of course, the festival recovered soon thereafter but, like I mentioned before, the book is a sobering reminder of the perils of independent filmmaking.

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- April 9, 2005 10:16 AM // Books