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

Lost In Transcription

Make no mistake, Being Cyrus is an effective little indie thriller and has a chance to find accepting urban audiences everywhere, desi or otherwise. But not with the English subtitles on the DVD release. The film itself is mostly in English but I usually have the titles on by default when watching stuff from India. I was fishing around for my remote when I realized something wasn't quite right with the onscreen words.

Right at the beginning of the film, our anti-hero, Cyrus (played by Saif Ali Khan), presents himself to an aged Parsi couple, Dinshaw (Naseeruddin Shah) and Katy Sethna (Dimple Kapadia). "I've come regarding your poetry school," he says. Except, the Sethnas actually run a pottery school. Otherwise, the subsequent scenes of Cyrus massaging mud doesn't make sense - unless the director was trying pass an oblique comment on the virtues of verse.

I was willing to let one typo slide. But just after that, Cyrus claims some of Dinshaw's works are on display at the "grooving museum" in New York as opposed to, oh, the Guggenheim. That's when I realized either the subtitlist had either partaken of some strong herb or his ability to transcribe English was sadly deficient or he was hard of hearing or he had performed his duties inside the engine room of a steam locomotive. Perhaps all of the above. Whatever it was, his (or her) transmissions from Spaceship Ganja definitely added an extra dimension to our viewing experience.

For example, did you know that Mars was a "marshal planet" and that your half baked aspirations could turn into "half day desperations?" Katy could be played like a "vilon" and, given Dimple Kapadia's continuing oomph, I want to know what a "vilon" is and how does one play it. Apparently, it was also possible to "live like a popper" and you could do so in a place called "Punch Gun" which, presumably, is not far from Panchgani, the initial setting of the film. This must be a magical place because in order to bite the hand that feeds them, you had to "buy 100 feet." Hope they use deodorant over there.

As the film progressed, the transcriptions grew more poetic, wistful even. "He has a very bad sprain" became "he has a very bad spring." A police officer complained death was "starring at him all the time." Must be tough to play second fiddle to the Grim Reaper. In his presence, "handcuffs" morphed into "hand coughs" and "you have a way with words, inspector" soared to "you have ways to hit the words, inspector." Indeed.

The language grew more heated towards the end and our intrepid subtitlist spared no efforts in hiding our blushes. "Sweet old bugger" was censored to "sweet old baba." Frustrated teens might argue they are one and the same but still! Apparently, you also cannot make an "amlate" without breaking eggs. And, once you've made a mess thus, do you clean with "meticulous care?" No, our man felt you have to clean with "medicare." Strong comment on the lamentable state of US healthcare perhaps but a little out of place in a thriller from Mumbai. Finally, being a bit of a showman, our man saved the best for last. Towards the end of the film, a character emoted with great sadness, "no matter what happens during a chess game, the king and the porn always go back to the box."

Intent as our transcriptor was in deciphering the mysteries of the universe, he had an omission I found quite perplexing. In some parts of the film, the dialogue shifts to non-English. Those had no subtitles.

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- May 11, 2006 7:04 PM // Film , Select

How Much Does Google Value Amitabh Bachchan?

Thar's gold in them keywords, son.

Ever wondered how Google (and, to a smaller extent, Yahoo) get a large chunk of their revenue? Well, you don't have to look very far. Take a look a closer look at your results the next time you do a web search - those little ads that dot the top and side of the page add up to an awful lot of money. "What does any of this have to do with Amitabh?," I hear you say. Well, the ads that show up here are usually related to your search query. For example, if you are searching for Amitabh, there are advertisers willing to pay Google (or Yahoo or MSN) for the privilege of showing up alongside the search results. If you should then happen to click on the ad, the advertiser will pay Google a fee, perhaps a relatively small amount but over the course of many many clicks, it adds up.

Exactly how these prices are determined vary from search engine to engine but popularity plays a big part. You are much more likely to search for "Sachin Tendulkar" than, say, "Robin Singh." No offense to Robin who served India most honorably indeed but Sachin just happens to be one of the most popular cricketers on the planet. Consequently, his name is more likely to be searched, hence there are more advertisers (say sports sites) competing against each other to pay for a higher ad placement on Google resulting in a higher price for Sachin. There are other factors involved, hence a fatter wallet is not a guarantee of top placement, but it certainly doesn't hurt! The upshot is this: words now have monetary value. And what is in a name? A lot of money indeed, particularly for the right one.

Now that we have a mechanism for measuring relative worth, I, of course, had to zoom in on Bollywood. I was curious - who was the most expensive fillum celebrity in the virtual firmament? Did any of our diaspora actors and actresses even rate? I devised a method to find out. I started off by going to Google's start page for advertisers. Once there, I picked the standard edition which allows you to select the territories where you'd like your ads to appear. In addition to the subcontinent (India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh), I added countries with high desi populations (USA, UK, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia) as well as a sprinkling of smaller territories (Fiji, Qatar, Hong Kong and UAE). Next, I created a fake ad with the title "Come to desi talk." and description "Come to a site to find news about desi celebrities." I provided Dishum Dishum, as the destination url. The penultimate step was selecting keywords for my ad. I entered my celebrity name here and Google then whispered, "want to purchase the most clicks possible?" This was Google's recommendations as to the budget and price per click (ppc) necessary to place my blurb near the top position for all possible impressions. Bingo! The ppc was the value I wanted. I started off with male actors. Here's the resulting list:

Desi Male Actors

Amitabh Bachchan $1.36
Kal Penn $0.40
Om Puri $0.36
Naveen Andrews $0.36
Shahrukh Khan $0.34
Salman Khan $0.28
Anil Kapoor $0.25
Naseeruddin Shah $0.21
Aamir Khan $0.20
Abhishek Bachchan $0.20
Sanjay Dutt $0.20
John Abraham $0.18
Nana Patekar $0.15
Boman Irani $0.10
Sunil Shetty $0.07
Paresh Rawal $0.05

Well, they don't call him the "Big B" for nothing! Amitabh extends his dominance over all things desi in the cyber arena as well. His name is worth as much as $1.36 a click. That's more than double the next contender, Kal Penn's rate of forty cents. Additionally, Kal "Kumar" Penn has Shahrukh, Salman, Aamir and all of the other Bollywood stars beat. What's more, the Khans are actually behind Naveen "Lost" Andrews and character actor Om Puri as well! What's going on here? If I had to guess, it would be that barring the diaspora, internet penetration (and consequently search based marketing) is still relatively low in the subcontinent. A lot of searches for desi terms is still going to come from the internet population at large - i.e. USA, UK and so on. Hence, diaspora actors who have made a name for themselves in the Western hemisphere but who are still relatively unknown in India will still be worth more. Perhaps Om Puri, by also having an international career (Salon wondered whether he was our greatest living actor?") in addition to his Indian one, avoids this sidelining as well. The Big B, of course, is in another plane entirely.

Some other observations from the list:

  • Old stalwart Anil Kapoor is hanging in there despite all the competition from young blood.
  • Aamir Khan is tied with Abhishek. Bluffmaster has a ways to go before we can start comparing him to his dad. But we knew that already, didn't we?
  • Old stars just refuse to fade away, don't they? Sanjay Dutt, recent bomb blast court case problems notwithstanding, continues to rate. Does Munnabhai have it in him for another charge up the charts? Stay tuned.
  • Young gun John Abraham has yet to completely escape the character actor ghetto occupied by Boman Irani and Nana Patekar. Nana's recent exploits in "Taxi No. 9211" haven't been enough to drive him up the ppc sweepstakes.
  • Spare a thought for poor Sunil Shetty and Paresh Rawal, occupiers of the cellar. Mr. Shetty's Bollywood profile has been pretty low for a while but I would have thought Paresh "Malamal Weekly" Rawal had done enough to escape the dungeon.

Moving on to actresses, we have:

Desi Actresses

Shabana Azmi $0.69
Rimi Sen $0.50
Rani Mukherjee $0.43
Mallika Sherawat $0.40
Lisa Ray $0.40
Sushmita Sen $0.30
Lara Dutta $0.30
Parminder Nagra $0.30
Aishwarya Rai $0.28
Kareena Kapoor $0.25
Preity Zinta $0.23
Archie Panjabi $0.21
Priyanka Chopra $0.20
Riya Sen $0.20
Bipasha Basu $0.20
Neha Dhupia $0.20
Purva Bedi $0.20
Sheetal Sheth $0.20

This list draws more questions than answers. How on earth is Shabana Azmi topping the list? Her ppc of $0.69 is actually more than all the male actors barring Amitabh! How does Rimi Sen manage to beat out reigning Bollywood queen Rani Mukherjee? What's Aishwarya Rai doing in the middle of the pack? My previous high-international-profile theory might explain Shabana's preeminence but, by that logic, Aishwarya should be topping the list. She isn't. On the other hand, Mallika Sherawat, despite having starred in a fair number of bombs of late, continues to rate. The diaspora actresses, although virtually unknown in India, are hanging tough as well. Over to you - let me know if you have any theories that fit the bill.

Disclaimer:. This article is for entertainment purposes only. Hat tip to a fellow Yahoo, Amr Awadallah - his original post inspired this article.

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- April 22, 2006 5:17 PM // Bollywood , Diaspora , Select , Technology

Naming Your Desi Band

"So you want to be a rock'n'roll star" sang The Byrdsand the call of stardom is something every sensitive, artistic South Asian type has contemplated. Lord knows, I'm no exception. But long before the guitars, the drums, the samplers, the turntables, the sequencers, the dholak player mishaps, the perenially drunk tabla players, the screwed up hanger-ons and that record deal with Sony Asia can come your way, you must face your first challenge.

You have to find a name for your group.

Sure you can take the easy way out. But honestly, will people really come to hear Soam and The Band? I didn't think so. Besides, the rest of the artistically inclined souls in your group might take umbrage at your getting top billing, never mind the fact that it's your apartment where they create the racket, much to your long suffering neighbor's chagrin, and it's your samosas and beer they're destroying. So, a catchy name it is then. But what? It really should have something to do with South Asian culture and be cool. After all, how else would you get on MTV Desi? If your primary influences are Norwegian death metal, more power to you, but that's not something desi and world music audiences are necessarily interested in unless you can throw in power sitar chords in there somewhere. Thus, I'm assuming you want to do a fusion band, go back to your roots, make funky beats, score with henna-ed groupies, whatever. But you want your band moniker to reflect the music you make. I've faced this problem a couple of times, so what I can do is share with you some of my own thought processes on the matter:

  • No masala or spice in the title. That's so played. No Spicy Beats or Masala Music here, no sirree!

  • Anything "mutiny" related is also getting overused. I mean, it's already made it's way into a NYC music gathering, a website, and a music documentary. All good stuff and rebellion is good for the image but you have to find some other Indian insurrection. Perhaps Gandhi's Non-cooperation movement? Salt March?

  • Likewise with karma. Sorry lads, John Lennon beat you to it with Instant Karma and I've really heard no variation that comes close since then. Yes, I know that's a song title but it's so good, it's been taken for band names, both in the West and India.

  • Kama Sutra: yes, it's tempting, particularly for the daring and the desperate amongst you, but it's been ripped off many many times worldwide. Just musically alone, there's at least one famous record label with that title.

As you can see, this is not a trivial challenge. All the obvious names have long been spoken for or are too overused in other settings. Thinking of Om? Too bad, in the USA there's Om Records, an SF based electronica/house label that, to my knowledge, has no desi connections whatsoever. How about Guru? Nope, that's one half of Gang Starr, the premier NYC hip hop outfit. And there's Loop Guru too. So, how does one get around this impasse? Some suggestions:

  • Perhaps the term desi itself may still not be overkill. I like Funkadesi. Alas, desibeats is gone. Perhaps Desi Wonderland? Desi Boogie? A bit retro, but not without charm. A name I've used in the past for my creative efforts is Desi Jersey Mafia. I'm particularly proud of that one. It hits the trifecta: desis in New Jersey involved with the mafia! True, it was intended for satirical purposes, but hey, so was Spinal Tap.

  • Names of Indian express trains. I once thought of the Deccan Queen but resisted, thinking of the inevitable comparisons. Toofan Mail is still a possibility. Bonus: it's also the title of a famous old time Bollywood song.

  • Indian states/cities: other than Mumbai/Bombay, I think all other cities/states are fair game. Certainly, that must've been the idea behind the group State of Bengal. But too many names with Bombay in it: Bombay Vikings, just for starters. My candidate here was the Royal Bengal Brothers, but, alas, my brother nixed that one. Pity - you would be getting a state and a state animal at the same time!

  • Indian regional groups: unless you are Punjabi. Starting from Punjabi MC to Bohemia, the Punjabi Rapper, this is one busy term. However, if you're say Gujrati or Tamil, there's hope. As far as I know, Gujrati MC or Tamil Rapper has not been taken. For Bengalis, it's a rich vein to mine, particularly with Bengalis referring to themselves as bongs (no drug references implied here - really). My own favorite here is The Big Bong Theory. "What's The Big Bong Theory?," I hear you ask. Well, the universe started with a Bong!

  • Movies: a good idea in theory, but tough in reality. Naming yourself after Bollywood titles is not really an option unless you specifically are looking for that audience. Outside India, however, precious few films are identified with India or Indians, at least in a positive way. Tha Gandhis (sic) just doesn't work for me. I suppose, you could try subversion of titles: Band Of Joy or, my favorite, Gunga's Din.

  • Brevity: If all else fails, keep it short and punchy. But beware - most of the words implying good times in an Indian language are out of bounds. Dhun, Nasha, and Dhamaal are all accounted for. Don't even think of Dhamaka.

Okay, that should be enough of a starting point. Just remember, if you do decide to use one of my suggestions, I want lifetime backstage passes and a copy of your first CD. Happy naming!

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- December 9, 2005 10:59 AM // Diaspora , Music , Select

Desis In Odd Places Part II

More from the desis in places where you least expect 'em dept: here we were browsing through the exhibits in Victoria's Royal BC museum in British Columbia, when we spotted something odd. Tucked away in a glass case in a room of exhibits depicting Vancouver in the '60s was a vinyl album. Featured on that album cover was a Sardarji as one of the members of a band. On the left is the only picture of the album cover I could find online. Not a pristine print but have a look at the second guy from the right. The cover art leaves no doubt as to the times that produced this work - '60s flower-power. But, when you think of the entire '60s hippie movement, how many actual Indian musicians (other than Ravi Shankar) come to mind? So, I dug a little deeper. The name of the band was the Poppy Family and the album was "Which Way You Goin' Billy". AMG says:

Susan Pesklevits and Terry Jacks met in the band Powerline. They later married and formed the Poppy Family in 1968. With guitarist Craig McCaw and percussionist Satwan Singh, the duo's third single, "Which Way You Goin' Billy," became a hit in the U.S. and their native Canada, selling over two million copies. The group recorded three albums in the early '70s: That's Where I Went Wrong and Which Way You Goin' Billy in 1970 and Poppy Seeds in 1971.

Apparently, Satwan Singh had played percussion with Ravi Shankar. The AMG album review has some more tid-bits:

The album's two international hit singles, "Which Way You Goin' Billy?" and "That's Where I Went Wrong," are both tales of lovers on the run that sound as desperate as Del Shannon and as lonesome as Brian Wilson's worst nightmare, and such lost classics as "You Took My Moonlight Away" and "Beyond the Clouds" are every bit as strong, boasting clear but emotive vocals from Susan Jacks, brilliant if oddball Indian percussion from Satwan Singh, and melodramatic string arrangements from Graeme Hall.

It turns out the album is long out of print, unfortunately. So, what became of the group?

Terry and Susan were divorced by 1973, however, and both began solo careers. Susan released Dream (1976), Ghosts (1980) and Forever (1982), but Terry became more successful when his "Seasons in the Sun" single went platinum in Canada (more than 150,000 units).

Yes, that "Seasons In The Sun" - it's tougher to be more sentimental and mawkish, I tell you. But what of Satwan Singh? I could only find this:

Terry Jack's dislike for playing live led him to let McCaw and Singh go from the Poppy Family fold in 1970.

Two more hits followed in "That's Where I Went Wrong" and "Where Evil Grows" which saw Jacks under great pressure to put a touring version of the Poppy Family together. While working with Valdy on a studio project in Vancouver, Jacks came across the guitar work of Norman MacPherson who he brought on board to replace not only McCaw as a live guitarist, but to help in the studio on the 'Poppy Seeds' album. MacPherson left the live roster on good terms in the Fall of 1971. Terry Jacks would then call Bob Nelson to replace MacPherson on guitarist. At first, it was Terry Jacks, Susan Jacks, Bob Nelson & Satwant Singh. They played quite a few gigs across Canada and in the United States. But Nelson eventually left the group and the Poppies returned to studio life.

And that's it. Damn shame - I'm curious to find out whatever became of, possibly, the first Indian percussionist in a psychedelic band. He would have some stories to tell!

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- November 16, 2005 8:13 PM // Music , Select

Dwarves Living In Oblivion

It had to happen eventually. Remember Living In Oblivion? There was a great rant in it about dwarves and dream sequences. Specifically:

Tito: Why does my character have to be a dwarf?

Nick: He doesn't have to be.

Tito: Then why is he? Is that the only way you can make this a dream, to put a dwarf in it?

Nick: No, Tito, I...

Tito: Have you ever had a dream with a dwarf in it? Do you know anyone who's had a dream with a dwarf in it? No! I don't even have dreams with dwarves in them. The only place I've seen dwarves in dreams is in stupid movies like this! "Oh make it weird, put a dwarf in it!". Everyone will go "Woah, this must be a fuckin' dream, there's a fuckin' dwarf in it!". Well I'm sick of it! You can take this dream sequence and stick it up your ass!

"How much longer," I hear you ask, "before dwarves start appearing in Bollywood dance numbers?" After all, for all intents and purposes those are interchangeable with dream sequences anyway and India is progressing so rapidly on all fronts. Well, worry no more. On the bonus materials for the DVD to D, a recent offering from Ram Gopal Varma's Factory production arm, we spotted the music video Dhokebaz replete with muscled men, vamp and, yes, this:

We've come a long way, baby.

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- November 9, 2005 11:29 PM // Bollywood , Film , Select

Kronos/Asha at the YBCA

There have been many words of praise for Asha Bhosle over the years, some conventional ("most recorded artist"), some musical ("largest vocabulary of vocal techniques") and some offbeat ("grandmotherly Elvis"). To this I would simply add: she must take her share of blame for India's population explosion. The reason is simple enough. In her own words:

As Asha Bhosle struggled to make her mark, her biggest competition and mark for comparison was her own sister. "Didi [the elder sister] was singing the love songs, the sad songs, and I knew that if I did something different, something new, only then would people give me songs," says Bhosle.

The "something different" was cabaret songs. At that time, in Bollywood films the heroine had a holier-than-thou virginal image that was made even more ethereal by Lata Mangeshkar's singing. But filmmakers also wanted a little masala to spice up their films. That was where the vamps came in. Some actresses, like the exotic-looking Helen, made an entire career playing the vamp in hundreds of films. And the voice behind the vamp was invariably Bhosle's. In the film "Taxi Driver" she sings "Jeene Do Jiyo" [Live and Let Live], probably the first cabaret song in Hindi cinema.

It clicked. "Many have tried to imitate Lata, and some have come close. But no one has tried to imitate Asha, because no one can," says music aficionado Arvind Kumar, the founding editor of India Currents magazine.

To date, the songs she sung under the aegis of R. D. Burman have probably been some of the most remixed/covered songs out of Bollywood. Additionally,

Instead of cringing at the remixes that were pouring into the market, she did the next best thing - she joined the bandwagon and brought out the remixed variety of own old numbers. She also came out with a video cassette entitled "Janam Samjha Karo". Then there is the new album "Rahul and I". Asha never ceases to amaze. She is constantly repackaging herself. And so the Asha magic continues to enthral.

However, the Kronos Quartet represented a new level of collaboration for Asha-ji and I was curious as all heck to see how it would turn out on September 22, 2005, at the Yerba Buena Center Theater in San Francisco, the first of a limited set of dates. I needn't have worried - Asha-ji sounds as great as ever. But first things first - the first half of the concert was devoted to Kronos premiering San Francisco based minimalist composer Terry Riley's The Cusp of Magic, a work in six parts. In tone, the parts varied from apocalyptic (The Cusp of Magic) to staccato (Buddha's Bedroom) to whimsical (The Nursery). The latter, in particular, was augmented by a backdrop of noises from stuffed animals, the last sound of the movement being that of a lone toy frog being wrung. Throughout, I was impressed by the sheer aural variety on offer, not to mention the virtuoso ensemble playing. In addition to Wu Man on pipa, the Quartet featured David Harrington on violin (and various percussive instruments), John Sherba on violin, Hank Dutt on viola and keyboards and Jeffrey Zeigler on cello. In addition, we had the wild and wacky samples being triggered from time to time. A good harbinger for the second half and the main event!

"Atithi Deva Bhava - the guest is god. You are my guests and I'll try my best to please you," were Asha-ji's opening words when she strode to the stage at the start of the second half of the show. Apart from a little feedback in the first song and perhaps the hint of a cracked voice in another, this was an audio sensory experience. That included Asha-ji's banter between shows. She apologized for her poor command of English and asked band leader David Harrington to translate the song titles. Her in-song banter quickly endeared her to the audience, an eclectic mix of desis and the San Francisco art crowd. The choice of songs was inspired - a mixture of Bollywood staples such as Dum Maro Dum ("Take Another Toke") and Chura Liya Hai Tum Ne ("You've Stolen My Heart") with more leftfield titles. "They picked the most difficult songs," she complained to the audience at one point, rather jokingly of course and that endeared her to us all the more. Of the more adventurous songs, we were particularly impressed by the choice of two Bengali songs of R. D. Burman. Asha-ji sang Ekta Deshlai Kathi Jalao ("Light a Match") with all the coquettishness of a sixteen year girl. For Nadir Pare Uttche Dhoa ("Smoke Rises Across The River"), she took a break, and Quartet played with all the might and passion of many times their number. Upon returning, she commented that, accustomed as she was to working with hundreds of musicians at any given time, she found Kronos' versatility to be simply amazing. Their arrangements sparkled as well - subtly extending Asha-ji's vocals in one song, setting up a counterpoint in another, they were always less than obvious. By the time she started Piya Tu Ab To Aaja ("Lover Come To Me Now"), the incongruous sight of a grandmotherly figure providing breathy, panting vocals had been replaced by that of a diva still in regal command of her faculties (if you closed your eyes).

I found the audience attendance for the first show to be disappointing but, in retrospect, it was to be expected given the eclectic nature of the musical marriage. I understand the attendance was much higher the next day and, overall, CD sales outside the hall were unusually brisk. A good harbinger of things to come perhaps?

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- September 28, 2005 6:27 PM // Bay Area , Bollywood , Music , Review , Select

Lip Synching Banned

Take a look at this: Turkmen President Bans Lip Synching.

ASHGABAT, Turkmenistan -- He has outlawed opera and ballet and railed against long hair and gold teeth, but now the authoritarian president of Turkmenistan is determined to wipe out another perceived scourge: lip synching.

President Saparmurat Niyazov has ordered a ban on lip synching performances across the tightly controlled Central Asian nation, citing "a negative effect on the development of singing and musical art," the president's office said Tuesday.

"Unfortunately, one can see on television old voiceless singers lip-synching their old songs," Niyazov told a Cabinet meeting in comments broadcast on state TV on Tuesday. "Don't kill talents by using lip synching... Create our new culture."

Under Niyazov's order, lip synching is now prohibited at all cultural events, concerts, on television -- and at private celebrations such as weddings.

Can you imagine if Bal Thackerey somehow got it into his head to do the same to Mumbai and, by extension, to Bollywood? The mind boggles. All those pretty vacant starlets forced to sing for themselves. It would have the same impact as silent movies being replaced by those with sound. Not all stars survived the transition in Hollywood. Someone like Vasundhara Das would do really well. As for others, well they better start brushing up on their scales. And as for the men, well we've seen Aamir Khan (Ghulam) and Amitabh Bachchan do their thing. The rest have spared our eardrums. So far, thanks to the good lord.

PS - Thanks to Amar Parikh for the link.

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- August 24, 2005 9:03 PM // Bollywood , Select


Somewhere in the course of the past two decades, Amitabh Bachchan went from an "angry young man" to being an ubiquitous old man. Oh sure, in between there were the dog days of the collapse of his ABCL venture and his subsequent rehabilitation via the Kaun Banega Crorepati (Indian version of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire) TV show. Post career resuscitation, Mr. Bachchan seems to have tucked into his new onscreen career with relish. But for the rest of us, it's a case of too much pickle ruining the chapati. If he's not invoking that distinctive voice of his for a film voiceover, he's busy lecturing some young buck on family values or hectoring the audience on patriotism. Even if he's not on the bill, there's no escaping a cameo appearance from the man. These days, a major Bollywood production is made notable by his absence. And of course, if you turn on Indian TV, he's selling something in a commercial near you!

Thus, director Ram Gopal Verma chief achievement with Sarkar, as far as I am concerned, is that he restores Amitabh Bachchan's grandeur as an actor. He does this by stripping away the bombast and the many layers of acting tics Amitabh has accumulated over the years. Here, Amitabh speaks volumes via the stillness of his face and eyes - gone are the usual dramatic flourishes. Of course, if you see Ajay Devgan's performance in Company, you'll see this is a tactic often used in Verma's productions. But the danger there lies in underacting the role, particularly as Indian audiences are not usually served up subtlety very often in their cinematic diet. All credit then to Amitabh for communicating with a look or a glance what would take pages of exposition and thundering soundtrack to convey in a standard masala flick.

If only the rest of the film stood up so well! This film was tirelessly publicized on two fronts: first, as the Indian answer to the Godfather and, second, as a vehicle for both father Amitabh and son Abhishek Bachchan. It may be argued that the marketing went overboard on both counts. Certainly, the sight of the two stars walking to the Siddhivinayak temple on foot for "personal reasons" on the eve of the film's release didn't hurt it's chances.

As for the film, even if you were holed up in an ashram in the Himalayas, Ram Gopal Verma explicitly reminds you that this is a tribute when the film starts to roll. Unfortunately, this tactic distracts from enjoying the film on its own merits. Matters aren't helped when, in the opening sequence, a man trudges to the Sarkar's residence, looking for retribution for his raped daughter. Okay, there is no wedding going on at the time, but still ... Thus, throughout the film, I was left drawing comparisons between it and the original. Would Sonny get killed this time around? How about the Godfather? How would they handle the transformation of Michael Corleone? Where the hell was Fredo? And Sarkar suffers by comparison. There are places where it hints at some original twists but it doesn't explore them in sufficient detail. What remains is Godfather-lite, a place where the head honcho, Sarkar, really is a good man who eschews organized crime, where the women are mere window dressing and where Abhishek Bachchan and Kay Kay Menon's fine performances are wasted because their roles are so poorly developed. Don't get me wrong - this is a polished production that is an order of magnitude better than Verma's last film, Naach, although the music is too bombastic in places, frequently building to false climaxes that lead nowhere. Like the bulk of Ram Gopal Verma's productions, it's eminently worth watching. It just doesn't scale the heights of the maestro's previous achievements.

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- August 1, 2005 11:56 PM // Bollywood , Review , Select

Humble suggestions for TV shows

Recently, the US TV industry seems to have started testing the waters for multiethnic fare. Unfortunately, the ones I keep hearing about don't seem particularly inspiring. Consider Nevermind Nirvana - Indian-American guy gets engaged to a Caucasian woman, causing family issues. Yawn. So I thought, surely it can't be that difficult to come up with some pitches for TV shows featuring Asian content that are, while cliched, might be teensy weensy better. You be the judge:

Wright and Wong: Jim Wright and Frederick Wong first meet in law school at Georgetown and, years later, decide to set up a criminal law partnership. They find their idealism and relationship continually tested by the barrage of white collar cases. Jim feels this is but par for the course, yet Frederick continually sees double standards that allows such criminals to get away with lighter sentences than dope dealers. Further complications occur when law intern Ayesha Bose joins their practice for the summer. Both Jim and Frederick fall for her but is it right for them to take advantage of their status? Who gets the girl? Stay tuned and find out!

Patel Motel: It's a wild and wacky world at Nishith Patel's Fairview Inn in Santa Cruz. From dealing with itinerant vagrants to disaffected hippies looking for a quiet spot to light up in ("get your kundalini on somewhere else!) to one night stands gone wrong ("His ling-what? Lady, I don't charge by the hour you know!") to midwestern families ("Apu is a cartoon! Thank you and come again you #@@$#!) . On top of this aggravation, he has to deal with his nagging wife and his unemployed son is happy to mooch off him but is rarely around to help. Things start to heat up further when his cousin Amar, who had lent him the original seed money for the motel, wants his money back. With interest. Then a Holiday Inn Express, owned by his arch enemy, Piyush Shah, opens next door ...

Yallah Alley Blues: Maggie Habib is up against it. Being a recent widow is tough enough but now her sandwich shop is under investigation by the city authorities because of anonymous complaints, her brother Nasr has become one of the local FBI branch's "usual suspects" despite never having been to the Middle East since 1979 and her teenage daughter, May, prefers flautas to falafel and rap to rai. To add to her troubles, she finds herself falling for the City Health Inspector who is dropping by a little too frequently. But he's Catholic. And married!

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- July 22, 2005 9:16 AM // Diaspora , Select , TV

Khaled and Co @ Stern Grove (July 10)

Stern Grove is one of the summer delights in San Francisco. One of the highlights of our stay in the Bay Area thus far is the concert that Zakir Hussain, Bill Laswell, Karsh Kale and DJ Quik put on in Stern Grove that year. Courtesy my mother-in-law, all of us were able to sit up front and we had a grand view. The concert made its way into an album (Live in San Francisco at Stern Grove) as well. I bought a copy as a gift and, before I parted with it, I studied the crowd pictures to no avail, alas. So close to being on an album cover! Anyway, many things have happened since then and we just never had a chance to attend another show. Finally, upon hearing Khaledand DJ Cheb I Sabbahwould be playing at Stern Grove, we jumped at the opportunity. Here are some snaps and observations.

It was a full house with a diverse variety of folks, as you can see for yourself. If you squint hard enough, perhaps you can catch my friend Chi-Chao and his two lovely daughters. Er, they are behind the small trees. It was baking hot around 2pm but had cooled down considerably towards the end.

This time around, Indian iconography seemed to be stronger than ever amongst the cultural backpackers. I just couldn't believe this one though, hence I had to take a picture. Click for a larger image. The hand in the foreground isn't mine, BTW. An entire illustration of a Devi complete with shlokas. What next? Kamasutra tattoos in more private body areas? I shouldn't joke, most probably they exist already!

DJ Cheb-i-sabbah opened the proceedings together with percussionist Wilfredo Reyes. He mostly played tracks from his new album, La Kahena. It sounded grand but I have a bone to pick with his opening acknowledgements. He gave call-outs to Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria. But not India. For a man, who has made a living off its musical idioms (not to mention the large number of desi fans in the Bay Area and outside), it would have been a nice gesture, particularly given the constituency of the audience that afternoon.

The main event, Khaled's concert, was a treat. He was in sharp form and his voice easily scaled the heights. The band was tight and his most ardent fans in the dance-pit knew all the words. The real surprise off the day was the guest appearance of Santana. Very cool, particularly the way he blended his guitar seamlessly with the rest of the band. Khaled saved his two biggest hits, Aicha and Didi, for the last. All in all, a sweaty, uplifting experience.

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- July 19, 2005 7:03 PM // Music , Select

Retrospective: Black

Note: This review was originally written on March 24, 2005, when the film was still playing in the movie halls.

After hearing much hype about Black, its truncated length of two hours (as opposed to three hour bladder busters) and "performances of a lifetime" from Amitabh Bachchan and Rani Mukherjee, I have to admit I was curious to see whether Sanjay Leela Bhansali had overcome the excesses of Devdas and delivered a taut, art-house type feature. So, we went to see it at the Naz in Fremont on Tuesday. It had been miserably wet in the Bay Area over the past couple of weeks - yet the theater was packed.

blackTheFilm.jpg The storm und drang inside the theater started right from the opening frame and didn't really let up (with a couple of merciful moments), until the very end. I would have been surprised if the projectionist hadn't taken mounds of towels to dry down the film reels before the next showing, so intent was the film in wringing out juice from every scene, every character, every prop. It rained incessantly. It snowed. There was a water fountain in case the first two weather elements didn't come through. The plot? Rani Mukherjee plays Michelle, a blind-mute girl and Amitabh Bachchan is her teacher, who sticks by her despite all the odds. Mr. Bachchan has easily any number of films where he gave performances far superior to this. You only have to look as far as Khakee to see his real ability. Here, his performance becomes a wholehearted tribute to William Shatner - no scenery was left unchewed. As for hers, well it is always tough to evaluate the performance of someone who is playing someone disabled. Play someone like this and the decks are stacked in your favor - but I wasn't sure whether her wild flailings were typical of folks similarly afflicted or because of what the director had deliberately asked her to wildly overact. After all, Sanjay Leela Bhansali did make sure we know of his nod to Charlie Chaplin through her physical performance! And in case we missed the point, a Charlie Chaplin flick plays in the local theater which the characters walk past - I kid you not! But did the film really intend to pay tribute to The Exorcist? It certainly seemed that way, particularly during the younger Michelle's histrionics, rolled eyes and all.

As for trimming down the fat, well, yes there were no songs. But all the other elements of a standard Bollywood masala film were present. The ever present score, replete with deep drums and throaty aahs, hammered away in the background, filling in emotion when the words weren't enough. The gestures were grand, the dialogue grandiose ("it is not the eyes that dream, it is the mind"), the setting a burnished, grand India that really never existed (except as India-on-the-Alps or wherever this film was shot). But I was left wondering - were they substitutes for character development? For effective storytelling? The film is a big hit and so, I suppose it did click with many people. It is being hailed as being Oscar material but I seriously doubt it'll get that far here. Just seems that it's a lot easier to gain audience sympathy if your leading character is disabled in some way. And if you look at past Bhansali productions, a certain pattern arguably does arise in this respect. Khamoshi featured a mute/deaf family. The titular character in Devdas was an emotional cripple - and an alcoholic. Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam was the exception and, in my personal opinion, the best thing he's done so far. Anyway, I boldly predict that Mr. Bhansali, for an encore, will do a film featuring a wisecracking (but autistic), gin swigging quadriplegic. Should be a triple hanky feature.

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- July 18, 2005 10:19 PM // Bollywood , Review , Select

Deshploitation - The Films

Outside India, the primary sources for desi themed diaspora films are North America (US and Canada) and the UK. The latter deserves a separate entry and I'll focus more on that later. For the time being, let's look at what I call deshploitation films. Why the name? Recall the definition of blaxploitation:

Blaxploitation is a portmanteau of the words "black" and "exploitation", and refers to exploitation films that targeted the urban African-American audience during the 1970s. The films featured primarily black actors, and were the first to have soundtracks of funk and soul music. Although protested by civil-rights groups for their use of stereotypes, they addressed the great and newfound demand for afrocentric entertainment, and were immensely popular among black audiences.

So, we have the confluence of "desh" and "ploitation." Get it? However, there is a big difference between films such as Lonely In America and The Guru that have been directed by white folks and those that have been put out by the US diaspora. Exploring the latter, what are the themes of interest in these films? Here's a "theme matrix" that attempts to summarize. Enjoy:

Film Title Description Identity Crisis Nasty FOB Alert! Obligatory Bollywood Parody Sequence Wisecracking Sidekicks Cardboard NRI Parents
American Desi (2001)

College freshman Krishna Reddy, who has never cared for his Indian-American cultural heritage, looks forward to a new life on campus but is surprised to find that he has been assigned Indian roommates.


Yes. Fake Indian accent ahoy!

Some. Dishum dishum at the end as well.

Yes: "..somewhere in Jersey there is a black man driving around in a Honda Accord and praying to Lord Ganesh."

ABCD (1999)

The only goal of an ageing Asian-American widow is to see her son and rebellious daughter married off to respectable Indian families

Yes Not really No No No
American Chai (2001)

Sureel is a first generation Indian American college graduating senior music major who's controlling father still believes that he is pre-med.

Yes. Also, choices choices: should I be Ravi Shankar or Prince?

Yes Yes.

Yes. "Don't worry, chicken curry... "

Chapati flat

Where's the Party, Yaar? (2003)

While the desi scene may be hip and happening in Hari's new home of Houston, Texas, the guardians of cool don't want the FOBs, with their funny dance moves and their white sneakers, crashing their Desi Fever dance parties.


Yes. With exaggerated bad Indian accents to match. Sorry mates, ABCDs just can't seem to do desi accents and vice versa.


Yes: "Did you know I'm good at math? Let's add you and me, subtract your clothes, divide your legs and multiply..."


Green Card Fever (2003)

This is the story of a young man in the United States who overstays his visa in the pursuit of a "Green Card". He naively muddles through an underworld of illegal immigrants, immigration lawyers and the INS, and the love of an American girl of Indian origin.


"Nasty" only in the womanizing sense.

No Yes Sadly so

The biggest theme these films share is that of identity crisis. This isn't surprising given that they are mostly made by second generation Indian Americans. Of these, ABCD is the most hearfelt exploration of this issue. Otherwise, the rest of the films show this is really not a strong enough subject to carry an entire picture. Green Card Fever recognizes this and adds a lot of immigration stuff as well, but while it has strong moments, the final product comes out somewhat muddled. And what about the FOB bashing indulged by so many of these films? Why would you purposely want to alienate a large chunk of your potential audience? Box office wise, American Desi opened strongly but the rest suffered increasingly diminishing returns in the US market, suggesting the novelty value was wearing thin.

I don't include films such as Mississippi Masala, Masala, Praying With Anger, Chutney Popcorn, or Flavors. The first two films, while containing many deshploitation elements, rise above them. They are also of an earlier era, having been made in the early 1990s. I haven't seen Praying With Anger - apparently, it's not available on DVD and I haven't seen Chutney Popcorn. Flavors is more from the point of view of Indian immigrants and chooses to entirely sidestep all of this angst. More on that in the future.

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- June 26, 2005 7:53 PM // Diaspora , Film , Review , Select

American - The Brand

As befits a superpower, especially one so obsessed with marketing, the USA has invested much in the word American. Putting that adjective in front of another word somehow makes the combination bigger than the sum of the parts. For example, there is "dream" and then there is the American Dream (and you have to say it in a basso profundo voice for maximum effect). Somehow, no one talks about the Mali Dream or the Belgian Dream! Moreover, if you're not content with just American, there's All-American of the blue eyed square jawed variety. And this has long been a favored tactic for harried screenwriters looking to juice up their title. So, searching on IMDB for titles with the word American in them yields something like 1170 titles, amongst them such notables as American Kickboxer, All American Chump, American Dog, American Cowboy (is there any other kind?) and American Pimp. Of course desi filmmakers are getting in the act as well. Hence, we have American Desi, American Chai, and last but not least, Indian Fish in American Waters. How's that for fusion? I tried similar searches for British, French, Chinese and Indian. None came close but at least for Indian, I found such gems as Bollywood - the Indian Dream, Running on Indian Time, I...Proud To Be An Indian and Indian Uprising. So, perhaps brand Indian is not so far behind after all! I'll have to get cracking on the "All American Curry" script though before that title gets taken!

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- June 19, 2005 10:29 PM // Film , Select

The INOX Factor

On our last trip to India, we checked out several of the new state of the art multiplexes (by INOX) in Kolkata. We were blown away, particularly by the City Center INOX in Salt Lake. The seats, the screen, the air conditioning and the sounds were all top notch, easily comparable to the better theaters in the Bay Area (AMC Van Ness comes to mind). As a matter of fact, I wish our local Bollywood multiplex, Naz8, would hurry up and actually go through with their long awaited remodeling. Their current digs are really rather threadbare - AC ducts are visible through holes in the ceiling, the carpets cling to the shoes, and the seats just don't provide the posterior support necessary for staying awake and alert for three hours. INOX, in our mind, had another big plus - in India movie theater seating is not first come first served. Tickets come with seat numbers printed on them and ushers guide you to your spot in the theater. This to me is much more preferable, particularly in INOX where you can see the theater seating plan on screen in the box office and pick out what you like.

musafir.jpgAnyway, the very first film we went to see at an INOX theater after getting into Kolkata was Musafir. Supposedly a loose copy of U-Turn, the film was an excellent advertisement of Bollywood's technical proficiency. It really put the theater through its paces - techno music pulsed in the background while explosions and gunshots rattled the main speakers. On screen, we had fast-forwards, splitscreen shots, rewinds, jumpcuts, hooded bad guys striding in slo-mo through dark, rain drenched streets and forty-something heroes accessorized in the latest Italian leather and the latest young-enough-to-be-their-daughter starlets. The combined assault was as good a cure for jetlag as any and let us know emphatically that the days of getting bitten by mosquitoes while sitting on hard wooden seats was over. Alas, the hi-fidelity nature of our experience also revealed some inherent visual flaws in the source material - as one of the starlets (Sameera Reddy) leaned over suggestively, it was possible to see the stretch marks on her back. Similarly, in a slow motion shot of Anil Kapoor whirling around after getting punched, we could discern the laws of inertia - his fat was moving in one direction while he rolled in another.

When emerging from the theater, I finally understood Bollywood's cunning plan for holding on to its audience. First part of the plan consisted of filling the pictures with as much ear and eye candy as possible. The second part was to actually find some worthwhile content - but only if the first part didn't work. After all, who wants to pay writers? Judging by the pictures we saw, they have the first part down pat. And is it working? Well, purely from anecdotal evidence, we found it was much tougher to get tickets to the Bollywood films as opposed to the English flicks on offer. Speaking to the box office clerks confirmed this observation. In addition, the Hollywood films were priced cheaper than most of the Bollywood films. Tickets to Veer Zaara, the then blockbuster, cost close to 200 rupees! I guess most Bollywood films will remain content-free for a while longer then.

So, the theaters were excellent. How about the patrons? In his Reelthoughts for May 2005, internet movie critic James Berardinelli writes about the pain of going to a multiplex in the USA:

The Living Room Factor

There are plenty of things to complain about regarding movie theaters: poor audio & video quality, out-of-frame pictures, sticky floors, indifferent employees, uncomfortable seats, an endless stream of ads before the start of the feature, and so on... But the biggest complaint concerns other patrons, especially those who aren't yet old enough to drink alcohol. They walk in late, don't turn their cell phones off, munch loudly on popcorn and slurp their sodas, and chatter incessantly. (My apologies to those of you in this age group who are not guilty - and I know you're out there. Tarring you with the same brush is unfair. Unfortunately, you are the exception.)

Yesterday, I got a first-hand look at another example of movie-theater rudeness. It happened while I was watching an afternoon showing of Unleashed. Shortly before the commercials were about to start, a couple walked in and seated themselves across the aisle from me. They were both around 18 or 19. The guy settled into his seat and dug into his popcorn. The girl removed her shoes and propped up her bare feet on the back of the seat in front of her. I momentarily gawked, scarcely believing what I was seeing. Appropriate behavior for a living room? Yes. Appropriate behavior for a movie theater? Not in my opinion.

One thing became glaringly apparent when we were in the INOX theaters: the prevalence of cell phones in modern Indian life and their potential for irritation. During the course of a film, it wasn't uncommon for folks, particularly the teens and twenty-somethings, to hold up their camera phones to record what's occuring onscreen. Additionally, many simply never turned their cellphones off. I could hear people holding conversations during the movie. If the film in question was of the masala variety, there's enough continual background noise to drown out the neighbors' yakking on the phone, but if it's a more thought provoking effort, then it was a tougher ask. Still, a small price to pay for such gorgeous visual and aural splendor. At least that's what I'll tell myself the next time someone tucks into their bag of chips in the next aisle. Or starts a conversation with their long lost aunty.

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- June 1, 2005 12:10 AM // Bollywood , Film , India , Select , Travel

Soam's Sattwik Mix: A Yoga Playlist

We've been taking yoga classes from our local community college for a while and one of the big benefits has been the music that our instructor, Diane, plays during the sessions. She's always looking for new material, so I created a mix CD for her a little while back. It seemed to go down pretty well. Here's the tracklist:

  1. Kelsang Chukie Tethong - Om Ma Nye Bhe Mae Hum. Album: Voice From Tara. This is a solo vocal track and showcases her amazing voice. A quiet start to the proceedings.
  2. Kelsang Chukie Tethong - Avalokitesvara. Album: Voice From Tara. This time with a piano accompaniment. Very haunting.
  3. DJ Real Eyez & Dishum Dishum - Down These (Cross) Rhodes. Nepotism! No seriously, I wanted to pick up things a notch while still maintaining a dreamy ambience. This seemed to fit the bill.
  4. Kruder and Dorfmeister - Deep Shit Parts 1 and 2. Album: G Stone Book. This is the last track from the G-Stone album, a worthy introduction for you Kruder and Dorfmeister fans to the rest of their projects. The track itself combines a heavy electric piano riff with African chants. I wish they'd thought of a better title for the track though.
  5. U. Srinivas and Michael Brooks - Dance. Album: Back To Mine (mixed by Talvin Singh). A mesmerizing track that starts off with a sinuous guitar line by Michael Brooks and builds to a fantastic percussive climax. This was used really well last year in a short play excerpt ("Maya") from a NAATA showcase of young Asian playwrights.
  6. Bikram Ghosh - Little Krishna. Album: Rhythmscape: The New Sound of Melody and Rhythm. I wanted to continue the Indian percussion theme from the last track. Bikram Ghosh is big in Kolkata and he seemed to be partying all over town last time I was there. Good album, especially for Indian fusion lovers.
  7. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan - Mustt Mustt (Massive Attack remix). Album: Back To Mine (mixed by Talvin Singh). The original. This is one of the remix classics. It's hard to believe this track was created so long ago (1990), it still sounds so utterly contemporary.
  8. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan - Tracery (Nitin Sawhney remix). Album: Star Rise: Remixes. Several songs on the Star Rise album are out of this world but this is a personal favorite. Nitin Sawhney is never less than intense and the way he chooses to start the song with Urdu poetry and then segue into drum and bass with Nusrat's vocals on top is sheer heaven.
  9. State of Bengal & Paban Das Baul - Kali. Album: Tana tani. Bengali jungle. The first time I heard this track (on KCRW), my jaw dropped. Here was someone doing Ramprasadi style devotional music over hard beats. Someone had reached into my head and stolen the sound I wanted to create!
  10. State of Bengal & Paban Das Baul - Radha Krishna. Album: Tana tani. More on the devotional tip but slowing the pace down a little.
  11. Wax Poetic - Flight In Dub (feat. U-Roy). Album: Nublu Sessions. Superbly produced, this is a standout track on a very good album by a band more famous for being Norah Jones' slumming outlet. They deserve more publicity in their own right.
  12. Roots Manuva - Next Type of Motion. Album: Back to Mine (mixed by Groove Armada). A quiet, meditative hip hop track (there aren't very many of those!) to close out the set, this was the surprise hit of the playlist. A stripped down production, the standout here is the killer organ bass groove.

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- May 22, 2005 8:27 PM // Music , Select

Riffing Further on Phoren Heroines

While writing a previous entry on phoren heroines in Bollywood and their long term prospects, I kept wondering about the cinema industries in Far East Asia. Did they face a similar situation - an influx of white artistes interested in getting into the business? Consider Hong Kong. This is about as cosmopolitan a place as you can get but I don't remember seeing any Western actors in any of the Wong Kar Wai or John Woo films that I've seen. Now, there's a very famous Aussie cinematographer, Christopher Doyle, who works in that part of the world, although not exclusively, but then foreign cinematographers have also worked in Bollywood. I had to go back as far as Bruce Lee films to remember foreign actors. So, I did a bit of digging and found this, an interview with the actor Ricardo Mamood, who apparently is based over there:

2. What do you think of the use of foreign actor in the Hong Kong cinema ?

Foreign actors are not used enough, or misused. For several reasons. The first one is the fact that stories, scripts do not contemplated a significant presence of foreign looking characters. There is still a very closed-up approach when it comes down to storytelling in Hong Kong. Their presence ranges from extras to small supporting roles. I wish the local industry would contemplate this a bit more and the fact that this town is very cosmopolitan, just take a look at it. So, you have a few talented and trained foreign actors in town but not many.

Then you have a lot of people that is scouted on the streets but with no training whatsoever and unfortunately then you see the final product on the screen and it sucks. It's a waste. This doesn't encourage talented or trained foreign actors to stay or come to work here but hopefully it will change in the future.

Sound familiar? I investigated further and it turns out there is a page further detailing the foreign presence (or the lack thereof) in Hong Kong:

Westerners have appeared in Hong Kong films for decades- as extras, supporting actors, co-stars and very rarely, as the star.

The first foreigner to headline HK films was Ron Van Clief. Jim Kelly, Brandon Lee and Shannon Lee have all starred in one HK movie respectively, yet the best known round-eyed star to make it in Hong Kong was blonde American martial artist Cynthia Rothrock.

Who would've thought that? Sounds like the combination of blonde and martial arts expert did the trick! Just ask Quentin Tarantino.

As for China, if anything, it's a lot more insular than Hong Kong, although that's changing fast of late. Hence you'd be expecting zero penetration in the film industry there. But I was still surprised to see this article in Salon which talks about Rachel DeWoskin who moved to Beijing in 1994 to work at a PR firm but ended up in a very popular Chinese soap:

Shortly after arriving and settling into the grind at an American P.R. firm, she met a man who decided her white skin was all the qualification she needed to act in a soap opera about American girls in Beijing...

The show's title, "Foreign Babes in Beijing," says it all. Two American exchange students (one played by a German) come to China and pursue romances with Chinese men. There's the predictable good girl-bad girl split: the blond Louisa, who loves Chinese culture almost as much as she loves her Chinese boyfriend, and the lusty, slutty, brunet Jiexi, the "dishanze" (mistress, or "third") who steals the honorable Tianming away from his hardworking wife and homeland.

Apparently, her exotic value (and the cliches she represented) were enough for Rachel to play the Jiexi role. I suspect if Bollywood were to delve into the phoren heroine thang further, it'd follow the same template i.e. noble Amit (Ajay Devgan), a man who doesn't start his day without prostrating at his mother's feet, is seduced at work (his own highly successful company of course) by his lusty, slutty, blonde secretary Nicole (insert fantasy here) and strays from his wife Priya (played by Rani Mukherjee of course). All Priya can do is pine away, wearing designer salwar suits and doing many, many karwa chauths. It all ends happily, but not before the seats at the local multiplex have been thoroughly doused by tears. A Yash Raj production, naturally. You heard it here first!

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- May 18, 2005 7:57 PM // Film , Select

DeNiro Watch Out!

Here's something you film aficienados will truly appreciate. Not content pumping up their bods, our young thesps have decided there's more to acting than just pouting and yelling. Just like their western counterparts, Bollywood actors now go all out to prepare themselves for a role. Rediff reveals the grueling research undertaken by Dino Morea for Chehra (Appearance):

"I've just finished Rakht and played a negative role. It was a volatile aggressive character. And in this film I play a well-off doctor. If people see Rakht and this film, they will get to know my versatility as an actor," claims Dino Morea...

About his preparation for Chehra, Dino revealed, "I have met up with psychiatrists and found out that they don't wear white overcoats like doctors do. I met them to get a feel of the character. A psychiatrist's job is only to talk to the patients."

No lab coat? Wonder how many notepads Mr. Morea had to fill before he gained that priceless insight.

PS - Link courtesy Amar Parikh.

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- May 12, 2005 8:49 PM // Bollywood , Select

SFIFF 2005: Black Friday

Black Friday (2004, dir. Anurag Kashyap) is a ten ton haymaker punch into Bollywood's bloated midriff. When the film starts, you'll see the usual censor board certificate and then the legend "Jhamu Sugandh Presents." All resemblances with your usual run of the mill masala flick end thereafter. Comparisons with docudramas such as JFK and The Battle of Algiers are much more apt. Yet the film also has Indian roots, blending the worlds of the underworld dramas Satya and Company.

Based on a book by S. Hussain Zaidi, Black Friday is a reenactment of the investigation into the Mumbai bomb blasts of 1993. Inspector Rakesh Maria (Kay Kay Menon) is assigned the unenviable task of tracking down the perpetrators. And to make matters worse, this is the holy month of Ramadan - a false move by the police can exacerbate the tense situation in Mumbai, already reeling from riots in 1992.

Many, many factors contribute to Black Friday being a landmark Indian film. These include:

  • It's based on a non-fiction book. Not a frequent occurrence in the Mumbai film world.
  • The narrative flow: Kashyap opts for an episodic approach, jumping back and forth in time to focus on specific threads that converge at the explosion and then unravel again, as the perpetrators scatter across India (and outside). This technique has been tried in Bollywood before (see Yuva) but here it feels less a gimmick and more a legitimate storytelling device.
  • Mixture of TV footage and live action. The montage of stills that end the film.
  • The authenticity: this movie feels real. From the gritty interrogation scenes to the locations all over the country, this is the India the ITDC will not be displaying on their posters. The BBC film crews, on the other hand, will be busy making notes on what slums to visit the next time they get down from their planes in Mumbai. One minor quibble: the Dubai scenes don't feel like they could've been from the early '90s, largely because of the car models featured are from a later date.
  • The investigation: the crime thriller, as a genre, is moribund in Bollywood. There are many reasons for this, notably the stylistic straitjacket that most Bollywood products have to be trussed up in. There have been exceptions (like Tarquieb) but for the most part, it is an uphill battle to introduce logic in a business ruled by emotion. Here, the film poses a tantalizing question in the beginning: how do you find the culprits in a country of billions? Where do you even start? The film provides many insights as to how it is done and a lot of it is not pretty.
  • The performances, largely by a cast of unknowns, are outstanding - the remarkable part of this is the understated nature of the acting. For example, we see one of the perpetrators, tired of being continually on the run from the police, on the verge of giving himself up voluntarily. To illustrate his desire for normalcy, for marriage, the camera simply focuses on him staring at a couple of attractive girls in a Calcutta tram. Too often, the temptation in a project like this would be to resort to soul stirring speeches, scenery chewing grandstanding, and much melodrama. There are a couple of confrontational scenes but their effectiveness is underlined by the fact that there are so few of them.
  • The even handedness: Black Friday does not take sides. It goes out of its way to make the point that this cycle of violence has been continuing for centuries. And for the good of the country, it is best to find ways to break the cycle, not find blame. To drive home the point, the film opens and closes with a quote from Mahatma Gandhi: "an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind."
  • The chase scene: there is a chase on foot that must rank as one of the best I've seen. William Friedkin (The French Connection, To Live and Die In LA) would be proud.

The one nit with Black Friday is that it drags on a little too long in the end, thus diluting its impact. But that's not to take away from its overall effect and message: violence of this type, by creating more poor and dispossessed, simply begets more of the same. Spellbinding yet resolutely uncommercial, this is the best release from India we've seen this year.

In a recent development, the film has been embroiled in legal court wrangles:

In January this year, Mushtaq Moosa Tarani and 36 other accused in the Bombay bombings case had moved court on the grounds that the film would create a bias against them at a time when the court verdict is awaited.

Last week, the Bombay High Court imposed a stay on the film's release till the designated Terrorist and Disruptive Act (TADA) court in the blast case delivered its judgement. The producers now intend to move the Supreme Court against the decision.

Let's hope these issues are resolved soon - the filmgoing public deserve no less.

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- May 3, 2005 10:12 PM // Bollywood , Film , Review , Select