Tuesday, August 16, 2011


I wrote this several years ago, and decided to revive it for this spot. My opinions on literature and books and writers has changed since then, but that's a part of what makes this so delightful to me. Yes, I'm being self-indulgent. Allow me that.

Also, most of the references in this poem are very specific, and if you haven't read the books I read as a teenager, you might be completely unfamiliar with them. This poem was written as a conversation with my close friends, but I'm hoping it's possible for other people to find ways of enjoying it too.

May 29, 2006

I am asked my favourite writers and works
I accept the self-indulgence; for there are no other perks
And contemplate on how best to pay tribute
To the pilgrimage to libraries, to bring home the loot
To revel in its brilliance, and smile at its quirks.

Rushdie, here, I will not mention
Seth though, will get an extension.
Repute evades his Two Lives ploy
But An Equal Music and A Suitable Boy
Pre-empt all possible bones of contention.

The Golden Gate carried me away
(My first encounter with verse was way
back when I was a mere seven years old
with the Beastly Tales crocodile – “Go away!”, he’d been told.)
“Talk to us, John”, he says – “we will all die someday.”

Hanif Kureishi is a new-found treasure,
Loved and loathed in equal measure.
For this I thank my dear friend’s love
With years of cajoling (and sometimes a shove)
I found not the bloodstream, but in it the pleasure.

Roy merits not a stanza but two
Dizygotic, though, and quite different too.
The first, for Rahel and Estha I write
With them I have lived; in them I delight
‘Naaley’, she says – a haunting, painful adieu.

The second – please see this from where I am –
- For damning the bomb and blasting the dam
For speaking, for seeking to question malpractice,
With words to do it Infinite Justice
For being human, yes – but the best she can.

And him – the Cinnamon Peeler, should I say?
Or simply (in reverence) Michael Ondaatje?
Of Colombo, of Toronto, of Anuradhapura
Of Count Almasy searching for the Zerzura
And the pain in the paintings on walls of clay.

Poetry is in his every word, they tell me
How he loves, and how much, compel me
He speaks of letters like the bones of a lover’s spine
Of scurrying in the ceiling, or a scar’s strange design
“I am the cinnamon peeler’s wife,” he writes, “Smell me.”

There is, then, the ancient Graham Greene
He took me to places where I have been
In the ageless nights and the dying mornings
of A Quiet American; or just the life dawning
on A Burnt Out Case; I have felt it all - I have seen.

Dancing in Cambodia I have been for a while
Saloth Sar’s life, and that of the king, beguile.
With The Imam and the Indian, Malaria in the Bay
And all the wonder of Mandalay
Amitav Ghosh is ahead of many by a mile.

And him, mailing manuscripts to Ezra Pound
Oh, what treasures in Wastelands I have found!
Thomas Stearns: A magician? Well, yet –
There is some magic in the verse of Eliot
With Prufrock on winter mornings, or Macavity gone underground!

Coming to the part where I must close this door
“Another line”, I think, or “Just a few more”
To Haroun I must acknowledge my debt
To those not mentioned – there will be verses yet
(Though Priestly might say “I Have Been Here Before”!)

Some works, of course, are bigger than their makers
Some I could mention, but they would find no takers.
In writing, I have suffered the reader’s curse
Not knowing how to end this tortuous verse
“A dozen stanzas”, I had thought – but make it a baker’s!

Monday, August 8, 2011

I see a ghost!

Are ghosts always scary?

In the last five years of reasonably vigorous theatre-watching, I've only watched two horror* stage productions, the first in London last summer, and the second in San Francisco this week. Now, I love a creepy, scary story, especially when it comes to films, I'll admit that. I'll also admit, that as rational and non-believing (in all thing unseeable, godly or otherwise) as I like to think of myself as being, watching horror films scares the living daylights out of me. I chatter incessantly and giggle nervously throughout the film, so as to not be visibly startled, or have my heart thud so hard I can feel it in my mouth, or seem to the people around me like a whimpering little girl who can't handle a couple of ghosts. Furthermore, after having watched a horror film, I usually wake up to every sound during the night, and am a wee bit afraid (this is the part that embarrasses me most) that when I get in the bathroom and shut the door, I will find there, standing behind me, reflected in the mirror, the particular ghoul that stalked the scenery in the film I watched that day. Such completely unnecessary trauma notwithstanding, I am constantly dragging friends along to watch horror films, and my Netflix queue of "recommendations for you" is often dominated by this genre.

However, I've seldom watched theatre productions of horror, and watching The Woman in Black in London last year absolutely thrilled me. I was a homestay guest in London, living with a family in Acton, and as I walked home that night from the North Acton Underground, the blood-thickening scream from the play, and the sudden appearances of the spectre were all I could think of. Abigail Dreary, at the Boxcar Theatre last week, scarcely even made me twitch. Of course, there were some very obvious differences between the two productions. The mis-en-scene, acting and production values were all as different as, well, London and San Francisco.

The Woman in Black** has been playing in London since 1987, and at the Fortune Theatre since 1989 (legend has it the theatre has its very own ghost). This is mainstream English theatre at its middlebrow best, not the kind of piece performed in a little cubby at the end of an alley smelling of rancid piss, dotted with little groups of people quietly snorting stuff out of pieces of paper. There is money in this kind of theatre. The actors, the venue, the directors and the crew, all get paid. Ergo, the performance included expensive props, a venue large and versatile enough to explore the machinations of a supernatural being, and some very, very good acting. Abigail Dreary at the Boxcar Theatre in San Francisco, on the other hand, was a much smaller production, playing at a tiny venue, to a much smaller audience. (As I waited in the lobby, I realized that a number of people who came in were friends of the cast/crew/management). Of course, this is by no means an explanation of why I think Abigail Dreary paled in comparison to The Woman in Black. (Although since both titular characters are ghosts, it's tough to say who was paler. Ok, never mind that.) I love small scale, independent theatre as much as I do mainstream, canonical theatre. Besides, it is always more interesting to see the ways in which directors and set designers end up using smaller spaces, because it involves so much more thought and creativity. On this count, given the spatial limitations they were working with, the crew of Abigail Dreary actually did a fantastic job. The difference between the two plays did not lie in the story either - both, as ghost stories go, were as compelling as trite and predictable. We could argue about the degree of predictability, but honestly, once you've spent a childhood reading Bram Stoker,  R.L. Stine, and everything in between, it's not all that difficult being two steps ahead of most ghost stories. I would also not fault the acting - in contrast to the professional cast of The Woman in Black, Abigail Dreary was played almost entirely by very young actors who were either amateur, or were just starting out with their training. Jake Sigl as Nicky was a case in point. I do not know much about the actor, but I'm quite certain he is very young, and with very little training. He fit the role perfectly, except for the part that I kept getting the feeling he wasn't acting at all. Nicky is a slightly awkward, but very sweet and sensitive teenaged boy. I would venture, so is Jake Sigl. And I think one of the defining elements of theatre, as opposed to cinema, is the fact that the audience is always conscious of the performance. Not in a Brechtian manner, necessarily, but in a way that greatly contributes to theatre's biggest difference from cinema - its liveness.

A discussion of the difference in production values and acting styles between The Woman in Black and Abigail Dreary, however, would merely be a discussion of the degrees of variation. The real difference for me was a story element that I think is the key to making scary visual representations of ghost stories - the presence or absence of the ghost from the audience's field of vision. The Woman in Black is a mystery - she exists, yet not; we can see her, but we can't be sure. We hear her sometimes, but we don't know if that is the voice of a woman, or the screech of a hurt, wild creature. There she is, on the stage, for that brief moment when a flashlight was turned on her, until she is standing right amongst us, in the aisle between two columns of seats on the theatre floor, staring right through us. The Woman in Black had its audiences constantly on the edge - we sometimes caught a glimpse of the said woman in black, but we hardly ever saw her, took in her features, made a mental image of her. We wanted to, so that we could feel safer, more secure. We wanted to know what to expect when we saw her, and where to expect her, but we couldn't know that, because she wasn't in our control. And that's the kind of thing that scares the shit out of people.

Abigail Dreary, on the other hand, introduced the play before any of the other actors came on. She was wearing a white dress, her face was pale, her eyes were blackened, and she spoke to us with maliciousness dripping from her tongue. Ok, yeah, she's the ghost. Now let's sit back and relax. Abby, as she called herself, walked through the set like any of the other characters, and while it was a part of the story that she suddenly appeared and disappeared, it wasn't a part of the dramatic narration. Everytime she came in, she stayed and she talked and she touched. We saw her walk in, we saw her walk out. Abigail failed to scare because Abigail was familiar and in our control. She was malignant, yes, but not scary.   

To a great extent, the same rules apply to cinema too. The scariest films are those where we don't see the ghost, and therefore have no idea what or who it is. El Orfanato (2007) was scary, because we didn't know what the hell was going on, until the scene where Laura gets locked in the bathroom. Ringu (1998) was scary as hell, until the girl-ghost-creature-thingie started crawling out of the television. And I suspect that's the reason why Paranormal Activity (2007) scared people out of their skins. There is a ghost, you just know it. It's in the house, in their room, in their bed. You're dying for an explanation, but you never get one. You're dying to see it, even if that means you'll cover your eyes with your hand, and only peep through the gap between your fingers. But all you see is a set of non-human footsteps. You don't know who or what it is, but you can feel its presence. You can feel it through the screen. Holy shit.  

*By "horror," I specifically mean stories involving ghosts. Vampires, German Expressionism and Chan-wook Park are all separate categories. 
**The Woman in Black has a film adaptation releasing in 2012, starring Daniel Radcliffe and Ciarán Hinds. Trailer here.

Friday, July 29, 2011

'In Another Lifetime' at the 31st San Francisco Jewish Film Festival

When you’re giving an account of the holocaust, there can never be too many stories. There can never be too many accounts of memory, or too many artistic renditions of it. There can perhaps never be too many books, novels, and films. Every once in a while, though, there will be a story that pops out among these because it says something unusual or unexpected. It wears the same heavy cloak of human tragedy all the other stories wear, but it also gives us a refreshing glimpse of creativity. I saw one such film at the 31st San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, Elisabeth Scharang’s In Another Lifetime (2010).
An Austro-Hungarian co-production, In Another Lifetime is the story of a group of Hungarian Jews being marched to a concentration camp in Mauthausen, towards the end of the war. They pause in an Austrian village for a few days, where they are locked away in the barn of a farmer who lost a leg and a son to the war. As the Nazi officer in charge of moving them awaits orders to bring them to Mauthausen, they are left in the freezing barn with no food or water. The farmer’s wife (played by Ursula Strauss), decides to take them food everyday, and while she initially does this merely out of a sense of responsibility, the group of Hungarian Jews soon become the only company she has, and ironically, her only source of relief from the reality of the war. She soon convinces her husband (played by Johannes Krisch) to join them in the barn everyday, where the group of Hungarians decide to put up an operetta to thank the farmer’s wife for her generosity. The farmer and his wife take part as well, and in that barn, for a few moments everyday, these people manage to extract themselves from the reality of everything that is going on outside, and dwell in the pleasure of creating something new.
In Scharang’s introduction to the film (read out by someone else; Scharang was unable to make it to the screening), she mentions how the film is more than just a story of the holocaust. It is a story relevant even today, as it reflects upon how we treat our refugees. Also mentioned as noteworthy about the film is the fact that it talks about an aspect of Austrian history that is usually clumsily covered up – that during the war, some civilians in Austrian villages helped the Nazis and abetted the killing of several Jewish people. Both of these are valuable points. The slightest awareness of the status of ethnic minorities in most Western countries is enough to understand the contemporary relevance of this story. It is also true that most popular accounts of that time seem wary of addressing the complicity of civilians in war crimes, just as it is true that this complicity needs to be accounted for.
What most appealed to me about the film, however, was something else, something beyond its contemporariness, and its willingness to address an uncomfortable truth about the war. As Lou Gandolf (Péter Végh), the Hungarian tenor, walks around the barn trying to convince his fellow-prisoners at first to dance, and later on, to sing, play music and perform an operetta with him, Scharang paints a poignant picture of a man fighting hard to keep their spirits – and, indeed, his own – alive. When the farmer discovers his wife is feeding the Jews, and confronts her while she is doing it, Scharang makes us fear for the woman, and makes us afraid her husband might physically hurt her. However, she also shows us the sort of vulnerability in the man that makes us believe he won’t do her any harm. It’s as though there is a hole that was blown right through his being, but his wife is the only one who knows about it. In their fight over what the wife calls “just a few potatoes,” and the revelation of their personal tragedy (“I didn’t ask for the war… you’re a cripple and our son is dead.”), Scharang forces us up against their grief, placing us – for a moment – right there in the barn with them, and with the rest of the Jewish prisoners who are witnessing this fight.
That the story transcends all constraints of context, and has the ability to appeal to people at a universal level is almost too obvious to say. It is a story of survival, a paean to the ways human beings find of coping even with imminent death. In Another Lifetime is not the first film  - and most certainly not the first WWII film – that does this. A film that comes to mind immediately is Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful (1997), where a father plucks a delicate ruse out of thin air, and invents a game that keeps his son alive and safe from the Nazis. Much of In Another Lifetime’s premise is the same, and even though Scharang refuses to lace her film with any of the thick sugariness of Benigni’s film, this is not what makes her film stand apart. What does make the film stand out is the way Scharang manages to take a story set in a highly political context, and slowly strip its characters bare of this very context meant to define them. In the barn full of Hungarian Jews, the Austrian farmer and his wife, and in their collective practice for the operetta performance, we see individuals helping each other, working with each other and forcing each other to see some form of joy, while still struggling to pinch at a fading illusion of hope. The barn, in a sense, becomes this sacred space that the war cannot touch, and within it, the people are not Hungarian Jews being marched to Mauthausen, or Austrian civilians whose property is being used to hold them. For a few beautiful if short-lived moments in the barn, there is no war or nationality or ethnicity. There are no citizens, just people. As Lou Gandolf puts it right at the beginning, “imagine you’re in another world…” We see glimpses of the “other lifetime” from the title right there, while the war goes on outside.
The characterizations in In Another Lifetime are delicate and intricate, brittle, but hopeful. Ursula Strauss and Johannes Krisch, who have appeared together in Götz Spielmann’s Austrian noir drama Revanche (2008), play their characters with great skill. Strauss plays the farmer’s wife with minimal affect, so that every outburst – there are few – means so very much. Krisch matches her quietness with the demeanour of a man who is angry at having nothing left to lose, but is still vulnerable because of his desperation to have something to fight for. It’s what the film is all about, this brittle yet steely, stiff yet malleable nature of human character. Set against the backdrop of great tragedy.   
P.S.: You must watch the Queer Duck trailer to the film festival:

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

National cinemas and historical context

My latest post for Postcolonial Networks is up. I discuss the differences I see between British South Asian cinema and South Asian American cinema. This is closely related to my dissertation, as well as the next post I'm planning on immigrant cinema in Britain, in which I plan to talk about the issue of multiculturalism as raised by David Cameron.

For now, though, here's my post, British South Asian Cinema and the Presence of History.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Snow Stories IV

Fargo (Joel and Ethan Coen, 1996, USA)

I confess: I watched Fargo (Academy Award nominee for Best Picture and Best Director, Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay) quite late in life. Three years ago, in fact, at home, on DVD, with a very close friend who was watching it for the third time. When it ended, this friend remarked, "you know, when you wake up every morning and see only snow all around you - miles and miles of white - it must drive you to do crazy things." I'm certain he isn't alone in feeling that way, and it comes as no surprise that extreme winter conditions are often used by writers and filmmakers as the setting for dark, twisted and disturbing stories. So often, that it takes a writer and filmmaker of great distinction to extract this scenario from the clutches of cliché and sculpt out of it an original, compelling piece of art. Fargo is a murder mystery. But in the hands of the brothers Coen, Fargo is a twisted, delightfully dark comedy.

The snow in Fargo is not the kind of vile, treacherous character that it is in Frozen River. It is not the vengeful killer of Yol, or the murderous psycho of The Shining. The snow, in Fargo, is a watcher. A calm, quiet, observer, but one that passes judgment, and lets its opinion be known. It is a passive, but important presence that watches as Jean, in her pajamas, and with a sack over her head, runs through the snowy woods like a blind, scared animal, while her kidnappers, Gaear and Carl watch her with amusement. When Gaear and Carl kill the state trooper, the terrain carefully holds his body in its snowy palm, waiting for the police chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand, Academy Award for Best Actress) to arrive and take a look at it. Ah, you're here, Marge. Look, I kept the evidence intact for you, now let's look at it together, shall we? We get a close up shot - the trooper's skin now frozen blue, the blood dripping down his face now crystallised. In what it observes, and in what it knows, the snow has the same amount of information as we do. It wouldn't be entirely inaccurate to say that the snow, in Fargo, stands in for us, the audience: when Gaear and Carl murder the trooper and the couple that was driving by, the only ones watching are the landscape and the audience. We know what the landscape does, and what Marge doesn't. And quite like the landscape, we are voiceless observers who cannot share this vital information with her.

However, the snow is more than just a passive member of the audience. It is also a sly trickster who chooses its victims based on what seems like a commonly accepted standard of moral judgment. When Carl learns that the bag he took from Wade - Jean's father - contains a million dollars, he decides to hide it from Gaear, by burying it in the snow. (Like the rest of the film, the attention to detail with the cinematography in this shot is delightful. Roger Deakins uses shallow focus so we can see Carl kneeling in the snow, burying the bag, while around him, all we see is white. To the right is a fence, but we can make out just enough of it to know how far behind him it extends. The fact that the fence is out of focus adds to the illusion of the vastness of his surroundings.) Immediately after this, of course, Gaear, unaware of the hidden money, kills Carl. We know that the million dollars are now lost forever, quietly claimed by the snow, in a dark, twisted execution of justice.

Fargo does not tap into the violent, destructive, soul-crushing and deadly characteristics of snow the way several other films do - no, that would be too obvious for the Coen brothers. Fargo shows us how the snow can be sly and calculating, quietly laughing at us, into the cold, silvery night.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Snow Stories III

Frozen River (Courtney Hunt, 2008, USA)

There are parts of this world where even the slightly weak-hearted among us would fear to tread. There are parts of this world that the genteel scarcely interact with, that the most enlightened among us do not even know exist. Courtney Hunt's Frozen River (Academy Award Nominee for Best Original Screenplay) walks the treacherous line between the known world of gentility and its Other. Hunt sets her story in a part of a country where the security forces in the employ of the government do not dare. A part of the world with terrain so vicious, it is hard to tell where the earth beneath your feet ends, and purgatory begins. The frozen river, from the title of the film, is this treacherous line between Earth and Purgatory, treacherous not only literally, but also in the last shred of hope it offers Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo, Academy Award nominee for Best Actress), a desperate mother of two boys, trying to put away enough money for the down payment on a double-wide mobile home.

Ray Eddy lives in the harshest depths of upstate New York, close to a Mohawk Reservation and the US - Canada border. We see her for the very first time, emerging from her inadequate mobile home, in a blue and black puffer jacket, the skin on her face dry and scabby where it has been bitten by the cold. Her face is wan, dreary, and tired. There are several things we get to know about her life to which we can attribute her weary disposition - she has two sons, and she can't afford to feed them anything more than popcorn and Tang. Her mobile home is about the only sign of civillization visible in the miles of frozen whiteness around her, and it is not nearly enough to protect her family from the unrelenting cold. Her wastrel husband has disappeared with the money she had been putting away for a bigger, better mobile home. Eddy's face, however, isn't merely a face that won't smile - it's a face that can't smile. It is a face whose muscles have become so used to the snowy winds that blow out from the frozen crevices of purgatory, they have learnt not to move. And her face is just the beginning.

Forsaken by the institutions put in place to help people like herself, Eddy takes to smuggling illegal immigrants across the US - Canada border in her car, driving across the frozen St. Lawrence River, for a sum of $1200. Banking on the relative safety from security forces as long as she stays within the Reservation, Eddy drives through the endless expanse of wintry nights, risking her own life as well as the lives of her passengers. On one occasion, Eddy takes a duffel bag from a young Pakistani couple she is transporting, and throws it out into the freezing night, afraid it might contain explosives. It is only after Eddy unloads her passengers that she realizes the duffel bag, lying several miles behind them on the river's frozen skin, contains the couple's new-born child. Undaunted by this incident, Eddy decides to make one last trip, following which she believes she can buy her new mobile home. Unfortunately, the frozen river also chooses this last trip to give way, trapping Eddy and her passengers on the cracking ice, waiting to be arrested.

The terrain, in Frozen River, is almost sentient. Eddy's problems arise from her desperate need for a better home, one that can stand guard between her family and the punishing cold. When she takes to driving illegal immigrants across the frozen river, it is as though the cold invites her, tempts her, quite like the Devil himself. It seduces her, makes her believe that it will hold steady, solid, as she does what she needs to do, only to pull the ground from beneath her feet in that very last lap, just as she reaches out for the finish line. The frozen river is not only a literal representation of the treacherousness of wintry terrain, but also a metaphor for that dangerous, blurry middle ground between Earth and Purgatory, where you cannot tell solid ground from frozen water, and where your fate is held in the icy hands of a force you cannot control.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Snow Stories II

Yol (Yilmaz Guney, 1982, Turkey)

Yilmaz Guney spent several of his active years in various Turkish prisons, and it's hardly surprising, therefore, that one of his most acclaimed films was made by his assistant Serif Goren while Guney was serving a sentence, and is about prisoners on a week-long furlough. One of the prisoners in Yol (which, in Turkish, means 'road', or 'path') is Seyit Ali, who returns home only to find that his wife has turned into a prostitute, and it is the opinion of the larger, extended family that Seyit Ali should kill her. Unable to stand up to his family, but also unwilling to kill his wife – either out of lingering affection for her, or out of good conscience - Seyit Ali decides to take his wife along with him on his journey back, assuring his relatives that he will kill her.

Thus begins an epic journey across the wintry, punishing Anatolian plateau. Seyit Ali and his wife need to cross the unbelievable expanse of this plateau on foot, and all there is, as far as their eyes – and ours – can see, is snow. Monochromatic, silent, beautiful, threatening, deadly snow. As the ruthless wind blows more and more snow into their faces, we see Seyit Ali's wife lose her strength. Unwilling to leave her there to die, he carries her on his back, as he continues to walk into the endless expanse of white. Guney spares us no details – the inadequacy of their garments as they constantly wrap them tighter around themselves, fighting the wind's fury, the lines on Seyit Ali's face, where the icy wind slashes across his skin like knives, and the colour draining from Ali's wife's face, all make us almost physically aware of the painful cold. What we can never know, however, and only imagine, is that final moment when the cold clenches its grip over the couple – the moment when Ali's wife dies of the cold. The irony is cruel – Ali's family had ordered his wife to be killed, and while he did not want to kill her, he also could not stand up to his family. As she slowly succumb to cold right before his eyes, he has no choice but to watch it happen, and be with her until she dies. Yol is a narrative that ties together three different stories, and while each of these is heart-wrenching in its own way, the scene where Seyit Ali leaves his wife's lifeless body in the snow and walks away from it, while the wind covers it with snow, is the film's most poignant, beautiful, and cruel.