Saturday, April 12, 2014

Nordrhein-Westfalen - Nothing new on the Western Front

This year marks the centenary of World War One, perhaps the deadliest conflict mankind has ever experienced.  The impact of 'the Great War' is still felt today and many people in Europe and around the world, still have personal connections to the war through the stories of their grandparents or even their parents, many of whom lost loved ones, during this terrible chapter of human history.

This year will be the start of a four-year period of commemoration, discussion and reflection.  It's generally acceptable, in the early 21st century, to criticise the raison d'etre of World War One and most people will recognise the insanity of the seemingly purposeless devastation wrought on Europe and other parts of the world between 1914 and 1918.  Nevertheless there is a definite consensus, certainly here in England, about the need to respect and commemorate the 'fallen' soldiers of the 'Great War' and of other wars, in general, including more current ones.

I'm anti-war. I just don't believe in wars and see any war anywhere as a tool of the powerful against the powerless and, quite often these days, as a very cynical way of propping up business and the capitalist system.  Wars cause unnecessary loss of life and destruction, in the name of causes which are generally meaningless.  Whilst most people can now see this, in relation to World War One - it's harder to hold this conviction when talking about World War Two and the Nazis, Europe's 'darkest hour', in the words of Winston Churchill.  For me, it's quite straightforward - the two World Wars were really one 'Great war' with a short interval of peace - you can't be against one and for the other.

Richard Thomas in the 1979 movie version
As part of my research on Nordrhein-Westfalen, I decided to read Erich Maria Remarque's influential novel of 1929, Im Westen nichts Neues (In the West, nothing new), better known in English by the title All Quiet on the Western Front.  Like many people of my generation, I grew up with a 'knowledge' of this novel and, more specifically, the title/phrase, although I'd never read the novel or seen either of the movies.  To be honest, I was really surprised to learn that the novel was written by a German ex-soldier.

Remarque was born into a working-class family in Osnabruck, Westphalia and, having been conscripted into the German army, he had first-hand experience of fighting on the Western Front in 1917.  It's become such a part of our culture and language, that I just assumed the story must be told from a British/American viewpoint.

And what a fantastic novel it is!  Wow!  If you read anything this year, it has to be this book.  And such a good time to read it, with all the commemorations and discussions that are going on.  It's an easy read, the language and imagery are powerful, beautiful and resonate long after you finish reading.  I also strongly agree with Remarque's anti-war message, his recognition of the basic humanity that we all share and the absurdity of killing people you've not even met and know very little about.

In an age of modern technology, where warfare happens at the click of a button or on a TV screen far removed from the comfort of your own home, it's hard to understand the reality of war unless you're living in a war zone.  It might sound incredibly cynical, but one thing the 'Great War' taught Europeans is that it's better to conduct wars somewhere else and not destroy your own nation's economy and social infrastructure.  The experience of war for most people in 'the West' in the 21st century is at a distance (both physically and conceptually), abstract, difficult to relate to.

The characters in Remarque's novel don't really know why they are fighting against the French and the British.  The reasons for the war are fairly abstract and the young men in the trenches don't really understand why the war started in the first place or what it is they are supposed to be fighting for.  They are mostly there out of a sense of peer loyalty, because they want to stick by their classmates and do what is expected of them.  Their motivation isn't really to kill other young men or burn down French villages, but to protect their comrades, families and villages.

Lew Ayres playing Baumer in the 1930 movie
Whilst the old men at home pore over maps and get excited about strategies, the young men experience the reality of war - the blood, shit, fear and the screaming of injured horses and dying men.  There is a lot of anger in the book, about the opportunities that the young men have lost, about their interrupted education and the way the war changes them, so they can never regain the comfort of civilian life.

Even Remarque's young men mostly see the enemy at a distance - modern warfare means aircraft shelling, poison gas and snipers.  They rarely come face-to-face with the 'enemy'.  Remarque personalises the experience of war in a very powerful scene where the main character, Bäumer, finds himself in a bomb hole with a French soldier.  Bäumer stabs the French soldier out of fear, but later regrets his actions and laments the fact 'that we're all just as scared of death, and that we die the same way and feel the same pain'

Bäumer's experience could be that of any soldier anywhere, but it's significant that this novel was written by the 'enemy', a German soldier, one of those who was surely raping Belgian nuns and eating Belgian children? Looking at anti-German propaganda, one hundred years later, it's easy to see through the hysteria and hyperbole.  Of course, it's much more difficult to see through propaganda when the war is happening during your lifetime, only retrospect can give us a truly sober perspective on the information being fed to us by our media and government.

Poster advertising 1930 movie
I also watched the two movie versions of the novel - the one made in 1930, directed by Lewis Milestone, as well as the made-for-TV film of 1979, starring Richard Thomas (a.k.a. John Boy from The Waltons).  I'm surprised that there is no German movie based on this novel and it makes me wonder how popular or well-known Remarque's work is in Germany?  Not surprisingly, Remarque's anti-war message wasn't very popular in 1930's Germany.  The Nazis stripped him of his German citizenship and he fled to the United States.  Remarque himself had a very interesting life, but that's a whole other blog post!

I loved the original movie of 1930 - it's a work of art in itself and the director captured the most important concepts (such as the scene around the young woman in the poster).  The 1979 movie was just okay - it told the story quite literally, but seemed to miss out on some of the most important concepts of the book.  Interestingly, the 1930 movie was the first film to be banned in Australia!  World War One was a defining moment in Australian nationhood and Milestone's movie wasn't considered 'on message' enough to be shown to the Australian public.

Being a bit of a Romantic (in the capital letter R/early 19th-century sense!), I'm always fascinated by the portrayal of nature in the books, movies and other art forms that I research.  So I'm leaving you with a wonderful quote from Im Westen nichts Neues which shows Bäumer's (read, any soldier's) relationship with the Earth/nature:

The earth is more important to the soldier than to anybody else.  When he presses himself to the earth, long and violently, when he urges himself deep into it with his face and his limbs, under fire and with the fear of death upon him, then the earth is his only friend, his brother, his mother, he groans out in terror and screams into its silence and safety, the earth absorbs it all and gives him another ten seconds of life, ten seconds to run, then takes hold of him again - sometimes forever. Earth - earth - earth!

Image credits:

The images of the stills from the 1930 and 1979 movie versions of All Quiet on the Western Front are from photos taken by me. These images are being used to illustrate this blog post and promote these movies. By publishing these images, I'm not condoning or encouraging reproduction of these images on the Internet or anywhere else. These images are not meant to bring the actors into disrepute or suggest their endorsement of this blog post, but are meant to highlight the performances of these actors in these movies. 

The image of the poster for the 1930 version of the movie is in the public domain - you can see more information on its file page on Wikipedia.


Sunday, April 6, 2014

Nordrhein-Westfalen - Naming your Neighbours

Something that has always interested me about Germany is the fact that there is no single name for this central European country.  Whilst France is called Frankreich (German), France (French), Francie (Czech), An Fhrainc (Irish), Frankrig (Danish), Frankrijk (Dutch), Francija (Latvian) and Prantsusmaa (Estonian), Italy is Italien, Italie, Itálie, Iodáil, Italien, Italië, Itālija, Itaalia and Spain is Spanien, Espagne, Španělsko, An Spáinn, Spanien, Spanje, Spānija, Hispaania - the names for Germany in these languages are; Deutschland, Allemagne, Německo, An Ghearmáin, Tyskland, Duitsland, Vācija and Saksamaa.

I guess it's because of Germany's central position in Europe and also the fact that it didn't become a united nation until 1871 that so many different names still exist for this country.  They do tend to fall into categories and the image below shows roughly how the various names for Germany are distributed around Europe. Most variations are related to ancient tribe names, like the Germani, Alemanni, Saxons and Vagoths.  The Germannic version deutsch/duits/tysk comes from an old word for 'people'.

Name for Germany in European Languages


















The Slavic word for Germans, Němci (Czech), немцы/nyemtsi (Russian), Nijemci (Croatian) - originally meant something like 'those who don't speak our language', but sounds a lot to me like 'those who don't (nye) come from this place (mesto)'.  

As I've been researching this topic, I've learned a lot about endonym, ie. the name people give to their own country/the place where they live and exonym the name given to a place by neighbouring tribes or countries.  Many of the names we use for countries in English are exonyms and have been borrowed into English through other cultures that had greater contact with people in that place, eg. the English name for China comes from Persian, our name for Brazil comes via Portuguese.

It's interesting that the endonym theudo/þeodisc/Dutch was used more widely in English in the past to refer to any Germanic people, but it gradually came to mean only those Germanic people who lived closest to England, ie. people in the Netherlands.  That's where we get the strange situation in English where we call Netherlanders Dutch and Deutschlanders German!

German border control in the 1950's by Hellebardius
I first started thinking about the names of Germany when I moved to Bratislava in 1999.  That's when I learned the Slovak name for Germany Nemecko and began to wonder what it all meant.  I was also surprised to learn the Slovak name for its neighbours Austria (Rakúsko) and Hungary (Maďarsko).  To be honest, most country names in our modern world are standardised, especially in the 'New World' - Mexico, Argentina, Australia - it gets more interesting when you look at the names neighbouring countries give to each other.

I tried a few of these and came up with some interesting examples below:

γαλοπούλα (galopoúla) - the Greek name for Turkey which, I guess comes from the place name Gallipoli? Then there is Yunanistan, the Turkish name for Greece, which relates to the Ionian Sea and is also used in languages like Arabic, Hindi and Persian.

Border locked by Morten Oddvik
The Irish name for England is Sasana which related to Saxony in Germany - I guess as far as the ancient Irish were concerned, the English were basically Germans, although I'm sure most 21st century English people would tend to disagree!  Likewise, in the other Celtic languages, England is called Sostyn (Manx), Pow Sows (Cornish) and Sasainn (Scottish Gaelic).  The origin of Lloegr the Welsh name for England is more obscure.  

The word for Egypt in Swahili is Misri, which is an ancient name from Classical Arabic and means 'the two straits' ie. Upper and Lower Egypt.

The Chinese name for Japan is 日本 (riben) which is an approximate pronunciation of the symbols that Japanese use for their country's name, Nippon.  The English name for Japan is believed to come from the Portuguese mispronunciation of Nippon although it could also be from the Cantonese pronunciation of this symbol. The Japanese name for China is 中国 (chugoku) which quite literally means 'the Middle Kingdom' and is exactly the same as the Chinese Zhōngguó.  

Endonyms can be quite different from the internationally accepted name given to a country and I've often wondered what it's like to grow up in a place like Nippon and to later find out that the rest of the world calls your country Japan, Japon, Jaapan etc?  I've put together a list of some of the countries I've already blogged about, in their native languages - click on the links to find out which countries they are:

ኤርትራ

Монгол улс

한국

اليَمَن

Uukuhuúwa

Image credits:

The map with the names for Germany in other European languages is from Wikipedia and you can see more information on the file here.

The image of the German border control is owned by Flickr member Hellebardius - it was taken near Lubeck in the 1950's.

The image of the 'Border locked' signpost was taken by Morten Oddvick, a teacher from Trondheim in Norway.  This photo was taken on the Georgian/Russian border.

Thanks for Hellebardius and Morten for sharing these images with us, using the Creative Commons license.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Nordrhein-Westfalen - The Map of Germany

Germany never ceases to surprise me!  Although, I've spent a lot of time travelling in other big European countries, like France, Italy, the UK and Spain - Germany remains fairly unknown to me, as I'm sure it does to many tourists and adventurers. Every time I do visit Germany, it reminds me how interesting and beautiful this country is and it always surprises me that I've forgotten this, since my last trip!

I've chosen to start my learning experience of Germany with the most populous state (or Land) - Nordrhein-Westfalen, known as North Rhine-Westphalia in English.  I've chosen the German name for this Land because, well, it seems weird to anglicize the names of German regions in our globalised 21st century. 

In the wake of the Crimean crisis, there has been a video by Frank Reed which has been doing the rounds on Facebook and Twitter and shows a 'time lapse' map of Europe and how Europe's borders have changed over the last ten centuries.  I've taken the embed from Frank's YouTube account and, if you watch the video below and concentrate on what is modern-day Germany, you'll be dazzled by the historical map of Germany, which looks like someone spilt their coffee all over the central area of the map of Europe!


Germany's history is complicated and the array of kingdoms, principalities, duchies and electorates that populated the pre-1871 map of Germany is simply overwhelming.  It reminds me a bit of 19th-century India, which was a complex collection of princely states and agencies, before India became independent and most of these states were merged into larger Indian ones.

The German Empire in 1871
It was a similar process in Germany in 1871 - when Bismarck united all of the German states except Austria.  Like the Middle Kingdom in China, Prussia had slowly been pulling smaller German states into its sphere of influence and it's no coincidence, perhaps, that the new leader of the German Empire or Reich was Wilhelm I, King of Prussia. 

Although both the Rhineland and Westphalia had been parts of Prussia, before Germany united, it surprised me to learn that Nordrhein-Westfalen was very much an invention of the British, in a curious merger called Operation Marriage.  After World War Two and the defeat of the Nazis, the Allied powers divided Germany into spheres of influence.

The Soviet Union dominated Brandenburg and the Kingdom of Saxony, what was to become The German Democratic Republic (GDR) aka, East Germany.  The United States dominated Bavaria and the strategic industrial Rhineland was divided between Britain and France.  The British administrators merged their northern Rhineland with the historic Westphalia province and North Rhine-Westphalia was born!

Roman province of Germania Inferior
Nordrhein includes many of the famous Rhineland cities most people would have heard of - including Cologne, Dusseldorf and Bonn.  It also contains the industrial cities of the Rhine/Ruhr confluence, such as Duisberg and Essen.  The Rhineland was the frontier of the Roman Empire with Roman outposts like Colonia (Cologne/Koln) protecting Germania Inferior from the savage tribes living in the misty forests of what is now Westphalia and Saxony. 

Westphalia (meaning 'western plain') is much harder to define - whilst it also has a lot of industry in the Ruhr valley centring around Dortmund, Nordrhein-Westfalen's third biggest city, it seems a lot more rural to me and more obscure, than the famous Rhineland area.  There was also once an Eastphalia (Ostfalen) but this seems to have faded into the wider Saxon Länder.   

Modern Westphalia also includes the former principality of Lippe - a small independent state that managed to remain outside the Kingdom of Prussia, but joined the German federation in 1871 and was added to Nordrhein-Westfalen by the British in 1947.  

I'm really looking forward to learning more about Nordrhein-Westfalen and Germany, over the coming weeks.  If you'd like to join me on this learning journey, please like the Facebook page connected to this blog and you'll get regular updates, as I publish the results of my learning!

Image credits:

All images are taken from Wikipedia and have been shared for re-use without copyright.   

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Maharashtra - The Final Word

It's been great fun learning about Maharashtra but, after more than two months focusing on this part of the world, I feel it's finally time to move on. 

During my time researching Maharashtra, I learned about Pancha Ganapati, a festival in honour of the Hindu deity Ganesh.  I also did some research on vegetarianism and levels of meat consumption around the world.  I blogged about the political significance of 'name-changing' (Bombay/Mumbai etc) in India and elsewhere.  I reviewed Khandekar's Yayati, perhaps the greatest Marathi novel ever written, as well as Rohinton's Booker-shortlisted novel, Such a Long Journey.  I learned how to make pakora, Moong dhal and Bombay Vegetable CurryI watched ten Bollywood movies and read numerous books, in my attempt to understand Maharashtra and India.  In a new strand of my blogging repertoire, I explained some of the key words/concepts that I'd come across, whilst learning about Maharashtra.

As always, there were many topics I didn't have time to delve into - so if you'd like to pick up the blogging/research 'baton' on Maharashtra, I would recommend the following extra topics:

The ethics of going on Safari
Jainism
Tea
Statues
Indian demographics - comparing population growth with China
The Parsis
Hindutva ideology
The Indian middle class
India's space programme
Dowry
Corruption
Indian TV
The International Society for Krishna Consciousness (aka the Hare Krishnas)
Indian universities
Car ownership

The Final word on Slums

Dharavi, Mumbai's biggest slum by Akshay Mahajan
Despite the fact that I sometimes blog about places with terrible human rights' records - I always try to focus on a positive learning journey, which helps me understand the motivations of the society I'm blogging about and gives me an appreciation of their cultural achievements and relationship with the wider world.  In my last blog post, The Final Word - I have a tendency to pick up on slightly more negative aspects of the place I'm blogging about.

For example, whilst blogging about Liberia, my final word was on Press freedom - or the lack of it - with Korea, I blogged about Basketball diplomacy and how sport can't answer all of our political questions. 

Whilst I was researching Maharashtra, something that really struck me was reading about Dharavi, one of India's biggest slums.  I realise that slums aren't specifically an Indian problem and exist all over the world, however I'm interested in finding out more about slums and I'm using Maharashtra and this 'Final word' as a starting point for future research.

Dharavi, Mumbai's biggest slum by Akshay Mahajan
As I understand it, the word 'slum' usually describes an 'unofficial' area of a city that has grown up due to migration (or sometimes immigration), where large numbers of people live in close proximity to each other, without proper services or sanitization.  In English, we also use words like 'shanty town' and 'ghetto' to describe these areas of a city, so I guess I already started my research on slums, when I blogged about the Jewish ghetto of Venice back in February 2011. 

Slum areas are notorious for high levels of crime and outbreaks of disease.  As they're not officially sanctioned, authorities have a tenuous sense of responsibility to the people who live in these areas.  Whilst slums generally come about as a temporary response to a city's rapidly increasing population, many slums, like Dharavi, have been around for more than 100 years and could hardly be considered to be 'temporary'. 

Although we usually associate slums with countries like India, Brazil, Mexico and parts of Africa - there are slums all over the world and in countries that we might not immediately think of.  For example, I was surprised to learn that the percentage of people living in slums in China (about 30% according to the UN's recent 'habitat report'), is more or less the same as in India.  Yemen had the highest percentage of its urban population living in slums in Asia in 2007 (77%) and even a prosperous country, like Saudi Arabia has an urban slum population of around 20%. 

Indian slums like Dharavi and the favelas of Brazil are well-known to the world, but I sense that there are a lot of 'hidden' slums around the world, that aren't so well-known, as they don't grab the newspaper headlines.

Dharavi, Mumbai's biggest slum by Akshay Mahajan
What to do about slums is an interesting question.  After years of official neglect, authorities can suddenly take quite an interest in redeveloping slum areas - especially 19th century slums like Dharavi which now find themselves, in the 21st century, on prime real estate. 

In the interests of 'progress', the authorities tear down the slums and replace them with modern buildings and facilities - whilst this all sounds very nice and progressive, slum-dwellers rarely benefit from the redevelopment of slum areas and are often relocated to a 'newer' slum on the outskirts of the city, far from the expensive real estate of the city centre!   The impact this has on the local community, third or fourth generation slum-dwellers, can be devastating.

When I was in Beijing two years ago, we visited a very traditional area of the city which the government would like to tear down and replace with modern buildings.  Whilst the old buildings have such inconveniences as outdoor/communal toilets and small living spaces, the area has a real sense of community that would be difficult to replicate in the outer suburb that the government would like people to move to.  I can see the dilemma that most people would have - a new apartment with modern conveniences might seem very attractive, even if it takes an hour to get there on the bus from the city centre!

Image credits:

For this blog post I wanted to highlight the work of Akshay Mahajan who is a photo journalist, originally from Pune in Maharashtra.  Akshay has done a series of photos in Dharavi and captures the beauty of the slum, as well as its ugliness.  You can see more of his photos here.  Thanks Akshay for sharing these images with us, using the Creative Commons license. 

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Maharashtra - Key Concepts

I always come across interesting words and phrases, when I'm doing research for my blog posts. I thought this time I should blog about some of these, especially as Indian culture provides us with a wealth of concepts, physical items and new words, many of which have been borrowed into English. I've decided to call this strand of my blog 'key concepts', which cover all bases: words and phrases, as well as new concepts. 

Tying the Kushti by Tyabji
Kushti - I came across this word whilst I was reading Rohinton Mistry's Such a Long Journey and it means the sacred girdle of Zoroastrianism, which practitioners tie three times around their waist before prayer. We also have the word cushty in English, which means 'great' or 'brilliant', eg. 'What do you think of my new car?' 'Cushty!'  I wonder if there is a relation between the word, as it's used in English and the Zoroastrian girdle?

Paan - Rohinton's novel also features a 'paan-wallah' or 'paan seller' and paan was a new concept for me. There are different varieties of Paan but it's basically a combination of Areca nut or tobacco, wrapped in betel leaves, which is then chewed creating a juice that is mildly narcotic. The paan-wallah in Rohinton's novel works opposite the local bordello and specialises in virility-enhancing paan, a kind of natural Viagra! Betel-chewing is common across East Asia. By all accounts, paan users spend a lot of time spitting out a bright red liquid, which leaves technicolour stains on any surface it hits!  This anti-social aspect of paan consumption has led to anti-spitting campaigns in places like Mumbai.

कोई बात नहीं - Shahrukh Khan
Koi baat nahi - कोई बात नहीं - I heard this useful Hindi phrase a few times, when I was watching the Bollywood movie, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge. As they get into more and more difficult situations during their trip to Europe, the main character, played by Shahrukh Khan tells the character played by Kajol 'Koi baat nahi, señorita' meaning 'it's okay, señorita'. Koi baat nahi literally translates as 'a thing not' or 'nothing' and can also be used to say 'you're welcome' like French 'de rien', Spanish 'de nada' or Russian 'ничего' (nichevo)

Tilak - from my reading of VS Khandekar's Yayati, I learned the word 'tilak' which can refer to the facial markings of Hinduism, such as the long line, usually drawn with a coloured paste, from the place where the eyebrows meet, to the end of the nose, popular with Shaivites (worshippers of Shiva). Tilaks can show a person's caste, marital status or which sect they belong to. We're probably more familiar in Europe with the 'Bindi' which is a kind of circular dot worn by Indian women on their forehead between their eyes. I guess Bindi is a kind of tilak, although Bindi are usually stuck on (powder or jewels) rather than painted.

Distributor of Holy Thread by Meena Kadri
Darshan or Darśana - from the Sanskrit दर्शन is a concept which is difficult to describe in English. It comes from Hinduism and literally means 'sight'. It refers to the spiritual act of seeing a deity, but it's perhaps more than seeing, with an element of understanding and blessing that is bestowed on the 'seer'.

The closest European concept I can think of is 'epiphany' which also relates to a spiritual moment of seeing and understanding. The seeing/visual element of Hinduism interests me, as I'm quite a visual person and it's perhaps one of the reasons I find India and Hinduism very stimulating. It also explains the psychedelic nature of Bollywood movies with all of their colour and movement, where the visual elements are elevated to an art form in themselves.

Image credits:

The image of the priest teaching a young boy how to tie his kushti is from Wikimedia Commons - you see more information on this file here.   

The image of Madame Tussaud's wax model of Shahrukh Khan was taken by me. You can see more of my photos on my Flickr photostream

The image of the man with a prominent red tilak is by Flickr member, Meena Kadri who is originally from New Zealand.  Meena has an amazing collection of Indian photos which you can see on her photostream.  She also has a pretty cool website

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Maharashtra - Reading List

I read quite a few books in relation to Maharashtra.  Here's a summary of what I read, with links to my blog posts, where relevant:

India: Insight Guides (2009 - 8th edition), ed. Tom Le Bas.  I find this series of guidebooks really informative and, as I didn't read more generally about India, when I was blogging about Rajasthan, I thought I would do that this time round, to give me a wider understanding of where Maharashtra sits in the bigger 'Indian' picture.  I feel inspired to visit India again and the Insight Guides has given me some ideas for potential future trips!

Bollywood: Gods, Glamour and Gossip (2013) by Kush Varia - part of Columbia University Press's 'Short Cuts' series for film studies students.  I've already mentioned this book, when I blogged about Bollywood movies, two weeks ago. 

Books I read as part of my research into Maharashtra
Yayati: A Classic Tale of Lust (1959) by VS Khandekar - a re-telling of an ancient Hindu tale, this is one of the most famous books written in Marathi language.  I posted my review of this book back in January. 

Such a Long Journey (1991) by Rohinton Mistry - a more modern take on life in Maharashtra, I really loved this novel and also reviewed it. 

An Indian Summer (1974) by the British journalist, James Cameron.  I thought this book was mildly interesting - a bit dated, I guess and some of the attitudes Cameron expresses don't sit well in our modern, politically-correct world.  The book covers different parts of India, not just Maharashtra and is probably only interesting if you want to have an insight into how India was perceived by a Western journalist in the early post-colonial days. 

An Indian Housewife's Recipe Book (1985) by Laxmi Khurana - I really love this book.  Simple recipes that anyone could make, I used three of her recipes for my blog post on Indian cooking

And, of course, I came across the titles of books I would still like to read, if I ever get the chance, including:

Anything by Rohinton Mistry - his writing is so great, I can't wait to read another novel by him and, in fact, I have a copy of A Fine Balance (1995) on my bookshelf, awaiting its turn to be read!

Bhagavad Gita - 19th century manuscript
One good thing about reading James Cameron's book is that he pointed me in the direction of a couple of other books I'd be interested in reading.  Although these don't relate specifically to Maharashtra, I'd quite like to read VS Naipaul's An Area of Darkness (1964) and Nirad C. Chaudri's A Passage to England (1959).  Of course, although I've read it before, it would be great to re-read EM Forster's A Passage to India (1924).

I guess everyone should read the Bhagavad Gita at some point, so I'll put that on my 'to read' list. 

My foray into Bollywood movies has got me interested in reading Vikas Swarup's novel, Q&A (2005), which the movie Slumdog Millionnaire was based on, as well as Amrita Pritam's Pinjar (1950), the famous Punjabi novel, which was also made into a movie.

If you've read any of these books, I'd be interested in hearing what you thought about them, just post a comment below.

Image credits:

The photo of the books I read was taken by me.

The image of the19th century manuscript of the Bhagavad Gita is from Wikipedia

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Maharashtra - Ten Bollywood Movies

I'm a big fan of Bollywood movies, so blogging about Maharashtra has given me the perfect opportunity to spend some time watching Bollywood classics, as well as researching the origins of Indian cinema.  To help with my research, I read a really good introduction by Kush Varia called Bollywood: Gods, Glamour and Gossip (2013).  This book is part of Columbia University Press's 'Short Cuts' series (published by Wallflower Press), which is intended to introduce the main themes of film studies.  I have a feeling this won't be the last book I read in the Short Cuts series!

I find it interesting that, despite the fact many of the 'big' movies are in Hindi or Urdu, Bollywood is located in Mumbai, Maharashtra, far from Delhi and centres of Hindi and Urdu culture.  Varia is quick to point out that Indian cinema isn't all about Bollywood/Hindi productions and that there are also thriving film industries in Bengali, Telugu, Tamil and other language centres.

Traditionally, the Marathi film industry was based in Pune, Maharashtra's cultural capital, but many Marathi films are now also made in Bollywood.  It's interesting that there has been a lot of resistance, on an official/government level, to the growth of the Bollywood film industry and it's only been in recent years that the Indian government has seen the importance of Bollywood as an expression of Indian culture.

For the purposes of this blog, I have taken a wider angle on Indian cinema and not restricted myself to Bollywood/Hindi/Urdu cinema.  Here are the ten movies that I watched, in the order that I watched them:

1. Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham - dir. Karan Johar (2001), Hindi/Urdu/English

I fell in love with Bollywood because of Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham - I heard the soundtrack during my first visit to India in 2002 - it was everywhere, ads on the TV, blaring from shops in Paharganj - I bought a copy of the soundtrack CD and listened to it again and again!  Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham is a BIG Bollywood movie - the most expensive Indian movie ever made, at the time of its release, it was a hit, not just in India, but around the world.  Filming locations included Egypt, London and (rather bizarrely) Bicester!

Critics of modern Bollywood movies will say that they lack the gravitas of early Indian cinema and that the songs and dances aren't as good as they used to be.  I defy anyone to listen to/watch the following video of Say 'Shava Shava' and tell me that this isn't just fantastic!




2. Pyaasa - dir. Guru Dutt (1957), Hindi

Scene from Pyaasa (1957)
Armed with a list of great Indian movies, mentioned by Kush Varia, I set off on my exploration of Bollywood by watching the 1950's classic Pyaasa.  It's a poignant movie, which tells the story of an unrecognised poet and how badly he is treated by the society he lives in.  He struggles to make a living and only becomes famous when he is (mistakenly) declared to be dead.  It's a heart-rending watch and very different to the lighter, more colourful movies of the modern age.

Indian cinema of the 1950's was often quite political, as the newly-independent country wrestled with its own identity and tried to find equality in a caste-based post-colonial society.  There is an important scene at the end of Pyaasa where the poet rejects the accolades that society has suddenly decided to bestow upon him.  Guru Dutt starred in and directed the movie, a dual role that is less common these days.

3. Kuch Kuch Hota Hai - dir. Karan Johar (1998), Hindi/Urdu/English

The third movie I watched, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai is another big hit by Karan Johar and, like Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, also stars Shah Rukh Khan, the Mumbai-born actress Kajol and the Bengali star Rani Mukerji.  These modern Bollywood movies are most definitely shot in a world of 'beautiful people' and stars like the three mentioned above are well-known celebrities in India and around the world.  I must admit, I've got a soft spot for Shah Rukh Khan - he's quite cute, cheeky and good at playing the clown, as he often does in Johar's movies.

Kuch Kuch Hota Hai is sad, funny, entertaining - a good introduction to the modern Bollywood genre.  I didn't think the music was as good as in Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, but I found it interesting the way the main characters seemed to embrace a US college-student lifestyle. 

4. Seeta aur Geeta - dir. Ramesh Sippy (1972), Hindi

Going from the Americanised 90's, right back to the 70's was a bit of a culture shock and Seeta aur Geeta is a brilliant movie that you should definitely watch if you are interested in Bollywood cinema.  It covers some of the main themes of Indian cinema - separation of siblings, mistaken identity, differences of caste.  It's also a very funny, interesting and psychedelic movie - although I'm sure the story could be retold in a modern context, the movie is very much of its time. 

I watched this movie with my sister, quite appropriately and I think this was her first time to see a Bollywood movie, so she's got a lasting impression of Indian cinema based on this film! 

5. Bombay - dir. Mani Ratnam (1995), Tamil/Hindi/Telugu

Bombay is a brilliant movie and a must-watch, I absolutely loved it!  It deals with really important political topics and tells the story of a love relationship between a Hindu man and a Muslim woman, set against the backdrop of the 1992 religious riots in Mumbai/Bombay.  Mani Ratnam is one of the most famous film directors from Tamil-language cinema, based in Chennai (Madras).  Bombay is a good example of a movie that has crossed the linguistic divide.  It also contains one of my favourite songs from an Indian movie, the Hindi version is called Kehna Hi Kya and you can see a video from YouTube below.

The soundtrack of Bombay was composed by A.R. Rahman, the 'Mozart of Madras', a Tamil composer who is known around the world for his musical scores which include the soundtrack for Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire (2008)



6. Pinjar - dir. Chandra Prakash Dwivedi (2003), Hindi/Urdu

Scene from Pinjar (2003)
Pinjar is quite a serious movie, based on the novel of the same name by Punjabi writer, Amrita Pritam.  It deals with the partition of 'Hindustan' and the position of women in Indian society.  Like other Bollywood movies, it's sad, beautiful and entertaining in equal measure.

7. Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge - dir. Aditya Chopra (1995), Hindi/Urdu/English/Panjabi

Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge is a great movie - one of the first to feature Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol.  The story is interesting, the music is great and it's very typical of a Bollywood movie from the 1990's - glamorous, big-budget and targeting the Indian diaspora as much as the 'home' audience.  Apparently Chopra originally wanted to cast Tom Cruise in the main role, which might have been an interesting development for Bollywood cinema - presuming he'd accepted of course!

It's shot in England, India and Switzerland and, as I was watching the movie, I realised that I'd seen it before, on a train from Samarkand to Tashkent in 2002!  I say 'seen' and not watched, as I had no real idea of what the movie was about and couldn't understand the Russian-language dubbing due to the general noise on the train. 

I was surprised to learn that Indian cinema is quite popular in Russia and many of the big Indian movies of the 60's and 70's will be familiar to Russians of a certain age-group.  Whilst the glitzy, commercialised 90's Bollywood movies might not appeal to a Russian audience, movies like Dilwale are popular across Central Asia, including countries like Uzbekistan.

The clip below shows a very famous scene from Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge where Kajol is dancing around in her towel!



8. My Brother Nikhil - dir. Onir (2005), Hindi/English

My Brother Nikhil is a very important movie and deals with the issue of HIV/AIDs.  It's set in Goa and follows the story of a Goan state swimmer who is gay and is diagnosed with HIV.  The movie is a long way from the glitz and glamour of Johar or Chopra, but I think it's in keeping with the older Bollywood tradition of raising important social issues.  the director, Onir, was born in Bhutan and is one of the few openly gay film directors in Bollywood.

With their traditional themes of male/female love and family values, Bollywood movies don't often deal with LGBT issues and I wonder if this will change, as India gets used to the 21st century?

9. Mughal-e-Azam - dir. K. Asif (1960), Urdu

Scene from Mughal-e-Azam (1960)
Mughal-e-Azam is an iconic movie of Indian cinema.  It took more than ten years to make and has an epic quality - for example, battle scenes with 8,000 movie extras - that reminds me of the Hollywood movie Ben-Hur (1959).  Urdu was the language of choice for literature and the arts in colonial India and I can see why - the booming narrative voice of Mughal-e-Azam sounds beautiful in Urdu and is poetic, as well as frightening.

Mughal-e-Azam is not like any movie I've ever seen before - it's incredibly beautiful, dreamy and transcendental.  It's not an easy movie to watch and, at 197 minutes, is even longer than the other 3-hour movies that I watched. 

10. Pakeezah - dir. Kamal Amrohi (1972), Urdu

Pakeezah is another movie that took more than ten years to film.  By all accounts, the director, Kamal Amrohi was somewhat of a perfectionist and didn't want to finish a scene until it was exactly right.  The production is exquisite and it's an incredibly beautiful movie.  It follows the life of a prostitute who has aspirations for real love, as opposed to the 'paid-for' love she gives to rich men in the brothel where she works.  The final scene (last minute or so of the clip below) where Sahibjaan dances barefoot on broken glass is one of the most amazing cinematic climaxes I've ever seen.  A fitting finale to almost 30 hours of movie watching!




Image credits:

The images of stills from the movies are from photos taken by me. These stills are being used to illustrate this blog post and promote Indian cinema. By publishing these photos, I'm not condoning or encouraging reproduction of these images on the Internet or anywhere else. These photos are not meant to bring the actors into disrepute or suggest their endorsement of this blog post, but are meant to promote the amazing performances of the actors in these movies.