Saturday, 22 February 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, 9 February 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.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Maharashtra - The Long Journey of the Magi

I always enjoy discovering new literature, when I'm researching for this blog and I absolutely loved Rohinton Mistry's Such a Long Journey (1991) - shortlisted for the prestigious Booker prize in 1991, it went on to win the 1992 Commonwealth Writer's Prize, a year later.  Mistry's novels have been nominated for the (Man) Booker prize twice since then (A Fine Balance in 1996 and Family Matters in 2002) and I definitely look forward to discovering more of his work.

Such a Long Journey is one of those novels that is so finely crafted that every word finds its perfect place in the sentence and every sentence in every chapter.  It tells the story of Gustad Noble, a middle-aged Parsi from Mumbai, who is struggling to find serenity in the changing political turmoil of India in 1971.  Mistry himself was born in Mumbai (or Bombay, as it was known then) in the 1950's, but moved to Canada in the 1970's, which is where he currently lives. 

The Magi, book illustration by Heinrich Hoffmann
The title Such a Long Journey is taken from The Journey of the Magi (1927), a poem by T.S. Eliot which tells the journey of the Magi (a.k.a. The Three Wise Men) to Palestine, to visit the new-born infant Jesus (according to the Gospel of St Matthew).  The Magi came from Persia and were followers of Zoroastrianism, an ancient religion that survives today through the religious practices of small Zoroastrian communities in Iran and the Parsi and Irani communities in India.  Interestingly, the Magi have given us the words 'magic' and 'magicians' - ie. powerful sorcerers from the East. 

I became aware of the Parsis and Zoroastrianism when I was in Mumbai. For example, I'd heard about Mumbai's Towers of Silence, where recently deceased Parsi's are left to be eaten by a local population of vultures.  It's probably the most shocking and, therefore, well-known aspect of Parsi culture but, thanks to Mistry's book, I got a fuller sense of Zoroastrianism, which is quite distinct from India's main religions.

It was great to get an 'outsider's' view of life in Mumbai and Mistry not only delivers a fantastic story, but also charts the turbulent political situation in India, Pakistan and East Bengal (now Bangladesh), a mere twenty years or so after independence. 

Theme: Corruption

Unfortunately, corruption is a theme I come across again and again, as I'm researching for my blog.  Whether it's Maharashtra, Liberia or Dorset, corruption seems to be a global problem, to which, no-one seems to have a definitive solution. Like the narrator of TS Eliot's poem, Gustad Noble feels alienated and powerless in a world that is changing around him.  Having been brought up in quite a well-to-do family, his father's business is ruined and Gustad enters adulthood with a great education and upbringing, but no wealth.  His education sees him securing a job in a bank and he lives a lower middle-class life, investing his hopes and dreams in the education of his eldest son, Sohrab.

Indira Gandhi at Madame Tussaud's, London
Despite the tricks life has played on him, Gustad starts the novel with a naive belief in the modern Indian political system that has replaced a colonial one.  The novel deals with Gustad's struggle to cling onto this belief, as he begins to understand the corruption of Indira Gandhi's government, as well as the people around him, including his friend and neighbour, the ex-Army Major Jimmy Billimoria.  Another kind of corruption, in Gustad's eyes is the betrayal by his son, Sohrab, who refuses to follow the educational path his father had been setting out for him.

Theme: Spiritual renewal

The novel opens with a great scene where Gustad is trying to concentrate on his morning prayers, whilst around him Bombay screeches, hollers, beeps loudly and distracts him.  I have to say, Mumbai is probably the noisiest place I have ever been to, so I can relate to Gustad's frustrations, as he tries to find an island of serenity in the chaos of one of the world's biggest cities. 

Gustad is an incredibly 'pure' person and he gets upset at the fact that so many passers-by (men) are urinating against the wall of the compound that he lives in, leaving an awful stench and attracting mosquitoes.  Rather than resigning himself to this state of affairs, Gustad employs a local pavement artist to transform the wall, by sketching drawings of figures and buildings from the world's major religions.  The images of Krishna, Christ and the Ka'aba deter passers-by from urinating there and, within days, the wall has become a religious shrine and a place of beauty and fragrance. 

Theme: Misplaced sexuality

2006 paperback edition, Darren Wall at Faber
Although Mistry's novel promises to explore the father-son relationship, a common theme in Indian literature and movies, actually Gustad's son is absent for most of the novel, withdrawing his story from the reader's imagination and letting us focus on another, incredibly interesting relationship - the one between Gustad and his young neighbour Tehmul.

Tehmul suffers from physical and mental disabilities, after a childhood accident and is almost completely on his own, being neglected by his elder brother.  He and Gustad form a really lovely friendship.  Gustad is the only person who can (or perhaps, makes the effort) to understand Tehmul's rapid-fire speech and, whilst the rest of the neighbours find Tehmul's disability frightening or distasteful, Gustad shows a genuine concern for the young man and tries to help him control his, often frantic, behaviour.

One aspect of Tehmul's behaviour that Gustad finds particularly challenging is his awakening sexual drive.  As part of another parallel story within the novel, Gustad's daughter wins a beautiful life-sized doll in a school raffle and Tehmul becomes obsessed with the doll, eventually stealing it and having sex with it in his room, where Gustad walks in on him on the evening of the first black-out in another war with Pakistan.  At first Gustad is angry, but then he shows compassion.  Understanding that Tehmul's physical needs have no other outlet, Gustad allows him to keep the doll.

Mistry deals with the issue tenderly and raises important questions around the taboo of disabled sexuality. I found this theme rather interesting, as it's not one that you come across often and is as taboo in the Western culture I grew up with, as it is in the Indian culture of Mistry's novel.

Other themes

It's a complex book, with many strands and themes - there are other themes that I found interesting, which I'm listing below:

The danger of superstition
The importance of education
Enforced charity-giving
Reverse racism - seeing white skin as superior
The different diets of Mumbai's religious communities
Indian (especially Maharashtran) nationalism
Fear of money
The mystification of medicine
The modernisation of India
The interdependency of physical and mental aging
The appeal of adventure in an otherwise mundane world
Death replacement (how one character's death removes the fear from another)
A life suspended (comparing Mistry's Miss Kutpitia and Dickens' Miss Havisham)

Image credits:

The image of the Three Wise men is from a book illustration and is deemed to be in the public domain

The image of the wax model of Indira Gandhi at Madame Tussaud's was taken by me and you can see more of my photos at my Flickr profile.  

The photo of part of the book cover was taken by me and is from the 2006 paperback edition published by Faber and Faber.  The cover design of this edition was created by Darren Wall