Dec 15, 2013

Unpolished review of Ramleela

Warning: Lots of spoilers

I wanted to write a lot more about Bhansali's work, but ran out of steam. Maybe some other day.

All the critics are wrong. Ramleela is an awesome movie.

In romeo and juliet, romeo enters juliet's house on a masquerade ball-- maybe that is the reason indian films have chosen to portray this scene in holis, when you cannot really see the other person's face. But in romeo and juliet, juliet's father decides to let romeo stay on anyways, because it’s a festival time and he likes the lad. In Bhansali’s version, nobody likes Ram. Bhansali has added many of his own touches in his version of Romeo and Juliet, which are all nice. The two people killing each other, for instance, rather than succumbing to fate and illusions, is very well done. And so are the various intrigues and conspiracies.

By now, Bhansali’s visual motifs have become familiar to viewers - a woman lighting a diya. A woman with a light. A woman with blood flowing into water. A woman dragged against her will. Is it a coincidence that most of these images are of women? And a toned, shirtless man. Such a man in dhoti looks so good, or lets just say Ranbir Singh carries his dhoti off better than Ranbir Kapoor carried his towel-- which slipped  older woman dancing -- like kirron kher in devdas. By now, even Bhansali’s dances are familiar-- the dhol dance, the solo female dance--priyanka even strikes the same pose as aishwarya in hddcs. The song, btw, i think is the weakest part of the movie, even though it is a visual delight. Bhansali can do better than that, he has made so many awesome movies without item songs. But he does chase scenes very well, I could not take my eyes off of the one where a woman is being chased by a group in a jeep. And also confrontations, the pivotal scene where both parties tries to shoot at each other’s bottles is hair raising. There are many other patterns, which I forgot. Maybe will add later when I remember. The problem with these patterns is that they are all beautiful, but the second time around, they seem to lose their power, especially for viewers like me who associated a lot of meaning with the scenes we saw the first time.

Colors and sets are another pattern of bhansalis- i wanna watch the movie again just for that, and the costumes. And how strange, that even when leads run away, they find a town just as picturesque as they left-- complete with posters of goddesses in the hotel room.
All this makes you think that perhaps Bhansali gave his best, his heart and soul, to hddcs, and is just churning out pale copies since.

One flaw with the movie is that it lacks an emotional punch. Somehow, the attraction that the two leads have does not seem enough to create a life consuming passion for both. Perhaps the fact that the lead actors are good but not great has something to do with it. When Deepika recites silly shayaris even in serious situations, it makes you think of Aishwarya in hddcs, who had was similarly living in her own world not caring what happened outside. And the comparison does not favor Deepika. Also, perhaps our prejudices against sexuality have something to do with it – a relationship with sexual elements is perceived not as “deep” as a purely emotional one.

Coming to the theme, which is the most important part of a movie, And even in themes, we now know Bhansali’s patterns: a hero who is not serious even when the heroine is about to be married. A girl who is forced to be married, and is defiant. Authoritative parents. A daughter who is the parent’s guroor. But this time we must thank Bhansali for giving us more evolved female characters. An authoritative mother rather than a father, and a spirited heroine! sanjay leela bhansali's work is filled with primeval emotions-emotions you feel so deeply, you are forced to obey them, no matter what your circumstances. His movies remind you of things you cannot run away from--ghosts you cannot lay down. And for this, I always watch his movies, because they touch you somewhere at the core of how you feel, and remind you of how important romantic love is to your happiness.

Unpolished review of hunger games 2


Hunger games part 2 manages to be one of the few movies that is better than its book. While the book was laden with unnecessary details and confusing plot lines, the movie is clean. You only lose interest once, when the details of the game are too confusing.
I really like Collin's theme of what wars do to people. The yearly tribute reminds one of the ancient Greek story of Theseus and the Minotaur. However, Collins has gone one step ahead from the chest thumping victory that Theseus ends with. With any war, the cycle of violence does not stop, it goes on and on. MInos had begun the tradition of tributes because his son had been killed by Aegeans before, and this was his revenge. Theseus' story posits Theseus as the hero and Minos as the tyrant. masking the cycle of violence before it. Theseus kills Minotaur, but leaves deserts his lover Ariadne, starting another cycle, of which his father's death was merely a part. To come back to Hunger games, Katniss and her allies are again projected as heroes, and we know nothing of the history that went before it. But even after Katniss has vanquished one game, she is pushed into another. And when she vanquishes even the second attempt at her life., finally, her faction itself turns oppressor. She has thus effectively started another cycle of violence.
Collins' book is not a happy one, right from page one itself. But this pessimistic conclusion about the cycle of violence is effective because rings true.I read somewhere that Collins' aim was to portray how war affects children, and through Katniss' brittle, hardened personality, she succeeds. And she has done more than that. Katniss strikes at the "real enemy." While Theseus and his like always believed ending one evil was ending evil forever, Katniss, (in the third book, I am taking leaps here) lashes out at the entire system by targeting the one who gives orders. Her enemy is the dystopia in her society, not a person. Collins deserves the credit for taking the focus away from this narrow black and white view of war and towards the big picture.
Another important theme in this movie that touched me was Katniss' love life. She is attracted to two people at the same time, or alternately, however you like . Unlike twilight, the book that first became famous for this theme, Katniss' story does not stretch your imagination or your patience. You understand every bit of her feelings. She feels differently for both these men, and yet, both are important to her her, in different ways, at different times. She struggles with her feelings, and so do we. Why isn't it ok for her to value two different people in different ways? Why should she be forced to choose, eventually? I think her choice, when it comes in the end (in the third book, again) was only inevitable because of our social rules of monogamy. Her feelings don't end, or would not, in real life. The fact that Collins makes them end for one person is, to me, reflective of real life: we are forced to make a choice at some point, when in our hearts, all we want is for things to stay the same with everyone we value and care about.

Dec 8, 2013

Song of Ice and Fire: The Greek Connection

I may never have latched on to George RR Martin’s Greek connection, except that a child being dashed on walls paints a very vivid picture. And that picture has been made famous long before Martin’s epic A Song of Ice and Fire. In Homer’s Illiad, after the city of Troy is routed by the Greek forces, Hector’s child Astyanax is dashed on the walls. In Martin’s fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, Prince Rhaegar’s son Aegon is killed in the same way by Robert Baratheon’s angry host. Both the Greeks and the Baratheons are avenging the abduction of a woman: In Illiad, Menelaus wife Helen, and in A Song of Ice and Fire, Lyanna, the fiancée of Robert.

Martin’s work is full of such allegories and parallels to the ancient Greek myths, but he adds his own unique twists to them. For example, Helen’s abduction is debated, since many believe she fell in love with Paris, but Martin is clear that Lyanna’s abduction was forceful. Another twist is in the character of Helen’s husband. In Illiad, Menelaus, the husband of Helen, is a gentle man, not warlike at all. It is his brother Agamemnon who is the leader of the Greek host. But A Song of Ice and Fire, it is Robert Baratheon, fiancé of Lyanna himself, who resembles the aggressive Agamemnon. Agamemnon’s wife is Clytemnestra, who plots with her new lover to kill her husband. Well, Robert’s wife is Cersei, and Cersei’s lover has been with her for longer than her husband. But nonetheless, she does plot with him to kill Robert.

Another clear parallel to Greek myths lies in the story of Danaerys, the exiled Dragon princess. In Greek mythology, Danae was a princess who was persecuted by her brother. She was imprisoned, and into her imprisonment Zeus crept in the form of rain to impregnate her. When she gave birth to her child, her brother, afraid of the child’s power, set her afloat on the sea. Zeus’s jealous wife Hera sets many obstacles for Perseus, sending mercenaries to kills him, but Perseus and Danae overcome them all. Likewise, in A Song of Ice and Fire, Danaerys is first persecuted by her brother. She is not imprisoned, but since childhood her brother is her only family, which means that he controls and even abuses her until her teenage. Even her marriage is a forced one, and here she differs from Danae of Greece who loved Zeus. But again, Danaerys is persecuted by the Lannisters who are afraid that her child will rise to overthrow them, and send mercenaries to kill her and her child.

Like Zeus, Danaerys’ husband Khal Drogo disappears from her life once the child is born. Danaerys is left alone to raise her child. The Greek Danae caught the eye of a lecherous king who would have her against her wishes. Will Danaerys too be pursued by unwanted lovers? Will her children, the dragons, save her from that misery? Only time will tell (or maybe, a reading of the next four books in the series that are already out in the market, since I have read only the first part).

They key to understanding the character of Tyrion Lannister lies in his name. At first glance, it seems Tyrion is borrowed from Tyr, the Norse god of war. But once you know him better, you realize he shares more with a mythical Greek demigod. Tyrion is a joker who is not taken seriously by people around him. He is deformed, but has a great lust for women and wine. The noble values of loyalty and chivalry are nothing to him, he goes for whatever serves his interest. The mythical Greek creature Satyr was a half man-half goat renowned for his deformity, lecherousness, and baseness. I am awed by the thought that there may be many other stories and secrets hidden in the names Martin chooses, and that here I am just gnawing at the tip of the iceberg.

Maybe Martin did not mean to put these patterns in, and the old myths, in. Apart from Danaerys, which is too obvious a reference, others could have been accidents. For that is the power of myths, they tell basic stories of universal emotions that appear in each of our lives. Myths paint a character in broad strokes, which allow us to identify easily with them, and thus make it easy for us analyze and value characters, as well as the qualities of characters that we see in ourselves and the people around us. One reason (among many) that Martin’s work touches so many chords, despite being set in fantasy land, is that he works powerful recurring motifs into the story, and digs into the depths of our emotions. Again and again we hear the same stories, and again and again we derive meaning from them. Sometimes we derive a different meaning when there is a different conclusion, sometimes when the characters are viewed in new light. With two books in the series yet to go, it is yet to be seen what kind of endings Martin has in store for his characters, and what new shades of meaning he gives to them.

Game of Thrones: Book Review

One would have thought that writing one fantasy series would be enough for a lifetime. JRR Tolkien spent his life writing about Middle Earth, his work spilling over into his son’s life who completed some of his unfinished writings. No wonder, since his writings consisted of much more than just Lord of the Rings, it consisted of the entire, history, mythology, and languages of Middle Earth. JK Rowling tired after one fantasy series and turned to crime fiction. Philip Pullman, before his masterpiece His Dark Materials, wrote fantasies that he must be ashamed of today, and never wrote anything half as good after. 

But not so for George RR Martin. Not satisfied with inventing many fantasy worlds and winning every major award that exits for science fiction, Martin is now writing Songs of Ice and Fire, a medieval fantasy series that has topped the chart of both books and TV series. And this fantasy is no ordinary one. Like Tolkien, Martin has invented not just a story but an entire world with its own history and mythology. At the age of 64, Martin is just arriving at his peak form, and we don’t even know if it will be the last thing he writes.

What sets Martin’s works apart from other classical fantasies is his moral axis. Gone are the days when the two sides are rigidly divided into right and wrong, like in Lord of the Rings where Aragorn can do no wrong and Sauron is pure evil. In Martin’s world, even the most lovable characters have complexities: the perfect Catelyn Tully mistreats Jon Snow, son of her husband’s mistress. Villains have their redeeming points: cunning and ruthless Imp Lancaster nonetheless finds it in him to help a cripple. Martin knows no king can live up to his fables: his Robert is no Aragorn but a brave-heart of old gone to seed, complete with a potbelly, many bastards, and irresponsible drinking habits. He writes not about the glory of power and how peaceful the realm is under a benevolent king (think Ramrajya) but of how chaotic it is to manage the day to day events of the realm. There is nothing he will not talk about, even taboos like incest that earlier fantasies steered clear of are worked into Song of Ice and Fire. The component of sexuality marks a departure from most popular works of fantasy which focus on power roles, relegating women to the background as objects of ideal affection (like Arwen in Lord of the Rings). But even otherwise, Martin’s women are forceful characters with a will of their own.

Such a potpourri makes Martin’s work the most realistic in recent times. Bypassing modern favorites like Lord of the Rings, what Songs of Ice and Fire most resembles most is old classics like Mahabharata and Iliad, where each side has a solid array of relatable characters, and where each person has hidden depths of grey. Maybe that is because his work is grounded in medieval history. At first glance, it looks like any other fantasy where magical instruments are made up on the author’s whim. But in personal life, Martin is a collector of medieval artifacts and is known for his meticulous research into them. Song of Ice and Fire is said to be inspired by the War of Roses, a dynastic war between two powerful families and their supporters in medieval England.

A curious detail about Martin’s work is the way he writes about clothes. Almost lovingly he describes the luxurious doublets worn by knights, the flowing capes of the kings. With intricate details found only in Jane Austen’s work, he describes the silk-soft gowns of princesses, their colors, patterns, cuts, and even their lace trimmings. Maybe the visual part comes easily to him because he has worked in television for long. Anyhow, Martin is a milestone in the trend of more approachable, realistic, and sensual fantasy writing. Independently of him (because her first book was published barely a year after Martin’s A Game of Thrones), JK Rowling had given similar details of food and clothes in the Harry Potter series, and the descriptions of food in Hunger Games was so sumptuous that there is now a separate book of Hunger Games Recipes.  But it is notable that Martin is the first male to do so in modern times, such sensuality is lacking in prominent fantasies like Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time.
No matter how sophisticated a writer is, in fantasy they never fail to include some tried and tested formulas. Tolkien borrowed heavily from Norse mythology, and Pullman did a modern take on the time-tested Bible. Even a writer as innovative as Martin has used the number seven indiscriminately. Seven has always been a staple of Indo-European fantasy and folklore, remember Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs? Even in Nepali folklore, there are plenty of stories with one sister and seven brothers, or of seventh time lucky. The roots of seven’s popularity go deep, as it is believed to be a mysterious and magical number in many Indo-European cultures.  In Martin’s world, seven is the number of gods, the number of kingdoms, and also the number of hells, patterns which are repeated many times in the series.

Like in many epic fantasies, the language is as Old English-y as possible, to lend it an air of mystery. The use of “is” for “has” is an example, as in “The kingslayer is fled.” Names draw from old mythologies: Baratheon where Theo makes a reference to God, Khal Drogo where Drogo itself means dragon, Rhaegar meaning king, and many more. Referring to ancient spelling, Martin uses the letter “y” where the common practice is to use “i”: Lysa, and the house of Targaryn. The compound syllable “ae” is another such element, used in names like Rhaegar, Aemon, and Maegor.

Martin’s world, like any other work of fantasy, is not free from racial stereotyping: the concept that people of a certain blood have a certain characteristics. Tolkien had characterized Sauron’s army as being “full of vile men of low races with evil, mean faces”, as if a face can tell a character. Similarly, Martin’s heroes, the Starks, are proud that “the blood of the first men” flows in their veins, which apparently makes them better than everyone else. The Lannisters, in contrast, seem to be vilified just for their last names.

Martin’s work brings to mind the curious effects of primogeniture in literature. The technique in Martin’s writing is so far advanced than that in Tolkien’s, the characters so much better developed. And yet, Martin’s work will never have as much impact on readers as Tolkien’s. Fans of the old classics will find any number of faults in Martin’s work to justify this, but the truth is that impact can be made only by the first in the field. Those that come after cannot even hope for a fraction of its fame, no matter the quality. With a head full of the details of one fantasy world, it is very difficult for readers to understand and cram the details of another, at least not with as much passion as the first time around. The new book competes not just with the quality of the old book’s writing, but also with its attachment and nostalgia. We, the generation that grew up with Harry Potter, will never have the time to spend another ten years fixated on a book, which is why nothing else will appeal to us as much. Only on the young generation that grew up on Game of Thrones can it have its greatest impact.

Also, the impacts of early works on succeeding literature is so far reaching that it is just not possible for more recent works to compete. This may be because today fantasy books are only read by fans of the genre which limits their reach, while Lord of the Rings was read by all lovers of literature. Taking these factors into account, we as should be careful to judge new books on their merit, and not on how their impact compares to that of older classics. Here’s to hoping that the most talented fantasy writer of our generation gets his due from readers and critics alike.
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