singin’ in the sun

Fair warning – i am going to use the word ‘magic’ a lot in this post. Not going to apologise for it.

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Damien Chazelle’s La La Land (2016) is such a bundle of joy, glamour and heartbreak, that you can’t help but soak in every moment of the sheer magic that is transpiring on the big screen. There are fireworks, there is tap dancing, a riveting jazz score, a Technicolor palette that brightens up every frame, the sparkling chemistry between its gorgeous leads, and their tussle with their hopes and ambitions. Heck, at one point, the two leads are gliding and dancing in the air, dancing perfectly like two figurines in those old music boxes. Only in the movies, huh?

The first half is all about the heady charm of falling in Love (not just ‘love’, mind you.). Mia, a struggling actress, bumps into Seb, a struggling jazz pianist, and they live the romance that Hollywood has sold us in the movies of Cary Grant and Humphrey Bogart. So much of the film is left to the mellow music by Justin Hurwitz and the painted sunsets of LA, that not much dialogue is needed. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling sing and dance in various pretty spots around Los Angeles, and you sit there, with a goofy smile on your face, and you feel like singing and dancing along with them.

But as their love collides with their dreams, reality kicks in. Seb, a pianist whose music is firmly rooted in the past, struggles with his successful new band, whose music he doesn’t identify with. Mia is trying to still hit her big break. The two must confront the possibility that their relationship may not be able to coexist with their personal ambitions. Success comes at a price – and that price is not spending the rest of their lives together. The montage at the end of the film, with the alternate ending to Seb and Mia’s story, is rendered in a gorgeous montage, that is a treat to the eyes and ears.

Visually, the film is a stunning achievement. Chazelle goes all out to depict the magic of the movies, and you stare in wide-eyed wonder, because it has been a very long time since you saw something like this. The limelight falls on the lead when he or she is singing, while the lights dim in the rest of the room, because in that moment, it is only that lead who exists, pouring his or her heart out in song. The dances are choreographed beautifully, not a step out of line. You step out of the hall, gliding, like Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain, a big smile on your face. The music is soothing, a great relief from the repetitive hooks in today’s pop music. All you want to do when you get home, is put on Sidney Bechet, and melt your Sunday blues away.

My only gripe with the film, was the abrupt difference in the mood between the first half and the second half. At some points, you do feel that the dialogue walks a predictable path, and you wish that the writing could have offered something newer. The story of two beautiful people falling in love and fighting with their true desires, is not exactly a new story.

Again, that may be because, La La Land is supposed to be seen as a homage to the great old musicals and love stories of yesterday. In a cold, cynical present, we look to the past for comfort, for in our memories, the past is always tinged with a little sunshine, a little more colour, a little more sparkle. La La Land is escapism at its best, and that is what makes it a film that should not be missed.

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not a bibliophile. deal with it.

Reeling from the aftermath of an unsurprisingly terrifying fourth year in law school, i turned to books in the summer vacation of 2015. Reading books, whether they were comforting romances or non-fiction that i plodded through in hopes of “improving my mind”, was a pleasure i had mostly forgotten, since hours of mindlessly watching TV shows and movies on end had reduced my attention span to levels that a two-month old baby could easily exceed. The fact that my house was brimming with relatives and my little cousins used to happily sit on my lap and fart, meant that i was desperate for a distraction.

The books i read in between June and September are not impressive in quality or quantity. This is not a post to show off how well-read I am. I read a lot of crap. I hate people who presume they’re superior or smart because they read a book and won’t shut up about it. I hate the word ‘bibliophile’ (or any word that ends with -phile). That word has been used so much, it has lost its meaning. I’m just glad i read, and i’m simply trying to articulate my experiences. I haven’t written in a long time either. So far, the last year of law school hasn’t been all that different from the last four. While my batchmates’ idea of YOLO is making spontaneous trips, mine is buying nachos, drinking Tang and watching 30 Rock for the fifth time. Crazy, huh? I am bored, and everyone must know that i am bored. So feel free to close this tab and catch up with The Walking Dead or whatever.

Off to an ambitious start, i began with the classic ‘Lord of the Flies’ by William Golding. While i liked the premise of the book, somehow i lost interest very soon. (Was it the other bright, shiny, colourful apps on the iPad? Was it the fact that i was home for the holidays and stuffing my face with home-made pizza? Guess we’ll never know.) The next was then-bestseller ‘The Girl on the Train’ by Paula Hawkins. Hot on the trail of flawed female protagonists à la Amy Dunne from Gillian Flynn’s ‘Gone Girl’ (plug: see my previous post on the book and the movie), this thriller was lauded for its pace and depiction of the jilted, alcoholic ex-wife who pries too much. I am clearly in the minority here, because i found the book extremely slow for a thriller, since the protagonist spends much of her time simply conjecturing what might have happened, while the plot doesn’t really move forward. I lost my patience with the book soon, and gave up midway.

Now it must be known that ‘Pride and Prejudice’ was the first real novel i ever read, and that has pretty much defined what i now read or watch. So to fill this void of a satisfying romantic comedy, i next decided to read ‘The Zoya Factor’ by Anuja Chauhan, the ad-woman behind the Pepsi, Lays and Kurkure ads that everyone remembers. I had wanted to read this book for ages, and boy, was i entertained! Once i came back to college, i read ‘Those Pricey Thakur Girls’ and ‘The House That BJ Built’ too, lapping them all up in the space of a few hours. I read greedily, following the romantic misadventures of the clueless heroines of these novels, as they sparred with their drool-worthy heroes. What i love about Anuja Chauhan is her grip on North India’s language (see ‘incomepoop’) and customs, her knee-weakening descriptions of the fairytale heroes, and just how nice everyone is. Once in a while, it’s very comforting to read an unpretentious romance which makes you giggle like a twelve year-old girl. There is a very typical, north Indian twang to the English she writes in. Little things struck a chord with me, like the family gathered together to watch award shows on TV with home-made aloo tikki burgers and cold-coffee, the taste of mangoes when cut with an onion-knife, masala Maggi for Sunday breakfast with lots of peas (crying while typing this today), the night-markets in our towns, neighbours who came over for endless cups of tea, marie biscuits and gossip, sitting on the verandah in the winter sun. (Did you notice all my memories are food-related? Yeah.) My favourite was ‘Those Pricey Thakur Girls’, not least because of the swoon-worthy Dylan Singh Shekhawat. Half of my excitement for the Jaipur Literature Fest 2016 is for Stephen Fry, and the other half is for Anuja Chauhan. Can’t wait!

Continuing this streak, David Nicholls’ ‘One Day’ was similarly consumed within three days. Think of this book as a When Harry Met Sally… set in 90s Britain, with excursions to Greece and Paris. The book is funny and endearing, and the dialogue is sparkly and witty. Looking forward to reading ‘Us’ by the same author, which i hear is even better. I didn’t know that Nicholls is also the author of ‘Starter for Ten’, whose film adaptation i quite like. As for ‘One Day’s film adaptation, the same can be safely skipped. Though very pretty-looking, the film lacks the spark and charm of the source novel.

I found myself in Bombay in July, and realised that i really, truly hate the city. I choose Delhi. Yes, you need to get home by 8 PM, but i like open spaces, real north Indian food, the momos and egg-rolls and aloo-tikkis, the greenery, shopping and haggling at Sarojini Nagar, proper winters, the beauty that is the Delhi Metro, and getting my money’s worth. No offence to Bombay-ites, of course. Anyhow, i bought second-hand books at the Flora Fountain market on my last day in Bombay, then shot off to Theobroma’s for cheesecake, and walked to this tiny place called Alps for a beer. (I’m sorry i’m describing food again. I’m very hungry right now.) That day was nice and quiet and one of the best i had in the city.

From the purchases at Flora Fountain, i read Upamanyu Chatterjee’s ‘English, August’ first. The tale of an urban young IAS recruit banished to the small, fictional town of Madna, the only parts of the book that resonated with me were the protagonist’s frustration, disillusionment, displacement and his sole desire to remain indolent. When i read a novel, i like reading about characters i can admire. Sadly, that didn’t happen. Next was Pankaj Mishra’s ‘The Romantics’. Another tale of a young man wishing to find himself on the ghats of Banaras while in the middle of an infatuation with a French woman and student politics, this book seemed to be written solely for foreigners who wanted to read about other foreigners in India. I agree that he writes very well, especially when he describes the scenes and sounds of the holy city, but i didn’t feel invested in whether or not the protagonist really found his true purpose. This book was also dropped halfway through.

Slightly unhappy with these two books, i returned to old comforts; comedian Tina Fey’s hilarious memoir ‘Bossypants’, and the classic ‘Gone With The Wind’. ‘Bossypants’ is too funny to put down for a second, and makes for great re-reads. I love 30 Rock and Liz Lemon, and true to form, Tina Fey is on fire in every line of the book, dispensing advice on how to handle growing up, beauty, family, work and success with a sense of humour and a pinch of salt. Sample this – “Some people say, “Never let them see you cry.” I say, if you’re so mad you could just cry, then cry. It terrifies everyone.”

I revisited Margaret Mitchell’s gold standard of romances ‘Gone With The Wind’ too. How rich and satisfying is this book? I remember reading this tome and Vikram Seth’s ‘A Suitable Boy’ back-to-back over the course of one set of pre-board exams in class XII, and did not regret scoring miserably in those exams for one second. This magnum opus traces Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler’s story across the American Civil War, and delves deep into the other characters’ lives as well, fleshing them out with rich detail. Scarlett is not a likable character, but she is an admirable one. Rhett Butler is the original man, and men like him are not made anymore. The book has one of the best endings i have read, and you know that it is the right one. It’s just perfect, and everytime i re-read it, i discover a new depth to the characters that i hadn’t noticed before. Hey, there’s a reason this book is a classic, and why its appeal continues over generations.

From my early introduction to O. Henry, Guy de Maupassant, Saki and most notably, Roald Dahl’s short stories, i have admired writers for spinning a memorable tale over just a few pages. So i quite enjoyed Jhumpa Lahiri’s Pulitzer Prize-winning ‘Interpreter of Maladies’, a collection of stories about Bengalis living and adapting abroad. I read her other collection of short stories ‘Unaccustomed Earth’ such a long time ago, that i can’t remember it well enough to compare the two. I read ‘The Namesake’ while still in school, so i couldn’t appreciate her writing as much back then. The film based on the novel is poignant and beautiful. There is a serenity to Lahiri’s writing in ‘Interpreter of Maladies’, which belies the emotional turbulence her characters are going through. These stories of struggling to adapt in alien lands while pining for home, are universal, because themes of nostalgia, survival and forging your identity are common to us all.

I haven’t taken to modern authors that well. I guess it’s because i started reading with the classics, and i like novels with well-plotted stories and rich characters. I enjoy good dialogue and sharp writing. Stories where i can relate to a character’s struggle when faced with a dilemma, stay with me long after the book has ended. Understanding how characters think and what drives their actions and reactions to certain events in the story is why i continue reading a story. I want to read about characters i can admire (if not emulate). I want a story that i can carry with me, and revisit that place and time when i read the story first, again and again. This quote by Alan Bennett sums up the pleasures of the written word best:

“The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”

… which reinforces my suspicion that literally everything that we do is to find a reflection of ourselves in someone else.

to stay or to go?

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Garam Hawa (1974), directed by M. S. Sathyu, is a poignant film depicting the plight of Muslims in India, post-Partition. Based on a short story by Ismat Chughtai, the firebrand feminist Urdu writer, the screenplay is written by Kaifi Azmi and Shama Zaidi (Sathyu’s wife). I remembered this film from a reference in Shyam Benegal’s Mammo (1994), which i had watched years ago. Another rare, undervalued film, Mammo too explored themes of the plight of Muslims who stayed behind in India after Partition. Garam Hawa features Balraj Sahni in his last performance, and what a swansong of a performance this is.

The film focuses on the Mirza family, living in Agra. Salim Mirza (played by Sahni) is a proud family man, who refuses to leave his country, while slowly his family, disillusioned with their plight in India, leave one-by-one for Pakistan. His elder brother has his own ideas, his sons are young and have a mind of their own. But Salim, a man of integrity and loyalty, refuses to get embroiled in politics, and believes in his moral code and honour. But how long, in the face of such adversity, will his patience last?

The dialogues are trademark Ismat Chughtai. If you have read her works, you will recognise her mocking, satirical tone, her metaphors, indeed the typical flavour of her language, immediately. She herself was a Muslim who stayed back in India after Partition. The film touches on middle-class angst and frustration, and even communal riots, but succeeds in not being provocative, serving the interests of the story.

Balraj Sahni’s calm, stoic, honourable Salim Mirza carries the film bravely on his old, weary shoulders. Watch him as he bids goodbye to his family members as they leave him alone, as he tries time and again to pick himself up, and his positive outlook despite the sheer perversity of his situation. And yet, he is dignified. Always, to the last frame.

Piece of trivia: Seen the Google Reunion ad about two childhood friends meeting again years after they were separated by Partition? Yusuf is played by M. S. Sathyu, Garam Hawa’s director.

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