Archive for May, 2006

I watched the big row over the screening of The Da Vinci Code unfold with much amusement. Ban. No ban. Ban. No ban. So, the Indian government dithered.

How did a second rate book get to be so important? Okay, okay, I am probably being a little harsh. The Da Vinci Code does have its share of intelligent people who liked the plot. It just didn’t work for me because I thought that Dan Brown lacked the craftmanship demanded of a good writer. And even with its adherents, I did not think the book warranted the worldwide attention and speculation that the movie generated before  its release.

The hue and cry over the screening of the film was the loudest in India. But, I could not identify with those who were either for  a ban or for the screening of the film.

I could not agree with the ban as a believer in the right to freedom of expression. I could not agree with those who wanted the screening of the film because their arguments, however well reasoned, always had something to say about the Indian Christianity community.

Why this constant need for huge generalisations? Do we need to make sweeping generalisations about Indian Hindus every time the BJP goes on a rampage?

The point should be more that fundamentalism exists in all religions, albeit at the fringe, and should not be encouraged. With this in mind, it  would be good  to see the government applying the same rule (ie – freedom of expression) to all films/books –  Water, Final Solution, Satanic Verses, Indiana Jones. It should not be that she/he who shouts the loudest gets her/his way.

There were many who could not understand what the fuss was all about. Did it really matter if Jesus was married or had a lover? To me, no. But, it  does question  a lot of the fundamental tenets of Christianity. It would like telling a fundamentalist Hindu that Sita was actually a prostitute. Nothing wrong with that, just that it would require a shift in perception or an openess of mind, which a fundamentalist by definition cannot make.

The film did not create a furore in the West because there is more openness there to an attempt to question accepted reality. Yes, they still have their parochial pockets, but there is still less of an attempt to simply ward off difficult questions. Scores of alternative histories of the church have always existed in the West, The Da Vinci Code is only one of them.

By contrast, Indian Christians have been more sheltered (and may I dare say more ‘closed’?) and so the revelations of The Da Vinci Code probably came as a bit of a shock… And so the protest from more fundamentalist groups.

Why didn’t they protest about the book? No idea. But, it would be my guess that the movie got more publicity, and therefore their attention. Of course, you might also choose to believe that this was an opposition plot to discredit Sonia Gandhi (Ha Ha Ha… Joke! I just that made that up)…or whatever…

In any case, the film had my interest for another reason. It was directed by Ron Howard and had Tom Hanks in the lead. I have tremendous respect for both artistes. So, I was at the theatre on the second day after its release to watch the film.

But, it turned out to be quite a dissapointment. Ron Howard follows the book too closely and all his actors (Tom Hanks included) don’t give him too much. Inspite of this because of its controversial history, the film will still be a hit.

I did a review for Merinews as well. You could see it here:
http://www.merinews.com/newsPortal/JSP/catFull.jsp?articleID=185&catID=6&category=Arts

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Okay… So I did it… I read Kaavya Viswanathan… And before you say “Et tu Brutus”… I feel a desperate need to explain how it happened…

My mum and I had gone to Crosswords to do some book browsing, and my mum asked them whether they had any copies of Kaavya’s book. It turned out that they just had one copy left. The rest had been shipped back. That’s when I decided that I had to buy the last copy of the almost extinct species. 🙂

By the time I finished it, I felt that the whole controversy was a bit of a storm in a teacup. I also ended up doing an article on the subject for a friend.

It’s at:
http://www.merinews.com/newsPortal/JSP/catFull.jsp?articleID=129&catID=6&category=Entertainment

Needless to say, Merrinews changed the title of my article.  It’s a little too sensational for my style 🙂

Apart from that…it maybe of interest to see what Kaavya actually borrowed. Here are the 14 instances listed by Harvard Crimson…

And in case it should seem like I have lost it with my interest on the subject… I just feel that she has not been given a fair hearing.

Similarities Quoted to ‘Sloppy Firsts’
Instance 1
Page 7, Megan McCafferty “Bridget is my age and lives across the street. For the first twelve years of my life, these qualifications were all I needed in a best friend. But that was before Bridget’s braces came off and her boyfriend Burke got on, before Hope and I met in our seventh-grade honors classes.

Page 14, Kaavya Viswanathan: “Priscilla was my age and lived two blocks away. For the first fifteen years of my life, those were the only qualifications I needed in a best friend. We had first bonded over our mutual fascination with the abacus in a playgroup for gifted kids. But that was before freshman year, when Priscilla’s glasses came off, and the first in a long string of boyfriends got on.”

(Comment: Bridget and Priscilla are types. Bridget would not be the first ugly duckling who got transformed into a swan. So, Megan McCafferty cannot claim the copyright to this type – especially when American popular literature/cinema is replete with this particular character. In using this type, both McCafferty and Viswanathan borrowed from the culture around them.)

Instance 2
Page 23, Megan McCafferty: “He’s got dusty reddish dreads that a girl could never run her hands through. His eyes are always half-shut. His lips are usually curled in a semi-smile, like he’s in on a big joke that’s being played on you but you don’t know it yet.”

Page 48, Kaavya Viswanathan: “He had too-long shaggy brown hair that fell into his eyes, which were always half shut. His mouth was always curled into a half smile, like he knew about some big joke that was about to be played on you.”

(Comment: Again, this is a type. Let, me quote from A Happy Boy by Björnstjerne Björnson, “Her eyes were half-closed when she did not just happen to be looking at you, but that gave her glance an unexpected brilliance when it came—and, as if to explain that she meant nothing by it, she would half smile at the same time. Her hair was rather dark than fair, but it curled in little ringlets and came far forward at the sides—so that together with her half-closed eyes it gave her face an effect of mystery which it seemed one could never quite fathom. It was impossible to tell exactly at whom she was looking when she sat by herself or among others.” Similar, right??? So, can anyone claim a copyright over the boy with half-closed eyes and roguish smile?)

Instance 3
Page 217, Megan McCafferty: “But then he tapped me on the shoulder, and said something so random that I was afraid he was back on the junk.”

Page 142, Kaavya Viswanathan: “…he tapped me on the shoulder and said something so random I worried that he needed more expert counseling than I could provide.”

(Comment: This tapping on the shoulder happens after an hour of counseling that Opal undertakes with Sean. The highlight of the chapter is the counseling session, the tapping on the shoulder is a little incident that happens at the end and is only incidental to the action. Significantly, the action also happens in a completely different context in Viswanathan’s novel.)

Instance 4

Page 237, Megan McCafferty: “Finally, four major department stores and 170 specialty shops later, we were done.”

Page 51, Kaavya Viswanathan: “Five department stores, and 170 specialty shops later, I was sick of listening to her hum along to Alicia Keys….”

(Comment: Again very incidental to the main action. It would make no difference to whether you deleted the phrase or left it as is.)

Instance 5
Page 213, Megan McCafferty: “Marcus then leaned across me to open the passenger-side door. He was invading my personal space, as I had learned in Psych class, and I instinctively sank back into the seat. That just made him move in closer. I was practically one with the leather at this point, and unless I hopped into the backseat, there was nowhere else for me to go.”

Page 175, Kaavya Viswanathan: “Sean stood up and stepped toward me, ostensibly to show me the book. He was definitely invading my personal space, as I had learned in a Human Evolution class last summer, and I instinctively backed up till my legs hit the chair I had been sitting in. That just made him move in closer, until the grommets in the leather embossed the backs of my knees, and he finally tilted the book toward me.”

(Comment: Again, typical both of chick lit and the Mills & Boons genres.)

Instance 6:
Page 209, Megan McCafferty:
“‘Uhhhh…I live less than half a mile from here. Twelve Forest Drive.’
“Pause.
“‘So I don’t need a ride…’
“Another pause.
“‘But do you want one?’ he asked.
“God, did I want one.
“He knew it, too. He leaned over the front seat and popped open the passenger-side door. ‘Come on, I want to talk to you,’ he said.”

Page 172, Kaavya Viswanathan:
“‘Sit down.’
“‘Uh, actually…I was just dropping off some books. I’m supposed to be home by nine. And it’s already eight-forty.’
“Pause.
“‘So I can’t really stay…’
“Another pause.
“‘But you want to?’ he asked.
“Did I? Yes…
“He knew it, too. He patted the chair again. ‘Come on, I want to talk to you,’ he said.”

(Comment: So? Girl talks to boy she is pretending to ignore. Who borrowed from whom? Practically every High School love story has this scene.)

Instance 7

Page 223, Megan McCafferty: “Marcus finds me completely nonsexual. No tension to complicate our whatever relationship. I should be relieved.”

Pages 175-176, Kaavya Viswanathan: “Sean only wanted me as a friend. A nonsexual female friend. That was a good thing. There would be no tension to complicate our relationship and my soon-to-be relationship with Jeff Akel. I was relieved.”

(Comment: Isn’t the media, popular cinema and chick lit always harping about the non-sexual, platonic friendship. Remember Barney Livingston and Laura Castellano in Doctors? And that is just one of many examples. McCafferty used the cliché and Viswanathan  used it too. So???)

Instance 8:

Page 46, Megan McCafferty: “He smelled sweet and woodsy, like cedar shavings.”

Page 147, Kaavya Viswanathan’s novel: “…I had even begun to recognize his cologne (sweet and woodsy and spicy, like the sandalwood key chains sold as souvenirs in India.)”

(Comment: Viswanathan is not repeating McCafferty. She is saying more than what McCafferty said.)

Similarities quoted to ‘Second Helpings’

Instance 9
Page 67, Megan McCafferty: “…but in a truly sadomasochistic dieting gesture, they chose to buy their Diet Cokes at Cinnabon.”

Page 46, Kaavya Viswanathan: “In a truly masochistic gesture, they had decided to buy Diet Cokes from Mrs. Fields…”

(Comment: Again, who copied from who? This is a common statement, used in both ordinary conversations and popular culture. Who invented it?)

Instance 10

Page 68, Megan McCafferty: “‘Omigod!’ shrieked Sara, taking a pink tube top emblazoned with a glittery Playboy bunny out of her shopping bag.”

Page 51, Kaavya Viswanathan: “…I was sick of listening to her hum along to Alicia Keys, and worn out from resisting her efforts to buy me a pink tube top emblazoned with a glittery Playboy bunny.”

(Comment: This is a hard one to justify. But, still must we give so much importance to a description of a T-shirt?)

Instance 11

Page 69, Megan McCafferty: “Throughout this conversation, Manda acted like she couldn’t have been more bored. She lazily skimmed her new paperback copy of Reviving Ophelia—she must have read the old one down to shreds. She just stood there, popping another piece of Doublemint, or reapplying her lip gloss, or slapping her ever-present pack of Virginia Slims against her palm. (Insert oral fixation jokes, here, here and here.) Her hair—usually dishwater brown and wavy—had been straightened and bleached the color of sweet corn since the last time I saw her…Just when I thought she had maxed out on hooter hugeness, it seemed that whatever poundage Sara had lost over the summer had turned up in Manda’s bra.”

Page 48, Kaavya Viswanathan: “The other HBz acted like they couldn’t be more bored. They sat down at a table, lazily skimmed heavy copies of Italian Vogue, popped pieces of Orbit, and reapplied layers of lip gloss. Jennifer, who used to be a bit on the heavy side, had dramatically slimmed down, no doubt through some combination of starvation and cosmetic surgery. Her lost pounds hadn’t completely disappeared, though; whatever extra pounds she’d shed from her hips had ended up in her bra. Jennifer’s hair, which I remembered as dishwater brown and riotously curl, had been bleached Clairol 252: Never Seen in Nature Blonde. It was also so straight it looked washed, pressed and starched.”

(Comment: Again, who copied from who? This is a common statement, used in both ordinary conversations and popular culture. Who invented it? Further, Viswanathan changes the context to make it even funnier.)

Instance 12

Page 88, Megan McCafferty: “By the way, Marcus wore a T-shirt that said THURSDAY yesterday, and FRIDAY today.”

Page 170, Kaavya Viswanathan: “He was wearing an old, faded gray sweatshirt that said ‘Tuesday’ on it. Except that today was Thursday.”

(Comment: Incidentally, this one is well woven into the plot. Tuesday is Sean’s favourite day of the week because they serve free doughnuts at Cool Beans. Later, on a Tuesday when Opal needs to find Sean, she knows just where to look. That’s why he wears the T-shirt.)
The most damning of them all

Instance 13
Page 6, Megan McCafferty: “Sabrina was the brainy Angel. Yet another example of how every girl had to be one or the other: Pretty or smart. Guess which one I got. You’ll see where it’s gotten me.”

Page 39, Kaavya Viswanathan: “Moneypenny was the brainy female character. Yet another example of how every girl had to be one or the other: smart or pretty. I had long resigned myself to category one, and as long as it got me to Harvard, I was happy. Except, it hadn’t gotten me to Harvard. Clearly, it was time to switch to category two.”

(Comment: This is perhaps the most damning one of them all and perhaps the only one that really counts. Yet, this is not the only allusion Miss Moneypenny in the book. She still has to be accused of borrowing the others.)

In these 13 passages, there are perhaps two significant ones. Are we then making a mountain of a molehill?

Manoj does not share my great love for the movies. But, he indulges me…in the hope that I will soon outgrow it. Little does he know (smile!)… But, this weekend, when we heard that Munich was playing, both of us wanted to see it. And we were not disappointed. With Munich, Spielberg finally arrives. He manages to do what was left as only an ‘attempt’ with Schlindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan. You also see Spielberg’s mastery over different genres. ET, JAWS, Munich…. All masterpieces in their genre…. All different kinds of films.

The movie tells the story of how the Mossad tracked down and killed the Palestinian terrrorists behind the massacre of Israeli athlethes at the 1972 Munich Olympic games.

As with Schindler’s List, there is the perfectly timed editing of shots to give you a fast paced film that has you hooked on to the drama till the end. The film is worthy of the tradition defined by masterpieces like The Day of the Jackal. But, there is also more to it than just that. There are also those elements of ambiguity that are left open ended for which you will never have all the answers. This heightens the complexity of the film.

But, more interestingly, the fast paced drama is the backdrop for one man’s hell. For war is not just about events. It is also about how these events change people’s lives. Spielberg gives you a glimpse of this in Saving Private Ryan. But, there it remains an attempt in the right direction. With Munich, he actually pulls it off.

And when a fast paced well laid out plot intertwines with the complex ways in which these events affect a life…it makes for compelling viewing.

The Israeli-Palestinian struggle is also well handled. By this I mean that the gruesomeness of the Munich killings is not played down – but both Israeli and Palestinian characters are people, not stereotypes. And the Middle East is not so much about laying the blame, but about people and the conflicting ways in which they view the world. Within this framework, Spielberg also relates how the four protagonists long hard crusade for the Mossad will change all of them.

Spielberg chose not to undertake any publicity for the film at the time of its release and at the Oscars. He wanted the film to speak for itself. The decision may have cost him dearly. Though Munich was nominated in several categories, it did not win in a single catgeory.

On a personal note, I preferred Munich to Brokeback Mountain. And it will never cease to amaze me that the Academy that rewarded Spielberg for Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan never rewarded him for ET or Munich.

When I first heard of Mistress of Spices, I was intrigued. And the promos looked good too. But, when my Mum and I caught the film at Rex, I was really disappointed. It would be heard to recommend the film on any counts.

So how did the Paul Mayeda Berges-Gurinder Chada team who came out with a film like Bend it Like Beckham manage a colossal disaster like Mistress of Spices??

Well, firstly, Bend it Like Beckham had a script and an extremely talented cast. Mistress of Spices has neither. And that does not leave any director much to work with.

The book Mistress of Spices, written by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, seems to be a fascinating novel, and I can’t wait to read it. I quote from a review by Bansari Mitra, “The Mistress of Spices is about magic, wielded by a woman masquerading as an old and bent creature, but in reality, vibrant, eager for life, hungry with desires. Tilo, the mistress of spices, has many disguises and names that reveal her multiple identities. Chameleon like, she keeps changing throughout the novel, making clear how complex is the problem of identity crisis that Indians try to cope with in a foreign land… The spice shop, where the whole Indian community converges, is like a microcosm in itself. We see myriads of faces there–the bougainvillea girls, the rich men’s wives, the Mohans and Jagjits and Kwesis. Each face tells a story. Many of their immigrant dreams lie shattered in the dust, but there are also some success stories.”
(Read the complete review at: http://www.indiastar.com/mitra.html)

It is this element of complexity that is completely lacking in the movie. The script does not exist on these different levels, and even the coming together of different cultures is not powerful enough.

And then, there is the choice of cast. Would any one in their right mind cast Aishwariya Rai as Tilo? Yes, she is a pretty face. But, she does not have the complexity required to play the ageless chameleon or be the bearer of wisdom.

Aishwariya at the best manages to pull out a cliched style drawn from the Bollywood repository of ‘stock expressions’ of the bashful maiden. This just does not work in the context of international cinema.

Here’s where you need a Shabana or a Rekha – actors who can emote with the mere movement of their eyes.

Like Aishwariya, Dylan McDermott is really good to look at, but he never really settles into his role. And they spend the full movie looking distinctly uncomfortable together.

The book is also distinguished by a gentle mystical lyricism, which retains a sense of the contemporary. Yes, similar to Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Read an extract from the book to see what I mean:
http://www.randomhouse.com/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9780385482387&view=excerpt

Sadly, this is lost in the movie. Lost to be replaced by nothing.

Predictably, the film has flopped in the UK. It is also playing to empty houses in India. While it lacks the freshness to succeed in the West, it lacks the elements of popular appeal to do well in India. And in the end, it remains a film that is neither here nor there.