Babies, Going Green and a Movie!

Is it just me or do you feel uncontrollably drowsy in a moving car too? I have heard babies have this habit of going off to sleep the minute they step into a car, some friends of ours kept this as a last resort option to calm down baby when all else – monkey faces, lullaby singing and frantic rocking – failed. So is this another of my childlike habits, or are adults prone to the fall-asleep-in-car syndrome too?

Yesterday marked the first time the husband and I successfully remembered to a) pack in reusable paper bags that were so far gathering dust at home, b) carry them from the car to the grocery store and c) request the cashier to use them instead of plastic. Phew! Despite all our good intentions, this is the first time we managed to achieve all three together!

The cashier at the Indian grocery store seemed pretty surprised incidentally and everyone else in the queue kept eying us with what looked like surprised, amused, admiring, indulgent and in some cases, sadly, cynical looks. On a more positive note, there is also our local farm store that offers brown paper bags free of cost, and also gives a small discount if you bring your own, to encourage reuse. I wish the Indian store would take note too!

We went out for a movie for the first time in months, or so it seemed to me, last night! Ghost Town is a happy-sad, sweet and funny movie, one I would recommend for a fun Saturday night out with friends. I was initially apprehensive about the title, (I must be the biggest scared puss ever!) but while the movie IS about ghosts, they aren’t really ghostly ghosts, if you know what I mean! I especially liked the part where Dr. Pincus (a funny name in itself – try pronouncing it a little differently!), a man whose people skills leave much to be desired, slips into dental jargon when pushed into an awkward position, those scenes are simply hilarious!

Surprisingly for such a light comedy, the movie managed to slip in a beautiful message amidst all the tomfoolery. We all know we get to live only once and none of us know how much time we have left, yet do we really stop to think – How can I best use the time I have? If I die this very moment, can I die in peace, knowing I lived my life to the fullest and did my best for the people I love? Or will I leave behind regrets, unanswered questions and unfulfilled promises?

Latest addition to my list of fun American pastimes

Drive-ins are supposedly a dying business in the United States, so I guess the husband and I were lucky to uncover one in the nearby town of Hyde Park (incidentally, the home of former President FDR). We were driving past the town on Friday evening when a huge open air screen in a pretty little park intrigued us and we just had to stop over and investigate.

“The show’s just started, you can still make it, seven dollars each!”, the attendant at the entrance welcomed us. On a whim, we decided to go in. It was twilight, and the twinkling headlights from cars scattered around the park looked like tiny fireflies beckoning us.

The atmosphere inside was young, vibrant and fun. Both families and groups of youngsters alike were in a mood to party outdoors. Most people were seated in their cars with their FM stereos on full volume (the audio for the movie was available on a particular FM channel), while some lounged about on lawn chairs outside and a lively group of teenagers danced to the title music, huge FM stereos in hand.

The movie we had so unsuspectingly walked into, ‘Get Smart‘, turned out to be a complete Bollywood masala potboiler masquerading as a sophisticated Hollywood spy movie. The plot was absurd and the buffoonery in the action sequences has to be seen to be (dis)believed. Some of Govinda’s or Rajnikant’s movies might be saner, I think. It wasn’t too bad for an action comedy though, we got a few good laughs out of it.

I was about to start moaning over our decision to pay fourteen bucks for such a movie, when I discovered, to the delight of my kanjoos desi heart, that the drive-in charged a one-time admission fee and let you stay and watch as many movies as you wished to! Make that doubly delighted, since we were about to (very reluctantly) drive away when we made this discovery. The next movie was one I had been dying to watch and no prizes for guessing we stayed back to watch it.

Sex and the City‘ turned out to be a fun girly movie. Fans of the television series are sure to love it. I thoroughly enjoyed myself but the husband claimed to be somewhat bored. I heard him chuckling more than a few times at some of the bawdier jokes though, so I am not sure how much I’ll believe him on that. But I’ll concede the movie seems a tad stretched, it might have worked better perhaps with about half an hour chopped off. And do make sure you watch it alone or with a close friend/partner if you are a prude like me. Some of the steamy scenes in it are simply unbelievable!

The husband and I had a great time overall, we enjoyed the cool breeze and complete privacy. (I’m sure the frazzled young couples in crowded Indian cities like Mumbai would love this concept!) Families seemed to be having a great time too. The kids were happy to run around and ignore the movie and the parents were equally happy to ignore the kids and enjoy a movie without worrying about irritated glances from fellow patrons for a change.

So would you like to visit a drive-in theatre? Just move back your seats, put up your feet, turn up the stereo and have a blast! And don’t forget the popcorn now!

Shevri – Wisp of Cotton

Noted Marathi actress Neena Kulkarni‘s maiden production venture, Shevri (wisp of cotton), is a sensitive portrayal of the havoc played by divorce in a simple middle-class woman’s life. The ‘shevri’ in the title is embodied in the film’s protagonist Vidya Barve, ably played by Neena herself, a helpless little soul drifting along with the winds of change in her life, without a strong will or desire of her own. A perfect description of the stereotypical Indian wife/mother perhaps?

On the face of it, the movie is a simple tale of a single night Vidya is forced to spend on the streets of Mumbai, but carefully woven into the narrative is a series of brilliant flashbacks as Vidya looks back onto the tangled threads of her troubled life, the relationships that more or less define her as a person. Excellent acting and crisp editing apart, I found these relationships intriguing and thought-provoking and basically the reason I liked the movie so much.

The relationship that stood out for me was Vidya’s silent bond with her mother. Strong and stoic, the mother is a perfect foil to Vidya’s far more emotional and excitable character. In a telling scene towards the beginning of the movie, Vidya is shown voicing her suspicion that vahini (brother’s wife) did not seem appreciative of her presence in the maternal home. ‘Why does she run off to her mother’s home the moment I visit?’, she asks. The mother is quick to downplay the melodrama.

‘She might have her own problems, how would you know? Besides, leave me out of this, it’s time you learnt to sort out your own problems’, she advises. What a refreshing change from our usual cloyingly sweet or overtly dramatic screen mothers! A woman of few words, she nevertheless stands strong behind her daughter and her choices, supporting her in times of need, yet giving her space to deal with her issues in her own way. I am pretty sure Vidya would have completely broken down were it not for this silent support in the background.

Surprisingly, although all the other relationships in Vidya’s life are played out against the backdrop of her marriage, the husband’s character is the most weakly defined of the lot. Suffice to say that their marriage is the stuff nightmares are made up of. A direct victim of this abusive marriage is Vidya’s relationship with her son. Battling her demons of (perceived) failure and abandonment and craving for emotional sustenance, Vidya is overprotective and clingy as a mother, smothering her teenaged son with emotional and physical affection.

Throughout the movie she is unable to initiate a meaningful dialogue with him – not once is she shown discussing the divorce and its fallout with the boy – and naturally the son is sullen and non-responsive for the most part. It is so obvious to the viewer that her insecurities and sense of failure as a wife are destroying her relationship with her son, yet Vidya fails to recognize this till the very end. Just goes to show how easy it is to lose one’s sense of perspective, doesn’t it?

And then there is the sweet side-story of Vidya’s friendship with her ardent admirer and colleague Shinde, delicately portrayed by my favorite Marathi actor, Dilip Prabhavalkar. This is perhaps the only relationship in Vidya’s life where she is cherished and understood, where she is the one calling the shots. And it is a welcome change to see her bask in this little love coming her way. A bitter-sweet almost-love story, this friendship does a wonderful job of tempering the mostly mournful note of the rest of the narrative.

The only jarring note in this movie for me was the lecherous boss angle. This was so clearly a case of sexual harassment, why couldn’t Vidya speak out for once? My mother reminded me this is not the IT industry we are talking about, that there are no sexual harassment policies in place in most other industries, that Vidya is from a middle-class family and has no financial support etc., basically that she is a helpless and lonely woman and has no choice except to put up with this sort of nonsense.

Which to me seemed to beg the question – why was Vidya helpless? Why couldn’t she shake herself out of her sorrow and look at life afresh? She seemed to be educated and had been living independently for some time now. Why couldn’t she show some initiative or imagination? Had divorce sealed her fate forever? Why was marriage being portrayed as the be-all-and-end-all of her existence? Surely this was not the message the filmmakers set out to give us?

Just as I was beginning to tire of this movie for all these reasons, dawn broke, both literally and metaphorically. ‘If this is the path life has chalked out for me, why don’t I make the best of it?’, Vidya muses aloud, seeming finally at peace with her situation. We leave her at this point to walk on, a smile on her lips and a new spring in her step. She is still alone but no longer lonely. A subtle distinction perhaps, but one that makes all the difference in the world!

Edited to add: My family (who I watched the movie with) had several pertinent comments on this post which I felt were worth putting forth here.

Both my dad and the husband commented that I had completely missed the important dimension added by Vidya’s friend and roommate Maya, a ‘bindaas’ and ‘modern’ single girl who lives life on her own terms and is a complete contrast to the staid and timid Vidya. While Maya seems outwardly happy, they felt that she was even more riddled with insecurities and demons than Vidya and that Vidya with her strong middle-class values was better off in many ways than Maya.

My mother interpreted the ending to mean that Vidya had given up her lonely struggle to take up the easier but not-so-honorable path, an interpretation I do not entirely agree with. But hey, that’s the beauty of open endings, isn’t it?

Finally, in case you are intrigued by my post and wish to watch the movie (please do!), I believe it is available on youtube.

Parzania – A response, not a review

I wasn’t feeling too good about my life that day. I felt dull, lazy and gloomy. We’d slept a little late the previous night, so I’d been yawning since morning and the yawns were getting embarrassingly frequent and loud by late afternoon. A whole cup of strong coffee did not help much either. This was not a good time to slack off since there was an important release coming up at work that Friday with lots of ground to be covered before then. And my sister-in-law and family were visiting us for a two-week vacation that weekend and I really needed to spruce up the house before their arrival.

Then there were some constant niggling worries – the feeble weight-loss efforts I’d been making for the past couple of months hadn’t yielded much results so far, I really needed to buck up on that front. It had also been quite a while since my parents had sounded cheerful on the phone and I had no idea what made them sound so dull and tired these days. The depressing headlines in the papers weren’t of much help either – US recession, stock market tumbles, rising oil prices, global warming… the list of woes was long and worrisome indeed. So yes, I wasn’t feeling too good about my life that day.

And then the husband and I watched a movie that night. Parzania. A movie about a simple family in Gujarat, loving parents, two adorable kids, not much money but lots of love and laughter, bedtime stories, banter at the dinner table, pranks at school and picnics in the garden. Then comes the horror of Godhra and the ‘revenge’ riots that followed and their happy world is broken apart, never to mend again.

Trapped in a predominantly Muslim neighborhood attacked by Hindu mobs, the hapless Parsi family loses its son Parzan to the mindless violence, perhaps forever. Women and children attacked with swords, a pious elderly man hacked to death, insinuations of state and police complicity in the riots – the horrors, as someone rightly pointed out in a review, would seem absurd if only we weren’t told at the outset that this was a true story.

The husband and I looked helplessly at each other after the movie ended. We were at a complete loss for words and barely able to get up and walk to bed. My knees felt weak. I jumped at the slightest sound and screamed at the headlights from our neighbor’s car streaming in from the kitchen window. ‘Who’s that outside?’, I asked, my heart beating wildly. ‘Ssshhh, it’s just our neighbor parking his car, doesn’t he come home at this hour every night?’, the husband tried to reassure me. We snuggled under the bed-covers, reaching out to each other for comfort.

I’m probably the textbook definition of a non-insomniac, falling asleep the minute my head touches the pillow. But not so that night. I tossed and turned for a long time, unable to comprehend the horror of what I’d just seen. The tears came much later. ‘Why? How? What for?’, I sobbed, but the husband had no answers for me either. Perhaps there is a reason, too complex for my comprehension, I tried to convince myself. The idea of such a thing happening without any reason was too horrific to contemplate otherwise.

Now I am no expert on history or religion and I understand very little of politics and its power games but deep down in my heart I feel convinced of one thing. Surely nothing – no religion, no ideology and certainly not anybody’s concept of revenge (An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind, remember!) – could justify what had happened to these innocent people and their idyllic world that fateful February day? (And never mind their religious affiliation, innocent is the key word here!)

The next morning dawned bright and cheerful and I woke up with a smile on my face. I felt blessed to wake up in the familiar warmth of my bed and within the comfortable cocoon of our home, safe and sound in the arms of my loved one, my parents but a phone call and a plane ride away. There was food in the refrigerator, money in our wallets and friends and interesting work awaiting us in the office! Some more diligent efforts and my extra weight would probably come off too! There were still some problems, yes, but the basics were nicely in place. Yes, I felt really good about my life that day!

Note: Parzania is a wonderful cinematic experience and a very well-crafted movie. The performances, especially Naseeruddin Shah’s, are simply outstanding. But it’s story and backdrop are so powerfully dramatic, that the other points pale in comparison. I put off watching this movie as much as I could, dreading the effect its depressing story would have on me. But now that I’ve seen it, I realize my mistake. This is a movie that every Indian must watch. It is dark and hard-hitting no doubt, but after the trauma that so many of our countrymen and women have gone through, shouldn’t the rest of us take out at least a few minutes to think and ask ourselves – WHY?

A rather late but wonderful introduction to Satyajit Ray

Movie audiences in India tend to classify cinema into two neat categories. There are the mainstream ‘masala’ potboilers – the lighthearted comic capers of bumbling fools and mistaken identities, the melodramatic family sagas of evil step-mothers/daughters-in-law/mothers-in-law, the self-righteous dramas with the upright hero fighting the corrupt policemen who are hand-in-glove with the scheming politicians and the classic Bollywood favorites – the taming-of-the-shrew, boy-loves-girl-but-parents-oppose or boy-loves-girl-who-loves-another kind of romances.

Then there is the so-called ‘serious’ or parallel cinema movement, the Satyajit Ray or Govind Nilhani movies that are generally spoken about in such hushed tones of reverence as to scare away a majority of the movie-watching aam junta. Which should explain why I, a hardcore Bollywood fan who does not miss watching Partner, Heyy Baby and other such gems of their ilk that are churned out with alarming regularity by Bollywood every Friday, had not watched a single Satyajit Ray movie until last night. I cannot explain why, but Satyajit Ray movies, in my mind, were supposed to be long, brooding and boring treatises on poverty and misery, meant strictly for western audiences in search of Indian exotica and critics/students of ‘serious’ world cinema.

So I was naturally very apprehensive when the husband brought home a DVD of Ray’s ‘Apur Sansar’ from the library last week. (The husband studies in the library during my music classes every Tuesday. I had written about them sometime back, remember?) I had been putting off watching it the entire week, but it was due back in next Tuesday and I feel guilty returning borrowed stuff without having read/watched it. Plus after a long and tiring day of skiing, we had no energy for anything except to heat up some of last night’s leftovers, snuggle together on our warm and comfortable couch and stare blankly at the television screen in front us.

Thus two sleepy and exhausted people finally got around to watching their first Satyajit Ray movie last night. Five minutes into the movie and all our drowsiness seemed to have flown out of the window! To say we were hooked onto the deceptively simple yet enchanting narrative would be a major understatement. I think I was scared to blink lest I miss out on even a micro-second of the wonderful magic unfolding on-screen! An added bonus was one of my favorite Bollywood heroines from the sixties – a lovely fourteen year-old Sharmila Tagore – delightfully innocent and ‘mishti’ (as a matronly neighbor declares in the movie) in her first role as the shy young bride.

Apur Sansar‘ is the third movie in the Apu trilogy of which ‘Pather Panchali’, the most famous Ray movie perhaps, is the first. (The husband, incidentally, had enjoyed reading ‘Pather Panchali’ a few years back, which might explain why he picked up the DVD from the library in the first place.) While the first two movies in the trilogy deal with Apu’s childhood and early youth, ‘Apur Sansar’ which picks up from the second movie finds Apu as a poor but happy-go-lucky young man in Calcutta, struggling to make ends meet while enjoying his simple and care-free bachelor life.

Intelligent and sensitive, Apu aspires to be a famous writer and channels all his creativity and passion into the one great love of his life – the semi-autobiographical novel he is writing. (In a beautiful tender-hearted love scene later in the movie, Apu claims to loves his wife even more than his novel, and this statement seems all the more striking since we’ve witnessed first-hand his overwhelming passion for his novel earlier in the narrative.) It’s evident there’s no room for romantic entanglements or marriage in Apu’s life at that point, but a series of chance events later he ends up getting married to a friend’s cousin during an impromptu visit to their village.

On the wedding night, Apu, who has been coerced into marriage against his wishes, lays bare his dilemma in front of his bride. ‘Are you ready to be poor with me?’, he despairingly asks. The dewy-eyed bride shyly murmurs her acquiescence, setting the stage for perhaps the most delightful and heart-warming depiction of young love and marriage I’ve ever seen on-screen. These scenes are also perhaps the most enchanting part of the movie and definitely the ones I enjoyed the most. I’ve seen some beautiful depictions of married relationships in movies like Saath-Saath, Yuva and Saathiya before, but I think Aparna and Apu’s relationship as seen in Apur Sansar is by far the best. It’s difficult to explain why though, the innocent tenderness of their love has to be seen to be believed.

Just as I was happily lost in the lovers’ idyll and beginning to wonder where the movie was heading, along came a rude jolt that shattered the couple’s world forever. In a heart-breaking scene, all the more shocking since it comes right after we see an obviously madly-in-love Apu trying to hide his smiles while reading his sweetheart’s letter in a crowded bus, Aparna’s brother breaks the news of her death and a stunned Apu reacts as only a broken-hearted young man would, slapping his brother-in-law for daring to utter what is truly unthinkable for him. Shattered, Apu shuns his newborn son, blaming the child for the mother’s death, and leaves Calcutta, drifting aimlessly from place to place, mourning the loss of his love.

The true measure of his loss is evident as we watch Apu stand on a mountain top, calmly watching the pages of his beloved novel float gently down the valley. At this point I felt convinced he had lost all capacity for feeling and his very passion for living and I had a sinking feeling the movie would end right there, but Ray leaves us with a happy ending after all. The sparkle is back in Apu’s eyes as he finally drags himself to meet his young son and convinces the boy to come away with him to Calcutta. ‘I can tell you lots of stories’, he eagerly promises the sceptical lad and as the movie ends we leave the two with the happy assurance that all is well in Apu’s world again.

As the titles rolled, I was surprised to think how normal, even ‘ordinary’, the movie’s basic storyline was. If you ignore the various layers and sub-texts to the narrative, it was a simple tale of a young newly-married couple getting to know and love one another until misfortune strikes and tears their happy world apart. I cannot recall an example off-hand, but there surely must be at least a dozen ‘masala’ movies with a similar storyline. Yet, what made ‘Apur Sansar’ stand apart from the rest, I felt, was the ‘naturalness’ with which the story unfolded and the wonderful subtle performances that made me forget that it was really an ‘act’ I was watching on-screen.

It was also ironical to think how unfounded my fears had been. Far from boring me with its lack of pace, the narrative was calm and unhurried, yet gripping. Even the silences spoke volumes, adding a lot to the tone of the movie. Unfortunately, I have a feeling I might have lost out on half it’s beauty relying as I was on the English sub-titles rather than the actual Bengali dialogues. I have half a mind to learn Bengali just so that I can appreciate this movie better on second viewing! Now I’m not sure how practical that idea is, but Bengali or no Bengali, one thing is for sure – I’ll definitely be ransacking our local library for more Ray movies in the months to come!