Monday, December 04, 2006

Chronicle of a Sati Foretold: Sunny Singh’s With Krishna’s Eyes and Indian Gothic –

Christopher Rollason reviews my new novel, With Krishna's Eyes (New Delhi: Rupa Publications 2006)

Sunny Singh’s new English-language novel, With Krishna’s Eyes, is a disturbing and eloquent exploration of the dark side of “Shining India”, in which the modern and globalised coexists cheek-by-jowl with the archaic and traditional, in a contradiction seemingly without issue and yet lived to the marrowbone by its intensely engaged characters. It confronts the vexed question of Indian modernity head-on, by boldly centring its plot on so controversial an issue as sati. In the process, it draws on the resources of Indian English and the Indian and non-Indian literary heritage to offer the reader an exploration of fear, in a specifically subcontinental context, that may justify its being taken as a highly original piece of what might be called “Indian Gothic”. The author, born in Varanasi, now lives in London: the global reach of her work may be deduced from the fact that With Krishna’s Eyes came out in Spanish translation (Sunny Singh was resident in Barcelona at the time) before it was published in English, while her earlier novel, Nani’s Book of Suicides (published in 2000 and also translated into Spanish) was awarded the Mar de Letras literary prize in Spain in 2003.

The title might already raise eyebrows, for the reader may legitimately ask whose are Krishna’s eyes. Krishna is in fact the novel’s female protagonist: women named Krishna are fairly rare, but they do exist. If a gender barrier is being crossed through this naming of the character, we discover that Sunny Singh’s Krishna, in many ways a warrior woman, is not without her resemblances to the Krishna the combatant sage of the Bhagavad Gita (though rather less so to the playful blue-skinned Krishna of the Puranas). The female Krishna of this novel is a warrior in the world of film-making, a US-educated member of a proud Rajput clan who is suddenly called on to make a documentary, all too non-fictional, about a willed and voluntary sati, the conscious choice of an educated woman at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

Forced as a matter of family honour and obligation to live this intense contradiction, Krishna finds herself accepting a major part in a drama which she does not approve of but tries her level hardest to understand. She herself is a globalised Indian who has recently emerged from an intimate relationship with Natchek, an NRI and financial consultant even more globalised than herself. Now, back home in her ancestral village east of Delhi, she comes face to face with Damayanti, a friend of her family’s: an educated, apparently modern woman, a graduate of Miranda House, Delhi, a Supreme Court lawyer who had in her time chosen a love marriage, a gadget-happy mobile phone owner, who nonetheless actively and obdurately campaigns for “her right to be sati” (145) as soon as her ailing husband leaves the world: “I have petitioned the court for permission to be sati, when my husband dies” (100).

The inevitability of Damayanti’s sati is etched into the reader’s consciousness from the very beginning – it is as certain to come to pass as the honour killing in Gabriel García Márquez’s Crónica de una muerte anunciada (Chronicle of a Death Foretold), a book to which Sunny Singh’s tale bears some resemblance. Krishna is impressed again and again with its necessity, by the familial pressure that descends on her from her grandfather, her sanyasi uncle, and, from beyond the grave, the voice of her late grandmother. It is a lesson of dharma, of unquestioned and unquestionable duty, of loyalty to family and clan. It is also the manifestation of a harsh and literal reading of the Bhagavad Gita and the homilies of Krishna’s divine namesake. Between this novel’s lines, one may hear the reverberation of the sacred text’s slokas, but we are talking about no benign or liberal interpretation of the concept of dharma. The voice of Krishna which we hear through and around the other Krishna is that which, in the Gita, declares sternly: “Through fixed devotion to Me, it is possible to know Me thus, O Arjuna, and seeing Me truly, to enter into Me, O vanquisher of foes” (Bhagavad Gita, 11-54). For Krishna’s relatives and for Damayanti herself, living in such a world of “fixed devotion”, the sati is as necessary as the elimination of the Kauravas. It is her grandmother who declares: “See Krishna, first we must do our duty. Follow dharma, and most times, it hurts. But to love something doesn’t mean to give up dharma” (91). Her uncle sings to the same tune: “Do what you have to do. That is the dharma of a warrior, right?” (283). Under such pressure, the young and modern woman comes to a large extent to internalise the ancestral belief-system herself.

It is as if Krishna the film-maker had to go through the ultimate anguish of living someone else’s sati under her own skin; and indeed, fear is a major element in the novel, signified as it happens through certain trappings of the Western Gothic transposed into the Indian context. Krishna has already lived through the trauma of 9-11, the quite literal explosion of American Gothic in all its darkness. Used to a New York where “two tall towers rose to the sky like the crowning jewels” (36), she suddenly comes to see the city as “a sinister killing place, full of smoke and death and suspicion” (41). Now, in India, Krishna is confronted with atavistic fears – “dark shadows that crowded my mind”, “long tongues of flame that flickered at the edges of my vision” (226). When first she enters Damayanti’s house, she finds herself in a darkly oppressive Gothic space that recalls Edgar Allan Poe’s House of Usher, as first experienced by its fear-struck narrator: “I was led discreetly through gloomy carpet covered halls, where the ancient, heavy furniture lay carelessly scattered through the rooms”. Damayanti, “on a low couch, leaning against the many cushions that were piled up behind her”, greets Krishna like a second Roderick Usher, to induct her into a world of ancestral oppression (98). Poe meets Rajput tradition, to generate an atmosphere of Indian Gothic that culminates in the scream that rises to the skies at the moment of the sati – a shriek that is not Damayanti’s but Krishna’s, “my scream that went on and on, forever in my head” (289).

Sunny Singh’s novel does not neglect the sociological and ideological aspects of the sati issue – the saffron militants who demonstrate for Damayanti, the leftists and secularists who oppose her, the local peasants and functionaries who end up worshipping her as a sati-mata. However, the experience of reading this book is that we are dealing not with a tract one way or the other, but with a textually mediated perception of an Indian reality, communicated through specifically literary effects and emotively charged creative language. Seeing the sati with Krishna’s eyes (those of the character and those of the god), reliving the dark tale through the Indian Gothic of Damayanti’s House of Usher, the reader of this novel, Indian or foreign, will sense something of globalised India’s attempt to come to terms with itself, its ancestral fears and still-alive past anxieties, its painful efforts to live through them once again in order, it may be, finally to exorcise them.

NB: the quotation from the Bhagavad Gita is from the version translated, edited and introduced by Vrinda Nabar and Shanta Tumkur (Ware, England: Wordsworth Classics, 1997).

Links to Christopher Rollason's own archives:

Christopher Rollason Reviews With Krishna's Eyes

Back in June, I took a trip out to Cordoba, Spain, for a day long event on Indian Writing in English. The conference was organised by the India-fanatic and literary critic, Antonia Navarro Tejero who has written extensively and passionately on Gita Hariharan and Arundhati Roy. She was also responsible for warmly and lavishly hosting us, with flamenco shows and impromptu guitar concerts.

The Delhi-based Indian author Manju Kapoor was there along with Christopher Rollason, an astute critic with impeccable catholicity of views.

My own work was discussed by Eva Gonzales de Lucas, a dear friend and colleague from my years at School of Languages at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. I must confess that I am always discomfitted by any academically inclined discussion of my book. And yet, Eva's critique of my novels was interesting and illuminating.

I have always considered Cordoba a fascinating, magical place. On my first visit, back in the 1990s, I wandered through the city in grueling heat trying to find the source of a plaintive flute that rose above its white walls. The streets had been empty and it took me nearly an hour of wandering in circles before stumbling upon a man playing the flute. A donkey stood morosely next to him and couple of dogs lay at his feet. In his floppy trousers and esparadilles, his melancholy eyes drooping under heavy brows, the flute-player was an odd anachronistic yet deeply romantic image of Spain. I took a phote - aah, we tourists! - and then we spoke for some time. He was a "gitano" - a gypsy and curious about my "Indianness." We parted good friends, but that was the only social exchange I experience on what was necessarily a solitary adventure.

This time around Cordoba was full of social activity - dinners, drinks, lunches, and of course the lively conference discussions.

Christopher and I got talking at the flamenco show on the first evening - finding many shared interests. His lovely wife Ileana shares her name with a very dear friend who has been long lost to me, because of our many travels and adventures. And yet, just her name evoked nostalgia for another time, another place. And indeed an instant affection.

After the conference, Christopher and I stayed in touch, exchanging emails, photographs and discussions about books. He passed through London one afternoon and we caught up over lunch that extended far into the afternoon (A shared passion for Indian food was not the least of the cements).

Christopher didn't know my writing but was keen to read my work. He began - perhaps with trepidation - my new novel, With Krishna's Eyes (Rupa Publications, 2006). And then he suggested that he would review it for one of the many literary journals he writes for and/or edits as well as for his blog. Aware of Christopher's earlier work, I was of course excited and nervous about the review - if only because it would be tremendously insightful and far-ranging.

Yet before the review could be written - a stranger event linked us. I went to a gathering of book lovers one afternoon at the Kenwood House one afternoon. I had been invited by a new acquaintance and being new to London, looked forward to meeting new people. Midway through the afternoon, a man introduced himself to me - he was Christopher's brother, John!

The universe is indeed a small place!

I was tremendously in demand after that discovery. Apparently I was the only person in the gathering who had met John's "fabled" brother and sister-in-law! Others - all of whom have known John for many years - had heard much about Christopher and Ileana, but had never met them.

Now we are tied together with fragile threads of memory, family, shared love for the written word and fascination for India. And all of it reminds me that London - more than any other city in the world - is not so different from Delhi!

In his review of my novel, Christopher talks of Poe and the idea of the "Indian Gothic." It is an intriguing and surprising idea for me. But perhaps, given the strange twists of our tale thus far, I should have expected it.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Dhoom 2 - Hrithik's Grown into a Man. And HOW!

There are some films that we watch to gratify the soul. Others because they fulfil some deep emotional, psychological or creative need. And then, there are films that are pure eye candy. Dhoom 2 is of that last category.

The film brings back Abhishek Bachchan as the tough cop – Jai Dixit and Uday Chopra as his goofy sidekick Ali from the original motorcycle-lovers flick, Dhoom (2004). This time though, they are chasing the cool international thief and master of disguises, Aryan, played by a yummy Hrithik Roshan.

Once again, there are great bikes, spectacular location, skimpy clothes and buff bodies. And there are enough explosions and bike chases and action sequences to keep little boys happily glued to their seats.

Chopra flexes his muscles and walks off with the best lines. His Austin Powers blue velvet-suit was enough to get the audience cracking up immediately. Ali’s buffoonery got the most laughs, as did his “tapori” commentary on the action.

Bipasha’s double turn as the deadly cop and the beach bum twin-sister will keep men in the audience happy. Her spectacular walk down the Rio beach, carrying a surf-board and clad in the skimpiest bikini seen on Bollywood screen since Zeenat Aman is the stuff of the greatest wet dreams.

Abhishek Bachchan as the tough cop gets to brood and pout and never crack a smile. He has little to do in the film and seems disinterested in much of the film with the unfortunate result of being completely overshadowed by the boisterous Chopra and the intense Hrithik. Moreover, Abhishek needs to start working out though if he is to hold his own against the newer breed of Bollywood men. His under-built frame is painfully apparent along with his reluctance to showcase his physique. In a film as low on fabric as Dhoom 2, his loose shirts made him look positively overdressed.

Aishwarya disappoints as the Lara Croft-clone thief who may or may not be working for the cops. Her pout is nearly as obvious as Angelina Jolie’s but she lacks the attitude to make the part work. She is visibly uncomfortable in some of the skimpier clothes and her attempts to demonstrate her martial abilities left the audience sniggering. The home-girl “like”-sprayed talk and the basketball routine also just fell flat. Being so completely upstaged by the sultry Bipasha Basu can’t bode well for her comeback attempts.

Fortunately, Bollywood is now taking into account that women want eye candy too. So Dhoom 2 offers up the ultimate eye candy: Hrithik Roshan, with pecs rippling, abs taut, and possibly the most aesthetic pelvic bone on this side of paradise, all beautifully showcased in low slung jeans and billowy open shirts. It helps that he can also act. In fact, let us cut straight to the point – this is Hrithik’s show all the way. He sizzles in each scene. The Russian roulette sequence with Aishwarya works primarily for the conviction that he brings to it.

Hrithik’s acting abilities have never been in doubt for those of us who have seen him tackle roles as diverse as Mission Kashmir, Koi Mil Gaya and Lakshya. Neither have any of us entertained doubts about his looks – chiselled and classic as they are. But here he moves consciously and convincingly into sex-bomb territory and even doubters like me were left salivating after this particular turn.

Hrithik’s debut film – Kaho Na Pyaar Hai – had apparently developed a loyal fan following in Latin America. Dhoom 2 builds on that – complete with Rio de Janeiro as the setting for the second half of the film. The costumes, the Portuguese refrain, the Spanish lyrics interjected into the songs, the Latin beats of the sound-track, and the dance steps are all bear the trade-marks of a major marketing push in to Latin America for the industry.

Don’t get me wrong – this film will never be a classic. It is no more than a fluffy, brainless entertainer. The action sequences could have been edited differently for slicker, faster, more breath-taking results. The characters are not terribly coherent – except of course Hrithik’s and that is more a result of the actor’s own conviction than of any directorial input.

On the other hand, it is great fun. Besides, if the dazed expressions on the faces of the women in the audience at the end of the film are anything to go by, Hrithik alone is worth your ticket money.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Islamist Terrorism: Shouldn't We Ask Questions? (Part 1)

This article was written soon after the 7/7 London bombings and published first at, a website that still hosts a bank of my writings. I have long wondered about the growing phenomenon of Islamist terror and perhaps the essay reflects some of those doubts. It also holds the anger I felt at the bombings in London, same as the rage I felt at the Sankatmochan bombing in Varanasi, my home town, and the ones in Mumbai and Delhi. Its time we stopped making liberal excuses and started asking some tough questions. Yes a community should not be held responsible for the acts of a few. But at the end, it is the community's responsibility to control its young. Just as we cannot and do not use "history" or "poverty" or "perceptions of victimhood" to justify the destruction of the Babri Masjid, we should not use those excuses for jihadi violence!

The past few weeks have raised some of the usual questions about Islamic fundamentalism and, more importantly, Islamist terrorism. After two rounds of London bombings, (not to mention the Egypt bombs and the recent Imrana case and the Ayodhya temple attack in India), one is left with more questions than answers. Some questions I haven't found answers to despite reading dozens of commentaries, analyses and essays from around the world are as follows:

1. Why would European-born young men choose to blow themselves and innocent people up?
2. If they are truly a minority within the British-Muslim society, why did no one know about their plans or inform the authorities about their increasing radicalisation?
3. And worse still, how many more such young men are out there biding their time until the next attack?

Questions two and three have perhaps simpler answers. Various newspapers in the UK have already carried accounts from Pakistani relatives of the bomber Shahzad Tanweer about how they had warned his parents that he was fraternizing with members of jihadi groups during his visits to Pakistan. They have provided revealing details of how the young man carried a picture of Osama bin Laden in his wallet. A cousin simply commented that "if he has done what they say he has done, he has done the right thing." No guilt, no remorse, no condemnation to be found then in Pakistan's villages where the 7/7 bombers were mourned as heroes by thousands who gathered in the mosques.

At the same time, a neighbour in Beeston explained that the baby-faced picture carried by international media of Hasib Hussain was misleading, because by the time of the London bombings, he was a hulking frightening man with a thick beard and a propensity for getting into street brawls.

All this unfortunataly means one simple thing that so much of the media has been refusing to put in words: People knew! There are people - family, friends, colleagues and neighbours in Beeston, Dewbury and Pakistan - who knew that these young men were on their way to becoming suicide bombers. And they chose to let them go ahead with their heinous plans. How come we have absolved them of all responsibility? Simply in the name of general civic harmony? Or community relations?

The third question is related and perhaps even easier to answer: obviously there are many more young men in Britain and other countries who are willing to die and kill in the name of Islam. A recent Guardian survey of the British Muslim community showed that 5% of those polled believed that the London bombings were justified. Moreover, another survey showed that nearly 10% of the British-born Muslims polled felt no loyalty towards Britain, but felt they owed their allegiance to Islam. While this figure forms only a small percentage of the population, it could still mean that numerically thousands of British Muslims support the London bombings. We are in for troubled times, indeed!

The first question, however, is possibly the most difficult to answer. Left-leaning analysts in the UK have argued that economic deprivation and cultural isolation led these young British-Pakistanis to radical Islam. A large percentage of the local population has blamed British involvement in the ill-advised and unpopular occupation war in Iraq. Yet all these claims require some refuting, and not only of the neo-con variety that promptly announces that "9/11 happened before Iraq war" or that some how centuries of Western imperialism are to bla me for the rise in fundamentalism Islam today, basically because it has created conditions of economic deprivation, social alienation and political powerlessness.

None of the above arguments hold up to closer scrutiny. While it is true that Arab/Muslim sense of grievances goes much further back than the war on Iraq, as the neo-cons have pointed out, there is a clear line to be drawn when we get to history.
We in India are constantly told to let the past lie for the sake of "communal harmony" and not grudge the widespread destruction of temples all through north India and the subsequent construction of mosques on the same sites. We are told that is history, and with surprisingly little resistance, most of us agree with that view and move forward. So why do we permit a double standard for the Arab/Muslim sense of grievance? Much has been made by British-Muslim commentrators about the West's hypocrisy, yet they hardly pause to consider their own.

Furthermore, just how far these grievances are based on facts is open to debate. Various fundamentalist organisations, ironically based in or linked to Pakistan, and apparently fighting a world-wide jihad, use Palestine or Kashmir as their raison d'etre. However, we also know that neither the Hizbollah or the Hamas, two of the best known "fundamentalist" Islamist organizations in the Middle East, have shown any interest in any action beyond their localized freedom struggles. Both have made necessary adjustments with other religious and political groupings to continue their fight, with the Hizbollah initiating and forming alliances with not only Lebanese Christian groupings, but also with the extremely secular Lebanese Communists. Same is true for the Hamas.

A closer scrutiny also shows that the Palestinians, as a people and as political organisations, have little sympathy for the apparently "international" Islamist groups. Most Palestinians feel that their legitimate freedom struggle is hampered and harmed by the fundamentalist hijacking of that fight for purposes of an "international jihad."

Similarly, the use of "Kashmir" issue as a justifiable grievance for Muslims world-wide is equally suspect. The Kashmiri population - both Muslim and otherwise - enjoys far greater civil and political freedom than that enjoyed by populations in most self-proclaimed Islamic countries. If there is a section of the Kashmiri population that has been systematically harassed, terrrorised, killed and hounded out of the region, it is that of the minority community - the ill-fated Kashmiri Pandits. So how does ethnic cleansing of the non-Muslim minority population provide grounds for grievance to wage jihad?

Islamist Terrorism: Shouldn't We Ask Some Questions? Part 2

The issue of economic deprivation is equally suspect, given that most of the best known terrorist attacks have been carried out by middle-class and well-educated men, such as the perpetrators of the 9/11 attack. Looking at British-born Muslims, the argument takes a further beating: the murderer of Daniel Pearl was a British-born Pakistani with a privileged background of public schools and university education at the famed London School of Economics, hardly the prototype of the downtrodden poor. Even the 7/7 bombings in London were carried out by men who were hardly starving in the streets. Instead, one of them had been recently given a red Mercedes, that ultimate Asian status symbol of having arrived, as a gift by his father.

Moreover, if economic deprivation is the key to turning young men and women into suicide bombers, why don't we see more of those coming out of West Bengal and Bihar, where much of the population still lives in desperate conditions. Oddly enough, even in Europe, the Bangladeshi Muslims have shown less interest in joining their jihadi cousins, although that may well change in the future.

So we finally get to the "cultural identity" issue, where the standard argument trotted out by Western commentrators is that somehow "Western" decadence offends and alienates Western-born Muslims. Alcohol, sexual freedom and "football" yob-ism of the majority European "white" community has been cited with immense self-hating relish as the reason why European-born Muslims are turning to radical Islam. It must be Western decadence that pushes these young men to jihad is the logic behind this argument.

Apart from the simple response this raises of "if they don't like the culture, why don't they move to Saudi Arabia," the cultural argument is so ridiculous that - if it were applied to a less serious issue - one would be tempted to laugh it off. If it is "decadent" Western values that the bombers didn't like, what about India?
Most Indians are frightfully straitlaced about sex. In most places beyond elite urban enclaves, alcohol consumption is frowned upon. For much of the country, the most "daring" outfit for a woman is still a pair of jeans worn - in most cases - with a baggy t-shirt or a full-sleeved shirt. So can someone explain which part of the decadent "culture" is pushing Indian Muslims to radical Islam? Which part of the "decadent" culture in India justifies the Muslim "fatwah" against a lone brave Muslim woman who admitted to being raped by her father-in-law? A fatwah, by the way, that has been defended not only by opportunist politicians like Mulayam Singh Yadav but also by the so-called "educated" and “moderate” Muslim elite including Salman Khursheed.

So what drives relatively well-educated, fairly privileged young men to kill themselves and others? Once again, unfortunately, the common link between mercenaries in Iraq, Kashmir, and now Europe is Islam. Whether it is some verse of the Koran or its fundamentalist interpretation by semi-literate mullahs is for those who are better educated in Islam to decide. For me, the proverbial infidel and kafir, the answer must come from those who follow Islam.

However, from my position as infidel, and an Indian one at that, I do have a suggestion for the Islamic leaders and community: Stop playing victim!

Somehow, all Islamist terrorism is explained away as someone else's fault: the West doesn't allow political freedom or economic growth in the Middle East. The Indian government doesn't allow Kashmir to be brought under military dictatorship of an Islamic republic with long-standing sympathies with the Taliban-brand of human rights. Western democracies allow "too much" political and social freedom to young men in Britain who prefer to live on social security dole-outs while planning and executing terrorist attacks instead of finding jobs that would let them participate in the greater society.

For the sake of all of us, I think it is time that Muslim leaders and communities stopped whining about persecution and gave up finding excuses for why their young men prefer to kill themselves and others instead of fighting for better lives. A good starting point would be to answer some very simple questions, not at global, international political levels, but at the level of parents and community leaders of Muslim communities around the world:

1. How about taking responsibility for what your young men and women do? Not only when they blow themselves and others up, but also when they refuse to work, or to go to any school except madrassas where they learn no skill but to recite the Koran, and thus willingly, even knowingly, isolate and alienate themselves.

2. How about expecting your children to become a Shahrukh Khan, APJ Abdul Kalam or Azim Premji? Or a poet like Mourid Barghouti? None of them were born to privilege and yet grew to become true heroes in vastly different fields. Doesn't the responsibility of teaching children to dream lie with the parents?

3. More importantly, what about teaching the young that to struggle to better oneself and one's own lot is truly the "greater jihad," far more difficult but definitely higher than blowing oneself up? That true change requires unstinting hard work and doesn't come easy, but that it is possible.

4. And finally, how about pointing out to these silly young men that blowing oneself up in the London metro or a Kashmiri marketplace or an Iraqi mosque is the act of a coward? And no God allows a space for a coward in heaven!

Perhaps this is the infidel's way, of taking responsibility for oneself instead of the “Islamic” way of continually complaining of being victims. If that is so, there is much to learn from it.

FINAL NOTE: The lack of sincere remorse in Beeston became increasingly apparent when alleged "colleagues" and neighbours of the 7/7 bombers chose the names of Bollywood heroes as aliases in their comments to the unsuspecting Western media. Shahrukh Khan, Sunil Shetty and Sanjay Dutt were the top choices. For those of us who have learnt just how often Brit-Asians will evoke Bollywood references as a secret linguistic and cultural code unknown to this country's majority community, the trend was saddening, worrying, frightening, but beyond all, disgusting.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Its DON, not Vijay!

Full disclosure: This review was published first by in English and Spanish. It is one of the many projects I am associated with, and in many ways, gets first shot at carrying my film reviews.

Once upon a time, there was a classic role – made immortal by the Shahenshah of Bollywood, Amitabh Bachchan back in the late 1970s. Cut to 2006, a daring young director decides to recast the current King of Bollywood – Shahrukh Khan – for a remake of the same film. Some may call that foolhardy. It is most certainly, definitely, risky.

Don – The Chase Begins Again has been raising hackles ever since it was announced. Old fans have complained how no-one could recreate Don. Critics have sneered that Shahrukh’s clean image would never do justice such a role, perhaps forgetting that the actor got a start playing negative parts.

So what’s the new Don like? Well, a lot slicker, trendier and bigger – the action, the car chases and fight sequences are all superb. There are lots of gadgets and well choreographed action sequences. The women all look glamorous, with one exception of a hideous dress choice by Isha Koppikar (A word of advice – NO-ONE looks good in flounced baby doll dresses!). Kareena is polished and glamorous in her bit part as Kamini, a role essayed originally by the classic Bollywood queen of oomph – Helen. Priyanka Chopra never quite manages to slink around in a bikini a la Zeenat Aman, but her Roma remains dangerous and sexy.

Arjun Rampal is a gorgeous update on the original role played by Pran – as a man looking for his missing son and vengeance. The original featured a rather feeble high-wire scene with Pran. It has been replaced by a vertigo-inducing sequence on top of the Petronas tower in Malaysia – still scary, perhaps even more so, because it is so believable.

And so, we come to Shahrukh. He hasn’t had this much fun in a while. For once he is gets to be an all out bad boy. And boy, does he love it. You can practically see him grin with pleasure as he struts and snarls and sneers. He keeps a lot of the old iconic dialogues, but brings enough of his own to update them. His Don is a lot darker, more dangerous and coldblooded. Shahrukh works in shades of Al Pacino’s Scarface in his rolling walk and a subtle coke-head’s sniff and swipe of the nose that almost seems a nervous tic. It’s a master touch for a Don who is now an international drug smuggler. What is also interesting is the new Don’s appetite for women – Amitabh’s version seemed more interested in getting business done than in Helen’s charms. Even as the bumbling Vijay, he stayed true to Roma once he fell for her. Not so in 2006 – this Don eyes up the babes with a sexual hunger that borders on sleazy. His parties are barely a shade up from upscale orgies.

And then we get to Akhtar’s changes to the script. Smartly he doesn’t try to recreate the moral universe of the original film. Nor does he try to reconstruct the hinterland bumpkin persona of Vijay. Neither would have worked in 2006, when the old moralities have been inevitably blurred, and even the small town lads are clued in to the latest MTV hits thanks to satellite television. Instead, he revives some of Shahrukh’s early star persona – of Baazigar, Darr and Anjaam – with the dark, psychotic shades. And then he packs in lots of twists and turns of the plots, including the surprise package at the end. What you get is not a remake of Don, but a Don version 2.2, updated and packaged for the new millennium.

My verdict: Akhtar is evolving into a director comparable to Gulzar, or Manmohan Desai or even early Subhash Ghai. Just his name on the film credits is a guarantee for a well constructed, well shot and beautifully edited film. Go see it – not because you want to compare it to the old Don, but because this is a great cinematic experience – fun, furious and fabulous. And of course, then there is Shahrukh!

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Prabha Tonk: A fabulous actress, superb wit

Somewhere back in 1998, I wrote a play – Birthing Athena. It eventually was performed at the Sri Ram Centre in New Delhi but this post is not about that production. This post is about someone I met thanks to that play – Prabha Tonk.

Some Dilliwalas, especially the theatre-types would know Prabha as a director or casting agent, or in some of the many roles she plays in her life. Strange then that not many of us have had the privilege of watching her act. In the past few years she has rarely stepped on the stage - and that is a tragedy for all those who love theatre!

I was warned that she was picky about her roles and didn’t take on anything that didn’t match her standards or expectations. But of course, absolutely heedless and completely convinced of my own play, I marched into her house one afternoon, script in hand, hoping she would say yes. I must also confess that I was desperate – my lead actress had been forced to drop out and the opening night was less than ten days away. I hadn’t even met Prabha before, or seen her act. But most of the actors I respected and liked thought she was great – and that was sufficient for me in my despair.

Prabha offered me tea, in that husky amazing voice of hers and that precise accent. And I was sold! This was my lead character just brought to life, with equal parts of maternal affection and no-nonsense individuality. She said she would have to look through the script before she accepted. I left her house with my fingers tightly crossed.

She called later in the afternoon and informed me rather perfunctorily that she would be happy to be part of my play and would be happy to know the rehearsal schedule. Phew….if she only knew the relief I felt.

To cut a long story short – Prabha was brilliant in the play. She grew and grew to fill up the entire stage whenever she strode across it. Even my frayed nerves – that kept me away from the auditorium for long stretches – could not refuse to recognise the power in her portrayal of the loving yet fiercely ambitious mother of my play.

Prabha and I have stayed in touch long after that play. I know that she must be in any play I put together again. And she has grown to like my writing enough to be a part of public readings for both my novels. Beyond her ability to act, there is one more thing I admire about Prabha – its her pithy, ironic, cutting sense of humour.

So when she sent me a piece about mothers and learning lessons of life from them, I of course laughed out loud. There was much in the piece I recognised from my own mother. And there was a clear recognition of Prabha’s own mothering experience. The piece made me laugh when I first read it, and it still makes me smile. And that is the best reason to share it with everyone else. So this is from Prabha Tonk:

Things I learned from my mother

1. My mother taught me to Appreciate A Job Well Done.
"If you're going to kill each other, do it outside. I just finished cleaning."

2. My mother taught me about Religion.
"You better pray that will come out of the carpet."

3. My mother taught me about Time Travel.
"If you don't straighten up, I'm going to knock you into the middle of next week!"

4. My mother taught me about Logic.
"Because I said so, that's why."

5. My mother taught me about Foresight.
"Make sure you wear clean underwear, in case you're in an accident."

6. My mother taught me about Irony.
"Keep crying, and I'll give you something to cry about."

7. My mother taught me about Stamina.
"You'll sit there until all that spinach is gone."

8. My mother taught me about Weather.
"This room of yours looks like a tornado went through it."

9. My mother taught me about Hypocrisy.
"If I told you once, I've told you a million times. Don't exaggerate!"

10. My mother taught me about the Circle Of Life.
"I brought you into this world, and I can take you out."

11. My mother taught me about Behaviour Modification.
"Stop acting like your father!"

12. My mother taught me about Envy.
"There are millions of children in this world who don't have wonderful parents like you do."

13. My mother taught me about ANTICIPATION.
"Just wait until we get home."

14. My mother taught me about RECEIVING.
"You are going to get it when you get home!"

15. My mother taught me about MEDICAL SCIENCE.
"If you don't stop crossing your eyes, they are going to freeze that way."

16. My mother taught me about ESP.
"Put your sweater on; don't you think I know when you'll be cold?"

17. My mother taught me about HUMOR.
"When that lawnmower cuts off your toes, don't come running to me."

18. My mother taught me HOW TO BECOME AN ADULT.
"If you don't eat your vegetables, you'll never grow up."

19. My mother taught me about GENETICS.
"You're just like your father."

20. My mother taught me about WISDOM.
"When you get to be my age, you'll understand.

21. My mother taught me about SHARING.
"I am going to give you a piece of my mind!"

22. My mother taught me about FEAR.
"One day you'll have a child who'll do the same things to you."

My mother was the BEST!!