Thursday, 20 October 2016

Thoughts on the Dylan Nobel

I was in my sisters place, attending to appa and trying to keep amma from fretting when Bull sent me a text. “Just heard that Bob Dylan won the Nobel for literature. For once someone whose works I am rather acquainted with”. At first I thought it was just one of those hoaxes that sweep the internet from time to time, but this time, with everybody from the Guardian to the NYT weighing in, it obviously wasn’t.
There was a time when I had what was arguably the best room in college. 296, Ram Bhavan was the last room in the “new wing facing sky”, overlooking the Birla Museum and its mucky pond where fat koi fish, mottled silver and orange swam in its murky depths. In front of me were the lawns, the grass trimmed and the hedges manicured. And from the balcony seat, you could see the most spectacular sunsets over the arid hardpan that lay beyond the campus walls.
One evening, there was a storm. Have you seen it rain in the desert? It’s spectacular. It went on for a long while, shading dusk into night, and angry streaks of lightning would shatter the darkness.  I sat there in my armchair, in the dim yellow of a 60 watt corridor lightbulb, while Desolation Row played in my room. I was wrapped in the warm cocoon of a bottle of phens. I had my packet of Charms cigarettes, and I had a brilliant light-and-dark show. And in that setting, I’d see the parade of grotesqueries in the song. Cinderella, her hands in her back pockets “Bette Davis style”, Ophelia, an old maid at 27, sepia tinted postcards of hanged men, a hand painting passports brown. Einstein in green rags, playing a violin. A leather cup on a back alley quack’s desk, where a nurse snaps on rubber gloves before she shuffles a pack of dog-eared cards, all saying the same thing.  A song that was both a heap of broken images, as well as scraps of moving pictures of broken people. Even now, if I close my eyes and think back, I can see them all, like something seen through a grimy window, a group of famous marionettes going through the same set of motions for eternity.
There must have been a lot of division about awarding Dylan the Nobel – I’m pretty certain I saw a lot of headlines about how it was deserved or undeserved, often running side by side. I didn’t read any of them. Also since I quit Facebook, I don’t know what my friends are saying – or which clips of which songs were posted.
My own feelings are mixed. There’s the world of Nobel Laureates. And there’s the world of Bob Dylan. Separate worlds until now. The former, at least to me, was essentially a conservative institution, with the standards and choices of a group of Harold Bloom clones. Dylan – the quintessential Dylan, the Dylan of those 640 days between Another Side of Bob Dylan to Blonde on Blonde - was the opposite of that world. But that’s a thought that doesn’t stand up to closer examination. What was revolutionary for the US in the 60s – or in India in the 80s is dated and archaic to a world that’s grown up with touchstones like Kurt Cobain and Tupac Shakur. For someone who was born in the 1990s, how is Dylan different from Paul Anka or Jim Reeves or any one of those dinosaurs of “Western music”?
For some of us, the answer is, well, obviously, if you’ve listened to Dylan, the difference is obvious. But listening to Dylan isn’t the same for the iTunes playlist era. Of course you can line up Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Volume X on your iPhone and listen to everything from Like a Rolling Stone to When the Deal Goes Down or the latest thing from Dylan does Sinatra, but that’s hardly the same thing as that segue from Ballad in Plain D to It Ain’t Me, Babe in Another Side of Bob Dylan or that amazing B-side of Bringing it All Back Home (Mr Tambourine Man, Gates of Eden, It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding) and It's All Over Now, Baby Blue). And when you listen to it when you still are struggling to figure out who the fuck you are and what the fuck you’re doing in this fucked up world, it leaves an impression.
A large part of listening to old music is nostalgia, of course. With songs of love and songs of youth, it’s pretty much a guaranteed return trip. But not so with Dylan. A large part of it is the timelessness of it. It’s alright ma remains as scathing a commentary in 2016 as it did in 1964. When the ship comes in may have been written as a response to a snooty hotel clerk, but works so well as a prayer of hope and defeat of adversity as well as “Fuck you, naysayers” comment.
If that two year period was the kind of thing that any artiste would kill for, just remember that Blood on the Tracks came almost a decade later. And if later albums weren’t always great, remember that Shot of Love had Every Grain of Sand, Oh Mercy had Shooting Star, Time out of Mind had Not Dark Yet, Love and Theft had Mississippi and – well - all of Love and Theft.
So now, I’ve seen enough people (internet commenters, so take that as you will) diss Dylan. “Can’t sing”. “Overrated”. “Sexist/Misogynist”. “White male”. And yes. He sang for Miss Universe contests and shilled for Victoria’s Secret underwear. But he also came out on stage to accept his Grammy, twitching and fidgeting, and said “My dad, he was a very simple man and he didn’t leave me a lot. But what he told me was….” (A very long pause as Dylan looks at the award, the way a tramp may examine something shiny found in the garbage, wondering how much he could hock it for).. “He said son…”. Pause again. “He said so many things”. And he followed it up with a raging Masters of War, while the first Gulf War (the “good” Gulf war) raged on in Iraq and Kuwait. He’d make speeches about the plight of American farmers during Live Aid, completely pissing off  Bob Geldof. 
He just didn’t give a shit.
Then, there’s Ballad of a Thin Man.  It’s a song I hate. It may have been written about a specific person in a specific set of circumstances, but I’ve always felt it was about me, that I was Mr Jones – that something was happening around me, but I didn’t know what, despite my wide reading, that despite trying so hard, I still didn’t understand.
And when a song can make you feel uncomfortable in your own skin, it means that the songs words have power.  
And isn’t literature all about words with power?

Saturday, 23 July 2016

Thoughts on Kabali

First day, second show in Bangalore. The parking lot outside Urvashi theatre in Bangalore was packed. Not just with people who wanted to watch the movie, but also with people who were filming the people who wanted to watch the film. TV vans were everywhere.
The movie itself begins with a voice-over narration, about gang wars in Malaysia, setting the stage, as it were. It's an interesting opening. Normally, voiceover narrators are chosen for voice quality - it has to be deep and sonorous, with clear diction. This one was nothing like that. It was the voice of an ordinary Tamil blue-collar worker, not especially resonant or memorable. The language itself was colloquial, and stumbled a little, like a kid in school having to recite an ill prepared history lesson. It was an interesting subversion of the narrator trope, but it didn't quite come off. In a way, it set the tone for the film, full of interesting attempts that don't quite come off.
The scene shifts to a group of Malaysian cops discussing whether Kabali's prison term should be extended. It's like a parole board meeting, only without the prisoner. The language shifts, seamlessly, between Malay and Tamil. And then we cut to Rajini's introduction, in his prison cell.
And here, as in every Rajinikanth film for a long time, you don't begin by showing Rajini's face. But instead of focusing on the feet, as is tradition, the camera pans out from a book, the back of a head, and on to the cops opening the door. The man in the cell closes the book he's been reading- My father Baliah, by Dalit activist KB Satyanarayana. It's a piece of trivia that's meaningless if you don't know who Satyanarayana was, or what the book was about, but it's a powerful hint into the identity of the reader if you do. Rajini gets up, comes to the door of the cell, and does a quick pull up before he leaves, to thunderous applause from his fellow inmates. He goes and picks up his belongings - which include - joy of joys, a copy of Terry Pratchett's Sourcery
It's an economical scene. It establishes that Rajini may be old, but is still fit, that he has kept his mind active while in prison. The so-called "genius bonus" comes from the choice of books. The Satyanarayana book tells you that he either is a Dalit himself, or has empathy for them.The Pratchett says that he is an omnivorous reader (and, as a Pratchett fan, testifies to excellent taste). Later, we find out that he was a plantation worker, and you begin to consider the eclectic taste in books implies autodidactism,  providing an explanation for his sometimes stiff use of English.
Unfortunately, the rest of the film doesn't quite live up to the promise of the introduction. There's a song, a celebration of Kabali's release from prison, and then there's a quiet scene where Kabali returns home to see the memory of his dead wife chiding him. Then before you know it, there's a confrontation with a gangster miniboss at a petshop. There's an interesting line that happens at this time, one that Baddy comments about in his fine review here. Kabali and his friend are walking through a row of cages of brightly coloured birds, and Kabali says that the birds should be flying free. The friend says that it's probably for the best, because otherwise they may become prey to larger predators. Baddy was struck by the first part of Kabali's reply, "Unnoda karunai adhoda saavai vida kodooramanadhu". I was more struck by what he says afterwards. "Let them free, so that they make the choice whether they want to flourish or perish."
This scene ends with the first boss fight - you'll have to excuse my language, I've begun to see narratives through the lens of video games, some seepage of jargon is inevitable. The bad guy is suitably obnoxious, saying that Kabali's wife would have been sold into prostitution if she hadn't died.  Needless to say, he dies.
And here's are a couple of things that become problematic. One, there are too many villains. We're told that the big bad is a guy called Tony Lee, but we have very little idea of where the others feature in the backstory. We're given short flashbacks, explaining the context, but it's almost as though the flashback is like a quick primer, like a recap in long running TV show. And after a point, it becomes difficult to keep track of each minor villain's role in the overall narrative.
There are a couple of slightly longer flashbacks, which establish that Kabali was a plantation worker, who fought the plantation's owner to get Indian workers equal pay as Chinese workers. This brings him to Tamilnesan's (Nassar) notice, and while its clear that Tamilnesan is a big deal, its not clear exactly what he is.
There's a sequence in Citizen Kane, where it cuts from Joseph Cotten saying "He entered this campaign", to Orson Welles completing the sentence "With one purpose only". We get something similar here, where Tamilnesan moves from private conversation to public address, and back and forward again, but it's there, without moving the story forward, without establishing the growing rapport between Kabali and Tamilnesan. So when Kabali takes over Tamilnesan's organization, we don't really see the misgivings of Tamilnesan's son, Tamilmaran (Charles Vinoth). And when Veerasekaran (Kishore), over the course of drink, incites Tamilmaran to go against Kabali, it seems a little abrupt.
There are a few scenes that are visually stunning, but they're left dangling. There's a scene of Yogi (Dhansika), in a red swimsuit in a circular swimming pool at night, and she's there, suspended on the surface, a silent scarlet splash in a blue green circle. There's another scene where the camera pans out from Kabali's safe house, a lovely place surrounded by trees. But both these scenes are isolation. Yogi's swimming pool  isn't how she prepares for a kill, or unwinds after it. The safe house scene isn't a long tracking shot that ends with the revelation that the safe house isn't that safe. That comes later, and is much less impressive.
The villains are another problem. While Winston Chao is ok, he would be more consequential if the race angle was explored more deeply. But then, the movie wouldn't have played in Malaysia - I understand that it was censored pretty heavily there. There's subtext, but never explored. There's the section when the story moves from a straightforward revenge story to a search, and it loses steam.
There are some good scenes, of course. The reunion with Radhika Apte is stellar. The cross cutting of Kabali and Lee dressing up for the showdown and Jeeva's death and excellent. But the overall effort falls short of the intent.
Now, I've obviously lot a lost of the references that make the movie so significant to Malay tamils - according to this, it's the Malay Tamil's film. I caught the pointers to Kabali's character from the books, but I missed the significance of the opening scene where the Malay cop says "If Kabali begins to be too much of a problem, we will take care of him in our own way," a line that sets up the final scene. So, its quite possible I missed a great deal
In the end, it's like Ranjith wanted to do too many things, and it ended up with a cluttered film where effort falls fall short of intent.

Thursday, 14 July 2016

Revisiting the Magnet, with Boy's Weeklies and Orwell

Back in 1940, George Orwell wrote a long piece (10,000 words) on magazines like The Gem and the Magnet.  It was called "Boy's Weeklies", and it was a detailed examination of the language, readership, attitudes, and priorities of the stories that appeared in them.
It's hard to think of something comparable to come out today. Firstly, the magazine is dying. Second, it's hard to think of anyone with the equivalent of Orwell's heft as a political and cultural commentator. Third, though there are numerous think pieces, they're companions to "trend stories" in children's writing. Fourth, there are essays and articles about "What kind of book should kids be reading" - promoting books that promote "diversity", the current cultural ideal. And there are the inevitable listicles for people with ever decreasing attention spans.
In, for example, the Magnet's Greyfriars stories, written for and read by a much smaller English-speaking audience than exists today, there's Hurree Jamset Ramsingh, an Indian, Sampson Field, an Australian, Tom Brown, a New Zealander, Wun Lung, a Chinese, Piet Delarey, a South African - and Afrikaner,  Monty Newland, a Jew, and Nappy Dupont, a Frenchman. This probably was one of the most diverse schools in fiction. Of course, the reason for the diversity was the Empire, and the worldwide readership the magazine enjoyed. "It is read in every corner of the British Empire, by Australians, Canadians, Palestine Jews, Malays, Arabs, Straits Chinese, etc., etc," writes Orwell. Of course, the diversity is national, and not racial, but then immigration into the UK, according to Migration Watch, was insignificant before the second world war.
Despite that, both characters of "colour" that figure as students are drawn relatively sensitively - despite the stereotyping. Hurree Singh, for example, is the direct descendent of F Anstey's Hurry Bungsho Jabberjee (who says things like "I am like a duck in thunder with admiring wonderment", and was supposed to be  "a humorous yet truthful study of the East Indian with a veneer of English civilization").   Inky (Singh's nickname) may talk like a twerp and his language is one source of comedy, but as a character, he is as good a person as any other, and rather better than most. He plays cricket beautifully, and is several times described as the best bowler in the school (drawn from Ranji, no doubt, the Indian who could play cricket). He's also much smarter and a better observer than most of his peers, though that's not saying much, since most of his peers seem to be complete blockheads most of the time.
There's Wun Lung, the pigtailed Chinee who "talk velly funny". Very much the inscrutable Oriental, Wun Lung is very much a revolting stereotype most of the time. I can forgive the portrayal of Inky, being an Indian. I wonder if today, a Chinese reader would forgive Wun Lung's portrayal. But when he is at center stage - he is shown as devious, but very nice. A good friend to have in times of need, and with a wicked sense of humour that uses and subverts the very stereotype he represents. In one story, he takes his revenge on Bunter, who has stolen his tuck, by convincing the fat Owl that what he's eaten is the shopkeeper’s cat. It's actually chicken, but Bunter believes him because, of course, everybody knows that Chinese eat anything.
And there's Monty Newland, the Jewish boy. The story where he is introduced is still hard reading - in terms of the sheer amount of prejudice that Newland endures when he comes into the school. And despite following a well-worn groove, it's still quite powerful. He's called a Sheeny and a Shylock when he steps into the school. His study mates try to throw him out, and at one point, he wonders that why, despite his family being in England for centuries, they've always been treated as outsiders and lesser citizens. (Surprisingly, there's no reference to Christ-killing or anything, but that's probably because religion hardly ever figured in these stories. Newland, of course, proves his worth, as all boys must do, by standing up to the school bully, and beating him down. It's also notable that he ends up sharing a study with Dick Penfold, the son of the shoemaker and a scholarship boy. An inadvertent reflection of where Jews stood in the English class system?
The Gem and the Magnet were popular. “They are on sale in every town in England, and nearly every boy who reads at all goes through a phase of reading one or more of them,” wrote Orwell. Evelyn Waugh was a fan. So was Noel Coward. And VS Pritchett. When Christopher Hitchens was asked by a godmother to choose any six books he wanted, his first choice was “a garish series of the adventures of Billy Bunter”.
There’s this lovely book called The Intellectual Life of the British Working Class, by a guy called Jonathan Rose. It covers, in some depth, what the miners and canners and fishmongers and weavers read, from the mid-late 19th century on, and it devotes a chapter to The Gem and the Magnet. Rose looks at the influence of these magazines and the school stories on their readers – most of whom were drawn from the working classes.
The books were inherently conservative, and Rose wonders if any of their readers – much older now, of course – would say “These books indoctrinated me in a bourgeois cultural hegemony, and I’m a better man for it”, and finds that there are quite a few. Of course, this comes from a time when it was possible to be culturally conservative, but politically radical. A number of the Magnet’s fans got their ideas of honour and ethics from these stories. According to Paul Fletcher, the son of a colliery worker, the stories defined a code of honour that was as well defined as the scriptures were nebulous. Later, in 1972, Fletcher, would write that “(Some), rejoicing under the name of intellectuals, would find it difficult to stifle their mirth at yarns which a beginning, a middle and an end, and were completely free of drugs, dolls, crude Americanisms, and lavatory wall adjectives. But they don’t matter. Harry Wharton and the Famous Five set an example of ‘How to play the game’, and their code of honour, effete as it may seem now, was something which society as a whole could do with”.
The Famous Five in the quote above refers not to Harry Wharton, Frank Nugent, Bob Cherry, Hurree Jamset Ramsingh and Johnny Bull. The term was coined in 1912, and Enid Blyton used it in 1951, well after the first books were published. There was also a Secret Seven, a school secret society that dealt out justice to errant prefects using Guy Fawkes masks. It’s unlikely that David Lloyd pinched the idea for V’s mask from, but still, it’s a fascinating titbit. Harry Wharton’s father died on the Afghan frontier, serving in the Loamshire Regiment. This was in 1908.  Wiki the Loamshire Regiment, and you’ll find this:
“Loamshire Regiment is a placeholder name used by the British Army to provide examples for its procedures. For example, the Loamshire Regiment is provided by the British Forces Post Office to show how to write a British Army address, and is used to set out specimen charges for violations of military law. It is used in Hesketh Hesketh-Prichard's Sniping in France, a World War One manual for training British Army sharpshooters.”
Sniping in France was published in 1920. The Loamshire Regiment was also used by Sapper – Bulldog Drummond is a Loamshire Regiment man. Since then, the Loamshires have appeared elsewhere, including Waugh’s Men at Arms and Powell and Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.
But if anything, the lasting legacy of these magazines, these stories – mostly written by Charles Hamilton – must be the “Schoolboy Code”. Or the “Schoolgirl Code”, filtered as it was through Enid Blyton’s St Clare’s and Malory Towers books. After all, Blyton, the daughter of a cutlery salesman, was born in 1897, and would have been among the Gem and Magnet’s significant female readership when she was growing up.
On a personal basis, my school, at least between 1974 and 1987, was making its name as a crammer. We had some good teachers, of course, and some lovely people studied there, but as an institution, I have very little love for it. We yearned for the last bell, waiting for freedom from the endless tedium poorly taught maths and science. When I’m at home, I take a walk by “the old school” almost every day, but all I feel is mild surprise about how small the classrooms were.
So it’s not surprising that these school stories, with their pranks and rags, their feeds and feasts would work their charm, 5099 miles and seven decades away. Oh, I never saw a Magnet or a Gem, but I remember the bright yellow Cassell paperbacks, and the Armada publications with their ugly cover art, borrowed from Eshwari lending library on Lloyd’s Road.
The “Schoolboy Code” is irrelevant today, of course. It’s was irrelevant when I was a schoolboy as well, but I didn’t know that. As Robert Roberts would write “Greyfriars gave us one moral code, life another, and a fine muddle we made of it all”.