On (The) Guide

I’ve decided to earmark 2017 as the year of non-fiction. However, the first exception to that was R.K Narayan’s The Guide – a book that has been on my reading list since I was in college, and one that landed RKN the prestigious Sahitya Academy Award, the highest literary honour in India.

 

Back in the 1960s, the book was adapted into a Bollywood movie (and an English film, which appeared and vanished without a trace in the history of cinema), a brainchild of the superstar Dev Anand.

 

The film is remembered even today for its terrific setting, stellar performances from Dev Anand and Waheeda Rahman, and the subliminal music by the legendary S.D. Burman. It was also supposed to be rather bold for its time – a story about an extra marital affair and an un-heroic hero in the lead was far from a foolproof formula for a superhit movie, notwithstanding the popularity of the lead actors.

 

But the risks paid off and Guide turned out to be a massive hit, pleasing the critics and the masses alike. Yet, RKN penned his displeasure with the film in an article published in Life Magazine, titled “The Misguided Guide.” I haven’t been able to get my hands on the article. However, having read the book now, his displeasure with the movie is hardly surprising.

 

I watched Guide some years ago and quite enjoyed it; not a favourite by any means but much better that most of the stock we produce. But now, viewing it from the lens of an adaptation, Vijay Anand’s Guide is a gross disappointment.

 

R.K. Narayan’s bravest, most commendable achievement in The Guide is his ability to question and ruffle the feathers of long established societal notions of “morality” and “culture”. Some would call this the highest duty cast upon any writer, and RKN accomplished that with nuance and aplomb. He does this through his protagonists – Rosie and Raju, both of whom fail to inspire any adoration or sympathy from the readers.

 

Rosie – her name itself is a middle finger in the face of all traditional notions of a “respectable” girl, something Raju observes at the very outset. He is discomfited by the fact that her name doesn’t quite gel with her appearance – that of a traditional South Indian girl, dressed modestly in a saree and married to a man of (presumably) high standing and pleasant disposition. Later in the novel, this name is changed to erase traces of her past and give to her an identity that would appease her target audience.

 

In the book, she allows herself to be seduced by another man, fully understanding the implications of her actions. Her behaviour oscillates as she tries to cope with her moral dilemmas; the war between her individual desires and her orthodox upbringing. But her adulterous tryst with Raju is not driven by her husband’s infidelity. Marco (her husband) is entirely disinterested in her life, and more importantly, disrespectful and disdainful of her cherished love and passion for the art of dance. He is emotionally and physically distant, and she is reduced to a trophy wife who means less to him that the furniture in his room. This emotional and spiritual void is what makes her accept the advances of a mere tour guide (Raju) and find comfort in his arms.

 

In the movie, however, her motivations are justified by showing that Marco indulged in an adulterous affair himself. Rosie, now a “wronged” woman, finds love in Raju. This tool of convenience is the first of the many ways in which Vijay Anand stripped the novel of its novelty. Why, is the thought of a woman leaving her husband for reasons other than infidelity so terribly incomprehensible to our sensibilities? This convenient shortcut is a sign of cowardice in a filmmaker, and to be honest, a disservice to the courage of RKN’s story.

 

Even as the novel proceeds, the audience is free to form their opinion of Rosie – to view her as a victim or a seductress, a selfish schemer or a helpless woman who was never afforded a chance by society. She is 50 shades of grey and then some. Her passion for dance supersedes all other obligations and she refuses to be constrained to the role of someone who is incomplete without an associate/partner. When Raju’s mother calls her a “serpent woman”, it is on its face a negative connotation. But when you really think about it, is it wrong to be a woman driven by individual passion and dreams that don’t involve other people? What is art to her is wilful seduction to others.

 

This psychological nuance is entirely absent from the film, which portrays Rosie as a woman who’s morality is largely unblemished despite the fact she indulges in an extra-marital affair. Her flaws are attributed to misunderstandings and not conscious choices. Every facility that moulds Rosie into a more obviously “acceptable” female protagonist is employed, diluting the rich layers so lovingly woven around his Rosie by RKN.

 

RKN’s Raju is, over and above everything else, an innately selfish man. He is further characterised by his vanity and his prowess at manipulating any situation to suit his needs. And he does so without a trace of guilt. Despite all of this, he is neither evil nor conniving; an anti-hero but hardly the villain.

 

He is bewitched by Rosie at first sight, and from that point his obsession with her is the only thing that drives his actions. What is for the longest time merely a carnal desire, blooms not into love but food to serve his vanity and puff up his ego, making him believe that he is both her saviour and protector; the benevolent charioteer of Rosie’s life without whom she would be lost and destitute.

 

To his chagrin, he discovers in time that Rosie is not someone who needs a saviour; she has the ability and the intent to find happiness even in his absence, and she isn’t remotely emotionally dependent on him as he had once assumed. His male ego is deeply bruised, driving him to act recklessly, which ultimately lands him in prison.

 

The catalyst behind this final act that leads to his conviction is again starkly different in the film and the book. RKN’s Raju acts out of pettiness, jealousy and insecurity – there are no tender feelings involved. In the movie, however, it is implied that Raju’s act is that of a helpless lover who absolutely cannot bear to lose Rosie’s affection for him.

 

RKN’s Raju is not a man to be liked by anyone, let alone by Rosie. Vijay Anand makes him out to be a hero that he is not. Whether this was a reluctance to acknowledge the evils of masculine egotism or just an attempt to make the protagonist more likable, or both, one cannot tell. But the fact remains that the filmmakers chickened out of exploring the complexities of human nature, choosing instead to romanticise every aspect.

 

In the last leg of the story, Narayan’s Raju is trapped in the web of fiction he has created for himself as a God-man; his greatest weapon (almost) becomes his greatest threat. His decision to fast is for the longest time not a voluntary choice, but a (bad) hand dealt to him by fate. Only gradually does he show empathy to the suffering of the villagers – people who literally worship the ground he walks on and who have placed utmost faith in him even in trying times. He is moved by their naivety more than anything else. This, coupled with the complete absence of an alternative, is why he decides to make a sincere attempt to help them out of their misery – even if it is blind and superstitious and whimsical. In the last few pages of the novel, Raju’s journey hits its zenith as his actions are, for the very first time, not driven by his ego or in an attempt to make the best of an opportunity or to fulfil a selfish desire. This is the first, (and presumably the final) selfless act on his part.

 

However, at no point does RKN even suggest that this final act is meant to be anything resembling redemption. There is no remorse, no magical moment of self-realisation or nirvana, no effort at absolution. It is merely a culmination of the game of destiny. Adaptation.

 

Vijay Anand, however, succumbs to the typically Bollywood temptation of giving the audience a perfectly ideal and happy ending – the hero rises to the occasion and saves the day, reunites with the love of his life and his family and emerges as an epitome of goodness and truth.

 

I have two issues with this.

 

Firstly, this oversimplification takes away the essence of the original Raju of RKN’s creation. Of course, the director enjoys artistic liberties and he had every right to treat the character as he pleased. I am just saying that in doing what he did, Vijay Anand managed to use cinematic tools not to elevate the story to a higher level, but to reduce the same to a simple love story which lacks any ingenuity or chutzpah.

 

Secondly, considering this movie was released in the 1960s when India was fiercely trying to uproot long standing superstitions and build a scientific temperament in the public, Anand’s choice of ending was socially irresponsible. R.K Narayan was careful to leave the ending ambiguous, and that was a smart thing to do. His tone throughout he novel is that of a mere observer, giving free reign to the audience to make their deductions.

 

Anand on the other hand decided to entertain the audience with happy miracles; Raju’s sincere penance leads to the end of the long drought, bringing joy and happiness to all in question, including himself as he reunites with his mother as well as Rosie. Back in the 60s, this would’ve reinforced in the minds of public the idea that God-men indeed have the ability to work miracles. Modern irrigation could go to hell.

 

My final gripe with Guide in my gripe with almost all of Bollywood. It has decided that India consists only of a few northern states, while the South of India only exists for comic relief in the form of caricatured sidekicks. As a friend of mine, in her review of the book said, “…the truly South Indian flavor which is so richly scattered in the pages of the book (you can almost smell the coffee every time it is offered to someone, you can almost taste the bonda that the holy Raju so craves!) was completely marginalized in the film.”

 

I couldn’t agree more with her observation. RKN’s Malgudi might be a fictional town but there is no one who will dispute the fact that he infused such life into it through his writings that it is perhaps more real than any city one has lived in. He sketches life in that small town with such loving detail, rich with culture and language and history – all of which has been almost cruelly ignored in the movie. Because South India is not quite pleasing enough for Bollywood. (But South Indian actresses are just fine. As long as they are fair skinned, of course)

 

Yes, Vijay Anand’s Guide is visually spectacular, and was a brave story that broke some cinematic barriers in its time. Dev Anand did as much justice as he could to the character of Raju given this severely diluted version of RKN’s original, especially in the scenes leading up to the climax. And Waheeda Rahman brought a depth and personality to Rosie that was nothing short of stunning, something even RKN acknowledged.

 

However, all said and done, when viewed solely as an adaptation, the movie is virgin mojito to the premium scotch that was R.K Narayan’s masterpiece.

 

Sources:

http://www.letstalkaboutbollywood.com/article-19103838.html

http://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/hindi-movie-guide-was-a-super-hit/article7379477.ece

Ae Ajnabi

This post is about 6 days late. But here it is.

Back when I was eight, I thought I was a fantastic singer, owing to the applause that always followed my expert rendition of any Geetham. But once I had impressed the older folks, I was back to home ground humming “Tu cheez badi hai mast”.

I had my eyes on Dad’s Sony Walkman, especially on our yearly trips to Delhi in the summer vacations. My grandmother had a few cassettes that I’d listen to at night, after having accomplished the exhausting feat of watching television for nearly 10 hours straight.

Then, one rainy afternoon in Mumbai, Dad bought me a small present that in retrospect, changed my life. Even if it did so in a small way.

He gave me a brand new audio cassette, and for me the most enthralling thing about it was Shahrukh Khan’s portrait on the front cover. It was beautiful. And it was SRK. Even at 8, the fangirl in me was ecstatic.

That night, I hopped into bed, tore open the transparent plastic cover (I am pretty sure I put that in the dustbin; I cannot remember a time when I was okay with trash lying about) and carefully placed that cassette inside the Walkman. And hit ‘play’.

I realized in the next half an hour that SRK was no more the only man who would have a fangirl in me for life. There was a brand new entry on that list.

A. R. Rahman.

The songs, the music in that album – it does not belong to this world. It belongs to the realm of brilliance, of magic, of cathartic melancholy. It made a profound, indelible impact on me – one that lasts, nay, grows to date.

The fourth song on that album is to date my favorite song of all times. And it has come to mean different things to me as I grew up. Once, it was merely a terrific tune. Later, the poetry crept inside my heart to stay there forever. Today, I know it belongs to my soul. Udit Narayan’s voice and that violin from [1.45-2.21] – someone find me a word to express the beauty that is captured in those 30 seconds ?

Since then, Allah Rakha Rahman has been responsible for countless memorable evenings – dazzling us with a spectacular orchestra one minute, and then leaving us stunned with what he could create with one silky voice and a single string instrument. Oh, have I mentioned he was also the first musician to compose an all a-Capella song in Indian cinema?

For a country that seems to have a rather fragile sense of patriotism, his version of Vande Mataram did not offend – instead it managed to bring everyone together. I still remember the concert of his that I’d attended – usually the audience is only required to stand for the national anthem. In this case, however, the entire crowd stood up in respect as he sang Maa Tujhe Salaam in that powerful voice of his. Soul stirring – that is what it was.

He is innovation and tradition, the charm of the yesteryears and the spirit of youth, insanely complex and endearingly simple. He is genius, and yet almost naïve as he says “Ella puhazhum iraivanukke” (Praise the Lord) as he humbly picks up his Oscar.

In this beautiful interview with Simi Garewal, he remarked that it was perhaps the sense of melancholy that found its way into all his melodies that made them touch people’s hearts so effortlessly.

I still find that sense of melancholy in his Tamil compositions. They’re starkly absent from the Hindi ones though. I wonder why. Is he just uninspired by most of it or is it a musician’s version of a writer’s block? Whatever it is, I am always waiting for another Ae Ajnabi. Ok no wait, that isn’t possible. So I’ll settle for something to rival Rehna Tu or Ruth Aa Gayi Re.

And because I love lists, here are my top 5  10 15 Rahman favourites: (in no particular order – except #1)

#15 Konjam Nilavu

#14 Bombay Theme

#13 Khwaja Mere Khwaja

#12 Rehna Tu

#11 Ruth Aa Gayi Re

#10 Dil Se Re

#9 Jhumbalika (I should ideally upload this one, but Jhumbalika is special to me 😛 )

#8 Ye Jo Des Hai Tera

#7 Ae Naazneen Suno Na

#6 O Bhavre

#5 Mukkala Muqabla*

#4 Narumughaye

#3 Enna Solla Pogirai

#2 Pachai Nirame

#1 Ae Ajnabi

Happy New Year, everyone! (Have I already said this?)

*Edited: I’d uploaded this song first, but then changed my mind. “Cowboy dekhe mujhe, playboy chede mujhe” bwahahaha. But the beats. Seriously. Legend.

On the one game I didn’t suck at

My description of myself in the “About Twiggy” menu reveals that my height and breadth are completely disproportionate. Breadth too big, height little.

To top that wonderful combination, I suffered from severe asthma for most of my childhood. All this ensured that I was never any good at most of the games kids my age spent time playing – tag, kho-kho, and later the likes of badminton and basketball. [Let me state here that despite the fact this situation often left me with little to no friends, I am still happy I grew up in a time when play-time wasn’t all about video games]

So, where was I? Yes, I sucked at anything that involved even a little bit of running. Table tennis I managed. Not smart enough for chess.

But the one game I was a pro at was Antakshari. For those of you unfamiliar with this, you have missed something in life. It’s basically a game where you sing – your song must start from the last letter/syllable with which the song of your opponent ends.

It’s the fun-est game ever. And it almost always results in everyone singing together and having a gala time. It’s a bit difficult to play with songs in languages that are not of Sanskrit origin though. But my childhood was all about Bollywood songs so I was unbeatable. Some of my fondest memories with my family is a whole bunch of us playing Antakshari. Even the times my relatives from Chennai decided we must not restrict ourselves to Hindi songs and allow Tamil ones as well.

 

Paadatha paatellam paada vanthaal

 

We managed long road trips without iPods because we were the iPods. Hours would go by without any of us realizing. (Except the times we were hungry, of course) You didn’t always need conversations to bond because singing together managed to do that.

I have no idea when we grew out of it. Usually I am all for technology, and don’t really spend much emotional energy in nostalgia over things that have now become easier thanks to science.

Do I miss a bar of soap because we now use shower gels? No. Do I miss a Walkman because we have iPods? Not really. Do I miss a bucket because I now shower? No. Do I miss calculators because we have Excel? Absolutely not.

But when you talk about iPods or video games or X-box replacing Bridge or my favorite, Antakshari, I cannot help but feel a sense of acute loss. Of memories that we may never make. Of songs that we will never sing together. Of not having the pleasure of listening to people sing for fun, and not just at ceremonies. People still sing together sometimes, no doubt. Especially if there is at least one person in the group with a guitar strapped to his body. But it isn’t half as common as it used to be.

I wonder why or how this happened. I like to rationalize to comfort myself. I don’t like blaming technology for everything we do to ourselves.

So here is one major reason I think Antakshari has died a slow death. (Apart from video games and the likes, of course – not them as such but because we allowed them to take over the lives of our children)

 

The songs.

 

One look at my iPod and I am sure my classmates at law school will have a good laugh at my expense. Because it is so painfully outdated.

My taste in all non-Bollywood music is shaped by what I grew up listening to. And what I grew up listening is what my father grew up listening to. So there are huge playlists full of songs by ABBA, BeeGees, Boney M, Pink Floyd, Gloria Estefan, Michael Jackson, Madonna, The Beatles, and some rather obscure hits from the 60s-80s. When I was trying to be a “cool” teen, I made myself like Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears and NSync. I refuse to be embarrassed about the fact I still like them.

Now Bollywood, which is basically what Antakshari is all about – that is another story. I spent way too much time watching TV in my childhood. A lot of that time was spent on MTV – when M actually meant Music. Not Muck, like it means today.

I shall crown myself the Queen of the 90s County – because I know every Bollywood song they produced in the 90s – the hits and the misses, the romantic and the silly, the profound (my favourite 😀 ) and the nonsensical, the poetic and the ridiculous.

90s Bollywood songs were rather simple in structure – a couplet which forms the refrain, two more verses with perfect rhymes and then back to the refrain. They had waltz-y beats, the orchestra usually incomplete without some guitar and/or violins. Much fun.

The one common trait in almost all the songs was that they had a relatively simple tune – you could hum them without trouble. The lyrics were also mostly harmless, except such gems every once in a while where Govinda or Shakti Kapoor were involved. (Or Anil Kapoor, sometimes)

Which means that you could sing these songs with ease whenever you had the chance. Didn’t have to worry about singing prowess or the audience. Which is probably not a luxury we enjoy anymore, because if you are with family and in company of children, you have to think twice before singing the latest “hit” number.

Because Baby Doll is not about a child’s toy. And Munni is no innocent kid. The old Ooh La La and the new one are POLES apart.

Even the songs that aren’t raunchy have some trouble. I don’t want to sing “Ro Raha Hoon Main” to encourage bawling in children. Children are smart enough to use that song against me when they want to throw a tantrum.

You can’t even use these songs to flirt or flatter anymore.  Ladki Beautiful is fine. What the hell is Kar Gayi Chull?

There is trouble even when lyrics are innocuous. Remember what I said about simplicity of tunes? Yes, that is also fading. While experimentation with notes and instruments can produce some fantastic results, it often makes the aspect of performance nearly impossible without accompaniments. Like this one – the song is spectacular but one cannot just sing it for his own pleasure without feeling like he is taking away the essence of the song. This is an issue across genres.

Of course, there are always songs that you can sing and have nice lyrics and are fun. Like this one and this one, for instance. But they are the exceptions and not the norm.

If you don’t have songs to sing, how can you hope to play a singing game?

I am sure there are other reasons. Lack of time. Inadequate bonding with parents and/or extended family. No road trips because flights are more convenient. Changing tastes. And many more.

Whatever the reason, I miss my favorite “game”. It was fun and inclusive. And where there is music, there are cherished memories.

Ideally, I should be ending this post with a Bollywood song. But because this song just won’t leave my mind, I’m going to quote it. Because ABBA is wonderful. Bas.

 

Thank you for the music, the songs I’m singing

Thanks for all the joy they’re bringing

Who can live without it, I ask in all honesty

What would life be?

Without a song or a dance what are we?

So I say thank you for the music

For giving it to me

 

P.S – This one song, to express all that I didn’t in this post about pre-90s Bollywood songs. Not that there weren’t any bad songs earlier, but that is the musical era that my parents are most familiar with and I never did stand a chance. There is also Pyar Deewana Hota Hai, the first ever “old” song I consciously remember listening to and falling in love with. Whattey song, no ?

 



Glossary
(for Hindi words):

Munni: Usually an endearment used to address a little girl. That song I liked uses the word to address an attractive woman up for grabs.

Ro Raha Hoon Main: I am crying (in a male voice)

Ladki: Girl

 

P.P.S – I have at least two friends who follow this blog who will challenge my claim to the 90s Crown. To them I say – let’s play antakshari ?

 

Coldplay Rant

I love Coldplay. I really do. I once spent a good chunk of my meagre savings as a grad student to go watch them perform live in Manchester. They made it worth the effort. One of the best evenings of my life.

BUT BUT BUT. That doesn’t mean I like everything they do. The previous album was rather boring. Their brand new song is not. It’s catchy and hummable and pleasant; but the video. Oh my God. This stuff sets my teeth on edge. Like Danny Boyle and Katherine Boo weren’t bad enough, we now have this ignorant piece of shit.

Yes, they enjoy creative freedom and can do whatever they want. I’m not offended. It is annoying though. We’ve had enough people from the West making India look like a prehistoric place filled with godmen and snake charmers — a population rebelling against a “civilised world”. A world so removed from all that is “modern” that it seems to offer some sort of enlightenment to those from the first world. Rubbish.

Sure, religion is a huge part of who we are. But India is hardly the only country where that holds true. What’s with demonising Islamic nations and exoticizing Hindu ones ? Is everyone really so short of ideas that they feel the need to redo these stereotypes over and over again?

Coldplay’s new video also manages to sprinkle a few dilapidated cinema halls in between all the colourful hermits. Because how could an Indian stereotype be complete without a shady reference to Bollywood? They even went as far as to call Queen B “Rani”, the Hindi word for queen. So creative, no?

Oh, and I have complete faith in the idiocy of Sonam Kapoor; it’s hardly surprising to see that she’s a part of this phantasmagoric circus. Also, it seems the song was shot in Mumbai. One of the busiest, most densely populated urban centres in the world. I don’t know if the makers of this video were ignorant of this fact or just chose to ignore it when they decided to only focus on people dressed as rainbows. Beyonce included.

Anyway. I’ll just enjoy the song, and try to forget the video. I still like Coldplay and Violet Hill continues to be a favourite. Though I do prefer toy elephants in the videos.

Update. And Some Musings.

Sorry about being totally MIA this past month. I had some legit reasons though:

  1. I participated in a moot court competition. I kicked ass. It was awesome. Law student pheelz just got super real.
  2. My stomach kicked my ass. I was down with gastroenteritis for a whole week. All better now 🙂
  3. I was disappointed about not completing my 2015 Goodreads challenge. So I plan to target reading an average of 3 books a month this year (minus exam months). So far I’m on track – 2.5 books down in Jan.
  4. I recently bought a new iPad. So I spent more time fiddling with it and my laptop was largely ignored. That means less typing. That means no blogging.
  5. I like lists of 5. So…

 

On a totally different note –

One of my judges in the Moot Court asked me an interesting question. He asked me what I found most fascinating during my research for the case. I cannot remember exactly how I answered that one, since it was one of the 50000000 questions he threw my way (To my credit, I must have answered well. He gave me a fabulous feedback.)

But his question got me thinking. What did I find most fascinating ?

One of the many reasons I love the law is because it holds answers. It holds solutions. There is solid text which sets the ground rules. It sets principles. I can refer to it anytime a question arises and it will point me in the right direction.

What happened during my research for this competition was the total opposite. I did not find answers in the law. My solution lay in my problem – in the facts. The only thing I could use to my advantage was my version of the facts. Nothing written in any statute could do for me what that could.

Does this change my perspective of the law? Not change… broaden, perhaps. Does this make me question my motivations? No… it does make me introspect though. Does it make my rethink my decision? Absolutely not. If anything, I think I am more fascinated than ever before. Because I felt most independent when I came to that earlier realisation.

While I’m sure that’s not the norm – and more often than not I will have to turn to the words of the law to find what I need, but I still learned something wonderful. That I can work with what I have in hand and that will show me how to get to where I want to be.

It’s the kind of kick you get when you crack an important clue in a crossword puzzle. Or you begin to see that rubik’s cube finally come together. It isn’t completely solved yet and there are many more steps to take. But each of those steps is fascinating and full of discoveries. It’s wonderful.

Rant over. Kthanksbye!