Thursday, October 13, 2016

Nobel for Bob Dylan: The counter-culture generation feels vindicated, feels redeemed. But it does not really add up

Bob Dylan's counter-culture anthem 'The answer is blowin' in the wind' is not what won him the Nobel Prize for Literature for 2016, but that is one lyric that all his admirers and worshippers -- yes, there are worshippers -- associate with him. No harm done. It's a peacenik's song, which reflected the mood of a section of the youth in America and elsewhere. But he wrote and sang many other things, strangely mangled songs interspersed with extremely bad symbolism. The songs were good enough for the cultists, and the bad symbolism seems to have satisfied bad English literature academics like Christopher Ricks, who once wrote a defense of Milton, against the abortive attack by T.S.Eliot, and who finds in Dylan's songs deep, dark religious stirrings. He is not really off the mark, except that Dylan uses the religious bits in a nicely clouded language, which can give a sense of profound thought without being really profound. Many of his songs are really complicated to be songs, and perhaps the Nobel prize is for his courage to stick with the difficult mix of ideas, which do not really mean anything because he has not thought them out. Of course, we will get the pat counter-argument that poets do not think, that they write and ideas, including religious and philosophical ones, are just a part of the interesting brew of ideas and emotions. But as one looks at some of those complex songs, they do not make much sense. The ideas are strewn in the lines of the song, giving the impression of being thoughtful, meditative but doing nothing of the sort.

Look at this 1962 song, A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall, certainly not a popular one, where Dylan seems to strike out in his bid to weave symbolism into the emotion:

Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?

Oh, where have you been, my darling young one?

I've stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains

I've walked and I've crawled on six high crooked ways

I've stepped in the middle of seven sad forests

I've been out in front of a dozen dead oceans

I've been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard

And it's a hard, and it's a hard, it's a hard, and it's a hard

And it's a hard rain's a-gonna fall.

This is surreal at its worst and nothing more.

It would however be unfair to say that he did not get to write the truly poetic line with all its simplicity as can be seen in his popular lyric, The Times They Are A-Changin', where the voice of the author is confident and even prophetic, with a mix of Walt Whitman and the Sermon on the Mount as can be seen in these lines:

Come senators, congressmen

Please heed the call

Don't stand in the doorway

Don't block up the hall

For he that gets hurt

Will be he who has stalled

There's a battle outside and it's ragin'

It'll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls

For the times they are a-changin'

That's good, very good. But it hangs out there. Clear-worded, clear-eyed. But it still hangs in the air, with no ground to stand on. It was indeed the mood of that generation, which was confusion personified.

Look at his ballad-like composition, Like A Rolling Stone, which is witty and scathing and wee bit ironical. It's playful, but you realise that it's a good one as long as it lasts and does not hold beyond that. This passage makes it clear why it is going nowhere:

You used to be so amused

At Napoleon in rags and the language that he used

Go to him now, he calls you, you can't refuse

When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose

You're invisible now, you got no secrets to conceal

Scathing social criticism in song. But it does not seem to rise above that. But songs are songs and it is wrong to demand too much out of them.

That's indeed the point there. Somewhere, despite the adulatory ullulation of the fans, Dylan remains not too serious a writer, however one tries to invest his words with meaning and magic.

It looks like that the Nobel committee in a moment of utter intellectual weakness, turned itself into a Grammy award jury.

Dylan is indeed an iconic figure for a generation and for the 1960s, though he is not the best among them. But the mistake that the Nobel committee has committed is to doff its hat to popular culture, which is not what the Nobel Prize for Literature is all about. They had made a wrong decision last year in choosing Svetlana Alexiavich and her unremarkable reportage. The Nobel committee members are human, and they need to forgiven for their misjudgements.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Clint Eastwood keeps it wonderfully simple in Sully as he had done it in Gran Torino

Clint Eastwood, who has produced and directed Sully, is 86 years old. It is a significant fact. For the last few years, Eastwood is focused on telling a story as directly as possible, and also to see the positive aspect of the story. It is not subversive. It is not pretend to be bold to be seeing the darker side of life. He made Million Dollar Baby in 2004, when he was 73. It was a simple story, full of feelings but not sentimental. He directed two-part movie, Flags Of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, in 2006. I have seen Iwo Jima, and it tells the story of the war not from the point of view of the United States or Japan, but from the viewpoint of a Japanese officer, who has friends among Americans. In 2008, he made Gran Torini, a wonderfully heartwarming story of South Korean immigrants to America.

Eastwood seems to have arrived at an age when it is not important to be innovative to prove his artistry.He can afford to be simple, and at this stage of his life he is only interested in the simple things of life. Now he brings Sully and makes the very simple point that the human factor is the most important thing even now when we are surrounded by technology. He shows that computer-generated simulations of the aeroplane that Sully, the pilot with over 40 years of flying,in the Hudson do not show the importance of human judgment. Tom Hanks, playing Sully, is indeed best suited for the role. Both Eastwood and Hanks seem to believe in the simple ideals of American life, of being true in thee midst of complexity and many failures.

But Sully remains a great movie because he does not focus so much on the crash-landing on the Hudson river as much as he does on the federal civil aviation authority wanting to find out pilot error. The control room messages show that Sully was asked to go to the nearest airport for emergency landing after a bird-hit, which incapacitate both the engines. The simulations show that he could have followed the instructions of the air traffic controller. But the video rewind of the crash-landing shows how damaged the engines were, and how the dexterity of the experienced pilot saved the day. Sully is an ordinary American, and he becomes an overnight hero for the safe landing on the water and thereby saving the lives of all the passengers. But he is made to face the federal authority's inquiry.

The screenplay is so tight that the simple and straightforward story keeps you riveted.
It is the kind of straightforwardness one saw in Satyajit Ray's Agantuk and Mrinal Sen's Amar Bhuvan.
There is a serenity when the directors set out to tell a story when they are over the hill, and when they are considerably old.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

‘Recession is the best thing that has happened to the art world. People are not any more buying art as an investment’ Tunty Chauhan, Threshold Art Gallery, New Delhi

This profile has appeared first on the web edition of dna (Daily News and Analysis) on August 28, 2016

Journey of a gallerist -- discovering art and artists

New Delhi: We all know about art curators, art critics, art historians, and even art-dealers. But we are not too sure about the place and the role of a gallerist is in the system. But we meet them all the time, especially at the opening of the art exhibitions, with their regulation wine-and-cheese parties.
Tunty Chauhan of Threshold Art Gallery is willing to talk about what it is to be a gallerist. She hints at the need to have deep pockets to be able to run a gallery, or the mad passion to be in it. She confesses that her journey has begun with nothing but mad passion, but now she realises that it is also a business, and she thinks that she has managed to arrive at a balance between the two. But she has no doubts that it is her love of art that keeps her in the business more than anything else, though she knows that money is needed to hold shows, pay the rent of the gallery as well as the salaries of the staff.
She is friendly, charming, and a little mysterious. She tells you about the forthcoming marriage of her daughter – she works with a fund -- and how she would be taking her mind away from the gallery and art shows for quite some time, her admiration for her eldest son who had worked with a television channel and who is now launching an App. and a third son who is into his first job in Bengaluru. “I was married young,” she says with an enigmatic smile playing on the lips.
She is no artist – “I cannot even draw” – but she is quite assertive when she says that she is passionate about art, and she is not in the business for money. “There is no money in art,” she says, the smile that does not reveal much is back again on her lips.
She thinks that she has acquired her love for art because of her parents – father was an army office and mother an artist – who took their children on travels across the country in the Fiat first, then in the Ambassador car, trundling into towns and villages, looking at architecture. “We got to see a lot,” she says.
After 12 schools and a B.A. in French – “I can’t speak a word of French,” she says and smiles yet again – and economics from St. Bede’s College in Shimla. She went to live in Vishakhapatnam post-marriage, where her husband had a sea-food export business. And it is in Vishakhapatnam that she took to art as an organiser of workshops instead of settling down to “the life of a lady of leisure” and going to kitty parties to fill the empty hours. Instead she went to the Fine Arts Department in the University of Andhra, where painter Laxma Goud was teaching, and discovered artists like V. Ramesh.
She moved to and fro between Vishakhapatnam and Delhi, taking more than 60 artists to the eastern port town, where there were workshops, interaction with the students, and the works that were created formed the base for the gallery she had set up, Threshold, in 1997. The first show she organised was that of the ‘pata-chitra’ artists of Raghurajpur in Odisha.
What was it like engaging with art in Vishakhapatnam? “There is no awareness of art in the south,” she says quite emphatically, throwing hesitancy and mildness to winds, and willing to indulge in a provocative generalisation. “One identified south with culture, with music, with dance. My daughter started learning dance at the age of three. But there is no appreciation for visual art in the south.”
She moved back to Delhi in 2003 after a family setback in witness, and she relocated her gallery as well. She set up shop in Lado Sarai in south Delhi. She thinks that there is mutual respect and bonhomie among the gallery-owners in Delhi, and it was a good time for the art market for a few years. She is however quick to add, “I am not a successful businesswoman. I was successful in finding myself,” she says with a quiet certainty in her voice. The smile recedes into the background this time round.

What is her view of the art-buyer in India? Is there a new class of buyers? What kind of taste do they reveal? She is sure that buying of art is not confined to the super-rich any longer. “The upper middle class, private company executives are the new buyers. They are in a position to spend Rs 10 lakh to Rs 20 lakh for a work of art.”
But she has critical observations up her sleeve: “The buyers of art do not as yet see the work of art. They listen to what others are saying about a work of art and what others have bought.” Secondly, she thinks that acquiring an art work is seen as part of the interior decoration project. The buyers have no inherent interest in the work of art itself.
And then she comes out with an uncharacteristically sharp observation: “The economic recession is the best thing to have happened to the art world.” People are not any more buying art as an investment. It has been good for the artists too, she says. “They have gone back to doing what they should be doing – working on art work.”
So, has it given satisfaction that she has discovered new artists in her role as a gallerist? She says that her greatest finds have been V. Ramesh and Achie Anzi, an Israeli, who now lives in India, and translates Ghalib’s poetry into Hebrew even as he does his sculptures. She remembers how she did not pay attention to the importunate Anzi when he sent her an e-mail with pictures of his work, seeking the gallery space for exhibiting his work. It was only later when he approached her to hold the show of an Indian artist living in Israel, that he reminded her about his e-mail. And she was bowled over.
What are the lessons she learned on the way as a gallerist? She says that Laxma Goud once told her that it is not right for a gallerist to facilitate the show of an art school student. He told her that the student has not developed the “vocabulary of art”, and that it would be a “disservice” to give him or her early exposure because that would not allow the novice to gain mastery over the medium. The premature art exhibition would b derail his learning process. “That was a valuable lesson for me,” she says and she acknowledges it as part of her learning curve.

She has come a long way. She says that she “trusts her eye”. She is happy when an exhibition is not popular, or an art-work is overlooked, because she is aware that the art-worth of the neglected works is more and not less. She felt strong enough to do an exhibition of her own, based on the elusive and daring question, “What is beauty in art?” She approached artists with the question as the idea of the exhibition, which had opened on August 24 at Threshold Art Gallery, and which will be on till October 4. She found that her rapport with the artists over the years has been such that they were ready to collaborate. Apart from the many new artists, she has the works of Gulam Shaikh and Nilima Shaikh in the show, exploring the question that she has formulated.
It appears that after 19 years as a gallerist, and the fluctuations in fortune that she has undergone, the lessons she has learned and the experience she has gained, she has now arrived with a proposition with regard to art.
Tunty Chauhan’s proposition: “Is Beauty a ‘bad’ word in the age of cutting-edge, angst-ridden art?”
And she lays down the plan of the exhibition, which she says she had been working over her in mind for many years now:
“For this exhibition we invited ten contemporary artists whose practice is rooted in the miniature tradition of painting. They were asked to critically examine the aesthetics of our time from their own individual standpoints.
Keeping in view their concerns and ideologies we posited the question, is the concept of beauty consciously/subconsciously an important ingredient in the execution of their artwork? Does it decide the imagery and the formal choices they make?”
Art historian B.N.Goswami has provided the text which serves as a context for the exhibition, and the artworks themselves make their own statement.
But the fact that Tunty Chauhan picked up the courage to raise the question remains significant. She refers to the Andy Warhol remark that anything that can get away is art. She is not dismissive of the iconoclast but she wants to get back to the basic question about art. The exhibition is aptly titled: Revisiting Beauty.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Ashutosh Gowariker puts a face to Indus Valley Civilization -- that's good enough

There is plenty to crib about Ashutosh Gowariker-directed Hrithik-Roshan-Pooja Hegde starrer Mohenjo-Daro with uninspiring music by the overrated A.R.Rahman -- he has become an echo. The general movie-goer is not enthusiastic about a movie which is not part of the national memory of the country the way Mahabharata and Ramayana, the Mughals and Rajputs and Marathas are. So the audience is not able to empathise with the era. It is in this attempt to put a face to the Indus Valley Civilization -- historians call it the Harappa Civilization - that Gowariker succeeds and fails.

Gowariker and his story-board team have understood quite a few things right about the Indus Valley Civilization and its cities. They were prosperous trade centres, which meant people came from Sumeria and even Egypt -- he is right on this front -- and also from central Asia -- and he is wrong in this. The presence of a horse in the film frightened the politically-correct historians and they suspect a Hindutva agenda behind this. It is possible to believe that this is plain inaccuracy and nothing more than that. Gowariker and his team are also right in imagining an agricultural hinterland because historians concur that the cities emerged because of agricultural surplus, and they were also sustained because of the surplus. There is also the fact of the Lower City, where the poor and the commoners lived and where the city markets were located, and that of the Upper City where the chiefs and priests lived. Now, where he treads the dangerous ground in the eyes of the timid historians is when he shows the religion of the people of the Indus Valley Civilization to be the worship of the river Sindhu. It is possible that the people of Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa worshipped the river even as the Egyptians worshipped the Nile and to an extent the Sumerians did have some sort of religious bond with the Euphrates and Tigris. The problem, and a genuine one which Gowariker could not have overcome, is that we do not know whether the people of Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa called the river Sindhu. They must have had some other name for it and we cannot know about it because the Indus Valley script is yet to be decoded. So, Gowariker settles for Sindhumata. It is a forgivable lapse.
In constructing his plot, Gowariker is quite right in assuming inter-city trade rivalries between Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro. The other twist in the story that Mohenjo-Daro was getting overcrowded because of the building of a dam across the Sindhu, and some of the agricultural lands were getting parched seems quite plausible. The other major leap of imagination in the story is to posit that Mohenjo-Daro faced a disastrous flood and the dam could not withstand the flood fury is interesting. We have to remember that both Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa were built over and over again. Okay, there is something here that has been borrowed from Raj Kapoor's 1978 flop, Satyam Shivam Sundaram's ending. The other major issue is whether Dholavira, another Indus Valley city in Gujarat, was contemporaneous with Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa, and whether the Sumerian traders had to use the Dholavira route to get back to Sumeria. It looks a little far-fetched but Gowariker is absolutely on the right track on the question of trade between the Indus Valley cities and Sumeria.

The ending is both intriguing and problematic. The frame shows that the word Sindhu showing the river is changed to Ganga. The film ends there. What does Gowariker mean by this? Is he saying that the people of Mohenjo-Daro migrated to the banks of the Ganga? That could be a possibility, and it cannot be laughed away because even historians are not saying that when the Indus Valley cities collapsed the people in these cities were totally decimated. Is he hinting that there has not been a break between the Indus Valley Civilization and what followed? The panic-stricken secularists suspect that Gowariker is doing some Hindutva trick here.
The rest of the film is tame. It looks like that even as A.R.Rahman filched his own music from his earlier compositions from Jodha Akbar -- the drums -- Gowariker stole scenes from his 15-years-ago, Lagaan. And there is also evidence to show that he stole quite a bit of the special effects from Bahubali. But he has also copied scenes and costumes from Hollywood's fake versions of Egypt and Babylon and Rome. This should not bother people too much.A film like this is perforce garish because no one knows how people really looked then. Though Pooja Hegde looks sufficiently Indus Valley-ish and Mohenjo-Daro-ish, the pseudo-Aryan looking Hrithik Roshan and Kabir Bedi do seem out of place if we want to believe in the speculation that the people of the Indus Valley Civilization belonged to a race other than that of the tall, acquiline-nosed, Aryans of racial mythology built by European historians of ancient Near East Asia and Europe. Perhaps, Gowariker should have followed Father Heras's hunch that the people of the Indus Valley Civlization were of Tamil origin and taken the Tamil actors and actresses. Or he could have gone the James Cameron way in his film, Avtar, and used a different language with sub-titles. Actually. Gowariker should have tried the Dravidian language, Brahui, spoken in Afghanistan, which could have been used in Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa and other places in the region.
The rest of the story is secondary. It's indeed Bahubali-ish and comical. But give it to Gowariker that he has broken a big barrier of silence and brought alive the Indus Valley cities. All that we have known are those meticulous sketches of the clean streets of Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa, and their lovely double-storeyed buildings. Gowariker has peopled those streets and those houses. It is an act of artistic imagination.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

JD (U)’s Sharad Yadav hosts first political iftaar of the season

New Delhi: There was much speculation in the summer months whether senior Janata Dal (United) leader Sharad Yadav would get a new term in Rajya Sabha because Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) had to be accommodated. But Yadav got another term. And he has celebrated it in a big way by hosting a grand iftaar at his bungalow, 7, Tughlaq Road, in Lutyen’s Delhi on Wednesday evening.
It was a high profile, power-packed – whatever power there is left in the anti-BJP opposition – gathering, where Vice President Hamid Ansari, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, Congress president Sonia Gandhi were present. In a cordoned space on the back lawns, Nitish Kumar, Sharad Yadav. Sonia Gandhi, Hamid Ansari sat in a row, even as eats were offered. Sharad Yadav was seen offering Sonia Gandhi a bowl of soup.
At the far end of the same VIP row sat Congress’ S. Jaipal Reddy, Communist Party of India (CPI) general secretary Sudhakar Reddy, and CPI member in the Rajya Sabha, D. Raja sat.
It is interesting that the RJD leader, Lalu Prasad, was not present. Ansari, Gandhi and Kumar left soon even as host Sharad Yadav saw them off.
It was almost an open house. Many of the invitees seem to be ordinary members of the JD (U) and they stood even as the security personnel kept a watch, and clicked the VIPs with their phone cameras. The media – especially the TV crews – seemed to have been outnumbered by the other invitees. It could also be inferred that not all the TV news channels sent their representatives, because no one expected that Sonia Gandhi and Nitish Kumar would be there. The presence of Hamid Ansari was a surprise as well, and it could set the rumour mills whirring though it is but a matter of courtesy that Ansari, who is the Chairman of the Rajya Sabha, attended the iftaar hosted by member of the Upper House, Sharad Yadav.
Yadav converted the front lawns of his bungalow as a prayer place, where the Muslim attendees offered the evening namaz after breaking fast.
There was a brief melee at the gates when the security guards closed the gates and refused to people in saying that they cannot allow anybody in once the VIPs had arrived. Even as arguments were on, some JD (U) workers came from inside and asked the guards to throw open the gates, saying that the rozedaars – those who keep the roza – cannot be kept out.
It is part of social life of the national capital’s politicians’ social life to host iftaar during the month of Ramzaan, which is seen as a gesture of secularism. For many years, BJP’s Shah Nawaz Husain used to host a grand iftaar party, which was attended by the BJP bigwigs, including party patriarch L.K.Advani. This time round, no one has hosted an iftaar party either from the BJP side or the Congress.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Udta Punjab, bad film because it is message-oriented, it is incoherent and loud, and the roles of Shahid Kapoor and Alia Bhatt were superfluous

Abhishek Chaubey, the director of Udta Punjab, is part of the new school of film directors from Uttar Pradesh, which includes Tigmanshu Dhulia, Vishal Bhardwaj and Anurag Kashyap. This school is struggling to tell stories in a cinematic form, and the person who seems to have succeeded is Dhulia with his Paan Singh Tomar. Bharadwaj manages to tell a story through cinematic images in Haider. Kashyap too gives glimpses of cinema in his two-part Gangs of Wasseypur. Chaubey made a passably intelligent movie called Ishqiya. One admires the doggedness of this UP school of film directors who want mould cinema to their own mode of narrative. It is a laudable attempt. At the moment they are succeeding only in reducing cinema to Ram Leela, loud and garish but with its own rustic theatrical norms.In a manner of speaking, this UP gang of directors is experimenting with vaudeville in Hindi cinema, a ensemble of unrelated items. The songs in the movies of these directors are never integral to the film narrative.

The problem with Udta Punjab is this. It tries the Brechtian trick of being upfront that it wants to send out a "No to Drugs" message, and the message is made part of the narrative. It looks quite silly when it is done unintelligently as it has been in Udta Punjab. The most unimpressive part of the film are the expletives, which do not make sense and do not carry any poetic charm. The actors are stilted, especially the pop singer played by Shahid Kapoor and the farm labour-girl from Bihar played by Alia Bhatt. Kapoor continues with the psychotic act from Haider, and it lacks artistry as well as dignity. Similarly, the role of Bhatt is dispensable. She stands out like a sore thumb, with no sensible connection to the film's narrative. Chaubey creates a theatrical set-piece with Kapoor and Bhatt walking through a ruined house and hay-stacks, mouthing at the top of their voices cheap existential dialogues in the manner of Samuel Beckett's tramp characters, Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot. Chaubey might laugh at his own private joke but it just makes Udta Punjab more foolish than ever.

The film does not address the drug problem. The director does not have the empathy to choose life-like characters to show the menace of drug addiction. Udta Punjab is a film of self-indulgenc on the part of the director. It is only Kareena Kapoor and Daljit Dusangh who inject a certain amount of sanity into this silly film, which is not even loony enough in spite of the Tarantino-like shoot out at the end, where people die in the matter of cardboard props.

It was intellectually dishonest on the part of the film-makers to have made such a noise about the artistic integrity of the film where there is none.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Sairat, a commercial hit, a bad film because it has no artistic merit and it pretends to be different from the mainstream, masala movie

Many of those who have been bowled over by the freshness of Sairat, the love story of village teenagers, are not familiar with mainstream, masala Tamil film, with their techno-music, superior photography and unqualified melodrama delivered in Brian de Palma fashion. Archana Patil and Prakash Kale, the star-crossed lovers, played by Rinku Rajguru and Akash Thosar has all the loveliness of innocent love, but it is not an original theme conjured by Nagaraj Mule. It has been played out times without number in Tamil movies, which showed social fault-lines and tragic consequences. It is not explosive social commentary that many of those who have been bowled over by the movie seem to believe it to be. Rinku Rajguru, who was born on June 3, 2001, shows disarming innocence and so does Thosar, born n 1983. Director Mule was born in 1977. The last scene was the most predictable. There are some interesting cinematic effects, especially in sound. The silence of the last frame is interesting but it does not make a dramatic impact. The sound of the the swimmers splashing into the water is interesting but nothing more than that. The least impressive part is the background score of the film by Ajay-Atul, which is loud and silly, a poor imitation of Ilyaraja.
The character of Archita Patil, played by Rajguru, the girl who is shy and bold, feminine and tomboyish, is the staple of film heroines in general. So she riding a Bullet to the school or the tractor through the village makes one smile, but it lacks originality of any kind. In comparison, Mahi Singh carrying the mattress on a bicycle to a field in Anurag Kashyap's Dev D is far more interesting.
The film has lively songs and it is carried on the shoulders of the 15-year-old Rajguru. She personifies playfulness and passion in full measure, something which has not been on display since Divya Bharati.
Sairat is a lovely ordinary movie despite its unnecessary length, virtuoso photography which is quite ostentatious and does not really add a whit to the authenticity of the film.
The problem with Sairat is not the film itself, but all those ignoramuses who had burst into hyperbole in describing the movie. There is a crisis in film criticism in India. All those who want to be film critics in India must be made to watch mainstream, masala Tamil films so that they understand the innovations in concept and execution that are taking plce in India.