Sunday, January 27, 2008

The Adventures of Amir Hamza

Reviewing THE ADVENTURES OF AMIR HAMZA: Lord of the Auspicious Planetary Conjunction by Ghalib Lakhnavi and Abdullah Bilgrami (Translated by Musharraf Ali Farooqi, see the blog here), William Dalrymple talks about the tradition of dastaangoi (storytelling). Most of the stories in this tradition, the remnants of which I experienced as a child, came from the stories of Amir Hamza or the Arabian Nights. All these stories fascinated me as my grandmother, my aunts or even clever-tongued servants in the house narrated these stories of adventure in the hurricane-lamp-lit semi-darkness of hot nights in my village. Perhaps that's why I can never feel the same excitement for a Harry Potter or the adventurers of the Middle Earth:

The “Hamzanama” was once the most popular oral epic of the Indo-Islamic world. “The Adventures of Amir Hamza” is the “Iliad” and Odyssey” of medieval Persia, a rollicking, magic-filled heroic saga. Born as early as the ninth century, it grew through oral transmission to include material gathered from the wider culture-compost of the pre-Islamic Middle East. So popular was the story that it soon spread across the Muslim world, absorbing folk tales as it went; before long it was translated into Arabic, Turkish, Georgian, Malay and even Indonesian languages.

It took particular hold in India, where it absorbed endless myths and legends and was regularly performed in public spaces in the great Mughal cities. At fairs and at festivals, on the steps of the Jama Masjid in Delhi or in the Qissa Khawani Bazaar, the “street of the storytellers” in Peshawar, the professional storyteller, or dastango, would perform nightlong recitations from memory; some of these could go on for seven or eight hours with only a short break. The Mughal elite also had a great tradition of commissioning private recitations. The greatest Urdu love poet, Ghalib, was celebrated for his dastan parties, at which the Hamza epic would be expertly told.

“The Adventures of Amir Hamza” collected a great miscellany of fireside yarns and shaggy-dog stories that over time had gathered around the travels of its protagonist, the historical uncle of the Prophet Muhammad. Any factual backbone the story might once have had was through the centuries overtaken by innumerable subplots and a cast of dragons, giants, jinns, simurgh, sorcerers, princesses and, if not flying carpets, then at least flying urns, the preferred mode of travel for the tale’s magicians.

Across the Persian-speaking world, from Tabriz to Hyderabad, people gathered around the dastango as he told story after story of the chivalrous Hamza and the beautiful Chinese-Persian princess he longs for, of the wise and prophetic vizier Buzurjmehr and of the just emperor Naushervan. Then there were Hamza’s enemies: the ungrateful villain Bakhtak, whose life Hamza spares, only for Bakhtak to work unceasingly for the hero’s demise; and the cruel necromancer, giant and archfiend Zumurrud Shah. In its fullest form, the tale grew to contain an astounding number of stories, which would take several weeks of all-night storytelling to complete; the fullest printed version, the last volume of which was finally published in 1917, filled no fewer than 46 volumes, averaging a thousand pages each.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Dmitri's dilemma

My friend Simar sent me this article from Slate. It's an interesting dilemma, I'd say:

Here is your chance to weigh in on one of the most troubling dilemmas in contemporary literary culture. I know I'm hopelessly conflicted about it. It's the question of whether the last unpublished work of Vladimir Nabokov, which is now reposing unread in a Swiss bank vault, should be destroyed—as Nabokov explicitly requested before he died.

It's a decision that has fallen to his sole surviving heir (and translator), Dmitri Nabokov, now 73. Dmitri has been torn for years between his father's unequivocal request and the demands of the literary world to view the final fragment of his father's genius, a manuscript known as The Original of Laura. Should Dmitri defy his father's wishes for the sake of "posterity"?

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The politics of Facebook

I am on Facebook and so are you (if yes, have you found me there yet?). But have you wondered what kind of politics the people behind Facebook pursue?

I chanced upon this piece by Tom Hodgkinson in The Guardian, With Friends Like These. A thought-provoking piece that gives you the big picture of a social networking site like Facebook, which already has 59 million users, with 2 million new ones joining each week.

The article basically investigates the thoughts and philosophy of Peter Thiel, one of the early investors in Facebook, a co-founder of PayPal, that created a borderless economy. Peter is also one of the backers of Room 9 Entertainment, the film company behind the movie, Thank You for Smoking. Peter, together with Larry Summers, former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury and former president of Harvard University, has now supported Big Think, a new Web 2.0-style site that bills itself as a conduit between global thought leaders and the public for sharing ideas on topics ranging from alternative energy to subprime mortgages, launched in beta on Monday. If you read the piece on Facebook, you'd know why Big Think has been spawned.

Facebook's most recent round of funding was led by a company called Greylock Venture Capital, who put in the sum of $27.5m. The article also claims that one of Greylock's senior partners is Howard Cox, who is also on the board of In-Q-Tel. But what is In-Q-Tel?

Well, believe it or not (and check out their website), this is the venture-capital wing of the CIA. After 9/11, the US intelligence community became so excited by the possibilities of new technology and the innovations being made in the private sector, that in 1999 they set up their own venture capital fund, In-Q-Tel, which "identifies and partners with companies developing cutting-edge technologies to help deliver these solutions to the Central Intelligence Agency and the broader US Intelligence Community (IC) to further their missions".

Big secret, huh?

Anyway, here's the intro to the piece:

I despise Facebook. This enormously successful American business describes itself as "a social utility that connects you with the people around you". But hang on. Why on God's earth would I need a computer to connect with the people around me? Why should my relationships be mediated through the imagination of a bunch of supergeeks in California? What was wrong with the pub?

And does Facebook really connect people? Doesn't it rather disconnect us, since instead of doing something enjoyable such as talking and eating and dancing and drinking with my friends, I am merely sending them little ungrammatical notes and amusing photos in cyberspace, while chained to my desk? A friend of mine recently told me that he had spent a Saturday night at home alone on Facebook, drinking at his desk. What a gloomy image. Far from connecting us, Facebook actually isolates us at our workstations.

Though one needs to be cautious about Tom's arguments (is he reading too much in a social networking site?), there are ample things in there to stir our thoughts. If you read the entire piece, the next time you would want to throw sheep on someone, you'd think again. I bet.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Scenes from a Lit Fest

Crossings, Singapore's Writers Festival 2007, celebrated literature in its myriad forms with over 50 writers from 16 countries in over 100 programmes between 1-9 December.

For me, the entire festival was an exciting mash-up of scenes from writers' lives, off and onstage. It was an opportunity to see many players in action: moderators, writers, bloggers, festival organisers. There were many international writers setting the scene abuzz. The queues were the longest for the famous Chinese writers such as Jung Chang and Bei Dao. There were enough NRI and Indian names in the marquee to make the whole festival a la Rang De Basanti. David Davidar, Kunal Basu, Madhur Jaffery, and Anita Nair, among others.

December 8, 5 pm
The Singapore Tea Party

As Sharon Bakar and I enter Earshot, the famous cafe in the Arts House by the Singapore River, Sharon spots A. Samad Said, a writer from Malaysia.

"How good to see you Sharon," says Mr Said with a chirp in his voice. His small saintly figure, complete with a flowing white beard, is preched on a chair. In front of him, there is a plate of half-eaten sandwiches. Sharon aka Bibliobibuli, herself a famous Malaysian blogger, is pleased to get the attention from the Malaysian laureate. "Oh, he is the biggest writer in Malaysia," she tells me later.

The laureate talks about his upcoming session. Sharon promises to attend his session the next day and we break for a cup of tea.

Both of us are hungry and a little tired after our session on blogging (World Wide Web of Words--Literary Blogs). Moderated by the spunky and energetic Singapore journalist and blogger Deepika Shetty, Sharon and Ivan Chew (a Singaporean librarian who maintains a books blog) had shared their insights on literary blogging in the session. While for Ivan, blogs were platforms for verbal diarrhea, it was a compulsion (to write) for Sharon. She often had to tell herself to stop posting (and occasionally feed her husband).

So, exhausted there we are with our English breakfast tea. Sharon has ordered a pizza which is yet to arrive. We had met before in Kuala Lumpur (KL) in one of the readings that Sharon had organised. So, we try to reconnect. Sharon talks about the books nominated for this year's Booker Prize. Then the discussion veers off to Tan Twan Eng, Malaysia's latest literary sensation. Tan Twan Eng, the Booker longlisted South Africa and KL-based Malaysian novelist, had shot to fame with his debut, The Gift of Rain. His sessions in the beginning of the festival were good draws, clearly pointing out how popular he had become. When asked how his life had changed after the Booker Prize nomination, he quipped: "It feels the same but things are a lot easier for my publishers and agents. Their phone calls are returned."

Even before we finish our discussion, we are joined by Elmo Jayawardena and his spouse, Dill. Elmo is a Sri Lankan writer but more of him later. We talk about his his book launch that is to follow the same day in the early evening. Elmo is a sharp wit, so he regales us with his jokes and one-liners while sipping on his latte.
Soon, we are joined by Deepika Shetty and Kunal Basu. Kunal had met Elmo in Ubud Writers Festival and I had inroduced myself to him earlier in the day, so he turns to Sharon. "Where are you from?" he asks. "Birmingham," says Sharon, "but I have been living in Malaysia for 20 years now."

Novelist Kunal Basu is an Oxford don--he teaches business and writes fiction (The Miniaturist, The Opium Clerk, The Racists). "How did you end up living this dichotomous life?" I ask him. "I always wanted to write and when we were growing up, there were no Indian role models as full-time writers," he explains. "There were Indian writers but most of them wrote on the side and had a full-time job to support themselves. So, I thought I too had to follow this model but I chose teaching as a career because it gives me control over my time."

Deepika and Sharon start talking about cyber stalkers. Kunal joins in, citing his experience of stalking. A research student, who met him first for a PhD thesis and later wrote an essay on his work, began to stalk him with hundreds of emails every day and would appear wherever Kunal went for his readings or talks. "It became so bad that we had to send her a letter through our agent to put a stop to it," he says.

I congratulate Kunal for couragiously writing in support of Tehelka's latest expose on Gujarat massacres. "I wrote a piece in Tehelka after the Gujarat riots which I think was even better than this," he says. The piece came as a reaction after a journalist asked him why he wrote a 'Muslim novel' (The Miniaturist, based in Akbar's court) despite being a Hindu. "I was angry at this question, which was like an accusation," he says, promising me to send the article.

December 8, A few hours ago
Ideas, Identities and Indian Writing

A little earlier on the same day, David Davidar, head of Penguin Books Canada, and a pioneering publisher of Indian writers in English, now also a novelist, tries to explore the misuse of religion through his novel, The Solitude of Emperors. Mr Davidar’s first novel, The House of Blue Mangoes, was published in 2002. It was translated into 16 languages and was a New York Times Notable Book and a Book Sense Pick.

His session is titled, A Tale of Two Cities. The other panelist is Kunal Basu. Predictably, there are not many audience questions on communalism, David's theme of the novel. People are more interested in knowing about his publishing experience. David rues the fact that these days editors are editing less and less, resulting in poorly produced texts.

Kunal discusses how many of his stories took birth in his journeys. The idea for The Opium Clerk came to him, he says, while trekking in Bangkok. His guide told him: In the 19th century, Calcutta was the centre of the world's drug business. That sentence triggered in him a curiosity about that period in Calcutta and he began to research for his novel, he says.

Shobha Bhalla, the editor of India Se, asks why are David and Kunal, despite being NRIs, are mentioned as 'from Canada' and 'from UK' respectively in the festival's publicity brochures. Kunal says in reply that "we don't write the brochures." But Kunal does not see any problem in the description as he thinks that he is a global citizen as well as Indian. "When it comes to identity, I am carpetbagger," he says. "If I can get under anyone's skin, I would be happy to do that. And that's why I am not happy with the term Indian Fiction too. It does not exist. Look at the range of our writing. Rushdie is so different from Davidar and so on. So, I don't believe there is anything called Indian fiction."

A shorter version of this report appeared in India Se, Jan 2008.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Om Farah Om

She is the daughter of a mother so obsessed with films that she watched a movie on her way to the hospital to deliver a baby. Her father was a filmmaker and her brother, now a director, earns a living making fun of Bollywood's hamming actors. She is married to an editor-filmmaker husband who edits all her movies.

Judged by the filmlore dictum that you are as good as your last film, Farah Khan can lay claim to be the hottest director in Bollywood at this time. She directed the blockbuster of the year, Om Shanti Om (OSO) (Red Chillies Entertainment), beating the much hyped Saawariya (Bollywood's first Hollywood-backed film, financed by Sony Pictures) in the box office battle. The two films were pitted against each other, releasing on the same day during Diwali last year.

Saawariya was directed and produced by one of the most celebrated directors of Bollywood, Sanjay Leela Bhansali. While Om Shanti Om has emerged as the highest grosser of the year (netting in over Rs 100 crores in 5 weeks), Saawariya has been declared a flop (grossing some Rs 38 crores in the same duration).

(Update: Even though Sony Pictures maintains that they are not disappointed in Saawariya's box office performance, Mahesh Bhatt writes in his India Se column, Jan 2008, that "according to experts and insiders, Saawariya is going to lose not less than Rs 30 crores. And this is a conservative figure").

OSO, headlined and produced by Shah Rukh Khan, has been such a commercial hit that it is being dubbed as the most successful Bollywood film ever. And despite its being based around hackneyed themes of reincarnation and double role, it has won appreciation from both the masses and classes of India, a feat in iteself.

"After watching Om Shanti Om, I felt that the spirit of Manmohan Desai has been reborn as Farah Khan," said a film buff from Varanasi, referring to the one of the most successful directors of the 70s and 80s Bollywood, Manmohan Desai, who was well-known for his lost and found formula films that have now become legends of Hindi filmlore.

Writing in his column in Mint, India's top journalist and columnist Vir Sanghvi said that films like OSO have made the elite of India drop their snobbish notions about Hindi cinema. He said: "There was a time, not so long ago, when India was divided into people who saw Hindi movies and those who saw Hollywood movies... (These days) It’s entirely acceptable to want to see Bollywood and Hollywood films on the same weekend. And even when the film is an unabashed, joyous retread of Hindi film clichés and a homage to the movies of the 1970s—say Om Shanti Om—it becomes such a rage that its appeal cuts across all socio-economic groups."

The Feminine touch

In the last 100 years or so, Bollywood has produced scores of capable directors but Farah Khan, 42, is the only 'woman' director to have got nominated for the 'Filmfare best director award', India's one of the most established film honours. That was in 2004 for her debut directorial venture, Main Hoon Na (MHN). MHN, a masala potbioler headlined by superstar Shah Rukh Khan, was huge commercial hit. This year, Farah Khan outsrtipped her earlier success with Om Shanti Om.

In an industry where men rule and females just provide the backdrop, the question to ask is this: How did this 42 years old choreographer-turned-director make a superhit movie, a feat no female director in Bollywood could achieve so far?

Though Bollywood has had female directors like Sai Paranjpaye, Aparna Sen (though based in Kolkata) and Kalpana Lajmi who have made sensitive films but they mostly worked in a, if you will, a parallel universe, Bollywood's mainstream being shut off for them. They have made some important films like Rudaali (1993), Chashme Buddoor (1981), 36 Chowringhee Lane (English, 1981), to name a few, but they were never counted among the top directors in Bollywood. The qualification needed for getting the top billing is determined by the commercial successes of their films. In recent years, veteran lyricist and filmmaker Gulzar's daughter Meghna Gulzar (a film grduate of New York University who debuted with a commercially flop, Filhaal, 2002 ), Tanuja Chandra (Dushman, 1998; Sangharsh, 1999), Leena Yadav (Shabd, 2005), and Reema Kagti (Honeymoon Travels Pvt. Ltd., 2007) have donned the directorial hat too but they haven't tasted much success. If there was any doubt that women cannot deliver box office blockbusters in India, Farah's success has disproved it byond doubt.

But like any 21st century woman, Farah does not take the gender-tinted compliment. “I’m a choreographer, and a director. That I’m a woman too is incidental,” Farah stated. Her point is that she’s different from her male counterparts “perhaps not in directorial skills but definitely in organisational abilities”.

As they say, the devil is in the detail, Farah's shoots encompass much detailing and a woman’s touch. “I do make an extra effort to put flowers and fruits in the actor’s van...That could qualify as a “woman thing” to do...Or blaming my temper on PMS... Or coping with morning sickness while shooting a funky number like Dard-e-disco,” she told The Hindustan Times. Interestingly, Farah is expecting triplets in Februray and she was was going for checkups between shoots, at times taking four injections and then returning cheerfully to the sets. “How many men can boast of that?” she asked.

Pregnancy. Cinema. Pain. Melodramatic moments. All these are not new to Farah. In a weird sense, life has been imitating art in Farah's case.

Farah comes from a film family. Her father Kamran Khan was a successful producer of small-time films. Her mother also came from a film family, her sisters were the once-famous child artists, Honey and Daisey Irani (the former a successful film scriptwriter, the latter now a TV producer). Life was idyllic with "swank cars and plenty of homes". Then suddenly things took a bad turn. Writes Shoma Chaudury in Tehelka: "In 1973, the inevitable happened. Kamran Khan tripped in the casino of life: he made a film that was a colossal disaster. The failures began to cascade after that. The money disappeared, the houses disappeared, the cars disappeared. True to the ironies of Bollywood, the film was called Aisa Bhi Hota Hai."

The idyllic childhood turned into a nightmare. Farah's father took to drinking and never recovered. The family moved to a small space in a relative's house. While still a student, Farah began to work to help the family. She would work "at whatever she could lay her hands on: colony surveys, tuitions, teaching Mithun Chakravarty’s son Michael Jackson dance steps. One time, she won a dance competition prize to Mauritius but she had the ticket converted to money to help her mother keep the household going."

The turning point in her life came with Jo Jeeta Wahi Sikandar (1992) when producer Nasser Hussain took her on as an assitant director, and when the film's choreographer walked out of the project, she was asked to do the dance direction. Thus was born the choreographer Farah Khan who redefined dancing in Bollywood, making it hip and happening. Since then, she has choreographed for over 70 films, including for superhits such as 1942, A Love Story, Dil Se, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, and Dil Chahta Hai. She has also done international projects such as the broadway musical, Bombay Dreams, and choreography for Latin Singer Shakira for her performance at the MTV Music Video Awards.

Now a successful filmmaker, Farah does not want to do much choreography and wants to focus on film direction. Who can contest that idea?

However, Farah's critics argue that Farah's success at the box office is more to do with her being backed by the king of bollywood, Shah Rukh Khan. The superstar banrolled and acted in both her films. Though Farah's talent and ingenuity cannot be discounted, there might be some merit in this argument. But only time can test the veracity of this criticism. And for that, we will have to wait for her next few projects. But more than an individual success, Farah's success can inspire other upcoming women directors to buck the trend in Bollywood . Like Farah, they too can raise money and market their films, which has discouraged many women from helming films in the past.

An edited version of this article appeared in The Weekend Today, Singapore dt. Jan 5-6, 2008. In the print edition, it was wrongly mentioned that Daisy Irani is based in Singapore. The error is regretted.