Teaching and researching religions, languages, literatures, films, and ecology of India: http://philosophy.unt.edu/people/faculty/pankaj-jain

Dr. Pankaj Jain

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Dr. Pankaj Jain is the author of Dharma and Ecology of Hindu Communities: Sustenance and Sustainability (May 2011), which won the 2012 DANAM Book Award and the 2011 Uberoi Foundation Book Award. His 2nd book is Science and Socio-Religious Revolution in India: Moving the Mountains (Routledge 2017).

He is co-founder of American Academy of Indic Studies (www.AAIndicStudies.org) and is the editor of the Encyclopedia of Hinduism (Springer).

He is Associate Professor in the department of Philosophy & Religion. He has published articles in journals such as Religious Studies Review, Worldviews, Religion Compass, Journal of Vaishnava Studies, Union Seminary Quarterly Review, and the Journal of Visual Anthropology. He also contributes to the Huffington Post, Washington Post’s forum On Faith, and Patheos.
His research has been supported by the Fulbright fellowship and by the Wenner Gren grant. His teaching interests include Religion and Ecology, Indian films, and Religions and Cultures of South Asia and South Asian Diaspora in North America. Before joining UNT, he taught at North Carolina State University, Rutgers, Kean, and New Jersey City University. Interested in connecting ancient practices with contemporary issues, he is exploring the connections between religious traditions and sustainability in Hindu and Jain communities in India and the Indian diaspora. He serves as a research affiliate with Harvard University’s Pluralism Project, as scholar-in-residence with GreenFaith, as a board member of the Society for Hindu Christian Studies, and as a board member of the Executive Advisory Council of Hindu American Seva Charities, an NGO working with the White House Office for the faith-based initiatives. He has presented his research at Columbia University, University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, University of South Florida, Florida International University, University of Toledo, Texas Christian University, High Point University, Lancaster University (UK), Andhra University (India), Univ of Rajasthan (India), and several conferences, high schools, radio and TV stations, temples, churches, Yoga centers, and other community centers.
He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Iowa and an M.A. from Columbia University (both in Religious Studies). In his “previous life” he had also earned a B.S. in Computer Science from India and had worked as a software engineer in India and in New Jersey. Dr. Jain is an active member of several academic and community organizations, is fluent in several Indian languages, and has published poems in Hindi. He was born in Rajasthan and had also lived in Ahmedabad, Mumbai, Hyderabad, and Karnatak (in India) and in New Jersey, Iowa, North Carolina, and Texas (in the USA). Some of his papers and articles are at:http://unt.academia.edu/PankajJain/Papers and videos are at http://www.youtube.com/pj2017. The Facebook page for his book is at:https://www.facebook.com/DharmaAndEcology

Friday, December 26, 2008

More from Indian trip...(Dec 08)

After a brief stay in Rajasthan, I went back to Mumbai and then to Nagpur, Maharashtra. Almost at every place, my thoughts kept turning optimistic and pessimistic. Almost every field where government continues to play a role, continues to suffer, most notably the civic amenities, the environment, and security. Just read a news story in Economic Times that 2008 was perhaps the best year ever for Indian sports with spectacular success in cricket, olympics, and many other sports. Wherever and whenever Indians can perform with their skill without the red-tape of the government, they have outperformed their rivals.

However, one major disappointment continues to be the environment. During the wedding ceremony that I attended, I saw unbelievable amount of wastage of food and plastic. After 12 years of stay in the USA, I naively wanted to recycle the plastic water bottles, only to be disappointed not to find even a garbage can. Sometimes, the train platforms had blue trash cans which I mistook for recylcing bins! Of course, littering continues to be a birthright of every Indian. Another birthright is to break every law while driving. Coming back to garbage generation and disposal, in 1960s and 1970s, the Western countries also had extremely polluted cities and rivers, but with tougher laws and active civic participation, they successfully cleaned their cities and rivers. Alas, India and China are making the same mistakes of early Western countries which Infosys co-founder has also noted in his latest bestselling book "Imagining India" but what he has missed is the situation with the agriculture and farmers. He criticizes Indian farmers for using outdated practices. However, I think that the traditional farming practices of India will be the future for farmers not only in India but even in the West. Soon, both the top-soil quality and even the quality of the food grains will be judged by the kind of farming practices. I visited the Ashrams of Mahatma Gandhi and Vinoba Bhave, at Vardha and Pavnar, both near Nagpur. At both the places, there are dozens of NGOs inspired by their visions of Agriculture as the backbone of Indian life and economy. All these NGOs use traditional farming such as organic fertilizers and prohibition of chemical fertilizers. It is these traditional Indian ideas that the West is just waking upto. In November, Bill Moyers, the anchor at the PBS, the "national" TV channel in the USA aired a major interview on the evils of Industrial farming in the USA. Sadly, I also found that the Indian big farmers elsewhere also use the similar Western agricultural practices that were adopted by Indian "green revolution". It seems like the perfect time to take the U-turn to traditional farming...

Some of us in the West wonder whether India will be able to sustain itself during this global recession. But everywhere I went in India, the first question people asked me was about the American recession and its cause. My answer was simple, one of the reasons for American recession was the "Chaarvak" habit of misusing the money taken on loan/credit/debt. Since most Indians even today spread themselves only within the bounds of their limitations, India will be able to sustain itself much better than the USA where even government has broken all past records of blowing the budget with huge debt and deficit. And nobody is talking of changing the lifestyle of the people and the government of spending within the means. On the other hand, Obama has generated optimism about USA even among Indians acknowledging that he has no magic wand.

Coming to Indian economy and its ability to match the growth of China, I think, India should NOT join the rat race of rapid growth. Instead of going for the rapid Chinese growth model, which leads to butchering of the environment and growing discontent among the farmers and other neglected sectors, India would do better to develop its own indigenous growth model which must be sustainable (based on the green technologies) and inclusive (where every part of its population shares the fruits of the economy). Of course, it is easier said than done, but wasn't Gandhiji had such a vision for India once? Unfortunately, the ecological disaster and attacks on Indian elite locations, once again highlights the mistakes India has made in its urge to imitate the West. The sooner India realizes that it must not become a mini America of the 1960s and 1970s, better for itself...

I will soon post my answers to the questions from Banswara children under the comments to the previous posting...

Thursday, December 18, 2008

In India, after 2.5 years

This time I felt a real change in even a small town like Banswara which now enjoys wireless broadband internet with international quality but unfortunately Mumbai has not changed even a bit in last 20 years or so that I have been observing, same pollution, traffic, negligible security even after the attack at the CST station.

Delhi, I have heard, has very aggresively improved its environmental situation with stringent pollution control, though I have not visited Delhi recently but Mumbai still lacks the political will. It is still very chaotic politically with Shiv Sena and other equally divisive organizations. Even congress has shown little interest to deal with the infrastructure or pollution or secutiry so far....may be that is why Sheela Dixit in Delhi keeps winning by working hard to improve Delhi.

Maybe the future is in towns like Banswara. I wish India sees its future in towns and villages like Banswara, the vision Gandhiji had once. After my Bachelor's degree, when I was working in Jodhpur and Udaipur, they seemed like a distant places compared to Mumbai. Now with internet and mobile phone revolution, every "sleepy village" of India has the same access to information as the big cities and that is a huge step forward...

The Gandhian vision could not be actualized while most of the villages were poor. So maybe it can happen now. Only if the people themselves were given more power to take their destiny in their own hands like the Panchayati Raj system that Gandhi had suggested...may be the information revolution will help further...

I went to a high school here in Banswara and about 2000 kids came to interact with me in their auditorium for two hours. I was astonished to see the intellectual energy of boys and girls. They had really challenging questions about India, USA, NRIs, their career, the dominance of English, importance of studying history, etc...
This is one of the biggest change at the grass root of India: a new energy unleashed because of the information revolution. The kids challenged me with the questions about Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, Jhumpa Lahiri! Hopefully this young empowered generation will prevent idiots from assuming too much political control - although in the US that never happened. The promise of democracy at least allows the people to kick the idiots out every 5 years.

Fortunately, the liberalized economy keeps the govenment and politicians out which was not possible 20 yrs back, unfortunately the pollution contol and the action against terrorism still needs government intervention hence no hope in the near future for India's security and pollution control: thanks to the politicians.

Also visited couple of ancient temples in Chittorgadh, amazing Shiva Lingam
with scars of the sword of Ghazani, according to the local legends...

The questions from the students of New Look High School:

1. Is brain drain good for India? Shouldn't all Indians return to India and help India?
2. What is the need of studying history which is all about old forgotten people and places?
3. What is so glorious about Indian heritage which is full of child marriage, caste problems and sati (widow burning)?
4. Aren't NRIs like Sulman Rushdie and Arundharti Roy only after their personal gains? How are they helping India when they have even left their Indian citizenship.
5. How to deal with poverty and corruption of India?
6. What and how do you teach Indian films?
7. How to deal with huge population of India? Is there any hope?
8. How to think of Indian culture when we all want to focus on our career? Our parents also have limited info about both our future and about Indian culture.
9. Why dont you come back and teach all these cultural subjects right here in India?
10. Why should English be given importance in India?
11. Aren't foreign MNCs are all about profit? Why dont they invest in Indian villages?

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Muslim Ethos In Indian Cinema

Saturday, October 04, 2008 Indian Express

Muslim Ethos In Indian Cinema
—Iqbal Masud

In term of quantitative output - more than 800 films a year - the Indian cinema industry is the largest in the world. A major portion of the films constitute ‘popular’ of ‘commercial’ cinema. This term is not to be understood in any derogatory sense. Cinema is the main entertainment of the Indian masses and has been so since the 1930s. It has created archetypes, myths, icons which have dominated the Indian consciousness - and the Indian unconscious for the last 50 years. It’s a major source of collective fantasy.

There is another important aspect of Indian cinema. It caters to the needs of a population dazzlingly diverse in language, religion and culture. Today what is called the ‘regional’ cinema is as important as Hindi cinema. But Hindi cinema (with which this article will be concerned) was the primary source of themes and styles at least till the late 70s. It was in the domain of popular cinema that the diverse cultures of India met and negotiated their differences. They did not merge but they worked in harmony. In fact ‘harmony’ is the key world in India cinema. It is the one Indian cultural-industrial structure which has resisted separatism. It’s because of this element that Indian cinema has become over the past 50 years - despite its many distortions and contractions - a major instrument of national consolidation - a true unity in diversity. MIDBANNER
To this ‘unity diversity’ the Muslim ethos in India has made a notable contribution.

What is the ‘Muslim ethos’ in India? Very briefly, one can answer this question at two levels:

a) ‘Classical’ or high culture - a mix of Arabic-Perso-Turkish elements in historical work, fiction, music and painting such as in the work of poets and novelists like Ghalib, (or today Ms Qurratulain Hyder), artists like Abdur Rahman Chughtai, or the Ustads in the field of music.

b) At a popular or folk level, the work of Urdu dramatists like Aga Hashr Kashmiri used in popular theatre of the 1930s; the Nautanki Folk-theatre culture of Uttar Pradesh, compounded of mythological and folk tales rendered in song-dance and rustic revues in a mix of ornate Urdu and dialect Hindi of north India; and the rich Qawwali musical tradition, sufic in origin and retaining traces of devotional and ecstatic singing today.

As far as cinema is concerned, both these influences are important. The Muslim ethos in Indian cinema was not represented by ‘Muslim’ artists alone. A host of non-Muslims like Sohrab Modi, Guru Dutt or Shyam Benegal can well claim to be part of the ‘Muslim’ ethos of north India. There was, and is, certainly a ‘Muslim’ ethos of Bengal and South India which is equally important. But that deserves fuller treatment elsewhere.

The point is that in the popular entertainment genre par excellence - cinema - the ‘Muslim ethos’ was an important element since the 1930s - the coming of sound. It diminished after 1947 but remains an important element today. In fact the persistence of the ‘Muslim ethos’ in Indian cinema today is one of the most hopeful signs of Indian secularism. Manmohan Desai, prolific maker of film hits and part creator of the Amitabh Bachchan legend (the superstar of the 70s who signified the new angry hero culture) has said in a recorded discussion: If the Muslims don’t like a film it flops’.

One of the most important elements of the Indian film is music. A great music director, Naushad, brought both the vigour of Uttar Pradesh’s folk music and the grace of the old UP Nawab Courts to his immortal music of the 40s and 50s. The dialogue of the 30s and 40s ‘Muslim socials’ was in Persianised Urdu but even in ‘Hindi’ films today the dialogue is in Hindustani - perhaps the only place where this ‘language’ is practiced with ease and confidence.

In this matrix of music and dialogue, ‘high’ and ‘popular’ Muslim cultures come together. As late as the 60s, a film villain traps a heroine by using a disguise and quoting Ghalib: ‘Badal kar faqiron ka hum bhes ...’ Ghalib/‘Tamashai-I-abl-I-karam dekhte hain ...’ (we put on the garb of a beggar to test the generosity of the rich). The audience understood and applauded the quote.

Today this delicate irony may not be understood. But in the ’80s this last couplet of Sahir Ludhianvi sung in a film called Laxmi went to the heart of the audience: ‘Halat se ladna mushkil tha balat se rishta jod liya/ Jis raat ki koi subha nahin us raat se rishta jod liya...’. (I could not fight circumstances I compromised/I made a pact with endless night). The couplet lit up the films; it also seemed like an epitaph on Sahir.

I take these two examples to illustrate the Muslim ‘ethos’ which E.M. Forster once described as an ‘attitude towards life both exquisite and durable’. This attitude is denoted by a cultural elegance, irony, stoicism, a throw away humour, and what is called ‘grace under pressure’. Certainly such an attitude could be trivialised. But supreme artists like Dilip Kumar, Meena Kumari, Nargis and Shabana Azmi brought to this attitude a meaning and individuality of their own.

It would be appropriate at this stage to look at the Muslim ethos in a chronological fashion modified by the need to pursue specific trends back and forth across decades.

Devdas - Entry of the Laila - Majnu Myth

The first dominant note of the Muslim ethos was struck not in any specific Muslim film or by a Muslim director but in the film Devdas directed by PC Barua (1935) based on a novel by Sarat Chandra Chatterji (1917). This tale of two small town lovers torn apart by caste and class has haunted Indian cinema down the decades up to date. There are two elements in Indian cinema well analysed in another context by psychiatrists Sudhir Kakar and John M Ross in Tales of Love, Sex and Danger (OUP 1986) as the Radha-Krishna and Laila-Majnu traditions. Radha and Krishna are the divine lovers in human form in Hindu mythology, and Laila and Majnu are passionate but doomed lovers in Arabic and Persian folklore and literature.

The Radha-Krishna tradition, say the authors, is an evocation and elaboration of here-and-now passion, an attempt to catch the exciting fleeting moment of the senses, not tragic but tender and ultimately cheerful. In the Laila-Majnu tradition, love is the ‘essential desire of God; earthly love is but a preparation for the heavenly acme; the challenge to rights of older and powerful men to dispose of and control female sexuality; the utter devotion of the women lovers to the man unto death; loving in secrecy and concealment, yet without shame or guilt’.

Both the elements are fused in Devdas. The Radha-Krishna element dominates the first half; the Laila-Majnu element the second. There are two features common to both traditions. The love is not ‘spiritual’ love but sexual love raised to a spiritual plane. Secondly, to quote the 13th Century Persian mystic poet, Rumi: ‘The house of love has doors and roofs made of music, melody and poetry’. This is the distinctive contribution of the Muslim ethos to Indian cinema - the mix of Rumi’s three elements. You can go from Devdas to Barsaat in the ’40s or Pyaasa in the ’50s; Chaudvin Ka Chand in the ’60s; Pakeezah in the ’70s; Sagar (with Kamal Hasan, Dimple Kapadia, and Rishi Kapoor) in the ’80s. There is the same hunting mix of the two great religious-cultural traditions of our land.

Pukar - The Rise of the Shahenshah film

Pukar (1939) directed by Sohrab Modi with dialogues by Kamal Amrohi was the first notable ‘Muslim social film’. It was cast, no doubt in the Shahenshah (King of Kings) framework. Mughal emperor Jehangir, whose queen Noor Jehan has accidentally killed a washerman with an arrow, is faced with a demand for retributive justice by the widow. The emperor himself should be killed so that the queen be widowed.

Today Pukar looks dated and rhetorical. Yet it is important to isolate some elements which continue to surface in one form or another in the coming decades, from the 40s to the present. One was the idealisation of ‘Muslim’ rulership as one based on equal partnership with non-Muslims (even of the lesser castes) and a rough-and-ready Rule of Law. The roots of the archetype of task a ‘rough diamond’ were created - though in the film the Muslims and their ‘partners’ the Rajputs were anything but rough. The basic ideal was one of directness of approach of life.

A second element was the elegance of speech and surroundings which became a marked feature of Muslim social’ - meaning films dealing with Muslim families and social problems which will be dealt with later.

A third element was the stress laid on Hindu-Muslim ‘harmony’. Jehangir’s Prime Minister is a Rajput who fiercely guards his independence.

Another Shahenshah film was K Asif’s Mughal-e-Azam (The Grand Mughal). In a sense it’s an extension of the Pukar syndrome. The legendary love of court dancer Anarkali for Prince Jehangir, the great Emperor Akbar’s son, has elements of mystical passion in it. Akbar, played with rhetorical flourish by Prithviraj Kapoor, represents the ‘needs of the State’ which triumphs over love. The film is not a ‘classical’ work but a massive cultural artefact made unforgettable by the splendiferous sets and the majestic singing of the classical maestro Bade Gulam Ali Khan.

Mehboob - The Rise of Radicalism

Filmmaker Mehboob Khan sprang from the soil of Gujarat and his early work possessed both the rawness and the strength of Mother Earth. The evocation of the cycle of seasons, the beauty of the long bullock cart caravans, the sensuality of the women and the depiction of the brutal strength both of nature and human oppression came spontaneously to him.

Mehboob made a large number of films on diverse subjects - social, romance etc. But, in my opinion, his major contribution to films rests on three films - Aurat (1940) later remade as Mother India (1957) and Roti (1942).

Aurat/Mother India, is, of course, the seminal film of India cinema. It is reckoned that Mother India runs every day in some theatre in some part of India. What accounts for its success?

There are elements in the films which go deep into the Indian psyche and touch a chord which no one has ever touched before or since. It would be simplistic to call it ‘patriotism’. It is the summoning up of an entire ambience - the ambience of the ‘lost’ India for millions of urbanites, a call to Indians from their past - not a noble past but a credible and genuine past.

Mehboob gave the archetypal ‘Mother’ myth to India cinema. She is not an a sexual but a full blooded woman and equal partner in her husband’s labours (a point acutely noted by J Geetha, research scholar, Calicut University, in a paper read at a recent Women’s Films Seminar at Bangalore). The Mother upholds the dharma which the good son follows. When the ‘bad’ son transgresses it, he is killed.

But the bad son Birju (brilliantly played by Yacub in Aurat) has another and equally important side. He does not suffer patiently the landlord’s extortionism - as the Mother and the ‘good’ son do at least to some extent Birju is not merely a ‘rebel’. He is an ‘outsider’, no respecter of rules. There is a great scene in Aurat. Birju now grown into an illiterate dacoit, raids the moneylender’s house and destroys his account books saying, ‘This is the knowledge that has destroyed us’. That insight anticipates the French philosopher, Foucault by nearly two decades. Foucault remarked how ‘power’ is built around ‘knowledge’and how those outside the charmed circle will always be oppressed. That scene in Aurat has been duplicated in hundreds of films since then. Birju speaks for those who cannot speak - the deprived millions. He is the immortal ‘black’ hero.

Mehboob’s insight in Mother India profoundly affected the style and content of popular cinema. Ganga Jamuna in the 60s, Deewar (with Amitabh Bachchan in the 70s) and Ram Lakhan in the 80s (all hit films) are but inferior variations on Aurat’s theme. To quote Geetha, the Mother’s role is ‘mutated’ in the last two films and she becomes a domestic creature. All the same the basic patterns of Mother India persist today and will do so for a long time.

Roti hammers in Mehboob’s radicalism with even greater force. It analyses the ravages of urban capitalism and contrasts it with a rather idealised tribal life. But the point regarding the dehumanisation of industrialisation with consequent loss of sensuality - even humanity - is well brought out.

Mehboob’s contribution to cinema is so vast that one cannot even begin to do justice to it. He was an untutored genius. Therefore, he saw India with a clear - even ruthless - vision. In that respect he was like the great Urdu fiction writer, Saadat Hasan Manto.

Writers, Poets, Directors

From the 40s onwards a gradual and fruitful collaboration between film writers, poets, and directors emerged in Hindi cinema. The collaboration between Sohrab Modi and Kamal Amrohi was very successful. Modi had a rhetorical, regal approach to history and Amrohi complemented this by his flowery, ornate Urdu dialogue.

A digression is necessary here about the use of language in Hindi cinema. As mentioned earlier, till 1947 even ornate and ornamental Urdu was understood by a section of the masses. Their number gradually declined. In the 1980’s the Persianised dialogue of Amrohi’s Razia Sultan was understood by very few.

All the same the language of the popular ‘Hindi’ cinema has remained robustly Hindustani. From Mother India to Pyaasa to Deewar to the recent hit Maine Pyar Kiya, the dialogue writers have drawn expertly both from Urdu and Hindi. Saleem and Javed, high power film writers, working as a pair, started in the 70s a whole new trend in dialogue in Amitabh Bachchan hits like Sholay. It was macho, it was tough, but it was the pathos of the streets, and at a basic level (stripping away the bravado) also the language of the middle class.

The contribution of cinematic ‘Hindustani’ to national integration has yet to be recognised. The problem is, popular cinema is generally condemned as ‘trash’ without serious analysis.

After Amrohi, came a band of writers, a large number of whom were Muslims and also leftist progressives. They included very different kinds of personalities like KA Abbas, Zia Sarhadi, Abrar Alvi, poets Kaifi Azmi, Sahir Ludhianvi, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Jan Nisar Akhtar and many others. There were two characteristics of this group. Firstly they all came from middle class north Indian Muslim families and were steeped in both Hindi and Urdu cultures and secondly from the early 40s on they were committed leftists - some of them Party members, others active sympathisers.

The achievements of this group which disintegrated by the 70s have not been adequately assessed. As a group the writers brought genuine secularism - a feeling of active togetherness to popular cinema which in those years before TV and video held near complete sway over the collective unconscious. Let’s take a few of them. It was Zia Sarhadi’s spirited dialogue that lent the edge to Mehboob’s radicalism. KA Abbas brought the mix of revlt and romanticism which marks all of Raj Kapoor’s films from Awaara to Bobby. Abrar Alvi created the screen plays which allowed Guru Dutt to shift gradually from the high spirits of Aar Paar to the poetry of defeat of Pyaasa and Kaagaz Ke Phool. Alvi also directed Saheb Bibi Aur Ghulam.

Sahir - the incomparable Sahir, who can ever forget him? His name will live as long as Hindi cinema lives. A complete master of the technique of the classical ghazal and of the film lyric of Hindi greets and bhajans he captured the whole gamut of what Mathew Arnold called ‘the pain of living and the drug of dreams’. He was a visionary and also a caustic observer. See the ‘spread’ of his art in just three songs picked up at random:

‘Yeh takhton ye tajon yeh mehlon ki duniya agar mil bhi jaye to kya hai ...’ (This world of thrones, crowns and palaces What avails its gain?)

‘Aaj sajan mohe ang laga lo janam saphal ho jaye ...’ (Embrace me, my love make life triumph)

‘Jab amar jhoom ke nachega jab dharti naghme gayegi who subah kabhi to ayegi ...’ (The sky will swing and dance, the earth swing Some day that day will come).

There is one name that is as glorious as Sahir’s in Indian cinema - the name of Guru Dutt. It was he who brought one side of the ‘eth’ - its grace, its stoicism, its lyricism, also its self-indulgence - to fine flower in Indian cinema though only one of his films Chaudvin Ka Chand dealt ostensibly with a Muslim family. It was his art, that brought fame and recognition to Alvi and Sahir. In a sense Guru Dutt was the true sangam (confluence) of Hindu and Muslim cultures in cinema.

Actors and performers

Indian cinema is a performance-based cinema. The ‘New Cinema’ in the 60s began a shift towards film as cinematic image/language, but it has not reached out to the masses or even to substantial numbers of the urban middle class. So the actors/performers continue to rule the roast. Here the Muslim contribution has been substantial: Sardar Akhtar (Mother in Aurat), Nargis (Mother in Mother India), Dilip Kumar, Suraiya, Madhubala, Waheeda Rehman, Meena Kumari, Naseeruddin Shah, Shabana Azmi, Aamir Khan and Salman Khan.

Of these, Nargis is unquestionably the greatest actress of our cinema. Her range from the sensuous girl of Aag to the mature role in Mother India is astonishing. The contribution of India’s two greatest director - Raj Kapoor and Mehboob to the shaping of her classic performances should not be forgotten. At the same time, Raj Kapoor’s work is unthinkable without Nargis as is Mother India. In sheer versatility, Dilip Kumar ranks with Nargis. Tragic hero (Andaaz, Devdas) swashbuckler (Azaad) clown (Ram Aur Shyam), none else except Raj Kapoor equals him. Even today in a character role in Kanoon Apna Apna, he brings a thorough professionalism to his performance. Waheeda Rehman broke new ground for women’s roles in Hindi cinema in Pyaasa and Kaagaz Ke Phool.

Under Guru Dutt’s sensitive guidance, she travelled from street woman to comforter to ‘A Star is Born’ role. To see her and Meena Kumari perform in Saheb Bibi Aur Ghulam, to become aware of two great but different styles. Meena Kumari was the epitome of the grace of a dying culture which she lit up in a moment of final glory in Pakeezah.

Naseeruddin Shah and Shabana Azmi are the icons of New Cinema - of a new age, which demands understatement, self parody, ironic posture. Aamir and Salman Khan are icons of a still newer age - the age of post-modernism, all dazzle and glossy surface.

At a different level, comedians Johnny Walker and Mehmood are part of the legend of cinema. A clown has been a ‘must’ in Indian performance arts reaching back to Sanskritic antiquity. Walker and Mehmood brought the Modern Age to an ancient art: Walker in films like Pyaasa not only mimed a semi-inebriate but was the master of throwaway verbal humour. Mehmood had greater variety. He was a ‘body’ comedian who played - sometimes self indulgently - a variety of roles from a lumpen to a South Indian musician.

The Rise and Fall of the Muslim Social

The genre of the ‘Muslim Social’ is an important contribution to Indian cinema. The stylisation started with Pukar. Later it became less legal in films like Dard (of the 40s), Palkhi and numerous other films down to the 70s. Such films dealt with the Muslim North Indian middle class and its social problems spiced with ghazals and qawwalis. The most meaningful of them was Mehboob’s Elan (1947). This became a critique of the ghetto-like quality of certain segments of the Muslim middle class and emphasised the need for education of Muslim youth. The film had another striking feature. It gave a sympathetic portrait of a ‘Western’ wife introduced into a Muslim household. Elan was refreshingly novel here because even today a westernised woman is generally treated as a vamp in Indian cinema.

After Elan the Muslim Social declined into a sentimental, mushy affair. But it remained a popular genre. Guru Dutt made Chaudhvin Ka Chand (about the travails of lovers caught in the trap of ‘mistaken identity’ due to purdah) almost disdainfully to ‘make-up’, as he said, for the losses of Kaagaz ke Phool. But the typical Dutt obsession with frustrated passion raised the film to a notable level. vIn fact the Muslim Social charted the decline of the Muslim ashraf (the gentry) - a feature which comes through movingly despite the hackneyed trappings. In this sense Pakeezah (1971) was the ‘farewell’ film of the Muslim Social. Kamal Amrohi made this story of the tragedy of a courtesan with loving care. He got the period details right (the ashraf or landed gentry culture of Uttar Pradesh in the first half of the century) and the music and lyrics had both the nostalgia for a lost Eden and a lyricism all their own. But what really raised Pakeezah above the normal rut was Meena Kumari’s portrayal of a once gracious culture slowly disintegrating. The performance as well as the film were marvelous swan songs.

After the 70s, the Muslim Social gradually petered out because it no longer met the urgent need of harsher times.

The one film which drove home this message was MS Sathyu’s Garm Hawa released in the early 70s. Though it dealt ostensibly with the travails of a Muslim family in UP at the time of partition, it was really a reflection on the tragedy inflicted on Indian Muslims by the partition. The reflection was a product of bitter post-partition introspection. But it was touched by compassion and humanity.

From Shahenshah to Coolie

In the 70s, a new stereotype began to emerge. This was the common or garden Muslim. He would be a model of loyalty and discipline and when he died it would be with the Kalma (or Proclamation of Faith) on his lips. He no longer talked the flowery Urdu of the Shahenshah and the Nawabs but the patois of the street.

As mentioned earlier, Salim and Javed contributed to the toughening of the language. But Kader Khan as writer and Amjad Khan as the archetypal villain carried it further.

Kader Khan in Muqaddar Ka Sikandar and later on in Coolie introduced a note of religious mysticism. In Muqaddar ..., Amitabh Bachchan does not play a ‘Muslim’ role but he evokes the nuances to build up the portrait of a Dervish fulfilling an exalted mission. In Coolie, he portrays a Muslim coolie who becomes a revolutionary. The old Mehboob syndrome of Muslim radicalism is reproduced in Coolie. Amitabh carries a hawk named Allah Rakha on his wrist. This is a direct reference to poet Iqbal’s hawk (Shaheen) a central symbol in his poetry. Shaheen for Iqbal represented the aspiring, soaring spirit of man as in the line. ‘Tu Shaheen hai parwaz hai kaam tera...’ (you are a hawk, your destiny is flight).

Amitabh similarly soared in that film despite its formula trappings. The emotionally charged scene of departing Hajis, the pilgrims sailing to Mecca for the major Muslim festival of Id-ul-Baqr, at Bombay docks is played with a genuine empathy which enfolds the viewer. Coolie represents the rise and integration of the Common Muslim in the working masses of the country rebelling for change.

Facing the harsh 90s

Saeed Akhtar Mirza was part of the New Movement in cinema which rose to prominence from the late 60s onwards. His work has always been marked by an ‘adversary element’, meaning a critique of the status from a radical point of view. Arvind Desai Ki Ajeeb Dastan was a look at the frustrations of an idealistic youth caught in the trap of a feudal money culture, Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai was a look both at the problem of class and ethnic identifications. Then followed tele-serials, the most notable being Nukkad (street corner). Here Mirza looked at the rising industrial urban culture from the worm’s point of view - the lower middle class of various communities buffeted by changes in the world above clinging to lost vestiges of dignity and meaning in life. It was one of the two or three outstanding tele-serials of the last decade. In fact, it was a cultural phenomenon.

In his Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro he examines the problems of Muslim lumpens in central Bombay. The film won the best Hindi film National Award for 1990.

What is impressive about the film is the multi-layered approach to the subject. It rises beyond its specific city and class and becomes a probing into the condition of Indian Muslims. The gradual economic and educational decline of urban Muslims is portrayed. Also the shift of the young to crime, a flight from a society which they feel rejects them. The problems of communalism, ghetto mentality, and search for an ethnic identity which does not clash with a national identity are also explored.

Salim reminds one of the French director Maurice Pialat’s film Police which deals with the problems of Algerians in Paris. Salim is a complex and reflective work which in itself is a search for identity. Indian Muslims have find a place in the increasingly metropolitan culture of India.

Salim is an extremely sensitive and intelligent attempt to depict this cultural process. It says there are no easy answers but it also opens up ways of resolving the crisis.

Muslim Contribution to Cinema - An Attempt at Harmony

To sum up: It’s a long journey from Pukar, to Salim Langde .... But it’s a splendid, coruscating one providing spectacle, beauty, wit, tragedy, high spirits - and a clear sighted introspection. It’s a rich mosaic of meaning, song and dance without which Indian cinema - in fact Indian culture - would be incomplete.

In one word the Muslim contribution to cinema is: Harmony.

In arrangement with Seminar on ‘Pluralism and Democracy in Bollywood’ organised by Teesta Setalvad

—Iqbal Masud

URL: http://www.screenindia.com/fullstory.php?content_id=9980

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Expanding Our Musical Horizons

Who doesn’t like melody? Whose heart doesn’t beat for Kishore Kumar’s yodeling? Whose ears don’t reverberate with Lata Mangeshkar’s eternal songs? Who doesn’t want to dance with Asha Bhosle’s scintillating numbers? Music is already in every heartbeat and yet in the humdrum and cacophony of hundreds of singers and thousands of albums among us, we still tend to miss the true music in its more intense and sublime melody. We seem to be content with the tip of the iceberg which floats on top of the water but that is only one tenth of the real content. Our fleeting lives just get spent listening to few repeated singers over and over again, be it Kishore Da of sixties or Udit Narayan of nineties or Sonu Nigam of 21st century. We never transcend the popular songs such as, Mere sapno ki rani (Aradhna), Papa kehte hain bada (QSQT), Mehdi laga ke rakhna (DDLJ), and of course, the recent hits from Veer Zaara, Lagaan, Chalte Chalte, Kal Ho Na Ho…..the list is endless. But, you get the point. We have virtually surrounded ourselves with popular film music and that seems to work for us. To some more ambitious folks, this boundary also encompasses few popular ghazals of Jagjit Singh, Pankaj Udhas and in rare cases some Bhajans of Anup Jalota.

To be sure, there is no need to advocate any boundary between popular and classical music. This dichotomy unnecessarily creates boundaries between melodies. Instead, all that is needed is to explore, experiment and expand our boundaries of melodies. If we have been listening mainly to Kishore Kumar, let us now try to immerse ourselves into Mohammad Rafi and see how this new musical wave refreshes us all over again. If we are already listening to Rafi Sahab, let’s get an album in which he has sung songs which are closer to a classical raga. Again, not to be frightened or overwhelmed with the word “classical”, but the idea is to expose ourselves to little different and melodious mood of music. There are actually several albums available in music stores and of course on internet websites which have collection of classical songs of several singers. As I am typing this, I have just now started playing Begum Akhtar’s album with her songs based on some classical ragas. This is the first time in my life that I am listening to her. I may not appreciate it for the first time, but as is often the case, true melody always “grows in” us. Even the Rahman music is often characterized in this fashion. We rarely appreciate Rahman music in our first attempt, but give it some time and something catches our attention and we fall in love with it. Who can forget, O Paalanhaare from Lagaan or some of his other songs? Simple reason that it “grows in” us is that his music has a background basis of some classical raga, either Hindustani or Karnatak style.

Similar is the case with several other songs which are based on classical ragas. We get overwhelmed with music which is shot at us from TV or Radio commercials but if we proactively discover true melody we will be surprised by what we have been missing all these years. A simple definition or criterion to judge true melody is that which is evergreen unlike a passing phase.

Let me refresh your memory with some such true gems of Manna Dey now. When was the last time you listened to poochho naa kaise maine rain bitaayee (Meri Surat Teri Aankhen), I assure you that this song can never become stale in your ears, again the simple reason is that it is based on Raga Ahir Bhairav. Similar is the case with another Manna Dey gem Laaga chunari main daag chhupaaoo kaise (Dil hi toh hai), this song is based on Raga Bhairavi. Both Bhairavi and Ahir Bhairav are morning ragas so as you listen to these two numbers, imagine yourself watching sun rise and you will be amazed by the power of these ragas, they actually take you to the time of dawn! While, we are on the topic of morning ragas, let me throw in another masterpiece from Lata Mangeshkar. This is a song from the film Amar Prem, Raina biti jaye shyam na aaye and is based on another pre-dawn raga called Raga Lalit. Once again, be prepared to be fascinated by the power of music and melody. And who can forget Mohe bhul gaye sanvariya in Lataji’s voice from the film Baiju Bawara. Again, reason for its eternal appeal is that it is based on Raga Bhairav. Another gem from this film in Rafi Sahab’s voice based on Raga Bhairavi is Tu gangaki mauj main jamna ka dhaara. These are just a few gems based on morning ragas.

Now, let’s see some masterpieces from afternoon raga. Khiltey Hain Gul Yaha (Sharmilee)and Panthi hoon main us path kaa (Door ka rahi) both based on Raga Bhimpalasi, sung by Kishore Kumar. And now the evening ragas. Again, while you listen to these songs, imagine watching a sunset somewhere on a small hill. How about Umraav Jaan’s ghazal sung by Ashaji in ankhonki mastike mastane hazaron hai, based on Raga Bhupali. Even if you have never heard of Mehdi Hassan’s ghazals, try these two of his most popular ones, both based on evening ragas. Ranjish hee sahi (Raga Yaman) and Duniya kisike pyaar main (Raga Bhupali). I am convinced that if you develop the taste for Mehdi Sahab’s ghazals, you may never fall back to any other singer who is not classically trained. It would be a quantum leap from a narrow well into a vast and deep ocean of music in which you will be beckoned by such great titans as Bhimsen Joshi, Pt Jasraj and so on. Obviously, this takes little investment of time and patience. But, from my own experience, I guarantee you that it is worth the effort and the returns are priceless and lifelong. It is indeed a nashaa, with traces of meditative spiritual mood.

Now, let’s move little more forward in our time of the day towards night. Two of the more popular ragas of this time of the day are Raga Malkauns and Raga Darbari. To start with, fall in love all over again with Rafi Sahab’s eternal voice in Man tarpat hari darshanko aaj (Baiju Bawara) based on Raga Malkauns. How about these Raga Darbari numbers Hangama hai kyon barpa, a Ghulam Ali ghazal and O Duniyake rakhwale (Baiju Bawara) by Rafi Sahab. Even Mukesh has sung a Raga Darbari song, Dil jalta hai to jalne de (Pahli Nazar). And who can forget mere naina saavan bhaado (Mehbooba) by Kishore Da and Lataji which was based on Raga Shivranjani, another night raga. Again, try imagining yourself in nightly mood to enjoy these songs better. As is the case with serious and true melodies, most of the songs based on ragas either have matching lyrics with the words of that time of the day or a mood matching with that of raga. Morning ragas are usually identified with intense mood of separation and of meditation. Evening ragas evoke lighter mood of love and romance. Night ragas evoke the moods of passion and heroic courage. You can find hundreds of songs and the classical ragas that they are based on at http://www.asavari.org/songs.html. Listening and appreciating music armed with the information of raga would relish both your heart and your mind.

I recently had heated debate with few friends whose argument was that a criterion for good music is simply what appeals to masses. According to them, “classical” singers do not have enough popularity or prestige. Also that, only that music is great which survives the test of “market value”. One can respond to such criticism by just stating few examples from above masterpieces. Granted that some great artists end up in a life of paucity but how can that be a judge of true music? Gangotri, the origin of Ganga, can never be compared with small streams in every village or town. A true explorer will reach the Gangotri sooner or later even though every stream is also a reflection of the same river. Idea is just to expand, explore, experiment and finally to experience yourself to different genres of music and to appreciate the entire iceberg instead of just being content with its tip afloat.

Some say, “don’t sell yourself short”; I think we can apply this to our topic. Let’s not settle for mediocre music, let’s try to explore and expand our musical horizons. And the good news is many different kinds of music are now available on several good websites. www.Raaga.com and www.MusicIndiaOnline.com are two excellent sources. I would even go one step further and say that the way T-Series liberated old film songs from the clutches of HMV with hundreds of cover version pirated tapes; internet is doing the same to rare genres of music. If not for online albums, I would have never experienced the heavenly voice of Mehdi Hassan. Now, I know why he can be called as the “Everest”, the highest point of ghazal singing. So, unlike pirated tapes, we have original music now available to us, all that is needed is little effort from our side and then we will be ready for….

Sangeet Hai Shakti Ishwar Ki, Har Swar Main Base Hain Raam

Raagi Jo Sunaye Raagini, Rogi Ko Mile Aaraam.


1. Alaap, a set of 20 CDs exploring Indian Classical Music produced by Sri Aurobindo Society http://www.sriaurobindosociety.org.in/saspub/sasaudvis.htm#audiocds

2. http://www.AIMArts.org

3. http://www.MusicIndiaOnline.com

4. http://www.Raaga.com

5. http://www.Asavari.org

6. http://www.MusicalNirvana.com

Monday, July 7, 2008

Did Modern Values Enrich Cultural values?

We are living in a modern society today. At least, we prefer to believe that we are! We shun anything non-modern or so called orthodox. We would like to stay in touch with the contemporary rather than the traditional, be it home furniture or our way of thinking or our way of dressing or the way we perceive spirituality. If we are modern, we practice Yoga or meditation or at least claim to do so but reject any traditional custom or ritual, which does not fit in with our accepted definition of modernity.

In this essay, let us explore what exactly is modernity and how does it affect our way of thinking. Does modernity achieve what it sets out to do? And how do Indian culture and traditions fit into this. Where do Indian traditions stop and modern values begin? The main argument presented here is that the so-called modern values were already imbibed in our culture.

What is Modernity?

Modernity can be defined as connecting to the new and the contemporary, rejecting the old. According to The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language: the word modern was first recorded in 1585 in the sense `of present or recent times'. In Latin, modernus is derived from modo, meaning `just now'. The English word modern was not originally concerned with anything that could later be considered old-fashioned. Obviously, modernity often is used to reject old-fashioned ideas and traditions. In the cultural and social contexts, modernity is also interlinked with the values of equality, freedom, feminism and democracy. It is generally assumed that the modernity in 19th and 20th century unleashed the power of scientific and industrial progress, which led to social equality, freedom of downtrodden sections of the society, freedom to women. Democracy is also thought to be a modern concept of governance as against rulers and kings of ancient times. Modernity is also thought of as increasing the role of rationality in the public sphere and reducing the role of religion. Let us take these modern values one by one and explore them more.

Modern Values

Social Equality: One of the popular assumptions is that modernity provided equal status to downtrodden sections of the masses. Before the advent of modernity, people in the weaker sections of the society were controlled and oppressed by the landlords and the religious leaders. With modernity, all the sections of the society have equal rights. However, according to Professor Arvind Sharma, equality before law did exist in ancient India, especially in the sphere of criminal law. The Pali texts clearly allude to it, and the Nibandhas – legal digests of the twelfth century onwards – specifically eliminate unequal punishments. King Ashoka also tried to enforce it. The Nepala-Mahatmya (13.46) of the Skanhapurana also seems to recommend such egalitarianism. Moreover, even today in the 21st century, global spiritual movement Swadhyaya rooted in Indian cultural values has devised many innovative experiments and projects to ensure social equality in thousands of Indian villages. One of the novel Swadhyaya concepts is Amrutalayam, meaning house of immortality. This is similar to a village temple but its priests come from different castes of the village and every evening the entire village gathers here as a social/economical/spiritual family. Just a small example to show how social equality can be achieved by cultural values.

Democracy: Another popular assumption is that modernity gave rise to democracy, ending centuries of autocracy, and therefore governments for the masses, of the masses and by the masses were installed in many parts of the world. This gave tremendous power to the masses in choosing their own rulers and removing the ones they didn't like in the elections. But, contrary to this assumption, India in ancient times did have its own form of democracy and republics. The inscriptions on the walls of the Sundaravarada temple in Uttiramerur near Kanchipuram show how democracy was practiced 1000 years ago. History Professor Steve Muhlberger at Nipissing University has painstakingly shown several evidences of republic forms of government in ancient India. And, according to Hinduism Professor Arvind Sharma at McGill University, republicanism was as prominent a form of government as monarchy in the sixth century B.C. in India.

It is true that the Magadha empire rose at the expense of such republics, but when Alexander invaded India in the fourth century B.C., he had to fight against as many republics as kingdoms on his way to Punjab. Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra republics are attested to by Panini, the famous grammarian assigned to the fourth century B.C., if not earlier, and Alexander had to defeat both a Brahmana and a Shudra republic in the course of his conquest. Republicanism, in the form of the operation of guild-laws, common law, regional practices, etc. survived throughout, countenanced by the kings. The Rajatarangini, a historical narrative of Kashmir, informs us of cases in which the king's decisions were blocked and even reversed by the king's council. Rudradaman (c.150 C.E.) had to spend money from his privy purse to carry out repairs at Lake Sudarshana in Saurashtra because his council would not let him use public funds for the purpose. In addition, it is also often believed that modernity ended centuries of theocracy. But, at least within the Indian culture, theocracy was shunned millennia ago when Brahmans and Kshatriyas were assigned separate roles as religious and political leaders. We don't have a single incidence from Indian political history where a religious leader was made the king or vice versa.

Feminism: In the modern society, women are seen more liberated with their earning capacities and their role as career women rather than housewives or homemakers. It is believed that majority of Indian women committed sati in ancient times and widow-remarriage was not allowed. How far is this true? Most of the literature on the subject creates the impression of a general ban on widow-remarriage in Hinduism. According to the 1901 census, however, only 10 percent of the Hindu communities observed it. Professor Veena Oldenburg powerfully challenges even the usual portrayal of women being killed for dowry, which is linked with Indian culture. The British resolve to rationalize and modernize the revenue was particularly hard on women. From being co-partners in pre-colonial landholding arrangement, they found themselves denied all access to economic resources, turning them into dependents. In the event, they faced marital problems, and they were left with no legal entitlements whatsoever.

It is true that Indian society always has been a patriarchic society with males being the head of the family, but so is the case with all the other cultures -- eastern or western. But, it is the Indian culture that has the concept of Devi, goddess, which treats females also as divinely as the male gods, or Devas. Devi exists in various forms and powers. Laxmi is worshipped as the power of wealth. Shakti or Durga is worshipped as the power to be invoked in war. Saraswati is worshipped as the power of knowledge. Even the power of illusion is given a female identity in the form of Maya. Also, it is only South Asian countries that have no problem accepting women as the head of their states in the form of presidents or prime ministers. There are other dozens of social and religious female leaders in India.

Women who were given the sole responsibility to run a home are now being over-loaded to earn money also. In the modern world of judging everything by financial and materialistic rewards, are we reducing our mothers and wives also into moneymaking machines? And is that the only criteria for their freedom?

Science/Technology and Rationality: Modernity has negated the role of philosophical thinking and glorified reason-based thinking. Modernity also launched the era of science and technology with thousands of new inventions and discoveries about the outer world and the human body. This popular notion is already challenged by the scholarly work of Joseph Needham, which highlights the ancient Chinese contribution in science and technology. Similarly, many Arabic/Islamic scientific inventions are now accepted. Within India, we know that many scientific notions in the fields of Astronomy, Medicine, Mathematics, Metallurgy, Maritime and Linguistics were known to Indians thousands of years ago. There is a huge set of evidence about traditional knowledge systems as late as 18th century just before the advent of the British.

It is true that modern science has added tremendous inventions for human society but to claim that tradition or culture was non-scientific will again be misleading.

Environment protection: It is a popular notion that modernity also led to the awareness about environment protection and animal rights. However, it is also true that modernity has reduced the natural resources due to exploitation by human beings. Whereas Indian culture has the reverential concepts to worship natural powers and animals, modernity, while ridiculing such notions, claims to champion the cause of ecology. It is sad that the cultural values to regard the rivers as mothers, land as mother, cow as mother and trees as divine are ridiculed or rejected today in the name of modernity. Didn't these notions already combine eco-friendliness with popular culture?

Freedom: Modernity also is seen to be liberating dozens of nations from centuries of colonial rule. However, it can be argued that we have certainly achieved political freedom from colonial powers but how free are we intellectually and culturally from those powers? Did modernity free us or has it bounded us in new ways?


In this essay, we have seen that the so-called modern values were already present in ancient Indian culture. It is just that, in the medieval period of the last few centuries, they were corrupted under colonial pressures. With the advent of modernity, the same ancient cultural values are being presented to the human society in new western forms. We just need to apply our cultural contexts to them. Modernity devoid of cultural values will always be incomplete progress.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Saawariya and the great amalgam of traditions...

A great tradition is like a mighty river, different streams come to join it and in the process the tradition enriches without losing its soul. Like other ancient traditions, Indic traditions also have continued to evolve from its origins in Indus Valley, to Vedic Era, to Jain/Buddhist influence, to Islamic encounters, to modern times. In the process, it has put on new garbs and forms without losing its core values. Indian music can tell a similar story from its ancient classical ragas to medieval influences to modern medley that is sometimes seen in the Indian films and other "Indipop" music. This continuation of underlying themes in Indian music and culture with a continuous evolution of new external forms is what seems to me as one of the visible signs of a successful film and a successful music director in the Indian film industry. The Indian film music directors have continued to experiment with new instruments and rhythms since the times of C. Ramachandra, S D Barman, and O. P. Nayyar and yet some of their melodies have stood the test of times because of an essential quality that captured the Indian imagination. In the late 80s, 90s, and present times, we have had Laxmikant Pyarelal, R D Barman and now A R Rahman who have followed suit in terms of combining Western music with a healthy mix of Indian classical ragas in their songs. It is this innovative experimentation genre, that I would like to situate the films of Sanjay Leela Bhansali, especially his last two films Black and now Saawariya. Here are two films brimming with Shakespearean pathos and tragic turns. They also have other Western influences such as no songs (in Black) and Venetian city space (in the art direction of Saawariya) and yet they succeed in preserving some of the Indianness. Although Bhansali's other "masala" films such as Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam and Devdaas had elaborate sets, songs, and huge star cast, Black and Saawariya turn even the established stars into experimental roles of physically challenged such as in Black. In Saawariya, Bhansali goes one step further by picking fresh faces for his lead hero and heroine.

The success of Saawariya lies in its international appeal. The titles in the beginning of the film declare that it is based on Fyodor Dostoevsky’s 1848 novella (short story) White Nights. And yet, after watching the film, I felt the film was also inspired by Raj Kapoor's films. While Raj Kapoor's Anari had the mother-like figure of Ms. Disuja who is the only sympathizer of the protagonist facing all kinds of hardship, Saawariya has "Lilipop" acted by Zohra Sehgal with great elan! Several of the scenes in the film proudly display the "RK" banner in the background and even the hero works as a lead-singer in an "RK" bar! The influence of Devdaas and Muqaddar ka Sikander is apparent when the heart-broken lover seeks shelter at a dancer's residence, although he is rejected there also. The entire role of Ranbir Kapoor is heavily inspired by his own grandfather's similar roles in which the character downplays the sad and harsh realities of life by having a jubilant attitude with a simmering pathos underneath. Ranbir Kapoor is definitely one of the finest actors to have recently emerged in Hindi films. In a moment, he can show us different kinds of rasas of sadness, happiness, comedy, and others, sprinkled with a light dose of dance and song sequence! The other hallmarks of the film is its art direction. Here again, the entire film is shot as a dream sequence with dark and bright colors and huge images in the backdrop. The song picturizations are good, especially the Id Qawwali one. However, the music needed more appeal although Monty Sharma seemed to have worked hard for his debut film. The heroine Sonam Kapoor also pales in comparison with Ranbir's spirited performance. Rani Mukherjee excels in her diegetic role as a narrator and a constant companion of Ranbir throughout the film. She seems to have matured as an actress with Black and now Saawariya.

The DVD cover of this film says, "Hurrah for Bollywood" and I agree! This film is in the emerging series of Hindi films constantly knocking at the international stage starting with Lagaan. The "Bollywood" has finally arrived with a host of recent films with a global appeal. It is to this interesting mix of Western and Indian elements in this typical Bollywood film that one can look forward to in the coming years!

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Jodhaa Akbar: A Review

Jodhaa Akbar: India’s Contribution to World Cinema

For long, Indian films have been criticized, ridiculed, and ignored by the elites both in India and abroad। Indian Cinema has been accused of lacking originality in its themes and contents. Being an admirer of the this media in general and of Indian films in particular, until now I had only names like Bimal Roy, V Shantaram, Mehboob Khan, Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, and Mrinal Sen to glorify Indian cinema. While Hollywood can boast of several epic films, Indian films in this category could only list names such as Mughal-e-Azam, Mother India, and Sholay. I used to wonder if India could ever produce films makers that can be counted among the great stalwarts of the world cinema. My expectations were fulfilled to a great degree when Ashutosh Gowariker came up with Lagaan. Here was a truly Indian film with Indian characters and music inspired by Indian folk and devotional music. After Lagaan, Gowariker continued with Swades, yet another truly Indian film with an original story inspired by Indian grass root work done by NRIs. I am happy to note that Gowariker has continued his genre of making truly Indian film inspired by Indian history with his latest film Jodhaa Akbar (JA).

While Swades was a dramatized version of true events in recent Indian history and Lagaan was a fictional account of an event that was placed in Indian colonial history by the deft direction of Gowariker, JA is a film that takes its inspiration from the life and times of Akbar, the great Mughal emperor. Again, like Lagaan and Swades, Gowariker has chosen to make use of full potential of this great medium that is largely underused by most contemporary filmmakers. Just to quote from my own review of Swades:
“Having watched it, I am once again full of exhilaration and optimism about Indian films. Pritish Nandy had said about Lagaan: “Phew! What a Movie!” He would say the same about Swades. He had then said “Move over, James Cameron (maker of the film Titanic), Ashutosh Gowariker has arrived! I would say “Move over, Chopras, Johars and others (who have looted public money for their profits and wasted this media), Ashutosh Gowariker has arrived.”
About JA also, I would make a similar comment. To be sure, it is not a documentary or scholarly presentation on the life and times of Akbar. We already have several history books with detailed research about Akbar. Instead, Gowariker has chosen to present a rare chapter of Indian history using the media of this film. We had long heard the name of Jodhaa Bai, a Rajput princess that Akbar had married in his efforts to reach out to the Hindu people of India just as he had abolished the Jaziya Tax that was collected from the Hindus before his reign. Gowariker focuses on the role of Jodhaa Bai in shaping Akbar’s life and rule by way of her Hindu and Rajput background. Just as Sikhism, Urdu, Indian classical music are all products of historic intermixing of the most different traditions of Hinduism and Islam, Gowariker presents Mughal rule by Akbar as a great amalgam of coming together of a Hindu princess and a Muslim King. Even if some historians can dispute the historic accuracy of this film, Akbar’s relationship with Hindus is a theme worth exploring. Like Indian Sufism and India Shiite traditions of Islam, Akbar’s rule is a glorious chapter of Indian Islam that has a unique imprint and impression of Indian culture that may well have derived its inspiration from Jodhaa.
The film starts with an elaborate battle scene with Akbar winning Delhi from the Hindu king Hemu. Akbar’s hesitation to behead Hemu shows his inclination towards Indian non-violence even in his adolescence that takes full shape when he becomes the emperor and asks his caretaker Behram Khan to leave for Mecca. Akbar dislikes the way Khan was conquering Hindu kings and bringing about massive carnage. Akbar changes the Mughal politics from confrontation to conciliation with Hindu kings. In this scenario, Jodhaa’s hand is offered to him by Amer’s king. As a Rajput woman with high self-esteem and pride about her culture and traditions, Jodhaa refuses to marry Akbar until he agrees to her demands. She extracts a promise from him to practice Hinduism after their marriage. She comes to Akbar’s palace in Agra but soon is disappointed by conspiracies and murders widespread in the royal court. Slowly and steadily, she succeeds in bringing about a fundamental transformation in the outlook of the emperor towards his subjects and his personal lifestyle. It is historically known that Akbar had practiced vegetarianism on certain days and had abolished a special tax on Hindus. The film merely connects these historic events to the influence of Jodhaa on Akbar. It was Jodhaa’s suggestion that inspires Akbar to examine the lives of his people to better rule them. Similarly, Jodhaa’s vegetarian Rajasthani delicacies inspire Akbar to be vegetarian on certain days in a month. Even the final battle scene that could have erupted to a huge massacre is reduced to a duel against his bitter enemy in which Akbar puts an end to his long-standing rebel.
The story by Haidar Ali does a great service to the role of Jodhaa who is not known to the audience except for her mention as the wife of Akbar in the history books. The director does not leave any stone unturned to present the power, grandeur, and grace of both Jodhaa and Akbar. The film shows several of their encounters with great subtlety and sensitivity. My favorite scene was when Jodhaa decides to cook herself in the royal kitchen even as the matriarch of the royal palace continues to doubt Jodhaa because of her Hindu background. In addition to a great story line and a great direction, the art direction by Nitin Desai, costume design by Neeta Lulla, and action by Ravi Dewan are other highlights of this epic film. In all, they succeed to portray the royal life of Akbar in all its grandiose and magnanimity. The casting of several characters is top-notch, especially their Urdu diction, including that of Hritik Roshan, shows their hard work. Even the final action scene has several innovative elements, a long scene in which the warriors keep dropping and changing their weapons. However, the music by A. R. Rahman leaves a lot to be desired especially after his superior performance in Lagaan. I was expecting the Sufi dance to be much more passionate and powerful with intense devotion that Rahman had showed in a similar sequence for Shyam Benegal’s film on Subhash Chandra Bose. Here Rahman sounded quite subdued. Similarly, unlike the Lagaan’s immortal Hindu bhajan, Jodhaa’s Krishna bhajan fails to leave an impression. Only high point in music is the title song celebrating Akbar’s rule with his people especially with its spectacular choreography. Coming to the acting department, Hritik has delivered the best performance of his career. I already mentioned about his Urdu, his acting as a Mughal emperor similarly shows his devotion to his work and his coming of age (after “Masala” films like Krish and Dhoom 2). However, Aishwarya Rai only partially succeeded in delivering a powerful performance expected of such an epic role. Ila Arun shines as the Mughal matriarch and so do rest of the characters.
Overall, Akbar’s role in the history of India deserved a bioepic films such as this. I am aware that people in Rajasthan have protested this film challenging the historical accuracy of Jodhaa’s life but they seem to have ignored that the film actually puts Jodhaa on a very high pedestal, a Hindu woman that transforms the Delhi politics and Mughal king in a major way. To me, this film and Akbar’s rule both are powerful celebrations of Indian culture. A culture that indianized several foreign invaders and murderers to adopt Indian ways of non-violence, vegetarianism, and respect for all traditions and religions. Before Muslims, Greeks, left behind by Alexander, were similarly absorbed into the massive “sponge” of Indian culture. After Greeks, Huns, Shaks, and several other invading tribes also were mingled into Indian society. Mongols who were fierce warriors and had established the largest empire in the world could not hold on to their victories in any other part of the world except their Indian descendents the Mughals. The success of Mughals was largely based on Akbar’s upbringing among the Rajputs and his later marriage with Jodhaa.

Again, historians can continue to argue about the historical accuracy of the film but Gowariker has largely succeeded in telling a story of Indian culture in his unique style. This film will be long remembered for its epic portrayal of an Indian king and his queen. Indian cinema should be grateful to acknowledge the contributions by Gowariker for his innovative films that succeed in raising the intellectual and cinematic contents and themes of the films. Kudos!

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