Monday, March 31, 2014

Isabel Allende - The queen of Magical realism

I just finished reading Isabel Allende’s “The house of Spirits”. It had been in my bucket list for a long time. Curiously enough, I have read most of her work except this - the very first book that came out in 1982. Of the many voices of Women that emerged in the last thirty or forty years in literature: Margaret Atwood, A S Byatt, Iris Murdoch to name a few of the very best - Isabel Allende’s genre of storytelling is unique; and in many ways representative, symbolic of Latin American spirit of magical realism that bursts through every single page of her novels. Over the last three decades, all her stories have had a string feminine bias: Mighty willed, beautiful, capricious and makers of their own destiny - such are the heroines that Isabel’s fertile mind conjures up for us. I remember her speaking in one of the TED talk many years ago, where she remarked that most of her characters are derived from common people that she had encountered, but once she starts breathing her fiery spirit into them, they somehow transform themselves into somebody esoteric and grandiose and end up as personalities imbued with her own vision of Female power. Pick up any of her books: “The stories of Eva Luna”, “Portrait in sepia” or the beautiful “Island in the sea” - and you find passages of mesmeric delight; language so profound and yet so simple that it will leave one breathless in its flow. Her confidence and command over the medium shows in the way that she could condense the life and times of three generations in a matter of a few chapters, without compromising the integrity or pulse of the story that she has set out to tell. And above all - there is an ethereal quality to her narrative that hangs tenuously in the penumbral region of a magical world: where spirits can talk, tables can move, dogs can roar and premonitions turn into visible realities; and in between all these chimerical phenomena, the characters in her story play out the most intensely personal, social and political drama of their times. A fairy tale cannot be told better…

“The house of spirits”, then is the first spurt of creativity from this fiery writer, and in 1992, it was made into a movie starring the talented Meryl Streep. It was a difficult movie to make, but the presence of gifted actors made the film possible and watchable.

Before I end this short essay, I must make mention that Isabel’s writing’s soaks with sensitive eroticism. Her books are strewn with passages that describe unbridled passion in most exotic terms, without descending into vulgarity…  In fact, in one of the bookstores in Dallas, I picked “Aphrodisiac” – a rare non- fictional book by her about the effects of culinary skills on one’s sexual prowess. It’s quite an odd book, but again well written with a tremendous conviction that she always brings to her writing. She acknowledges her Mother as a role idol in the art of cooking and goes on to describe in great length the benefits of cooking  the right way to ensure prolonged physical ecstasy… Quite an interesting work from this energetic lady!!!

So then, Read Isabel Allende if you want a taste of delicious, vibrant and provocative Latin writing. I promise you - It sure is a connoisseur’s delight ….

God bless…..

Friday, March 28, 2014

"Elegy" - a 2008 adaption of Philip Roth's short story

The French philosopher Francois Duc De La Rochefoucauld famously wrote: ‘few know how to get Old……”. One of the most difficult stages in life comes with the comprehension that the body is aging and there isn’t much time left. The exuberanceand immortality that youth promises melts away with passing years, and all the education, culture and religion of this world cannot help console or retract us from the inevitable. We cling to our passions with a thin straw hoping against hope that a miracle will happen, and we shall be forever bask in the shadow of this human shell.. The 2008 movie, “Elegy” is based on this theme. Philip Roth, the Pulitzer winning novelist sketched a short story titled “the Dying animal”, about an aging art critic who hops from one relationship to the other without any emotional commitment, until he meets a young, beautiful Cuban girl - a student in his class; and engages in a passionate physical relationship with her. Kepesh – the name of the professor, ratiocinates to his friend about the physical nature of love and the need to be unattached to any long standing relationship; but by and by, he finds that his platonic lust for this young nubile body has given rise to tormenting jealousies, inferiority complexes and a vague sense of unrest within him. He wants to possess the girl completely, without giving it the name of love or the bonds of commitment. The story then takes quite a nice turn until Kepesh realizes the need to embrace broader boundaries of a relationship than merely dwelling in the physical wetness of lust. It is a beautiful story written sensitively by Roth and brilliantly captured by Isabel Coixet on screen...

Ben Kingsley plays the old man and Penelope Cruz, the sultry Latin girl who incites the senses of the professor. Who can deny the talent of Kingsley? Nourished in the world of Shakespearean drama, fine-tuned by some of the finest Directors of the age, Kingsley gives a magnificent performance as a lusty intellectual with raw energy that needs to be expended in the coils of coital passion. Penelope Cruz! What a sculpture she is... A picture perfect body and a gift to carry it with nonchalant ease on screen; she matches the artistry of Ben Kingsley frame to Frame. It is she who holds the movie together. The Chemistry between Kingsley and Cruz lights up the screen, despite their vast differences in age. The movie demanded a deep understanding of Roth’s underlying message of aging gracefully with emotional and intellectual maturity, and it seems that both these actors have imbibed that message wonderfully well. The cinematography is delightful with subtle play of light and shadows, enhancing the emotional intensity of critical parts in the tale. A wee bit slow paced, but I guess, that is unavoidable given that the story is one of inner awakening and realization; and it takes time to develop such a theme. Chopin’s etudes for the piano in the background softly emphasizes the ebbing and waning of passion, pathos and its interludes. The lingering keystrokes – a sign of Chopin’s compositions, pulls and tugs at our emotional heartstrings.

This is not a film for entertainment. It is a study of Human nature. Somewhere in the film, it touches some deep chords within us and evokes some uneasy questions about the way we feel and think. That is the purpose of art, and this movie fulfills it…..

Watch it if you like the art of Good film making...

God bless......

Monday, March 24, 2014

"Dialectic" - as a process of discovery

One of the greatest passages in the world of Western literature is the scene which describes the poisoning of Socrates, the Philosopher, by the republic of Athens. It figures in "Phaedo", one of the celebrated dialogues of Plato, his disciple and expositor. Socrates was spreading a dangerous message – Gnothi Seauton: “Know thyself” to the youth of a nascent, virile young city state of Greece, and needed to be silenced by the democratic polity. He was gathering around him the wisest, the most intelligent youngsters like Phradeus, Xenophon, and Aristophanes and of course Plato himself: urging them to question the ‘questioner’; and that is never good news for a political system. Socrates was to be administered the poison of Hemlock, a potent infusion that would slowly numb the body from the foot upwards until the heart stops beating. Plato renders those final moments in the eventide hours of spring time Athens, when Socrates prepares himself meticulously to die, without the least trace of agony, anguish or hesitation on his face. All around him, he beloved students have congregated, trying to postpone this tragic moment, but Socrates emphasizes to them the evanescence of this material body and the Indifference of its presence to him. He takes the cup of poison from the trembling hands of the jailer and swallows it all at once. The powerful drug slowly anesthetizes his body and he lays down on the stone bench without a word of remonstrance from his lips. His disciples cry and weep with despair, but Socrates gently reprimands them for their childish behavior. His last words to Crito will go down forever in history as a testimony of a man who has anchored himself in the depths of his true self; as the malicious poison reaches his heart, he opens his eyes for one last time and speaks to Crito thus: “I have one debt to clear, would you be kind enough to repay the cock that I borrowed from my neighbor Asclepius...” and with that the Master gently passes away. Never before in the Western philosophy has there been such a clear voice for truth. The life of Socrates inaugurated a period of self-introspection in Greek thought, which wound its way into the fabric of European culture and its religion - Christianity.
The fascinating Orient was not far behind, in fact, they were far ahead in the ‘dialectic’ method that Socrates used to educate and question the source of beliefs and ethics. The Upanishads -that great repository of pure, untrammeled and distilled juice of introspective brilliance, are replete with dialogues that spark of intellectual vitality and deep concerns. Probably, they do not possess as dramatic a setting as that of Plato’s dialogues, but they definitely contain all the nourishment and rigor of a questioning mind. Take for example, The mystically pregnant dialogues between Yagnavalkya and his illustrious wife Maitreyi under the silent canopy of forest trees, in the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad; or the precocious conversation between young Svetaketu and his father in the open air classroom on the nature of “Self”, in the Chandogya - they are shimmering examples of the heights reached by penetrative Indian minds in attempting to solve the dilemma of “truth”. And, of course, the profound poem of Bhagavad Gita is nothing but a dialogue between a master and his Student. It will not a falsity to state that the East had trodden over this hallowed ground much before the West awoke to this knowledge of inner science...
It is recorded that Plato travelled far and wide after the demise of his Mentor, and it is not impossible that his journeys also took him to the boundaries of Asia Minor, where he witnessed ancient mystics of India talk, breathe and live a philosophy that was just about beginning to take root in Grecian city states. It is also not improbable that he borrowed the method of “dialogue” as a vehicle to convey and question profound truth from the soil of East. Whatever may be the origins or the impetus for Human thought, there is no doubt that there is continuity in the process of enquiry. Certain questions have always bothered the Human mind across continents, across civilizations; and curiously, the answers to those queries have come about in a similar manner. The aches, the pains, the agonies, the exultation, the sacrifices - seems to have a design to it that escapes the common peripheries of our thinking. Socrates and Plato and the great Mystics of the East are just channels through which Cosmic will and thought reinforces itself. They are the watersheds, the sign posts for all of us to grow in the right direction...
Read these dialogues in the translations available, when you have time. Nothing may be more important than this….
God bless…

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Humnasheen - Shreya Ghosal's coming of age

I remember seeing a young, chubby and seemingly shy girl walk up the floors of Sa Re Ga Ma - a music reality show ,in 1995. The Judges for the event were the great composer duo Kalyanandji and Anandji , and this little girl dressed in a knee length green pinafore;  after necessary introductions started singing one of the most classical, haunting and delectably beautiful and difficult compositions by the late Hridayanath mangeshkar, worded by poetical skills of Gulzar, sung by Lata Mangeshkar at the height of her musical prowess  -  'Suniyo Ji Ek Araj..' for the film "Lekin"..... Not an easy song for a young voice. The High ranging notes needed to be sung with a mellifluity, precision and deep breath; and also importantly, without distorting the rustic lyrics conceived by Gulzar. The singing also needed to demonstrate pain, a tragic soul to it, almost like the lowing of a cow in  throes of pain. Definitely, a heavy ask for any singer. But Shreya Ghosal, the girl in question was not daunted by the enormity of her performance or stage. Not only did she sing every note to perfection, but did so with effortless ease, making the song look so simple.. That day a new legend was born....

I don't have to chart her growth over the last decade and half for my readers. It has been phenomenal. The gift that she was born with, has been  nurtured, protected and improved  with each passing composition, along with her confident personality and physical beauty . Devdas , the epic from Sanjay Bhansali gave her the necessary break and she has not looked back since then..

As I took my customary walk to the Local library today, I started listening to her new album released in February 2014 titled "Hamnasheen" -  a collection of eight ghazals composed by Deepak Pandit (arguably one of the best violinists in the country). I was transfixed...... Every song revealed a Shreya, whose mastery and control over her voice has reached  new dimensions ;  those rarified spaces where only a few can ever reach, let alone trod. Her voice in each song, held the notes tenuously in mid silence, undulating and twisting them into harmonies  that scatter like pearls from an oyster, reflecting the beauty of the mood ,and slow grace of  each Ghazal unfolding its myriad emotions. "Yeh aasman", the very first piece is pure artistry and then followed by "naam Likhar.." in pure strains of Raag Sindhu Bhairavi is enough to attest to the beauty and depth of Shreya's repertoire.

As I finished listening to all  tracks in the album, I was left only with the reverberations of her voice in every sinew of my body. It was almost as if honey was flowing through it , sweetening everything along its way. Very few albums have given me such  incredible pleasure. The gift in Shreya has reached its consummation in this work....

Listen to it, if you can.. Alone , or with your beloved, but definitely in Silence....

God bless......

Monday, March 10, 2014

''The Cider House Rules" - A sensitive book and an endearing film

John Irving is in a way a quintessential American author: A writer whose stories capture the goodness of the human heart, the boundaries of compassion, the simplicity of life and moral values that surround it; all woven into a wonderful tapestry of a good story told well. Reading him is a pleasure, in that it evokes a lot of visual imagery of exotic New England. His language and dialogues have an elegant prose style that makes the characters speak the most intimate thoughts in a matter of fact manner. Sometimes he reminds me of Henry James (my favorite writer), that great American novelist, who had this subliminal ability to sketch a character with great artistry and finesse. Many years ago when I read “The world according to Garp”, it was almost with a very heavy heart that I remember putting the book down. The psychological crevices that John explored in Garp’s life, his sensitive treatment of unrequited love and its aftermath; and the recompense that can found in adultery; were handled beautifully without ever turning into vulgarity. A Wonderful work of fiction with hidden motifs.

Well, a couple of weeks ago, I picked up his “The Cider house rules” from the local library, and found myself completing it in a couple of days. The story of an orphan who pines to live the life in the world outside his shelter, gets a taste of it; only to return back to his orphanage convinced that the life of duplicity out there is not for him and dedicates himself to the well-being of the children in it. Of course, I have condensed an intricate many layered story in a few lines above. Soon after I read it, I chanced to see the movie based on the book. The screenplay was written by John Irving and the lead roles were played by Toby McGuire, Michael Caine and Charlize Theron (I have begun to admire this beautiful actor). Oh!! What a treat to the senses. In the lush setting of Maine, New England, amidst the proliferation of rioting colors, the steady flow of the Piscataqua River lapping its bays, the fruit laden Cider trees: Lasse Hallström has recreated the magic of the book on screen. Michael Caine, as the adoring doctor with an impeccable Bostonian accent, Homer wells (Toby) as the orphan and Charlize as girl who needs to fill emptiness with companionship carefully etch out the characters that fills the pages of Irving’s book. Every frame is a connoisseur’s delight. Since I had already read the book, I could see the craftsman in Irving chiseling put the redundant parts of his novel and injecting just the right dose of emotion, intellectualism, romance and moral vacillation in his screenplay. The original background score by the talented Rachel Portman embellishes each scene with fine flute and cello variations, that rise and flow with the sway of the Cider trees or the curdling emotions of its characters. One could hear the mellowed strains of the great English composer Ralph Vaughn Williams in her composition, which she learnt as a child in Charterhouse school in Surrey.

The accolades however go to Michael Caine, for his formidable performance as a doctor whose heart is in the right place. He won his second academy award as the best supporting actor for this role. Deservingly so….

Read Irving’s book and then watch the movie. You will perceive the great artist at work in both…

Monday, March 3, 2014

The Academy Awards 2014 - newer horizon's

The spectacular show of the 86th Academy awards lived up to its expectations yesterday at the Hollywood Center, California. The pride that the academy have in their movies and their creators is incredible. It’s a proud Academy that awarded Lupita Nyongo, a Kenyan for her brilliant performance as an abused slave in “Twelve years a slave”; a slightly unfair Academy that ignored the intense rendering of the Somali pirate Muse, by Barkhad Abdi (an ex Limo driver) in “Captain Phillips”; a socially sensitive academy that honored the Aids story with an Oscar to “Dallas buyers’ club”; a balanced academy that chose not to honor “Gravity” as the best motion picture; an artistically sensitive academy that decorated the mature and deep performance of Kate Blanchet in “Blue Jasmine”, overlooking the likes of Meryl Streep and Sandra bullock; a playful academy that acknowledges the universal language of Animation in “Frozen” – and more importantly, an academy that values its history and its quest for perfection in the art of Motion pictures.

Every single artist honored was worthy enough to hold aloft the Knight in Gold plated Britannium; clutching the crusader’s sword, standing over a reel of film with five spokes depicting the five seminal aspects of Film making: Actors, writers, directors, producers and technicians – all held in equal scale in the creation of a film and duly respected by the fraternity. Each one of those coveted seats in the auditorium is filled with a person whose contribution has helped move the bar of film artistry ever so slightly higher than before. There are amongst them legends like Meryl Streep, who has been nominated a whopping eighteen times and won it on three occasions, and on the other hand we also have the unlucky, charming and talented Leonardo de caprio nominated five times; but never once had the honor of walking on to stage to receive it.

The world criticizes the Academy awards as biased, American- centric, and to some extent racist as well. So be it….  All these futile sentiments are stilled when one looks at their work and art:   The degree of devotion, love, hard work, and unflinching commitment to the authenticity of the medium; yet popular, entertaining and commercially successful – they have time and again proved that they are the undisputed masters of Movie making. Their work touches all fringes of social fabric and they are not afraid to break taboos. One of the persistent tragedies of any art is that it quickly becomes a cliché and starts becoming monotonous, but American Films have not fallen into that rut. Year on Year, we are bedazzled by the freshness of their thought and brilliance of its implementation. Who could have thought that a dry run of the mill event in the
Deep waters of Somalian coast could be transformed into a story (Captain Phillips) that could showcase the deepest of emotions in two diametrically opposite personalities; or a hundred other films which draw inspiration from common place incidents but turned into a social drama by the Midas touch of a great director or an actor.

Well, I can keep waxing eloquent about this all day long, but the purpose of this short essay is to pay my compliments to the lovely winners of this year’s Oscar’s. They have given me many moments of deep pleasure and contemplation. That according to me is entertainment at its best…….

God bless…..