Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Singh is Culture-Specific Clutter.

I'm reading a wonderful little book of essays from Tim Parks called, Where I'm Reading From: The Changing World of Books. Parks is not only an author but a translator and he has some insightful pieces," including one titled "The Dull New Global Novel," whose topic is self-explanatory. Here is Parks: In particular one notes a tendency to remove obstacles to international comprehension...Kazuo Ishiguro has spoken of the importance of avoiding word play and allusion to make things easy for the translator...If culture-specific clutter and linguistic virtuosity have become impediments, other strategies are seen positively: the deployment of highly visible tropes immediately recognizable as "literary" and "imaginative," analogous to the wearisome lingua franca of special effects in contemporary cinema, and the foregrounding of a political sensibility that places the author among those "working for world peace."

Change a few words and he may as well be writing about the "The Dull New World Cinema".

This is the passage that came to mind when I was debating on inviting a new friend along to see a Bollywood film. What's playing this weekend is Singh is Bliing and, after watching the trailer, it struck me that this would be utterly incomprehensible to somebody not versed in the "culture-specific clutter" of Bollywood.

Take the title: Singh is Bliing.

If that was the only hint given to you, my dear friends, I bet most of you would bring it back to 2008 Akshay-starrer Singh is Kinng and assume that this was also a wacky Punjabi-flavored comedy, probably starring Akshay Kumar.

But imagine if you didn't know Singh is Kinng; if you didn't immediately peg "Singh" as a surname; if you didn't know about the numerological habits of starry types to expect weird spellings! Despite the English, the title itself is jam-packed with "culture-specific clutter."

Watching the trailer, the film seems straightforward enough. We all know the filmi Punjabi stereotypes. We've all seen enough comedy films with Akshay playing a dopey hero to guess at the plot. We all know very well that Amy Jackson isn't desi, so we read her character as exotic with no prompting. The teleport to Switzerland song implies the two are going to hook up. Kay Kay Menon and Lara Dutta highlighted in the trailer means they are going to have supporting roles of some sort. Even the Goa setting itself implies a certain easy-breezy quality to the comedy.

But without that knowledge... it's all nonsensical. A blur of faces, settings, and jokes with no context. What's the deal with the whiskey? Why is that guy with a lion? Is Goa different from Punjab? Who's that guy? Why doesn't that girl speak Indian?

The Akshay Kumar comedy film may not be "high art" but take a moment to appreciate how difficult it can be to understand a film like this. And remember that the next time you see some dumbass outsider try to "review" a film like this as if it was "world cinema."

Speaking of which there was another delightful little section in a different Parks essay, "A Game Without Rules": Magical Realism was not, of course, confined to South America. Among others, a number of Anglo-Indian authors used their own versions of the style to create a new vision of India for international readers; one of those authors was so spectacularly out of touch with the nation he was supposedly presenting to the West that the violent reaction to his Satanic Verses after its publication in India caught him entirely by surprise.

SHOTS FIRED! Also, strip away the exoticism and Rushdie is rather a dull storyteller if you ask me.

Parks again: Translation, [scholar Francesca Orsini] remarked, could make a novel available, but the real exoticism of the truly foreign text remained a barrier to most readers.

Kind of like the difference between Midnight's Children the movie and adding subtitles to a film like Singh is Bliing, translated but still inaccessible to outsiders.

Anyways, the book is worth checking out! Very interesting stuff. And I am going to try my best to get to Singh is Bliing this weekend. Probably Saturday? We'll see!

Friday, September 25, 2015

Let's talk Tamasha.

The tagline to the film is: "Why always the same story?"


It's deeply ironic that many of the same dudes who lecture us about how awful "escapist" cinema is, identify with all these films about escaping ordinary life, generally via romance. What is so bad about getting up and going to the office everyday? Nothing. Nothing is bad about that. What is bad is externalizing your sense of self-fulfillment, waiting for something to fulfill you, instead of buckling down and working to turn your "boring" job and life into something not boring. Take up cooking, get married and have a family, join an intramural sports team or something.

Escapist cinema, masala films, have their flaws. I'm not denying that. But what those escapist masala films don't do is tell the audience that their lives as good, productive citizens are worthless garbage. Escapist films are a stress release from the pressures of daily life but we're not supposed to actually emulate Salim & Anarkali, Jai & Veeru. We live vicariously, taking some comfort in a happy ending and poking at the painful catharsis of a tragic one. But who wants all that fuss in their life? Don't we all have enough problems? Why add to the stress of being alive by putting the pressure on yourself to have One True Love? One True Artistic Profession That's Definitely Not Office Work? That's a fantasy that should stay on the screen. Isn't it enough in real life just to love and be loved? To find a way to make your work fulfilling rather than seeking out some elusive Perfect Job?

Do you know who gets up everyday, eats breakfast, and then goes to work? Me. I didn't realize my life was so boring and worthless, Tamasha. And, as long as I'm on the subject, I got a few "fuck you" tweets for saying this but I'll say it again, it's more than a little condescending to have Richie Rich Star Son playacting a "dreary" office worker. I don't need some dude bankrolled by daddy telling me how I should be living. Give me some of that cash to fund my lifestyle and the power to gain a toehold in any profession I want and then we'll talk.

I'll also say this. All these "you need to escape ordinary life" films, Hollywood and Bollywood, have the musty odor of the post-60s flower child about them. It's as if an entire generation swallowed whole The Graduate, Easy Rider, and Bonnie & Clyde etc. without actually thinking about the messages they contained. We can't be petulant teenagers forever. What's cute at 17 is far less appealing at 27 and even less appealing at 47. Who is the real douchebag? The petulant kid at the bottom of the pool or the guy actually doing something useful with his life: making plastic. Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper end up DEAD at the end of their adventure... is that really the way to live?

Monday, September 21, 2015

Some thoughts on re-watching Student of the Year

At the very end of Student of the Year (2012), Rishi Kapoor’s character, Dean Yoginder Vasisht, says he started the Student of the Year competition to fill an emotional void in his life, to stave off the social isolation that came with his (heavily implied) closeted homosexuality. Sir Ian McKellen said something very similar on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast a few weeks ago, that when he began acting, it was a release for emotions he wasn’t allowed to have in public life, because of his (at the time) closeted homosexuality. Perhaps this is a reason that so many homosexual men (and women) have been attracted to a life in show business. The performative nature of hiding a double life is already second nature, so why not put those talents to good use?

Sunday, September 13, 2015

A Detective Three-fer for August: MOZU, SPEC, and Veronica Mars

As you may or may not have known, August was a very difficult month with the Filmi Girl clan. Three funerals for family and close family friends and both my father and grandfather were hospitalized. I haven’t particularly been in the mood to write or think about anything serious. The last person we lost has been the hardest. She was only 44 and always at the center of making plans for family to be together. Although one may think we “know” life can be random and unfair sometimes, it’s not always easy to process a loss. Perhaps that’s why detective stories can be so cathartic at times like this. Not so much the crime-and-punishment angle but the fantasy that everything has meaning, everything is a clue, everything is leading to some bigger picture.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015


To quote the football chant we were singing last night as DC United crushed the opposition 3-0, "Na na na na... na na na na... hey, hey, hey, GOOD-BYE!"

That's right! GOOD BYE, ONE DIRECTION! Don't let the door hit you in the ass on the way out of town. Or better yet, let it hit you in the ass and be done with you.

I've been (slowly) working on another mini e-book that will be an introduction to Japanese idol pop and one of the things that annoys me the most about One Direction is their utter lack of respect for the "boy band" as an art form. As their video for the song, "Best Song Ever" makes clear, they think dancing is gay, bright costumes are gay, being pleasing to female audiences is gay... with gay as code for bad, obviously.

This attitude infuriates me. As a person who adores dancing, bright costumes, and entertainers who respect me as a female audience member... 1D have been tarnishing the "boy band" tag with their shit attitudes for far too long!

I'll never forget the time they appeared on the live Japanese music show ミュージックステーション (Music Station) and had the gall to mock one of the other groups that was on!!! Okay, so maybe Sexy Zone is a silly sounding name in English but the boys in Sexy Zone at the time were all very sweet faced, very earnest teenagers dressed in dapper white suits with wintery white feathered collars, performing a medley of all their singles so far (to include the uber peppy "Lady Diamond" and their charming theme song, the self-titled "Sexy Zone") to a horde of adoring fangirls. Basically, performing Sexy Zone were performing ALL THE KEY RESPONSIBILITIES OF A BOY BAND while 1D was dressed in schlubby outfits and spent zero time being charming and all their time mocking Sexy Zone, the host of the show, and making asshole faces to camera.


One of the many things I've found so appealing in the world of Japanese idol pop is this dedication to pleasing the audience. A level of trust is built between the boy (and girl) groups and their audiences. We know they are going to deliver us the goods and by-and-large they do. That trust is why the Japanese idol groups are able to take risks and lead us down weird artistic rabbit holes. We follow, even if wary, because that relationship is there, built up over years. Yes, years.

While 1D seems to think 5 years is a "long" time for a boy band to carry on, Japanese boy band SMAP has been working steadily since 1991. That's right, 1991. 1991. 1991. AND THEY ARE STILL AMAZINGLY POPULAR with one of the best rated shows on television and a steady stream of number one singles. You've probably already seen SMAP members in movies like 13 Assassins and Sukiyaki Western Django and just didn't realize they were super popular singing-dancing-silly costume wearing idols.

There is so much that I love about the boy band as a art form. I've written about it here, here, and here... I won't bore you anymore with it today.

But I will (hopefully) delight your ears with one boy band song that I've been obsessed with for a couple of weeks now: the aptly titled 「バリ ハピ」!!! Which means, literally, bari hapi! Say it out loud! VERY HAPPY!

「バリ ハピ」 is an insanely catchy ditty ripped directly from a Bavarian beer tent and performed with great gusto by the group Johnny's West. The lyrics are essentially saying, "I know we all have our troubles and woes but sing along with us anyways!" The super happy accompanying dance echoes the German line-dance feel, the guys all kicking their legs out in time with the blustery accordion riffs. You can't hear in the video but on the recording there is a fairly loud shouted chorus, too. Explicitly encouraging a sing along. It's a song meant to be sung at great volume, with all your friends, in a crowded karaoke booth. As are all of Johnny's West's songs, actually.

In short, it's a genre of pop song we here in the West, have almost completely forgotten* how to make here in the West. Pop music not meant for the clubs or the gym. Pop music meant to cheer on the listener. Pop music meant to be shared. Pop music meant to be sung together, at full volume.

And I love it. 今日も超ハッピー、みんなバリハピ! "Today we're super happy, everybody's very happy!"

* With the huge exception of Pharrell's "Happy" obviously. But that song is an outlier in a way that Johnny's West catalog is not.

BROTHERS review via podcast!

Asim and I recorded an episode about Akshay's Brothers! It is available on the upodcast website over here. Please check it out!

We go into the use of Catholic imagery a bit and I want to underscore that I found the use really effective. Anybody who has been to a traditional Catholic church knows the prominence with which the naked, tortured body of Christ is displayed. In the end, Akshay's character David has nothing but his own body and there was definitely a resonance between David's tortured body on display for our amusement and his tattoo of Jesus Christ, who put his tortured body on display for our salvation. The other bit of Catholic-ness that really got me was the forgiveness. Although we may not always follow it, Catholic teaching is big on forgiveness. And guilt. But forgiving and turning the other cheek, as well. Anyways, I found all of this really worked for me.

I will also say that I got so caught up in the world of the film that I left the theater in a bit of a daze. Perhaps because I know nothing about MMA fighting, I was on the edge of my seat for the entire second half of the film just waiting to see how the fights would play out. I suppose logically I "knew" who would end up being the final two but kudos to Karan Malhotra in that it still felt tense.

Definitely go check it out if you can!

Monday, August 24, 2015

Purampokku Engira Podhuvudamai: In the end, the little guy always gets screwed.

This past weekend I caught up with Purampokku Engira Podhuvudamai, a pointed social commentary of a masala film that took me to places I did not at all expect. The posters had led me to believe this was going to be a film about Arya being a badass revolutionary hero, which was true to an extent, but his badassery was shaded with some pretty heavy moral gray areas.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Shaandaar: Yes, please.

My favorite trailer before the screening of Brothers was for Shaandaar, starring Shahid Kapoor and Alia Bhatt. I know I've gone on record as loathing the rom-com genre but that doesn't mean I don't like fluffy comedic romances when they're done well, as this one seems to likely to be. What I hate about the rom-com genre, in any industry, is the laziness and disdain so often on display. Laziness in execution, in casting, in vision, in storytelling... like, seriously, another self-serious dude-bro who doesn't know what love is? Another career woman who finds out that what she was really missing was a man to take care of? BORING!

But do you know who isn't lazy? SHAHID KAPOOR. And paired with the adorable Alia Bhatt. And with some extra charm from daddy Pankaj. From the team behind Queen. I think we'll be in for a treat.

Watching the trailer for Shaandaar, it made me think about something else that's been on my mind. I've been reading a good book about girls' culture in Japan and one of the points the author raises is that "girls culture" is something that Hollywood has basically ignored in recent decades... despite the fact that the success of movies like Twilight prove that girls and women are desperate for shared cultural products that reflect their fantasies. The author also raises the (VERY IMPORTANT) point that just because girls and women might enjoy a story like Twilight doesn't mean we're taking the relationships in it literally or even that we have to identify with the female lead character. We can enjoy stories without wanting the events in them to happen in real life, you know. Duh. We're not idiots.

So, why does Hollywood ignore women's fantasies in favor of YET MORE STUPID MALE FANTASY SUPERHERO FILMS despite the fact that we are 50% of the population and have money to spend?

Well, Rose McGowan was just on my favorite radio show NPR's On Point with the fabulous Tom Ashbrook and she has a lot to say on the topic of male dominated Hollywood. The biggest point she made was that besides the strangeness of alleged capitalists refusing to provide product to a female audience, the male-dominated Hollywood movies are just... boring. If all the movie writers are upper middle class white men who are told time and again to "write what you know" and what they know is in that closed world of upper middle class white men, well then... we get really boring movies. Which is one of the main reasons I tuned out of Hollywood years ago. They weren't making anything I was interested in.

What is nice about the trailer for Shaandaar is that it looks very much like Shahid and Alia are on equal ground. It may still be a fantasy that a woman and man can meet on equal footing, romantically, but that doesn't mean I can't enjoy watching it.

Long story short. I am looking forward to this one!

Note from Filmi Girl:

I love Bollywood - and all the ridiculous things that happen in Bollywood - but it doesn't mean that I can't occasionally make fun of various celebrities and films.

If you don't like my sense of humor, please just move on by - Trolls are not appreciated and nasty comments will be deleted.

xoxo Filmi Girl