I put a Facebook request for a blog topic and within the requested 5 minutes I received two suggestions: knitting and baking.
I not a good enough knitter to write something useful about knitting (like tips and tricks or maybe a made-from-scratch pattern?) but I can certainly share what I’ve been up to. As for baking, this is a little bit more up my alley although needing to eat low carb and gluten-free has put a damper on my baking ambitions. There isn’t much that ruins my will to live like baking something I can’t eat. I always end-up eating it anyway (gotta make sure no one dies) and since I’m a decent cook, I end-up eating most of it. Half a pan of banana oatmeal chocolate chip muffins is as potent as a whole bottle of antidepressants except that it won’t kill you. It will kill your keto streak, however.
In the knitting department, I finally finished the Martin-Storey Mystery Knitalong from 2016. I purchased all the wool in a kit and tried really hard not to see it as a $200 blanket. Because I would never spend $200 on a blanket unless I was making it myself, which makes no sense whatsoever. Why do we expect knitting and sewing to make sense? They’re hobbies. All hobbies are expensive and useless, that’s the point of having a hobby as opposed to a job. We don’t expect horseback riding to make financial sense from a transportation point-of-view, do we?
First, I was supposed to finish the blanket for Clara’s 20th birthday. Then as her Christmas gift, then as her 21st birthday gift, then 22nd and finally, I decided that it would be her graduation gift. I was still finishing it at 1 am the day before her graduation party and blocking it the morning of. It might have been wrapped-up slightly damp but it was given as a graduation gift and that’s that.
Then I made a bunch of striped Barley hats with the leftover yarn. No one will wear them because they are itchy but eh.
I added the stripes myself. To properly stripe the garter stitch section, you have to make sure to change colour on a knit row and from a knit row. So you’re knitting the new colour unto a row of knit stitches or else, ah, hum, I can’t describe it but if you purl the new colour or knit the new colour on a purl row it will look like you’re wearing your hat inside out. Don’t take my word for it, try it if you enjoy frogging your work.
My personal religion is that sampling is for the birds and that’s not always a good idea when you are knitting an afghan. I learned so much putting this thing together! It took me two-thirds of the sewing the squares together to finally understand how sewing worked (it’s a little more subtle than the Montessori lacing toy would have you believe).
Baking-wise, I suffer from cooking fatigue. I haven’t been baking much but I have been learning Indian cuisine. I started following recipes but I decided that I wanted to learn how to cook the way an Indian mom would in her own kitchen. And from what I could see, women learned cooking from other women and not from books. I found this guy on Youtube who cooks on an open fire in his garden. He doesn’t say a word but his videos are mesmerizing. I still use recipes but I’m also learning about the order of things in Indian cuisine — what goes in when, how big should the chunks be, how long should you pound the brains out of that ginger — from his videos. I love that he is using one knife (I get laughed at because I also use one knife for everything) and sitting on the floor. Living in a real Indian or Pakistani family just to learn how to cook is a bucket list item for me. Let me know if you know someone who will have me. Man, I love palak paneer…. Gotta go!!
I have been looking for work lately. We moved back to the city last May, my children are all in school and my husband is working from home. Sounds like as good a time as any to finally launch into a career. I’m 45 but I don’t feel it. Maybe that’s why not finding work easily never crossed my mind until now?
I spent the last 20 years getting two law degrees, a patchwork of unrelated experience and, oh, raising productive members of society. One of my children asked me once if they would get a reward for graduating high school. I said, “With the amount of privilege you have, I expect you to graduate high school!” There is no virtue in finishing high school when you have been given every advantage society, geography and history can throw at someone. You have to put your back into squandering this much unearned advantage.
My three oldest children have gone beyond graduating high school. All three are serving in the Armed Forces, all of them have achieved a certain measure of academic and personal success. All of them are fluently bilingual, polite with waiters, kind to children and animals. Not to detract from their own merit, all this didn’t happen in a vacuum. They grew-up in a loving and nurturing environment that gave them the space they needed to blossom. They didn’t have to worry about their physical or emotional safety, they had good role models and a cohesive extended family. This nurturing environment came at a cost to many people over several generations and served to my children on a silver platter.
But of course, I can’t really write this on my resume. It’s real though. Providing a stable environment for children to grow-up in happens over years. It happens over the job opportunities we turn down because the commute would add 4h of daycare to our children’s days. It happens over the promotions we refuse because we can’t make the 7:00 am issues meeting. It happens over the internships we don’t apply for because we can’t move to a different city for 8 months. It happens over the travels we can’t make and the reputation for not being a player we earn for ourselves. It happens over taking the boring translation job we can do from home over the stimulating speechwriting job we cannot. All the forks in the road where we put our families ahead of our ambitions amount to children who grow-up with parents who are physically and emotionally available to them. It also amounts to a very. boring. resume.
Someday someone will see my resume and wonder what’s in the negative space around the bits and bobs of disjointed items. And that person will hire a motivated, engaging and emotionally intelligent person who will take their mission and make it hers because that’s what raising a family teaches you. Someday, someone will see the young girl while everyone else is still looking at the old lady.
I just finished watching “Beyond the Clouds”, a 2017 Hindi movie marking Ishann Khatter’s debut role (also known as Shahid Kapoor’s half-baby-brother). I was intrigued by this movie after seeing Ishaan’s first major release, “Dhadak”.
“Beyond the Clouds” is the gritty story of a young drug dealer who matures suddenly when his sister is unjustly imprisoned. It’s a coming-of-age story about unlikely relationships forming in the shadow of tragedy. Having seen “Dhadak” before “Beyond the Clouds”, I couldn’t believe that I was watching the same Ishaan Khatter. With this talent, looks and family connections, a stellar career is his to lose.
“Beyond the Clouds” is a difficult but sweet movie, with plenty of tender moments to relieve us from the injustice of it all. The movie ends at an inflection point in the story, not at the end of the story, which felt a little abrupt. As if director Majid Majidi had suddenly run out of film.
Part of the narrative unfolds in a women’s prison in Mumbai and one thing that surprised me was the presence of children in the prison. Of course, the children of poor women have nowhere to go once their mothers are imprisoned. Some are born in captivity, some just follow their mothers behind bars. One character is a 5-year-old child who came to prison with his mother at the age of 3 months. She is serving a life sentence for killing her abusive husband, along with her son. At some point in the story, someone explains to him what the moon is. He has never seen the moon, or the stars, or felt rain. He is under lock and key at night, like the rest of the inmates.
It reminded me of the migrant situation in the United States. Family separations came about because family incarcerations were illegal. Both are inhumane approaches throwing the sins of the parents unto their children. No matter how you feel about migrants, no matter what you believe about the relationship between migrants and the children who accompany them, there is no argument that the children are innocent. And yet, they suffer the worst punishment because they are innocent.
Different factions make different arguments to justify family separations or incarcerations. The parents were endangering their children anyway, the children should be removed for their safety. The parents are acting against the law, people who disrespect the law are criminals, criminals are always separated from their children when they go to prison. How else are we supposed to discourage people from coming into the country illegally? These children are not really children. These parents are not really parents. Regardless of the point, there must be a mental classification of the families as somewhat different than we are. The children cannot suffer as ours would, the parents cannot feel like we would feel. These people must be different than we are. We are human, they are… something else. Relating is built deep into our DNA, attachment is our first survival mechanism. There is mental work involved in making the other into someone we can’t relate to.
In today’s The Daily podcast, a father and his daughter who disagree on the Trump administration’s immigration policies have a phone conversation. At some point, the father exclaims: “These people are not fleeing for their lives, they are just looking for a better life!” Aren’t we all? Shouldn’t this make us more empathetic? Unless “these people” are something different than we are. Something less deserving. Something less… human.
Catholic moral philosophy teaches that an act, to be morally good, must preserve the goodness of the object, the end, and the circumstances altogether. Inserting evil into any part of the equation corrupts the entire chain of means to end. Denying human beings the dignity they deserve because we have made them into something less than human corrupts the chain of morality entirely. In “Beyond the Clouds,” petty drug dealer Amir’s life is only worth what value he can bring to those hiring him. When he starts causing more trouble than he’s worth, he is summarily dispatched. A commodity himself, he values those around him based on the benefit they can bring him. When, en route to sell a young girl under his protection to a local brothel owner, he sees her humanity, he can no longer get through with the transaction. His punishment comes swiftly and ironically when his best friend sells him out to the thugs he betrayed, 30 pieces of silver-style.
Dehumanization. It’s a story as old as the world. And it never ends well.
I grew up in a family where my parents’ friends were like family. My mother’s family was in France and my father’s family was in Chicoutimi, a prohibitively long drive from Ottawa, especially in the winter. I grew-up celebrating Holidays, birthdays and major events with my parents’ friends and their children, who were like cousins to me. This image of friendship was formative and I remember in high school thinking that my high school friends would become like my parents’ friends. They didn’t. To this day, I have friends and my husband has friends but we have very few family friends.
This image of friendship etched in my heart is making it hard for me to appreciate the friendships I do have in my life. I often feel like I have no friends but it’s not true. I have many dear friends but they are not family friends. Our children and husbands don’t know each other. We don’t celebrate together, we are not invited to their children’s birthdays or to be their children’s godparents. We have coffee together, we hold each other up in bad times but our families are circles that do not meet.
Throughout the years, I have tried to make family friends by having people over. I have organized apple picking parties, snow fort building parties, brunch parties, family birthday parties, couples’ book clubs, beach picnics, parents meet-ups and recently Bollywood Movie Nights. I have given my phone number to so many people who have never called or texted me back, it’s embarrassing. So many people complain about how hard it is to make friends in your adult years but so few people are willing to do anything about it.
As I have gotten older, making friends has become harder and harder. I noticed that the people who have close friends made them when they were younger. Friendships nurtured for years before the weight of family obligations, work and general busyness challenged them. It’s hard enough to keep existing friendships through our thirties and forties, making new friends is nearly impossible. I can’t host as often as I used to. Our weekends are often packed. We need to manage our own schedules and that of our children. People are more discerning about their friendships, being roughly the same age and stage is no longer enough commonalities to be best friends. I have a professional relationship with most of the people I meet these days, like my massage therapist or my dentist.
The realities of life with a job and a growing family will probably prevent most of us from making meaningful new connections during our thirties and forties but I’m sure that planting these seeds will pay off in the future when we are no longer so busy. I will keep working on these budding friendships, like tiny plants that could be weeds or flowers, it’s too early to tell. Until the day when we can invest the time and energy to let them grow.
There are two things I need to do more this year, one is writing and the other one is being more like Seth Godin. I listen to my share of podcast interviews and nothing sends me scribbling things I need to remember like an interview with Seth Godin. This week on his blog, Seth celebrated daily bloggers who had reached (and overcome) the 1000-posts threshold and I decided to start blogging the way God intended when He created the Internet. Daily web-logging. Journalling. It may not always matter, it may not even be good. But I need to get the bad stuff out of the way so the good stuff can emerge. Like a monkey with a typewriter.
I often have ideas that I store away for future posts. They are bits of conversations, advice I give to people or little strokes of insight I get from thinking thoughts. They don’t always come fully formed and I often store them away to include in future posts. The problem is that I don’t write often enough to synthesize everything in one coherent text. But my life is at an inflection point right now and maybe there is worth in sending these reflections out into the world. I’m taking charge of my health and addressing lingering physical and emotional issues, my youngest child is in school and I am looking — unsuccessfully — for work. The ups-and-down of applying for and being turned away from entry-level jobs I am way over-educated for is certainly a mind-fuck worth sharing. I turns out that we live in a world that talks a good talk about the importance of raising children well and an even better talk about feminism and diversity. But try to find work when your last degree is 10 years-old and your experience it patchy and no one will give you a call back. You’re too old for internships, not cool enough for start-ups and not connected enough to be given a chance. We want diversity in the workplace as long as it walks like a white man and talks like a white male.
I’m turning 45 in a week, here goes nothing! Welcome to my B-log.
(In which I review “The God of Small Things” and tell you what you should read instead.)
(A short reading note: I read up to chapter 7, then — thoroughly confused — re-read chapters 1 and 2. It renewed my interest in the characters and clarified some plot lines I had lost.)
The God of Small Things is the 1997 Booker-prize winning debut novel by Indian writer Arundhati Roy.
TL;DR: Set in Kerala, a region located on the southwestern coast of India, The God of Small Things explores themes of forbidden love, class relations and social discrimination. The story is told in the third person but through the perspective of Rahel, a fraternal twin girl at the centre of the story. The narrative shifts back-and-forth between 1969, the year Rahel’s family is upended by tragedy, and the present set in 1993. The story unravels from its climax, tearing down the edifice of memories and events rather than building up to it. The disjointed narration – jumping from Rahel’s past to her present and interspersed with lengthy side notes – made it difficult to get invested in the story. Arundhati Roy makes extensive use of capitalization and misspelling to reflect the children’s innocent voices and – possibly? — the re-birth of India from its colonial past, recreating itself by patching together pieces of ancient culture and elements of occidental language and esthetics. The God of Small Things is in turn gripping and confusing, with chapters of heartbreaking clarity following long stream-of-consciousness tirades reading like creative writing exercises.
I started reading The God of Small Things last Summer and soon lost interest until a friend posted a picture of her children’s grade 12 reading list on social media. There it was, The God of Small Things. Moved by a certain pride and piqued by the thought of being out-read by my friend’s teenagers, I picked it back up only to be perplexed as to why it would be assigned to Canadian grade 12 students.
I’m of a mind that we should be sent out into the world to work hard and make mistakes at 16. Then we should come back to finish grades 11-12 in our mid-40s once we appreciate the usefulness of understanding things like math, computers, history and literature.
Everything we hand over to teenagers forms them in one way or another. Sometimes, the lesson they learn is not always the one we think they should. When my oldest son was in high school, he got in a fair amount of trouble for reading an English book in French school. In a minority environment, French schools battle the rising tides of linguistic assimilation by making boneheaded rules such as not allowing kids to read English books outside of English class. He was reading Romeo Dallaire’s Shake Hand with the Devil in its original English, received the three proverbial warnings, it escalated to the vice-principal’s office, his parents were called, suspension was threatened and all the while I was slowly clapping at the perfect example of how to make kids in a minority language situation despise their mother tongue. The lesson as intended by adults: if you don’t read in French, you will lose it. The lesson as learned by my teenager: French teachers are idiots.
What can The God of Small Things teach Canadian 12-graders? Many things, but probably not the right ones.
The God of Small Things doesn’t show any light shining through the cracks of India’s post-colonial unrest and firmly entrenched caste system. Through the story of the arrival and accidental death of Sophie Mol in Ayemenem, India appears as a backward, dirty and sexually perverted society. It pours out like an oil spill, turning adults and children into black, spoiled versions of themselves. The God of Small Things follows the inexorable march of abuse and trauma from one generation to next.
Pointed in the wrong direction, trapped outside their own history and unable to retrace their steps because their footprints had been swept away.” ~ The God of Small Things
The exploration of India’s fight against itself in the face of impossible circumstances is also the theme of Katherine Boo’s 2012 narrative non-fiction Behind the Beautiful Forevers. For three years she followed Abdul, an enterprising young Muslim living in the slums filling the unused nooks and crannies of the Mumbai Airport. His hopes for a better future crash against the forces of globalization, terrorism and political corruption but his downfall is orchestrated by his own neighbours, vying for the same limited supply of good fortune Abdul had started to scrounge for himself. Boo writes:
Instead, powerless individuals blamed other powerless individuals for what they lacked. Sometimes they tried to destroy one another. Sometimes they destroyed themselves in the process. When they were fortunate they improved their lots by beggaring the life chances of other poor people.”~ Behind the Beautiful Forevers
As a work of fiction, The God of Small Things can afford to wallow in hopelessness. What makes Behind the Beautiful Forevers a more suitable read for a class of privileged 12-graders (or for you and I) is that, telling the story of the living and breathing people who make the Annawadi slum their home, it cannot completely avoid the hope and invention weaved into the human tapestry. The human struggle supposes a fight between adversaries: fear and courage, good and evil, light and darkness.
While Beautiful Forevers explores economic poverty and the fight to survive, Arundhati Roy writes about the poverty of heart of the privileged, the paucity of compassion where never having been received, it cannot be given. Where the fossilization of inequality makes earning your privilege impossible, leaving each person to struggle to be the first one to take before it is taken. It might have been the reality of rural India on the eve of the seventies, a country grappling with the scars of colonialism and a punishing segmentation of society determined by birth, but is it really the image of India we need to teach young Canadians in 2018? Wouldn’t they be better served by the story of Abdul in Behind the Beautiful Forevers, a young man fighting to overcome the vagaries of history, rather than that of Baby Kochamma, an old woman who will stop at nothing – including sacrificing a man’s life and her own children’s happiness – to preserve them?
Nothing mattered much. Nothing much mattered. And the less it mattered, the less it mattered. It was never important enough. Because Worse Things had happened. In the country that she came from, poised forever between the terror of war and the horror of peace, Worse Things kept happening.” ~ The God of Small Things
Stories of perseverance in the face of impossible circumstances are formative. I read the City of Joy by Dominique Lapierre when I was 20 and it was a spiritual experience. 25 years later, I can still feel the confusion of being horrified by the abject poverty, bewildered by the prejudices of those perpetuating inequalities from under someone else’s boot, and moved to tears by the peace and joy found in everyday occurrences such as weddings and festivals. India is a land of extremes, densely packed. Just like the human mind, multitudes and all.
If the goal of assigning The God of Small Things to high school students is to present a fictional account of cruelty and corruption in India, why not do it through a story that also presents its dignity and heroism? The first time I heard Kurt Vonnegut’s now-viral lecture on the shape of stories, my mind immediately went to the day I finished reading Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance. I was sitting on my bed, frantically looking for the rest of the story where the bad people got their due and the upright were justified.
In A Fine Balance a man falls into a hole, then another hole, then crap gets poured down the hole, he escapes by falling into a yet deeper hole where he finds a sandwich, but a jerk falls down the hole, eats his sandwich and pisses on the crusts. The end. The bad people are really bad, the government is inept at best but mostly indistinguishable from organized crime and the upright never get their due. By the halfway point of the novel, you start feeling what orientalists calls “Indian fatalism.” The walls close in, your shoulders slouch and you resign yourself to the impossibility of a happy ending.
It didn’t matter that the story had begun, because Kathakali discovered long ago that the secret of the Great Stories is that they have no secrets. The Great Stories are the ones you have heard and want to hear again. The ones you can enter anywhere and inhabit comfortably. They don’t deceive you with thrills and trick endings.” ~ The God of Small Things
In The God of Small Things, the impossibility of a happy ending is foretold. It robs you of the hope that propels you through the 600 pages of A Fine Balance. It’s a gruesome and dark read that refuses to give its reader the comfort of anticipation.
In many ways, The God of Small Things is structured around the protection of that sense of discomfort. It opens with its dramatic ending and ends with a perfectly crafted love story. By the time you read the last chapter, you know that this brief episode of sanity will immolate itself and consume everything around it. Your mind is never at ease.
The uneasiness of the story is only compounded by the narrative voice. The God of Small Things is written in the third person from the perspective of a 7-year-old child. The voice changes from one chapter to the next, sometimes voicing the experience of Rahel as a child and sometimes voicing her recollection of the events as an adult. At times, an omniscient narrator takes the baton for lengthy descriptions of historical, cultural or environmental facts. Re-reading parts of the book to write this review, I came to see Rahel and Estha as representation of the wider political unrest of India, rising out of British rule and scared by partition. The twins are pulled and tugged from every side, between their Malayalam mother-tongue and English, between their anglophile grandmother and their Communist-sympathizing uncle, between The Sound of Music and Kathakali. Together they invent a language by inversing letters and liaising English syllables in creative ways, giving their English the fluty musicality of Malayalam. Their relationship is complex and riddled with dysfunction, like a shiny new building resting on rotten foundations.
He didn’t know that in some places, like the country that Rahel came from, various kinds of despair competed for primacy. And that personal despair could never be desperate enough. That something happened when personal turmoil dropped by at the wayside shrine of the vast, violent, circling, driving, ridiculous, insane, unfeasible, public turmoil of a nation.” ~ The God of Small Things
The breadth of what Arundhati Roy tries to capture with the characters of Rahel and Estha makes it difficult to yield to the narrative and let it carry us through the story. The success of stories written in the voice of children relies on our ability, as readers, to slip into the narrator’s skin. To Kill a Mockingbird became the literary classic that it is in part because we lived Jean Louise’s loss of innocence through her own voice. Much has been written on Harper Lee’s reclusive nature, but it was foretold in the way she completely disappeared behind Jean Louise Finch. Given the discomfort that Arundhati Roy seeks to foster through The God of Small Things, I’m hesitant to call her narration “inconsistent:” letting her adult voice peek through the child’s narration might have been a deliberate attempt to yank us from one mental space to the next. But it makes for an exhausting read.
Should you read The God of Small Things? Unless you make a point of reading Booker-Prize winning novels, it’s not a book that I consider unavoidable. In the same topical space, I would only recommend reading The God of Small Things after reading The City of Joy by Dominique Lapierre, A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry, and Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo. If you want to read books written in the voice and from the perspective of a child, you should read (or re-read) To Kill a mockingbird by Harper Lee, The Life of Pi by Yann Martel, and – if you read in French – C’est pas moi, je le jure! by Bruno Hébert, a mesmerizing and unsettling book about a Summer in the life of a tormented and traumatized child. If you are interested in the interplay of modernity, culture and ancient religious practices in India but not enough to read a whole book, I suggest watching the movie “Masaan” (available on Netflix).
As an Indian-resident author and an activist on environmental and social issues, Arundhati Roy’s sharp criticism of India is legitimate, but I would caution against making this your first foray into Indian literature if you are from the West. We never get a second chance to make a good first impression.
Do you remember the days when we would make mixed-tapes from the radio, recording our favorite songs as they came-up and sharing them with each other? Well, I think that the playlist is as good a love language as the mixed-tape ever was. In fact, the cool kids like Hamilton still call it mixtapes — having shed a few letters and a dash in its reinvention — even though there’s not a single bit of tape to mix and rewind with a pencil.
I still make lists and mixtapes to share. Here is my dance fitness playlist for October. Yes, I’m still deep in my all-things-India phase (if you are in Ottawa, I host a bi-monthly Bollywood movie club wanna come? Next movie is Dil Chahta Hai on October 12). This fitness playlist features my two favorite dance fitness/Zumba accounts from India: Vijaya Tupurani and Dil Groove Maare. The choreographies are a little more elaborate than you would find in a Western/white fitness class. My theory is that Desi people come to fitness with more rhythm in their bones since all their popular entertainment and celebrations are steeped in music and dancing. That’s why I make a playlist at the beginning of the month and work on the routines over 4 weeks. Enjoy!
All your back-to-school pictures are awesome and one day my children will hate me for not having a single one of them.
School started on the first day and the a/c broke in the middle of a heat wave so we went to the beach. A heroic HVAC repairman shot the trouble for about an hour before replacing the busted thermostat with a new one. He said apologetically “The ones we sell are $200” and I said “What does that mean?” and he said “You can get a cheap one at Home Depot for $40” and I said “But then you need to come back to install it and it adds up to the same thing or am I missing something?” and he said “some people install it themselves” and there was an uncomfortable silence during which he beheld the 12 eyes of the 6 sand-caked children hanging off my shirt and read my mind and my mind was lost. He said “I can discount it for you… Like $100?” and Sarah looked at him in earnest and said, in a tone that would not have been out of place in a Jane Austen novel: “You are a very nice man!” and he smiled and repaired the A/C on the first day but we still went to the beach because we had pizza.
The next morning as we were leaving for school, Lucas dropped David’s bike on Eve’s bike and got David’s pedal desperately stuck in Eve’s spokes and after 10 minutes of trying to get it undone, as the school bell was ringing, with my hands full of grease, I kicked the whole thing and yelled to the Heavens “WHY DOES MY LIFE HATE ME?” and David was finally able to get it unstuck and we got our first late note on the second day.
David said “My teacher said I need more dividers and I need them THIS MORNING” and repeated this about 15 times until I yelled to the Heavens: “When your teacher gives you a hard time for not having more dividers than were listed on the supply list they provided, you will say “I’m the 5th of 9 children and my father is in Latvia, my mom is doing back-to-school all on her own without a/c and she’s asking for an extra day” and the teacher will prostrate at your feet and send me flowers because it takes two people to make 9 kids and I’m doing this by myself” and David backed away slowly with no sudden moves.
The ad on Facebook asked “What’s their back-to-school outfit?” and I said We’re wearing the same clothes and the same shoes we were wearing last week because they still fit and the weather is still sunny and warm. Our hair smells of seaweed and river water because we were at the beach eating pizza until it was so dark I couldn’t see the children anymore. We filled up the van listening to Taylor Swift’s Love Story, singing all the words out loud and only some of the children were embarrassed. If your Chevy Express is almost empty, you can sing Love Story from start to finish while pumping exactly $138 worth of gas and no one will even look at you weird since you’re 44 and no one looks at women in their mid-forties which is a little sad but mostly liberating. So this will be our back-to-school pictures for 2018.
The title of this post means “Pain, Disco, Life” and was inspired by an item number from Om Shanti Om (Dard-E-Disco). Because you can’t do Bollywood without doing inside jokes.
A few months ago I fell into a Hindi cinema hole so large I’m picking-up a new language. My oldest daughter (22) asked me for a curated list of Bollywood movies available on Netflix Canada to get started and I was all too happy to oblige. Netflix Canada’s Bollywood selection varies, with movies going in and expiring out of its roster. It makes drawing a proper list somewhat tricky but I’m not one to shrink before a good challenge, especially when it involves watching a lot of movies.
Before we get into it, a little Bollywood 101 goes a long way in smoothing-out the culture shock. Hindi cinema has its own Gestalt, its own tropes and its own psychology, not to mention its own star system. The singularities of Hindi cinema can be jarring, endearing or puzzling, sometimes all three at the same time.
1. Bollywood is a place (or a language), not a genre.* (see update below this paragraph) The term “Bollywood” refers to either the movie industry based in Mumbai or the Hindi-language movie industry. The term Bollywood is often used by non-Indians to describe Masala — like the spice mix — movies, a particular genre of highly produced entertainment in which mega-stars lead a mash-up of action, romance, and musical comedy. But Bollywood also releases small independent films, films about serious topics and art-house type projects. Moreover, the Hindi-language movie industry represents about half of India’s total movie output. Regional movie scenes such as the South Indian film industry include five more film cultures, as does Northern India with the Punjabi movie scene, and Western India with the Marathi movie industry. It goes on
* I was corrected on Twitter for writing that Bollywood was a place not a genre. Two different points were brought up: (1) The Marathi (a language) movie industry is also based in Mumbai, so Bollywood cannot be the movie industry based in Mumbai since that would include the Marathi movie industry; and (2) Bollywood is actually a genre, describing the mainstream Hindi movie industry. I’m posting this correction as an update to the original post rather than a full-on correction because opinions vary amongst observers and writers, and also because “mainstream” is not a genre. I read enough different takes on what exactely is Bollywood to know one thing: ask 10 people and you’ll get 10 different answers. So here’s the Wikipedia entry for the term “Bollywood” where it’s described as “the Hindi film industry based in Mumbai” and a bunch of other things too. Do with it what you please and have fun!
Bollywood is a questionable term anyway. The term “Bollywood” conflates the words “Bombay” and “Hollywood” and suggests a comparison between the two film-making industries, placing “Hollywood” as the standard against which Hindi cinema is measured. The Hindi cinema industry stands on its own and doesn’t need to be compared to Hollywood. In fact, it eclipses Hollywood both in terms of output and ticket sales. Bollywood Stars are also better-known in Asia, Russia (because of years of embargo on U.S. movies) and the Middle-East than Hollywood Stars, although American movie stars are better paid and tend to rank higher on “Best Paid Actors” list worldwide. In this post, I’ll use the term Bollywood because it’s more readily understood than “Hindi cinema” but as a rule I prefer using “Hindi cinema” to describe, well… Hindi cinema.
2. Bollywood actors are lip-syncing marvels. For all the singing and dancing in Indian movies, I don’t know a lot of Indian actors who are genuine singing-dancing-and-acting “triple threats.” Actors act and dance but the songs are lip-synced. Movie songs are performed by playback singers, a class of performers with its own cult following and its own credits. Hollywood loves to believe that performers do everything but Bollywood has no such qualms.
3. Bollywood is a dream world for movie geeks because it loves referencing itself. Once you start spotting the references to other movies you can’t stop. All the biggest movies — and some smaller ones — feature cameo appearances (called “friendlies”). Sometimes, the biggest artists will make a 2-minute appearance as a side-character somewhere in the corner of a movie, sometimes they’ll come and dance for a music number. Like self-reference, spotting the friendlies is one of the most entertaining parts of watching Hindi movies. In this video, Bollywood’s Man of the Hour Ranbir Kapoor makes a 30 second appearance in the very last scene of Love per Square Foot. Just a little Easter egg for the fans:
4. Bollywood is a family business. In Indian cinema, nepotism is the name of the game. Several stars have questionable acting chops but the right family name and it’s not uncommon to hear of an actor doing engineering school in America or Great Britain and returning to Mumbai to start his or her film career. They just step into it. Some notable exceptions are mega star Shah Rukh Khan and critics’ darlings Irrfan Khan and Nawazuddin Siddiqui.
5. In Bollywood, most movies have a romantic and coming-of-age story rolled into their primary genre. Since my favourite movies are coming of age stories and rom-coms, I fell madly deeply in love with Bollywood. Bollywood producers pride themselves in using little to no special effects, which makes their action movies an acquired taste. This list reflects my personal preferences and the fact that I haven’t watched everything available on Netflix (yet). Actor Shah Rukh Khan’s production company, Red Chiles Entertainment, made its catalogue available on Netflix which explains — beyond my own infatuation with the guy — why so many movies on my list have him in the lead. There are other actors in Bollywood. Or so I’m told.
Love per Square Foot is the first Netflix original movie from India and the first Hindi movie that turned up on my suggested list. It features Vicky Kaushal *swoon* in the lead … and other people too. This movie does a good job of relating the crowded working class feel of Mumbai in a light-hearted way. As an intro to Hindi movies, Love per Square Foot introduces a few mainstays of Hindi cinema such as a train scene, a wedding, meddling relatives and the happy mishmash of religion and culture within the Indian lived experience.
Jab We Met was the second Hindi movie I saw on Netflix, before I understood how different Hindi cinema was from Hollywood tropes. I stopped watching after the first half-hour, just after hero Aditya runs into heroine Geet. In Hollywood, every scene following the meet-cute propels the story in the same direction and toward the same conclusion. I didn’t think I could handle two more hours of Geet talking Aditya’s ear off and him looking pissed. Big mistake. This movie introduced me to the conventional structure of Indian movies where a story and its sequel inhabit a 2.5 hour running time. Both lead actors were critically acclaimed but there is little argument that Kareena Kapoor’s versatile performance made the film the classic it became. This movie hits all the squares of Bollywood bingo with a train scene, a road trip, a rain scene and the beginning of a wedding. The soundtrack by Pritam is still popular today. In the clip below, Jab We Met director Imtiaz Ali explains the “Hotel Decent” scene. This is the scene that turned the movie around for me, when I realized that there was more to the characters of Aditya and Geet than I first thought. The movie excerpts in the You Tube video are not subtitled but Imtiaz Ali explains them in English so you’ll get the gist of it:
One thing India does really well is the plucky underdog story. Here are two sports movies that showcase the Indian competitive spirit in all its beauty (Lagaan) and questionable implications (Dangal):
Lagaan was one of only three Indian movies ever nominated for an Oscar in the foreign film category. It was shot in the Kutch desert in a village created out of nothing for the purpose of the movie. Starring Aamir Khan (who also produced the movie with his then-wife ), it used over 2000 extras from neighbouring villages, many of whom had never seen a movie. The making-of Lagaan, Madness in the Desert (also available on Netflix Canada) will give you a new perspective on the labour of love involved in producing this stunning epic. The soundtrack by A.R. Rhaman is, in my opinion, one of the best soundtracks Bollywood has produced and it’s available on Spotify. One thing I particularly enjoy about Hindi cinema is its ability to tell a story where circumstances are the villain, without having to add villainous characters and twisted plot lines to rub it in. In Lagaan, two worthy women fall in love with the same man and the cricket game is played — and won — fair and square.
Also produced and lead by Aamir Khan, Dangal is a biopic about wresler-turned-father-turned-coach Mahavir Phogat. Worthy of note: the opening scene of the movie depicting younger Mahavir was filmed last. Aamir Khan gained weight to play older Mahavir then took three months to work-off the weight and re-buff to be his best-looking-self for the film’s promotion. The soundtrack by Pritam kicks ass and is available on iTunes. Here is one of the songs from Dangal in which Mahavir works his daughters to exhaustion:
Bollywood loves referencing itself and nowhere is that celebrated like it is in movies about Bollywood. Here are two movies from Bollywood about Bollywood:
Billu is a comedy-drama featuring two of my favourite actors, my artsy side Irrfan Khan and my guilty pleasure Shah Rukh Khan. Irrfan Khan is the main character of the story and Shah Rukh plays himself in what amounts to an extended cameo. The three song numbers featured in Billu were choreographed by Farah Khan and act a subtle spoofs of Shah Rukh’s typical roles. In each number, he is accompanied by one of the three biggest actresses in Bollywood, Deepika Padukone, Priyanka Chopra and Kareena Kapoor, also making surprise appearances. I would love to see sequel of Billu with Shah Rukh and Irrfan hitting the road together.
Om Shanti Om is a cult classic and a solid 3h of pure entertainment. Directed by Farah Khan and introducing Deepika Padukone in her debut role, it is a giant celebration of Bollywood deftly threading between self-reference, self-congratulation and self-deprecation. It’s so full of Bollywood geekery that you have to re-watch it at regular intervals as you discover Hindi cinema to get the jokes you previously missed. A parody of the Filmfare Awards — India’s main award show — has about 60 cameos from Bollywood royalty (see clip below).
A mainstay of Bollywood criticism is that it’s all about entitled actors lip-syncing while gyrating around trees. Here are two movies showing that Bollywood can tackle tough topics without sacrificing lip-syncing, gyrating and Bollywood royalty:
I stopped watching the first 30 minutes of this movie three times before I finished it. It has been revealing itself to me ever since. One interesting thing about discovering a foreign movie scene is discovering a new culture through its cinematic tropes. Hindi romantic movies have a bit of a stalker trope that I found off-putting as a white Canadian. In the first half of Dil Se, Shah Rukh Khan’s character Amar pursues a woman with an insistence that made me uncomfortable but I assumed it was a cultural idiosyncrasy rather than a plot point. I later realized that the arc of the two main characters ran in parallel: one pursuing love to the point of obsession and one pursuing revolutionary goals to the same irrational point. Meghna believes that violence can avenge the past, Amar believes that love can erase the past, both are wrong and both are pursuing their ideals with single-minded passion. The movie opens with Shah Rukh Khan dancing on top of a moving train in one of Hindi cinema’s most iconic item number, Chaiyya Chaiyya. The lyrics of the song, written by Gulzar, preface the progression of Amar’s love from curiosity to infatuation to love to obsession toward its dramatic conclusion. It’s a tour-de-force that shows what a group of creative people at the top of their game can accomplish together.
Udta Punjab! is a drama about the drug abuse crisis in the Indian state of Punjab. It pairs two established actors (Kareena Kapoor Khan and Shahid Kapoor) with two of the most promising up-and-coming actors in Bollywood (Alia Bhatt and Diljit Dosangh, a Punjabi musician who made his film debut in Udta Punjab!). Udta Punjab! manages to break difficult and dramatic storylines with moments of pure levity. Shahid Kapoor gives a performance unlike any he’s given before and Kareena Kapoor Khan shows (once again) that she is secure enough in her stardom to take understated roles and let lesser-known actors shine around her.
Two (three) excellent movies about modern India in its many shapes:
Swades is an uplifting drama from Ashutosh Gowarinker, the creative force behind Lagaan. It features Shah Rukh Khan in one of his most restrained (and celebrated) performances. Swades was inspired by the true life story of a non-resident Indian couple who returned to India to develop a pedal power generator providing electricity to remote, off-the-grid village schools. Like every movie I have recommended so far, it has an excellent soundtrack composed by A.R. Rahman with lyrics by Javed Akhtar.
The Parallel Cinema movement in India presents an alternative to the mainstream movies associated with Bollywood. It usually delves in sociopolitical issues and rejects the song-and-dance numbers many associate with Hindi cinema. Dhobi Ghat is a mesmerizing dive into the interconnected lives of four characters. It starred Aamir Khan who had to fight the director — his wife Kiran Rao — to get the part. Rao was concerned that Aamir’s popularity would prevent the shooting team from filming Mumbai in its natural state, since crowds would surely follow Aamir everywhere he went. Aamir’s part was shot almost entirely from inside a flat in an older locality of Mumbai, where he moved incognito in the middle of the night and didn’t leave for 3 weeks. The movie opened at the Toronto International Film Festival to critical acclaim.
I had to add a third one to this list after seeing it. This is not a singing-and-dancing Bollywood but it manages to wrap a hopeful ending into a difficult narrative. Set in present-day Varanasi in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, Masaan is an exploration of gender and class under a strict moral code and an unforgiving caste system. It was Vicky Kaushal’s breakthrough performance. Visually, the film does a superb job of conveying the bustling — and often conflicting — interaction of ancient culture and modern life in a city considered the spiritual capital of India.
India has yet to win an Oscar for the best Foreign Film. Here are two Indian submissions for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film (neither were nominated):
Paheli is a charming romantic fantasy starring Rani Mukherji, one of Bollywood’s finest actresses, alongside Shah Rukh Khan playing a double role. Double roles are, if not a mainstay of Bollywood, at least one of its idiosyncrasies. Most of the time, each role will have a distinct physical or environmental component to carry the audience along. In Paheli, both roles are physically identical and played in locales that are at least similar so the differentiation between Kishan-the-ghost and Kishan-the-merchant’s-son relies entirely on Shah Rukh Khan’s acting. Sometimes, the mischievousness of the ghost and the insecurity of the man are held in a look or a smile, but I was never confused as to which character Shah Rukh was playing at any given time, except at the very end. A fine performance and a visual feast of colour. If you dig the Shah Rukh/Rani jodi (pairing), their 2003 romance Chalte Chalteis also available on Netflix Canada.
Taare Zameen Par is a drama exploring the challenges and imagination of an 8 year-old boy who suffers from an unidentified learning disability. Believed to be in turns careless, recalcitrant and mentally handicapped by the adults in his life, he is sent to boarding school where he meets a teacher who can see his potential. The Star-Director of the movie, Aamir Khan, doesn’t appear until the end of the first half of the movie, casting the child as the gravitational force of the story. Unlike Dangal, in which the adult’s perspective is leading the story with little consideration given directly to its affect on the children, Taare Zameer Par is about how the adults’ perspective and assumptions affect the child. There is not too much music and dancing in that one but we’ll survive.
Ok, I’m adding this bonus to the Academy Award Category because there’s only three of these on Netflix and it seems a little disingenuous to pick only two, especially when the third one is excellent (but maybe not the best introduction to Hindi Cinema, unless you are a movie-lover). Liar’s Dice is a quiet road drama exploring the cost of human migration to cities and the exploitation of migrant labourers. It features Nawazuddin Siddiqui, a versatile Indian actor who is consistently excellent. He won a Filmfare Award for his supporting role in The Lunchbox, also on Netflix Canada (a quiet romantic drama about the budding friendship between two lonely people brought together by a rare mistake in the Mumbai lunchbox delivery system.) Nawazuddin Siddiqui also stars in the first Netflix Original series from India released worldwide on the platform, Sacred Games.
Asoka is a dramatized chronicle of the early life of Emperor Ashoka the Great who ruled most of the Indian sub-continent in the 3rd century BC. Emperor Ashoka is credited with the spread of Bhuddism following his conversion. The movie depicts the star-crossed — and fictional — romance between Prince Ashoka and Princess Kaurwaki, which leads him to destructive madness and repentance. It stars Shah Rukh Khan and Kareena Kapoor in lead roles and was critically acclaimed despite a lukewarm box office reception. Like Dil Se, this movie fully exploits the range of Shah Rukh Khan’s talent, first portraying him as the carefree romantic hero, then transforming him into the vengeful Chandashoka (evil Ashoka). Asoka was filmed using minimal special effects by Santosh Sivan, the man behind the lens for Dil Se’s Chaiyya Chaiyya, which was filmed atop a moving train with no special effects or post-production tricks.
Mughal-E-Azam is believed to be the highest grossing Hindi movie of all time when adjusted for inflation. It is certainly considered one of Bollywood’s finest. Everything about Mughal-E-Azam was extravagant for the times: the music — the budget for a single song sequence exceeded that of entire movies; the design — some sets took 6 weeks to put together; the photography — each sequence was filmed three times, once in Hindi/Urdu, once in Tamil and once in English; it was shot over 500 days — a normal schedule being between 60 and 125 days; production was delayed by the rioting surrounding India’s partition and independence in 1947; the two lead actors — who had been dating for 9 years — separated during the shoot. It goes on. But beyond the challenges it faced, this movie is worth seeing for its exploration of romantic love defeating religion, political hierarchy, social class, family and duty. A colorized re-mastered version was released in 2004 but Netflix Canada is still showing the black-and-white version except for a 30 minute interval of colour in the middle. This YouTube video is from the re-mastered release. Madhubala (the actress) and Lata Mageshkar (the voice) are hypnotizing.
Indian cinema is more than Bollywood. Segmented by language, the Hindi-language film industry is known as Bollywood. That said, the Indian regional movie industry is also thriving. Here are two Indian movies from the regional movie industry:
Baahubali is an epic action film shot in Telugu that became a box-office phenomenon, breaking every box office record in India and becoming the third highest grossing Indian film of all time worldwide. Netflix Canada has an Hindi-dubbed version with English subtitles and a Tamil-dubbed version with English subs available. I found that the Tamil version sounded and looked less dubbed than the Hindi version, maybe because Tamil is closer to Telugu than Hindi? I have no idea. The first movie has two distinct halves. In the first half, lead actor and hunk to end all hunks Prabhas plays young Mahendra Baahubali, a curious young man rescued as an infant by a family of villagers, who falls in love with a girl. He is playful and carefree. In the second half, he plays Mahendra’s biological father Amarendra, a virtuous and beloved warrior-prince defending his kingdom against an attacking army of blood-thirsty savages. Prabhas is in his element as the latter. I found his turn as Mahendra to be a little over the top silly but didn’t realize why until he transformed into Amarendra. Prabhas has the physicality, the presence and the charisma of a king, not a starry-eyed villager.
Ok, this is the last movie I saw before writing this list and honestly I’m still processing it. Sairat, man, what can I write about this movie? Sairat’s Wikipedia page describes it as a “musical romantic drama”, which I guess it is in part, but it’s not really. In its first half, it’s the story of two college students from different castes who fall in love. Typical Bollywood? No, in fact, Sairat upends all the Bollywood cliches by having the plucky rich girl very much in charge of the relationship. The second half of the movie is an unflinching exploration of the fallout from that forbidden relationship. I read Marathi cinema described as “low on cash and high on art” and it’s an apt description of what makes Sairat stand out. It was filmed on location in rural Maharashtra on a shoestring budget of 4 crore rupees (about $500,000 US). It eventually grossed 1.10 billion rupees at the box office ($16 million US) and was remade in Punjabi and Kannada in 2017. Two young people with no acting backgrounds were cast in the lead roles. They grabbed me, put me through the wringer and haven’t let go yet. A much-awaited Hindi remake titled Dhadak will be released this Summer. I’m not sure how a mainstream Bollywood production company like Dharma Production will pull-off the doomed love story, the gritty crowded world where there is no justice, only good luck and bad luck, where modern amenities share space with feudal mentalities and violence. Sairat’s filmmaker Nagraj Majule described his movie as “a reaction to Bollywood” so it’s anyone guess whether Bollywood will honour that spirit or counter it. In the meantime, here is a video of the song Zingaat from Sairat. You can also find the remade Hindi version with Janhvi Kapoor and Isshan Khatter on YouTube, where it is surely trending. Watching both video will give you a sense of the difference between both movies at a glance.
Other movies I really enjoyed:
Hum Aapke Hain Koun
Main Hoon Na
At this point you’re probably wondering “Véronique, when does a mother of 9 children find time to watch so many movies?” and to this I will reply “Whenever” but usually while other people are sleeping. I function better on 5-6h of sleep: more and I get insomnia, less and I get migraines (so basically if I sleep more than 6h I get insomnia, which leads to sleeping fewer hours, which lead to migraines. I know it sounds like fun.) That said, the evening hours are not very productive because I’m not very focused. So I watch movies. Someday I hope to stop watching movies and start writing one. But for now, this is the stage my life will allow.
In this episode of the Véro Show, I reflect on finding room for our interets and passions in the middle of motherhood and tackle the question of vocation and whether motherhood should be enough to sustain us. Just a regular Wednesday…
I mention a few cool things in this podcast. First I quote Phil Collins. I don’t need to link to this video but I will anyway because if you know a more perfect break-up song, I won’t believe you (but *please* if you recently lost someone through death or divorce, be kind to yourself and give this song a pass for 5 or 10 years, ok?):
I just finished watching Masaan on Netflix, a Hindi movie about people navigating difficult circumstances in the midst of a punishing moral code and a strict caste system. It’s not a feel good movie but it’s one you have a duty to watch if you enjoy a lot of Masala movies. Because India is not exactly what it’s shown to be in high gloss Bollywood productions. This trailer doesn’t have subtitles — you’ll get the gist of it — but the movie does.