My Dear Americans

My Dear Americans
My Dear Americans
Happy July 4th, my dear Americans. Here is a short made by Arpita Kumar, being screened at PBS ONLINE FILM FESTIVAL.

Here is what Kumar told us about the short:

I made My Dear Americans during my Project Involve fellowship at Film Independent in Los Angeles. We were asked to pitch short film projects focused on the theme of traditions. I thought it would be interesting to focus on an American tradition but from the point-of-view of an outsider. I chose to build a narrative around the 4th of July tradition since it’s the most American and patriotic of the holidays. And, I decided on a Sikh couple as the outsiders largely because around that time there was a shooting in a Sikh Gurudwara in Wisconsin. The white supremacist perpetrator associated the Sikhs with Osama Bin Laden and it shocked me that there was such ignorance about the Sikh community still. It had been more than a decade since 9/11 and the backlash continued. I realized that we cannot do much about the ignorance of others. What we can do is change our reaction to their ignorance. And, that inspired the film and the actions of the wife, Tejpreet.

I arrived in the U.S. eleven years ago with the unbearable enthusiasm of Baldev – the husband in the film – for all things American. Over the years, the enthusiasm has not tapered but my mind has gained a more complex understanding of national identity, displacement, and the idea of home. The film is a window into that mindscape.

Additionally, every time I start a film I give myself a challenge and for this one it was to tell a story with as little dialogue as possible. Watch and let me know if I succeeded. Also, vote.

Feet First – Essays on Maula Jatt I

There is no real sense of how Maula Jatt changed Pakistan. Real as in what to quantify and how to do it. At some point, it was everywhere and then it remained. The man playing the role of Maula Jatt was named Sultan Rahi né Mohammad Sultan who was born in 1938 in Uttar Pradesh (yes, Punjabi was not his mother-tongue) and died in 1996 near Gujranwalla. He began working in Lollywood in 1956 and ended up with a career filled with over 800 appearances. At least 300 of which he played a role akin to Maula Jatt. The template for this character came from “Wahshi Jatt” (Savage Jatt) which was released in 1975 (I think?) based on Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi’s short story “Gandasa”. The opening voice-over (linked earlier) is really an amazing document of mid 70s Pakistan. Maula Jatt (1979) was a continuation of the character from Wahshi Jatt and, legend has it, it played non-stop (four shows a day/seven days a week) for nearly three years after which it was banned for excessive violence (precisely for the scene involving cutting of a human leg) and removed from public showing. When it re-appeared in cinema halls, it was already legend. My favorite bit from Maula Jattn is the song Nashay diyay Botalay (bottle of whiskey) sung by Inayat Husain Bhatti.

Below is an essay by noted writer Musharraf Ali Farooqi (author, most recently, of highly acclaimed novel Between Clay and Dust (2012) {which will receive a thorough and critical reading from me}) which he has graciously contributed to CM. It was first published in The Popcorn Essayists: What Movies do to Writers, Editor: Jai Arjun Singh Publisher: Tranquebar Press (2011).
Continue reading “Feet First – Essays on Maula Jatt I”

From the Department of Unfinished Business

Some of you may be old enough to remember a letter to an academic journal that Sepoy posted last February. Below, I furnish the piece of writing in question for those who are curious. The article, on the portrayal of terrorists in Indian cinema, was written in 2002. It was, I like to think, fresh and timely. It can no longer be described in that manner now. Many new movies have come out that would be interesting to discuss in this context. Mani Ratnam has since made a film that touches more directly on the conflict in Sri Lanka (Kannathil Muthamittal). I would no longer be caught dead writing this kind of academic article. The world has changed, etc. But in the interest of freecycling, I give it to you, below. Perhaps it can be repurposed and made into a quilt?

But before we move on, one last item of business. I must also share with you the reviewer’s comments alluded to in my original letter. The following was scrawled in heavily applied ballpoint on the review sheet:

NO– I am normally very open-minded, but I cannot be so here. I have no interest in advocating an article which is designed to elicit empathy for terrorists & terrorism. I don’t want to “appreciate” or “comprehend” the world of terrorists. I am not naive. The problem is with the terrorist– NOT my understanding of these PSYCHOPATHIC KILLERS. (and yes, I understand the intent of the essay. I am not misreading it)

Continue reading “From the Department of Unfinished Business”


A guest essay by Basanti

Mushtaq Bhai: Any last words?
Babban: How about a joke?
Mushtaq Bhai: Yes, go ahead.
Babban: (nervously) There was once this mullah who had a female parrot. This female parrot had quite a mouth on her, always saying the foulest things. The mullah was at a loss, what to do. He went to his friend, the qazi. The qazi said: look, I have a pair of male parrots, who are both very respectable. They are always singing the praises of Allah. Just have your parrot spend a few days with them, and she’ll be straightened out soon enough. The mullah was very happy by this prospect and handed over his parrot to the qazi. But as soon as the qazi’s parrots took one look at her, they started saying the most vulgar things, suddenly acquiring the most foulest of tongues themselves… the worst insults (galis)! I mean… things I cannot bring myself to repeat…you see, I am much too embarrassed. No, I just can’t say them out loud …I’m really just too shy….Are you sure you want to hear what they said?
Mushtaq Bhai: (chuckles) Of course, yes…
Babban: Ok, but I’m really too embarrassed to say it out loud. Shall I whisper it in your ear?
Mushtaq Bhai: (bending forwards) Yes, do tell…

I finally got around to watching Abhishek Chaubey’s much acclaimed debut, a marvel of a film. Ishqiya follows the interconnected stories of a femme fatale named Krishna (Vidya Balan) having just lost her hardened criminal husband, and two thieves, Khalujaan (Naseeruddin Shah) and Babban (Arshad Warsi), on the run. The film’s subtle, yet powerful critique of the Hindu right, its mockery of the rising nouveau rich middle-class; and [relatively] progressive sexual politics, makes it worth a watch. Its landscape is a north India as home through the eyes of its marginalized poor: these happen to include Muslims, (widowed/unattached) women, and lower-castes.

It is to writers’ credit that Ishqiya’s chief Muslim characters—male protagonists aptly portrayed by Naseeruddin Shah and Arshad Warsi—are for once not the Good Muslim-Bad Muslim familiar duo of Bollywood, chasing their tales in a narrative about terrorism (a la Fiza, Mission Kashmir, Dhoka, Fanaa, etc.) I will spare you the history of the much maligned figure of the Muslim in many a film from Roja (1992) onwards, which has pitted the Indian nationalist hero in opposition to the jihadi terrorist. Many recent films, when featuring Muslims, are structured around a popular narrative about a purported crisis unique to Islam—between good Muslims working for the success of the secular Indian state, and bad Muslims, taking on the state out of adherence to an aggressively blind religious ideology. Suffice to say, there is rarely a film out of Bollywood these days where the Muslim character is not the bearer of religious particularity or difference or presented as political conundrum. So when a film comes along that doesn’t fall into the usual scenario, and does well at the box office, it is noticeable.
Continue reading “Ishqiya”

Around the Khyber Pass

David Bordwell, John Ford, silent man

One headliner is the early Ford series: all his surviving silents, plus a selection of rarely-seen talkies. The first one screened, The Black Watch (1929), concentrates on the Khyber Pass incident of 1914. Captain King is assigned to India while the rest of his Scots regiment is sent to Europe. In India, King masterminds the defeat of the forces of Yasmani, a woman who has been taken as sort of a goddess by her followers. The central section, involving Yasmani’s passion for King and his betrayal of her, seems to me sketchy and rushed; Ford’s real interest, not surprisingly, is in the rites of comradeship among the Black Watch. Twenty-two of the film’s 91 minutes is taken up with the opening dinner celebrating the regiment, conducted while King gets his secret mission; for reasons he can’t disclose, he abandons his comrades and suffers their opprobrium. A bookended sequence at the close shows him returning to the Watch as, in the trenches of war, they hold another dinner, complete with ruffles and flourishes.

Some of the central portion was directed by Lumsden Hare, but it too has some striking moments, perhaps most memorably the display of Yasmani’s powers when she conjures up an eerie vision of the European battlefield in a glowing crystal ball. The war sequences have the dank Expressionist look that Murnau brought to Fox and that Ford exploited in Four Sons (1928). There are as well touching train-station farewells between brothers and between father and daughter that seem very Fordian. Overall, Ford finds ways to avoid the multiple-camera shooting common to early talkies, often using offscreen dialogue during reaction shots.

Needless to say, I have never seen/heard of this movie but now I cannot wait to find it.

Long before John Ford, Khyber Pass entered into American imagination courtesy not only of the Anglo-Afghan wars, but also Rudyard Kipling and Josiah Harlan – Harlan’s memoir1 was released in 1842 in Philadelphia and Kipling’s The Man Who Would be King came out in 1888. The Anglo-Afghan Wars were front page news in New York Times since the late 1860s (the Sepoy Rebellion had stuck a nerve).

As I noted in an earlier post, the “Indian Question” lay heavy on the brows in New York and Washington. “The Khyber Pass is no longer a hindrance to movement” was the declaration in Feb, 1894 [pdf]. Here, for example, is the NYT in 1897, giving the geo-political consequences of a war going heavily wrong for the British. Change is nothing to believe in. England Facing, a Grave Situation: [pdf]

All eyes here are on the Khyber Pass and beyond. Whether the torrent of Afridis be stemmed as quickly as the Swat Valley troubles were stilled is a question of minor importance compared to the larger issues, which, one after an other, these at present isolated religious revolts are suggesting. There is as yet no proved coalition or combination among the insurgent tribes, but the lesson in each case is the same. Sooner or later, England, that greatest of Mohammedan powers, must suffer for this her latest crusade, into which she was driven by a wave of sentiment of which no English speaking men are ashamed, though many question the prudence of the aggressively quixotic policy when backed by such feebleness in execution. England could not stand by while the helpless Armenians and the too hopeful Greeks were in more or less real danger of life and liberty. So she sided with these people against the threatening Turk – that one Mohammedan soldier power with whom an English Machiavelli would have found wise to make friends, tempering friendship, as in the old days, with just sufficient bullying to keep up the illusion that the feeble sick man, Turkey, was being bolstered up by the unassailable power of Christian England.

In 1898, Kipling got to San Francisco from India and quickly came to embody the spirit of joint British-US expansionist project (He had sent his poem The White Man’s Burden: The United States and The Philippine Islands straight to Teddy Roosevelt in 1898 who promptly forwarded it to Henry Cabot Lodge. Further aside, if you have not read Christopher Hitchens’ “Burdens and Songs: The Anglo-American Rudyard Kipling”, Grand Street {1990}, I urge you to run, not walk to JSTOR. )

Where was I? Oh, back to Khyber Pass/John Ford in 1929. Another tid-bit: I am shamefully ignorant of the history of early cinema and its engagement with India/Orient but I did pick up a reference once to a ethno-documentary In the Heart of India; As Seen by Dr. Dorsey (1916) which I have never seen nor been able to trace elsewhere but was reported to me that contains footage of Khyber Pass/Peshawer. It seems that the genealogy of Ford’s Khyber Pass is just as much Kipling and Dorsey as the German Murnau.

Resume normal transmission.

  1. A Memoir of India and Avghanistaun; with observations on the Present Exciting and Critical State and Future Prospects of those Countries. Comprising Remarks on the massacre of the British Army in Cabul, British policy in India, A detailed descriptive character of Dost Mohamed and his court, etc. With an Appendix on the fulfilment of a text of Daniel, in reference to the Present Prophetic condition of Mahomedan nations throughout the World, and the speedy dissolution of the Ottoman Empire []

Obligatory Avatar Post

But the problem with my analysis is, you will say, that Cameron is not the Department of State or Labor nor is he the official mouthpiece of some quasi-empire. You would be right. Yet Avatar is consensus. It is the consensus of nearly $300 million dollars – pored over every lovingly rendered pixel flesh and woodenly crafted “I got this!”. It is more importantly, a global consensus of consumption – fast approaching the $1 billion dollar mark. As such, I think it provides a credible archive against which to read the past decade.

Sitting through Avatar reminded me of the edifices of empire – not the halls of power (palace and parliament) but those edifices constructed for both the citizen and the colonial subject – simultaneously convincing one of the righteousness of the imperium and the other of the sheer inevitability of imperial power.

Avatar mirrors the techno-capital apogee of this American empire as well the grave ambivalence at the heart of it. Avatar is our Crystal Palace and our Delhi Durbar of 1911 as well our Hastings/Burke moment.

There are more than enough readings out there on the inherent biases and contradictions in Avatar. Read Aaron’s take, for one. Or Bustillos, as well. There is both merit and substance to these readings but I am much more interested in parsing the broader milieu which has produced Avatar. Where previous Empires (without going into whether America is or isn’t one) created magnificent physical edifices of their power and glory, we build monuments of light and shadows (3D) that provoke much of the same reactions: awe, glory, camaraderie. We are united in our appreciation of the technological wonder that created this spectacle and united in our consumption of it. Note that the end-credits stretch across the North (digital houses from New Zealand to California to London). Note as well that from Cairo to Dubai to Bombay, Avatar is playing to packed houses.

Where the Mughals borrowed curlicues from Damascus to Vijaynagar or the British incorporated “Eastern” motifs into the Lahore train station, Avatar borrows the Iraq War. It serves a decorative purpose. Mind you, that doesn’t make it a “throwaway” or “inessential”. On the contrary, it constitutes the very ethos the project itself – which is, after all, a simulacra itself. “Shock and Awe”. It will forever be the curlicue glued to the outside of any edifice – either with a wink, or a nudge, or with a scowl. When Avatar employs it, the audience (in Berlin) smirks loudly. They got this. The parallels are now as explicit as a minaret. No one notes the irony that the company has too few troops for the job. It is only a matter of time before the “surge” happens. But, let that be. Let’s just go back to the Iraq War. Some have suggested that there is a “critique” of the Iraq War buried inside the movie. The war in Avatar is not between the haves and the have-nots (one with tech, the other without; one with mineral resources, the other without) but between different ideas of having and not-having. At some level, however appropriated, Avatar grants some equivalence to the notion that these two civilizations can indeed differ in their reading of what constitutes as essential for survival. But the debate over the Iraq War is not, and will not be for a while, about granting equivalence – either hypothetical or literal – to our civilizational mission (democracy and freedom) and their claim to self-rule and self-governance. In that frame, there may be a mild nod towards Iraq, but there is no critique of war in Avatar. It is pro-war all the way. Eco-tech vs. mech-tech.

I greatly enjoyed Avatar. I will probably see it again on DVD and I will certainly try and teach it in class. Here are some thoughts – out of order – but in the order that they occurred to me.

related: Aaron expands his comments

The Silver Screen War

(sepoy sez: you can find an introduction to purdah on the about CM page)

Greetings CM readers, Sepoy has generously offered me a spot on his soapbox, a turn at the helm, a cameo in his story? Um a chance to reach out to some gentle minds…I would like to begin by discussing the current South Asia project I am working on, somewhat related to TALIBOTHRA, in that it is about the co-mingling of religion, politics and mass media. More precisely I am trying to follow the shifting figure of the terrorist in the Hindi language film industry and am curious about how Islam comes into the picture, and in fact about the precise definition of a terrorist, an “aatankvaadi”[ātaṅkavādī]. At the moment I am not sure what forms this sniffing around will take, perhaps a paper, perhaps a class, perhaps neither? Let me know what you think…
Continue reading “The Silver Screen War”