Sunday, April 18, 2004

Too much culture: Bloom on Mohammed; India's Arty Gangster flicks; Stereo Nation

We were happy to find this year's Cinema India to be a roaring success. Radha has put together a multi-film package that will tour to 11 U.S. cities -- it's probably the first widely touring South Asian film festival in this country (most others have been rooted to a particular location, like a university, or a group like Trikone). The kick-off to the festival at the Asia Society received unexpectedly wide media coverage, including a profile in Time Out New York, one in the Village Voice, and a great article by A.O. Scott in the Times. There was also a high-powered panel with Mira Nair, among others, as well as several sold-out shows.

We were a little late to the high-powered panel at noon, but we enjoyed what we saw. Mira Nair was every bit as kinetic in person as her films are to watch. I also really liked listening to what Shashanka Ghosh (dir. Waisa Bhi Hota Hai/Anything Can Happen) and Vishal Bhardwaj (dir. Bariwali) had to say. Mostly they were discussing the implications of the recent successes of India-themed films like Bend it Like Beckham and Monsoon Wedding in the U.S. There is a great sense of optimism for someone like Nair, who is set to release her version Vanity Fair with Reese Witherspoon as Becky Sharp later in 2004.

Another issue that came up on the panel is why it's still difficult to see quality Hindi films on the big screen in the U.S. It is really a problem for all foreign and art films that are trying to compete with major Hollywood distribution networks. Though we live in an era of global culture, when we should theoretically have access to cultural artifacts from everywhere, a person who wants to see a film like Maqbool (Bhardwaj's adaptation of Macbeth, set in the Bombay underworld) is basically out of luck. Radha's answer, which I think is the correct one, is that there is a space opening up for independent distribution networks that are on a smaller scale than Hollywod, but that are nevertheless still commerciall viable. Film festivals like this one can be one way in which small-scale distribution can happen.

(Small digression: Hollywood studios currently choose carefully where their major films are distributed. In the case of New Haven, they have decided to blacklist theaters in downtown in favor of the newer multiplexes in the suburbs that have more parking spaces and newer projection systems. A lawsuit has been filed by the only working theater in downtown New Haven, the York Square Cinemas, accusing the major studios of monopolistic practices. This is an interesting case with implications for lots of other urban centers where movie theaters downtown have been choked by depressing suburban multiplexes.)

Satayajit Ray is safe for now: the new Arty Gangster flicks

Established New York-based directors like Nair are in a different place from newer, Bombay-based directors like Ghosh and Bhardwaj. Nevertheless, in the wake of the cult of Ram Gopal Varma, considerable room to experiment has emerged for commercial Bombay directors. The favorite space so far, and the one that is achieving some success, is in the genre of the arty gangster film. We recently enjoyed (at home), Ab Tak Chhappan, a film about corrupt Bombay cops based on a real event, and earlier Bhoot, and Ek Haseena Thi -- all R.G. Varma productions. Another film that has to be mentioned as part of this trend is Nagesh Kukoonoor's 3 Deewarein, an ingenious and elegant mystery set in a prison. These films all eschew song-and-dance in favor of an ultra-gritty sensibility, a shorter running time (usually about 2 hours), relatively low budgets. They are also populated by characters who are a good deal more corrupt and coarse than any ever represented in earlier generations of Hindi cinema. Varma sums up this mentality nicely when he says, in a recent interview, that he "wants to make films from the groin," rather than the heart. This turn to a (still highly stylized) realism is perhaps a relief in some ways, but I'm hesitant to hold these films up as paragons of a new flowering of Indian high culture. There is, at this stage, still a great investment to show as much ugliness as possible -- no one has yet given us a sense of everyday life in the Indian metropolis that is tied into hope and optimism.

We laughed throughout Waisa Bhi Hota Hai, which was at once completely over-the-top with its emotional and visceral elements and self-reflexively, ironically, comic at nearly every juncture. Ghosh, who had flown to New York from Bombay just for the festival, was both humble about the film (his first) and audacious in his naming of influences (seems to be an inevitable film-festival Q&A question): Peckinpah, Takeshi Kitano, Tarantino. I found the Kitano reference particularly salient -- Ghosh's film reminded me a bit of Kitano's 1993 film Sonatine, though Ghosh's is a good deal more goofy. (Here is an ok review of the film)

Anxiety of Influence in the Koran

The mood in New York yesterday was spring euphoria, and Bloom was on my brain, so when I saw a street bookseller with a Harold Bloom's Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Minds in good condition for $8, I bought it. Sor far I've read the entries on Freud, Mohammad, and Samuel Johnson (a curious trio, I know -- it's a curious book).

My favorite bit so far is where Bloom accuses the Koran of being subject to a royal case of Anxiety of Influence. He is aware that this kind of humanizing of a sacred text will be offensive to devout Muslims, but he is also employs an equally secularized literary sensibility in dealing with some other sacred figures whose sections I have poked at (St. Paul and Yahweh), so I feel his approach is fair and appropriate.

For me, the Koran has a particular fascination, because it is the largest instance I know of what, during the last quarter-century, I have been calling 'the anxiety of influence.' Strong prophet as Muhammad was, the Koran manifests and enormous (and overly triumphal) struggle with the Torah and with rabbinical additions to the Five Books of Moses. 'The People of the Book,' throughout the Koran, refers both to Jews and to Christians, but there seems to have been only one Gospel for Muhammad, and it hardly can be identified with any Gospel we now possess. Jesus, for Muhammad, is another true prophet in the sequence that begins with Adam and that ends with Muhammad himself, yet Jesus is also something more than a prophet, if less than the Son of God. The Koran accepts the Virgin Birth, and regards Jesus as the legitimate Jewish Messiah, who is seen however as another reaffirmation of the religion of Abraham. The Koran's boldest stroke, in its contest with the Torah, is to insist that Abraham was neither Jew nor Christian, but the first instance of Islam, of submission to 'the God,' Allah.


It's strange and a little shocking that an analytic Bloom invented for thinking about Blake, Milton, and Shakespeare can also be precisely applied to Muhammad, Jesus, and Moses, respectively. Where Bloom earlier spoke of 'strong poets,' here he speaks of the contest amongst 'strong prophets'.

Stereo Nation

I also picked up some Hindi house/remix CDs from the little India area at 28th and Lexington, for an upcoming party I am DJing at Yale. The best of the lot appears to be Stereo Nation's Apna Sangeet. Half the songs have a pop/house sensibility and the others are Bhangra/hip-hop. All are originals (there are traces, but no direct samples, of western pop hits), and several are quite catchy and well-produced. It seems to be a winning party album -- will it be as big as earlier Stereo Nation releases?

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