Don’t Call It Bollywood! (Call It a Masala Movie)

What’s in a name? Everything of course. Why call India’s popular cinema Bollywood when there is a perfectly good name that most Indians have grown up with? Bollywood suggests that Indian popular cinema is derivative of Hollywood. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Indian popular film is a completely different artistic product than Hollywood. And there’s a word that captures this difference perfectly—masala.

I grew up watching and loving masala movies, not Bollywood. (I love India’s alternative cinema too, but that is grist for another blog.) A movie is masala when it gives you hours of spicy entertainment for your hard-earned rupees. This is the recipe for a masala movie—a little melodrama, a little song, a little dance, ground together for a visual extravaganza that stimulates every one of your artistic taste buds. In the hands of a great director and great stars (as in, for example, Yash Chopra’s Hindi-language Deewaar with Amitabh Bachchan as Vijay) the result is a spectacular work of art.

There is no shame in melodrama, a genre with deep historical roots. And there are other kinds of artistic integrity than that prized in Hollywood. When I teach Deewaar, I often focus attention in class on that great scene in which Ravi (played by Shashi Kapoor) and Sumitra Devi (played by NIrupa Roy) storm out of Vijay’s palatial mansion forever without stopping to grab even a single personal item (toothbrush, change of clothes, a necessary document like the ration card, a beloved photograph).

Psychologically implausible? Of course. No Hollywood film worth its Oscar ambition would ever have such a scene. But the masala movie would—because the grand truths it pursues (if it is a work of art, not all are of course) would be diluted by a slavish and narrow adherence to psychological plausibility.

So don’t call it Bollywood. Call it a masala movie. Indian popular cinema cannot be understood by reference to Hollywood. Masala is an Indian word comprehended all over India, and increasingly outside. There is a history of applying the word to Indian popular films. As far as I am concerned, these are reasons enough to jettison the tendentious Bollywood and go back to masala movie.

(Next blog—return in a couple of weeks for notes on Tamil masala movies, about which so little is known amongst international audiences.)


Fred Ho, Bandung, and the Idea of Afro-Asia (the Time for Remembering is Now)

I did not know Fred Ho well, but I knew him enough to mourn his passing. Fred, like the clothes he often wore, was bold and unforgettable in life and I have no doubt he will remain so in death through his music and his writings. The handful of times I heard him on his saxophone I was blown away by his virtuosity, though certainly a technical appreciation of his music is best left to those better qualified. What I know to value more deliberately is Fred’s politics, an exhilarating mix of this, that and the other radicalism—matriarchy meets ecosocialism meets Black Power meets Asian Pride. Did these diverse subversive strains of thought coexist in Fred’s thinking in coherent harmony? At one level, that is the wrong question. What matters is Fred’s impetus in bringing these ways of being in the world together.

To understand this impetus you might have to go back to an idea of Afro-Asian solidarity traceable to Bandung. Bandung is a town in Indonesia where leaders of countries from across what we would now call the postcolonial world or the Global South gathered in 1952. The meeting was a ringing declaration of decolonizing intent. Leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru of India, Zhao Enlai of China, Sukarno of Indonesia and Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt met to carve out a geopolitical space free of the influence of the great colonial powers. No matter the actual achievements of the non-aligned movement that followed (or for that matter these leaders), Bandung represents a pivotal moment in the cultural history of radicalism. Recognizing its importance, Richard Wright, the great African American novelist, traveled from his exile in Paris to Bandung as an observer, entitling his subsequent report The Color Curtain in order to draw a parallel with the Iron Curtain separating the capitalist First World and the socialist Second World. He went on to famously describe Bandung as a “meeting of the rejected [that] was in itself a kind of judgment upon the Western world!”

Bandung echoed through the Sixties and the Seventies, exerting enormous cultural influence by offering a global vision for the wretched of the earth. This is the vision Fred too claimed, upheld in his inimitable way, and worked to grow into a movement (go here for an upcoming Fred Ho event: I fear its passing in our solipsistic times. The time for remembering and preserving is now.


Reading Serendipitously, or the Passing Strangeness of Gulliver’s Travels

Recently I have been teaching Gulliver’s Travels in an undergraduate class—and in the process learning the pleasures of serendipitous reading.

I love teaching Jonathan Swift’s great book, and indeed have written about it in multiple ways (both my first novel and first critical book engage it extensively). What is not to love? Here is a novel—okay, proto-novel—that is at one and the same time hilarious, ruthless, prescient, wrong-headed (see debates over its treatment of women), moral and provocative. It is a brilliant if troubling work, rightly regarded as influential on a host of later writers because of its marvelous feats of imagination and wit. There are many ways to teach such a multifaceted book. I teach it as a furious and in some ways surprising indictment of contemporary Europe, an insider-outsider critique (Swift was an ambitious player in the London literary scene for a time but from colonized Ireland) of a horrific slave-trading, genocidal colonialism that was well underway but had not yet reached its apogee.

Imagine my gratification then when a student in the class, who had acquired an early 1960s edition of the book, showed me a yellowed newspaper clipping she had found within the book’s equally yellowed pages. The clipping is an undated report on John Howard Griffin, a white man who had taken pigmentation-altering drugs as well as colored his skin in order to spend six weeks as a black man in the American south (the clipping does not mention the well-known memoir Black Like Me that Griffin published out of this experience in 1961).

What provoked someone to cut out this newspaper story and file it away in a copy of Gulliver’s Travels? We can only surmise. Scholars have long understood that Gulliver’s Travels explores race and racial ideas. But the conjunction of the newspaper clipping and the book brings to mind a nuance that I have not previously considered. Isn’t Swift’s book really an account of Gulliver’s increasingly tragic desire to, like Griffin, “pass” (as a horse, no less, at the end of the narrative)? Alas for Gulliver, who would rather be a horse than a man! Gulliver serves as a sad caution against the transgression of racial boundaries, or else as a brave invitation. Racial passing is not a simple matter, and certainly not a theme to be exhausted in a brief blog. All I do here is record a reading pleasure—how serendipity makes strange again a book that I thought I knew so well.


Love is Just a Word, and Related Notions from a Life between Languages

A key moment in South African writer Nadine Gordimer’s extraordinary novel July’s People depicts the white protagonist Maureen as she is confronted by her black “houseboy” July. Maureen has been displaced from her privilege by violence accompanying the (imagined) end to apartheid. Without warning, July, so re-christened years before by his employers, uses his new found freedom to talk at her in his own language, making Maureen realize with sudden shock her utter ignorance regarding vast areas of July’s life. Instantly, Mwawate, for that is July’s true name, is transformed from transparent familiarity to opaque difference. Maureen is forced to recognize she hardly knows him, that she is only dimly aware of his fears and desires. Language becomes a powerful marker of the chasmic differences between them.

Those of us who, like Mwawate, have lived our lives between languages will recognize this scene. Our conditions may not be as dire as that of Mwawate and Maureen at the end of apartheid, but we will relate to the sense with which Gordimer leaves us at the end of the scene—that languages are freighted with emotions, histories, and ideologies that have their own autonomy, that what we feel and who we are are not separate from the language(s) in which we feel and have our being.

I am not a language relativist—a votary of the notion that languages are irrevocably different. I wouldn’t translate (as I have) if I was; however, while linguistic differences may not be insurmountable, neither will it do to pretend that such differences are inconsequential. Do we envy or pity in the same way in all the languages? Do we laugh in German the way we do in Tamil? Or love in English the way we do in Hindi? How, for example, might this unforgettable Hindi love song from Guide translate into English?

Is the “love” expressed here in Mohammed Rafi’s inimitable voice accessible to non-Hindi speakers? I know I can explain in English, translate if you will, what I feel in this song in Hindi, and that is significant indeed; at the same time explanation and feeling are quite different, aren’t they?

Enough said—love, like hate, is no more and no less than a word. And owning that fact, as Gordimer shows us, is the very opposite of dismissing the significance of love.


The Predator in My Kitchen (Learning about Literature from Kafka)

There was mayhem. In my kitchen. Invisible though it was, I benefited from the mayhem. After all, I had a problem before, and now I have none. I confess. The murderer in my kitchen has taken care of my problem. I’ll admit more even. Cockroaches. That was my problem. No longer, not since a gecko has become my unforgiving enforcer in the kitchen. As far as I can tell, the cockroaches are all gone. The gecko, ruthless in its purpose, has released me from the unhappy prospect of calling the exterminator. No more spraying of pesticides in my kitchen.

I know geckos. I grew up with them. In India, we call them wall lizards. They live behind curtains, picture frames, bookshelves, furniture. Sometimes you enter a room in the middle of the night, switch on a lamp, and catch one frozen on a wall, eyes iridescent in the sudden light. Now a distant relative has found its way into my kitchen here in Honolulu. To my benefit, for I do not fear the gecko. On the whole, I am pleased with the metamorphosis in my kitchen, which has made it unnecessary for me to introduce toxic chemicals into my home.

But what of the annihilated cockroaches? Professor of literature that I am, I think of Kafka and his celebrated short story. Gregor Samsa transformed into an insect. That is what comes to mind. Using his extraordinary gifts, Kafka entered into the condition of an insect, even if only as imagined by a human being. Let us call it trans-species communing through the power of literature.

I cannot resist the prod from sad Gregor, dead at the end of the story like my cockroaches. I have to ask—what is my karmic portion in the mayhem of my kitchen? No meaningful answer to that question is possible right now; or ever, some will no doubt say, finding the question inexcusably absurd. No matter. I’m still glad to have been provoked by Kafka and the (sometimes) redemptive power of great literature—a power that, Kafka shows, does not fear the risky embrace of the ridiculous.

Blog literary genre

Welcome to My Blog (Notes on Genre, Perhaps)

Better late than never. Better Johnny-Come-Lately than Johnny-Come-Never. Etc. The challenge: to go beyond the cliché.

Therefore: consider the genre of the provisional. Think genre. Think genre as the enemy of cliché. Think genre as an adventurous and unavoidable negotiation between the discipline of form and the freedom of expression. What form? What expression? That is a matter of (some) choice. But no freedom without discipline, no expression without form. Nothing new without something already given.

Think blog as an exercise in life writing—even as a life in writing, through writing. Think blog as the intersection of the literary and the critical, the personal and the quoted, the reinvention of the personal essay, R. K. Narayan and Hazlitt in the twenty-first century (memories of undergraduate classrooms in postcolonial Madras). Think, as resistance to given forms of thinking, the form of other thinkings: yaadhum oore, yaavarum kelir (Everywhere is my home, everyone my kin). That might be the subject for an interesting blog. As might something as topical as the intolerance of censorship in India. Or notes on a childhood in Nigeria. Or the conflicted American-ness of Richard Wright. Or love, in translation. Think the shape of private thought in a public space—reflection as re-citation.

Think brevity, find spontaneity. Perhaps. Write in the perhaps—not always, but as often as possible.

DON’T think what has never been thought before—there is no such thing. Perhaps.

It’s time. It’s been time for quite some time. Welcome to my blog. (Better late than never. The challenge: to go beyond cliché.)