Book review: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy


(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.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oP3c1h8v2ZQ

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dance Fitness Workout Playlist


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!

School, on the first day


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.

 

Dard-Disco-Zindagi! A Bollywood starter-kit for Netflix Canada subscribers


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.

Sarah (9) watching the end of  the classic Hindi family drama “Khabi Kushi Khabie Gham” when Anjali (Kajol) receives the blessing of patriarch Yash (Amitabh Bachchan): “I’m gonna cry, I’m gonna cry… That’s it, I’m crying!!”

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.

Let’s get started!!

Two rom coms:

Love per square foot (2018)

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 (2007)

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 (2001)

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.

Dangal (2016)

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 (2009)

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 (2007)

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:

Dil Se (1998)

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! (2016)

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:

1. Swades (2004)

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.

2. Dhobi Ghat (2011)

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.

3. Masaan (2015)

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 (2005)

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 Chalte is also available on Netflix Canada.

Taare Zameen Par (2007)

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.

Liar’s Dice (2013)

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.

Two epic historical dramas:

Asoka (2001)

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 (1960)

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 – The Beginning and The Conclusion (Telugu) (2015)

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.

Sairat (Marathi) (2016)

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:

Piku

Hum Aapke Hain Koun

Dear Zindagi

Main Hoon Na

Secret Superstar

Bombay Talkies

Lust Stories

Lucknow Central

Chalte Chalte

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.

The Yelling Challenge


(Before we get started, note that I use “yelling” as a catchall for the many ways in which our voice expresses anger, exasperation or plain old done-with-it-ness. I was reminded of that by my 9 year-old daughter this morning who accused me of “yelling at her” during church when I asked her to take her feet off her brother. I told her that had I been yelling during Consecration, everyone would be looking at me right now. It wasn’t yelling but it wasn’t exactly sunshine and ponies either.)
Yelling challenges are not what your children think they are. Paul — my husband — and the children often have a yelling challenge whereby everyone is encouraged to yell as much as they can for one minute. Those are the things you can do when Dad is in charge. Moms are challenged to steer their children in the right direction without getting angry.
 
I have done my share of yelling and paid my dues to the stop-yelling-challenges clubs of everywhere. With the help of carbon dating, I can pin my first hopeful foray into calmer parenting to my pregnancy with David in 2005-06. My fourth child was 4 years-old and this fifth baby felt like a new beginning, a chance to be the non-spanking, non-threatening, attachment-minded parent I admired. I’ve been trying ever since.
 
Here’s what happens when I stop yelling or threatening: stuff stops happening. The truth is that no one moves until I yell or threaten. You know what I’m talking about right? I call it the “Oh Shit” threshold.
 
What is that about anyway? Some say that children spend so much energy keeping it together for those who sorta like them — friends, peers, teachers — that they have none left for those who love them unconditionally. And while I find comfort in these platitudes, I still wonder why my children are so much nicer to their father than they are to me. I find no truth in the suggestion that my children’s attachment to my husband is faulty, that they perceive his love as conditional, that he exists in the periphery of their emotional lives, among the friends, peers, teachers and daycare workers. My husband is equally submerged in the murky waters of parenting. I can’t reassure myself with the myth of perfect attachment causing children to act like jerks.
 
So here I am, just a girl, standing in front of her blog, asking it why she has to choose between doing everything herself or turn into a screaming banshee. Both options have led me straight into the pits of burn-out and depression and I’m wondering if I can crack this nut or if I’m condemned to parent from a place of perpetual angst.
 
As adults we often forget how often children have to do things they’d rather not do. We take their dependance for granted and even resent it at time. We earn a living for them, hunt, gather, provide the shelter and safety that they are incapable of providing for themselves. In return, we expect them to eat the food we provide and stay in the shelter of our choice while we parent ourselves out of a job. Immaturity leaves children with little true agency. We may try to give them the illusion of agency while we lift them out of Ettenmoors but nobody is dupe. The process of maturing is where our way meets the highway: it’s the lifelong tug-of-war between our desire to go as far as we can on our own steam and our realization that we need others. In many ways, parenting is teaching our children to make room for others.
 
We were all born in a struggle between the individual wanting to grow fast and wild and the need to keep other people in our lives. Human babies are born with nothing but the need to form relationships. This is the only way they can survive. The back-and-forth between needing others and needing to be our own person creates that “oh shit” threshold. How far can we refuse to do something without compromising our survival (or if you are a grown-up, the survival of your marriage, the keeping of your job, the avoiding of the prison…). The relative height of this threshold and how often it will trip us as we learn to manage it vary with our individual temperaments and personalities.
 
Parenting is the work of sculpting a functional individual out of the primary matter we are given. The influence of the artist and the proprieties of the matter are present in every work of art. That’s why some people grow into functional members of society and others act like 3 year-olds well into adulthood. Lack of self-control, sulking, selfishness, impulsivity, helplessness: we were all 3 year-olds once. Adults who can’t flush their toilets, wipe their microwaves or return a favour without sulking exasperate those who have done the work of growing up, of letting the individual be formed and molded. The irritation is not born of being completely foreign to these lower instincts but from from having reluctantly grown out of them.
 
When I stopped yelling and blowing my lid, I expected that there would be a time of painful transition where nothing would happen. I reasoned that if my husband, who is the calmer, more respected, parent faced a lower “Oh Shit” threshold, lowering the pitch of my parenting would naturally lower the threshold. The children would not suddenly snap into respect mode but if I remained equanimous through the chaos, the balance of the universe would eventually be restored. It’s easy to slide back into old patterns when new patterns don’t bring about the needed change. I had the support and understanding of my husband and I knew that this change would be positive regardless of how long it took to see results.
 
So when did it all turn around? Well, I’m still waiting. Kind of.
 
I never saw results in the compliance department. My children are very impulsive — apple, meet tree. When I ask for something, most of them say no and walk away or simply ignore my request, leaving me with a choice between calmly doing it myself or losing my ever-loving mind. It’s difficult. I’m burned out from the amount of work I have to do without help. Every day I have to choose between burning out from doing everything for everyone or burning out from yelling at everyone. There is no smooth sailing. It’s my life and it’s a complicated dynamic of temperaments, personalities, habits and education. My biggest concern is not that don’t have a gaggle of compliant Stepford Kids but that the image of motherhood I project is one of constant exasperation. I wish they saw me doing something well instead of seeing me struggle with the simplest tasks, like bath time and meal time.
 
Yelling, like spanking, is not a decision, it’s a reaction. To eliminate the yelling, we have to eliminate the irritation. Our sensitivity to our children’s lack of cooperation is not a factor of how egregious the provocation is but of how burned out we are. The same light touch on the arm causes no pain on healthy skin and excruciating pain on burned skin. And it’s hard to heal a burn when something is constantly poking at it.
 
The yelling challenge is not to lower our voice but to lower our pain. It’s the impossible task of healing while walking through fire, of containing the uncontainable, of giving more than we were given, of paying one without robbing the other. It’s the challenge of loving unconditionally while acting like we don’t care.

Podcast Episode 14 – We moved! Hear the whole story on the Véro Show


So we moved! Wanna know why? Listen to the podcast. I also ramble about two seasons disappearing (Fall and Spring), working in politics, city noises and probably more.

07: 45 minute-mark: Why I need big things to motivate me to do the small things.

Here’s the quote from The Scarlet Pimpernel that I reference (and mangle):

Here is the book I just finished: Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future by Ashlee Vance

Here is the Longform podcast interview with Ashlee Vance

43:45-minute-mark: A reflection on Elon Musk’s “work ethics” (… you keep using that word…)

Here is the book I am currently reading: TWO by Gulzar

About the movie Dil Se

Here’s the legendary item number from Dil Se , lyrics by Gulzar, music by A.R. Rahman. I know it’s the second blog post where I reference this item but what can I say? When I love something, I love it a lot:

Gulzar also wrote the lyrics to Jai Ho:

And here’s the trailer to Asoka (available on Netflix Canada):

And here’s the trailer for Raazi, currently playing in a theatre near you (yes, yes, even in Canada):

Shake your Bolly Part 2: Unavoidables, classics and tour-de-force


You can find the entire playlist on YouTube, right here.

This is the second instalment of my Bollywood playlist (read part 1 here). The first post focused on modern dance numbers from recent movies. This post is about the classics of modern Bollywood item numbers. According to one French-Canadian white woman. You get what you pay for.

1. I concluded my previous post with Dard-E-Disco from “Om Shanti Om”, acted by Shah Rukh Khan, performed by Sukhwinder Singh and choreographed by Farah Khan. To spoof an art form, you must first master it. The video for the song Chaiyya Chaiyya was also acted by Shah Rukh Khan, performed by Sukhwinder Singh and choreographed by Farah Khan. The lyrics were written by poet Gulzar based on a Sufi poem and put to music by A.R. Rhaman. This item is a master class in what a group of creators at the peak of their art can accomplish together. It was done on a moving train for crying out loud. This number has a special meaning to me. It lifted me out of a 10-month slump and I have a picture of it on my phone’s lock screen. It reminds me that none of the people who participated in that video got there by accident and that I have to keep taking the next right step if I want to accomplish anything. Then I wake-up and I still have 9 children and an expired degree in Ottawa, but whatever.

2. The movie “Lagaan” has, in my opinion one of the most consistently memorable soundtracks of all the movies I mentioned so far (fight me). Like Chaiyya Chaiyya, Chale Chalo was composed by A.R. Rhaman and performed by Sukhwinder Singh. “Chale” means “to walk” and “Chale Chalo” means something like “Let’s go!”. It’s as good a sentence as any to know in any language, no? The actor in the video is Aamir Khan, one of the three Khans of Bollywood.

3. Wanna see more Aamir Khan and hear more A.R. Rhaman? Me too! Especially since this movie is not available on iTunes or Netflix and I haven’t found a DVD with good subtitles yet. “Rang de Basanti” means “yellow colour” or “colour of Spring”. If anyone knows of a good subtitled DVD copy, please wave. Apparently the DVD copy that Netflix used to mail to people is good but everything else is problematic. The movie is half in English (because one of the main characters is an English filmmaker). The English parts were not subtitled but were later overdubbed in Hindi. So you have overdubbed Hindi parts with no subtitles for half the movie. That sucks.

4. Speaking of colouring people, sometimes whole movies are just a vehicle for an item number. Case in point, the 2015 movie “Dilwale” which marked the much anticipated return on screen of legendary pair Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol, 7 years after their last collab and 20 years after the release of their cult classic “Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge”. “Dilwale” is a whole hour too long and could easily have done without two of its three storylines (keep Shah Rukh and Kajol, forget everyone else.) But it’s worth seeing for Gerua, in which Kajol and Shah Rukh play-up their iconic chemistry and revisit elements of previous numbers (like the flying orange scarf). Shot entirely on location in Iceland, it’s by far the best part of the movie. I also want all her outfits.

5. I’d be remiss to mention Shah Rukh and Kajol without including their earlier work. There’s so much awesomeness to choose from, it was hard to narrow it down but I went with the “Shah Rukh and Kajol steal the show at a wedding” filter and was left with Mehndi Laga Ke Rakhna from “Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge” (DDLJ) and Yeah Ladka Hai Allah from “Khabi Kushie Khabie Gham” (K3G). Unfortunately the videos on YouTube are not subtitled so you’ll miss out on the poetry but if you buy them on iTunes, the songs will be subtitled.

 

6. Galaan Goodiyaan from the movie “Dil Dhadakne Do” is a tour de force and a mighty good song too. It was shot in one continuous take. Impressive considering the number of people on set and the choreography.

7. While music is always prevalent in Bollywood, it’s not always as part of item numbers. Sometimes the music is just used as a narrative device, as it is here in Haanikaarak Bapu from the movie “Dangal”.

8. So far, I have videos with only two of the three Khans of Bollywood so I’m throwing this one with Salman Khan as a freebie. I haven’t seen the movie but the song is part of my Zumba routine so I feel like we’re on a first-name basis.

9. A great dance song with a friendly from Shah Rukh Khan. He’s just the best, what can I say?

10. And finally, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan has been known to play goodie-two-shoes roles, especially after she married into the Bachchan Dynasty. But man, does she crank-up the heat in Ishq Kameena from the movie “Shakti:”