Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Of Faith and Films


I don’t understand films. In gatherings where the initiated acolytes of the art of moving pictures are speaking, I do the tested-and-tried ‘smile and nod’ routine that has helped many an imbecile like myself get through such conversations. I understand faith even less. When better human beings than myself speak of miracles and an unwavering belief, I bite back my envy at their having answers to the questions that science still endeavours to answer.



So why am I writing this little essay? It isn’t to delve into serious matters like direction, production, ecclesiastical purity and so on. Rather, it’s to look at how the telling of a story can impact the viewer’s feelings about a subject.

I happened to watch two films recently, both on the subject of faith and ‘visions’ of the divine in real life.

The first was ‘Deool Band’, in Marathi, a film released in 2015, starring Mohan Joshi as Swami Samarth, a divine manifestation, Girishankar Mahajani as an atheist scientist, Raghunath Shastri, and Girija Joshi as his wife.



The second was ‘The Song of Bernadette’, a 1943 English movie starring Jennifer Jones as the titular Bernadette, Charles Bickford as Abbe Peyramale and Gladys Cooper as Sister Vazous.



The Song of Bernadette won three Academy Awards, including the first of Jennifer Jones’ two Best Actress awards, and had several acting nominations as well in the supporting categories. It is highly unlikely Deool Band will win anything other than making a pretty profit at the Box Office.

And while Song would leave even the most hardened rationalist carrying a seed of doubt about his own convictions, only the most credulous of worshippers of Swami Samartha would come away from Deool Band without thinking he had just seen a bunch of tripe.

As the title credits rolled at the end of The Song of Bernadette (and a speck of dust got in my eye, causing unrelated activity of the tear ducts), I wondered why two films on the same subject could end up with such a different impact.

Bernadette Soubirous
The Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes, present day.
Was it the fact that Bernadette Soubirous’ story was a true one – a story that brings millions of pilgrims to her hometown, to the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes, a hundred and fifty years after she died of tuberculosis? It couldn’t be only that, for the real life Swami Samarth was no less a man of faith than the woman who would become Saint Berndaette, and his Temples in Akkalkot as well as all over India inspire similar, if not more, devotion. (Incidentally, they were contemporaries – both died within a year of each other, the Catholic future-saint in 1879, the Hindu living saint in 1878).
Swami Samarth

Swami Samarth Mandir, Akkalkot
So the answer would lie, I suppose, in the treatment of the subject and the quality of the performances.

The Song of Bernadette tells the story of a young teenage girl in a French village near the Spanish border. Bernadette is malnourished, asthmatic and poor with her studies, earning the ire of her teacher, Sister Vazous. One evening, while out with her sister and a friend to collect firewood, Bernadette sees a vision in the grotto - a young lady. Bernadette claims no knowledge of who she is, but the vision’s appearance corresponds with the depiction of Mother Mary in the traditional Catholic Church. Over a period of time, the number of people who follow Bernadette to the grotto increases, though nobody else sees or hears this apparition. The town authorities and even the Abbe of Lourdes try to dismiss or coerce her into recanting, but Bernadette remains steadfast in her conviction of what she has seen. One day, Bernadette is told by the apparition to ‘drink from the spring’, and digs at a hole in the ground, from where a spring of clear water emerges. The water of this spring is found to have miraculous properties, and over a period of time, even the most disbelieving become convinced of her being an agent of the divine. A Church Commission from the Vatican examines her claims and eventually proclaims them to be true. Bernadette finds herself obliged to leave the life of a village girl and prospect of a contented marriage to join a nunnery, where she meets her greatest opponent, Sister Vazous, and convinces her of the truth of her visions. 

Ultimately, even Prosecutor Dutous, who had tried hardest to discredit her, finds himself doubting his own conviction and seeking forgiveness of the girl he tried so hard to discredit. Finally we are shown Bernadette’s last vision, as she dies, wasting away from tuberculosis of the bone, and left with the Abbe’s prophetic words (paraphrased from Thomas of Aquinas, I think):

"For those who believe, no explanation is necessary; for those who do not believe, no explanation will suffice."

Interestingly, the movie does not ask the audience to believe, it only shows events as they are supposed to have happened. The vision of the Virgin Mary is shown sparingly, and for the most part, we are as any other villager of Lourdes – seeing and hearing through Bernadette. The miraculous spring, the cures, the scepticism of the village’s officials – all are juxtaposed against the simplicity of the young girl’s faith. At the same time, even the Imperial prosecutor, Dutous, is not shown as an evil person, simply as a man refusing to accept miracles. Sister Vazous, who detests Bernadette for claiming to have seen divine visions when she herself, despite so many years of service to the Church has not is the closest that this movie has to a villain, and Bernadette’s simple, disarming response to her, as it is to all who question her, is to simply repeat that she saw what she saw, and claims nothing more or less than that.

Deool Band is set in modern-day India, tries to involve too many threads. Raghunath Shastri is the stereotypical ‘NASA’ scientist of Indian origin who has come back to India to ‘contribute’ to his country. To enable him to pursue his research in quiet isolation, he is sent to a housing society in Pune with a Temple of Swami Samarth within the compound walls. Infuriated by the thrice-daily prayers (shown to be truly LOUD, singing and dancing and percussion instruments all over the place), Raghunath refuses to complete his research until the Temple is closed. (Deool Band literally means a closed temple). The same night, an apparition of Swami Samarth appears to Raghunath and follows him around as his life unravels, and then helps him stitch everything back together again on the basis of faith.



The demands of Deool Band are more aggressive – it puts faith at its centre. You either believe or you are a heartless swine. Everyone in the movie from the highest government authorities to a roadside beggar - is a fervent believer. The Swami is invoked in every second line not spoken by Raghunath himself. Mohan Joshi’s Swami Samarth is cocksure, almost arrogant, and at no stage is there a sense of humility or an attempt to explain the thought process of the other side. Rather, science is shown as a mere corollary of the divine and in a particularly cringe-worthy scene, quotes by scientists are used to justify the existence of God – viz., Swami Samarth (none of the actual Gods of the extensive Hindu pantheon seem to matter).



So perhaps it is the ‘pushing down the throat’ that does not work for Deool Band, perhaps it is the utter lack of subtlety. Whatever it is, the result is like an overcooked casserole – burned on the outside, raw in the inside.

The performances have something to do with it as well. Jennifer Jones is absolutely stunning as Bernadette. Graceful, vulnerable, projecting that wide-eyed innocence and speaking in the gentle voice that never becomes cloying, she embodies the simplicity of faith. The character actors are restrained, portraying exactly the characters they are expected to be – a village miller is a village miller, a cleric is a cleric, no more, no less. In the end, whether you come away believing the legend of Our Lady of Lourdes or not, you do believe in Jennifer Jones’ talent and the power of a story, simply brought forth on screen.

Jennifer Jones

Mohan Joshi, on the other hand, is…well…he has made his career playing powerful characters, and that what he brings to the screen. Mahajani’s atheist scientist comes across as whiny, a caricature. He is not a rationalist or even a scientist, he is what a devout religious person would imagine an atheist to be.
Girishankar Mahajani
In the end, to someone like me, what matters is a story well-told. Convince me that your characters are real, that the people you show are real. Make me sympathise – or hate – them because of what you show them to be. Do not make me roll my eyes with a ‘I know exactly what he / she is going to say because I know how this story goes ten minutes into the movie.

As I watched Bernadette’s story unfold, I really could not tell if she would be hounded as a fraud, hailed as a saint, or actually be a fraud. How would people around her react? And when they did react to her, by and large I could make out why. As I watched Raghunath Shastri struggle through the running length of Deool Band, I knew I was seeing a manifesto, a story whose every scene, even dialogue was essentially pushing an agenda – and could be predicted from the first line.


I have nothing against faith in films. But just because you bring in faith, don’t disrespect the craft of film-making and story-telling. It’s a lesson Hollywood had learned as far back as 1943. Even to the uninitiated like myself, the difference is too stark to ignore.

Book Review - Faith of the Nine, by Sachin Dev

Book Review - Faith of the Nine, by Sachin Dev



Publisher: Leadstart Publishing
Buying Link:

It might be China that is infamous for making cheap knock-offs of branded goods, but India is decidedly not too far behind. From leather purses (made, no doubt, from the skin of cows who did not qualify to be gau mata) to shirts to automotive parts, we can find the uniquely Indian ‘branded hai, boss’ goods in any popular market.

This imitative tendency extends to writing as well. So Chetan Bhagat’s success with romantic comedies has led to a profusion of romance novels by Indian authors that flood the bookstores like the Mumbai rains – and are as unwelcome as the floods they bring. And Amish Tripathi’s runaway success with mythological fantasy has meant a vast number of imitators in that genre as well, giving us a combination of Sanskrit, old Indian legends and a variety of fantasy tropes derived from the works of Tolkein, Sanderson and GRR Martin. I had written at length about this phenomenon in an earlier post, available here.

In this midst of this, Faith of the Nine comes across as a distinct attempt to break away from the crowd. For one thing, the author does not take the easy way out by setting his novel in Vedic times. The period that Faith takes place in is closer in terms of society and technological state to India during the early days of the first Delhi sultanate. The language used is also of a higher quality than one is used to reading of late – indeed, much higher – from Mr Dev’s contemporaries.

Plot
Faith of the Nine follows an overall theme of the monotheistic ‘Nam’ Empire where the older, polytheistic religion (the titular Faith of the Nine, an origin myth that is reminiscent of Tolkein’s Ainulindale which in turn draws upon the Bible) has been systematically stamped out. As conspiracies and murders erupt around the capital city, the three main characters – General Fateh, a battle-weary soldier, Abhaya, a young acolyte of the old faith and Ishan, an orphan boy of eleven years being raised in the priesthood, find themselves thrust headlong towards an apocalypse.

The past is fleshed out gradually over the course of the book, through flashbacks and story-telling, as each of the three main character meets or reminisces on their own mentors.

The pace is high throughout, with very limited letting up – something is always happening to the characters, and people, places and concepts are always bubbling over, sometimes more quickly than the mind can grasp.

Characters
Of the main characters, the first glimpse we have is of General Fateh as a young soldier in his first battle, his hero-worship of his father and later of his own development into one of the Empire’s top military commanders. Mr Dev does a good job of portraying Fateh as a dedicated soldier unused to deception, focussed on his military expeditions, who is later brought to a role at court. Once there, he finds himself quickly drawn into the machinations and dirty tricks of the other courtiers, including the de facto ruler of the Nam Empire, Jehangir and the mysterious third member of the ruling triumvirate, Tamanjin Nasri. As Fateh tries to extract some semblance of truth out of the many versions of the story of an assault on an outlying village, he finds himself confronting apparitions and shadow-warriors he had not thought existed, and challenging the basic tenets of his own faith.

Abhaya is a ‘Kwah-Seer’ monk, ordinarily residing outside of the Empire, in the desert, who is drawn by a thoughtless prank into the capital of the Nam Empire and forced to witness the hanging of two of his boon companions. During his own escape, he meets Ishan the acolyte of the new faith. Later, Abhaya realises that his order are not just seekers of a lost religion, and that his own role in the crisis of his time will be more than that of a witness. Battles against long-extinct creatures in the sand ensue and Abhaya finds himself once again searching for the boy who will be the redemption of the Faith of the Nine.

Ishan is a boy born in the dead of night in the midst of blood and chaos, watched over by nine spirits, even as his mother commits suicide. Raised by his nanny, Bajah, Ishan grows up a precocious child, learned in the faith of the great Pruksa (the God of the new, monotheistic faith) but ever-curious about the truth and the origins of the world. A chance encounter with Abhaya the heathen monk leads Ishan on a path that ends in a daring escape from the virtual prison that has been his abode since birth.

While Fateh is a complex enough character, we do not see enough of Abhaya over the course of the book. Hopefully, the next instalments will show us more of this interesting character. Ishan, thus far, is a well fleshed-out but does not break the mould of the ‘boy-hero’ of other fantasy stories, his development over the next few instalments will be interesting to see.

Writing
As I have mentioned before, Mr Dev’s writing is of a higher quality than most of his contemporaries. A sincere effort is made to give distinct voices to each of the characters as well as to differentiate between the social classes on the basis of how they speak – which is more than you will see in most places.

There are places where a phrase or word struck me as incongruous – ‘salt thrown in a soda drink’ certainly does not seem appropriate for a book of this nature – but for the most part, the tone if Faith is more consistent than in Amish’s works, if one must compare the two. At times the language gets almost too heavy-handed, as the author seems to revel in showcasing his powers at the expense of readability, but this is, of course, a personal opinion and quite possibly reflective of the reviewer’s limited reading capability than anything else. A smoother flow would have helped in making the book more accessible, but it is upto the author to decide how he wants to pitch his language, I suppose.

Conclusion
There are many things to like about Faith of the Nine. On the balance though, the writing can get over-wrought at times. Besides, though this is the first instalment of a trilogy, a bigger payoff – some sort of conclusiveness at the end – would have helped. Still, fans of genre fiction might find this an interesting and different experience.

Disclaimer
The book has been received as a review copy. The reviewer is not acquainted with anybody involved with writing the book.

Saturday, 20 February 2016

Book Review - Agnes Grey, by Anne Bronte

Book Review: Agnes Grey, by Anne Bronte


Buying links:

My previous review was of Ketan Bhagat’s ‘Child/God’, and in writing it, I had to deal with the fact that the author is the younger brother of India’s most-beloved writer, viz. Chetan Bhagat.

In writing a review of Agnes Grey, I realise that Anne Bronte’s status is not entirely different. Of course, while I could comfortably say that the younger Mr Bhagat’s work is substantially different – in a positive way – from his elder brothers’, the same cannot be said of Anne’s work.

Not that this is a fair comparison. As lovers of Victorian literature will be well aware, Anne Bronte is the younger sister of Charlotte Bronte and Emily Bronte.

Let those names sink in for a bit.

In cricketing terms, this is like being the youngest brother of a family where the elder siblings are Sunil Gavaskar and Viv Richards. Charlotte wrote Jane Eyre, she wrote Shirley, and she wrote a few other novels that I will get around to reading eventually, I am sure. Emily wrote Wuthering Heights, and all I will say about that masterpiece is that every reading of it (there have been about ten, I am sure) has been thoroughly enjoyable, educational and humbling. (You can read a post I wrote about Wuthering Heights here, though I warn you it is a long read.)

So you see the difficulty in dealing with Agnes Grey on its own terms. But a fine book it is, sweet and beautifully-written, its merits standing on their own even before the works of the authors’ sisters.

Plot
Agnes Grey deals with the life of the titular character, the younger daughter of a country parson who is forced to take up employment as a governess when her father loses the already-small family fortune in a business speculation.

Her first situation is with the Bloomfields, a family that has made its money from trade, and where the adults have an inflated view of their worth, while the children themselves are cruel and arrogant. After a year of tribulations with the Bloomfields, Agnes is dismissed and shortly after, finds employment with the Murray family, who are of a higher social station than her previous employers, but not the more gentle for all that. Mr Murray is a typical hunting, roistering, foul-mouthed county squire, while Mrs Murray is a typical status-conscious mother. The two daughters placed in Agnes’ charge present a contrast. Rosalie is well-mannered but shallow, a beauty who craves male attention and full of superficial desires and tastes. Matilda is a tomboy, preferring horses and hunting, more honest than her sister but less tractable. Agnes tries to bring a moral centre for the elder and to bring discipline to the younger, but her efforts bear little fruit.

We are taken through the career of Rosalie Murray, her ‘conquests’ and her failures, with Agnes’ position – not quite a servant, not quite a lady – and honest good nature a sharp contrast to the self-importance and artifice of the Murrays.

Eventually we have the introduction of a potential love interest for Agnes, Rosalie setting herself up as her rival, the course of true love, in true Shakespearean fashion, never running smoothly – these are all staples of the literature of the period, and the story reaches a conclusion that will make any reader give a little sigh at the end – of contentment tinged with a pang of regret.

Emily Shanks: The  Governess

 Characters
In absolute terms, as well as in contrast to her sisters’ work, the characters in Agnes Grey are a little one-dimensional. The titular character is perpetually wronged but manages to keep her spirits high, her self-pity hangs heavy over the narrative thread of the story and she does constantly present herself as a paragon of virtue.

Rosalie Murray though, is more than just a coquette. She is someone whose head is turned by her own beauty and fails to – or refuses to - understand any virtue beyond that superficial and immediate pleasure. How many Rosalie’s do we come across as we ourselves plough through life? Men and women born to all the advantages of form, family and funds, who still choose to live their lives devoted to instant gratification, content to form superficial attachments, seeking validation always in the attention of the opposite sex? People we love in our own way, as Agnes does love Rosalie, but can only hope come to an end happier than hers.

Among the other characters, Anne’s portrayal of the Bloomfield children stands out as well. No charming cherubs here. Master Bloomfield is a lazy, cruel, arrogant little tyrant, fully aware of how much he is doted upon. His sister Mary is unintelligent and stubborn, no less troublesome in her own right.

The other persons – various members of the social classes – are also well-portrayed, and though this is a story where romance plays it’s part, the relationships between women are paramount, between Agnes and her mother, between her and Mrs Bloomfield, and later with Rosalie and Matilda.

Writing
In a word – lovely. Anne Bronte’s prose is beautiful without being self-conscious, her crafting of sentences and scenes clearly well-evolved. There’s a sense of love for the language that shines through, and compensates for the story’s lack of a complex storyline.

What Agnes Grey also does, is give the reader a look at a time and class of society that is perhaps easy to relate to for some of us. The Grey family are the well-bred poor class of its time. Educated well, refined in sensibility, virtuous by nature, but constrained to subject themselves to their intellectual inferiors for the sake of making a living. Agnes does not have a rags-to-riches story at all, there is no metaphorical Disney-princess ending. Rather, the book draws upon Anne Bronte’s own experiences, expounding the virtues of quiet perseverance and sincere virtuousness – as well as the hollowness of physical beauty and material possessions. Does it slip into being preachy at times? I like to think not, though the individual reader would draw his or her own conclusions about that.

What it is, however, is decidedly a portrayal of a woman who seeks to make her own way in the world, not seeking a man, not wanting anything more than what she considers her own merits. Despite the romantic sub-plot, Agnes Grey is a novel that could stand modern feminist scrutiny, with a quite realistic view of society and the people that form a part of it.

Conclusion

Agnes Grey is a lovely little work in its own right, fully worthy of standing alongside the books of its period. Anne Bronte’s own Tenant of Wildfell Hall is definitely a more powerful work, but for a relatively light read, Agnes Grey is well worthy of bearing the last name of its author.


Monday, 15 February 2016

Book Review - Child / God, by Ketan Bhagat

Book Review: Child / God, by Ketan Bhagat



Publisher: Rumour Books
Purchase URL: Amazon

Before I even get into the content of the book, let me answer the burning questions that readers of this blog (all three of you) must have.

1.     Yes, Ketan Bhagat is related to Chetan Bhagat. He’s the younger brother of India’s best-selling author and columnist.
2.     No, the book is nothing like the typical Chetan Bhagat book.

In fact, Child/God is not a typical book at all. It’s something quite different, and refreshingly so. Far from the dumbed-down, stereotypical stories of boys and girls that have flooded the Indian market like a Mumbai downpour, Child/God is a sincere attempt to depict a middle-class Indian man’s journey from mindless corporate slavery to a person at peace with his life and his choices.

Plot

I have said before that Child/God is not the dollar-paperback sort of stuff that characterises the output of most Indian writers today. If anything, it veers towards – yes, believe it – literary fiction.

The book deals with the life of Raghav Malhotra, a Delhi boy with an unremarkable academic record who nevertheless manages to go to a premier MBA college and gets a typical middle-management job with an IT Company. His wife Leela is a yoga instructor and Raghav’s primary ambition appears to be the success of her enterprise.

The biggest influence in Raghav’s life, however, is his elder brother Rishi Malhotra, whose own career has been spectacular – IIT, IIM, Investment Banking and then a career as a bestselling novelist. The other is his mother Seema, whose abandonment of the boys’ father in their youth has been a definitive event for both the brothers.

From here we are taken through the next couple of years in Raghav’s life during which he runs through a gamut of emotions and events, from a near-breakdown in his marriage to serious strain on his relationships with both his brother and his mother.

As Raghav slides into a moral quagmire, the Book shifts to the titular subject Рthe emergence of his son as the driving force for him to re-examine his life. Avoiding spoilers, all I can say is that Ketan stays away from the clich̩s that would typically attend such a transformation. No soppy father-son moments (well ok, a few, but not too many). No sudden transformations. Under the guidance of the redoubtable Dogfather and drug-addict-turned-spiritual-guru Balraj, Raghav plumbs the depths and rises again, with the transformative impact of his son Ish being not so much by way of actual divinity as by providing an example of the key to a happy life.

It is here that Ketan really handles his subject with maturity. There is nothing personally remarkable about Raghav’s son. He is a healthy, attractive child, subject to the same foibles as any other. Neither is there any actual imputation of godhead on the child. Rather, the ‘God’ of Child/God is the God of the deists, an entity who would be acceptable to atheists as much as to the devout. (In fact the concept of God as brought forth here might not be acceptable to the modern devout, but let’s not follow that line of thinking too closely for now).

The coming of Ish into Raghav’s life is not presented as an end-point, and there is no happily-ever-after. Rather, it is a mid-point in the book, and Ketan bravely ploughs into the quagmire of marital relationships after they have frayed to breaking point. It goes on to speak eloquently on the philosophical principles of detachment, stoicism and even the importance of building trust in business practices. But that’s something I’d rather not delve too deeply into, since it would end up being a spoiler.

The side-plots to Raghav’s personal transformation centre around his career at Abacus Ltd., the occurrences in the life of his brother Rishi and his family – comprising Rishi’s wife Aparna, his son Shiv, the marital problems of Leela’s friends Nikhil and Tammy, Raghav’s relationship with his father, the Colonel and the progression of Leela’s yoga classes.

Characters

Ketan has done a very fair job of drawing relatable characters. The main characters – Raghav, Leela, Rishi, Aparna and Seema are all well fleshed out, and avoid veering into stereotypes, all with shades of grey.

Writing

With an interesting and different – one might even say difficult premise, Ketan’s certainly had a tough task of writing it in a relatable way. I would personally say that he deserves praise for writing a book that is not a copy of anyone else’s style, and is very real in its convictions.

This is not an easy book to read – and I do not think that the writer was trying to make it easy either. At the same time, it is not the sort of self-conscious or pretentious writing that characterizes many authors who profess intellectualism. Neither does it veer into self-help or didactic territory. The best part of Raghav’s journey is that the writer presents it is his journey, not as an example that the reader must necessarily emulate. No preaching here. Just a simple narration of how a changed outlook to life positively affects the protagonist.

Some of the side-narratives are not narrated as well as the main story, and the Nikhil-Tammy relationship in particular, veers into ‘why is this here’ territory at times. Sometimes a jarring phrase or slightly below-par scene might make one sigh, but these are few and far-between.

Is the writing of a stirringly ‘high’ class? Frankly, my answer would be ‘not yet’. This isn’t a stylist, or a refined wordsmith. This is a writer with a voice, telling a story he evidently believes in – and he does that well. I definitely liked the fact that Ketan does not sound like anyone else, but as of right now I do not know whether he definitely has a style at all.

Nevertheless, there is distinctness to his story and sincerity to his efforts as well as a conscious effort to write well that has my approbation. In a literary scene where far too many writers are content to fling a metaphorical inkpot at the page and publish whatever comes out, Ketan has tried to craft a story he believes in, and there is reason to think he will only get better at it.

The Little Things

From an aesthetic point of view, the paperback is a bit too tall, almost unwieldy. In places, phrases are repeated or missed out (hardly two or three over the course of a 350 page book, but still) and that’s something a second edition (I sincerely hope there is one) should look into.

There is little I could find otherwise to criticise. Of course, Ketan is not a polished storyteller in the Amitav Ghosh – Jhumpa Lahiri mould, but he is someone who’s clearly serious about what he’s writing and not at all blasé about the quality of it. This is one writer I think I want to read more of, not just for the stories he will tell, but to see his growth as a craftsman.

Conclusion

There is a lot to like about Child/God and very little to dislike. I started this review by making two clarifications. Let me end it with two statements:

a.     This is a more complex, difficult book than you might at first think
b.     You may not necessarily agree with the premise, but if you persist with it till the end, you will definitely learn something, maybe something about yourself, maybe a fresh way of looking at life – well, it’s hard to say what, but I doubt any reader will come away from this completely unaffected.

Disclaimer

The review has been made basis a paperback shared by the author for reviewing purposes. The reviewer is not acquainted with anyone connected with the book on a personal basis