Sometimes you just have to kiss Rex Murphy’s feet

Before posting this, I should explain my own position on things. I moved to Toronto from Calgary, early in 2000. So my number one team remains the Flames. But I’ve come to be a Toronto Maple Leafs fan too, by virtue of living here and being caught up in Leafs Nation. I don’t live, breathe, and sleep hockey anyway, so I get to stand “above it all,” for the most part. (Except when the Flames go on one of their surprising playoff tears, though that’s not been possible in recent years.)

Anyway. Last night, on CBC TV’s national news broadcast, The National, commentator Rex Murphy took on the Toronto Maple Leafs and the “apology” they did in every newspaper after missing the playoffs again — for the seventh straight year. And Murphy’s little…dissertation…was a thing of beauty, and had me laughing so hard I was almost crying. So for posterity, here it is:

Rex Murphy’s Maple Leafs Apology Commentary

(And I have to issue my own apology, because CBC’s Embed code — doesn’t. At least not on WordPress. But click to go there, and you will not be sorry!)

Almost too beautiful to bear – Jodhaa Akbar

Cecil B. DeMille could take lessons. Seriously. Though I’m not sure he would have used quite as many elephants as Ashutosh Gowariker.

Last night I saw the latest Bollywood mega-release, Jodhaa Akbar, and to say the movie is stunningly beautiful is an understatement. We know Bollywood loves colour, but this time it’s outdone itself.

The movie portrays the strategic sixteenth century marriage between Mughal emperor Jalaluddin Mohammad Akbar to the Rajput princess Jodhaa. Despite some dispute about her real name, or even whether she married Jalaluddin or his son, we know the marriage took place to bring Rajput into the empire. So the rest, as Gowariker admits, is artistic licence.

Stress the “artistic.”

Everywhere you look, there is riotous colour: in the elaborate designs on the walls, in the flowing silks, and even on the elephants and horses. Characters stroll through panels of lightly billowing fabric, or gaze through ethereal curtains, their bodies richly adorned with gold. A gathering at the Mughal court is a study in regional costumes, all wildly colourful.

The music meshes both with the intricate architecture (primarily Agra Fort outside Delhi, and Amber Fort in Rajasthan) and the swirl of the fabrics. Everything flows, in this movie. Hrithik Roshan, playing Jalaluddin, stands and walks like an emperor, each step measured and graceful, his Mughal dress flowing with him as though he was born wearing it. Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, as Princess Jodhaa, carries her brightly coloured Hindu dress and veils with equal grace.

The music, more subtly than we’d normally expect from Bollywood, weaves organically through the plot rather than in the “insert musical number here” fashion of other movies. The first song takes an hour to emerge: a short piece featuring only Rai Bachchan. When we finally encounter a more extensive song, several Sufis singing at the wedding, Jalaluddin slowly twirls with them, immersed in mystical experience. None of the typically manic musical numbers here. Most of the remaining songs are equally solitary and dreamy.

But when the larger, heavily choreographed number finally shows up (you knew it must), it stuns you with its complexity, scale, and beauty. It’s as though they saved up the energy from earlier songs and lavished it all at once in a production that would have left Mr. DeMille, of the “thousand extras,” weeping. It certainly brought me to tears.

The casting of the main characters was frankly a master stroke. Roshan was born to play this role, perfectly portraying both the emperor’s carriage and authority (with a slight touch of arrogance), and the man’s struggle to rule and love justly without jeopardizing that authority. Rai Bachchan conveyed both grace and resolve, viewing the world with shy uncertainty one moment, then fixing it with a strong, steely-eyed stare. And both actors conveyed more emotion with their eyes than could ever be expressed in words.

Was this, then, a perfect movie? Of course not. For example, in the various fights, some of the “near misses” were too obviously faked, so these scenes were “not bad” rather than entirely convincing. They were plenty dramatic, though.

There were plot holes, too. Nobody ever explained why Jodhaa’s foster brother, Rajkumar Sujamal, was passed over as crown prince of Rajput. Given that much of the plot revolved around his attempt to regain his status, one might have considered such info to be important.

Similarly, it was never explained why Jalaluddin’s mother had to be away for 15 years, leaving him to develop his emotional attachment to Maham Anga. Nor did we clearly see how his mother acquired the information that exposed Maham Anga’s plots, even though it resolved the intrigue and set the stage for the emperor’s reconciliation with Jodhaa.

The various intrigues were in fact resolved rather more easily than they would have been in real life. But that’s an issue in most historical movies.

What makes Jodhaa Akbar important, aside from any art or imperfections, is its attempt to convey that one can rule justly, neither harming nor dancing attendance on any religious world view. Gowariker learned as much as possible about the different cultures brought together under Jalaluddin’s rule. And he made his point convincingly in the massive dance scene, where the costumes of those cultures were vividly displayed as each group paid homage to the emperor.

Taken overall, the sheer visual and musical magnificence of the movie, the emotional and convincing portrayal of Jalaluddin and Jodhaa, and the drama of a ruler trying to develop a just, secular reign in the midst of a religiously polarized world, make this a movie you must see if you love Bollywood. Even moreso, if you love India.

Wikipedia article on Agra Fort (be sure to enlarge the photos)

Wikipedia article on Amer (Amber) Fort

“A Golden Age” is golden indeed

It’s hard to imagine a war of independence, complete with genocide, as “a golden age,” but first-novelist Tahmima Anam chose the title of her book, set in such a war, with no irony at all. When you’re in the process of creating your very own independent country, as Bangladesh was in the early seventies, that is the moment in history when you can dream that anything at all is possible. The future can be as “golden” as you envisage it.

Last night was HarperCollins’s official launch of Anam’s novel, “A Golden Age,” at one of the “This is Not a Reading Series” events put on by Pages Books at the Gladstone Hotel ballroom. And “event,” once again, is the best word to describe it. As CBC reporter Aparita Bhandari remarked, when she and Anam settled into the wooden “thrones” on the stage, with elaborately draped silks serving as a backdrop, and floating candles set in several jewel-coloured vases around them, the setting felt more like they were about to experience a Bangladeshi wedding, rather than an interview about a book.

The luxurious stage, designed by Dream Party Décor, wasn’t the only mood-setter for the interview: dhol drummer and electro tabla artist ConTEJus played a set to begin the evening, creating melodic hints of a Bangladeshi atmosphere that resonated through the two women’s discussion.

Tahmima Anam is bright, intelligent, well-educated – and very funny. When an audience member asked how she grappled with her class privilege, she acknowledged that as one of the few educated people from a very poor country, she has great responsibility, “as Spider Man said.” Although she has a PhD in Social Anthropology from Harvard, she quipped that “grad school is a way to pretend you’re doing something while you figure out what you really want to do.”

In her case, of course, graduate school really did work out that way, although that wasn’t her original plan. She had grown up in a very cosmopolitan family, her father being a diplomat with the United Nations, stationed over the years in many different places around the world. Discussions at meal time revolved around articles each family member had found in the papers that day, which they brought to dinner to share with the others. So these discussions, including stories about the war which had created her country, gave Anam a very adult outlook on the world, at a very young age.

But it was while she was doing an oral history project for her PhD, and went to Bangladesh for the field work, that she talked to many people who had participated in and survived the war of independence. She began to think, “What a shame for me to write an academic book that maybe five people would read.” And so her novel was born, as she attempted to bring the war experience to life by digging into her own family history for stories. She reasoned that fiction can transport readers to other times and places in ways that academic writing does not.

When asked why she didn’t become a journalist instead, and follow in the footsteps of her father when he left the U.N. and founded a newspaper in Bangladesh, Anam joked that journalists “have deadlines, have to verify sources, and tell some semblance of the truth.” Yet she is politically active, and does in fact do journalistic work as well. For example, since she now lives in the U.K., she is occasionally asked to write about Bangladesh for the British press, “whenever something terrible happens.” As part of the responsibility she carries as an educated Bangladeshi, she believes she must act as a spokesperson for her country to the rest of the world, extolling its accomplishments and virtues, in balance with the frequently negative facts that are usually emphasized.

But for the moment, her main way of doing that will be via her novels, of which “A Golden Age” is only the first of three. Anam believes that the job of a novelist is to humanize problems, so they become more real through their characters’ experience, and less factually dry. She cited global climate change as one example that pertained especially to Bangladesh. Hearing about climate change through the experience of characters in a novel might have more impact on readers than if facts were presented in a more academic way.

After attending last night’s event, do I want to read Tamima Anam’s book? I am not always comfortable about novels set in times of war, but Anam is so articulate, so knowledgeable and empathetic, and above all, so enthusiastic about this story and the potential hope it offers, that I think I really would like to read her book.

A Westerner’s Quick Guide to Bollywood Movies

Bollywood movies (films from India’s movie industry) are an exciting genre unto themselves, lovable for many quirks and virtues. Start by memorizing four words: willing suspension of disbelief. You will see things in a Bollywood movie that don’t exist in Hollywood or anywhere else. Embrace the following special differences, and enjoy.

Colour, colour, colour! Bollywood has never met a colour it didn’t like. Forget “does this shade go with that one?” Colours run riot, from flowers in the background, to building decor, brilliant Indian clothing and glittering jewellery, and most of all, the extravagant musical productions.

Everyone dances! Is there a festival, wedding, or religious holiday in the plot? Then you’ll see at least one (but rarely just one) strenuous dance number featuring the romantic leads, backed up by 20 or 30 others — all colourfully-dressed, of course — singing enthusiastically while apparently doing gynmastics.

Romantic singing! The lead characters sing several lavishly romantic songs, in music video style, as their relationship progresses. In a single song, they may start beside a street fountain, suddenly change scene (and clothes) to twirl atop a snowy mountain, and end up running through a field (again in new clothes). Whatever romantic imagery you want with your love songs — slow-motion running, wind-blown hair, shy gazes, flower-strewn paths, billowing white curtains — you will see it eventually in some Bollywood movie.

Love at first sight! Across a crowded square, shaking hands in a business meeting, colliding in an airport: the young couple’s eyes meet, and They Just Know. But the course of true love never runs smoothly. They must overcome obstacles such as a gangster father (who almost always reforms in the end), differences in class and wealth, religious objections, or even political upheavals. But in most Bollywood films, love overcomes and the star-crossed couple finally unites.

Graphic passion — not! There is no kissing. Only a few rare, and recent, Bollywood movies allow the star couple to kiss onscreen, never mind anything else. Don’t worry, though, they more than compensate in their singing numbers. These are wildly romantic, and sometimes downright erotic. A Bollywood couple is hotter with clothes on than most Hollywood couples naked.

Melodrama! If you love it, these are your movies. The word “subtle” is nowhere in Bollywood’s vocabulary. You will never miss the point. If the abrupt zooming close-up of an actor’s suddenly troubled/shocked/ecstatic face doesn’t clue you in, the blare of dramatic music will. And when Our Hero, inspired by love, fights off 20 heavily armed attackers with his bare fists (not to mention acrobatic back flips and leaping kicks), you will think, “Well, of course.”

Bollywood movies are a rollicking adventure, enjoyed by millions of fans worldwide. Embrace their special quirks and join the romp.